It was agreed by unanimous consent (considering the weight of the work, the paucity of the numbers, and great temptation that lay upon us) to neglect all ordinary occasions of our own to attend these meetings with all care and diligence and conscience (the Lord only preventing it by some special hand).
Wenham, October 12, 1644
WHEN John Fiske recorded this first vote of the Wenham church, he thought his small congregation temporarily faced unique problems and special obligations. He never anticipated how little these concerns would change over the next thirty-two years. The weight of the work never lightened, the numbers barely increased, and the temptations, even for these Puritan saints, seemed inescapable. Over the succeeding decades, first in Wenham and later in Chelmsford, the members spent countless hours in the meetinghouse—admonishing and forgiving, admitting and dismissing, quarreling and healing—as they sought to preserve and strengthen their common bond.
Wenham’s original settlers, probably never more than twenty families in the first decade, were quite ordinary men—God-fearing, hard-working, and reasonably ambitious yeomen. When Wenham failed to fulfill their expectations, they picked up their church and their possessions and helped found another town twenty miles further into the wilderness. Together these people created a part of the New England legacy, but individually they have remained faceless and obscure, nothing more than names on the genealogist’s chart. Even John Fiske has little claim upon our collective memory: a long ministry to a country congregation, a few poems, a short catechism. But in Fiske’s Notebook one begins to recapture individuals; anonymity disappears and personalities emerge. One feels the anguish of Phineas Fiske’s wife as she sat week after week listening to her neighbors discuss her marital difficulties. Or one can watch the recalcitrant George Norton, who settled in Wenham because of earlier troubles in Gloucester, stubbornly resist all the pressure that the church could mount, while conniving to undermine Fiske’s authority. Here is Sergeant Adams, the perpetual thorn in Fiske’s side, who never agrees with the congregation on anything. After another of his dissenting votes the exasperated Fiske simply recorded, “as usual.” Or one can share with the congregation Fiske’s details of Joshua Fletcher’s amorous escapades. Fiske’s Notebook takes one segment of their lives, their corporate life as a church, and transforms those names into people.
Most of Fiske’s small congregation had only recently moved from Salem into Wenham, and the work of clearing farms out of the wilderness had barely begun. Before Wenham and before Salem these men and women had known other towns and other churches in Massachusetts, and behind those lay the traumatic disruption of emigration. While still in England the Wenham townsmen had shared with all their countrymen the political and religious strife which had marked Charles’ reign. Unlike most Englishmen their search for relief, both physical and spiritual, had led them first to Puritanism and then to Massachusetts. This common experience unified them, particularly with respect to those outside the holy commonwealth. But the diversity of their English lives, drawn as they were from scattered areas with disparate methods of landholding and agriculture, tended to divide them. The Great Migration, which began with the Winthrop fleet in 1630 and carried perhaps fifteen thousand Englishmen to New England, stopped abruptly with the outbreak of the Civil War. But the wanderings of those first transplanted Englishmen continued for a generation. More fruitful land, more congenial neighbors, closer proximity to a favored minister drew men irresistibly. Men and women moved more frequently and more easily from one town to another than we have ever suspected with our mythic conceptions of New England roots and family homesteads. In this continuous “winnowing” they generously sampled men and land before they settled down.
Quite probably fresh and abundant land attracted families to Wenham. Most of the Wenham settlers had arrived in Salem too late to share in the distribution of choice land, and they found themselves on the periphery of the colony’s oldest town. Fiske, although trained in divinity at Cambridge, found his talents employed in Salem as physician, part-time schoolmaster, and occasional assistant to the Reverend Hugh Peter hardly the career he had envisioned when he left England in 1637. When depression hit Massachusetts in 1640, it added new impetus for resettlement, and for the first time since the original Wenham land grants of 1637 the new town began to take shape. Although those first grants had initially produced such a flurry of interest that Hugh Peter, Salem’s pastor, had preached a sermon in Wenham to prospective settlers, actual settlement lagged until early in the next decade. Not until 1643 had Wenham achieved sufficient size and permanence to justify election of a deputy to the General Court. Certainly in those half-dozen years an informal sifting of potential settlers took place. The prime agents of settlement—John Fiske, Joseph Batchelor, and the Dodge brothers—were known in Salem, and few men would have hazarded the narrow confines of a new town with men they disliked or with whom they disagreed on major issues. Wenham’s proximity to Salem, situated as it was only a few miles north on the road to Ipswich, enabled men to inspect for themselves. Wenham, like many secondary communities, tended to attract men whose initial expectations roughly coincided.
As the pace of settlement in Wenham quickened in the early 1640s, the community began erecting tangible symbols of its own permanence alongside the houses and barns of individuals. Town government with its selectmen, constable, and innumerable lesser offices replaced the informal procedures of the first grantees. Next came the rude plank meetinghouse, the seventeenth-century composite of town hall and church building, which the Wenham townsmen built on a twenty-acre plot donated by Fiske and his neighbor. Here in succeeding years, in town meeting and church meeting, every matter of consequence, civil or religious, would be aired. Despite freezing temperatures inside that chilled the hardiest soul in the winter months, twice on the sabbath and one Thursday a month the congregation gathered to listen and take notes from Fiske’s hour-long sermons. The graceful spires and long windows of New England’s Greek revival churches came much later; those first families endured hard benches in a roughhewn building hardly more than twenty-foot square. But a building did not make a church, and until that final step toward permanence was achieved, no Massachusetts town could consider itself complete. Without an ordained minister and properly gathered church serving the community’s religious needs, there existed a void that no amount of success in other areas could fill. But organizing a church required such patience and care that in many towns years passed before they met this need.
This delay produced a unique phenomenon in Massachusetts — regular meetings of an “informal church.” Often in the years between settlement and organization of a church inhabitants would meet together in private homes to study scriptures and pray, ordinarily under the guidance of the man they expected to elect as pastor. Since Congregationalists did not recognize permanent ordination, no man could preach or administer the sacraments unless ordained as elder by a particular congregation, and ordination required a formally organized church. Thus John Fiske, although he had informally assisted Hugh Peter in Salem, first became a minister in New England when ordained by the Wenham church in 1644. Until then he supported himself from the land and occasional medical advice. Between clerical positions a minister simply reverted to lay status. Yet Fiske and other ministers often settled in new towns well in advance of the formal gathering of a church; their education and their status as “minister designate” made them the natural leaders for the informal church meetings. It seems quite likely that shortly after Fiske settled in Wenham he began holding meetings in his own home or those of his neighbors. Although the inhabitants retained membership in their former churches, the distance made returning inconvenient in good weather and impossible in bad. The informal meetings gave them some exposure to God’s word that helped fill the void and partially compensated for the sense of separation they all felt. Also the frequent association of these meetings helped familiarize them with each other and proved invaluable when the time came to organize a church.
Gathering a church in Massachusetts was not a simple problem or a step to be undertaken lightly. Two different thrusts combined to retard the process. First, since the time of the Antinomian crisis the state had interposed its authority by requiring that the magistrates and the elders of neighboring churches sanction the gathering. This statute insured that unorthodox or unfit persons could not create a church. Second, the Congregational definition of church insured a deliberate and cautious proceeding. The term church, of course, referred not to the building but to the fellowship, wherever it met, and Puritans took great pains to clarify what this fellowship entailed. John Davenport’s brief description conveys the essence of the “New England Way.”
It is the duty of all Christians, having renounced all false wayes of Idolatrous, Anti-Christian, and superstitious worship, and of sin, and the world . . . to joyn willingly together in Christian communion and orderly covenant, and by free confession of the faith, and profession of their subjection to the Gospel of Christ, to unite themselves unto peculiar and visible congregations, wherein as members of one body, whereof Christ is the head, they are to worship God according to his word.1
Even in those communities where informal churches had met for years, an additional year or more often passed between the formal decision to organize and the final approval by the magistrates and elders.
Although local variations were common, tradition clearly prescribed the appropriate preparations for the serious work of organizing a church. It began with the selection of a small group of men, usually seven, noted for their piety, and their number often included the prospective minister for the new church. The task of finding satisfactory “pillars” could be arduous, as it was in Dedham where the men spent months scrutinizing each other’s fitness, or the decision might be reached easily. When the community was satisfied that the men chosen as the foundation were equal to the task, plans were made and invitations sent out.
They informed the magistrates and neighboring churches by letter of their “desires, if the Lord so please to favor, to join together in erecting a church . . . and in calling an officer to administer unto them the holy things of Christ,” and requested them to send representatives on the appointed day. Gathering a church was an extraordinary event in the ordinary, quiet life of a town, and the tension rose as the first visiting guests began arriving early in the morning. If all went smoothly, the assembly required almost an entire day. If trouble developed, everyone knew about it before noon because the critical juncture came in the morning when the visitors put the pillars to test. Each of the seven men recounted his spiritual condition and then faced questions designed to satisfy everyone present that he was worthy of such serious foundation work.
Wenham called “a public assembly to witness the formation of a church there” on July 7, 1644. Unfortunately the Lord did not “so please to favor” Wenham’s pillars. “The magistrates and elders invited to attend on the occasion think that the candidates are not sufficiently prepared, and they advise a postponement of the service, which accordingly [was] done.”2 Although this action left the door open for another attempt in the future, the frustration that came with failure must have been acute. Months of work seemed wasted when the would-be pillars were rebuffed and told to reexamine “the rise and ground of their hopes.” But disappointments and trials made better Christians and a more solid foundation for a church; at least that was how Thomas Shepard had consoled Richard Mather after a similar experience in Dorchester years before. Discouragement passed, the candidates looked once more to the grounds of their faith, and three months later, in October 1644, Wenham reconvened the assembly. This time the pillars successfully passed the morning’s hurdle and Wenham had the nucleus for a church.
After the morning examination, which had been held in private, and a brief respite for dinner, the entire community and all the visiting guests assembled in the meetinghouse for the formal gathering of the church. After opening with prayer, the church covenant was read aloud. One by one each of the seven pillars announced his assent to it and inscribed his name just below the covenant in the new church book. When they had concluded, the representatives of other churches extended to them the “right hand of fellowship” which signified their acceptance as a “Congregational-church, . . . a part of the Militant-visible church.” Although the original Wenham covenant has since disappeared, it probably closely conformed to the church covenant Salem adopted in 1636 which specifically affirmed nine obligations to the Lord and to each other. No mere formality, the church covenant was the rock upon which the fellowship was built. When men gave their assent and signed their names, they pledged themselves that there existed:
a real Agreement & consent, of a company of faithful persons to meet constantly together in one Congregation, for the publick worship of God & . . . also, for the keeping of them in the way of Gods commandments, & recovering of them in case of wandring, (which all Christs sheep are subject to in this life), . . . together with the benefit of their mutual edification.3
Each of the seven pillars, and every new member that joined with them in the years following, assumed a lifelong task of living up to that pledge. Together they had created a church.
Frequently the assembly officially ended with the prayers which followed the signing of the church covenant, and everyone adjourned to enjoy prodigious quantities of food and drink laid out in thanksgiving for God’s blessing. But in Wenham, as in many new churches rather than conclude with the gathering itself they prolonged their fast while proceeding to call and ordain the minister. In Wenham the call to John Fiske surprised no one; everyone had known for several years that when the church was gathered Fiske would become pastor. Either immediately before or after the ordination one of the visiting elders would preach the ordination sermon elaborating upon the scriptural warrant for the calling of church officers and warning all present of the mutual obligations each side had incurred. With “solemnitie, fasting and prayers” John Fiske became pastor of the First Church of Christ in Wenham on October 8, 1644, just hours after the church itself was created. Four days later, after preaching his first sermon in Wenham, he called a church meeting and began the notebook he kept for the next thirty-two years.
Congregationalism meant self-government, and despite the experience members had gained in other churches and the guidance from the writings of Puritan divines, a new congregation such as Wenham’s confronted the immediate task of establishing rules and practices for several major areas of church life. Wenham needed to admit additional members, it needed deacons, it needed to set procedures for discipline, but how? The easiest course would have been simply to adopt at the outset the practices of their former church in Salem, but Congregational autonomy imposed a heavier burden on church members. Every decision required full discussion, the patient answering of all objections, and scriptural grounds for the action, practices that Congregationalists felt kept new churches from accidentally perpetuating any errors made by their predecessors. But to prevent heterodoxy they were expected first to call upon other churches for advice; the same course was recommended if the members were themselves divided over a question of polity. The adoption of the Cambridge Platform in 1648 simplified these tasks for later churches, although even then Congregational autonomy placed the decision to accept these synodical recommendations squarely on the churches. The earliest entries in Fiske’s Notebook reflect Wenham’s attempt to resolve these questions of church organization and procedure.
The most pressing problem the Wenham church had to solve concerned the admission of new members. Clearly no one expected the original pillars to remain a closed society sufficient unto themselves. They constituted a foundation, a beginning, upon which the congregation would be built. The Salem church had already dismissed all of its members living in Wenham to the new church, yet no mechanism existed for incorporating them into the covenant. What determined who should be admitted? What procedures were to be followed? Should members of other churches be accepted pro forma? Puritan theology provided some answers, but its application was a matter each church handled independently.
New England Congregationalists shared with most other Christians the concept of two churches, the visible and the invisible, but in practice they exercised a sectarian exclusiveness which narrowed the gulf between the church militant and the church triumphant. To turn Davenport’s words around, the “Idolatrous, Anti-Christian and superstitious” had no place in Christ’s visible churches; “a little Leaven Leaveneth the whole lump.” Sin, ignorance, and heresy disqualified. “The matter of a visible church are Saints by calling.” Such men not only have “attained the knowledge of the principles of Religion & are free from gros and open scandals,” but have also demonstrated “Repentance from sin, & faith in Jesus Christ.”4 As they applied these last two qualifications, Congregationalists separated from most of Christendom. Church membership went only to those who satisfied both minister and congregation that they were, in charitable judgment, “visible saints” or part of God’s elect. But the Puritans never succumbed, as the Donatists had, to the heresy that their visible churches perfectly conformed to the invisible. They saw men’s imperfections too clearly not to know that hypocrites and dissemblers would slip in no matter how carefully they guarded the doors. The final separation of the wheat from the chaff awaited the blotting of names at Judgment.
As the Wenham church established procedures for admission into the fellowship, they varied very little from the practices of other Congregational churches. Every person desiring membership first broached his wish to the minister who, within a few days, arranged a preliminary screening. The candidate met in private with the elder and two laymen designated by the congregation and at that conference discussed his fitness for church membership; his knowledge of the faith, his outward conversation, and his personal religious experience. If the committee found him wanting in any way, it postponed or denied outright his application. If after this conference it was convinced that the candidate could, in charity, be considered a visible saint, the minister proposed or “propounded” him to the entire congregation as a prospective member at the next church meeting. Usually a trial period of at least two weeks followed in which anyone might raise objections based on the personal or public life of the candidate. Any member who had a grievance had an obligation to resolve it prior to admission. But Wenham, like most other churches, carefully circumscribed the manner of proceeding to prevent unnecessary embarrassment or humiliation to the candidate. When an offense involved only one or two persons and was not publicly known, the church considered it a “private offense” and required the individuals concerned to deal with it privately. When an offense was public knowledge or when a private offense remained unreconciled, the minister brought the issue before the members for discussion and resolution. If in the judgment of the congregation the candidate had erred, admission was postponed until he had confessed and demonstrated repentance for his sin. Often they reached a satisfactory resolution in a single church meeting, but some cases required months. Even at this stage the church attempted to limit public knowledge of the offense by excluding all non-members from the meetings. Only in notorious scandals did the church expect the candidate to confess his sin before all the inhabitants. When the candidate had satisfactorily passed this trial of his outward conversation, he still faced the most difficult test.
The Wenham church expected every person seeking membership to appear personally before the entire congregation and narrate his conversion experience. This relation of a regenerative experience became the hallmark of the New England Way, despite frequent attacks from without and within the colony. Fiske’s Notebook contains a number of these relations written down in shorthand given before the church or in the days immediately following. Their substance is remarkably similar, almost a stylized formula of sin and election. Men and women alike recounted how they had sinned, their first discovery of God’s punishment for sin, their attempts at reform and obedience based simply on fear, their inevitable relapse into sin, and finally how they had with God’s grace found Christ as their saviour. Church members had no compunctions about asking questions either during or after the narrative, forcing the candidate to be more specific or give fuller scriptural grounds. Since women were considered weaker vessels and thus more likely to become upset at this public relation, Wenham allowed Fiske to read their narrative for them when it appeared necessary. There is no recorded episode in Wenham akin to Ola Winslow’s account of Brother Hinsdell’s wife in Dedham who “being fearfull & not able to speake in publike” fainted at the sound of her own voice.5 By the end of the 1650s it became the common practice for a woman to stand silently while Fiske read her relation to the congregation. By the late 1660s Fiske occasionally extended the same privilege to men.
Following his relation of experiential religion the candidate was expected to make a profession of faith or summary of the accepted principles of religion. Apparently this usually meant he restated the Westminster shorter catechism or Fiske’s own catechism, The Watering of the Olive Plant.6 Once again, if they wished, either minister or members could question freely on specific tenets of the faith, although at least in Wenham the church permitted some latitude of interpretation on less important matters. When the candidate completed these two tests of faith and conversion, the congregation voted on his fitness for membership. Normally this consisted only of a call for negative votes, and those objecting were expected to give some grounds for their dissatisfaction with the candidate. Rejection of a person at this point was almost unknown; in all the early church records of Massachusetts only a few such cases are recorded, and there is not a single instance of it in Wenham or Chelmsford. As the final step in admission the minister read the church covenant to the candidate and required his assent. With that acceptance of the obligations of membership he was extended the right hand of fellowship.
With passage through these rites came all the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. As he moved up from the passive role of non-member, an individual entailed obligations to the fellowship that stole countless hours from his time in the fields over the succeeding years. If he proved remiss in these duties, the congregation was always ready with rebuke. Membership meant attending not only all church services but all church meetings as well, listening patiently to cases of discipline, to examinations of prospective members, and to discussions of church polity and finances. For male communicants it meant voting in church affairs and occasional service on special committees.
But with the responsibilities went some tangible privileges, as well as the incalculable spiritual and psychological comfort of membership in “the company of faithfull persons.” For the first time he could receive communion in a Congregational church and if previously unbaptized, he could now receive that ordinance.
To Congregationalists membership in the covenant of a visible church, like membership in Abraham’s covenant (Gen. 17), incorporated child as well as parent. The children of visible saints were heirs to the covenant and “saints in waiting.” If a child had not yet reached the age of discretion, ordinarily sixteen, he became a member with his parent and eligible for baptism. As a child of the church, he was expected to learn the principles of religion at home and at catechism, subject himself to church discipline and answer for his offenses, and finally when mature make his own profession of conversion and take his place as a communicant.
By joining together infant baptism and regenerate membership, Congregationalism created a serious dilemma for itself. No one anticipated what the churches would do with those children who went through all the preparation and then never experienced conversion. Did they continue as members, but without the right to communion or voting? Or did their membership cease at some indefinite point for a sin of omission that Puritan theology claimed lay beyond their power to avoid? What became of the children of baptized but unregenerate parents? Initially most churches, Wenham included, avoided the issue, but in individual churches piecemeal adaptations slowly altered Congregational polity. With the encouragement of the General Court, Wenham and other churches first decided that children of the church, even as adults, remained subject to church discipline and members of the church. But the fecundity of New Englanders made one aspect of exclusion continuously more pressing: What do we do with the children’s children? The number of unbaptized children increased daily, and far too many of them were the grandchildren of communicants. Although for most of the seventeenth century Puritans looked without embarrassment upon the unbaptized children of non-members, the abrupt loss of Christian nurture in the families of visible saints caused considerable alarm.
Ultimately, the adoption of the half-way covenant solved Congregationalism’s impasse by permitting baptized but not visibly regenerate parents, simply by “owning” or renewing their baptismal covenant, to have their children baptized. As “half-way members” these parents could neither vote nor receive communion, but they could pass membership on to the succeeding generation. In the implementation of this innovation Fiske’s congregation led the way. Although impetus for this solution began in the 1640s, this policy was not officially adopted by Congregationalists until 1662 and not fully implemented until after 1675. Yet in 1657 Fiske’s church debated the proposal, consulted with other churches, and then went ahead on its own. Here the Notebook provides valuable details, including the only extant example of what “owning the covenant” entailed. Since the children of the church were heirs of the covenant and hopefully were preparing for full membership, they received careful attention from Fiske. Well into their teens they were expected to attend catechizing at his home, and both they and their parents risked censure if they failed to come. At one point Fiske interviewed all the older children of the church individually to assess their spiritual condition and to prod them toward full membership. Prior to conversion they occupied a peculiar status in the church; they were members, but limited members.
In effect, the Puritan restrictions on church membership created within every town three distinct groups, not unlike three concentric circles, distinguished not by economic status but by relationship to the church. At the core were the communicants with all the privileges and responsibilities of membership. The second ring included the children of the church, both minors and adults, who were in the covenant, subject to discipline, but excluded from communion. The outer ring consisted of inhabitants without any personal or birthright connection with the church. Colonial laws required their attendance at church, they contributed to the minister’s rate, they participated in town affairs, but their role in the church was almost entirely passive. Only when the grievous scandal of a member required public confession could they sit in judgment. They left the meetinghouse when the communion table was set; they were excluded from church meetings; they were barred from hearing disciplinary cases except as witnesses. Until they experienced God’s saving grace, neither they nor their children could receive either sacrament. Again and again as Fiske carefully distinguishes between public and private, between congregation and church, he points up the exclusive quality of Congregational church life.
Transiency and geographical mobility added immeasurable confusion to these three rather clear categories and created an almost insuperable problem for the Congregational churches. Church membership meant membership in a particular congregation not in all Congregational churches; thus when a man moved, he retained membership in his former church. As has been suggested earlier, the first generations of New Englanders moved with remarkable ease. In the middle of his first year in Massachusetts Thomas Dudley wrote the Countess of Lincoln bemoaning the dispersal of the settlers,7 yet he had already lived in several towns himself. Men not only moved out, they kept moving on. Church members, children of the covenant, nonmembers; wives, children, servants; in every town persons with varying claims upon the church came and went. No matter how brief their stay the church had to fit them into the proper category. According to the Cambridge Platform when a church member relocated, he had an obligation to transfer his membership to the new church,8 but for a variety of reasons men procrastinated or simply refused. Fiske’s congregation, both in Wenham and Chelmsford, confronted the problem of mobility in four specific areas: temporary visitors; members of other churches settled amongst them; procedures for admitting members from other churches; and, control over their own members who wished to leave. As they debated and resolved the questions raised by each of these problems, two guiding principles emerged. First, they considered themselves entrusted by Christ with the church and obliged to insure its purity. Secondly, they assumed that unfit persons would surely try to gain admission to the church. Thus they seemed far more concerned with preserving their sectarian exclusiveness than with creating an evangelical outreach.
Wenham’s location on one of the major roads north from Salem and Boston meant travelers frequently found it necessary to stop over there, particularly come sundown Saturday which marked the beginning of the Sabbath and the end of all unnecessary travel. Usually this created no problem; the stranger attended church, observed the proper solemnity, and departed early Monday morning. But on the half-dozen Sabbaths in the year when the members received the Lord’s Supper, the church faced the question whether it should admit the visitor to communion if he claimed membership in another church. When the problem arose in Wenham, the members discussed their alternatives and sought advice from the Salem elders. As finally resolved, they excluded visitors from communion unless at least one Wenham member could attest to the traveler’s good standing in another church. Even if the visitor carried a letter from his pastor attesting to his membership, it would not suffice, since it might be forged. Better to exclude the worthy than risk admitting the unfit.
Since the traveler quickly passed on his way, he posed only a temporary problem for the church. Of longer range concern were the families who settled in Wenham or Chelmsford and retained their membership in other churches. Unless they sought transfer themselves or were pressured to do so by their former churches, no way existed to force them to seek membership in Fiske’s congregation. Although the Cambridge Platform recommended it, Congregational autonomy precluded any formal mechanism which might insure compliance. But unless he was willing to forgo the sacraments, failure to transfer did not mean the visible saint escaped the watch and care of the church. Most Congregational ministers, Fiske included, would not admit him to the Lord’s Supper or baptize his children until he presented a letter of recommendation from his former church. These recommendations were designed to insure that the person was in full communion, was not under censure or admonition, and that his original church knew where he had settled. Ordinarily such letters requested the new church to act as surrogate by admitting the person to the sacraments and exercising discipline over him. Occasionally even letters of recommendation proved to be inadequate and several new Wenham families found themselves tangled in the web of conflicting polities. The Newbury church had adopted a basically Presbyterian internal structure which constantly irritated Fiske’s congregation in the 1640s. Newbury’s elders, who controlled alone many of the church affairs which orthodox Congregationalists zealously guarded for the congregation, refused to consult their congregation in matters of dismissal or recommendation and prepared the letters in their own name. Wenham balked at receiving Newbury families without some indication of the Newbury congregation’s assent lest they receive persons who had given offense. Unwilling to face the issue alone, Wenham deferred decisions in these cases until they received advice from the Salem church.
Receiving members by recommendation frequently worked to the disadvantage of Fiske’s congregation. As a member of one church attached to another, the person recommended became a permanent visitor and Wenham’s control over him was limited. Wenham could call him to account for his failings, but if he proved recalcitrant its only recourse was to cut off relations with him and write back to his church describing the offense. Since distance and delay frequently muddied the issues, discipline often proved less than adequate. These persons could also escape many of the responsibilities of church membership if they chose. Apparently in both Wenham and Chelmsford Fiske allowed them either to come to church meetings or stay away. The only thing he demanded was reasonable consistency. At one point the congregation censured a Concord church member living in Chelmsford for coming and going when he pleased. In Wenham which was smaller and more homogeneous this problem rarely arose; everyone shared the burdens. But Chelmsford was both larger and more varied in the sources of its settlers, and Fiske consistently faced greater difficulty controlling his congregation.
The requirements for admission imposed by most churches at least partially explains the reluctance of many persons to transfer their membership. The term “transfer” suggests a simple procedure which belies what was in fact expected. Fiske felt that everyone joining in the church covenant ought to demonstrate his regeneration and knowledge of the faith, regardless of his prior church affiliation. The “second relation” of conversion became the crux of the issue. Wenham adopted the practice after “some agitation,” and in Chelmsford it proved a continuing source of controversy. In effect, a visible saint from another church faced the same trials as any other prospective new member. He informed the minister of his desire, submitted a letter of dismission from his former church which attested to his membership and good standing and granted his release, stood propounded for two weeks, and finally appeared before the church members to recount his conversion. When some members questioned whether this practice showed a lack of faith in other churches, Fiske responded that since each church was accountable to Christ each church had to act for itself; it could not trust to others, nor should it risk the repetition of a previous error. Thus the regenerative experiences recorded in the early pages of Fiske’s Notebook were taken almost exclusively from persons who had been communicants in the Salem church.
The practice proved more troublesome when Fiske’s congregation moved from Wenham to Chelmsford and joined with groups of settlers from Woburn and Concord. Although the Chelmsford church decided that all persons subsequently admitted must demonstrate faith and repentance, those who initially joined this expanded church could forgo second relations unless they volunteered them. However when the church started to ordain as deacon a Concord man who had not given a second relation, Fiske developed qualms of conscience lest they ordain someone without evidence of regeneration. Although the church elected another deacon when the first refused to make a second relation, the issue deeply divided the church and plagued Fiske until his death. Quite obviously it was simpler to retain membership in one church and live under another through letters of recommendation than to transfer, particularly if the possibility existed that you might move on again.
The churches had to contend not only with people moving in but with people who wanted to move away. Here their effective control was extremely limited and dependent almost entirely upon the cooperation of the individuals concerned. If a man wanted to move, he could, regardless of a church’s feelings on the matter. But some men sensed the covenant obligation so strongly that they brought the matter before the congregation and requested permission to settle elsewhere. The grounds varied: one man thought Wenham too impoverished; four others disagreed with Chelmsford polity; and one, too infirm to farm, hoped to settle in trade in Boston. Not once did Fiske’s congregation grant such a request until it became apparent that the individual would move anyway. Every family lost meant higher rates and more work for those who remained. The Wenham church dramatically reversed the ordinary pattern of individual removal in 1655 when a majority of the congregation voted to relocate in Chelmsford leaving behind half a dozen families who refused to move. These families, many of whom had helped to gather the Wenham church, overnight became members of the Chelmsford church miles away and remained without a church of their own until Rev. Antipas Newman settled in Wenham early in the next decade.
Whether economic realities or more complex personal motivations precipitated the exodus from Wenham can never be determined from this distance. Probably each contributed in some measure to the decision. Certainly Wenham had never realized its original expectations. The population was barely large enough to meet its financial obligations, and a diphtheria epidemic in the early 1650s had offset even the small signs of growth. Nor had the land yielded more than a bare subsistence as the testimony of men asking to leave Wenham makes apparent. The agricultural market collapsed with depression of 1639 and had never fully recovered, the soil proved less fruitful than originally anticipated, and without new families there were no profits from land sales. Several of Wenham’s original families had already left in search of a better future elsewhere and others threatened to follow. One member of Fiske’s congregation voiced the fears of all when he sought permission to leave. “His reason was his questioning the condition of this place, being so little and so stricken, which was a great disheartening to him whether it would be for a continuance.” The congregation denied the request but not its basis. “That was everyone’s case and the same liberty might be desired from everyone.” Perhaps Wenham’s plight differed little from that of a dozen other towns along that arc from North to South shore, but that was small consolation to struggling Wenham farmers. When the chance arose to join with men from Concord and Woburn in settling Chelmsford, it seemed to the majority a heaven-sent opportunity.
Chelmsford offered prospective settlers from Wenham several major inducements. First, its location near the confluence of the Merrimac and Concord rivers made it possible for settlers to engage in the profitable fur trade with the northern Indians as a supplement to their income from farming. Secondly, despite its isolated location, it promised an initial population almost twice as large as Wenham’s which meant lower rates and probably greater growth. Thirty-two residents of Concord and Woburn petitioned the General Court for permission to settle the area in 1652, shortly after the expedition of Simon Willard of Concord and Captain Edward Johnson of Woburn up the Merrimac to Lake Winnipesaukee revealed the region’s potential. The first families arrived in Chelmsford the following year, and the town was incorporated in 1655. Wenham entered this picture late in the summer of 1654 when agents of Chelmsford approached Fiske’s congregation with an invitation to join them in the new plantation. If Wenham accepted, Chelmsford’s inhabitants would benefit immediately—in one move they would acquire a church, a pastor, and additional families.9
Wenham authorized Fiske to inspect the site and several members made the journey with him. After all had “satisfied themselves about their accommodations,” Chelmsford entered into tentative negotiations with Fiske about his salary and house. By the end of October eight men including Fiske had committed themselves to Chelmsford and began selling their property. But in February the arrangements appeared to collapse, men scrambled to redeem their property, and for the next four months “things hung uncertain and uncleared.” Fiske and six other families moved to Chelmsford only after a council consisting of the Governor, Captain Johnson, and four ministers resolved the problems. There, on November 11, 1655, the Wenham members accepted seven men from Concord, Woburn, and Cambridge into the church. Since a majority of the Wenham communicants moved, they took the church with them, and thus the present Chelmsford church dates back to 1644.
The economic promise of Chelmsford proved partially deceptive. Hardly had the Wenham men put down roots when the General Court challenged their role in the Indian trade. In return for Simon Willard’s service to the colony and the sum of £25 annually the Court granted Willard and three partners a monopoly for the Chelmsford Indian trade in 1657. Two years later Willard tightened his control over the local fur trade by acquiring similar monopolies in Groton and Lancaster. Although denied by the General Court in their formal appeals for relief from this monopoly, the settlers successfully evaded its restrictions. For twenty years, until King Philip’s War ravaged the frontier, Chelmsford men derived additional cash income by trading food, rum, and utensils to the Indians for peltry.
On the surface Fiske’s role in the move from Wenham to Chelmsford appears innocently passive, until one discovers his name on the 1652 Woburn-Concord petition to settle Chelmsford. Apparently he was already disillusioned with Wenham’s future and actively seeking a new place. If the Wenham members had any knowledge of his part in this, they never revealed it publicly, and there is not the slightest hint of it in the Notebook where the entire issue appears de novo in 1654. Chelmsford’s invitation to the Wenham church was not simply fortuitous but had been carefully planned by Fiske months in advance and his trip to Chelmsford to inspect “the accommodations” was only a pretense. By the summer of 1654 Fiske had probably shared his plans with several men in the church. How else can one explain the quick decision to move? The first letter from Chelmsford arrived September 4 and five weeks later a majority accepted the proposal. One other curious circumstance raises questions about the peace and harmony which seemed to prevail in Wenham. Although five men named Fiske, all related, were communicants in the Wenham church, only the Reverend John Fiske resettled in Chelmsford. Not one relative chose to follow his kinsman and pastor. In Wenham the Fiske family ruled; in Chelmsford John Fiske ruled, although not without opposition.
If Wenham began with a measure of homogeneity which was finally dissipated, Chelmsford started with diversity. Altogether it drew inhabitants from half a dozen towns, and divergent opinions appeared almost at the outset. Within months Fiske had thirty-two communicants in his church, far more than in Wenham, but not all of them treated him with the accustomed deference. Fiske spent the final two decades of his ministry periodically combatting factionalism and continually reasserting his leadership. Church politics require an accomplished politician, and John Fiske was a master of the art. But, the lack of consensus jeopardized one of the most crucial areas of congregational life—church discipline. To identify and cope with the varied manifestations of “covenant breaking” required substantive agreement on principles, minimal personality conflicts, and a willingness on the part of the congregation to transcend “party.” The Notebook fulfilled a dual function in matters of discipline; it served at once as a record and guide to future generations and as an instrument of control. When men dispute what they had said weeks or even months before and church decisions hang in the balance, Fiske’s record becomes “powerful medicine.” The Notebook as collective memory preserved, justified, abetted discipline; factors surely never very far from Fiske’s mind as he made his entries.
If Fiske’s Notebook is an accurate index, the exercise of church discipline absorbed more of the church’s time than all other ecclesiastical activities combined. Perhaps the Cambridge Platform best summarizes why the members devoted so many hours in “watch and care.”
The Censures of the church, are appointed by Christ, for the preventing, removing, & healing of offences in the Church: for the reclayming & gayning of offending brethren: for the deterring others from the like offences: for purging out the leaven which may infest the whole lump: for vindicating the honour of Christ, & of his church, & the holy profession of the gospel: & for preventing the wrath of God, that may justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seales therof, to be prophaned by notorious & obstinate offenders.10
The Puritans’ concern with church discipline dated back to the reign of Elizabeth when the Anglican Church seemed particularly negligent of its members’ conduct. In New England, when the opportunity came to create truly Reformed churches, Congregationalists made the careful exercise of discipline one of the key elements of the covenant.
From the beginning Massachusetts separated church and state, and although the distinction occasionally became blurred in some areas, in matters of discipline the lines were clear. The church’s power was spiritual, the state’s temporal. The churches could not fine, whip, or jail; the limit of their punishment was excommunication. Unlike most other contemporary societies, in Massachusetts excommunication carried no civil disabilities because the churches had already excluded the majority from the sacraments. The churches simply took no cognizance of the failings of these non-members; they concerned themselves only with those in covenant. In one way this made church members liable to double jeopardy—both church and state could punish in their separate ways for the same offense. For example, Deacon Edward Kemp risked both censure and a fine when brought before the Wenham church and the Salem court on suspicion of drunkenness; both cleared him when it became apparent that the bad bread, not the good beer he drank with it, had caused him to vomit in Mr. Brown’s house and yard. However, except for a rare exception like Kemp, the offenses which arose in Fiske’s congregation concerned only the church and not the civil authorities.
In folklore, Puritan justice was both swift and sure, with little regard for the legal niceties now current. Perhaps we have seen too many reconstructed stocks or read too much Hawthorne, because Fiske’s Notebook reveals a quite different picture. In early 1645 the members of the Wenham church postponed discussion of their first case of discipline “about certain scandals divulged upon a brother” until they had established rules for “orderly proceeding” which guaranteed the rights of the accused. He had the right to a speedy hearing and a written copy of all charges against him. He also enjoyed protection against self-incrimination. The church ruled that no one had to answer questions designed “to entrap him . . . for it is against the law of nature for a man to be forced to accuse himself.” Nor would the church hear charges against a member unless two witnesses could testify to the offense. In several cases where guilt seems apparent the congregation cleared the accused because of the lack of witnesses. At other times the members proceeded with remarkable restraint and charged only those offenses which they could prove when others seemed obvious. Joshua Fletcher, for example, was accused of courting a young woman without permission and in a most disorderly manner. He had developed the unseemly habit of calling upon his love in the middle of the night, entering through her window, and staying until dawn. He had compounded the sin by coming to her room on the Sabbath and on another occasion by bringing a friend. The church’s charges against him: breaking the 4th and 5th commandments. Despite the obvious suspicions—“at such season of the year when frost and snow was on the ground and thus rationally conceived it can hardly be how it should be tolerable to have sat and abode with her without fire or other help of warmth, in a modest way”—no one mentioned fornication. Only the silent witness of pregnancy could convict Joshua and Ann of that. But additional charges were unnecessary; Chelmsford excommunicated the unrepenitant suitor. Finally, of course, every accused person was judged by his peers, and they alone could vote to censure. The presumption of innocence probably worked as satisfactorily then as now, and Fiske’s cryptic comment, “where there is so much smoke there is some fire,” reflects man’s natural skepticism.
Fiske’s congregation established as careful and as elaborate a progression for disciplinary cases as they had for admissions. If possible, private offense should remain private since the function of discipline was repentance from sin not humiliation. When any member discovered that another had erred, church rules required him to meet privately with the offender, prove the fault, and seek evidence of penitence. If that failed, he returned with several brethren including the pastor and together they labored with the offending brother. When private mediations resolved the offense, the matter ended there, and any person who publicly divulged the offense was liable to censure for breaking the rules. Several times Fiske interrupted and rebuked witnesses when they referred to cases which had been settled privately. But “in case of not hearing” these private counsels, Fiske would “proceed to tell the church” of the suspected offense, set the time for another church meeting to discuss it, and warn the accused to be ready to answer.
Fiske’s record of these church trials provides an extraordinary insight into Congregational discipline. In number and detail of cases, the Notebook is an unparalleled source. Apparently once the case came before the church no clearly established procedure guided the sequence of events. Fiske served both as moderator and inquisitor, and directed the unfolding trial however it seemed most expedient. Sometimes the witnesses spoke first, sometimes the accused. After that the give and take of question and answer began. If it developed that the charges lacked substance or were easily answered, as in Deacon Kemp’s case, the member was cleared and the church passed on to other business. However, once convinced of the legitimacy of the accusation, members would not yield until the brother had repented. Few cases required more than one or two church meetings, but some dragged on for months without resolution if the accused tenaciously denied his guilt. Fiske devotes almost an eighth of the entire Notebook to the case of George Norton. As charge after charge piled up against Norton, the church became mired in the details of his varied offenses. If in the end the offender repented, as Norton did, the time invested seemed justified. More troublesome were those like Joshua Fletcher who refused to answer, and when threatened with excommunication replied, “Let the Lord’s will be done,” and walked out. What the church sought from the guilty party was confession of the sin, thanks to the church for its help, and humble repentance. Whenever the offender made such a gesture, Fiske put the question to the members whether they were satisfied. The congregation rejected Norton’s partial confessions as inadequate half a dozen times.
The pressure which the members could exert on erring brethren seemed limitless, and it required a strong personality to resist their insistent demands for repentance. Twelve months after his encounter with the Wenham church the indomitable George Norton was a broken man. When a small town closed its ranks, there was no escape but flight. The church sent small groups of close friends to call on you; Fiske dropped in unexpectedly with friendly advice and gentle warnings. Everywhere you turned someone reminded you. Phineas Fiske’s wife bore the full brunt of these tactics.
Concluded touching her that she should appear convinced of the evil of her accusations against her husband . . . and that the whole church severally as opportunity serve to convince her in the particulars. And as this was conceived as a way to bring her to see her evil that everyone take meet season to tell her of it plainly. So secondly to pray for her, and thirdly to walk exemplarily before her.
This charge to the members may have been primarily rhetorical and rarely fulfilled in practice but seven months later a repentant Mrs. Fiske bowed under and confessed her evil ways. When the members accepted a confession and evidence of repentance, the offender was restored to his place in the church. It had the positive benefit of wiping away the sin.
On those infrequent occasions when the church confronted an unrepentant sinner, it could resort either to admonition or excommunication. The first censure amounted to a public rebuke and warning. The members formally voted for it and the minister read it aloud, usually accompanied by an appropriate passage from scripture. Admonition meant the church temporarily excluded the offender from communion and suspended his membership. Just one step short of excommunication, its purpose was to force the offender to reconsider his position. Ordinarily the church excommunicated only after unsuccessful admonition, although the magnitude of a sin or the obvious unrepentance of the offender might bring immediate excommunication. When the church finally excommunicated, the offender became “as a publican & a heathen.” The brethren were enjoined “from all member-like communion in spirituall things, & also from all familiar communion with him in civil things.” They should also “forbear to eat & drink with him that he may be ashamd.” However since heathen could attend church, “wee acknowledg therfore the like liberty of hearing the word may be permitted to persons excommunicate.” Despite these sanctions, “wee are not to account him as an enemy but to admonish him as a brother,” and rejoice when he is restored.11
Whether the cycle of sin and repentance so integral to church discipline was psychologically healthy is still debated, but the Puritans had incorporated into their system a means for the expatiation of guilt. Because they had a more realistic conception of man’s capacity for evil than the modern world’s benign vision of humanity, they were able to cope better with man’s weakness. Although they abhorred “prophane or scandalous livers,” they had more room for forgiveness with their view of sin as man’s natural legacy. They could truly say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
The Wenham and Chelmsford congregation dealt with an extraordinary range of disciplinary cases, but all of them involved the same general principle—breaking the covenant. As a social institution the church reached into every aspect of the members’ lives. When they signed the church covenant, members pledged themselves “for the keeping . . . in the way of Gods commandments,” and individually and corporately, they made every effort possible to insure compliance. They were their brother’s keepers because they knew that when they tolerated sin they risked God’s wrath. Neighbors watched each other, not only for the sinner’s sake, but for their own.
Basically the offenses against the covenant fall into two categories—sins of omission and sins of commission. The former obviously refers to the failure to do what was required. The Decalogue says “do” as well as “don’t.” The most common sin of omission was violation of the fourth commandment or the spirit of it. When Brother Barge and his younger son, working on his farm at Stony Brook, forgot the sabbath, they sinned twice, once for missing church and once for laboring on the sabbath. The church excluded Barge from the Lord’s Supper until he acknowledged with “due sorrow” his “strange and very blameable forgetfulness.” On two other occasions men were censured for not receiving communion with the rest of the members. “Keep holy the sabbath” meant members fulfilled all their obligations: to attend church, to receive the sacraments, to abstain from work. But abstaining from work the other six days also meant trouble. Chelmsford took John Martin to task for “not employing himself in any lawful outward employment.” In fact, “in the space of a year’s time” he had not done enough work “as might amount to a penny a day.” The church censured him for “willful idleness” and directed the selectmen to put him to work. Other “omissions” brought to the members attention included: failure to pray in family; failure to attend catechism; failure to maintain family discipline; failure to teach a child to read; and failure to request permission to resettle.
The sins of commission were more frequent and often more serious. Of these perhaps the common sins of the tongue—lying, gossiping, swearing, and reviling—caused the most trouble and the most humor. The involved case of George Norton began with a simple but false boast that he could clear a woman accused of theft. By the end, his initial lie paled before the notoriety and variety of his other sins. The sons of the Widow Shipley had a penchant for telling tall tales to attract attention or cover their own mistakes which brought them before the church on several occasions. Sometimes the charge of lying became so absurd that the church refused to listen. It immediately dismissed the accusation against one member who had said “that his hair stood right up on end when to the observation of witnesses it did not.” Most often it was a sharp tongue or a loose one that landed women before the church—Sister Fletcher for calling her children “rogue, rascal, hellhound”; Sister Fiske for telling everyone about her husband’s want of love; Sister Thompson for passing along some gossip about another sister. Reviling the church or its members could put one in serious trouble with everybody. Even John Fiske was accused of maligning church members by falsely saying they sinned in seeking another minister. That case was never heard.
Almost as common were the offenses against church order and procedure, particularly in cases of discipline. Again and again men risked censure by speaking out of turn—they charged sins publicly before dealing privately; they revealed sins publicly that had been settled privately; they accused without witnesses. In a number of other cases men and women faced church discipline for offenses against order such as giving false testimony, attempting to receive communion when barred by the church, and refusing to contribute to the weekly offering.
Church discipline meant that the congregation assumed an interest in family affairs quite automatically. Christian nurture required a measure of domestic tranquility, careful discipline, and good example. When the church saw indications that these had broken down, it intervened. Phineas Fiske and his wife successively found themselves answering charges of lack of love and charity towards each other. As the case unfolded what had perhaps circulated as gossip became confirmed public knowledge, testified to and certified by the church. The members admonished the Fletchers because the former deacon and his wife had allowed their children to run wild and then had attempted to hide their children’s sins by maligning the witnesses against them. Sins of the flesh were remarkably few in Chelmsford or Wenham. Except for Joshua Fletcher’s indiscretions and Deacon Kemp’s “sickness,” the congregation did not hear a single case involving sexual offense or drunkenness. If any of the flock committed the really heinous sins—adultery, blasphemy, bestiality—they never were brought to trial. Thus for all their expectations of depravity, the members dealt exclusively with quite ordinary and simple human failings.
Although the church directed discipline primarily at erring individuals, discipline could also serve the majority as a weapon to suppress or punish dissent. Traditional congregational autonomy provided a dissident minority with little protection against this form of oppression. When factionalism dominated church affairs, a minister aligned with a majority of the congregation could resist almost all opposition and force the minority to submit. Usually the only hope for reconciliation in these circumstances lay in the calling of an ad hoc council of ministers and laymen from neighboring churches. Twice nearby churches called on Chelmsford for assistance in ironing out their problems, and Fiske’s record of a council at Billerica suggests the difficulties that such negotiations encountered. Chelmsford itself never reached an impasse which required outside help, despite increasing factionalism in Fiske’s last decade. A substantial minority of the congregation thought some major changes were in order. Robert Proctor might point to a double standard of justice and other men might call for another minister, but Fiske kept control and preserved order. Unless a pastor sinned grievously, he ordinarily could maintain the upper hand. The Cambridge Platform had defined “the work & duty of the people” as “obeying their Elders and submitting themselves unto them in the Lord.”12 Although few congregations proved that docile, equally few successfully opposed their elders. Preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, admitting new members, initiating discipline against erring ones—these constituted the life of the church and the minister had effective control over all of them.
In addition to admitting and disciplining members one final problem plagued almost all of the churches in the Bay—the shortage of funds. In most towns the minister’s salary represented the largest single expense of the year, and every man who paid town rates, church member or not, was taxed to meet it. A small population meant high rates or low salary or both. Despite the drain on quite limited resources, few towns in Massachusetts would have forsaken their ministry to save money. In 1654 Wenham paid John Fiske £40 in country pay: one-third in Indian corn and the balance in wheat, peas, barley, butter, and pork. Few men in any of these towns saw more than a few shillings in coin from one year to the next; they bought, sold, and paid their debts in kind. With limited population and agricultural depression Wenham men found it impossible both to support Fiske and raise themselves above subsistence. Rather than forgo the ministry, the majority sought a new town where the burden could be reduced. Although rated by the town, each man brought his “full paiment . . . in manner and matter” to Fiske individually late in the fall. If anyone failed to pay, Fiske had “full power to distraine for the satisfying the said ingeagment.” Certainly some of the inhabitants must have begrudged Fiske his measure of their produce when he refused their children baptism and them communion.
Although the town rates met the major expenses of paying the minister and maintaining the meetinghouse, the members incurred additional financial obligations to keep the church running. Each week they contributed some small offering—a copper or two—to build the church stock. This contingency fund kept by the deacons met the small unexpected costs: temporary charity, a few catechisms, the expenses of attending a synod. At one point Chelmsford accumulated sufficient capital in the church stock to seek an investment and bought a cow to rent out. Unfortunately the cow lived only three years, the man never paid the rent, and the church lost everything. The deacons kept a watchful eye on the weekly contributions lest anyone default regularly. In addition to the weekly contribution the communicants were expected to meet the cost of the wine for the Lord’s Supper. Although Wenham and Chelmsford experimented with various methods of defraying the cost of the sacraments, including paying out of weekly contributions, they finally settled on direct assessments. The deacons collected 18d. in silver from each communicant and when this fund was depleted, renewed the stock with another levy. Even this method proved inadequate. Communicants still fell into arrears, and the church found that husbands who were not members balked at meeting these demands for cash on behalf of their wives. As the number of non-members increased after mid-century, most churches would have been in a precarious condition had not all the inhabitants contributed to the major expenses of the church. In large part, of course, the financial strain stemmed from the newness of the churches. In England the churches had stood since time out of mind, they owned land worked by tenants, and the minister was paid by a patron or by endowments. In New England the churches were created in towns barely out of the wilderness, supported by men who were still clearing the land, and they had little of their own. Every church met current costs out of current income. The cost of the word preached, the sacrament administered, and the charity bestowed came out of pocket.
Despite some difficulty collecting all that was due to them, most ministers lived comparatively well. The town provided them with house and land, often supplied them with firewood, and frequently donated additional labor. Most ministers farmed, if only part time, with the help of their children and servants. Certainly John Fiske enjoyed relative affluence. He brought substantial property to New England with him which he had inherited from his father and by the time of his death had accumulated an estate inventoried at £703, including a modest library worth £60, extensive acreage, and another house in which his son lived. Perhaps Fiske was more fortunate than other ministers since he began with more and supplemented his salary by teaching and medicine as well as by farming. But most ministers, even without Fiske’s advantages, had an economic status equaled by few in their congregations.
Few of New England’s first generation of clergy attained the eminence of a Cotton or Hooker or even the stature of a Bulkeley or Mather. They devoted their lives to small rural congregations preaching countless sermons, baptizing hundreds of infants, burying their friends and neighbors, and finally being buried and mourned themselves. Nothing in John Fiske’s career distinguished him from the majority of his clerical contemporaries. Born in Suffolk in 1601, Fiske studied with the great Puritan divines at Cambridge and entered the ministry when he left the university. Harassed for his nonconformity, he gave up his parish and practiced medicine until his departure for Massachusetts. Several factors contributed to Fiske’s decision to emigrate in 1637: the death of his father severed a natural tie, the increasing persecution of the Puritans, and perhaps his own desire to return to the ministry. But emigration cost Fiske dearly. His mother died aboard ship and he lost a son shortly after the family landed in the Bay Colony. In addition, his wife’s parents, angered by her departure, disinherited her.
John and Anne Fiske arrived in Massachusetts better prepared than most immigrants. He had converted his father’s estate and his own property into the tools and provisions needed in the colony and he brought as well several servants to provide needed labor. It was this stock which helped establish him in Salem and enabled him to weather the Wenham years. During the three years in Salem Fiske maintained his family by keeping a grammar school, practicing medicine again, and some farming. With the settlement of Wenham and the creation of a church there he turned his full attention back to his first career, the ministry, to which he devoted the remainder of his life. Cotton Mather described Fiske in Wenham as “contented with a very mean salary and consuming his own fair estate for the welfare of the new plantation.” Whether Fiske’s generosity matched Mather’s filiopietism is doubtful, but certainly the move to Chelmsford relieved some of the financial pressure on Fiske. But if the new town improved his finances the new congregation became a source of factionalism unlike anything Fiske had encountered in Wenham. As he grew older an opposition party developed which resisted his leadership and sought the addition of a second minister. The last few years hardly gave Fiske the peace he deserved. Though his children prospered, his wife’s blindness meant extra cares and her death in 1672 after forty-three years of marriage took its toll. Yet like most of his contemporaries and despite his age he married a widow in his congregation within months of the loss of his wife. At the end gout and stones disabled him and he found it increasingly difficult to make himself heard in the meetinghouse. Finally he became so weak that the members carried him into the meetinghouse in a chair and he preached seated. His death from a stroke in January 1677 ended his four decades of service to the Bay Colony.
Little remains from this long life other than the Notebook. Of the more than 3,000 sermons Fiske preached in Salem, Wenham, and Chelmsford not one has survived. The Watering of the Olive Plant, the catechism he prepared for the children of the Chelmsford church, served its purpose and only a few of the small number printed are still extant. His occasional poems, written to mark some special event, still appear in anthologies of early American literature. Fiske’s major testament is the Notebook and whatever measure we can take of John Fiske three centuries later must come from its pages.