Freewill Baptist Church

Freewill Baptist Church

1820 - 1880 – Free Baptist Church, Parsonage & Cemetery, and the South Berwick Town Clock - 340 Main Street

The South Berwick Free Baptist Church, containing the 1890 South Berwick town clock, is part of the interesting story of Maine Baptists and the temperance movement of the early 1800s. This church is part of the South Berwick Village District on the National Register of Historic Places. The clock is one of only five Stevens & Co. tower clocks surviving in Maine in their original locations. Near the meetinghouse, many South Berwick citizens of the 1800s and early 1900s have been laid to rest in the Freewill Baptist Cemetery. Stones include those of Capt. Elijah Ricker, who died at sea in 1826; Capt. Samuel Wentworth who died in 1851; War of 1812 veteran John Spencer; Spanish American War veteran John L. Sink; World War I veteran Chester Guy Earl; and Alfred W. Hart, who died in the Civil War.


Freewill Baptist history. The world’s original founder of the Freewill Baptist Church, Benjamin Randall (b. 1749), was baptized in South Berwick in 1775, according to The History of the South Berwick Freewill Baptist Church by Judge F. Roger Miller, 1934. A religious man, Randall came here from New Castle, NH, to be immersed at the Baptist Church at Great Hill, near Hooper Sands Road.  He stayed among the Berwick Baptists for three years. Then, in 1780, preaching in New Hampshire, Randall was called to task by the Baptists for not teaching the doctrine of John Calvin. Opposed to Calvin’s determinism, Randall struck off on his own, and started a new church based on beliefs that allow for human free will, thus founding what became known as the Freewill Baptist Church. This sect spread mainly in New England and eastern Canada before many congregations chose to merge with the Calvinistic Baptists in the early 20th century.

At left, excerpt from a South Berwick map of 1856. Note that at the time, part of Main Street was called Elm Street.

The following account of South Berwick’s Freewill Baptists is from The History of York County, 1880:

“The Free-Will Baptist Church was organized May 18, 1834, with 19 members, and Rev. Nathaniel Trickey pastor. The succeeding pastors have been D. P. Cilley, from 1826, one year; Z. Jordan, from 1837 to 1842; John Chaney (a bold advocate of freedom and temperance), from 1842 to 1845; E. True, from 1845 to 1847; D. Jackson, two years, succeeded by W. D. Johnson, Nov. 16, 1849; Mr. Johnson and his wife both died here in 1852; F. Moulton was installed pastor April, 1853; Rev. Willet Vary was installed July, 1855; D. P. Harriman, June, 1857; Joel Baker, 1860; N. C. Lathrop, August, 1864; W. T. Smith, 1866; and Rev. J. Frank Lock, 1868, who was succeeded by Rev. O. T. Moulton to 1878. Membership, 120. Deacons, H. Brackett and Abner Boston. The meeting-house in South Berwick village was dedicated in 1838. The parsonage is a good, convenient building near the church.”

The South Berwick Freewill Baptist Church, from an 1877 lithograph by Ruger & Stoner

The meetinghouse began as a simple one-story building with no steeple. A map of c. 1835, in a period when the church was under construction, shows a “vestry” the street in the Masonic Hall, where members gathered in what was later the Huntress building, now the office building at 293 Main.

Near the meetinghouse, the Freewill Baptist Cemetery, where many South Berwick citizens have been laid to rest, was set aside.

 The South Berwick Freewill Baptists joined the temperance movement sweeping Maine in the early 1800s, and regularly preached against the use of spirits in this mill town’s increasingly rowdy atmosphere. They opposed slavery, despite the South’s production of the cotton the local factories processed. The Rev. John Chaney, said to have organized one of Maine’s first temperance societies and presented the state’s first antislavery resolution, assumed the ministry of the South Berwick Freewill Baptist Church in the 1840s. His ardent preaching incurred the wrath of the temperance foes, who broke his windows and plotted to blow up the parsonage.

On March 18, 1849 a ten-pound keg of powder detonated on the meetinghouse steps. The South Berwick temperance controversy, which involved several different parishes, led to a series of arson incidents throughout the town. Through it all, the Freewill Baptists added many new parishioners, church membership grew to 168, and the meeting house was enlarged in 1855.

From South Berwick lithograph, 1877, Ruger & Stoner. The Freewill Baptist Church is marked #1 at lower center.

A quieter period during the Civil War was followed in 1871 by the construction of the David Cummings Shoe Factory, just a block behind the church on Norton Street. The principal street of “Shoetown” soon became lined with new mill housing, and many of the 350 Cummings employees became church members. The active congregation organized a 200-member Juvenile Temperance Band, and in 1885 the meeting house was raised ten feet in order to construct vestries on the bottom floor for Sunday school and church activities.

Below right, a view of the church from Butler Street.  When this Freewill Baptist Church was constructed in the 1830s, Butler Street led all the way to Salmon Falls.  Thus this view of the meetinghouse would have greeted those approaching the center of South Berwick.  The parsonage stands close to the right of the church.   

The South Berwick Town Clock.  During the late 1800s, the church received its steeple to house South Berwick’s only town clock.

In 1889 the present tower was built during the pastorship of a carpenter and builder, the Rev. W. E. Hayden. According to The History of the South Berwick Freewill Baptist Church, "the Town Clock was installed in 1890 from subscriptions of citizens of the town.” For hundreds of citizens and travelers passing daily by foot, carriage, and after 1900 by streetcar, along Main Street and Norton Street as well as up and down Salmon Street (today part of Main), the new town clock became a friendly landmark seen in all directions.

The tower clock was made by the George M. Stevens & Co., Inc., in Boston, Massachusetts. Stevens was one of two major tower clock makers in Boston during the 1800s. Although the company had several prestigious projects -- municipal buildings in Boston or clocks installed in foreign countries, the majority of their customers were small New England towns. Although we may find it unusual in today’s world to find a piece of town “property” like a clock in a church tower, this was apparently a common practice during the mid-to-late 1800s, and other towns had similar arrangements.

In the 1960s, citizens of South Berwick created a "town clock fund" and raised over $1000 for restoration. In 1967 the church congregation installed a Schulmerich arcadian bell system. In 2003 the town of South Berwick again repaired the clock, so that people going to work, walking to school or shopping in the village can continue to enjoy this landmark in its historic building.

(This summary by Wendy Pirsig from archives at the Counting House Museum. Updated December 2020.)