Music has always played an important role in the history of Central Congregational Church in Newburyport. From its founding as North Church in 1768, to the creation of Central Church in 1909, to the present day, instrumental music and singing have enhanced worship, created social connections for participants, and provided a church home for countless musicians.

18th and early 19th century surviving records show that a string instrument was the first to support congregational singing. Variously called bass viols, church basses or other terms, these cello-like string instruments were made in many parts of New England and used frequently in Congregational churches. Our records show evidence of paying for a musician, buying new strings, and making repairs as needed. This instrument was typically played amid the assembled choir and helped to keep the congregation in time and in tune.

Records show that the brick church building on this site just previous to the current structure had an organ by Richard Morss. Richard Pike Morss (or Morse) was a Newburyport organ builder and son of a local Episcopal clergyman, the Rev. James Morss. The Seabrook, NH, Historical Society holds a Richard Morss organ, and Richard and his brother Edward rebuilt the famous Brattle organ in Portsmouth around 1830. Our church records show that in 1838 the Proprietors of North Church voted to purchase the organ, which had already been set up in the gallery in the rear of the church – clearly, they wanted a trial run before they would buy it!

The Morss organ was destroyed in the fire of 1861, so when the church was rebuilt with the current structure in 1861 the most famous organ building firm of the day was hired to create our present instrument. Brothers Elias and George Greenleaf Hook began building organs in the 1820s in Salem with their father, a cabinet maker; their Opus 1 instrument is at the Peabody Essex Museum. The Hook workshop was moved to Boston in the 1830s, and by the 1850s were leaders in their field. Our organ is listed in the Hook catalogue as #310, and the organ was located in the original rear gallery of the sanctuary. It’s worth noting that Old South in Newburyport also has a Hook organ of 1866, still in its original location. Other Hook organs were lost to fire, neglect, or replacement.

In the 1950s the sanctuary at Central Church was renovated, and the organ was moved from the rear gallery to the front, on the choir side. In June 1962 further work was done, and the organ was split, with half moving across the chancel. Fortunately, during these moves, all the original Hook pipework and chests were retained. A new console was provided, unfortunately and typically using 1920s and 30s old and leftover theater organ parts to complete the work.

This combination of 19th century E. & G.G. Hook pipes and chests, and 20th c. used components, served the church for a while, but by the turn of this century a renovation was needed. The church contracted with the Foley Baker Organ Company, whose recent work included the organs at Symphony Hall and the Christian Science Mother Church. Foley Baker removed the entire organ from both chambers, cleaned and rebuilt as needed, and opened the two grills facing the congregation. In addition, they emptied the console of all old parts and provided a modern system which includes recording capabilities, transposition and more.

This renovation has succeeded in bringing new life and sound to the 1862 Hook organ. Music at Central Church continues to be vibrant and an integral part of church life.