History of Our Congregation
350th Anniversary Sermon
February 11, 2001
Imagine! Imagine a distant, but fertile wilderness at the Western frontier of the young Massachusetts Bay Colony. Wilderness of marsh and meadow beside the Charles River flowing out to Boston.
Imagine in 1649 a small group of adventurous families in the larger town of Dedham, centered nine miles to the East, asking to be allowed to take a parcel of land within that community to create a new one which would be called Medfield. Dedham assented and the new town was incorporated by the General Court in May, 1651. The first families moved out from Dedham, but they were soon followed by a group from Braintree. The obvious reason for their coming was good land. However, Dot Aronson, a local historian, suggests an additional possibility. The leaders of the Puritan congregations had gathered in Cambridge in 1648. The so-called Cambridge Platform which emerged significantly loosened some of the original rigid ecclesiastical discipline. She suggests that the original Medfield settlers might have been among the dissidents eager to maintain that discipline.
One of the first acts of the residents was to organize the Church of Christ in Medfield and to call a minister. They did well. John Wilson was son of one of the most important ministers in the colony, the pastor of the First Church in Boston. Born in England, the younger Wilson was in the first graduating class at Harvard in 1642. He served for several years in Dorchester with Rev. Richard Mather until he was called here in 1651. Why did he accept? Medfield was a tiny and poor village. With his family connections, it seems likely that he could have found a larger congregation in a more prosperous community. In those days a minister was assumed to be settled in one congregation for life; there was no moving up the ladder. Perhaps he came here indeed because the settlers were committed to orthodoxy.
He stayed for forty years, serving as schoolmaster and physician, as well as preacher and pastor. A leading citizen, during King Philip’s War he volunteered his home as a refuge and hospital. He is reputed to be the first Puritan minister to offer a prayer at a funeral. He was beloved. His son, the next John Wilson was not. After the father’s death in 1691, he was proposed as the successor. While he may have been an able schoolmaster, when the vote for minister was taken, he received only 12 votes; John White received 59. A few months later Mr. White was given a formal call, but refused. In the next two years thirty two ministers were approached; all refused. The war had left much of the town devastated; there was more poverty than at the founding; not a promising place to settle for life.
In 1694 Rev. Joseph Baxter accepted a call. In addition to receiving a salary of 60 pounds, he got a signing bonus called an “encouragement” of fifty more. The call came from both the church and the town. In those days all citizens of a community were taxed to maintain both the minister and the meeting house. Church membership was a choice. However, only those persons who made confession of their experience of Christ, and who affirmed the Westminster Confession were full members of the church. Both bodies had to vote favorably in order to call a minister. Mr. Baxter must have made a very favorable impression indeed, for he was only eighteen years old when, after graduating from Harvard, he began preaching in Medfield. Only when he reached the age of twenty one was he ordained on April 21, 1697. He died in 1745. His third wife survived him. Amongst his bequests, he gave her their Negro slave Nanny, with the proviso that, if she behaved, she would receive her freedom on that wife’s death. During his fifty year ministry 373 persons were admitted to the church, 228 fully accepted the covenant, and 75 received baptism.
During Mr. Baxter’s final days, Rev. Jonathan Townsend, another Harvard man, was invited to help out. Settled as a colleague, he was ordained in October, 1745. As an “encouragement”; he was given a building lot and the equivalent of two year’s salary. While he remained until 1769, it was not a happy relationship. This was the period of the first Great Awakening when the cool Puritan rationalism was confronted by a wave of religious enthusiasm. Religious orators like George Whitfield roamed the colonies unsettling the traditional congregations with outbursts of religious rapture. Mr. Townsend, like many colleagues, probably got caught in the middle – too cool for some; too warm for others. Early in his ministry the tension was revealed in controversy over church governance. In 1747, some members accused the church of breaching the orthodox covenant. The church in turn voted to exclude them until they made redress. But the tension continued to fester. The number of dissidents grew, and the next year the church voted to call a council. Clergymen from neighboring congregations were called together to hear the issues and to make recommendations for their resolution. The result was the adoption of the relatively liberal Cambridge Platform of 1648. Apparently this did not resolve the tensions. The Baptists organized and began regular meetings. By his own request, Mr. Townsend was dismissed in 1769 when he was only 48. During his tenure he had baptized 334 persons, but only 61 joined the church, and, of them, only 22 owned the covenant. He remained in town until his death in 1776.
He was quickly replaced by Rev. Thomas Prentiss; both the church and the town voted a great majority. Another minister straight from Harvard, he was given an encouragement of more than two years salary, but no house lot. The actual salary proved to be inadequate to his needs, so for many years he had several young men boarding in his home as he prepared them for entrance into Harvard. During this period church discipline was loosened again. Now, if a person was ordered to make a confession of wrong, it need be only before those in full church membership, not the full congregation. But it was in 1813 that the most important governance change took place; the town and the parish began to be legally separated. The members of the church incorporated as The First Parish. This division reflected the growing religious division throughout the Commonwealth, as the Unitarian controversy erupted. It was no longer possible to hold congregations together. When Dr. Prentiss died in 1814 after a ministry of 44 years, the congregation numbered 87; 24 were men, 63 women.
Within a few months Dr. Daniel C. Sanders was called, and he was settled in the Spring of 1815. From a Medfield background, after graduation from Harvard in 1788, he taught the North School and preached his first sermon at the First Parish. He moved on to other teaching positions, assuming the presidency of the University of Vermont 1800. Harvard gave him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1809. During the War of 1812 he and his family fled from the British forces assaulting Burlington, Vermont, and returned to Medfield. From the beginning, his ministry was accompanied by controversy. At the time of his call the usual custom of convening an ecclesiastical council was followed, and a number of people expressed objections to the call. The Unitarian controversy continued to fester throughout the region, and his liberal views offended the conservatives. In spite of the tensions, he was an important public figure. A frequent orator at civic events, he also held various elected offices after his withdrawal as minister in 1829. The fact that he was identified at that time as the minister of the Unitarian Church indicates that the split brewing for many years had come to Medfield.
The controversy was only partially about theology. In the early years of the colony, when there was only one church for each town, the custom of ministerial exchanges was very common. With at least two sermons a week to be prepared, exchanges were a means of lightening the ministerial load. But it also meant that congregations got to hear different points of view. As more liberal ideas began to emerge, some of the more orthodox clergy began to refuse exchanges with more liberal colleagues. The former demanded strict adherence to the revealed truths expressed in the creeds, and they were unwilling to allow what they believed to be heresies to be preached from their pulpits. . The result was that in some communities only orthodoxy was allowed. In fact, the theological differences were not enormous. The liberals denied the trinity, but believed that Jesus was divine, the only son of God. They did insist that character is more important than creed. But they were not eager for division. It was the orthodox who created the label Unitarian and tried to push the liberals out. Congregations began to split.
Because the church of fully professing Christians was usually smaller than the parish that owned the property, the liberals usually got to keep the meeting house.
In Medfield in 1827 a group of members of the First Parish petitioned for permission to withdraw from the First Parish in order to form an Orthodox church. Again, an ecclesiastical council was convened, and it recommended that the petition be granted. They organized on February 6, 1828. After Dr. Sanders resigned the next year, a call was extended to Rev. James A. Kendall. Among those participating in his 1830 installation service were Rev. James Freeman Clarke, Rev.George Ripley (one of the founders of Brook Farm), and Rev. Frederick Lucian Hosmer. Even among the Unitarians, they were decidedly on the liberal wing. Although more than a decade later than many other congregations, the First Parish had become avowedly Unitarian.
This installation represented the end of the beginning of the First Parish. Mr. Kendall left in 1837, and two years Rev. Charles Robinson was installed in what Tilden now called the Unitarian Church. He left in 1850. Two hundred years of The First Parish. In the first one hundred there were three ministers; in the second, five. The congregation was without a settled minister for nearly three years.
One of my distinguished predecessors at the First Unitarian Church in New Bedford was William James Potter. In the Fall of 1850 he entered Harvard. During the following Winter, between terms, he came to Medfield to teach. His background was with the Quakers. At first he visited all three churches. A Mr. Knapp was serving the First Parish. Mr. Potter’s initial reaction to his preaching was negative, but he continued to attend. On January 5, the sermon was full of optimistic predictions about the half century ahead. Despite his skepticism about the future, his enthusiasm for Mr. Knapp began to grow. Along with it grew Potter’s increasing disenchantment with the Quaker reluctance to engage with the world, and a self-recognition that he was probably a Unitarian. Mr. Potter went on to become one of the most radical and influential liberal leaders of the last half of the Nineteenth Century.
In the next century and a half the life of The First Parish seems to have been relatively uneventful. It continued to be a small congregation in a small community. Ministers came and went with great frequency. Medfield was a place to begin, or perhaps to end, a ministry, but not a place to linger. In the third century there were twenty different ministers, and in this last half, ten. In the 1950’s there was conversation about merging the Baptist, Congregational and Unitarian churches into a community church, but the town began to grow and the idea was abandoned. Still, growth did not come to the First Parish. Indeed, by the 1970’s the congregation had diminished to the point that the remnant was about to give up and dissolve. As I understand the story, as that decision was about to be made, one of the members kicked up a horse shoe in the dirt parking area beside the church. In spite of Unitarian doubts about superstition, it was taken as an omen. People volunteered for the leadership positions, and very shortly thereafter several new families became members. Apparently, the church received a Unitarian Universalist Association award for being the fastest growing congregation on the continent. The membership had doubled – from approximately ten to twenty. Growth continues, and the future is bright.
In a brief historical sermon, it is impossible to name all the dedicated and creative laypersons who have contributed so much during three and one half centuries. Without them the church would never have been created and would have died long, long ago. Some of the children of the parish have gone on to distinguished careers in other places. Others have contributed greatly to the life of this community. If you want to appreciate our Unitarian Universalist ideal of public service, there is no need to look back at the history of the contributions of First Parish people to Medfield. Look around you here, today. 350 years: still exploring, still giving, still growing.
Rev. Richard A. Kellaway