Be not deceived. That massive Greek Revival building at Elm & South Main Street in downtown Ipswich, the one that says DISTRICT COURT over the front door, isn’t a court building at all. You cannot go there to get a rowdy neighbor reined in, or fight a fine for flying your kite in a piping plover habitat.
Sorry. That building claiming to be DISTRICT COURT is actually something folks call “Old Town Hall,” because it used to be Town Hall but isn’t anymore. A Beverly-based theatrical impresario bought the building a few years back, hoping to make it into a performing arts showcase, but then came the Great Recession and the plan fell through. So the building is empty, and rotting, and the subject of a lawsuit by the Town of Ipswich against the Beverly showman for letting a historic building deteriorate.
All of this could have been avoided, of course, if the Unitarians had been more on the ball. They’re the ones who built the building, back in 1833, but they only held church services there for a decade. Sadly, they faltered, slinking out of town, never to return. If the Unitarian Church of Ipswich had grown instead of shrinking, we might be saving thousands of dollars in legal fees today.
Of course, as a former clergyman, I can tell you firsthand, growing a church is tricky business, and nowhere trickier than in New England. Church promotion is generally frowned on as unseemly, improper, even tacky. Please: A church is not a used car dealership. Of course, promotion can also be disliked because it’s expensive, and God forbid a church should spend any of the money that people are giving to it. Fundraising events can be fun — parishioners might donate the fixings for a fish fry, for instance, and invite the public to pay $10 a head — but such events rarely make enough money to justify the slaughter and sacrifice of all those fish, or the injurious consumption of all that deep-fried cholesterol.
Also, let’s face it, promotion can fail. A big advertising campaign, even featuring a “Come Grow With Us!” banner over Central Street, will not necessarily move skeptical New Englanders into your pews. And it’s probably too late for an Ipswich Unitarian Ice Bucket Challenge to take off. No, I think the Unitarians of 1833, in order to make it in Ipswich, would have needed the hard-hitting recruitment strategies of radical militants in the Middle East. Some of these ideas, in fact, might still work today.
For example: Unitarians are known for their commitment to tolerance. This is OK as far as it goes, but it’s a soft idea, not very sexy. What they needed to do was swarm the town with muskets loaded, circling rival churches and shouting, “Tolerate or die!” Come to think of it, a number of the Ipswich Unitarians may have migrated to New Hampshire and started a license-plate factory.
They could have also attacked specific forms of worship. Catholics, Episcopalians, and the Orthodox could be seized and placed in right-arm-only stocks, to keep them from genuflecting. Militant Unitarians could fasten mittens on Pentecostals to keep them from clapping their hands. All it would take to sap the spirit of the Baptists and Presbyterians would be to padlock their kitchens.
And how to convert those ubiquitous Congregationalists? I don’t know. Maybe the only viable tactic would be intermarriage. A heavy price to pay, but isn’t that what religious fanaticism is all about?
I realize that some folks won’t warm to the idea of an aggressive Unitarian reign of terror. But this may be the only way we get Old Town Hall back.
Doug Brendel piously observes the Town’s religious ways from his outer Linebrook home. And he saith unto thee, “Follow me at Outsidah.com.” Amen.