Churches of Deerfield
At the time of its beginnings, Deerfield had a single “meeting house” which served the secular purpose of conducting town business as well as the religious needs of the community. This first church was the forerunner of the Congregational Church, and its pastor was Rev. Timothy Upham who came to the town as a young man in 1772 and served the community for 39 years until his death on February 21, 1811. A monument to him and his good work stands in the Old Center Cemetery near the spot where he used to preach, the original meeting house site. (See a list of the members of the church in its early years.)
Rev. Upham was followed by Rev. Nathaniel Wells who began his pastorate the year after Upham died and served the town for the next 29 years, when he retired. Rev. Wells was given a parsonage and farm, establishing a tradition that continued with the Congregational parsonage built at the Center. After his retirement, Wells was succeeded by Rev. Ephraim N. Hidden in 1841. Hidden only stayed until 1849, at which point he “was discouraged and requested to be dismissed from the office of pastor because he believed that his labors were not useful, that death and removal had diminished the strength of the church.” [from Joanne Wasson's Tales of Old Deerfield .]
It seems from church records that there was much “discouragement and discontent” as a result of a controversy between two of the Deacons, Mr. Stearns and Mr. Eastman. Town historian Joanne Wasson writes that “Church records of the years following show plainly that Deacons Stearns and Eastman continued to be a problem. We find, in 1850, that 'After many unpleasant meeting to settle the strife between Deacon Stearns and Eastman, the latter was, by a vote of 18 to 3, excommunicated.”
This did not end the difficulties, and in 1852 the Congregational Society voted to have a Northwood minister act as an impartial arbiter to try to settle the differences between Deacon Stearns and the Church. The former Deacon, Mr. Eastman, was restored to full communion in 1853 after repenting and presenting a humble confession to the Church.
The troubles of the Congregational Church were compounded by the fact that the town's population had leveled off, and two other churches in town competed for the attendance of the faithful. There have been not one but two Baptist Churches in the town. The Baptists organized early in the town’s history, their first meeting house being near the Fairgrounds across from the Ladd cemetery. They eventually split into two sects which shared the same house of worship. This arrangement was an uneasy one. The First Baptist Society and the Freewill Baptists were disputing the use of the Union Meetinghouse by the summer of 1833. A new church was built in the Center and the Society held its first meeting there on November 19, 1834. It was constructed on the east side of North Road., just north of the intersection with Church Street. This site served for over half a century.
Because of concerns about the “flexible and spongy” ground under the church, some Baptists wanted to move it to a more solid site, selecting the ledgy land on the Parsonage lot across from the Town Hall. Discussion took place at the Annual meeting of April 16, 1889 amid bitter opposition. On April 27th it was voted to move and repair the building. The decision to move stirred up a great deal of controversy, with many pew holders claiming their rights had been violated. In spite of threats of an injunction to stop it, on September 20th the move was underway, and a week later the church had arrived at its new site. Professional movers from Concord accomplished the task using rollers and a windlass powered by a single horse. By October 11 the foundation had been placed under the church. Repairs and remodeling were completed in the summer of 1892, and on August 14, 1892 the church was rededicated. In its final report, the committee said that the move and the renovations had cost $2731.76.
Meanwhile, the Freewill Baptists built their own church at the center, where the Deerfield Business Center is now. It was lost to fire in 1840, rebuilt on the same site, and burned to the ground again February 2, 1880. The construction of the third church, the present building, was planned to begin in the fall of 1880. However work did not start until the fall of 1881, and in July of 1882 the Exeter newspapers described the building design as somewhat unique but very tasteful and handsome, and nearly finished. It was dedicated on November 16th, 1882, with a reported cost of the house and furnishing slightly exceeding $5000. After the turn of the 20th century the Freewill Baptist church was in decline, and the church disbanded in 1909. The Society deeded the property to the Deerfield Grange.
Hard times fell on all the churches in the early 1900s as the town’s population dropped. Farms were abandoned as people left them for work in the mills, or to seek their fortunes in new lands opening up in the West. In 1921 the Baptist Society engaged Rev. Christina Mackenzie, and she became by default minister to the whole town. A remarkable woman, she held the distinction of being the first woman ordained as a Baptist minister in New Hampshire. She had served in Loudon in both Baptist and Congregational churches, and so when she came to Deerfield in June of 1921, she was ready to accept the challenges she found in her ministry there. Although her ministry lasted for only four years, brought to a close by her untimely death from pneumonia in 1925, she earned the devotion and great respect of everyone in the town.
These were very hard times. The Depression had hit hard, with few jobs and little money. Ministers came and went, none of whom stayed very long. The population of the town hit its lowest point in 1930 with a census count of 635 inhabitants. The Freewill Baptist church had been closed for many years and neither the First Baptists nor the Congregationalists had enough funds to maintain a full-time ministry. In November of 1929, representatives of the two churches came together to propose pooling their resources. The result was a federated church that became know as the Community Church of Deerfield. This united church thrived under the leadership of Rev. Robert W. Shields during his tenure from 1945 to 1949. Shields was an energetic and charismatic pastor who made the church the center of town life.
In 1949 the old Federation was dissolved, and in 1950 a new one was voted in. A committee of nine, representatives of both churches, came together to form the “United Church”. This endured for two decades until, again, the churches went their separate ways. Today we have the Deerfield Community Church, and in the building that housed the First Baptist Church, the Deerfield Bible Church.
First Baptist Church.