23 Central Square, Keene NH 03431
Services at 10.00am on Sunday
The United Church of Christ in Keene, the second oldest Christian fellowship in southwestern New Hampshire, was “gathered” in the wilderness settlement of Upper Ashuelot, now Keene, on October 18, 1738. Pioneers had arrived in 1736 to carve out homes in the primeval forest. In 1737 they erected a rude meetinghouse, “40 feet long and 35 feet wide and 20 feet stud,” far down Main Street, and on May 5, 1738, they extended a call to the Rev. Jacob Bacon to be their first pastor. The candidate accepted, and in connection with his ordination on October 18, 1738, an organization of 19 professed Christians was constituted into a church body. Their names are those of all Keene’s first inhabitants and settlers, for the church of the 18th century was an all-encompassing civil as well as ecclesiastical institution. The United Church of Christ in Keene is a merger of this First Church with the Court Street Congregational Church, formed out of the original body in 1867, which took place in 1963. The congregation of today pays homage to the pioneers, and in no less measure gratefully recognizes their literal and spiritual descendants who have maintained and nurtured Christian witness and service in Keene for over 250 years.
The nucleus of the church building at the head of Keene’s Main Street and Central Square is the 220-year-old 50×70 foot frame of Keene’s fourth meetinghouse raised in June 1786. The structure originally stood south of its present location, near the site of the Civil War Soldiers Monument today. Placed with its broad side and central doors facing down the wide expanse of Main Street, the church was “consecrated to the Divine Being” on October 29, 1788. It was painted white or light yellow with green doors. The interior arrangements were typical of their time: broad aisles and unpainted pine pews all around the room with boxed partitions between, and topped by a row of twelve-inch high turned spindles. A wide aisle led to the pulpit high on the opposite wall with a “wine glass” base, and suspended above it was a dome-shaped sounding board.
The town’s first church bell was hung in 1792, and a public clock was installed in 1794. In March 1792, the town voted eighty pounds to purchase a bell, and in September authorized fifteen pounds two shillings for hanging the town’s first bell, and also decided “to employ a Person to ring the Bell.” In 1794 a vote for a larger bell was passed and one weighing 1000 pounds was procured by Judge Daniel Newcomb for the town and church. Normally the bell was rung from the ground floor of the meeting house, but when tolled just before service, the sexton climbed into the second story where through a small window he could see when the minister was on his way to church, and from another window the pastor’s progress down the aisle as he made his entrance after the congregation was assembled and waiting, and the bell tolled until he was seated and the service was to begin.
Until 1828, the First Church had the only bell in town and it was used as a signal for meetings, celebrations and alarm. In that year the Baptists acquired a bell cast by the famed Revera firm and with aid of the town hung it in their Ash Swamp Church where it served an important signal function for the region The Unitarians soon had another Revere bell as well as a public clock located not far from the First Church itself. Another use to which the church bells were put was as a public announcement of death. Three quick strokes told of a man’s death, and four a woman’s. These were followed by tolled strokes equal to the number of years at death.
As soon as the division of religious and civil authorities in Keene was complete in 1828, and as plans for the development of the Common were formulated, the meetinghouse underwent its first major renovation. Under a January 1, 1829 contract the structure was turned one quarter around and moved north almost to its present site. The building was brought up to date with prevailing taste by the construction of an entrance bay and porch and a new spire 130 feet high. The interior was entirely altered with the installation of long, narrow “slip” pews painted white and a pulpit located at the far end of the long sanctuary. It was in this period that the gilt weathervane still perched atop the spire today was installed.