Menu Close

History of First Parish in Brookline


The first people indigenous to the land on which First Parish in Brookline now stands were the Massachusett who spoke a regional dialect of Algonquin. A well-traveled trail connecting tribal villages ran along what is now Walnut Street in front of the Sanctuary. Under the “Doctrine of Discovery”, King Charles I of England ignored indigenous peoples’ claim to the land, and over time, all of the land in Massachusetts Bay Colony became the property of English colonists. 

This congregation began in the early 18th century as The Church of Christ, a Christian church in Puritan New England and evolved in the 19th century into the First Parish in Brookline, now a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The congregation was formed by members of First Church in Roxbury who lived in Brookline then a country farming community known as “Muddy River”. They sought an alternative to the weekly 3-mile trek to and from Roxbury.  In 1717, they raised funds to build a meeting house at the center of the town. The patch of lawn that today splits Walnut and Warren Streets was the original town green. Pierce Hall, the building now connected to the Sanctuary down Walnut Street was designed and built in 1825 to serve as Brookline’s town hall (top floor) and school (bottom floor).  

Our Sanctuary, dedicated in 1893, is the fourth to house the congregation. Designed by renowned Boston architect H. H. Richardson in the Arts and Crafts style, the sanctuary’s stained glass windows are a defining feature and include windows by Louis C. Tiffany and Sarah Wyman Whitman.  


Many churches in New England separated into Unitarian and Congregational churches during the “Unitarian Controversy” in the early 19th century. But First Parish retained both groups in the Unitarian vs. Trinitarian struggle and stood strong as a community church embracing both Christian traditions and the theology and liberal inclusiveness of the Unitarian faith. To this day it honors the history and the tradition but is firmly implanted in the Unitarian Universalist spirit of openness to all spiritual wisdom and practice.

In the 19th century, First Parish was home to ministers of especially great note.  John Pierce, for one, shepherded the congregation through the theological controversies early in the century. Frederick Henry Hedge was a scholar of German literature who helped found the Transcendental movement and for whom the Parsonage (now privately owned) across Walnut Street was built.

Ministers in the twenty-first century have been the Rev. Joseph Cherry (interim 2023 – present), Rev. Lisa Perry Wood (2018-2023), Rev. Rebecca Bryan (interim 2015-2017), Rev. Dr. Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa (Assistant Minister, 2013-2016), Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom (2005-2015), Rev. Martha Niebanck (2005-2012), Rev. David A. Johnson (1988-2003).

Recent research commissioned by the Board has uncovered some challenging truths about our history: throughout the 1700’s, as Brookline grew to be the wealthiest town in Massachusetts, many leaders of the church profited directly or indirectly from the slave trade and several of them enslaved Africans and/or Indigenous peoples.  These included the congregation’s first minister, James Allen, who enslaved three people, Dinah and her daughters Violet and Venus.

Challenged by discoveries such as these, the congregation in 2022 covenanted to explore our history and its implications even more deeply: 

“to continue to learn about, acknowledge and work to repair the historic and ongoing moral and material harm to Black and Indigenous people and communities”.  

Today First Parish is a congregation composed of people of deep conviction, strong faith, and devotion to community involvement. We have a rich and complex history.  We are passionately dedicated to responding meaningfully to the world here and now AND to spiritually nurturing ourselves and our children for the personal and collective challenges of the future.

See more information about our building on our Stained Glass page.

See more information about our research into the congregation’s involvement in the dispossession of land and enslavement of African and Indigenous peoples on our page Moving toward Reckoning and Repair.