The Howard Street Church

The Howard Street Church was a short-lived institution, but it had an enormous impact on Salem’s nineteenth-century social and political life, far beyond the brevity of its existence or size of its membership. It is also a great example of how Salem’s history has been distorted by the exploitation and commodification of the Witch Trials: today the Church is little-known, and the adjacent Howard Street Cemetery is significant primarily as the place where accused victim Giles Corey was pressed to death upon his plea of “standing mute” and the imposition of peine forte et dure.

The Howard Street Cemetery in 1949 by Life photographer Nina Leen: it looks much the same now and the vantage point is approximately the location of the Howard Street Church.

The Church was founded out of a schism, and it too experienced schisms during its brief existence, from 1803-1864: both it pastors and its membership were active and engaged citizens, often to the extreme. As its last pastor, the Reverend C.C. Beaman, concluded in his 1861 history (Essex Institute Historical Collections, Vol. 3): “the Church has been likened in reference to its trials to the bush that was in the fire and yet not consumed. On the slavery question and on temperance it has been a marked church, having early spoken boldly upon them;—and if the being cast into prison is a proof of regular descent from the apostles, this church has a strong claim, inasmuch as one of its ministers died in prison and another was confined there.” The men in question were the Reverends Charles T. Torrey and George Barrell Cheever. The latter was a passionate proponent of temperance, who targeted one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in town, John Stone, Deacon of the First Church and simultaneously Salem’s largest distiller (who also built my house), in The Dream, or, The True History of Deacon Giles’ Distillery and Deacon Jones’ Brewery: Reported for the Benefit of Posterity, which was first published in Salem in 1835 and later in New York City for national distribution. After its publication, Cheever was accosted in the streets, horse-whipped, and sued, convicted, and imprisoned for slander, but his campaign for temperance, waged from the pulpit as well as in print, did not cease. I wrote about this story way back in 2011, and now we have a distillery named after Deacon Giles (a perfect Salem story).

One of Deacon Giles’ Distillery’s great illustrations, from an edition at Boston Rare Maps.

So the Howard Street was a center of a temperance storm in the 1830s, but it was the center of Salem’s abolitionist activities from its foundation to its end. Its first pastor, the Reverend Joshua Spalding (sometimes spelled Spaulding) had welcomed African-Americans into his new congregation from the beginning, after his dismissal and his flock’s “separation” from the Tabernacle Church in 1802, and with each successive pastor the commitment to abolition became stronger. Spalding was an early advocate of public education for Salem’s African-American children, and he appointed an African-American man, Israel Freeman, as one of his new church’s deacons. A short-lived successor of Cheever, Charles Turner Torrey clearly could not stand to just talk about the evils of slavery in somewhat-enlightened Salem: he went south and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, dying in a Baltimore jail of consumption after facilitating the freedom of some 400 enslaved persons. In jail, he wrote his memoirs to support his family back in Massachusetts: Home or The Pilgrims’ Faith Revived was first published in Salem in 1845; following his death in the following year, Torrey “returned” to Massachusetts and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery with considerable ceremony. One of Salem’s most eminent educators and abolitionists, William B. Dodge, was a long-time member and Elder of the Howard Street Church: he first taught Salem’s African-American students in its vestry, where the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (among whose founding members were Dodge’s wife Sarah Dole Dodge and daughters Lydia and Lucia) also met frequently. The whole congregation, and indeed the city, was summoned to the Howard Street Church on occasions for prayer services for the end of slavery, as was the case in June of 1835.

There is ample evidence that the Howard Street Church served as a hub for abolitionist activities in Salem over the first half of the nineteenth century, but it’s hard to pay tribute to a site that is no longer there. I can’t even come up with a photograph (well, there is a semblance, see below), which is really frustrating as the Church was the creation of Samuel McIntire! It had a tower, and a very famous bell, which might have ended up the adjacent Central Baptist Church on St. Peter Street after the Howard Street congregation was dissolved (but the City of Salem had a claim, so I’m not sure). The Church was almost in constant flux: it started out as the Branch Street Church, named for the lane that connected Brown and Bridge Streets, later called Howard, and assumed the name Howard Street Church in 1828. Its denomination changed too: from Congregational to Presbyterian and back to Congregational. It’s the individuals that stand out in the history of this church, though: Spalding, Cheever, Torrey, Dodge and more, It seemed to draw men and women of great conviction. And if Howard Street’s abolitionist history was not illustrious enough, there is the role that the Church played in one of the most deadly battles in pre-20th century naval history: the defeat of the USS Chesapeake by the HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813. The former ship’s crew was annihilated in the 12-minute battle, which was watched by North Shore residents from atop Legg’s Hill. The Chesapeake‘s captain, James Lawrence of “Don’t Give up the Ship” fame, died shortly after that famous plea, along with several of his officers. The Chesapeake was sailed to Nova Scotia by the British with its dead and wounded aboard, and Salem’s George Crowninshield retrieved the remains of Captain Lawrence and Lieutenant August Ludlow from Halifax at his own expense and returned them to Salem for a formal funeral at the “Rev. Mr. Spauldings Meeting-house” in late August 1813. And thus the Howard Street Church became the center of national attention.

Massachusetts State Library; Newburyport Reporter and Country Gazette, August 24,1813.

The Howard Street congregation began to dissolve in 1864 and the end of the material church (in Salem) came in 1867 when everything was auctioned off. The McIntire Church building was removed, not destroyed: it was floated (I assume) over to Beverly, where it became the new Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in 1869, with some adjustments and alterations at that time, and more in the 1880s, so I don’t think that the photograph below represents what the Howard Street Church looked like—though perhaps some semblance. Its former location became the site of a new Salem public school, the Prescott School, but not for long: the growing Polish Catholic community represented by the Church of St. John the Baptist purchased the closed Central Baptist Church in the first decade of the twentieth century, and expanded its property to Howard Street in the 1960s. The history of Salem’s churches is indeed quite dynamic!

Salem Gazette; 1874 Salem Atlas @State Library of Massachusetts; photograph of the Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, Historic Beverly. The displaced congregation of St. Alphonse began worshipping in this Church after the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and it was destroyed by arson in 1963.


5 responses to “The Howard Street Church

  • Bob Strom

    Donna very nice blog. You filled in some details for me. Thanks l did find a reference and the song sung at Lawrence and Ludlow ‘s funeral when they were brought back to Salem on Crowninshield’s brig Henry. Essex Register 8/21/1813. Also in Old Salem at Sea in Ballad and Song. Thanks Bob

  • Norm Corbin

    Thanks Donna, this brought back many memories. In the 1960’s my father owed the apartment building (was at one time a mansion) at the corner of Howard & Brown Street (#8). Your map shows it as the heirs of Thomas Downing. I’ve been by the cemetery many times but never knew anything about its history. Thanks Norm Corbin

  • Anne

    Super interesting, Donna! It’s an odd thing, having all this important history but no extant repository for these memories, but you’ve done a good job letting us know about the importance of this church while it was a Salem institution.

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