A TABLET on the meeting-house of the First Church in Plymouth bears this inscription:
The Church of Scrooby, Leyden and the Mayflower,
Gathered on this hillside in 1620,
Has ever since preserved unbroken records,
And maintained a continuous ministry,
Its first covenant being still the basis of
The meeting-house stands fronting the Town Square and Leyden Street,
Their hill of graves behind it,
Their watery way before.
The first three volumes of the church records preserve the story of this church from its beginnings at Scrooby until the year 1859. The records from the beginning until 1669 are in the handwriting of Nathaniel Morton, who served as clerk or secretary of the colonial Court from December 7, 1647, until June 2, 1685, and as town clerk from March 4, 1648, the date of his first record in the town book, until his death June 28, 1685.
In July, 1623, Nathaniel Morton, then a boy of about eleven years, came with his father, George Morton, in the Ann to Plymouth. His mother was Juliana Carpenter, sister of Alice Carpenter who, then the widow of Edward Southworth, was married to Governor Bradford in 1623. In 1669 the New England’s Memorial, the book by which Morton is best known, was “Published for the Use and Benefit of present and future Generations.”
When in January, 1680, he began the ecclesiastical history of the Church of Christ at Plymouth in New England, which is now presented in these volumes, he quaintly refers to his New England’s Memorial “in which I occasionally took Notice of Gods Great and Graciouss worke in erecting so many Churches of Christ in this wildernes; But it was Judged by some that were Judicious that I was too sparing and short in that behalf; The consideration wherof put mee on thoughts of Recollecting somthing more prticularly Relateing to the Church of Plymouth.”
Animated by that purpose and undismayed by the loss of his manuscript by the great fire in Boston in 1676, he writes, “I did once againe Repaire to the studdy of my much honored Vncle, William Bradford Esquire deceased.” In that storehouse of original material, with the manuscripts of the Governor before him and with the records of town and colony to him a familiar story, he undertakes the work. Boy and man he had lived in Plymouth for fifty-seven years on terms of closest intimacy with many a member of the Mayflower company who had welcomed him on his arrival in 1623. Official records, family tradition, and personal acquaintance with members, elders and ministers of the Pilgrim Church made him the best equipped man in all the colony to write the story of that church during the three-quarters of a century which had passed since its feeble beginnings in its English home. When Dr. Alexander Young published his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1841, the importance of these church records to the student of Pilgrim history amply justified the high tribute that learned annalist paid them when he wrote: “It takes precedence of every thing else relating to the Pilgrims, in time, authority, and interest. It will be found to contain a detailed history of their rise in the North of England, their persecutions there, their difficult and perilous escape into Holland, their residence in that hospitable land for twelve years, the causes which led to their emigration, and the means which they adopted to transport themselves to America.”1
Dr. Young was the first historian to note the real authorship of the narrative in the records, a fact put beyond all doubt by the marginal note of Morton, “This was originally pened by Willam Bradford Gour of New Plymouth.” The first volume also contains Governor Bradford’s first “Dialogue or the siune of a Conference between som younge men borne in New England and sundery Ancient men that came out of Holland and old England Anno dom̄ 1648,” giving an account of many of the English Independents and of the meaning of the term Separation, as understood by the leaders of the movement, and also the memoir of Elder Brewster, written by Bradford, and some letters from Robinson and others of the Pilgrim company.
In the towns and villages of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, where these counties bordered nearest together, this church was formed “and as the Lords ffree people Joyned themselues (by a Covenant of the Lord) into a Church estate in the ffellowshipp of the Gospell to walk in all his wayes made knowne or to be made knowne vnto them according to theire best endeauors, whatsoeuer it should Cost them.” The covenant which bound them was as simple as the burdens which oppressed them were severe.
Their first pastor was Mr. Richard Clifton, “a Graue and Reuerend Preacher,” who held that office from the organization of the church in 1606 until he was succeeded by John Robinson, some time his colleague. William Brewster was their first elder, and John Carver, their first Governor, was chosen deacon of the church while in Holland as early as 1617.
It is unnecessary to repeat here the story set forth in full in these records, since the publication of Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Plantation, which Morton freely used in these records and in part followed verbatim, has made the story of their lives, labors, and sufferings as familiar as a household tale. It is the ecclesiastical history rather than the political, economic and social record of the Pilgrims and their successors at Plymouth which is mainly preserved in these volumes and may justify an Introduction.
When the time for the Pilgrims’ departure from Leyden came, it was decided that as the greater number of the Leyden church were to stay behind, it was the duty of the pastor, John Robinson, to remain, and for the elder, William Brewster, to go with those who were to find a new home in the New World. It was also “agreed on by mutuall consente and covenante, that those that went should be an absolute church of them selves, as well as those that staid;” for they feared that in such a dangerous voyage and a removal to such a distance it might come to pass that they should never meet again. But this agreement was made with the proviso that “as any of the rest came over to them, or of the other returned upon occasion, they should be reputed as members without any further dismission or testimoniall.”2 Technically the date of the foundation of the First Church in Plymouth may be considered as 1620.
John Robinson, the scholarly and pious leader of this independent movement, must be regarded as the true founder of Independency or Congregationalism. His views as expressed in his later writings show a breadth and liberality and toleration which deeply impressed not only the members of his own church but exercised a wide influence in the religious thought of the time. It was undoubtedly true, as Edward Winslow admitted, that Robinson “was more rigid in his course and way at first, then towards his latter end.”3 When he exhorted the Pilgrims “If God should reveal any thing to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his Ministry,”4 he compelled the conviction and impressed upon his hearers the thought that there was more light yet to come.
Looking at the ecclesiastical history of this church in its earlier years in Holland and admitting the influence which the Dutch toleration exerted, one cannot fail to be impressed with the accuracy of the statement of Edward Winslow that “the foundation of our New-England Plantations was not laid upon Schisme, division, or Separation, but upon love, peace, and holinesse.”5 The Pilgrims undoubtedly were strict Calvinists. The fact that their great religious leader and teacher Robinson was “terrible to the Arminians” was a source of pride and gratification. Their religious dogma and their church polity was clearly and authoritatively stated by William Perkins and John Robinson, the two great leaders of the religious thought expressed in this independent movement.
William Perkins, a Cambridge graduate and voluminous writer, and whose works were more numerously included in Brewster’s library than those of any other theologian, had gathered into six principles the foundation of Christian religion. In a catechism entitled “The Fovndation of Christian Religion, gathered into sixe Principles. As it is to be learned of ignorant people, that they may be fit to heare Sermons with profit and to receiue the Lords Supper with comfort,” these six principles of Perkins are as follows:
1st. There is one God, Creator, and Gouernour of all things, distinguished into the Father, the sonne, and the holy Ghost.
2nd. All men are wholly corrupted with sin through Adams fal, & so are become slaues of Sathan, and guiltie of eternall damnation.
3rd. Iesus Christ the eternal Sonne of God, being made man, by his death vpon the Crosse, and by his righteousnesse, hath perfectly alone by himselfe, accomplished all things that are needfull for the saluation of mankind.
4th. A man of a contrite and humble spirite, by faith alone apprehending and applying Christ with all his merits vnto himselfe, is iustified before God, and sanctified.
5th. Faith commeth onely by the preaching of the word, and increaseth dayly by it: as also by the administration of the Sacraments, and praier.
6th. All men shall rise againe with their own bodies, to the last iudgement, which beeing ended, the godly shall possesse the kingdome of heauen: but vnbeleeuers and reprobates shall be in hell, tormented with the diuell and his angels for euer.6
Robinson wrote an Appendix to these principles in the form of a Catechism, containing forty-six questions and answers. He defines a church as “A company of faithful and holy people, with their seed, called by the Word of God into public covenant with Christ and amongst themselves, for mutual fellowship in the use of all the means of God’s glory and their salvation,” and limits its number so that it shall not exceed such a number as may ordinarily meet together in one place for the worship of God. He defines the offices of ministry in the church to be —
1. The pastor (exhorter), to whom is given the gift of wisdom for exhortation. 2. The teacher, to whom is given the gift of knowledge for doctrine. 3. The governing elder, who is to rule with diligence. . . . 4. The deacon, who is to administer the holy treasure with simplicity. 5. The widow or deaconess, who is to attend the sick and impotent with compassion and cheerfulness;
and states the outward works of the church’s communion with Christ as —
1. Prayer. 2. The reading and opening of the Word. 3. The sacraments. 4. Singing of Psalms. 5. Censures. 6. Contribution to the necessities of the saints.7
The church polity and the church dogma of this Pilgrim church are authoritatively stated in the catechisms of Perkins and of Robinson, and the catechism used as late as Mr. Cotton’s ministry (1669–1697) was the catechism of William Perkins, though it was during Mr. Cotton’s pastorate that a change was made (in 1678) to the Assembly’s shorter catechism.8
The first definitive declaration of the faith and church polity of the Pilgrims is found in the document in the Public Record Office at London, signed by John Robinson and William Brewster and first printed by Mr. George Bancroft in 1857, which reads as follows:
Seven Articles which ye Church of Leyden sent to ye [Privy] Councell of England to bee considered of in respeckt of their judgments occationed about theer going to Virginia Anno 1618.
1. To ye confession of fayth [the 39 Articles of Religion of 1562] published in ye name of ye Church of England & to every artikell theerof wee do wth ye reformed churches wheer wee live & also elswhere assent wholy.
2. As wee do acknolidg ye doctryne of fayth theer tawght so do wee ye fruites and effeckts of ye same doctryne to ye begetting of saving fayth in thousands in ye land [of England] (conformistes and reformistes) as ye ar called wth whom also as wth our bretheren wee do desyre to keepe sperituall communion in peace and will pracktis in our parts all lawfull thinges.
3. The King’s Majesty wee acknolidg for Supreame Governer in his Dominions in all causes and over all parsons, and yt none maye decklyne or apeale from his authority or judgment in any cause whatsoever but yt in all thinges obedience is dewe unto him, either active, if ye thing commanded be not agaynst God’s woord, or passive yf itt bee, except pardon can bee obtayned.
4. Wee judg itt lawfull [morally right] for his Majesty to apoynt bishops, civill overseers, or officers in awthoryty onder hime in ye severall provinces, dioses, congregations or parrishes, to oversee ye Churches and governe them civilly [secularly] according to ye Lawes of ye Land, untto whom ye ar in all thinges to gyve an account & by them to bee ordered according to Godlyness.
5. The authoryty of ye present bishops in ye Land [of England] wee do acknolidg so far forth as ye same is indeed derived from his Majesty untto them and as ye proseed in his name, whom wee will also theerein honor in all things and hime in them.
6. Wee beleeve yt no sinod, classes, convocation or assembly of Ecclesiastical Officers hath any power or awthoryty att all but as ye same [is] by ye Magestraet geven unto them.
7. Lastly, wee desyer to geve untto all Superiors dew honnor to preserve ye unity of ye speritt wth all feare God, to have peace wth all men what in us lyeth & wheerein wee err to bee instructed by any.9
Whether the purpose in subscribing to this declaration was mainly to minimize the differences between the Leyden church and the Church of England, in order to secure the necessary permission to go beyond the seas and found an English colony, or whether there is some distinction to be drawn between the ecclesiastical and civil authority of the bishops, which they recognized, and qualifies a literal construction of the language, is not clear. Winslow in his Hypocricie Unmasked, quotes Robinson as saying —
And to that end . . . I should be glad if some godly Minister would goe over with you, or come to you, before my comming; For . . . there will bee no difference between the unconformable Ministers [the Puritan Anglican clergy] and you, when they come to the practise of the Ordinances out of the Kingdome.10
To the same effect is the brief and simple statement in the letter of January, 1618, signed by Robinson and Brewster, as follows:
Touching the Eclesiastical minnestry Namely — of Pastours for teaching Elders for Ruleing and deacons for distributing the Churches Contribution as alsoe for the two sacraments Baptisme and the Lords supper wee doe wholly and in all points agree with the ffrench Reformed Churches, according to theire publick confession of ffaithe though some smal differences. The oath of Supremacie we shall willingly tak if it be Reqvired of vs if that Convenient satisfaction be not giuen by our takeing the oath of Allegience.11
The oath of Supremacy acknowledged the king to be “the supreme head of the Church of England,” and the oath of Allegiance was an oath of “submission and obedience to the king as a temporal sovereign independent of any other power upon earth.”
Although the imperious necessities of the situation made it necessary for the members of the Mayflower company to form themselves into a body politic for the administration of civil affairs, no occasion existed for a formal organization of a new church. The plan adopted in Leyden was entirely adequate to their needs and they had hoped that the pastor and the rest of the church might soon follow them to their new home. The death of Robinson in Leyden on March 1, 1625, prevented that consummation of their hopes which they devoutly wished. From time to time other members of the Leyden church came to Plymouth until in 1629, at the charge of the Plymouth brethren, thirty-five families were finally transported to Plymouth at the cost of about five hundred pounds sterling.
The result of this removal and the union that year with others who had been members of Mr. Lothrop’s church in England, was that the First Church at Plymouth about this time “became pretty numerous and flourishing, although in regard of Ministry it was low with them,” as stated by Mr. John Cotton in his Account of the Church of Christ in Plymouth.12
The faithful administrations of their scholarly and beloved elder did not fully meet all their needs. The duties and authority of an elder of the church did not include and permit the administration of the sacraments. In the absence of the pastor, marriages were performed by civil rather than ecclesiastical authorities, following the practice in Holland, a matter later of reproach to Edward Winslow and subjecting him to the penalty of imprisonment in the Fleet prison on the occasion of an early visit to London.
The first preacher at Plymouth was one John Lyford, who came to Plymouth in 1624 and before the expiration of a year was discovered to be “a vile man and an enemy to the plantation,” and was banished from Plymouth.
The church remained without a minister until 1628, and then there was sent over from England to be their minister a young man by the name of Rogers. The church did not hastily determine upon the settlement of Rogers, recalling their experience in Lyford’s case, and made some trial of him as a candidate with an unsatisfactory result. They found him to be “Crased in his braine,” and at the expense of the church sent him back to England. Their conclusion as to his mental condition seemed to be fully justified, for after his departure he “Grew quite destracted.”
The first settled minister of the church was the Rev. Ralph Smith who, at the invitation of the church, became its pastor in 1629 and remained with them until his resignation in 1635. During Mr. Smith’s ministry they employed assistants to him, finding him to be “a man of low gifts and parts.” Among these assistants were Mr. Roger Williams, “a young Man of bright Accomplishments, but of unstable Judgment,” who at his own request, against the wishes of many of the congregation, was granted a dismission to the church at Salem in 1634; and Mr. John Norton, who came to Plymouth in October, 1635, but went to Ipswich in the following March.13
The church then made choice of Mr. John Reyner as the successor to Mr. Smith, “an able and a Godly man; and of a Meek and humble sperite, sound in the truth and euery way vnreprouable in his life and Conversation.” During his term of service the church in 1638 endeavored to secure the services of Mr. Charles Chauncy as his colleague. Mr. Reyner was expected to officiate as pastor and Mr. Chauncy as teacher, according to the distinction of those days, the teacher’s duty being chiefly to explain the doctrines, and the pastor’s to enforce them with suitable counsels and exhortations.
Mr. Chauncy preached at Plymouth for nearly three years but declined a settlement, being of different opinion from the majority of the church as to the method of baptism, which he held should be by dipping or plunging the whole body in water. The church were reluctant to lose his services and offered to compromise by permitting him to administer the ordinance of baptism by immersion, provided he would permit Mr. Reyner to baptize, if requested, by sprinkling, which was then the mode in general use. The position was taken by some of the church leaders that both of these methods were lawful and proper but that the latter method, the baptism by sprinkling, was vastly more convenient in this cold climate. Mr. Chauncy “did not see Light to comply,” and left the Plymouth Church to become the minister of the church at Scituate, and later became President of Harvard College, entering upon the duties of his office on November 27, 1654, and died on the 19th of February, 1672.
After eighteen years of service Mr. Reyner resigned in 1654, “Richly accomplished with such Gifts and qvallifications as were befiting his place being wise faithfull Grave sober a louer of Good men Not Greedy of the matters of the world Armed with much faith patience and meeknes mixed with Currage in the cause of God.”14
In 1632 churches at Duxbury and Green’s Harbor (or Marshfield) were established, mainly upon practical considerations based upon the difficulty of members bringing “their wiues and Children to the publick worshipp and Church meetings heer.”
The third church to be set off was at Nauset, now Eastham. It had been at first proposed that the whole church should migrate to Nauset on account of the “straightnes and barrenes” which the inhabitants found in Plymouth. There was a marked division of opinion as to the wisdom of the removal which further consideration of the objections to the proposed change increased. It may be inferred from Bradford’s statement that he was not in favor of abandoning the settlement at Plymouth which with so great labor and pains they had established, and after much deliberation they began “to see their error,” and an agreement was finally reached that only those members of the church who had definitely decided upon removal and had made some beginning should establish themselves at Nauset.
The land at Nauset had been reserved by Governor Bradford for the benefit of the “purchasers or old comers” in his assignment of the patent of 1629, and the General Court granted in 1644 to the church at Plymouth or to those that went to dwell at Nauset a large tract, well defined in the grant.15 The effect of this migration to the new settlement of many active and leading members of the Plymouth church is quaintly and tenderly stated by Governor Bradford in these words:
And thus was this poore church left, like an anciente mother, growne olde, and forsaken of her children, (though not in their affections), yett in regarde of their bodily presence and personall helpfullnes. Her anciente members being most of them worne away by death; and these of later time being like children translated into other families, and she like a widow left only to trust in God. Thus she that had made many rich became her selfe poore.16
This movement of families from the town of Plymouth into the outlying districts raised some interesting questions which required consideration and advice. On the 5th day of August, 1639, Mr. Reyner, the pastor, and elder Brewster, wrote a letter, probably to the Rev. John Cotton at Boston, asking some questions “concerning the holding of farmes,” among them the following:
2. Seeing by meanes of such farmes a mans famylie is Diuided so that in busie tymes they cannot (except vpon the Lords day) all of them joyne with him in famylie duties whether to make use of them because of the forenamed needfulnes be not to doe evell that good may come of yt.17
After Mr. Reyner’s resignation in 1654, the church remained for fifteen years without a settled minister and was obliged to rely upon the services of neighboring ministers, although public worship was carried on each Sabbath by Elder Cushman with the assistance of some of the brethren, except when the pulpit was supplied for short periods during these years by Mr. James Williams, an able Gospel preacher, who after a brief service returned to England, and by Mr. William Brinsmead, a well accomplished servant of Christ.
In September, 1666, the Rev. John Cotton, son of the Rev. John Cotton of Boston, was called to Plymouth, but declined the invitation. The next year the invitation was renewed and he removed to Plymouth with his family November 30, 1667, but was not ordained as the minister of the church until June 30, 1669.
The distinction between the church and the town or parish in relation to their several powers to contract with or settle a minister may well be noted here, as it tends to explain the reason that the prudential affairs of the church had no consideration in the church meetings, whose full details are preserved in these records.
The power to settle the minister resided wholly in the members of the parish; the members of the church formed but a small part in numbers of the parish. The ancient usage required that the church should first make choice of a minister and then request the concurrence of the parish. If the parish did not concur, the action of the church was a mere nullity. If the parish concurred, then the contract of settlement was made between the parish and the minister and bound only the parish and minister. Until the town was divided into precincts or parishes, it was considered to be one parish, and when a separate parish was formed within it, then the inhabitants and territory not included in the separate parish constituted the first parish. Before the town was divided their parochial concerns were transacted at the town meeting. The town fixed the salary, imposed the rate to pay the salary and to provide for the purchasing of a place or parsonage for the minister, and contracted for the erection of the meeting-house. If a suit was brought by the builders of the meeting-house to recover for failure to pay the agreed cost of construction, it was brought against the town and the town instructed its committee to defend it.
The provisions for the payment of the minister’s salary were made by the town and varied with the changing years. Sometimes the salary was fixed in money alone. More often in the earlier years grant was made of money salary and firewood, as in the case of Mr. Brinsmead in 1666, when his salary was fixed at “seaventy pounds a yeare besides his fierwood.”18 Three years earlier in 1663 the town had ordered that the wood on Clark’s Island, Saquish, and the Gurnett’s Nose, be reserved for the use of the minister,19 an interesting record as it established the fact that the now barren points of Saquish and the Gurnett were once covered with wood, as shown in the descriptions of these localities by the early voyagers. Sometimes, as in the case of Mr. Cotton, provision was made by the town for an allowance to his wife or family in the event of his death, of an annual salary and the use of the parsonage house until the town was provided with another minister.
When money was difficult to obtain in 1677, the salary of Mr. Cotton of “four score pounds for this yeare” was paid by the town, one third in wheat or butter or tar or shingles; one third in rye, peas or malt; and one third in Indian corn, at the prices named in the vote.20 The town records show that from time to time efforts were made to provide for the maintenance by free subscription and committees were appointed to see what persons would contribute towards the minister’s support. This plan appeared to be unsatisfactory, as the town soon returned to the method of raising the salary by the rates. As late as 1795 the town leased the sedge lands along the Town Brook, which had been reserved for the use of the ministry, for 999 years, at a rental of six bushels of corn on the northerly side, the southerly side of the Brook having been rented for four bushels of corn in 1788, and until the death of the Rev. James Kendall in 1859 this rental was annually paid to the pastor by the lessees or their grantees.
If a town or parish settled a minister without any limitations as to the continuance of his settlement or any stipulation as to the method of dissolution, it created a contract for life and could be terminated only in the manner and for the causes established by law. The connection could not be dissolved by the parish at its mere will and pleasure without alleging some misconduct on the part of the minister. There were three established causes of forfeiture of office by the minister: first, a substantial and essential change of doctrine; secondly, a wilful neglect of duty; and thirdly, immoral or criminal conduct. The immoralities sufficient to justify a parish in dismissing their minister without the intervention of a council, are those of the grosser sort, such as habitual intemperance, lying, unchaste or immodest behavior.21
If the town or parish desired the dissolution of connection between them and the minister or the minister desired such dissolution, and also where there were charges of immorality or neglect on the part of the minister, the parties, if they could not agree to dissolve the contract, called to their assistance an ecclesiastical council. The decision of the council did not bind either party, and the effect of the advice of the council was merely a legal justification of the party who adopted its recommendation.22
The colonial laws as well as the decisions of the court show a solicitous care for the support of an able and godly minister. At the General Court held at Plymouth on the 10th of June, 1650, it was provided that “Whosoever shall villifie by approbrivs tearmes or speaches any church or minestry or ordinance being heerof lawfully convicted shall forfeite and pay to the vse of the collonie ten shillings for euery default.”23 The next year a penalty of ten shillings was imposed for neglecting public worship or assembling at a place upon any pretense whatsoever “in any way contrary to God and the allowance of the gouernment tending to the subversion of Religion and churches.”24 In 1655 the General Court provided that “such as shall deney the Scriptures to bee a rule of life shall receiue Corporall punishment according to the descretion of the Majestrate soe as it shall not extend to life or Limb.”25 And with commendable zeal that the minister should not be without oil in his lamps, the General Court recommended in 1662 to the towns “where Gods Prouidence shall cast any whales” that they should agree to set apart some part “of euery such fish or oyle for the Incurragement of an able Godly Minnester amongst them.”26 But all matters pertaining to the forms of church service were the exclusive concern of the church.
The church at Plymouth used Ainsworth’s version of the Psalms, entitled “The Book of Psalmes: Englished both in Prose and Metre,” until 1692. Longfellow in the Courtship of Myles Standish, describes Priscilla as seated beside her wheel and —
Open wide on her lap lay the well-worn psalm-book of Ainsworth,
Printed in Amsterdam, the words and the music together,
Rough-hewn, angular notes, like stones in the wall of a churchyard,
Darkened and overhung by the running vine of the verses.
The edition here referred to was “Imprinted at Amsterdam, By Giles Thorp. Ao. Di. 1612.”
On May 17, 1685, the elders stayed the church after public worship was ended, and “moved to sing Psalm: 130: in another Translation, because in Mr Ainsworths Translation which wee sang, the tune was soe difficult few could follow it, the chh readily consented thereunto.” On August 7, 1692, the church voted unanimously that “when the tunes are difficult in the Translation wee use, wee will sing the Psalmes now used in our neighbor-ches in the Bay.” This was “The Bay Psalm Book,” printed first at Cambridge in 1640 and sometimes known as “The New England Version.”
As early as 1681 the practice of reading the psalm line by line for the people to sing, was first introduced. At a church meeting held February 10, 1681, the elders told the church that “a Brother earnestly desired the Psalmes might be read in publick worship, because else he was incapable of practising that ordinance.” The church hesitated to make this innovation in the old custom and desired the pastor to show from the Scriptures the lawfulness of reading the psalm in order to singing. The pastor considered the subject for more than six months and then (on September 18) showed the lawfulness and necessity of reading the psalm, and two weeks later (October 2, 1681) it was decided, although not without opposition, that the reading of the psalms was lawful and the practice was adopted of the elder’s reading the psalm and the pastor’s expounding the psalm before singing.
In several meetings in 1770 and 1771 the church considered changing the version of the Psalms which were sung in public worship.27 For some years the versions of Dr. Watts and of Tait and Brady had been on trial. The church was divided; some strongly in favor of Dr. Watts’s version, and others bitterly opposed, and it was decided, subject to the approval of the congregation, that Tait and Brady’s version be hereafter sung in public worship, and also, that the hymns annexed to that version, mainly by Dr. Watts, be made use of. But it was voted in 1786 that Dr. Watts’s “Version of the Psalms, & Hymns united, be sung in future.”
It is a curious illustration of the bitterness of the feeling as to the use of the hymns by Dr. Watts that on May 1, 1776, one of the deacons was brought to trial before the church charged with saying that “when Dr Watts composed his Hymns, he was under the Influence of ye Devil.” The church handled the matter ingeniously and voted that it was proved the deacon “said so with respect to his Psalms, tho not Hymns.” The deacon expressed his regret that he used such an expression, if he did use it, and the church accepted his qualified apology and voted to forgive him.28
From the time of Mr. Cotton’s settlement, the records of the church were kept by the ministers and during his ministry the practice began, which was followed by all his successors, of giving in full detail the names of communicants of the church and persons admitted to membership, and also full lists of the baptisms and deaths of members, which will be found of especial interest to genealogists and antiquarians.29 The pastors of the church also kept full records of the ecclesiastical councils and ordinations to which the church was invited and was represented by its minister and delegates.30 The minute reports of the numerous cases in the church which required investigation and trial present some curious cases of church discipline, where the penalty varied from a warning or temporary suspension of privileges to formal dismissal and excommunication.31
Mr. Cotton introduced (or revived) in 1669 the practice of catechizing children, using at first the catechism composed by the Rev. William Perkins, and later (in 1678) the Assembly’s catechism was adopted. It was also during his ministry that the change was made from the Ainsworth Psalm Book to the New England Psalm Book, before referred to.
In June, 1676, in compliance with the request of the General Court that “all our churches renew their covenant engagement to God for Reformation of all provoking evills,” the church met and voted that the following covenant should be left upon record as that which they “did own to be the substance of that Covenant which their Fathers’ entered into at the first gathering of the Church:”
In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ & in obedience to his holy will & divine ordinances.
Wee being by the most wise & good providence of God brought together in this place & desirous to unite our selves into one congregation or church under the Lord Jesus Christ our Head, that it may be in such sort as becometh all those whom He hath redeemed & sanctifyed to himselfe, wee doe hereby solemnly & religiously (as in his most holy prescence) avouch the Lord Jehovah the only true God to be our God & the God of ours & doe promise & binde ourselves to walke in all our wayes according to the Rule of the Gospel & in all sincere conformity to His holy ordinances & in mutuall love to & watchfullnesse over one another, depending wholy & only upon the Lord our God to enable us by his grace hereunto.32
Some differences having arisen in the church, Mr. Cotton resigned and at his request was dismissed on October 5, 1697. The reasons for Mr. Cotton’s resignation do not clearly appear in the church records. It is suggested that a difference of opinion between the pastor and his church as to the position taken by Mr. Isaac Cushman, who accepted an invitation to preach over the “upper society,” since called Plympton,33 before his designation to office of ruling elder by the church, was the principal cause for Mr. Cotton’s later withdrawal. Judge Sewall in his Diary gives an interesting account of his visit to Plymouth in March, 1698, and his interviews with Mr. Cotton and members of the church, which suggests some more serious grounds for Mr. Cotton’s resignation.34 He remained in Plymouth for a year after his withdrawal from his pastorate and then accepted a call to the church at Charleston, South Carolina, having made up all differences as his grandson, John Cotton, says with the Plymouth church, and receiving a recommendation from several ministers. He sailed for Charleston on the 16th of November, 1698, and died there after a brief but successful ministry, on the 18th of September, 1699. The Charleston church erected in token of their respect, a monument over his grave in that city, and the Plymouth church erected a monument to his memory on Burial Hill. From a diary kept by Josiah Cotton, son of the Rev. John Cotton of Plymouth, Dr. James Thacher copied an account of the life of this Plymouth minister, in which it is stated:
He had a vast and strong memory, and was a living index to the Bible. . . . He sometimes preached in the Indian language, and he corrected the second and last edition of the Indian bible. . . . He was a competent scholar, but divinity was his favorite study. He discharged the work of the ministry to good acceptance, both in public and in private, and was very desirous of the conversion of souls. He ruled his house like a tender parent; was a hearty friend, helpful to the needy, kind to strangers and doubtless a good man. And yet, what man is there without his failings?35
He was succeeded by the Rev. Ephraim Little, who after two years’ probation was ordained in 1699 and continued as the minister of the church until his death on the 24th of November, 1723. It may be noted that Mr. Little was the first minister of the church to be buried on Burial Hill. Since the landing of the Pilgrims only one other minister, the Rev. Chandler Robbins, rests in that graveyard beside the church.
The meeting of the church council in 1706 to hear the complaints of members of the church in Middleboro of the intemperance and excessive drinking of the minister of that church, shows the limited power and authority of church councils and that the particular province of the church council was to advise and not direct, and that the right to terminate the pastoral relations between minister and church was vested in the parish alone. Delegates from four churches heard the complaint and adjudged the charges to be proved and then “advised him to make a peaceable and Ordrely Secession” from the church, and advised the church to dismiss him with such expressions of love and charity as became the Gospel. Then those members of the church who were dissatisfied with the advice of the council called a second council of twelve churches. Twelve pastors and twenty-two delegates assembled in response to the call and concurred with the former council.36
Mr. Little is described as a “gentleman more inclined to the active than the studious life; but should be remembered for his useful services as a minister, and for his exemplary life and conversation, being one of good memory, a quick invention, having an excellent gift in prayer, and in occasional performances also excelling.”37
The records of the church during Mr. Cotton’s and Mr. Little’s ministries contain many references to the general fasts and particular fasts observed by the church. The general fasts were fasts throughout the province, held in accordance with the requirements of the General Court, and particular fasts were those limited to the church itself, and the speedy answers to the prayers of the church were often noted with pious satisfaction.
In the administration of the right of baptism, a difference of opinion existed in the practice of the ministers. Mr. Little held that if the mother was in full communion, the child was undeniably a proper subject of baptism. For the first time in the history of the church, the pastor performed the right of baptism privately by baptizing on July 19, 1718, one Ephraim Holmes, who being at the point of death was baptized in his own house, and justifies the proceedings by the following memorandum in the record:
I nevr could find that baptism (viz. the administration of it) is any where in scripture Limitted To ye sabbath or a public Assembly, & I always had a greatr regard to ye Scripture than the Custome or practice of any Minister or Church.
(2) nor To a publick Assembly:
1: not to ye sabbath.38
During Mr. Little’s pastorate two churches were set off from the ancient church, one in the year 1717 in the north part of the town, now Kingston, which was the fifth church;39 another in 1738 at Manomet or Monument Ponds, which was the sixth church40 founded by members of the original First Church.
On the 29th of July, 1724, the Rev. Nathaniel Leonard of Norton, who had been chosen to succeed Mr. Little on the 13th of February, 1724, was ordained as minister. The formal letters of invitation were sent to the neighboring churches, requesting the presence of minister and delegates to the ministerial council and ordination. Mr. Leonard notes in his record the names of fifty-four male communicants or members of the church, and one hundred and one females, at the time of his ordination. The house which he built and occupied on the southerly side of Leyden Street is still standing, the oldest parsonage house now remaining in Plymouth.
As a result of the preachings of Andrew Croswell,41 a revival minister, with whom Mr. Leonard was in sympathy as he permitted him to preach in his pulpit,42 differences arose in the church and Josiah Cotton, son of the Rev. John Cotton of Plymouth, propounded certain queries, one of which at least was aimed directly at Mr. Croswell’s methods and preachings. The church met to consider the problem “Whether a sudden and short distress, and as sudden joy, amounts to the repentance described and required. (2 Corin. vii. 9–11.).”43 No formal decision was made by the church, but as a result of these church dissensions some of the society who were bitterly opposed to Mr. Leonard withdrew from the church and in 1744 organized the third Congregational society within the town, which was the seventh church formed from the First Church. This church, known as the Third Church, continued as a separate organization until 1784, when it re-united during the pastorate of Mr. Robbins with the old First Church.44
Mr. Leonard’s health failing in 1757 he asked to be dismissed from his pastoral relation, which was assented to by the church with the understanding that it was not to be formally completed until his successor had been settled. When his successor was ordained on January 30, 1760, Mr. Leonard was present at the ordination and came from his home in Norton, to which he had removed in 1757, took part in the exercises of the ordination, and secured the formal dismission from his pastorate, the church “at the same Time acknowledging it is a great Favour of Heaven, that we have enjoyed his Labours So long. Viz. For near three & thirty Years: In this Time we have found him a diligent, zealous, faithful Minister of Jesus Christ.”45
After the dismissal of Mr. Leonard, the church heard many candidates and made several unsuccessful attempts to settle a minister. Invitations to clergymen in other places to become the minister of the church at Plymouth for one reason or another had been declined and after all hopes faded, the Rev. Chandler Robbins of Branford, Connecticut, was invited to preach as a candidate, and on October 30, 1759, the church chose him as Mr. Leonard’s successor, but required that he should declare his assent and consent to the New England Confession of Faith or exhibit one in writing to the satisfaction of the church. Mr. Robbins accepted the call after a public declaration before the church and congregation of his assent and consent to the New England Confession, and on the 30th of January, 1760, was ordained as the minister of the First Church.
On June 11, 1761, Mr. Leonard died at Norton and the church records, quoting from the public prints, pay tribute to his memory: “He was a Man of considerable natural Abilities (as well of acquired Accomplishments,) of a clear Head, Solid judgment, penetrating Tho’t, Excelling in Conference and in giving Counsel & Advice in difficult Cases.”46
On December 19, 1770, Mr. Robbins called the church together to consider some matters of importance relative to church discipline, etc. The following question was proposed by him for consideration by the church: “Whither it be the Opinion of this Chh that the half way Practice of owning or entering into Covenant [without coming into full communion], which has of late years, been adopted by this Chh, be a scriptural Method — or a practice warranted by sd Word of God, & so to be persisted in?”47
To this half-way practice Mr. Robbins was strenuously opposed; the church was divided. Mr. John Cotton48 was a zealous supporter and advocate of the practice which permitted persons owning or renewing the covenant to have baptism for their children without coming into full communion. At several church meetings he delivered some essays on this important question as he termed it, and later printed the essays with some vigorous and at times bitter letters which passed between Mr. Robbins and himself. The controversy continued during Mr. Robbins’s ministry and was one of the contributing causes which led to the withdrawal of some members of the church shortly after Dr. Kendall’s settlement, and to the organization of the Third Church in Plymouth.49 The issues involved have lost much of their interest to-day and it is not material nor practical to state at length the theological arguments on the one side or the other which the stout champions presented. The curious reader will find in the records,50 in the little volume of Mr. Cotton’s above referred to, and in the other pamphlets published by the disputants, an interesting discussion of the disputed points and a striking illustration of the importance attached to a now forgotten matter of dispute.
The practice of the church from the beginning seemed to sustain the position of Mr. Cotton. That this practice met with the approval of his “grandfather Cotton, the former minister of this church,” he finds by the manuscript written by his grandfather’s “own hand.” To the suggestion —
“That we received this practice by tradition from our Fathers without examination, and have gone on in a loose way without being able to give any good reason for it.” I answer, that neither our Fathers introduced it, nor we received it in this light manner. The question was started in the country soon after grand-children were born to the first comers, and the point agitated for twenty or thirty years by the ablest Divines, until at last the Synod of all the Ministers and churches, came to a solemn decision about it in the year 1662, after much prayer, study, and converse, and gave such weighty reasons for it as were never yet answered. Neither did many of their posterity receive it thus lightly: Mr. Leonard in particular had occasion and thoroughly studied the controversy, as appeared by several sermons on the point; and the same may be said of many others.51
Nathaniel Morton, writing of the ordination of Mr. Francis Higginson and Mr. Samuel Skelton at Salem in 1629, states the practice clearly and simply as follows:
The two Ministers there being seriously studious of Reformation, they considered of the state of their Children, together with their Parents; concerning which, Letters did pass between Mr. Higginson, and Mr. Brewster the reverend Elder of the church of Plimouth, and they did agree in their judgements, viz. concerning the Church-Membership of the Children with their parents, and that Baptism was a seal of their Membership, only when they were Adult, they being not scandalous, they were to be examined by the Church-Officers, and upon their approbation of their fitness, and upon the Childrens publick and personal owning of the Covenant, they were to be received unto the Lords Supper. Accordingly Mr. Higginson’s eldest Son, being about fifteen years of age, was owned to have been received a member together with his Parents, and being privately examined by the Pastor, Mr. Skelton, about his knowledge in the principles of Religion, he did present him before the Church when the Lords supper was to be Administred, and the Childe then publickly and personally owning the Covenant of the God of his Father, he was admitted unto the Lords supper: it being then professedly owned, according to 1 Cor. 7. 14. that the Children of the Church are holy unto the Lord as well as their Parents, Accordingly, the Parents owning and retaining the Baptism, which they themselves received in their Infancy, in their Native Land, as they had any Children born, Baptism was administred unto them.52
The reason Plymouth Church did not join the Synod was mainly because that church “was without a minister ten years together about that time.”
It seems undisputed that Mr. Leonard adopted the practice for which Mr. Cotton contended, but it was objected that he had great difficulty in bringing in the practice and was seven years about it, which delay was due to his prudence, for he waited until he gained the acquiescence of all. This was in accordance with the ancient practice and constitution of the church, for in the records we find that they would not vote in affairs of importance, especially in alterations of any part of worship, until they had gained the consent of every brother, at least so far as to acquiesce in the church procedure.
The whole correspondence between the minister and Mr. Cotton was marked with bitterness. Mr. Robbins describes Mr. Cotton’s “last Piece” as a “most injurious, unchristian, ungentleman-like, gross, misrepresentation of the sentiments of your brethren.” This was bad enough, but it did not disturb Mr. Cotton’s sensitive feelings as did the suggestion that his (Cotton’s) opinions tended “to establish the most dangerous tenets of the Arminians,” to which he replies, “Mr. Robbins, I must tell you, I scorn the charge,” and later returns to the attack with the assertion that “there is no more connexion between this practice and Arminianism than between it and atheism,” and closes his argument on that point with the assertion “Methinks the boldest face may be justly ashamed ever to mention it any more.” Mr. Robbins offered to “bury the hatchet and forget and forgive and for the future to live in love and peace.”
The settlement of the difficulty appeared to Mr. Cotton as “a further insult” and not a retraction or acknowledgment, and the controversy proceeded with his fourth and last essay53 in which he proposed that “the church, by a formal vote, adopt the method I proposed the last town meeting, viz. for a neighbouring Minister to baptize the children of the church, as long as Mr. Robbins’s scruples remain. . . . We are willing to give him liberty of conscience; and expect the same liberty from him. And should think it hard, if he endeavours to prevent any Minister’s coming.”54 The town never voted on Mr. Cotton’s proposal, and the church at its meeting on June 30, 1772, voted to drop the affair for the present and “to reassume the further Consideration thereof, when they shall think it proper or necessary.” The suggestion, however, in time became adopted in practice, and those children who failed to meet with the minister’s strict requirements were baptized by a more liberal preacher on the occasion of some of Mr. Robbins’s infrequent exchanges.
The church was not only divided on matters of practice and dogma, but also was not in complete accord on the issues presented by the Revolutionary War. Mr. Robbins was a sturdy patriot and served from time to time with the Revolutionary forces at Dorchester as chaplain, but some of the leading citizens of the town were not in sympathy with the demands for independence and separation from the mother country. Deacon Foster was brought before the church charged inter alia that his political conduct and practice were just matters of offence, that he “discovers a Willingness to have this Country enslaved,” and “is an Advocate for ye Destructive Doctrines of Positive Obedience & Non Resistance.”
On July 17, 1776, at the hearing upon the charges against Deacon Foster, it was urged against him that he looked upon those of the brethren who were opposed to him in political opinions as rebels and deserving of punishment, and he being unwilling to make any recantation, it was voted almost unanimously that they could not contentedly communicate with him at the Lord’s table. At the deacon’s request the meeting was adjourned for further deliberation, without proceeding to his formal suspension from the Communion, and before final action was taken Deacon Foster died of small-pox in January, 1777.
Another of the brethren explained his non-attendance upon church worship upon the ground that “The people of the town in general treated him in contempt, calling him a Tory.”
In 1794 a committee of the church and a committee of the parish were appointed to meet and prepare a form of admission to the church and confession of faith. Dr. Robbins proposed a plan which met the approval of his committee but the committee of the parish would not concur. The confession of faith, as stated by Dr. Robbins and adopted by the church in June, 1795, contained fourteen articles, agreeing in substance with the six principles of William Perkins.
The records of the church during Dr. Robbins’s term of service contain a larger number of cases of church discipline than are to be found in the records kept by any other of the pastors of the church. A scholarly, learned and devout minister, possessing the confidence and respect of all his congregation and the affection of many, he had positive ideas as to the duties and responsibilities of pastor and church to its erring members. The morals as well as the religious beliefs of the members of his parish were subjects of his interest and care. He thoroughly believed in the propriety and importance of public admonitions and public, confessions,55 and while he tempered justice with mercy as he understood it, in the cases of those of his flock who were prepared to retract their errors and confess their sins and show repentance, he did not hesitate to proceed to the severest measures which it was possible for a church to take.
On July 1, 1798, he pronounced formal sentence of excommunication upon one member of his church: “I declare him to belong visibly to the sinful & woful Kingdom of Satan, the Ruler of the Darkness of this World. I declare him to be a Person, from whom Christians, the followers of our holy Lord are to ‘withdraw themselves, as from one that walks disorderly.’ And this just Sentence, now passed upon him, by the Church in the Name & by the Authority of Christ, is but a Prelude & Representation of a Sentence, far more dreadful to be passed upon him, in the Day when the Lord Jesus Christ shall come to judge the world.”56
Upon the re-union of the Third and First churches in 1784, Dr. Robbins became the pastor of a parish including within its limits the town of Plymouth excepting only the precinct of Manomet Ponds, and until his death on June 30, 1799, he was, with the exception of the pastor of that outlying precinct, the only settled minister in the town. Whatever dissatisfaction existed with Dr. Robbins’s strictness in religious and parochial matters was undoubtedly held in check during his term of service by the affection and respect which the members of his parish entertained for him and no formal action looking towards a division of the church was had, although it is probable that a majority of the church were not entirely in sympathy with his attitude upon some matters of discipline and practice.
Until 1788 he occupied the parsonage on the northerly side of Leyden Street, which stands on a portion of the lot presented to the church by the widow and son of Dr. Samuel Fuller of the Mayflower, who for many years was a deacon of the church. This parsonage house is still standing and was occupied by his successor, Dr. Kendall. The following memorandum appears in the church records:
Lord’s Day June 30th 1799, died, after a long and distressing illness, The Revd Chandler Robbins DD. The justly & highly esteemed & greatly beloved Pastor of this Church; to the great and inexpressible loss of his bereaved flock, and his other numerous acquaintance. After having faithfully and indefatigably laboured in this part of the Lords vineyard, nearly forty years, it pleased his Divine Master to release him from his service here, & to call him home to receive a gracious reward.57
The last entry made by Dr. Robbins on the church records was the record of the meeting of February 12, 1799. The moderator of the next meeting, held November 4, 1799, records the choice of a minister by the church to succeed Dr. Robbins by a vote of twenty-three for Mr. James Kendall and “fifteen were not for him.” The parish voted to concur with the church by a vote of 253 in the affirmative and 15 in the negative. Mr. Kendall’s answer to the call given him by the church on the 4th of November, 1799, is recorded in full in the records. He was born at Sterling, November 3, 1769, and was nearly fitted to enter Harvard College at the early age of fourteen, but on account of serious trouble with his eyes, attributed to the closeness of his application to the study of Greek in the evening, he was not permitted to enter college until 1792. He was graduated in the class of 1796 with high rank and in 1798 became a tutor of Greek in the College, and later received the degree of A.M. in course and of S.T.D. in 1825. He was the first candidate invited to preach in Plymouth after the death of Dr. Robbins and preached his first sermon as candidate on October 13, 1799. Dr. Thomas Robbins, a nephew of Dr. Chandler Robbins, notes in his diary of that day: “Heard Mr. Kendall preach. He appears to be an Arminian in full. A very great congregation here.”58
Without attempting to analyze minutely the differences between the distinguishing tenets of the Arminians and those of the Calvinists, it is sufficient to say that the Arminians regarded the doctrines of Calvin with regard to free will, predestination, and grace as too severe, and adopted a religious system which extends the love of the Supreme Being and the “merits of Jesus Christ” to all mankind.
For thirty-eight years Dr. Kendall was the sole pastor of the First Church and after the settlement of his colleague, the Rev. George W. Briggs, he preached frequently as the senior pastor of the church in his own and other pulpits. He died on March 17, 1859, after a ministry of nearly sixty years, leaving “the memory of the pious pastor, the lover of peace, the promoter of good will among men, the stedfast christian friend, who in his daily life, so well exemplified their [the Pilgrims’] virtues, and their all sustaining faith.”59 He published many sermons and addresses. Eleven years after his death Governor Clifford at his speech on the Pilgrim anniversary in 1870, gracefully referred to “the saintlike aspect, the serene presence, and the mellifluous voice of another divine of a later age, the worthy successor of John Robinson and Elder Brewster, the Reverend Dr. Kendall.”60
The church sent invitations to fourteen churches, to President Willard of Harvard College, and the Rev. Dr. David Tappan, Professor of Divinity, to be present at his ordination. The ecclesiastical council met at Plymouth on the 31st of December, 1799, nine churches being represented. A remonstrance against ordaining him as pastor of the church was presented to the council by three members, who said they represented fifteen male members. The council, after due consideration and giving the remonstrance its full weight, voted that they were ready to comply with the request of the First Church of Christ in Plymouth, expressed in their letters missive, and proceeded with the ordination. On January 1, 1800, Mr. Kendall was solemnly ordained to the work of the Gospel ministry and pastor of the First Church of Christ in Plymouth.
On the 17th of September, 1801, a meeting of the church was held and a request was submitted by one of the brethren that all the members, male and female, that wished be dismissed from their relations with the First Church, be formed into a new church by the name of the Third Church of Christ in Plymouth, and that any member who desires hereafter a dismission from either church to join the other one, be dismissed and recommended to the other. And further, that an equal proportion of the church furniture according to the numbers of the Third Church be granted to that church.
On the 24th of September the church again met for further consideration of this request. The petitioners explained that they had nothing further in view than that the removal of relations from one church to the other in the future be regulated according to the usual practice of this and other Congregational churches in New England, and they relinquished their claims to the church furniture, being convinced that as it was given to the First Church the present members were not exclusively entitled to it, and therefore had no right to the disposal of it. They asked only for the privilege of using it a certain time until it was convenient for them to furnish their own table.
A petition was presented, signed by eighteen males and thirty-five females, asking that they be dismissed from their present relations to the First Church in order to be set off into a distinct church by the name of the Third Church in Plymouth, and the request was assented to unanimously. Then the church voted to grant the privilege of using the communion service for two years. So without apparent bitterness, with singular unanimity, their church was established in Plymouth with substantially the same provision as to the admission and recommendation of members as was made when the church in Leyden was divided, and the members of that church who “went should be an absolute church of themselves as well as those who staid.”
The Legislature by an act passed March 1, 1802, incorporated by name 144 men and 8 women with their “polls and estates” into a parish by the name of the Third Congregational Society in Plymouth.61 The third precinct or parish which was first established in 1744 had been re-united with the first parish by the act of March 20, 1784. The original petition for this act of incorporation in 1801, which is preserved in the State archives, bases the application for a charter upon five reasons which were given as follows:
1st [That the petitioners had] Erected a new building for public worship in which a respectable Congregation has Attended for more than one Year.
2d That fifty three members of the first Church have been regularly dismissd from that Church which was nearly one half of its members & have formed into Church estate by the name of the 3d Church of Christ in plymouth, who with others of your petitioners Cannot Concientously unite in public worship with those from whom they Seperated.
3d That the precinct is too numerous to worship in One house as it consists of 304062 Souls & more than 500 rateable poles, & being so numerous the people cannot be Accommodated with Seats in one house.
4th That your petitioners have to Support not only their public teacher, but have to pay to support the minister of the first precinct.
5th Considering the extent of the precinct & numerous Inhabitants your petitioners think the present pastor inadequate to perform the requirements of his office To the whole.
The number of inhabitants of the town, the fact that there were more than 500 adult males which made it impossible, if there was that general desire on the part of the people to attend divine worship which it had been assumed existed in earlier days, for the existing meeting-house to hold the possible worshippers, might of itself justify the establishment of another society within the limits of the town. That the theological differences which existed were more minute and technical than substantial, appears in the report of the committee, which was accepted by the town, to which was referred the application of some of the petitioners for the sale to them of a part of the Training Green belonging to the town upon which to erect their meeting-house. The committee said in part in its report to the town on the 5th of April, 1800:
To comply with the request of the applicants by granting a lot in Training Green for the purpose mentioned would, in the opinion of your committee, not only preclude the town, under whatever circumstances it may be, from opposing the prosecution of that object, but would sanction the separation of a small number of persons on principles that do not appear to be substantial and well-founded. If religious societies are to be split up into divisions merely from a variance of sentiment in certain polemic speculations, about which the greatest and best men in all ages of the Christian church have differed, each Christian must consecrate his own dwelling as his sanctuary, for scarcely two of the best informed Christians can be found precisely to agree on every controverted point.
The church records during Mr. Kendall’s ministry relate mainly to church meetings and election of church officers and delegates to the various ordinations and councils to which the church was invited. The records of baptisms, marriages,63 and deaths were kept in full as was the custom of his predecessors. Dr. Robbins on January 1, 1799, recorded a list of members of the church who were admitted before he came to Plymouth and a list of all members admitted during the term of his settlement, and the list of admissions to and dismissions from the church was continued and kept by his successor.
The rigor of church discipline which had prevailed in the past was much relaxed and may be attributed in part to a less strict and formal compliance with disputed points of doctrine which had divided the church members in former years, as well as to the political, social, and economic changes which these changing years brought.
But few cases of discipline are recorded in the later records, and in most cases diligent effort was made by the appointment of committees and others instructed to wait on the delinquents and persuade them to correct the objectionable practices, without enforcing the severity of church discipline.
In July, 1823, it was voted to alter the terms and conditions of becoming members of the church and enjoying Christian privileges, in order to render them more in accordance with the requirements of the Gospel and more agreeable to apostolic practice, and more in accordance with the usage of this ancient church for one hundred and seventy-five years.
It was noted that in the year 1795 a departure from the ancient usage was introduced by adopting a written creed or confession as a condition of admission to the Christian ordinances, and it was determined that that was in fact a departure from the practice of the church from the time of our forefathers and from the first principle of Protestantism, which is a sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for all the purposes of faith and practice. Instead, therefore, of continuing to make a public acknowledgment of this creed a condition of enjoying fellowship and communion in the future, it was voted unanimously to return to the former practice of the church in this respect and adopt the covenant made use of by the church previous to the years 1795. The original church covenant was as follows:
You do (now) in the presence of God, in the presence of his holy Angels, and in the presence of this solemn assembly, this day avouch the Lord Jehovah, the only living and the true, God, to be your God, and to give up yourself to him alone, acknowledging God the Father be your Father and Sovereign: And giving yourself unto the Lord Jesus Christ as your only Priest and atonement, as your only Prophet and Guide, as your only King and Lawgiver; and to the Holy Spirit of God as your only Sanctifier and Comforter; and also giving up yourself to this Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, You do solemnly promise by the help of his grace to walk with God and this his Church, in ways of holy Communion, and due subjection to all his holy ordinances, and according to his will, revealed in his holy word.64
It was also voted that written relations should no longer be required as a term of admission to Christian ordinances, but that it should be optional with the applicant to communicate his request in writing or verbally through the pastor.
The word “Unitarian” does not appear in the records earlier than June, 1828, when a letter was communicated from the Second Congregational Unitarian Society in New York, requesting the aid of this church by their pastor and delegate at the ordination of Mr. William Parsons Lunt over said society.65 Prior to that time many churches, to which this church was invited to send delegates to the ordinations or meetings of ecclesiastical councils, were not referred to as Unitarian churches but uniformly as Congregational churches or by their proper legal title. That the distinctive name of Unitarian was not adopted by the First Parish although its affiliations with that denomination existed in fact, is shown by the organization on February 14, 1831, of a religious society in the town under the name of the “Unitarian Society.” On May 16, 1831, that society elected the Rev. James H. Bugbee for their teacher for the year ensuing. At that time Mr. Bugbee was the minister of the Universalist Society in Plymouth. It had a brief existence, the date of the last entry in its record being April 30, 1833.
On the 15th of June, 1837, the church again voted unanimously to adopt the following provision and declaration as the form and condition in the future of admission to the church and of partaking of the ordinances of the Gospel:
Believing the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to contain the word of God, and to be the only and sufficient rule of faith and practice; it is my (or our sincere) desire and purpose of heart in professing this belief, in joining the Chh, and partaking of the Ordinances of the gospel by the aid of his grace to live by the faith of the Son of God, and thus to walk in all the Commandments and Ordinances of the Lord blameless.66
This form it is stated, “being so much in harmony with the Simplicity that is in Christ and so conformable to the primative practice of the Chh, it is hoped and believed will tend to remove from the minds of sincere and devout persons, their reasonable objection against joining the Chh, and availing themselves of the satisfaction and benefit of enjoying the christian Ordinances.”
On January 1, 1838, the Church unanimously voted to invite the Rev. George W. Briggs of Fall River to become an associate minister with the Rev. Dr. Kendall, and to “approve of the proceedings of the Parish at a meeting held on the thirteenth day of October last,” whereby Mr. Briggs was invited to become colleague pastor with the Rev. Dr. Kendall. Twenty-six churches were invited to take part in the installation of Mr. Briggs on January 3 and were generally represented by their pastors and delegates, two churches, defined as Unitarians, were included; the church at Fall River and the church at Buffalo. On December 31, 1852, the connection between the church and parish and the Rev. Mr. Briggs, at his particular request, was dissolved, after a continuance of fifteen years of great unanimity and satisfaction on the part of the society and unbroken harmony between the junior and senior pastors. Mr. Briggs accepted the invitation of the First Congregational Society in Salem to become its minister.
The parish records record an invitation to Mr. Henry L. Myrick to settle as a colleague with the Rev. Dr. Kendall, by vote of the parish on the 19th of May, 1853. For the first time the church does not appear to have voted on the settlement of a minister. Mr. Myrick accepted on July 9th, and a council was summoned by the First Church and Society in Plymouth for his ordination as associate pastor, which met at the Samoset House on the 21st of September, 1853. Ten churches were represented by pastors and delegates and voted to proceed with the ordination. The connection of the Rev. Mr. Myrick with the church as colleague pastor was dissolved at his request in September, 1854.
On April 8, 1855, the Rev. George S. Ball, late of Upton, commenced his supply of the pulpit for one year, as associate pastor of t the First Church, by invitation of the First Parish through their committee; on March 1st, 1856, he was invited to settle as colleague pastor, and remained until April, 1857, when his connection was dissolved at his own request.
On the 8th of November, 1858, the Rev. Edward H. Hall was invited to become the associate pastor of the society. Mr. Hall accepted the invitation and was ordained on January 5, 1859, the senior pastor of the society making the ordaining prayer.
Dr. Kendall died honored and beloved on the 8th of March, 1859, and these volumes are completed with the last entry in the handwriting of the aged minister and his pastorate of nearly sixty years is finished:
A connexion formed under such favorable and auspicious circumstances — and with so much harmony and unanimity of feeling and expression — inspires the hope of and promises a result most favorable to the Christian growth and prosperity of this Chh. and Parish. Our desire & prayer are that this hope & this result may be realized.67
Second Meeting-house, Plymouth, 1683–1744
Engraved for The Colonial Society of Massachusetts from a drawing of unknown date
The members of the First Church have worshipped in five meeting-houses. The first, erected in or about 1648, stood on the northerly side of the Town Square and remained until 1683, when it was taken down.68
During Mr. Cotton’s ministry the second meeting-house was erected in 1683, nearly upon the site of the present meeting-house, although its front is believed to have been about twenty feet farther easterly. This building was taken down on July 3, 1744.69
The third meeting-house was raised during Mr. Leonard’s ministry on July 17th, 1744, the congregation meeting in it for the first time on July 29th of that year. On April 10, 1831, the last religious service was performed in this building, which had stood for eighty-seven years. The text on the occasion was “Who is left among you that saw this house in its first glory? and how do ye see it now?” (Haggai, ii. 3.) The next day the workmen began to take down the house.70
The foundations of the fourth meeting-house were completed and the frame was raised during Dr. Kendall’s ministry on June 2, 1831. On the 14th of December the new church was completed and solemnly dedicated to the worship and service of Almighty God. In the afternoon of the day of dedication the pews were all sold, except such as were reserved for the aged and paupers, for a sum more than sufficient to cover the expense of the new church and to pay the pewholders in the old house at the appraised value. This building stood until November 22, 1892, when it was destroyed by fire. The pastor notes a remarkable circumstance as an interposition of Providence that on the 22nd of November, 1831, during a severe tempest, the church was struck by lightning, the pinnacle of the church was destroyed, the plating forced from the column, and the granite pillar upon which it rested was removed.71 No other damage was sustained by the tower. The body of the building was not injured, although several persons were within the tower at the time and two in the bell deck room, yet no one suffered the slightest injury.72
The corner-stone of the present meeting-house, the fifth, built of stone, was laid on June 29, 1896, and the dedication occurred on December 21, 1897.
The silver owned by the First Church has been fully described by Mr. E. Alfred Jones.73