The Eliot Church of South Natick stands on one of the oldest church sites in America. Here in 1651 the first Meetinghouse was built. It was designed to serve as both church and public gathering place for the new Natick plantation of Praying Indians, then formed under the leadership of the Indian Thomas Waban and the missionary pastor, the Rev. John Eliot.
But to complete “the rest of the story”, today’s Eliot Church in South Natick is not that same 1651 church. At first flourishing, the Indian church fell into decline following Metacom’s War. With the influx of white settlers in the 1700s, a new church was formed, a communal church, envisaged as one embracing both Indians and English settlers. Unfortunately the century was not kind to this visionary experiment. Indian membership continued to decline; and the white settlers fell into dispute, partly over the location of the Meetinghouse, partly over theology. Two factions formed. At the end of the century those living in the central portion of the parish, withdrew to form their own, evangelical First Congregational Church uptown, leaving those more liberal and living near the old site too few to go on. The doors in the South were closed, and the Meetinghouse was destroyed by vandals.
For more than twenty-five years the ancient site stood vacant. Then in 1828 the South Parish Congregational Church was incorporated under the laws of Massachusetts, and funds were raised to erect a new Meetinghouse on the original common land. That basic structure, with renovations in 1877, 1905, and again in 2005, is the church building you see today. The Church as an institution, however, is not quite the same. While the 1828 church called itself Congregational, its ministers were more and more drawn to Unitarianism until in 1870, under the ministry of Horatio Alger, Sr., the parish reincorporated as the First Unitarian Parish (later, Church) of Natick.
Moving into the 20th century, the Church found itself more and more in financial difficulty. For a number of years it shared ministers with Sherborn, but eventually each of the churches wanted its own minister. Attention then shifted to the John Eliot Congregational Church, formed by neighbors down the street in 1860 and now also facing financial difficulties. Agreement to cooperate was reached in 1944. For the next more than fifty years the two groups worshipped and worked together, seeking accommodation between each other’s theological inclinations and organizational experiences. Finally, in 1990, each felt comfortable in dissolving its own church, merging the assets and the congregations, and forming together the united Eliot Church of South Natick.
The Eliot Church today is a true Community Church. Our members’ backgrounds range from Protestant to Roman Catholic, and from Jewish to Unitarian-Universalist. The Eliot Church is affiliated with both the Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC).
For a more detailed history, see From Many Backgrounds: The Heritage of The Eliot Church of South Natick by James W. Morley