Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 2

[Part 1 of this series may be read at]

After such a bitter and protracted schism, the First Boston congregation apparently felt a strong resolve to move ahead. Several years earlier, the officers had established a building fund and many members had made pledges to the effort. [ 1 ] By now the congregation had met in six different rented halls since its inception and was growing weary of the limitations imposed by worshipping in rented space.

But even for the sizable congregation remaining after the split, purchasing a building was a difficult proposition. While a few in the congregation had middle-class jobs, most found employment as laborers and domestic servants. Thus many members gave sacrificially; those with sufficient means also loaned money to the effort. In April 1872, the church purchased a parcel at the corner of Isabella and Ferdinand Streets, on the eastern edge of the unfinished Back Bay district. The congregation could not have imagined how bad its timing would prove.

On November 9, 1872 – thirteen months after the Great Chicago Fire – 800 buildings in Boston’s South End went up in flames. Despite this shock to the city’s economy, by the summer of 1873 the congregation had managed to build the foundation of a large edifice. Although finances were still uncertain, the congregation voted in August to press ahead with construction. A month later, disaster struck afresh with the financial “Panic” that ushered in an economic depression with effects that would be felt for nearly a quarter of a century.

The congregation continued building and began worshipping in the new structure in February 1874. The total cost of land, building and furnishings was $63,000 – a staggering sum for the congregation, comparable to about $1.25 MM in 2011 dollars.

First Reformed Presbyterian Church, Boston, MA

Long before the building’s completion, it was obvious that the congregation had overextended itself. Rather than see the church default on its debts, Rev. Graham took up a task he would later describe as “distasteful and encompassed with great difficulties” – the solicitation of funds from outside the congregation. Traveling across the United States, to Canada, and the British Isles, Graham was eventually able to raise nearly $26,000 above the cost of his travel expenses.

The new building, which could accommodate over five hundred worshippers, proved to be a millstone about the congregation’s neck. Concerns relating to the repayment of mortgages occupied much of the officers’ time. In 1879, the congregation narrowly avoided being sued by one Elijah McDowells for failure to repay a mortgage. Graham negotiated a new mortgage – but the congregation’s finances made it necessary to reduce his salary by $500. By 1885, the building debts had been reduced to $22,400, and the congregation’s communicant membership had stabilized at around two hundred and fifty.

During most of his pastorate, Rev. Graham lived on Third Street in East Cambridge, opposite the Middlesex County Courthouse. This section of Cambridge had grown rapidly after the Civil War, with many Irish and other immigrants settling in the newly-built row houses and tenements. They found ready employment in the glassworks, factories, and wharves of East Cambridge.

In 1886, aided by two elders and several other members of his congregation, Graham attempted to extend the ministry of the Boston church into Cambridge. An afternoon Sabbath School and evening preaching were established, but after 18 months the work was abandoned. Considering Graham’s enormous workload as the pastor of a large urban congregation and the continuing burden of building debt (the interest alone on the church’s mortgages consumed nearly a quarter of the congregations income in good years), it is perhaps more surprising that this effort was undertaken at all than that it stopped.

The First Boston congregation continued in relative peace through the rest of Graham’s life. He maintained a heavy pastoral workload and was also a recognized figure in the community. On March 15, 1893, Graham had arisen from his sick bed to speak at a temperance rally. He began his speech, but did not live to complete it.

Given the duration and faithfulness of his service to First Boston congregation, Rev. Graham’s death was undoubtedly devastating for them. However, in a short time, they called Rev. Samuel McNaugher, who began his ministry in Boston six months after Graham’s death. McNaugher’s call was not quite unanimous, with six votes against him. In the providence of God, the stage was being set for a new controversy. This one would involve both of the Boston congregations.

(1) According to the minutes of the officers’ meetings, several of the members of 2nd Boston had left the church with legally binding building fund pledges still unpaid. The First Boston deacons pursued the collection of these pledges for a couple of years, but had no success.

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2 Responses to Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 3 | ReformedRuminations

  2. Pingback: Slightly Random Reflections on “Covenanters at the Hub of the Universe” | ReformedRuminations

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