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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Church, Town and Disestablishmentarianism

The First Congregational Church of Thetford was organized in 1773. The meeting house was built in 1787 at the south end of Thetford Hill's common, serving both as a church and town meeting hall. It was moved to the present site in 1830 and is now the oldest church building in continuous use in Vermont.
In 1875-6, the Bradford Congregational Society voted to replace its old church with a new one. The new one, shown here being constructed, was designed an built by Bradford's George Farr. The older structure can be seen on the left, before being moved to the rear of the lot.

On June 24, 1810, the Bradford Congregational Church was established and in late June, 2010 held a weekend of activities to commemorate its bicentennial.

The First Congregational Church at Haverhill Corner traces its orgins to the Haverhill town
church and preaching of Rev. Peter Powers in 1765. The building was built in 1827 by the Methodist Episcopal Society and sold to the Congregationalists in 1829.

Journal-Opinion, June 23, 2010

During this coming weekend the Bradford Congregational Church will celebrate its bicentennial. Celebration activities begin with an old fashioned hymn sing on Friday night. On Saturday, following a tour of historic sites connected with the church, a ham and salad dinner and a Bruce Stevens organ recital will be held. Activities conclude with a church service and birthday luncheon on Sunday. All of these events are open to the public.

If the Congregational denomination was the dominate one in the early years of this area’s settlement, why did it take over 40 years for the Bradford Congregational Church to be established? To answer this question, this column explores the relationship between town government and churches in the area during the first half-century following settlement.

The early settlers transplanted the culture of southern New England to the area, changing it as needed to meet the demands of the frontier. Some migrants left their earlier homes because of upheavals in established churches there. Many brought with them strong religious beliefs. Many of the established town churches were Congregational. This denomination’s belief in absolute local control over church affairs introduced the town meeting form of government throughout New England.

Most settlers, especially community leaders, adhered to the Connecticut Standing Order that allowed town tax revenues to be used to build houses of worship and support ministers. In 1783, the Vermont legislature enacted this practice into law, despite the 1777 Constitutional provision: “No man ought, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect, or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister contrary to the dictates of his conscience.”

New Hampshire had a similar protection written into its Bill of Rights. This protection did not prevent the states from requiring residents to support their own church and town church membership was assumed unless otherwise declared.

From the very beginning many settlers felt the need for worship services. The lack of church buildings did not stand in the way, with services being held in barns, private homes and taverns, and in the case of Fairlee, in a field next to the river.

One of the earliest projects undertaken by towns was the building of a meeting house for both worship and town meetings. The meeting house at Thetford Hill, the construction of which began in 1787, today remains the oldest Vermont church in continuous use. In some communities decisions about the placement of the building within the town were the subject of much controversy. Some towns called on a committee from neighboring towns to make an impartial decision. Because many put no special significance in the place of worship, these dual purpose buildings were used for decades, sometimes with several denominations and town meetings taking turns.

As there was a shortage of ministers, towns yoked with neighboring towns to worship together or share a minister. One of the earliest religious leaders in the area was the Rev. Peter Powers of Newbury. He helped establish the Newbury church in 1764. That town’s historian Frederick Wells writes of Powers: “His parish at first included all of the settlements from Hanover to Lancaster. He was often called to go on long and lonely journeys through the wilderness to solemnize marriages, bury the dead, and break the bread of life to the people, and he did not shrink from any labor, however great.” Powers played a leading role in creating town churches in Fairlee, Orford, Haverhill, Ryegate, Lyme and Thetford.

With a shortage of hard cash, towns often paid ministers in, “corn, grain and the fruit of the earth.” Rev. Richards of Piermont wrote that he had never received a single dollar in hard money for his services. In 1790, the Groton town meeting voted, in an action common to the area, to raise 40 bushels of wheat “For the support of the gospel in town.” In Newbury, timber from the glebe land was used to pay the minister. In addition to town revenues, some churches gained financial support from the sale or rental of pews.

As is still true, the effectiveness of a particular minister determined the growth or decline of a church. An effective minister might lead a revival of interest and fill the pews only to be followed by a less effective one and reduced attendance. One Haverhill church, after having a revival of interest in the 1790s, was described as having, “a period of discouragement and gloom” after 1807, with only 12 of 90 members remaining.

Attending church on the Sabbath was an all-day activity. The buildings were usually unheated and both the prayers and sermons were long. The benches were hard. There was a protracted controversy over the singing of hymns during worship. Jeremiah Ingalls of Newbury, one of the nation’s major hymn composers and singing masters, made a significant contribution to quelling that controversy by teaching congregations “Christian Harmony.”

Families often walked or rode many miles to attend, both because of the desire to do so and because it was expected. Sunday Mountain in Orford was so named after a Mr. Palmer died there: “the awful fate of a man who defied the Lord’s wrath by going exploring on a Sunday instead of joining the pious congregation at religious meeting.” Church discipline was a serious matter and extended into daily life. Officers known as “beadles” were selected to enforce discipline during services and tithing men policed behavior in the community. Errant members were subject to excommunication.

The number of Vermonters who regularly attended worship services varied significantly through the years. During a 1789 tour of the state, Rev. Nathan Perkins wrote, “Not more than 1-6 part of ye families attend family prayer in ye whole State. “ He went on to say that only half supported public worship and that for the rest there was no Sabbath, no religion, no heaven or hell and no morality. Revivals caused significant growth in church membership during the first half of the 19th century. According to historian Randolph Roth, “by the mid 1830s, Vermonters were the most churchgoing people in the Protestant world. Eighty percent attended church regularly.”

While many of the towns in the area operated under the presumption that all residents were Congregationalist, there were exceptions. Many of the early residents of Ryegate, Barnet and Topsham were Scottish Presbyterians and hired ministers of that denomination.

In other towns, the Baptists and Methodists had an early presence. Historian John Fatherly writes that the Baptist Society of Bradford was organized in 1793 and erected a meeting house on the Upper Plain. They reorganized in 1805 stating they had 25 members: “This language is important because the Laws of the State of Vermont (1797) provided that the inhabitants of a town having a similar denomination could form into a society when their number exceeded twenty-five; and the property of these individuals would be exempt from being taxed for religious purposes.”

These “adherents to other doctrines,” now protected in both states, complicated town votes on covering church expenses. When the question came before the 1800 Corinth town meeting, non-Congregationists prevailed and refused to, “support a minister of any denomination whatsoever from town funds.”

Because the 1797 law did not protect those who were members of no church from being taxed, there was an additional movement to abolish the injustice of the town church tax connections. Those who supported the disestablishment viewed the practice as a form of discrimination. The new Republican Party, the members of which supported the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, joined them in bringing changes in the law.

Antidisestablishmentarians organized in opposition to this movement. They asserted that abolishing the Standing Order was “irreligious and asserted that the power of truth against the reign of evil would be destroyed if the state, by reason of public taxes, ceased to support an orthodox and fearless clergy.” Incidentally, that word is about the longest nontechnical word in the English language. In elementary school we discussed that word, generally believing we would never use it much less be able to spell it.

In 1807, Vermont broke the connection between towns and churches. One missionary from Connecticut was of the opinion that those who were responsible for this action “were infidels, Baptists, and Nothingists.” Passing the law did not mean the practice changed immediately. According to Thetford historian Charles Latham, “Thetford simply ignored or evaded the 1807 law ending tax support for the church…”

In 1819, the New Hampshire Legislature passed the Toleration Act, releasing towns from the obligation of supporting the church. Towns and town churches in New Hampshire joined their Vermont counterparts facing, “the dilemma of how to pay the minister if not from the town treasury.”

Now to the question of the bicentennial of the Bradford Congregational Church. Bradford had followed the example of other towns in maintaining a town church. A meeting house was completed in 1795 on the Upper Plain. For 14 years Rev. Gardiner Kellogg was the only minister of this church, the Congregational Calvinistic Church. By 1806 a total of 150 Bradford residents had declared in writing to the Town clerk that they did not agree with the religious teachings of this Congregational majority.

When the 1807 law was passed, members of the town church dissolved their organization, “with a view to the formation of a new church, with a more orthodox creed, and consisting of members more intimately united in Christian fellowship.” Rev. Stephen Fuller of Vershire, helped seven members to organize the present Congregational Church on June 24, 1810. He described their desire for a new church as the need to rise from a “deranged, broken and disunited state, professing to feel the importance of getting into a regular state, in which they might exercise Christian faithfulness towards one another, and instead of darkness, hold up light to the world.”

In 1815, Silas McKeen was ordained in this church and began a distinguished career that, with a ten year interruption, lasted until 1866. In 1836, the building on the Upper Plain was purchased by the church and moved to Main Street. Two years later a parsonage and church bell were purchased from a bequest by Timothy Ayer.

In 1875, the church decided to build a new building. The old one was moved to the southwest corner of the church lot and over the years has been used for a number of purposes including its current use as the Old Church Theatre.

During the first century and a half, the Bradford Congregational Church experienced the strong membership and high attendance that characterized the times. As with other churches in the area, it reached out to meet needs of its members, the community and, with mission activities, the broader world. In the 1960s those high numbers began to decline. Recent surveys reveal that Vermont and New Hampshire are ranked among the lowest in regular church attendance.

My wife and I are members of the Bradford Congregational Church. I have always been a Congregationalist; my wife grew up in Bradford’s Grace United Methodist Church. In our family histories are members, including deacons and ministers, of both those denominations and others. Not only do we believe that church membership is important for us personally, we believe that churches play a vital role in the life of any community. As our church celebrates its bicentennial it finds itself on the verge of calling a new pastor. A new pastor in any church offers the opportunity for renewal, even in Vermont and even if it is 200 years old. .

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