1 Church Street
East Harwich, MA 02645
Early Years at HUMC
When Methodism came from England where it was founded to the American colonies in the mid 1700s, it did not take long for the movement to be adapted and spread throughout the Atlantic seaboard. One of Methodism’s unique features was the Wesleyan system of circuit riders. Circuit riders were usually local pastors who traveled about on horseback spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to whoever would take a break from their work and listen. When interest in a circuit rider’s message was found in a particular locale, the circuit rider would establish a “class” that usually met in a home. As the class grew, it became a society, continuing to meeting in homes until a church building was constructed.
And so it was that some time in the early 1790s, Rev. Jesse Lee, one of the more important and effective circuit riders, made his way to Massachusetts and Cape Cod where he may have preached on the lower Cape. Another circuit rider, John Kenne (possibly Kenney) more certainly came to the Harwich as did Rev. John Broadhead.
Rev. Broadhead came about three years after a class had been founded in Bourne and in 1797, he founded a class in Harwich. The “Lord blessed his effort . . . and many were converted to God.” The first Meeting House was built in 1799 on Old Queen Anne Road, about two miles west of the current building. The building faced south and there was no paint or plastering about the building. A broad “isle” [sic] extended from the front door to a roughly finished pulpit. The men sat on the west side of the aisle and the women on the east. The seats were arranged in the same manner as school houses of the day.
In March of 1809, after a three year effort, the twelve year old congregation received notification of its incorporation by the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Numerous male names (and no female) appeared on this document – many well known Cape Cod surnames: Bassett, Burgess, Chase, Cahoon (10), Crowell, Eldridge (22), Hall, Kendrick (6), Long (5), Nickerson (17), Robbins (2), Small (5), and Young (5) all listed as from Harwich. Other similar names were listed as from Chatham and Orleans. The congregation was legally known as the “First Methodist Society of Harwich.”
It was not long after that this first building was deemed too small for the growing congregation and by 1811 the second was built on the corner of Church Street and Queen Anne Road, near the Chatham Town line. This building was dedicated on January 1, 1812 as the Methodist Episcopal Church of Harwich. A Reverend Benjamin F. Lombard preached the dedication sermon. No longer needed, the first building was sold.
The second Meeting House was built by Philip Nickerson of Harwich. It was considered large and spacious and the finest in the county. Timbers for this church had been cut in Maine by Captain Joshua Nickerson. Sally Crowell, quoted in the “Historical Sketch,” (see below) stated it could seat 800 – probably quite an exaggeration! A lengthy description of the church is included in a “Manual of the M.E. Church, East Harwich, with a Historical Sketch” written collaboratively by Pastor J.D.Phelps (1878-1879), Jonathan Buck and James Smalley for a Conference report in 1878-79. The Sketch states the church was painted yellow outside, the sides each contained seven windows in upper and lower levels, the front had a spacious central door and six windows – four above and two below. The back wall [on the east side of the building] had a large round central window above the pulpit and four windows, each of two rows to the side. There was a vestibule area across the entire front with three doors that led to the “audience” room. At each side of the vestibule were stairs leading to the two row upper gallery. The pulpit was elevated with a small, narrow stair of 12-13 steps on either side to approach it – the galleries definitely had the better view of the preacher as those below in the front had to crane their necks. The curved altar was located directly below the pulpit. From it Holy Communion was served. The choir was positioned in the back of the gallery and did most of the singing of hymns, the people reluctant to raise their voices in song in spite of encouragement. Until 1837, foot-warmers carried from home by worshippers were the only heat source. Two stoves purchased by a Mr. Bicknell in 1837 warmed the sanctuary considerably.
Success measured by numbers was very good for the first few years and Harwich was considered an excellent appointment for pastors. In 1813 Pliny Brett labored with success for a year and left to be followed by three pastors and brother Moses Fifield in 1817. Meanwhile Brett, who had become “Reformed” returned to the congregation and nearly reformed the congregation out of business as all but “three males and a few sisters” remained. Fifield, yielded to Brett’s assertion of power and was forbidden to preach from the pulpit. Fortunately for the congregation, a particularly powerful prayer meeting while the preacher was away led to a revival. In a week, “thirty souls were converted to God.”
In the 1830s, the singing was conducted by David Walker who used a pitch pipe. Over the next two decades, the singing was quite irregular particularly in the summer due to the absence of male singers who were farming or fishing.
About the year 1835, during the ministry of Elijah Willard, the first Sabbath School was organized. Classes were held only in the warmer summer months until about 1860 when they were scheduled year round.
The year 1837 brought another powerful revival, this time under the leadership of James Bicknell. Nearly 200 persons were “reclaimed or converted with 130 baptized and joining the church.” This success was short lived. In 1839 some folk in the church were influenced by a movement which arose from radicals of the Methodist Holiness and Perfection movements. The philosophy of the radicals was known as Comeoutism (come-out- ism?) which advocated that it was wrong to join a church or denomination because there was only one invisible church and no visible church organization in the Bible. Historically, it’s written about the heretical movement that its proponents consist of “blind, hair-brained, devil deluded fanatics who not only denounced church organization, but those who espoused it.” Needless to say, conflict like that is terribly disruptive to church life and it led to a great decline at the Harwich Society.
In the early decades at Harwich and against the rubrics of John Wesley, pews were “owned” by persons, primarily the elderly and some non-residents. Around 1848, there was again division in the church. This time the dispute regarded a repair and remodeling of the building. Some younger people bought some pews of the non-residents (summer people) and thus gained power. With their influence, a building committee of three, Sam Ryder, Warren Rogers and Benjamin Eldridge, was appointed. The income generating revenue of the pews was appraised at $1,800 and in 1849 a sale was held. About 1/3 of the sixty pews were sold at “choice” price; the remainder with five or six exceptions was sold at appraisal for $30 each. With the money, a twenty year old carpenter with only one job’s previous experience, Nathaniel Nickerson, was hired as the builder of the renovation. Everyone was pleased with his work.
Pardon T. Kenney was appointed to serve the Harwich Society in 1849. He was considered excellent, but like so many of his predecessors and successors, he only stayed one year. Some of the pastors stayed a second year, but more years than that was very rare for the first hundred plus years. He was followed by E.B Hinckley. Hinckley introduced a new revenue raising method, a system of estimate “taxes.” This system would be in use for at least the next thirty years In his “Historical Sketch,” Phelps listed the names of persons and their taxes, paid in full or by subscription. The taxes ranged from $1 to $30 dollars (with the average about $6) paid by 76 persons. The forty “subscribers” were far less reliable and averaged $1.86 each. Appeals for prompt payment were the norm. In that regard, financial secretaries might say that not much has changed over the years for many UM congregations.
In 1851, the church made a move musically. A melodeon, a small reed organ, was purchased for $85. In 1875, a fine new Pipe Organ was purchased and placed in an “annex” back of the pulpit. With this instrument the singing finally improved. But the organ was not to everyone’s pleasure. “One staunch member [a Kenney descendent] who had been a pillar of the church for many years severed his membership because of the frivolity and gaiety he was sure the instrument would bring.”
In 1878, “Historical Sketch” co-author Pastor J.D. Phelps arrived to supply the pulpit during his last year of theology school. The church was very pleased with him and it built him a cottage on the Yarmouth Camp Ground. In his second year he married. At this time the church was yoked with the South Harwich Methodist which split Phelps salary with the East Harwich church. His total salary was the sum of $900, paid quarterly in advance by both churches. He reported of his own ministry that 24 persons were converted and saved, 18 couples were married and that there were six deaths. Altogether there were 55 members and 152 constituents. A new hymnal was introduced and there were three sewing circles.
An old newspaper article indicates that the church was hit by lightning in 1890. Fortunately damage was minimal.
No church and its people are without drama, but in the winter of 1891, the East Harwich Methodist Church had more than it wanted. So much so that the Boston Globe sent a reporter to Harwich to investigate. His published story reads like a soap opera script. It seems “Brother Smalley,” an aged deacon, most likely James Smalley, one of the co-authors of the “Sketch” and steward of the church, had married a young, very pretty woman named Mary. At the same time, in the church was a young vigorous deacon (according to the Globe reporter), Jonathan Buck, (also one of the co-authors) who played the organ and was a steward of the church. After a couple years of marriage, Mary apparently became disenchanted with her marriage and aged spouse. She and Jonathan found each other attractive and began to enjoy each other’s company. Quite naturally this bothered Brother Smalley who found as evidence of the romance the long visits of Jonathan and Mary often behind the closed parlor door. Especially disturbing to him was a particular goodbye behind a carefully closed door. Their marriage deteriorated further. Two further incidents were what attracted the Boston paper’s attention. The first was Mary’s failed attempt at suicide with “poison in a tumbler.” Mary’s doctor refused to allow Smalley to care for his wife, perhaps because, as he later confessed to the reporter, he had threatened his wife, but actually only struck violently once and then in “self defense.” According to the report, that may have not been a stretch of truth as Mary had a great temper. The second incident occurred about a week later on Sunday morning. Angered by the gossip at the corner store across the road from the church, Jonathan Buck stood up in church and accused store owner and church steward Mulford Young of character assassination. A fight broke out; Buck was verbally subdued by the sexton and then asked to leave. And that is where the reporter’s story ends . . . with some suggestion that Mary’s plan was to marry Buck in three years.