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.
The church is hoping to involve the Peabody community in a celebration of its anniversary. Hoofnagle will share a booth at the International Festival on Sunday, Sept. 8, with Dan Doucette of the Historical Society. The mission will be to educate Peabody residents on the link between the city and the church.
On Monday, Sept. 23, a South Congregational birthday banquet is planned at the Smith Barn at Brooksby Farm, with guests including U.S. Rep. John Tierney, D-Salem; Mayor Ted Bettencourt and City Council President Tom Gould, among others. “I’m going,” says Gould, praising Hoofnagle. “I’ll be presenting a letter from the city.”
Today, says Hoofnagle, the church hosts a congregation of 100 families, with up to 140 appearing at Sunday services. More diverse than those 300 years ago, they include lapsed Catholics and immigrants from places like Latin America, the Philippines and Africa. The minister, who has held his post 25 years, smiles noting that the efforts of Congregational missionaries is paying dividends as converts in the wider world come here to keep the church vital.
The current church building was constructed in 1960, after the Peabody Square church with its elegant steeple was demolished to make way for the District Court building. That structure’s impressive bell cast in 1862 survives on the church grounds. “We ring it and it’s loud,” says Hoofnagle. Two previous meeting houses existed in the square.
A graduate of both High Point University in North Carolina and the Gordon Conwell Seminary, Hoofnagle still has a strong Southern accent. “I’ve been up here since 1980 so if I was going to lose it I would have lost it by now.” He concedes that modern Peabody is a far cry from a Puritan village. “It’s become more secular. But that also presents opportunities for us as a church. Secularism creates its own problems. It creates a spiritual vacuum.”
To draw people for the future he preaches a doctrine of love, acceptance and a forgiving God. Faith will sustain the church. “The world may become more secular but it won’t outgrow its need for God.”
More information about the Sept. 23 banquet is available from the church office at 978-531-1964.