Sometimes my adventures are planned and sometimes I happen upon a place of interest like Sunday August 10, 2014. My friend Jordan and I ventured through the streets of Jamaica Plain, which was formerly known as West Roxbury until it was annexed by Boston in 1874. We came upon a graveyard behind The First Church of Jamaica Plain, a Unitarian Universalist Church Founded in 1770 as the Third Parish of Roxbury back when colonial town of Roxbury stretched from the Boston Neck to the Dedham line. The first parish was located on Fort Hill near the first settlement. The second parish was on Peter’s Hill near the graves. As more and more people settled near the “Great Pond” They sought permission from the two existing parishes to create their own parish, and take with them territory and tax paying parishioners and also an act of the colonial legislature. The parish was created and thus the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain was now defined.
Even the Minutemen who fought in the Revolutionary War were organized by the theocracy that was colonial Massachusetts, the boundaries of the Standing Order parishes formed governmental units and also religious ones. Across the street from this church is a Civil War monument and a plaque serving as recognition to the many Revolutionary and Civil War men who gave their lives, from the third Parish ( first church of JP) led by Captain Lemuel May and his Lieutenant Eleazor Weld both of whom are buried in the cemetery behind the First Church of Jamaica Plain. Captain Lemuel May is buried in grave number 28. Lieutenant Eleazor Weld I believe is either in grave number 11 or 13.
Reverend Dr. William Gordon ( 1770 – 1786 ) from England was the first minister and objected burials near the church building he thought it was unsanitary. The second minister Reverend Dr. Thomas Gray ( 1793 – 1843 ) had a very different opinion and viewed death as a phase in the cycle of life and should be honored near the church. He also wanted the community to have a sense of their past with a churchyard burial ground, in fact most of the burials took place during his fifty years as minister of the church. The older slate stones of the older graves are lined up in rough rows common to other older burial grounds in the city of Boston. Although these graves date back to the turn of the century (18th into the 19th ) they are less severe in the traditional Calvinist skull and bone motifs. Most have urns and willow trees one does however contain the traditional skull, but also adorns angel’s wings.
There were some great changes that took place to the graveyard as a conversion to become a more pleasing place to visit, it was landscaped with trees, ornamental rocks, retaining walls, and crypts for one thing. That was the first effect of the rural cemetery movement, the second was that burials ceased as larger more rural cemeteries became more popular such as Mt. Auburn Cemetery and the Forrest Hills Cemetery, with the exception of Rev. Dr. Thomas Gray who was buried where he spent his life’s work as opposed to the recommendations that a man as important as he should reside eternally at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.
Many Standing Order Churches split due to the Unitarian controversy often calls with the majority calling the a minister from the Liberal School and the Conservatives pulling out and establishing a Congressional church across town was common. Rev. Gray had become the minister prior to the outbreak of controversy, and remained until 1843. The church never split and the whole congression that Rev. Gray had built ended in the Unitarian Camp. The congression was large and vital enough to need a larger building; the old wooden church was removed and the new large stone church that stands today was built in 1853.
It was a pleasure to stumble upon this church and graveyard and look into it’s rich history. I hope you have enjoyed this look into a very important part of history for both Jamaica Plain, and this wonderful Unitarian Church. Future travels will lead me to explore the Forrest Hills Cemetery, stay tuned…
For more information regarding this Church and the history of the area please feel free to visit the links below. The First Church of Jamaica Plain is still open and holds services, if interested in attending follow the link to their website for more information.