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William Henry Parker

1909 - 1921


William Henry Parker was born in Mukwonago, Wisconsin in 1877, the son of John J. Parker and Anna Vanderpool. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1902 and received his Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1905. Parker was ordained at the Christian Union (Unitarian) Society in Reading, Massachusetts on June 19, 1905 where he served as pastor until 1909. On June 28, 1906 Parker and Elvy Hunt were married at Parker’s church in Reading and in the following three years, Elvy gave birth to two children. Parker was installed as minister of First Church Dedham on April 29, 1909, pledging that “I give myself in the hope that no future generation can say of us who are alive now ‘the parish declined under them.”


William Henry Parker’s mission from the inception of his ministry was the growth of First Church. As he stated in the First Church Parish Record, “The First Parish needs a larger constituency, more people to support its services and its various enterprises. We want new families to send their children to our Sunday School for it has ever proved itself a counselor, a help and an incentive to a reverent, dependable, and serviceable maturity. The comradeship of the young people of ours has been wholesome, healthy, and joyous… First Parish was organized as the church of the town, not as a sectarian church, not as a protest against any other church. It was an inclusive church and has tried to maintain the tradition both in practice and in its bond of fellowship.” In the service of this mission, Parker tried to implement this intention by employing multiple strategies.


First, Parker attempted to raise the profile of First Church in Dedham. To achieve this, he began advertising upcoming First Church services in the Dedham Transcript. Next, Parker served 10 years as the chaplain of the Dedham’s Norfolk County House of Correction. In addition, under Parker’s leadership First Church reinforced Dedham’s Americanization efforts by hosting lectures by Italian army officers, inviting Italian children to singing parties, and setting up getting-acquainted meetings between Italian families and members of the First Church Layman’s League. After the Great War broke out in Europe, the Dedham Branch of the Civic Federation Surgical Dressing Committee was invited to convene at the First Church Vestry to manufacture slings, fracture cushions, gauze, cotton, surgical sponges for the hospitals in France. Moreover, during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, Parker contracted with the Dedham Board of Health to utilize the Vestry as an emergency hospital. As Parker related in the Parish Record, “The Commissioners of Norfolk County loaned the jury beds from the County Courthouse. The Chickering House gave the use of several beds. Many of the townspeople loaned bedding. Some forty men. women, and children, mainly pneumonia patients, were received and every care possible given them. It has been a fine illustration of the way the modern religious spirit of the community meets a great emergency.”


Second, Parker helped First Church to revamp its committee structure so as to create more compelling opportunities for church members to build a congregant community. For example, Parker formally incorporated the post of “women at large” into the Parish Committee governance structure of First Church in 1911.  Parker also advocated the community-building strategy of deploying many engaging special-interest groups, such Girls’ Club which organized several dancing and bridge parties, the Current Events Club that set up debates on such topics as High Cost of Living, and the Congregational Men’s Club that held suppers and sponsored lectures on topics like Dedham Public Aid.  And in March 1919 Parker finalized the reorganization of First Church governance by establishing a new committee system. The overarching Planning Committee composed of Parker, Parish Committee Chairs and Deacons was to oversee a function-specific superstructure of committees that included the Housekeeping, Entertainment, Nominating, Sunday School, Parish Record, Hospitality, Publicity, and Music committees.  Parker hoped that this reorganization would make First Church more responsive to the needs of both congregants and the greater community. 


Lastly, Parker sponsored First Church events calculated to excite congregants, recruit fellow Dedhamites, and revive the affiliation of lapsed church members.  Most prominently, during Parker’s tenure First Church celebrated its 275th anniversary with several theatrical, musical and religious observances. On a weekly basis, Parker initiated the holding of Sunday Vespers, a 4 PM musicale featuring the newly purchased First Church organ, choir, and professional singers.   Parker suggested that First Church hold yearly Harvest Suppers for members and their neighbors, invited all present and past First Church congregants to reunion at annual Members’ Sundays, honored area Grand Army of the Republic members, Spanish War veterans, and American Legionnaires at Memorial Day services, and planned First Church commemorations such as its celebration of the 50th anniversary of Civil War-era minister Benjamin Bailey’s tenure. And in the midst of U.S. engagement in World War I, Parker committed to holding four joint services with the long-estranged Allin Church congregation as a gesture of national unity.  

At the January 1919 Springfield Unitarian Laymen’s Convention, Parker helped to craft a declaration urging Unitarian churches to adopt “modern” policies that not only embodied his aforementioned strategies for growing First Church, but also prefigure our current UU Guiding Principles: “We want you to help us continue as a Unifying, Democratic, American, and truly Christian church. 1. Teach worth and dignity of human nature; 2. Instruct all children in liberal Christianity and the teachings of Unitarian seers and prophets 3. Use a simple form of declaration for church membership; 4. Cultivate Congregational singing; 5. Welcome all children to Unitarian Sunday Schools; 6. Support Young Peoples Religious Unions;  7. Replace pew rents with pledges; 8. Use parish houses for social and educational purposes; 9. Fight disease, premature death, vice, ignorance and lawlessness; 10.Raise funding for extension work at home and abroad; 11. Exert just efforts to improve modern society and unite with others to promote human welfare.”  In March 1921 Parker resigned as minister of First Church in order to assume the pulpit at Unitarian Memorial Church in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.  Parker went on to serve as minister in Fairhaven until his death at 61 years of age on May 19, 1939.



William Henry Parker Obit Uni Year Book 193940.pdf
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Records of the First Parish in Dedham Commencing AD 1900: Dedham Museum and Archive

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