Hard Times at the First Congregational Church of Rockport

By CAM Docent, Sarah Mowitt.

Sunday mornings came and went, but the pews of the First Congregational Church of Rockport remained empty. No, the year was not 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic has emptied the pews this year, but it is not the first time during the church’s history that congregants were unable to join together for worship in the sanctuary. Since the church was founded in 1755 and the building erected in 1804/1805 its tall steeple has been an enduring landmark in the center of town. However, the very future of this institution was threatened for financial reasons in the 1870’s. The threat was far graver than the bombardment of its steeple during the War of 1812. The financial crisis resulted in an empty sanctuary and shook the confidence of congregants for its future stability. But the church has flourished and survived to this day. Indeed, the church has more than doubled its age since that time and the impact of the financial crisis has been mostly forgotten. During our current crisis, it is worthwhile to study the history of previous times of peril.

Tibor Gergely (1900-1978), Back Beach, Rockport, n.d.. Watercolor. Gift of Linda Schreyer, 2017 [acc. # 2017.64] From the Collection of the Cape Ann Museum.

Following the Civil War, there was an explosion of industry and trade, including a large expansion of the nation’s railroads. Between 1860 and 1873, railroad mileage doubled and employment in railroads was second only to agriculture. Unfortunately, much of the growth was supported by speculation and a financial crash occurred in 1873. Panic followed, with the New York stock exchange actually closing for 10 days, many banks failing, unemployment rising to an astonishing 14% and businesses going under in large numbers. The panic of 1873 was felt directly in Rockport. The Annual Report of the Town Officers in March 1877, noted the “… long-continued stagnation in business, the few avenues open to employment for the laborer, and the depression which hangs over our community…” Times were tough for our nation and for our town. 

The eighteen hundreds had been good for our Church which experienced a period of considerable growth under two remarkable pastors.  In 1805, the church was close to extinction with only eleven members who “were far advanced and stood trembling on the brink of the grave.” (Pastor’s Membership List 1805 to 1887). Fortunately for the church, the new pastor selected in 1805, Reverend David Jewett, (1805-1836),  brought in 305 new members, including 150 new members in just two years during the Great Revival of 1827 and 1828. During the period 1836 to 1864, when Rev. Wakefield Gale was our pastor, another 328 new members were added to our rolls. With membership gains like these, the most pressing problem was overcrowding. It is not surprising that an extensive building project was undertaken in 1872 to increase the size of the Meeting House. The building was cut in two and the two pieces were pulled apart to lengthen the church by 20 feet. When everything was filled in between the two parts, there were new pews, a new pulpit, new windows, a new gallery; in short, an entire new interior. The cost was $28,000, with financing provided by a mortgage from the Rockport Savings Bank. 

Ann Brockman (1896-1943), Untitled [view of Sandy Bay], c.1940. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mary Craven, 2015 [acc. # 2015.79] From the Collection of the Cape Ann Museum.

The timing of the new addition could not have been worse, with the economic crises of the Panic 1873 following shortly after the construction. The Rockport Savings Bank was one of the calamities of the financial depression, closing in February 1878. According to Lemuel Gott’s history, “The closing out of this useful institution was one of, if not the greatest financial disasters that ever befell this town.” Depositors eventually received 85 cents for every dollar on deposit. At the time of the bank failure, the church owed $18,000, one of the largest mortgages held by the bank. By the fall of that year the local newspaper noted that the church had not paid the interest due for about a year and a half (Cape Ann Advertiser, October 4, 1878). The paper reported that following the Sunday services that week, the Rev. C. C. McIntire, read “a letter from the Receivers of the Savings Bank, stating that unless the long delinquent interest were paid, the Society [church] could not continue to use the House of Worship.” We should not be surprised that a meeting was scheduled and a special committee established to determine what amount of money it might raise. Despite several meetings, “protracted discussion,”  and a “zealous feeling in favor of…” raising the funds to liquidate the debt (Cape Ann Advertiser), the church was unable to settle the account.    

The financial disaster meant that for some months, the worship services of our church could not be held in our newly renovated meeting house. Instead, services were held at the chapel of the YMCA, which was located across from the library on the corner of School Street and Broadway. The building had been erected by a short lived (1855 – 1870 ) Second Congregational Church of Rockport. While our congregation was meeting at the YMCA, Rev. Roland B. Howard came as a supply minister and later became our next permanent minister (1880 – 1883). He was able to work with the receivers of the Bank to reclaim the church for a payment of $10,000. Under his leadership, the monies were raised from those within the parish and from out of town donors.    The sanctuary was once more open to our members for worship. Looking back, a later minister, Rev. Ainsworth, said that “The Parish Society owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Howard for his great and good services in saving this meeting house for the church and Society.” Indeed, we are indebted to Rev. Howard and to all the members of his church for rescuing our church for the use of the many later generations that have followed and found support in this congregation.