The History of the New Church in Old Bridgewater
By Katherine Wolfe
Most of this newsletter’s readers have probably driven past the gothic revival church across from the Academy Building in Bridgewater center at the corner of Bedford St and School St. Many of you may have read the sign which says New Jerusalem Church (Swedenborgian) est. 1824. But you may not know that the Bridgewaters were a hotbed for the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) beginning in the 1820’s. Swedenborg was an eminent Swedish scientist, philosopher and religious writer who experienced and documented many spiritual revelations and scriptural explanations during the last 30 years of his life. In the most simplistic terms Swedenborg wrote in Divine Providence #259 “The three essentials of Christianity are: accepting the Lord’s divinity, the holiness of the Bible, and living a life of kindness.”
The New Church organizes itself into societies which are like congregations. The first Society in the US was formed in 1792 in Baltimore, MD not long after the original society was formed on May 7, 1787 in England. Once people decided to follow Swedenborg teachings they were referred to as ‘receivers’. In this area one of the first receivers was Rev. Holland Weeks of Abington who began reading Swedenborg’s writings in 1818. By 1820 he was called out by his church (First Church of Christ in Abington) and tried for heresy before an ecclesiastical council. Rev. Weeks was dismissed from the pulpit in July 1820. He left the area in 1821 but not before being welcomed to North Bridgewater by likeminded ‘receivers’ and assisting in encouraging the nascent N. Bridgewater Society. By 1824, Bridgewater had a small group of believers and soon official Societies were formed: East & West Bridgewater in 1830; N. Bridgewater in 1827; Bridgewater in 1833; Abington in 1835.
In 1834 Bridgewater erected its first New Church building (the first Swedenborgian church in New England) at 15 Cedar Street. The building was used until 1871 when the current church at the corner of School St and Bedford St was completed (across from the Academy Building). The Cedar St. building was sold to the Methodists in 1871 and used by them until they built their new church. On July 12th, 1994, the New Jerusalem Church building caught fire and had to have the roof and steeple rebuilt. Fortunately the interior damage was not extensive. It certainly helps to be across the street from the fire station!
Elmwood (East Bridgewater) erected their church on West Street in 1854. This wonderful church stood tall until the ravages of time and lack of funds felled her in 2011. Today a new, smaller and more efficient community church has taken its place.
North Bridgewater like Bridgewater has had two church buildings. The first was built in 1835, had 52 pews and located on North Main Street. The land and building cost approximately $3,000. The second building was Italianate style, had 102 pews, and was built in 1857 at the corner of Main and Crescent Street.
Some of the local families who worshipped and supported the New Jerusalem Church in Bridgewater were Washburn (Carver Washburn & Co.), Mitchell, Hayward, Conant, Alden, Bates, Benson, Broadhurst, Copeland, Cushman, Leonard, Pratt, Perkins, Snow and Wood.
The New Church fulfilled the same functions of other community churches. The ministers would hold Sunday services, perform baptisms, marriages, holy communion, funerals and minister to the parishioners. Like today they would participate in the Council of Churches and encourage participation in activities in support of the town and faith. They would oversee the Sunday School, music programs, outreach and church finances as well as participate in statewide activities for the denomination.
Today we can thank our ancestors for their efforts and faith in contributing to our communities with their hard work, their spirit and embracing that which is new and untested. It is these qualities which have made New England such an interesting place to live.
We are a congregation for people who
want an open minded, forward-looking
Rather than confining religion to
membership in an organization, we see life itself as a religious experience. In other words, how we live is what matters. The experiences of life offer opportunities for learning, changing, and growing as human beings. We each choose our own path, towards, or away from, God.
As a congregation of the Swedenborgian Church of North America – a member of the National Council of Churches – we believe that a loving Christian faith celebrates the diverse cultural expressions of religion. We were the first ecumenical religion in the Western world, seeing salvation as an inner experience of spiritual growth rather than as a matter correct belief in a particular church’s teachings.
As Christians, Jesus Christ is the center and soul of our worship. We believe that Christ lived and taught a path that we can follow to receive wholeness, peace, meaning and happiness. Rather than God suddenly appearing to set us straight, God entered completely into the human experience as the ultimate expression of love and compassion. God as Christ knew birth, growth, pain, testing, and fulfillment. In Christ we are given a comprehensible, knowable, personal God.
Rev. Susannah Currie has served as pastor of
the Bridgewater New Jerusalem Church since
2009. She served three terms as
Treasurer of the General Convention of
Swedenborgian Churches and five years
as Recording Secretary for the denomination. She is also the chair of the Ethics Committee of the Council of Ministers for our denomination. She also serves as Religious Program Coordinator for the Fryeburg New Church Assembly.
© 2013 by Bridgewater New Jerusalem Church