WEST BARNSTABLE, Mass. — West Parish of Barnstable, whose beginnings can be traced back to England in 1616, is widely recognized as the world’s oldest congregational church.

A series of events at its historic 1717 Meetinghouse on Route 149 in West Barnstable planned through the remainder of the year will commemorate the 400-year milestone of this congregation.

The celebration kicked off at 10 a.m. Sunday with a special service re-enacting worship in 1717, with parishioners in period costumes and era-appropriate props.

The congregation was founded in 1616 by the Rev. Henry Jacob and his followers after a break from the Church of England.

The concept of congregationalism is based on a covenant among believers, as opposed to worship based on a hierarchical model where authority flows from the top down, according to Reed Baer, the current and 36th pastor of West Parish of Barnstable.

Rev. John Lothrop succeeded Jacob in 1623, but he and 42 of his followers were sent to prison. Upon their release in 1634, they set sail for New England, setting up a community in Scituate before leaving for Barnstable in 1639, where the congregation has remained since.

“The history of the town of Barnstable is in lockstep with the history of the West Parish congregation,” said Margaret Housman, West Parish historian. “You can’t separate the two.”

The Lothrop Bible, which traveled with Lothrop from England in 1634, is part of the collection of the Sturgis Library in Barnstable Village, which was once Lothrop’s home and where he conducted some of his early religious meetings.

Fast forward to 2016, where the congregation and its meetinghouse, though centuries old and historic, have embraced modern times.

West Parish of Barnstable, with 280 members, is a member of the United Church of Christ, which Baer refers to as progressive, open and affirming.

“What I love about this church is that it has an incredibly rich history, yet is very forward-looking,” Baer said. “We are faithful in our own time.”

In addition, West Parish members are active in the community, assisting the homeless and children, among others. The congregation has embarked on a “400 hours for 400 years” campaign for community volunteer efforts, which Baer said he expects will be much more than 400 hours once the work time is tallied.


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