The history of First Parish is intertwined with the story of the town of Cohasset and the evolution of religious thought and practice over the course of three centuries in New England.
What was to eventually become the town of Cohasset was first settled in the early 1600’s by residents of the existing town of Hingham. The area was a precinct of Hingham and would not gain independence for over a century until it was granted its autonomy in 1770.
The Meeting House in the colonial period was not just a place of religious worship. It was publicly owned and served as a place for public gathering, civic meetings, and other governmental functions. Roads were primitive and travel was often on foot and always difficult, particularly for the residents of the Cohasset district, who had far to travel to reach the Hingham Meeting House. Finally, in 1721 a separate Meeting House was approved and constructed to serve the residents of Cohasset, close to the location of the current structure.
In 1747 the old Meeting House no longer met the needs of a growing community and construction began on the building we use today. The original structure was more modest than the building that currently sits on Cohasset Common, without the vestibule or steeple that adorn the current building. Those features, as well as the current ornate pulpit, the organ and other modern amenities such as indoor plumbing and central heating were added over the years. (link for to be added description of building, possibly memo circulated)
By the late 1700’s communities were starting to be split between Unitarian and Trinitarian traditions. To oversimplify, Trinitarian doctrine was based on the concept of the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost, while Unitarianism embraced the doctrine of one God. Harvard College, the training ground for many New England clergy, was Unitarian and its graduates had a great deal of influence in the region. The result of the division of religious thought was that a single church could no longer serve the entire community. In 1820 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts stepped back from its role as arbiter of religion and collector of taxes to support the churches, and in 1824 orthodox Trinitarians split off from the congregation and established the Second Congregational Society and erected the Congregational Church just a few dozen yards from Meeting House.
Long before the Civil War, many Unitarians, impelled by their drive for social justice, became vocal in the abolitionist movement. The Unitarian essayists and philosophers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson condemned slavery as inconsistent with a moral imperative. In our own Meeting House the abolitionist sermons of the Reverend Joseph Osgood influenced an entire region.
In 1961 the Unitarians merged with the Universalists to form the current organization and group of churches.
The First Parish Meeting House has been host to many interesting and distinguished visitors over the years, but one visitor clearly stands out as the oddest. In 1986 the movie Witches of Eastwick was filmed in Cohasset and in one scene the actor Jack Nicholson, playing the devil himself, walked down our center aisle spewing cherry pits on the startled extras, who included many of our congregation. All ended well, and a generous donation from the production company endowed our Community Outreach Fund.
Tour Our Historic Meeting House
Want to learn more about our historic Meeting House, built in 1747? Periodically, our volunteers offer tours of our historic Meeting House. Watch our events listings for upcoming tours.
We’d be happy to arrange group tours, depending on availability for our volunteer tour guides. For group tours, we request a modest voluntary donation to our Building Maintenance Fund. Please contact our minister, Rev. Dan Harper, to arrange a group tour.
Scholars doing research should consult the First Parish archives finding aid before contacting us.
between 1713 and 1718: The first Meeting House was built, located on the common to the south of the current Meeting House. As yet, there was no regular preaching, and no formally organized congregation.
1721: Congregation was formally organized, and Nehemiah Hobart installed as the first minister.
1722: Nehemiah Hobart began construction on a residence opposite the first Meeting House. This house is now our Parish House.
1747: Construction began on the present Meeting House.
1761: First bell was hung in a steeple on top of the the roof, at the north end.
1770: Cohasset incorporated as a separate town from Hingham.
1770s: Under the leadership of Rev. John Browne, Cohasset became a town of ardent patriots.
1774: Three young men from Cohasset met in Rev. John Browne’s living room to discuss planning of the Boston Tea Party. In the same year, the town voted “to have a Closet built in sum proper place in the Meeting-house for to deposite the District stock of Ammunition in.”
1776: Rev. John Browne gave an impassioned reading of the Declaration of Independence from the pulpit in the Meeting House.
1799: The steeple on the roof was removed, and a tower with a new steeple built on the north side of the Meeting House.
1814: Cohasset militia assemble at the Meeting House to defend the coast from the British Navy.
1824: An orthodox group separated from First Parish and organized Second Congregational Church, now a UCC church.
1825: Our congregation aligned with the newly-formed American Unitarian Association.
1842: Joseph Osgood ordained as our minister. He served First Parish for 56 years. He helped create the present Cohasset school system, and Osgood School is named after him. Osgood was an outspoken abolitionist.
1855: The first organ was installed in the Meeting House, replacing string and wind instruments.
1869: Steeple struck by lightning.
1892: Current organ installed, George S. Hutchins Opus 274.
1915: The congregation bought Nehemiah Hobart’s 1721 house, now the Parish House.
1943: The congregation opened the Parish House for “some entertainment for the boys every Saturday night” — that is, as a canteen for soldiers serving during WWII.
1950: A family of refugees displaced after WWII live in the Parish House as guests.
1961: Trueblood Hall was built on to the Parish House. Because this was the first large-scale hall of any Cohasset church, it drew many community groups for meetings and events.
1961: Our congregation joined the newly-formed Unitarian Universalist Association.
1970-1972: The Parish House served as the home of Cohasset’s public kindergarten while the Osgood School was being renovated.
1970s: Rev. Ed Atkinson came down from the high pulpit and began preaching regularly from the floor of the Meeting House. Since then, all our ministers have mostly preached from the floor of the meetinghouse.
1978: Members of First Parish organize the Carriage House Nursery School. This child-centered preschool is still run by our congregation.
1989: A “Homeshare” apartment was created on the second floor of the Parish House, and sheltered over 25 unhoused families over a period three decades.
2021: Completion of a major renovation of the Meeting House, architectural gem of Cohasset Common. Renovation was funded by gifts from members of the congregation, and from dedicated members of the community.
2022: Carriage House Nursery School installed an outdoor classroom behind the Parish House, continuing the long tradition of educational innovation sponsored by First Parish.
This timeline was compiled by Rev. Dan Harper from the following sources: “One Hundred and Fifty Years of the Old Meeting House in Cohasset, Mass., 1747-1897” by Rev. William R. Cole; “The First Parish and Its Meeting House, 1747-1947” by Rev. Roscoe Trueblood; a timeline printed for the 2002 renovation of the Parish House; and Galt Grant’s 2011 pictorial history.