Rocky Hill Meeting House History
The Rocky Hill Meeting House was built in 1785 for the West Parish of Salisbury, annexed to Amesbury in 1886. Its location was determined by the needs of the parish community, and by its proximity to the Portsmouth Road, a direct route from the ferry landing on the Merrimack River to points north. It was built to replace the 1716 meeting house of the same name, located to the north of the present building. After nearly seventy years of use, the original Rocky Hill Meeting House was in need of repairs, and the parish decided to build a new structure. After significant squabbling, the town decided to build the present meeting house in a compromise location closer to the Point Shore neighborhood that had recently become quite prominent.
Reverend Samuel Webster was the minister of the West Parish until 1796, and after his long tenure (he had served the parish since 1741 and it was his first and only position), the meeting house went through a series of ministers with mixed success. Reverend Beattie (1797-1801) died after three years in the pulpit, and his successor, Reverend Balch (1802-1816), was a polarizing and controversial figure.
Reverend Balch was dismissed from the Rocky Hill pulpit in 1816 after a council was called by church members to address grievances against him. From his departure until 1835, the parish was without a settled minister. It was a time of great uncertainty for the parish. Mandatory parish taxes were abolished in 1833 and many of the members of the church chose to attend services at churches of other denominations or at other locations. The Point Shore area, which had always provided a significant portion of the congregation, built two new churches, one in 1827, and one in 1835. The remaining congregation could not agree on a new minister.
In 1834, Reverend Gunnison was hired at Rocky Hill, preached for several months, and then left, taking a significant part of the congregation with him. It was the end of Rocky Hill as the center of worship in the West Parish.
1835-1871: Benjamin Sawyer
Reverend Sawyer was invited to preach at Rocky Hill on December 17, 1835, and made a determined attempt to revitalize the flagging membership. He met with limited success, but was a hard-working and beloved member of the community, representing Salisbury in the legislature for several years, and sitting on the school committee. In the course of his long tenure at Rocky Hill, Reverend Sawyer presided over 1,400 weddings and 1,100 funerals. Throughout Newburyport and Salisbury, he was known as “Father Sawyer.” He was a cautious and conservative leader whose silence on the issue of slavery in an ardently abolitionist town drove many into more progressive congregations. Reverend Sawyer preached his last sermon in 1870 at age eighty-eight, and congregants noted that he did not require glasses. He died several months later.
1871-1941: Rocky Hill Passed By
After the death of Reverend Sawyer, regular services were discontinued at Rocky Hill. After the annexation of the West Parish to Amesbury in 1886, the meeting house was administered by the West Parish Society, a private group who opened the meeting house seasonally for services.
1942-Present: Becoming a Museum
In January 1942, the West Parish Society gave the Rocky Hill Meeting House to Historic New England, along with its silver communion service. This gift was the last act of the West Parish Society, and all of its funds and records were transferred as well. A Committee of Stewards was set up to oversee the management of the site and raise funds for its care. In 1965, the Rocky Hill parsonage was moved to make room for Route 495. The Meeting House was opened for tours in 1970, and continues to be open for town events and several services each year.