A Brief History of the Church in Canterbury
The beginning of the church in Canterbury goes back to the 1730s, when the town provided worship services for town residents. The names of the first supply ministers are not known. The first known minister was the Reverend James Scales who came to Canterbury in 1742. The original church building was made of logs and was located on what is now the Girard property on Pickard Road. The original town cemetery was located just north of the church building and exists to this day. Fieldstones were used for grave markers. No writing is legible at this date.
By the early 1750s the old Town Hall was built and the new Center Cemetery was established. Ministers came and went. The church was not officially “gathered” until 1761. The background was the Church of the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Later they were known as the Congregationalists. The Rev. Abiel Foster was the first duly installed minister in town. His grave is in the Town Center Cemetery.
About the year 1780, Baptist Churches were gathered in Canterbury, Loudon, and Chichester as branches of the Baptist Church at Brentwood. Church records begin in 1794. The early years of the Baptist Church were most difficult. By 1792, news of the Shakers reached the Baptist Church and most of the members of the early Baptist Church joined the Shakers.
The Canterbury Shaker Society was formally organized February 10, 1792, as the fifth Shaker Society in this country. Shakers had been meeting in area homes for the previous ten years.
The above are the three major religious groups in the history of Canterbury. In the mid-eighteenth century, these groups were at their peak. There were various church buildings all over Canterbury. Western expansion, the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution greatly affected our area. The Shaker community was in decline through our present century. By 1958, there were only the Congregational Church in the center of town and the Freewill Baptist Church at the corner of Baptist Road and Baptist Hill Road remaining. Those two churches combined on October 9, 1985, to form the Canterbury United Community Church.
What remains of all the churches in town are, first, the cemeteries associated with each. Second, in the center of town there remains the Second Meeting House (ca 1750) which is the Old Town Hall and the 1940s replacement for the Congregational Meeting House (1825) which burned to the ground in 1943. The third church structure still existing is the Shaker Meeting House at the Village which is dated 1792. The last Baptist Church structure was moved to the Tilton Academy after the Baptist Church joined with the Congregational Church. The decision had been made to use the church building in the center of town instead of the larger Baptist building. The newly formed church purchased what was at one time the Baptist parsonage which was used until March 31, 1995, by the present pastoral family. With the funds from the combining of the Congregational and Baptist Churches and the work of the Ladies Benevolent Society through the founding of the Canterbury Fair, the present Parish House was built in 1959 to accommodate the increasing population of Canterbury (Route 93 came by in the mid-1950s) and the growing Sunday School of post W.W. II children. A new parsonage was built and dedicated in early 1995.
Heritage Sunday Text:
The 1727 charter from King George III stated that a house of public worship was to be built within four years of settlement of the town. The original church was built down at the base of Pickard Road, and is said to have been a crude log cabin. Realizing the necessity of a formal meeting house, they built a more permanent structure near where the Center Cemetery is today, our Town Hall. This was once a two-story building, with central pews and a gallery, and served as town meeting house and church for many years, being used for town meetings and the two church services and functions.
Several of the early ministers included Rev. John Scales, who was unpaid for a good portion of his eleven-year ministry from 1742-1753; Rev. Timothy Walker, who was the first minister in the semi-completed Meeting House; Rev. Abiel Foster, the first full time hired minister, and Rev. Frederick Parker, the minister when the Canterbury Church adopted their first covenant.
Because it was a town building, though, and the religious community of Canterbury used it, it fell into disrepair because neither the town nor the church would pay for the necessary repairs. When Rev. William Patrick was ordained here in 1803, he saw to it during his long ministry that a new building, specifically for worship, was built. On January 26, 1824, a meeting was held to bring up the concern. Built entirely on subscription shares of $25 each with a building committee consisting of John Clough, Ezekiel Morrill and Leavitt Clough, Rev. Patrick’s vision came to fruition. A large, three-story meeting house was constructed within a year of the initial meeting, modeled after the Boscawen Meeting House. The lumber was given by Joseph Clough, and a frame raising was held that summer. To pay off the shareholders, an auction was held and the rights to pews were sold; there were forty on the main floor and another twenty-two in the gallery, and families sometimes owned more than one pew, as they bought more than one share. The total raised was enough to not only pay the shareholders but also establish a treasury for the church. Dedicated on February 2, 1825, this edifice served as a reminder of Rev. Patrick’s ministry, not only the longest but also with the largest congregation, for well over one hundred years.
Other ministers came and went. A Congregational Society was formed and a Sunday School was created in 1833. The Freewill Baptists were also very active up in their district during this period, and the Worsted Church had a good congregation in Hill’s Corner. Following Rev. Patrick, there were fifteen ministers between 1843 and 1924; prior to 1888, the minister lived on his own farm. In 1888, John Batchelder sold his farm on Kimball Pond Road to the Congregational Church for $1175, which served as the parsonage until 1921 when it was sold to the Bolton Family. Annette Chute and Valerie Sargent donated money in 1921, and together with Leroy Glines purchased the Drew place in Canterbury Center and donated it to the church, which served as the second parsonage until 1951 when the property was sold to Joseph Maier.
Following the fire of 1943 which destroyed the church, services were held in the vestry. The first Church Council meeting was held to accept a set of hymnals from the Portsmouth Congregational Church. Community efforts were started immediately to raise the necessary funds to rebuild the church. Donations were obtained from sixty-six parishes throughout New England and hundreds of supporters throughout the country. On the morning of August 21, 1949, the new church was dedicated on Old Home Day Sunday, gathering over 350 people to the service. Realizing that the Sunday School had no adequate place to meet, the next challenge the congregation faced was building a Parish House, and it was voted that Carl Thunberg be the chairman for the project in 1958.
As the Baptist Church community started to dwindle, the last surviving members, Cecil and Elva Stewart, came to the new Canterbury Community Church and asked for them to consider merging with the Freewill Baptist Church on Baptist Road. At the meeting, held July 30, 1958, it was unanimously voted by the Canterbury Community Church and the Freewill Baptist Church, respectively, to merge with one another. The Canterbury United Community Church was formally created on October 9, 1958, and Mr. and Mrs. Stewart became full members of the Canterbury United Community Church.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Canterbury Church, a special service was held on Old Home Day Sunday, August 21, 1960, and that evening, the Parish House was dedicated, as a structure representing both the first 200 years but also the hope held in the future generations that would rise up to guide the church in the future. In the early 1960s, a church bulletin became popular, and today has evolved into our Canterbury Community Newsletter, serving not just the religious community but the town of Canterbury as a whole. Led by Rev. William Donaghue, we worship each Sunday morning as generations have done at Canterbury Center for over 255 years.