PEABODY — When the South Congregational worshippers at Brooksby Village broke away from the Salem Church 300 years ago the event did more than mark the beginning of a new meeting house — it was the beginning of a new community and the city known today as Peabody.
“Our birthday (Sept. 23, 1713),” says the Rev. Grant Hoofnagle, “is really the birthday of Peabody.”
Three hundred years ago the church and community around it were seen as indivisible by its Puritan founders. “If you were a member of the community you were a member of the church,” Hoofnagle, senior pastor of South Congregational Church, explains. Attendance at services was mandatory.
The split came for two reasons — one practical, the other tragic.
It was a long trek to church in Salem, says Hoofnagle, with the meeting house located at the site of the Daniel Low building on Washington Street. It seemed even longer in winter. And the only alternative was the distant church at Salem Village, now Danvers.
Meanwhile, the Witch Trials of 1692 left a bitter legacy. Brooksby residents began to prepare their break as early as 1700. “People here,” says Hoofnagle, “had family and neighbors who were put to death.” Two dozen friends and neighbors risked their own lives by petitioning, unsuccessfully, to spare John Proctor. They did it knowing those supporting accused witches could soon find themselves accused.
Martha and Giles Corey, respected members of the Brooksby community, were also executed, Giles Corey famously pressed to death while defiantly calling, “More weight.”
The church’s first minister in 1713, John Prescott, stood in the pulpit for more than 40 years. Yet he developed such a stormy relationship with his congregation, Hoofnagle smiles, that he lies buried off Tremont Street, far from the graves of any of his flock.
In later years, the South Congregational Church was said to take a role in the Revolution. “Legend has it,” says Hoofnagle, “gunpowder was hidden under the pulpit.” In the run-up to the Civil War the church spoke out for the abolition of slavery.