Until the separation of Church and State in Massachusetts in 1833, the parish included all residents of the town. The church and minister were supported by taxation. Town meetings were held in the church’s meeting house, and the town’s militia stored its gunpowder beneath the pulpit. There are two remnants of this relationship. The clock in the church steeple is the “town clock” and is maintained by the town. The land between the church and town hall is the old town common, the original site of the famous Bolton Fair.
In the nineteenth century, the church gradually became identified with the Unitarian movement, characterized by its emphasis on human reason and its commitment to progressive theology and social causes. The First Church of Christ was an early participant in the anti-slavery movement, and called a prominent abolitionist, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Treadwell Stone, as its minister just before the Civil War. (Dr. Stone’s son later designed the Bolton Public Library.)
During the 1800s, Bolton’s population grew smaller and poorer. Few ministers stayed for longer than two years. An exception was the Rev. Joseph Pardee, who served for 12 years at the turn of the century. Descendents of Rev. Pardee still worship at First Parish.
On 26 December 1926, the historic second meeting house (1793) burned to the ground, the result of an overheated furnace. Although only a dozen or so families were active in The First Church of Christ at the time, an elegant new church designed by Edwin P. Chapin of Worcester was constructed on the foundations of the 1793 meeting house and dedicated on 14 October 1928.
By 1930, The First Church of Christ and Bolton’s other two churches (Quaker 1779 and Baptist 1828) were struggling. The Baptist minister, the Rev. George Jacques, suggested that the three churches try worshipping together. It was a success. In 1931, the three churches “federated,” maintaining separate bylaws and budgets, but supporting one minister and program. The First Church of Christ became the home of this “new” church, which was called The Federated Church.
From 1931 until the late 1950s, the Federated Church was the only church in Bolton, until Bolton’s Roman Catholics built a church. The Federated Church’s vestry below the sanctuary was the setting for weekly pot-luck dinners, which almost everyone who lived in town attended. For most of that time, the Rev. Howard Pierce Davis, an internationally known author and lecturer, was minister. In 1956, with more than 100 children in its religious education program, a new addition providing classroom space and an attractive hall opened. Funds for the addition came from the entire community and the hall quickly became the center of community life. Upon Rev. Davis’ retirement in 1964, the hall was named in his honor.
In 1963, several families who had been very active in the Federated Church broke away after trying unsuccessfully to have Rev. Davis replaced by a more theologically conservative minister. These families later founded Trinity Church, Congregational, in Bolton. The split was painful and forever altered friendships that had formed over decades. Nonetheless, the departure of those families did allow the Federated Church to maintain its unique, progressive voice without compromise.
Bolton and the Federated Church grew after Route 495 was constructed. However, most of the church’s new members had chosen not to affiliate with its constituent denominations but simply join the church. Bolton’s Quakers disbanded in the 1950s and gave their meeting house to Old Sturbridge Village, where it remains today. In 1984, Bolton’s Unitarians and American Baptists agreed to give up their individual identities and the federation was dissolved by an act of the state legislature. While maintaining relationships with the Unitarians and American Baptists, the Federated Church would now have one budget, one set of bylaws and church officers, and one membership list.
Richard F. Jones was called as minister in 1995. In the years since, the church voted to revert to its historic name, “The First Parish of Bolton,” adding the word “ecumenical.” It also added an affiliation with the United Church of Christ, the descendent of the Congregational churches founded by New England’s Pilgrims and Puritans. The United Church of Christ, like The First Parish of Bolton, is a distinctly ecumenical body, and seemed the best theological match for the church’s emerging identity.
Growth and change have characterized Richard Jones’ ministry. Several additional staff positions have been created. In 1999, The First Parish of Bolton purchased nine acres of land immediately behind church buildings to preserve valuable green space in the center of town and allow for future expansion of the church. Innovative programs have enlivened church life. And, in 2007, the first capital campaign since 1956 provided funds to restore the church steeple, create a new parking area, and increase accessibility to the sanctuary and Davis Hall.