THE founders of Boston were Calvinists and Puritans who came out of England in the firm conviction that they were the true Church of England in the forefront of an uncompleted reformation. Yet they were at no little pains to dissociate themselves from those who would secede from the state church and establish independency. “We do not,” declared the Reverend Francis Higginson, embarking from Gravesend on April 25, 1629, “go to New England as separatists from the Church of England, though we cannot but separate from the corruptions in it: but we go to practice the positive part of church reformation, and propagate the gospel in America.”1 Similarly the members of the Massachusetts Bay Company aboard the Arbella at Yarmouth on April 7, 1630, set their hands to a humble request “to the rest of their brethren in and of the Church of England” wherein they averred:
Howsoever your charity may have met with some occasion of discouragement through the misreport of some of us, or rather amongst us (for we are not of those who dream of perfection in this world), yet we desire you would be pleased to take notice of the principals and body of our Company, as those who esteem it our honor to call the Church of England, from whence we rise, our dear Mother.”2
Prophets of reform are seldom honored in their own land and our Puritan ancestors were no exception. However genuine their protestations of loyalty and devotion to the old ways, the Puritans found it increasingly difficult to maintain fellowship with those whom they could view in no other light than as obstinate to instruction and blind to truth. Nor did their own opinions and shortcomings go unchallenged by their opponents and there were probably not a few who gave full credence to such allegations as those of the forty-odd line ballad which was currently in circulation:
Let all that putrifidean secte,
I mean the counterfeite electe,
All zealous banckrupps, puncks devout,
Lett them sell all, and out of hand
Prepare to goe for Newe England
To build newe Babel strong and sure
Now calld a ‘Church unspotted, pure.’3
William Stoughton in his election sermon of 1670 may have been inspired more by filial piety than the exactitudes of history when he declared “God sifted a whole nation that he might send choice grain into the wilderness,” but he probably summarized rather aptly the candid opinion of most of the second generation New Englanders.
It is impossible to understand the psychology of the New England Puritan except against his English background. The uneasy Elizabethan religious settlement had long ceased to encompass the religious diversity of English thought. Politics, economics, and theology, to be sure, had become inextricably confused, but, whatever else might be involved, certain it is that by the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth century increasing numbers of middle-class Englishmen were moving away from the settlement and clamoring for a second reformation. The accession of Charles I in 1625, succeeding his unpredictable father, saddled England with a sovereign whose stubborn pride and sense of royal prerogative were ultimately to bring him to the block. That his integrity of purpose and unswerving loyalty to the Church were private virtues worthy of approbation does not alter the fact that compromise with the rising Puritan segment was an expediency which he could not safely evade. On the contrary, his appointment of William Laud, Bishop of London, to the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1633 served notice that there would be no royal clemency toward nonconformity. Laud, zealous and devoted to the faith as he perceived it, soon succeeded “in stopping up every hole, except migration, through which puritan feeling could find vent.”4 The origin of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is found in this Caroline determination to bring England back to Anglican conformity and the so-called Great Migration of the sixteen thirties is a monument to the dedicated assiduity of an archbishop who was backed at every turning by his king. That the Massachusetts Bay numbered over sixteen thousand souls by 1643 was no accident; indeed, the Puritan haven surpassed the population of all the rest of English America, and, if we can credit Edward Johnson’s Wonderworking Providence of Sions Saviour in New England, no less than £192,000 was expended in planting this colony in the wilderness whither “Men, Women and Children passing over this wide Ocean, as near as at present can be gathered, is also supposed to be 21,200 or thereabouts.”5
The First Church in Boston
On the twelfth day of June, 1630, about four in the morning, the flagship Arbella neared Salem harbor. For ten wearisome weeks the little fleet of half a score of vessels had been tossed to and fro on the uncharted Atlantic waters. The Arbella, bearing Governor John Winthrop and the precious charter, dropped anchor and while most of the passengers “went ashore . . . and gathered store of fine strawberries,”6 Mr. Winthrop conferred on board with Mr. Endicott and Mr. Skelton, the leaders of the Salem settlement. On the seventeenth of the same month, the Governor records: “We went to Mattachusetts to find out a place for our sitting down.”7 Already in anticipation of their coming, Thomas Graves, “an experienced engineer,” had come from Salem to Charlestown and built the Great House, which was subsequently to be their storehouse and the second floor a place for civil and church meetings. Here at Charlestown “a neck of land generally full of stately timber and the country round about an uncouth wilderness,” where the Sprague and Walford families had already made improvements, it was decided to make the principal settlement. The remainder of the fleet arrived during the next week and by the seventh of July the passengers of the Ambrose, the Mayflower, the Whale, the Talbot, the Hopewell, the Jewel, the William and Francis, the Trial, the Charles, and the Success had disembarked their passengers and cargo, either in Salem or Charlestown. These eleven ships had brought upward of seven hundred persons8 and a goodly supply of livestock. By the end of the year, six other ships had arrived and the settlement numbered nearly one thousand persons.
The month of July 1630 saw the immigrants reunited and the beginnings of a new way of life established in the wilderness settlement at Charlestown. They undertook the construction of rude dwellings and organized the affairs of the community. As might be expected, their first concern was for the practice and perpetuation of their religious faith. The thirtieth day of July was set apart as a day of fasting and prayer, and, after solemn religious exercises, they gathered under “the umbrage of a great tree” and formed themselves into a Church, adopting and subscribing their names to the following covenant:
In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in Obedience to His holy will, and Divine Ordinaunce:
Wee whose names are hereunder written, being by His most wise, and good Providence brought together into this part of America in the Bay of Massachusetts, and desirous to unite our selves into one Congregation, or Church, under the Lord Jesus Christ our Head, in such sort as becometh all those whom He hath Redeemed, and Sanctifyed to Himselfe, do hereby solemnly, and religiously (as in His most holy Praesence) Promisse, and bind ourselves, to walke in all our wayes according to the Rule of the Gospell, and in all sincere Conformity to His holy Ordinaunces, and in mutuall love, and respect each to other, so neere as God shall give us grace.
The first four signers of this covenant were Governor John Winthrop, Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley, Mr. Isaac Johnson, and Mr. John Wilson. Two days later, “Increase Nowell and four others united with the church and signed the covenant and soon the number amounted to sixty-four men and half as many women.”9 Although the language of the covenant bespeaks a gathered congregation and a separated fellowship of believers, the members thought of themselves as Puritan nonconformists rather than as separatists. Indeed, a year later when Roger Williams was invited to supply the Boston pulpit, he refused because he “durst not officiate to an unseparated people, as, upon examination and conference, I found them to be.”10
The scarcity of spring water in Charlestown was a matter of immediate disappointment. It, at that time, was “generally noticed no water good for a town but running springs; and though this neck do abound with good water, yet for want of experience and industry none could be found, to suit the humour of that time, but a brackish spring in the sands.”11 The Boston peninsula across the Charles River, however, possessed a superb spring of water and the willingness of William Blaxton, the one inhabitant, to sell his holdings, together with the increasing sickliness of the settlers combined to induce the majority of the Charlestown community to transplant themselves in the early fall to Boston.
On August 27, 1630, another fast was observed and the Church proceeded to appoint John Wilson as teacher, Increase Nowell as ruling elder and William Gager and William Aspinwall as deacons.
The first winter was difficult and provisions ran low:
The people were compelled to live on clams and muscles, ground nuts and acorns, and these were obtained with much difficulty in the winter time and upon these accounts they became much tired and discouraged, especially when they heard that the Governor had his last batch of bread in the oven. And many were the fears of the people that Mr. Pearce, who was sent to Ireland to fetch provisions, was cast away or taken by pirates; but God, who delights to appear in greatest straits, did work marvelously at this time, for before the day appointed to seek the Lord by fasting and prayer, about the month of February or March, in comes Mr. Pearce, laden with provisions; upon which occasion the day of Fast was changed and ordered to be kept as a day of Thanksgiving; which provisions were by the Governor distributed unto the people proportionable to their necessities.12
Not among the least of the difficulties was the problem of the remaining inhabitants of Charlestown attending religious services in the Boston church. As early as November 26, 1630, Winthrop records that “the rivers were frozen up and they of Charlton could not come to the sermon till the afternoon at high water.”13 The experience of two winters and the increasingly cold fall of 1632 suggested that the Charles River was an insuperable obstacle to keeping a single church in effective operation. Accordingly on October 14, 1632, a separate church was constituted at Charlestown, which continues three centuries later as a Trinitarian Congregational Society.
On April 1, 1631, Mr. Wilson set sail from Salem and four weeks later arrived in London to bring back his wife.14 Before his departure “divers of the congregation met at the governour’s, and there Mr. Wilson, praying and exhorting the congregation to love, etc. commended to them the exercise of prophecy in his absence and assigned those whom he thought most fit for it, viz., the governour, Mr. Dudley and Mr. Nowell the elder. Then he desired the governor to commend himself and the rest to God in prayer; which being done they accompanied him to the boat, and so they went over to Charlestown to go by land to the ship.”15 Roger Williams appears to have received an invitation to occupy the place of Mr. Wilson during his absence, but Williams did not consider the church sufficiently separatist and on the twelfth day of the same month (April 12, 1631) he was ordained at Salem and soon thereafter removed to Plymouth. Mr. John Eliot, later to be the apostle to the Indians and teacher of the Roxbury Church, was a member of the congregation and was invited to supply the church in the absence of Mr. Wilson. He doubtless would have remained as Wilson’s colleague had not he felt bound by his earlier promise to settle in Roxbury and “though Boston laboured all they could, both with the congregation in Roxbury, and with Mr. Eliot himself, alleging their want of him and the covenant between them, etc., yet he could not be diverted from accepting the call of Roxbury, November 5.”16
The Puritan theory of church organization envisioned both the offices of pastor and teacher in each congregation. According to the Cambridge Synod:
The pastor’s special work is to attend to exhortation, and therein to administer a word of wisdom; the teacher is to attend to doctrine, and therein to administer a word of knowledge; and either of them to administer the seals of that covenant, unto the dispensation whereof they are alike called, as also to execute the censures, being but a kind of application of the word: the preaching of which, together with the application thereof, they are alike charged withal . . . And, therefore, we account pastors and teachers to be both of them church officers, and not pastor for the church, and the teacher only for the schools.17
In actual practice, the division of labor between the two ministers seems to have been vague and inconsistent. Both men ordinarily exercised all the functions peculiarly assigned to each, and the supply of clergy seldom permitted two able-bodied men for a single church. In effect, most congregations appointed a pastor or teacher and when he became enfeebled and required a colleague, the second man assumed the other title and usually continued to retain it after the older man passed from the scene and he, in turn, was supplied with a colleague. The practical situation of the frontier did not permit the luxury of a double ministry and gradually the titles became fused in one individual settled as both pastor and teacher.
The third ecclesiastical rank of the New England churches was the ruling eldership which
is distinct from the office of pastor and teacher. The ruling elders are not so called, to exclude the pastors and teachers from ruling, because ruling and governing are common to these with the others, whereas attending to teach and preach the word is peculiar unto the former. The ruling elder’s work is to join with the pastor and teacher in those acts of spiritual rule, which are distinct from the ministry of the word and sacraments committed to them. Of which sort these be as followeth (1) To open and shut the doors of God’s house by admission of members approved by the Church, by ordination of officers chosen by the Church, and by excommunication of notorious and obstinate offenders renounced by the Church, and by restoring of penitents forgiven by the Church (2) To call the Church together when there is occasion and seasonably to dismiss them again (3) To prepare matters in private, that in public they may be carried to an end with less trouble, and more speedy dispatch (4) To moderate the carriage of all matters in the Church assembled; as to propound matters to the Church, to order the season of speech and silence, and to pronounce sentence according to the mind of Christ, with the consent of the Church (5) To be guides and leaders to the church, in all matters whatsoever pertaining to church administration and actions (6) To see that none in the church live inordinately, out of rank or place, without a calling, or idly in their calling (7) To prevent and heal such offences in life and in doctrine as might corrupt the church (8) To feed the flock of God with word of admonition (9) And as they shall be sent for, to visit and pray over the sick brethren (10) And at other times as opportunity shall serve thereunto.18
In addition, deacons, “being found blameless,” were
to receive the offerings of the church, gifts given to the church, and to keep the treasury of the church, and therewith to serve the tables which the church is to provide for; as the Lord’s table, the table of ministers, and of such as are in necessity, to whom they are distributed in simplicity.19
The Lord hath appointed ancient widows, where they may be had, to minister in the church, in giving attendance to the sick, and to give succour unto them and others in the like necessities.20
Mr. Wilson returned on May 26, 1632, and the following November Mr. Eliot went to Roxbury. Thereupon “a fast was held by the congregation of Boston and Mr. Wilson (formerly their teacher) was chosen pastor and [Mr.] Oliver a ruling Elder and both were ordained by imposition of hands, first by the teacher, and the two deacons (in the name of the congregation) upon the elder and then by the elder and the deacons upon the pastor.”21
After Mr. Eliot removed to Roxbury, the Boston church had only a pastor, but the congregation was anxious to provide themselves with a teacher. In October, 1632, a letter signed by Winthrop and Wilson was dispatched by Captain Peirce to the Reverend Doctor John Stoughton in England:
We may be bould to let you knowe (upon certaine intelligence which hathe come to us) that we have hearde (with much ioye to our hearts) of the disposition of your thoughts toward us, or rather towards the Lord’s worke begunne heere . . . whereupon we thought good to let you understand, and to give you what firme assurance we may, of our strong desires towards you: We meane not of our selves onely but of the Church of Boston whereof we are.22
Stoughton did not, however, respond to the appeal, perhaps because the same year he had removed from the parish of Aller, Somerset, to become curate of St. Mary’s, Aldermanbury, London.
On September 4, 1633, after eight weeks on the high seas, Mr. John Cotton arrived on The Griffin, a ship of three hundred tons. On the following Saturday evening “the congregation met in their ordinary exercise and Mr. Cotton, being desired to speak to the question (which was of the church) he showed out of Canticles 6, that some churches were as queens, some as concubines, some as damsels, and some as doves.”23 How he characterized the Boston church does not appear, but on the seventeenth of September, “The Governour and council met at Boston and called the ministers and elders of all the churches to consider about his sitting down . . . it was agreed that the fittest place for him was Boston . . . and that (keeping a lecture) he should have some maintenance out of the treasury. But divers of the council, upon second thoughts did after refuse their contributions.”24
The joint ministries of Wilson and Cotton continued until the latter’s death in 1652. Cotton was perhaps the most gifted of the New England Puritan divines, and it was probably no mere infatuation that caused Anne Hutchinson and others to fall under his spell to the extent of believing that he was so completely under the covenant of grace that he could do no wrong. Cotton, the eldest son of Rowland Cotton, a lawyer of Derby in Derbyshire, England, had been born there on December 4, 1585. He had passed through Trinity College, Cambridge from which he received the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1602/3 and that of Master of Arts in 1606. For some time thereafter, he was connected in various capacities with Emmanuel College where he received the degree of Bachelor of Divinity in 1613. On June 24, 1612, he became vicar of St. Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire, where he soon acquired a widespread reputation for scholarship and piety. At the time of his election another candidate received an equal number of votes and the mayor was called upon to cast the deciding vote. Twice he unintentionally cast his vote for Cotton and called for a third vote that he might rectify his blunder; the assembly, however, refused to permit it, so Cotton was elected by the deciding vote of his opponent. Although it has been said that his earlier preaching was, at first, more “calculated to charm the intellect than to refresh the soul,” he had subsequently developed an earnestness of purpose that had cost him his place at the University, but soon brought him great reputation in the pulpit. At Boston he continued for nearly twenty years until his fame, reaching the ears of the indefatigable Archbishop Laud, became his undoing. As early as 1621 he was accused of implication with others in cutting off the tops of two crosses which adorned the official city maces, but after several trials he was exonerated. Finally, however, his name was involved in a case wherein a “dissolute person” was accused by the magistrates of not kneeling at the sacraments and of failing to observe the sacramental forms. Inevitably Cotton’s name was implicated and he was summoned to answer for his nonconformity. The Earl of Dorset interceded, but to no avail, and he was forced to advise Cotton to flee since “if he had been guilty of drunkenness, or uncleanness, or any such lesser fault, he could have obtained his pardon; but inasmuch as he had been guilty of Puritanism and non-conformity, the crime was unpardonable.”25
In July, 1633 Cotton tendered his resignation and, on July 22, 1633, the vicarship was declared vacant. He went into concealment at London and is alleged to have changed his name and dress. He considered removal variously to Holland, the Barbados, or New England, but he settled upon the last destination and embarked for Boston on The Griffin. He was elected teacher of the Boston church on October 10, 1633, and for the remaining nineteen years of his life he was to dominate the clerical life of New England. His scholarship is attested by the variety and erudition of the more than forty titles which found their way into print. “Mr. Cotton was indeed a most universal scholar, and a living system of liberal arts, and a walking library.”26 Except for his brief loss of prestige during the unhappy period of the Antinomian controversy, when even “judicious and godly persons in neighboring towns . . . began to think amiss of the holy and reverend Mr. John Cotton,”27 he was the shining light of the churches. His star was so high in the New England community that our pious ancestors could discern with no effort the propriety of cosmic sympathy with his luminous nature:
Theire was a starr appeared on the 9th of the 10th moneth, darke and yet great for compasse, with Long blaze dim also to the east and was quicke in the motion and every night it was less and less till the 22 of the same moneth and then it did not more appear it being the night our Reverend Teacher Mr John Cotton died the greatest starr in the Churches of Christ that we could heare of in the Christian world.28
The relationship between Cotton and Wilson, fraught as it was by the human hazards of genius and mediocrity in partnership, seems to have been for the most part harmonious and sympathetic. Even at those times when tensions developed, these seem rather to have arisen among the friends and opponents of the two men. Wilson was the senior minister and survived Cotton by fifteen years, but during the years in which they were colleagues a remarkable degree of unanimity prevailed.
The first religious controversy in the Boston community broke out in 1636. Combining as it did both political and theological issues, it is not strange that the very foundations of the pioneer colony were shaken. The Antinomian heresy, as it was called, centered about the person and conversations of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, who had migrated to New England in 1634 that she might continue to enjoy the ministry of Mr. Cotton. Soon after her arrival she began to hold religious meetings for women in her home, ostensibly for the purpose of recapitulating the sermons of the week. Innocuous as this pedagogical effort seemed, it soon expanded its purpose to include an evaluation of the relative merit of preachers and sermons. Ultimately, she found herself saying that “none of them did preach the covenant of free grace but Master Cotton, and that they have not the seale of the Spirit, and so were not able ministers of the New Testament.”29 It was bad enough for a member of the laity, and a woman at that, to draw invidious contrasts among the clergy, but she rested her authority for doing so upon even more dangerous premises. It was her contention that she made her judgments on the basis of direct revelation from God. Having herself passed from the covenant of works to the covenant of grace, she claimed guidance from the inner light and the internal voice of God. The Puritan theology might hold, in principle, that the saints might be at one with God and in direct communication with His will, but, in practice, they assigned the interpretation of that revelation solely to the province of the ministry. As Brooks Adams suggests, otherwise “the word of an inspired peasant would have outweighed the sermon of an uninspired divine.30 Mrs. Hutchinson’s heresy might have been quietly set aside had not her followers identified themselves with a political movement apparently directed at ousting the established leadership and settling a new government in its place. The election in 1636 of the young and charming Henry Vane as governor was a blow to Winthrop and his friends that they did not intend to accept without resistance. The new religious ideas and the new political movement were both dangerous and ruinous to the existing order. It is not strange, therefore, that drastic measures were taken to stamp out a heresy that was imperiling both the souls of men and the body politic. The majority of the Boston church including Mr. Cotton seemed at first to have been sympathetic toward Mrs. Hutchinson and her views. Indeed, a serious effort was made to settle her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright, as teacher of the church and it might well have succeeded had not Winthrop taken a firm stand in the church meeting, declaring that
. . . the church being well furnished already with able ministers, whose spirits they knew, and whose labors God had blessed in much love and sweet peace, he thought it not fit (no necessity urging) to put the welfare of the church to the least hazard, as he feared they should do by calling in one whose spirit they knew not, and one who seemed to dissent in judgment.31
Wheelwright gradually brought himself into disfavor with others in the colony, and his sister-in-law persisted in her outspoken espousal of heretical opinions until the General Court on November 20, 1637, declared that:
Whereas the opinions and revelations of Mr. Wheelwright and Mrs. Hutchinson have seduced and led into dangerous errors many of the people heare in Newe England, insomuch as there is just cause of suspition that they, as others in Germany, in former times, may, upon some revelation, make some suddaine inruption upon those who differ from them in judgment; for prevention whereof it is ordered, that all those whose names are underwritten shall (upon warning given or left at their dwelling houses) before the thirteenth day of this month of November  deliver in at Mr. Cane’s house, at Boston, all such guns, pistols, swords, powder, shot, and match as they shal bee owners of, or have in their custody, upon pain of ten pounds for every default to bee made thereof.32
The trial of Mrs. Hutchinson was conducted before the General Court and the sentence of banishment was at the hands of the civil state. The Church took its own action, however, and:
the 22d of the 1st moneth 1638. Anne, the wife of our Brother Willyam Hutchinson having on the 15th of this moneth beene openly in Publique congregation admonished of sundry Errors held by her, was on the same 22th day Cast out of the Church for impenitently persisting in a manifest lye then expressed by her in open Congregation.33
The Boston community survived the passing furor of Antinomianism and the Church turned its attention to other matters. In 1640 the rude meetinghouse, which had been reared in August, 1632, with walls of stone plastered with clay and surmounted by a thatched roof, was replaced by a more substantial and commodious structure which was to stand until the Great Fire of 1711. After considerable controversy as to its location, the tradespeople preferring a site near the market place and others advocating a more secluded location to the south (the corner of Milk and Washington Streets), it was decided in favor of the former group and the meetinghouse was erected on a lot of land latterly known as Cornhill Square nearly opposite the Old State House. No exact description of this structure has survived, but it cost £ 1,000 and is known to have had galleries and, as early as 1649, a bell.34 The ancient meetinghouse still standing in Hingham, Massachusetts is supposed to have been modeled after this building.
The First Church continued to be the leading congregation in the Bay Colony. Mr. Cotton wrote voluminously, especially in the area of church polity, and his The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England, Doctrine of the Church to which is committed the keys of the kingdome of heaven, and The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Power thereof made him the unrivaled apologist of the New England way. Indeed, he was invited to sit in the Westminster Assembly meeting in London in 1643, but age was upon him and he was satisfied to be the ecclesiastical Nestor of the Cambridge Synod which met intermittently from 1646 to 1648. The Cambridge Platform, which this body adopted in 1648, was to remain the norm of American Congregationalism for succeeding centuries and its principles are cited today in civil courts concerned with ecclesiastical cases.
Changes came, however, to the First Church. In 1649 a group of citizens living in the north of the town withdrew to form the Second Church; in 1652 Mr. Cotton died at the age of sixty-seven and was succeeded in 1656 by John Norton who had been previously settled for seventeen years at Ipswich. The town was becoming more cosmopolitan and the theocracy was weakening.
By the fourth decade of the Boston settlement, it became apparent that some accommodation must be reached if the church-state relationship was to continue. Church membership was a requisite to admission to the franchise, and to present children for baptism. But church membership also rested upon the ability to demonstrate by public profession before the entire congregation that one had had a conversion experience. The mere evidence of moral and righteous living were not sufficient; only a clear demonstration of saving grace was acceptable. By this time, the children of the settlers constituted an ever increasing proportion of the adult population and, although still adhering to the faith of their fathers, many of them had never been able to detect in their personal experience the presence of the saving grace which was the prerequisite to the church covenant.
The General Court on December 31, 1661, issued the following order:
This Court, having taken into consideration that there are severall questions and doubts yet depending in the churches of this jurisdiction, concerning several practicall poynts of church disciplyne, doe therefore order and hereby desire, that the churches aforesaid doe send theire messengers of elders and brethren to Boston the 2d Twesday of the first moneth, then and there to discusse and declare what they shall judge to be the minde of God, revealed in his word, concerning such questions as shall be propounded to them by order of this Court referring to church orders as aforesaid, and that the severall churches take care to make due provition for the messengers by them sent.
This Court doe further order, as a meete expedient for the furtheranc of the ends proposed in calling a synod to be kept by the messengers of all the churches in this jurisdiction the 2d Twesday in March next, that the neighboring elders, with as much convenient speed as may be, doe meete together and consider of such questions, besides which is here under proposed, as they shall judge necessary to be then and there discussed for the setling of peace and trueth in these churches of Christ, and make theire returne with as much convenient speede as may be to your Governor or secretary, who is to speede away a copy thereof, with the General Courts order, to the severall churches, requiring them to send theire messengers to attend the said meeting.35
On the following page of the Court Records, two questions are proposed:
- Quaest. 1. Who are the subjects of baptisme
- Quaest. 2. Whither, according to the word of God, there ought to be a conscociation of churches, and what should be the manner of it.36
The Synod convened in the meetinghouse of the First Church on the second Tuesday of March, 1661/2, with more than seventy representatives of the Massachusetts churches. The Synod met in at least two sessions and made its report to the Court on October 8, 1662. Although a minority of the delegates were strongly opposed to any changes in the existing order, the matter of baptism of children of non-covenanting members of the parish was resolved by declaring that:
Church members who are admitted in minority, understanding the Doctrines of Faith, and publicly professing their assent thereto; not scandalous in life, and solemnly owning the Covenant before the Church, wherein they give up themselves and their Children to the Lord, and subject themselves to the Government of Christ in the Church, their children are to be baptized.37
This gave rise to the term, Half-Way Covenant, to indicate the status of those who were halfway into the church fellowship. Themselves the children of full covenanting members, they might, by blameless living and an earnest desire to accept the faith, be admitted sufficiently far within the covenant to be permitted the right of presenting their own children for the rite of baptism. The theological defense of this decision is extended and ingenious, but the fact was that so long as parents demanded baptism for their children and the qualifications for church membership were so strict, an accommodation had to be worked out and the notion of a Half-Way Covenant was a logical expedient. Many churches and especially some of the ministers were uneasy about the conclusions and the matter was to come under attack in the next century by such evangelical leaders as Jonathan Edwards, Joseph Bellamy and Timothy Dwight. The First Church, itself, was to repudiate the new departure within seven years.
Mr. Wilson, the senior minister of the First Church, was in attendance at all the sessions of the Synod, but Mr. Norton did not return from England until the time of the final session. Within the next year, Mr. Norton died very suddenly on April 15, 1663. Mr. John Eliot, minister of the Roxbury Church, records:
Mr. John Norton, teacher of the church of Boston, rested from his labours. His death was suddaine. The night before about midnight he awakened with a pain under his left pap, yet he went to meeting in the forenoon (it being the Lords day) and made account to preach in the afternoon, but his wife and friends perswaded him to stay at home. After meetinge freinds came in to visite him and he walked up and downe the room and discoursed pleasantly after his wonted manner. About shutting in, as he walked up and down in his parlour, he went to the fireside and leaned his head forward, as if he meant to vomitt. His wife and Mr. Duncan stept to him to help to hold him and he sunk downe under them and never spake more.38
Norton had succeeded Cotton in 1656 as teacher, and now his death left Wilson the sole minister of the Boston church. Although he was nearing seventy-five, Mr. Wilson was apparently in good health and carried on four more years until his death on August 7, 1667. John Hull records in his diary under date of 1665: “Our church sent to Dr. Owen by Mr. Peirce” but nothing came of it. Dr. John Owen (1616–1683) was a nonconformist clergyman who had been dean of Christ College and vice-chancellor of Oxford University during the period of the English Commonwealth, but had retired at the Restoration to an estate at Stadhampton where in 1664/65 he had been indicted for holding religious services in his home. The First Church doubtless had heard of his encounter with the law and thought to draw him to the New World. In spite of his nonconformity, Owen was able to remain active in England and later accepted a call to a church in London.
The death of Mr. Wilson left the church without a settled minister. Mr. James Allen, an ejected Puritan minister, however, had been living in Boston since June 10, 1662, and it is reported that almost immediately upon his arrival half a dozen members of the Boston church had wished his settlement as an assistant but there was some little opposition. Nonetheless, he seems to have done some preaching from time to time and it is probable that he took an active leadership upon the death of Mr. Wilson. He was a man of considerable means and “his wealth gave him the powere, which he used, as a good bishop, to be hospitable.”39
The affairs of the church at this point took an unfortunate turn. Under the influence of Wilson, the First Church had assented to the Half-Way Covenant, but there may well have been an undercurrent of opposition. The decision of the Church to call John Davenport as pastor could not have been made without an awareness that this “greatest of the anti-synodists” would demand the abandonment of the Half-Way Covenant. Among the most rigid of the theocrats, Davenport had passed by the Boston Colony on his way to New Haven in 1638 where he had set up his theocracy modeled in every detail upon the ancient Hebrew commonwealth. He had hardly mellowed with the years and the call to the Boston church in his old age must have seemed like a vindication of his lifelong principles. Certain it is that he had no intention of giving quarter to the relaxing of doctrine or the demands of more liberal minorities within his congregation. A minority of the church to the number of twenty-eight withdrew and formed a new church in Charlestown on May 12 and 16, 1669. This was the Third Church of Boston, latterly known as the Old South Church, and was sanctioned by a council of churches despite the fact that the First Church denied regular dismissal to the members and refused to take part in any of the proceedings. Although
a great Assemblie of Elders and Messengers of several Churches in the Bay, who upon the Call of the Dissenting Brethren at Boston, met together to consider and advise them what to do. They judged that the Dissenting Brethren might seasonably make use of their Christian libertie unto a regular coalition in another church body. 13, 2 moneth 1669.40
The General Court, however, thought otherwise and at their May session, declared:
Declension from the primitive foundation worke; innovation of doctrine and worship, opinion and practise and invasion of the rights, liberties, and privileges of churches; an usurpation of a lordly, praelattical power over God’s haeritage, a subversion of gospel order, and all this with a dangerous tendencie to the utter devastation of these churches, turning the pleasant gardens of Christ into a wildernesse, and the inevitable and total extirpation of the principles and pillars of the congregationall way: that these are the leven, the corrupting gangreens, the infecting, spreading plague, the provoaking images of jealousy set up before the Lord, the accursed thing, which hath provoked divine wrath, and doth further threaten destruction.41
The Court orders and declares, that the said papers referring to that case are to be accounted uselesse, and not to be improoved against the reverend elders, as the causes of Gods displeasure against the country.42
Davenport was dead by this time and Allen was “a good bishop,” given to hospitality and not to theological disputation.
James Allen was installed as teacher on the same day as Mr. Davenport and continued in this office for thirty-two years until his death on September 22, 1710. Although possessed of ample means, he seems not to have been possessed of extraordinary professional gifts. During his ministry he was associated with four colleagues, two of them designated in the records as assistants. On April 10, 1670, John Oxenbridge was installed as pastor succeeding Mr. Davenport. As early as October 9, 1669, the Church had “agreed on and voted with a unanimous consent that Mr. Oxenbridge bee desired to be Assistant to the present teaching officers of preaching the word of God.” He had had a distinguished career in England, where he had taken his degrees at Magdalen College, Oxford, and had also preached in the Bermudas. He appears to have preached at various times in Great Yarmouth, Beverley, Berwick upon Tweed, Bristol, Winchester, and London. In 1652 he had been made fellow of Eton College, in the chapel of which Andrew Marvell later placed a monument to Mrs. Oxenbridge. The laudatory inscription gave such offense to the Royalists at the Restoration that it was covered over with paint. She was described as “a scholar beyond what is usual in her sex, and of masculine judgment in the profound points of theology” and her husband “loved commonly to have her opinion upon a text before he preached upon it.”43 Like Allen, he was among the ejected clergy, and, after visiting the West Indies and the Barbados, came to New England where he almost immediately received a call to the church in Charlestown. He was according to Emerson “among the most elegant writers as well as eloquent preachers of his time,”44 and the fact that during his brief ministry of less than five years there were eighty-one accessions to membership and one hundred and eighty-one baptisms indicate his popularity with his people.
Upon the death of Mr. Oxenbridge in 1674, the church was left with Mr. Allen who was in sole charge of the congregation for the next ten years. About 1682, Sampson Bond, another ejected minister from England, and, sometime resident in Bermuda, appeared in Boston and immediately won wide acceptance as a preacher. On August 31, 1682 the First Church voted to give him “a Call upon tryall” as pastor and the following day the elders informed him of the vote whereupon he agreed to accept the call “if the Church did Continue their affection and send him word he will in the springe Come and bringe his ffamily.”45 Unfortunately it was soon discovered that one of his most eloquent sermons was not of his own composition and he retired under a cloud to the Barbados. Two years later, however, misfortune brought Mr. Joshua Moodey from Portsmouth to Boston. Moodey had been minister of the New Hampshire church since 1660 but the opposition of Governor Cranfield had been constant and tyrannical. Finally, by 1684, he was forced to leave his parish and removed to Boston. The First Church at once saw a good man who could be a service to the Boston church, and accordingly the Church voted that “wee doe earnestly desire that he would Constantly exercise ministry with our Teacher among us, untill hee hath free and open libertie to returne to them againe.” He was installed as assistant on May 3, 1684, and continued in that office until 1693 when a change in government permitted his return to Portsmouth where he served the remainder of his life. He died in Boston where he had returned for medical treatment “of a wasting consumption . . . sabbath day, little past 5 afternoon.”46
During the last four years of Mr. Moody’s assistantship, Mr. John Bailey served as a second assistant. Born in Blackburn, Lancashire, on February 24, 1643, he had removed to Limerick in Ireland about 1670, but after fourteen years he was forced to flee the country for his nonconformity. He arrived in Boston in 1684, and after preaching for a brief period of time in the South Church in Boston, he was installed minister of the church in Watertown on October 6, 1686. This ministry was, however, cut short probably because of his poor health and in 1692 he removed to Boston. A year later he became an assistant in the First Church where he remained until his death on December 12, 1697. His latter years were attended with great suffering and it is not certain that he was able to take any large share of the ministerial duties of the parish. Between 1693 and 1697 there were two assistants, Moodey and Bailey, as well as Mr. Allen, who was already in his sixties. Mr. Benjamin Wadsworth was engaged in 1693 to preach “once a month for three years” and in 1696 was ordained as a full minister of the church. Precisely what these four ministers of religion did with themselves and with the division of parochial affairs is not clear from the record. Wadsworth was the first minister of the First Church to receive his collegiate training at Harvard College (A.B., 1690, A.M., 1693) and he returned as president in 1725. His three decades of ministry to the First Church were not without their fruits. From 1696 to 1700, eighty persons were added to the congregation and there were one hundred and fifty-seven baptisms. Wadsworth, according to tradition, had limited gifts as a preacher, but his generous and compassionate spirit appear to have more than compensated for his lack of eloquence. Cotton Mather, minister of the Second Church and self-appointed critic of all matters ecclesiastical in his contemporary Boston, decided, however, in 1699 that what the First Church needed was an unidentified pulpiteer from West Jersey, and records in his diary:
I saw there was but one Way to do it; and that was, by commending to them, and procuring for them, a Minister of some Age, and great Ability, and Authority, and Experience, and of eminent Piety. . . . That young man was very angry with mee, and them for the Action; and stirr’d up a Storm of most unworthy Reproaches on mee, from a Party in the Town. This the Reward of my sincere and zelous Labours to save the Old Church from a dreadful Convulsion that I see hastening on them.47
Six years later, perhaps in order to avert the “dreadful Convulsion,” the First Church called Thomas Bridge as minister. An Oxonian of forty-nine years of age, he had traveled widely from the Mediterranean to the Bermudas, where at the latter place he had produced twenty-nine sermons in a month. He came to Boston in 1704 after a brief visit to West Jersey, but was not probably the paragon to whom Mather was referring, since he seems not to have come into Jersey until considerably later than 1699. Mr. Bridge was an able preacher and died in 1715 “leaving behind a name which is better than precious ointment, and four publications, evincing his concern for the cause of righteousness and the welfare of mankind.”48 President Ezra Stiles of Yale College, writing in 1766, states that upon the settlement of “Rev’d Thomas Bridge, a foreigner . . . the Presbyterian party of that Church and other Churches in the town formed a church and settled Dr. Coleman.”49 This was the Brattle Square Church which was formed in 1699. Again, in 1711, Cotton Mather writes that “There is a great concern which the Ministers of the Town have before them. A party of the Old Church are in a distempered and discontented Frame and are for separating themselves into a new church by themselves.”50 It is possible that the New North Church formed in 1714 may have resulted from this “distempered and discontented Frame.” The Boston community was moving into a more secular climate, which eventuated in new churches as protest groups and a struggle for power at the College in Cambridge.
The Boston community was never free from the threat of conflagration. The meetinghouse of the First Church was in danger more than once and not always from fire:
Persons crowd much into Old Meeting-House by reason of James Morgan, and before I got thither a crazed woman cryed the gallery or meeting house broke, which made the People rush out with great Consternation, a great part of them but were seated again. (Thursday, March 11, 1685/6)
House next the Old Meetinghouse, the Chimney smoaked so, and beat into the House that made great disturbance there. (July 20, 1690)
Just as he (Mr. Pemberton) had done his sermon and stood up to pray, a Cry of Fire was made, by which means the Assembly was broke up, but it pleased God the fire was wonderfully Quenched. The wind was Southwardly so that if it had preceeded from the Tavern Ancor, probably the old Meeting House and Townhouse must have been consumed. (August, 1704)51
Eventually, however, the fateful day came:
2d. 8 mo. Tuesday: I find about 7 h[our] in the Evening at my coming home (from Salem) the poor town of Boston in Flames; A Fire broke forth in the Heart of the Town, which Consumes the famous Old-Meeting house, and Statehouse, and whole Streets of other buildings,—not stopping till near 2 h[our] in the Morning.52
About 7 or 8 oclock of the night between the 2d and 3d of October a Dreadfull Fire hapens in Boston; broke out in a little House belonging to Capt. Ephraim Savage, by reason of the Drunkenness of —— Moss. Old Meeting House and TownHouse burnt. Old MeetingHouse had stood near 70 years.53
The Church Records state that the cause of the fire “was generally said and concluded to be occasioned by one Mary Morse being in drink.”54
The Church set to work at once to rebuild and, at a meeting ten days after the fire on October 12, 1711, it was decided that the new structure should be of brick in spite of the opposition of Deacon Tay and other influential members. A building committee ultimately numbering five members and a committee of ten to obtain subscriptions toward the charge of a new meetinghouse were appointed. The work proceeded without serious interruption and on May 3, 1713 the new building was first occupied. It was a solid structure measuring by specifications “seventy-two feet long, fifty-four feet wide from out to out, and thirty-four feet high up to the Plate” and surmounted by a bell tower. Even the crusty Cotton Mather approved the results and, referring to the Thursday lecture on May 14, he records:
I preached the Lecture, unto a vast auditory, on the Return of the Ancient Lecture, unto the former Place, in a stately Edifice, now erected and finished, in the room of that which was laid in Ashes. . . . The favour of God shining on his People, when they built Houses and inhabit them; and yett more, when they rebuild Houses, and reinhabit them.55
Mather had done well on the misfortunes of the First Church. In 1711 he had published his timely sermon, entitled Burnings Bewalyed, and now he drew a “vast auditory” to a lecture wherein the burning is treated as something of a blessing.
The new meetinghouse dominated the center of the town and was much used for public occasions. In 1717, for example, Jeremiah Phenix, a victualler, was brought to trial for striking and killing Ralph Mortershed with an iron hatchet. Sewell reports that the court assembled in the “Old Meetinghouse” and that the trial continued for about five hours.56 At the town meeting in 1716 it was voted that the matter of “Providing a Town Clock to be placed in the Brick Meeting House be continued to the next meeting,” and the following year it was voted “to procure a good Town Clock and to Set up the same in Some Convenient place in Cornhill.”57 Sewell notes that on January 26, 1724/5, “the wind was high . . . so as to blow down the Vane of the old Meetinghouse.” The New England Weekly Journal for June 5, 1727, reports, “this day is Published A Draught of the meetingHouse of the Old Church in Boston, with the New Spire and Gallery and Are to be sold, by Mr. Price, over against the Town House, and at the Booksellers Shops in Boston,” but unfortunately no copy is now known to be extant.
Early in the year 1717 Thomas Foxcroft, three years out of Harvard College but yet only twenty years of age, was invited to preach once a week as assistant to Mr. Wadsworth, and within the year he was ordained to the office of pastor. The service of ordination lasted for about four hours and marked the beginning of a ministry that was to extend over half a century. Mr. Foxcroft was the son of Colonel Francis Foxcroft, a warden of King’s Chapel and an ardent Anglican, which gave rise to the calumny, “Tom Foxcroft, a Bitter Creature, Son of a Churchman,” but he adopted his mother’s religion and entered the Congregational order. “Few had a greater command of words, nor was he wanting in liveliness of imagination.” He had an intellectual curiosity, and corresponded with Franklin and is known to have had a “Philadelphia fireplace.” Unfortunately he was struck down with a paralytic stroke in 1736 and, although he continued to preach until his death thirty-three years later, his powers were greatly diminished and he was but a shadow of his former self. The end, however, came “sudden and violent. . . He was so deeply struck as, in a few minutes, to be deprived both of his reason and his senses; and, in this lethargic state he continued about twenty-eight hours, when he fell asleep in Jesus.”58 His colleague, Chauncy, in his funeral sermon, admitting the latter years of failing powers, declared:
And if that Christian candor, which might be reasonably have been expected from those who had enjoyed the benefit of his former more vigorous labors, had been in due exercise, it would have been no hindrance to their spiritual edification.59
Charles Chauncy was settled as a colleague to Mr. Foxcroft on October 25, 1727, and continued in the pastoral office until his death in 1787. Although he and Mr. Foxcroft differed on practically every point of theology, and perhaps there were scarcely two men of more divergent temperaments in Boston, they appear to have labored in complete harmony and mutual respect. Chauncy was a man of great gifts and almost equally great limitations. Emerson writes that “his early efforts, as a preacher, seem to have excited nothing like rapture in the breasts of his friends, or extreme aversion in the minds of his dissentients.”60 It was said that “he had so little idea of poetry that he could never relish it, and wished that someone would translate Paradise Lost into prose that he might understand it.”61 In early life “he besought God never to make him an orator” and a friend replied that the “prayer had been unequivocally granted.”62 Peter Oliver states that
He was a man of Sence but of exorbitant Passions; he would utter things in conversation that bordered too near upon Blasphemy, and when such wild expressions were noticed to him by observing that his Sermons were free from such extravagances, he replied that “in making his Sermons he always kept a Blotter by him.” He was of a very resentful unforgiving temper; when he was in the excess of Passions, a Bystander would naturally judge that he had been Educated in the Purlieus of Bedlam but he was open in all his actions.63
He was possessed of an iron will and he told John Adams that “he had found by experience that a man could lie all night upon his pillow under the most excruciating torment of toothache, headache, rheumatism, gout, unable to sleep a wink without uttering a groan, sigh or syllable.”64
When the General Court refused to print his election sermon of 1747 in which he came out against paper money, he lashed out at the legislators: “It shall be printed . . . If I wanted to initiate and instruct a person into all kinds of iniquity, and double-dealing, I would send him to our General Court.”65
Yet despite his outbursts of ill temper and absence of literary gifts, Chauncy was a personality to be reckoned with in eighteenth-century Boston. In theology he passed from the old to the new. As late as 1756, preaching on the Lisbon Earthquake, he subscribed to the notion that “the earth underwent a great alteration, in consequence of the fall of Adam . . . the seasons, soil, climate, and bowels of the earth have all been cursed in such a manner, as to be different from what they were before the lapse of Adam and that the whole constitution of nature has been changed for the worse.” Yet a few years earlier he had been one of the first to discern the superficiality of revivalism and his Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (1743) was a wholesome antidote to the excesses of the Great Awakening. He intimated his trend toward the acceptance of the doctrine of universal salvation in an ordination sermon in 1762. In the Ministerial Association his heretical manuscript was circulated and discussed as “The Pudding” and in 1784 it finally appeared anonymously “by One who wishes well to the whole Human Race” under the title: The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, made manifest by the Gospel Revelation: or The Salvation of All Men, the Grand Thing aimed at in the Scheme of God. But he was old now in his eightieth year and he could espouse dangerous doctrines. He had fought episcopacy and the British crown; indeed, “Charles Old Brick, if well or sick, will Cry for Liberty” and he was known by reputation even to George the Third. He lived on and new notions of gowns and musical instruments bedeviled him . . . “it would not be long before he was in his grave—he knew that before his head was cold they would have an Organ—and they might do as they pleased.”66 Later in the same year (1786) John Eliot writes to Jeremy Belknap, “Dr. Chauncy hath an organ fixed up in his meeting house, hath consented Clarke shall have a gown . . . the Dr. says he never will show any more zeal, or scold, except at vice and immorality.”67 He had indeed mellowed and it was reported that he was “paying attention to a widow of 40.”68 A year later on February 10, 1787 he died.
The First Church held an honorable place throughout the century but, if the information supplied in 1766 to Ezra Stiles by Dr. Andrew Eliot, minister of the New North Church, is correct, the Old Brick had by now taken fourth place among the congregational churches with only one hundred-fifty families, while the Old South, the Brattle Street and the New North had two hundred, two hundred-eighty and three hundred respectively. A contemporary ballad describes the Boston clergy of 1772:
There’s puny John from Northampton
rev. jno. hunt
A lukewarm moderate man
And Collegue stout is without doubt
rev. jno. bacon
Wrapt with a Tory Clan.
There’s puffing Pem who does condemn
rev. dr. pemberton
All freedom’s noble Sons.
And Andrew sly who oft draws nigh
rev. dr. eliot
To Tommy’s skin and bones.
Old Mather’s Race will not disgrace
rev. dr. mather
Their noble Pedigree
rev. dr. mather byles sen.
And Charles Old Brick, both well and sick
rev. dr. chauncy
Will cry for Liberty.
Little Hopper, if you think proper,
rev. mr. stillman (bap.)
In Liberties cause so bold.
And John old North, tho’ little worth
rev. jno. lathrop
Wont sacrifice for Gold.
In Brattle Square we seldom meet
rev. dr. cooper
With silver-tongued Sam
Who smoothly glides between both sides
And so escapes a Jam.
There’s Penuel Puff is hearty enough
rev. mr. bowen
And so is Simeon Howard
rev. mr. howard
And long-lane Teague will join the League
rev. mr. morehead
That Freedom may be ours.69
The Old Brick Meetinghouse came through the Revolution unscathed, and it is reported that even the British troops were too overawed by Chauncy to desecrate his house of worship. During the British occupation he left the town but returned in May, 1776, and employed Ezra Stiles on a small salary as his assistant.
Although the Revolution had interrupted the ministry of the First Church, the evacuation of Boston in March, 1776, left the town relatively undisturbed for the remainder of the war. In 1778 the town had so sufficiently returned to normalcy that the First Church extended a call to John Clarke of Salem, who had been graduated from Harvard College the preceding year. Like Chauncy, he had moved radically away from the Calvinistic position and was generally understood to espouse the Arian notion of Christology. Emerson, however, suggests that he rested in the “negative conviction that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a Scriptural doctrine.” He appears to have been less convinced of the doctrine of universal restoration than was Dr. Chauncy but the evidence of this is based solely upon the fact that in the latter period of his ministry he remained silent upon the subject. He was troubled by the secularism of postwar Boston society and, on October 13, 1796, wrote to his uncle, Colonel Timothy Pickering:
The discouragements of my own are innumerable, and are daily increasing. There is a growing disbelief of the Christian religion; consequently, a growing contempt of its moral principles and duties. The love of pleasure is inordinate. So great a revolution has taken place in the opinions and manners of this place, that I can scarcely believe myself in Boston.70
Mr. Clarke was stricken with apoplexy on April 1, 1798, while preaching the afternoon sermon. He revived briefly but was able only to say, “my friends,” and lapsed into unconsciousness and the following morning died at his home at the age of forty-two.
Mr. Clarke was buried at the expense of the Society and there are still extant bills for the mournful occasion—coffin furniture, forty yards of assorted black ribbon, gauze, Italian crepe and lutestring with which the meetinghouse and mourners were adorned.
The First Church early gave especial attention to its music. As early as 1758, it was
suggested that a number of the Brethren, who were skilful singers, sitting together in some convenient place, would greatly tend to rectify our singing on the Lord’s day, and render that part of Divine Worship more agreeable, it was Voted that the Committee appoint the Persons and Place.71
In 1761 it was “desired to think of some method to encourage and revive the Spirit of Singing in this Church” and in the same year “it was voted to introduce the version of psalms called Tate and Brady, with such supplement of Dr. Watts’ hymns as our pastors shall think proper.”72 In 1785 an organ had been installed:
It is true as you have heard that we have an example of liberality, before unknown in the congregational churches. I hope and firmly believe it will be followed. The Organ is certainly a great assistance in divine worship. It drowns the voices of the young and those, who without any acquaintance with the rules, will attempt to sing. It helps a good voice and it solemnizes the heart. If this useful instrument must be given up, I should choose to have all singing set aside. Without it, church musick is generally intolerable. . . .73
The same year, John Greenleaf was engaged as organist and, although blind, seems to have rendered acceptable service for more than twenty years. By 1791 a Singing Society had been organized and a chamber was rented for seven weeks from Benjamin Blake.
The pulpit was supplied after the death of Mr. Clarke by various clergymen including John S. Popkin, later minister of the Federal Street Church, but the congregation gradually settled upon the Reverend William Emerson of Harvard, Massachusetts. The tastes of Mr. Emerson were not basically consonant with the isolation of a rural community but his occasional sermons in Boston had been received with the warmest approbation. The inhabitants of Harvard, on the other hand, seem to have had no great personal attachment to Mr. Emerson, but they insisted that he had been settled with them at no little expense to the town and they were not disposed to release him from his pastoral commitment without monetary compensation. The Boston church, however, invited Mr. Emerson to become their minister at a meeting of the Society, June 11, 1799. An extended exchange of letters (singularly lacking in Christian charity) ensued, and ultimately, on September 11, 1799, the town of Harvard “sold” Mr. Emerson to the First Church in Boston for the sum of one thousand dollars in compensation for the settlement given him by the Church and Society in Harvard and for the expenses occasioned by his removal from them to the First Church in Boston.74
Mr. Emerson, who was the father of Ralph Waldo Emerson, entered upon his Boston ministry with enthusiasm and with great acceptability to the parish. In the community he was active in charitable and literary matters and was among the founders of the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review and the Boston Athenæum. His health was precarious during much of his later life and in 1808 he was required to take a prolonged rest. In the winter of 1810, the evidences of tuberculosis were all too apparent and a sea voyage was undertaken in the hope of alleviation of his disease, but his case became hopeless and on May 11, 1811, he died at the age of forty-two. His widow and family of small children were tenderly cared for by the church and Mrs. Emerson was given a pension of $500 per year for a term of seven years.
During the ministry of Mr. Emerson, the Society decided to abandon the Old Brick and to relocate on a site of land near the corner of the present Summer and Washington Streets in Chauncy Place. This property had been conveyed to the Church in 1680 by Robert and Ann Hollingshead but at that time it was too remotely situated from the center of the town to have much value. By the opening of the nineteenth century, however, the location was convenient to the residences of most of the congregation and the Society decided to develop the lot by building several houses for rental and a new meetinghouse. The decision was doubtless prompted in considerable measure by the fact that the land values had risen drastically in the vicinity of the old house while the building after nearly a century was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain.
Historical preservation was not yet a characteristic American concern but the Old Brick was not razed without protest. The Boston Independent Chronicle printed a series of lamentations attributed to Benjamin Austin.
The workmen commenced the demolition on July 1, 1808, and four days later appeared:
Alas! Old Brick, you’re left in the lurch.
You bought your Pastor, and sold the Church.
If a proposition had been made in London, Paris, or Amsterdam to the society owning the First Church of either of those respectable Cities, to sell (on a principle of speculation) their ancient edifice, it would have been spurned at with indignation—the trifling profit anticipated by the sale, would never have led the proprietors to have razed a house of worship so well repaired as the Old Brick to gratify the rapacity of a few men who trouble society both in Church and State. After the demolition of the Old Brick, there is scarcely a vestige of antiquity in the town—We hope “Old South” will maintain its original ground—Even the British troops, though they attacked other places of worship never dared meddle with the Old Brick—for Chauncy was there.
On July twenty-eighth, more verses followed:
The Farewell Prayer of the Old Brick Church to her True Worshippers.
O Thou! who rul’st in heaven above
In mercy from thy righteous throne
Look down, with pitying eye regard
This church, thy ancient saints did own:
. . . . . . . . . . .
Could that old venerable sage,
Good Doctor Chauncy, come and find
The Church, the Bell, the Organ sold.
And all things changed he left behind
With great surprize would lift his hands
In humble adoration pray—
Help, Lord! for men of virtue fail
My good old flock are gone astray.
The Old Brick’s Bell’s Farewell to the Churches in Boston.
Now they’ve translated me in turn
And sold me to a country church.
The untimely death of Mr. Emerson in 1811 was followed by an interval of fourteen months before the settlement of his successor, John Lovejoy Abbot, on July 14, 1813. Mr. Abbot preached only a few Sundays, when the progress of consumption forced him to give up all exertion. He asked for a leave of absence, and on November 28, 1813 he sailed from New Bedford for Portugal, returning six months later with no improvement of health. He was unable to assume his ministerial duties and gradually declined until October 17, 1814, when he died at his father’s home in Andover at the age of thirty-one.
Mr. Abbot’s active ministry in the First Church was so brief that little is known of his theological position except that his views are said to have been “in substantial accord with those of Dr. Channing at that period.” It is pleasant to note that at his ordination and installation all the clergy of the city were invited including the good Bishop Cheverus.
The First Church had had the misfortune to lose three ministers in succession, each of whom had died in the prime of life. The removal to the new meetinghouse had not only been attended with a good deal of opposition but the structure itself proved none too satisfactory. Indeed, long before it was abandoned in 1868, it had been subjected to various and sundry alterations designed to render it more acceptable particularly as adjacent buildings shut out more and more of the natural light. The Unitarian Controversy, although the First Church remained relatively aloof from the arena of polemical debate, created rifts and tensions among the Boston churches that were detrimental to the spiritual harmony of the community. All in all, the First Church was in a critical period of its history, and, to crown it all, the treasurer of the Society became involved in financial dealings that cast a cloud over his reputation and brought his resignation.
The pulpit, however, did not long remain vacant for, within a few weeks after Mr. Abbot’s death, the church invited Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham to preach for four Sundays and he appeared so eminently suited to the needs of the parish that on March 15, 1815, he was ordained and installed over the church. Few men have had a happier ministry than was his for the ensuing thirty-five years. Born in Boston on July 23, 1793, he had passed through the Boston Latin School and Harvard College, graduating from the latter in 1811, and, at the age of nineteen, he had been appointed preceptor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard. He served the parish faithfully until increasing ill health prompted his resignation, but he remained a member of the church until his death on April 4, 1870. Possessed of ample private means through his marriage to the daughter of Peter C. Brooks, he often relinquished considerable portions of his stated salary and after 1842 gave up the use of the parsonage and built his own residence. He traveled extensively in Europe in 1827 and 1849. He was not a popular preacher and his preaching was “overfine for daily use and he was hindered by the manuscript behind which he tried to shelter himself.” He was a hymn writer of no mean ability and even in his later years, when totally blind, often translated German poems from memory.
Upon the resignation of Dr. Frothingham, the First Church extended a call on December 24, 1849, to Andrew Preston Peabody, who had been minister of the South Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for sixteen years. Mr. Peabody received only thirty-seven of the sixty-two votes cast at the meeting of the Society and, although a subsequent document with a much larger number of signatures was submitted to him, he declined the invitation as falling “far short of the ‘virtual unanimity’ which was the sole condition” upon which he was willing to accept the call.
The choice then fell upon Edward Everett Hale of Worcester, who was a nephew of Edward Everett, a prominent member of the parish. In spite, however, of the almost unanimous call and the extreme pressures from his friends, Mr. Hale declined the call because he believed that the Church was too tied to its traditions to adapt itself to the more experimental ministry he wished to undertake and which he later was to introduce into the South Congregational Church in Boston.
On October 7, 1852, the Church extended a call to Francis Tiffany, a young man of twenty-five, but unfortunately he had just accepted a similar invitation from the Unitarian Church in Springfield. Negotiations were opened about this time with the Hollis Street Church with a view of uniting the two congregations under the ministry of Thomas Starr King and, on November 21, 1852, it was “Voted that the Proprietors of the First Church are ready and desireous to invite the Reverend Thomas Starr King to be their Pastor, as soon as they are assured that such a step would meet the harmonious concurrence of the Society in Hollis Street.” The Hollis Street Church, however, rallied from its temporary financial difficulties and was able to increase Mr. King’s salary and continue as an independent congregation for another thirty years.
In February, 1853, the Society extended a call to Rufus Ellis, minister of the Unitarian Church in Northampton, and, on May 4, 1853, he was installed as minister of the First Church. Mr. Ellis’s attitude was conservative and traditionalistic, especially attached to liturgical forms, and, upon his urging, the Church adopted the King’s Chapel Liturgy. Under his ministry of more than thirty-five years the Church enjoyed a quiet prosperity and the vigor and affluence of its congregation made possible the removal in 1868 from Chauncy Place to Berkeley Street and the erection of an imposing stone meetinghouse.
The history of the First Church beyond the limits of these volumes has been consonant with its traditions. The Hollis Street Church, after weathering a succession of embarrassments and relocation on Newbury Street, joined forces in 1887 with the South Congregational Church under the ministry of Edward Everett Hale. In 1925 this merged congregation sold its Newbury Street property and came into the First Church, thereby uniting the heritage of King and Hale, who had themselves declined calls to the First Church pulpit.
The First Church in Boston represents the progressive evolution over a period of three centuries of a dynamic faith within the freedom of congregational polity. Successively Calvinistic, Arminian, Arian, Socinian, and Unitarian in theology, the First Church, although currently affiliated with the Unitarian-Universalist Association of America, attaches little significance to dogma or doctrine and the original covenant of membership, adopted on July 30, 1630, is still the only requirement for fellowship with those, who
do hereby solemnly, and religiously (as in His most holy Praesence) Promise and bind ourselves, to walke in all our wayes according to the Rule of the Gospell.