A Brief History of First Congregational Church (UCC) in Amherst, MA

First Church was organized in 1739, but it was not until 1759 that the area, formerly part of Hadley, became known as Amherst. Our current building, erected in 1868, is our fourth in Amherst. We were the only church in town (and church and town were one and the same) until the American Revolution when dissension developed between the Tories (most members of First Church) and a group of revolutionary patriots who split off to found Second Church. Nearly 200 years later, Second Church voted to dissolve, and the building was sold to the Jewish Community of Amherst.

floatEarly in the nineteenth century First Church members and ministers played central roles in raising the funds for the founding of Amherst College, and groups of our members were dismissed to found regional churches: South Church (1824) and North Church (1826).

First Church has been forward-looking in its ministry and missions, serving both as a center for worship and also as a place to fulfill the needs of the greater community. It was a leader in the peace and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and it squarely embraced the women’s movement, naming the first woman deacon in 1966, the first woman moderator in 1972, and calling, in 1980, the first woman minister in Amherst. It was also one of the first churches to be seriously concerned about inclusive language; one of our members, a retired UCC minister, compiled an inclusive language hymnal that has been used not only by First Church but by many others as well.

In the 1970s, First Church housed a food cooperative, our members helped to establish the Interfaith Housing Corporation, and organized the A Better Chance program in Amherst. In the 1980s, our ministries expanded to include a furniture exchange, an emergency housing program, and sponsorship of a Cambodian refugee family. Our former parsonage now shelters homeless women and children.

First Church was one of the very first UCC churches to become “open and affirming,” welcoming people of all sexual orientations and family arrangements, and our status as a “Just Peace” church reflects our anti-war commitment. In addition, First Church has housed a pre-school for 50 years, and the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen for almost 25. We also provide meeting space for a Spanish-language church and numerous 12-step programs and community groups.

In recent years the church has adopted an Earth Covenant Resolution, and continues to work to reduce its impact on the environment. Other ongoing ministries include an increasing commitment to anti-racism work; support for and participation in the work of the Amherst Survival Center, the Northampton Cot Shelter, and Habitat for Humanity; participation in delegations to La Paz Centro, Nicaragua; and the provision of logistical and financial support to Amherst-area residents.

Our worship style is creative and informal, with varying, inspirational musical offerings. People from a range of traditions — or no tradition — feel at home here. We are explorers, and we find in the tradition of Christianity a solid base from which to live and ask our questions. We strive to translate the Gospel into action and the will of God into our common life.

For more information, see 250 Years at First Church in Amherst, 1739-1989 (1990) – available at the Jones Library, the First Church Lounge and for sale from the First Church office ($18 hardback/$10 paperback plus postage & handling – contact: 413-253-3456 or firstchurch_amherst@comcast.net).

Little Known Facts about First Church Amherst

  • On November 7, 1739 Amherst’s founding Parish, First Congregational Church, was established in what was known as the Third Precinct of Hadley. Not until 1759 was the area around the church known as Amherst.
  • In 1782 some members of First Church split off to create Second Congregational Church because of First Church’s Tory sympathies during the Revolutionary War.
  • Noah Webster, creator of the American Dictionary of the English Language, framed the constitution for the first regular Sabbath School in Amherst at the First Congregational Church in 1820.
  • Dr. David Parsons, Samuel Fowler Dickinson (Emily’s grandfather) and Noah Webster, leaders of First Church, played a major role in the founding of Amherst College in 1821 as an institution of higher education for pious young men to become trained in the Trinitarian tradition for ministry and missionary work.
  • Emily Dickinson attended First Congregational Church when she was a child with her family. She later became the church’s most famous non-member.
  • Gloria Steinem was baptized in First Congregational Church in May 1945 when she was ten years old. She and her mother were visiting in Amherst while her sister was at Smith College.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. came to First Church and spoke in the dining room on April 17, 1961. First Church has been a center for active support of the civil rights and other social justice movements throughout the decades since then.

First Church Amherst (UCC) Anniversary Song

It was written first in 1989 and revised in 2009.
Tune: Battle Hymn of the Republic
Words: Sabra MacLeod & Gale McClung

Twas two hundred seventy years ago
That Hadley farmers came
To an eastern territory
That did not yet have a name.
From a precinct it became a church,
Then Amherst, town of fame.
They all went marching on.

What a joyful congregation,
Gathered here in celebration.
Let us sing in jubilation
As we go marching on!

They fought the Revolution —
On the wrong side we have heard.
So the Patriots seceded
And a major split occurred.
Then they worked to found a college
That would help to spread God’s word,
And they went marching on.
(Repeat chorus.)

Through the centuries of progress
Other meeting houses rose.
Last of all the granite structure
That our congregation knows.
Renovated for tomorrow
As our congregation grows.
Now we go marching on.
(Repeat chorus.)

Though our walls are made of granite
Faith cannot be cast in stone.
Peace and justice, Christian love we seek, To make more widely known.
In our care and understanding
By the grace of God we’ve grown,
And we go marching on.
(Repeat chorus.)

As we honor past and present
We can look ahead and say
There’s a new sense of commitment
That will guide us on our way.
May God’s glory shine upon us
As we celebrate today,
And we go marching on.
(Repeat chorus.)