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Clerical Dismissals in Colonial and Revolutionary New Hampshire

  • George B. Kirsch (a1)


Over the past several decades American historians have emphasized the importance of New England ministers as town leaders during the colonial and Revolutionary eras. Recently, several scholars have examined changing roles of Congregational and Presbyterian pastors from the 1630s to the early nineteenth century. Ministerial dismissals are an important aspect of this subject, yet historians have not given this topic the critical analysis it deserves. This essay will discuss the nature of these dismissals and explain their significance in relation to several broad questions of social change in New England prior to 1790. Although New Hampshire's experience with clerical removals was not necessarily representative of New England, that state merits special attention because it has been neglected in studies of this period.



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1. Hall, David, The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1972);Youngs, J. William JrGod's Messengers:Religious Leadership in Colonial New England (Baltimore, 1976);Heimert, Alan, Religion and the American Mind from the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1966);Scott, Donald, From Office to Profession (Philadelphia, 1978);Calhoun, Daniel, Professional Lives in America: Structure and Aspiration, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, Mass., 1965);Schmotter, James W., “The Irony of Clerical Professionalism: New England's Congregational Ministers and the Great Awakening,” American Quarterly 31 (Summer 1979): 148168. The following two paragraphs are based on these sources

2. Calhoun, Professional Lives, p. 93.

3. Mather, Cotton, Ratio Disciplinae Fratum Nov-Anglorum (Boston, 1726), pp. 167168.

4. Mather, Cotton, Thirty Important Cases (Boston, 1699), pp. 2730.

5. Mather, Ratio Disciplinae, pp. 163–168, 170–171. Presbyterian procedures were similar to those for Congregationalists, with the important exception of the appeal to a regional presbytery rather than an ecclesiastical council.

6. Dexter, Henry Martyn, The Congregationalism of the Last Three Hundred Years (New York, 1880), p. 586.

7. Shipton, Clifford K., “The New England Clergy of the Glacial Age,” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 32 (1937): 5051.

8. These statistics and all tables have been compiled from Hazen, Henry A., The Congregational and Presbyterian Ministry and Churches of New Hampshire (Boston, 1875) and The Pastors of New Hampshire, Congregational and Presbyterian, A Chronological Table of the Beginning and Ending of their Pastorates (Bristol, N. H. 1878). I also consulted Lawrence, Robert F., The New Hampshire Churches (Claremont, N.H., 1856) hereafter cited as Lawrence, NHC; Lewis Weis, Frederick, The Colonial Clergy and the Colonial Churches of New England (Lancaster, Mass., 1936);Shipton, Clifford K., ed., Sibley's Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of those who attended Harvard College, 17 vols. (Boston, 18731976), hereafter cited as Shipton, HG: I have also used New Hampshire State Papers, Town Papers, Documents and Records Relating to Towns in New Hampshire, 40 vols. (Concord, N.H., 1867–1943), vols. 9, 11, 12 and 13, as well as numerous published town and church histories and some unpublished town and church records.

9. Lawrence, NHC, pp. 321, 387–388; Shipton, HG, 5: 91, 16: 208–210; Cogswell, Leander W., History of the Town of Henniker, N.H., 17351880 (Concord, Mass., 1880), pp. 104115. For Hale, see Lawrence, NCH, p. 28, and Shipton, HG, 7:77–78. For Farrar, see Lawrence, NHC, p. 255; Shipton, HG, 16: 463–465; and Charles Mason, History of Dublin, N.H. (Boston, 1855), pp. 156–162.

10. Morison, John H., An Address, delivered at the Centennial Celebration, in Peterborough, N.H., Oct. 24, 1839 (Boston, 1839), pp. 2324; Lawrence, NHC, p. 240; Jonathan Smith, Peterborough, N.H. in the American Revolution (Peterborough, N.H., 1913), pp. 265–270; New Hampshire State Papers, 9: 668–669, 13: 176–180. Other cases include Joseph Currier of Goffstown, dismissed in 1774; see Lawrence, NHC, pp. 170–171; Shipton, HG, 16: 136–137; and Hadley, George, History of the Town of Goffstown, N.H., 1733–1920 (Goffstown, N.H., 1922), p. 380. For Peter Coffin of East Kingston, dismissed in 1772, see Lawrence, NHC, p. 88 and Shipton, HG, 9: 288–291.

11. Shipton, HG, 7:242–243, 11:21–25 and 16:504–506; Lawrence, NHC, pp. 45, 348–349; Coffin, Charles C., History of Boscawen and Webster from 1733 to 1878 (Concord, N.H., 1878), pp. 109110;Price, Ebenezer, A.M., A Chronological Register of Boscawen (Concord, Mass., 1823), pp. 6162.

12. Lawrence, NHC, pp. 280–281; Bemis, Charles A., A History of the Town of Marlborough, N.H. (Boston, 1881), pp. 100109; “MS document,” Miscellaneous Letters, Pembroke Congregational Church, Pembroke, N.H.

13. Wadleigh, George, Notable Events in the History of Dover, New Hampshire (Dover, N.H., 1913), pp. 1324; Lawrence, NHC, pp. 222, 318–319; Shipton, HG, 9: 331–332, 11: 359–364.

14. Lawrence, NHC, pp. 78–79; Shipton, HG, 14: 533–458; Brown, Warren, History of the Town of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, 1640–1900, 2 vols. (Concord, N.H., 1918), 2: 2837;New Hampshire State Papers, 9: 362–375; Weare Family MSS, Folder E, New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, N.H.

15. Congregational practice required a new ordination for each new position. Lawrence, NHC, pp. 436–440; Shipton, HG, 11: 487–494. Abraham Carpenter, minister in nearby Plainfield, was dismissed in 1788, apparently because of theological quarrels. See Lawrence, NHC, p. 471 and New Hampshire State Papers, 13: 206.

16. Lawrence, NHC, pp. 48–49, Shipton HG, 16: 499–502. See also the case of James Scales of Hopkinton, in the church records of Hopkinton, MSS Book, New Hampshire Historical Society. For the case of Joseph Hastings of North Hampton, see Lawrence, NHC, p. 107; Shipton, HG, 15: 261–262; and Dexter, Franklin B., ed., Diary of David McClure, D.D., 1748–1820 (New York, 1899), pp. 167168.

17. Lawrence, , NHC, p. 341;McDuffee, Franklin, History of the town of Rochester, N.H., 1722–1890, ed. and rev. Hayward, Silvanus, 2 vols. (Manchester, N.H., 1892), 1: 8998; “Report of ecclesiastical council, Rochester, N.H., 21 April 1774,” Rochester Miscellaneous MSS, New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, N.H.

18. Indian Raids accounted in large part for the dismissals of Joseph Ashley of Winchester, Jacob Bacon of Keene, Timothy Harrington of Swanzey, and Stephen Emery of Nottingham. See Lawrence, , NHC, pp. 276, 294, 307308;Shipton, , HG, 8: 707710, 9:1821, 10: 188195;Dexter, Franklin B., Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, 6 vols. (New York, 18851912), 1: 408409.

19. Smith, Charles C., “Financial Embarrassments of the New England Ministers in the Last Century,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, n.s. 7 (1980): 129135;Thacher, Peter, Observations upon the Present State of the Clergy of New England, with Strictures upon the Power of Dismissing Them, Usurped by Some Churches (Boston, 1783), pp. 47.

20. Belknap MSS, 161.C.136–140 and 161.C.144–159, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Mass.; “Belknap Papers,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 6th s. 4 (Boston, 1891): 153160. 342351. See also Kirsch, George B., “Jeremy Belknap: A Biography” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1972), chaps. 4 and 6. See also the cases of Seth Dean of Rindge, dismissed in 1780, in Lawrence, , NHC, p. 286;Stearns, Ezra S., History of the Town of Rindge, N.H., 1736–1874 (Boston, 1875), pp. 189204. For the case of David McClure of North Hampton, removed in 1785, see Lawrence, , NHC, pp. 107108;Dexter, , Yale Graduates, 3: 344351;Dexter, , Diary of McClure, pp. 163173.

21. Lawrence, , NHC, pp. 156157;Barnes, Isaac, Address, on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Incorporation of the Town (Boston, 1850), p. 33;History of Bedford, N.H. (Boston, 1851), pp. 146149;The Diary of Mathew Patten, 1754–1788 (Concord, N.H., 1903), pp. 343, 345;New Hampshire State Papers, 9: 55–56.

22. See also the case of Micah Lawrence of Winchester, dismissed in 1777, in Lawrence, , NHC, pp. 308309; Shipton, , HG, 14: 449450;Mitchell, H. E., The Town Register, Hinsdale, Walpole, Westmoreland, Winchester, Chesterfield (Augusta, Me., 1909), p. 64. There are hints but no clear evidence of dismissal for political reasons in the cases of Jonathan Livermore of Wilton, dismissed in 1778, and William Godard of Westmoreland, dismissed in 1775. See Shipton, , HG, 14: 648650, and 15: 5153;Lawrence, , NHC, pp. 542544;Shipton, , HG, 13: 472478;Whitcher, William, History of the Town of Haverhill, New Hampshire (np., 1919), p. 84.

23. In the 1770s, dismissed pastors were ordained younger and those who were Harvard graduates ranked considerably lower on the average in their respective classes compared to those pastors who died in office (based on statistics compiled from the works of Hazen, Lawrence and Shipton cited above).

24. See the cases of William Johnston of Windham (1752), Morrison, Leonard A., The History of Windham, N.H. (Boston, 1883), pp. 124, 608; Josiah Swan of Nashua (1746), Shipton, , HG, 9:331332; and William Parsons of South Hampton (1762), Shipton, , HG, 9: 554557.

25. Bailyn, Bernard, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), pp. 246272;McLoughlin, William G., “The Role of Religion in the Revolution,” in Kurtz, Stephen G. and Hutson, James H., eds., Essays on the American Revolution (New York, 1973), pp. 197255.

26. Calhoun, , Professional Lives, pp. 94107.

27. Thacher, , Observations, pp. 4, 8, 914;Thacher, Peter, A Reply to the Strictures of Mr. J. S., A Layman (Boston, 1784), pp. 1516.

28. Sullivan, James, Strictures on the Rev. Mr. Thatcher's Pamphlet (Boston, 1784), pp. 4, 19, 2026.

29. Thacher, , Reply, p. 15. See also Elliott, Emory, “The Dove and Serpent: The Clergy in the American Revolution,” American Quarterly 31 (Summer 1979): 187203.

30. The traditional interpretation may be found in Ahlstrom, Sidney, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn, 1972), pp. 364366, and Hudson, Winthrop, Religion in America (New York, 1973), pp. 115116. For a critical analysis of this thesis, see Sweet, Douglass, “Church Vitality and the American Revolution: Historiographical Consensus and Thoughts toward a New Perspective,” Church History 46 (09 1976): 341357. I am grateful to Mr. Sweet for sharing with me his immense knowledge of New Hampshire religious life.

31. Here some qualifications should be noted. At least one-third of the towns that dismissed their ministers replaced them within one or two years. Also, some parishes diligently and conscientiously hired preachers as “supply” for their pulpits before finally settling a new man. Also, in some towns a strong Baptist church existed to fill part of the religious void created by a departed Congregationalist.

32. Shipton, , “New England Clergy,” pp. 4654;Morgan, Edmund S., “The American Revolution Considered as an Intellectual Movement,” in Wright, Esmond ed., Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution (Chicago, 1966), pp. 172192.See also Calhoun, , Professional Lives, pp. 107177, and Scott, From Office to Profession, chaps. 1 and 9.

33. Belknap to John Eliot, rough draft, May 10,1778, Belknap MSS 161. C.136, Massachusetts Historical Society; Belknap to Ebenezer Hazard, October 23, 1783, “Belknap Papers,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th s. 2 (Boston, 1877): 267.

34. Lawrence, , NHC, pp. 96, 121;Albee, John, Newcastle, Historic and Picturesque (Boston, 1884), pp. 102105;Dexter, , Diary of McClure, pp. 167168.

35. This information on the fate of dismissed pastors has been compiled from Hazen, Lawrence, Shipton, and town and church histories.

36. The most successful of the group that changed careers were Abiel Foster of Canterbury (U.S. Congressman) and Paine Wingate of Hampton Falls (U.S. Congressman and Senator); see Shipton, , HG, 14: 1519, 533548. Some dismissed pastors became successful farmers, merchants, magistrates and town clerks. Others did not fare as well; a few became tavern keepers, grocers, and school teachers.

37. The frontier “safty-valve” also worked in reverse. Indian raids moved a few ministers to more secure positions in “civilized” areas.

38. Lockridge, Kenneth, “Social Change and the Meaning of the American Revolution,” Journal of Social History 6 (Summer 1973): 403439. See also Lockridge, , A New England Town, the First Hundred Years (New York, 1970) and Zuckerman, Michael, Peaceable Kingdoms (New York, 1970). The nature of these New Hampshire dismissals seems to support Lockridge's view of the character of New England towns more than that of Zuckerman. Despite the efforts to resolve these disputes peacefully, more conflict remained than consensus, more acrimony than harmony, more diversity than unity. Of course, it should be noted that both Lockridge and Zuckerman discuss the towns of pre-Revolutionary New England. The war epoch naturally brought more strain to the communities, and in many cases the towns did not cope well with the new problems.

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