First church, first minister

The Unitarian Congregational Church in Wilton Center is the oldest church in town, and it all started with the town’s first settled minister, the Rev. Jonathan Livermore, in 1763, a few short decades after the town was settled.

The town’s original land grant included 240 acres for a church, to be built by 1752. The first church was a simple log building that remained in use until a proper Meeting House could be built. For 10 years, the town did not have a proper minister, but was guided by traveling preachers. Then, in 1763, came Jonathan Livermore.

Livermore’s tenure as minister left several imprints on the town, including his old home, first built for Livermore around 1770, when he was also given 240 acres, an annual salary and an allotment of firewood. The home still stands, and is now one of Wilton’s contributions to the N.H. State Register of Historic Places. The house is still in use as a residence by a private owner.

Livermore’s time in Wilton as its minister is also connected to a historic tragedy in town, stemming from Wilton’s attempt in 1773 to build a proper Meeting House to serve as a replacement for the log church toward the end of Livermore’s tenure. As the only available church at the time, the building was planned large enough to support the entire town, with a porch at each end, two rows of large windows, and galleries on three sides.

It should have been a celebratory time, after the townspeople voting at Town Meeting to provide barrels of rum and sugar loaf for the official raising of the Meeting House. In early fall, a crowd turned out for the long-awaited event.

Sept. 7, 1773, was not destined to be a happy day, however. During the course of the raising of the building, a beam broke, and 53 men fell from 30 feet in the air to the ground. Of those 53, five were killed and multiple others crippled by the disaster.

The town was able to regroup and finish the church two years later, with Livermore presiding for a handful more years before resigning in 1777 and being replaced by the Rev. Abel Fisk. Fisk died two years before the Meeting House would see its second disaster — this one caused by more natural forces. During a July storm in 1804, the Meeting House was struck by lighting. The blast reportedly rent a support beam in two from top to bottom, blew out the building’s windows and left visible marks streaking across the floor when it reached the ground. Repairs were made — including a lighting rod added — and the church continued to function.

Then, again, disaster.

To this day, there is no known cause of the fire that ultimately destroyed the Meeting House in 1851. The fire started in the night, after the building had been closed following a children’s concert. Despite the town forming a committee to investigate the matter, it was never determined how the fire had started or whether it was intentional or accidental.

With the former Meeting House gone, the current Unitarian Congregational church was built on the common, and dedicated in 1861. The building was dedicated by the grandson of the church’s first minister, Abiel Abbot Livermore.

Unlike its unlucky predecessor, that church has stood the test of time, and it remains a gathering place for Sunday worshipers.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244.

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