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Troubles of a Medford churchman.

In these recent tercentenary days much has been said of the Puritan sacrifice and struggle for religious liberty. Some of the speakers have seemed to forget that there was a difference between the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Boston in their ideas of toleration. The one had been tolerated in Holland, the other would tolerate none dissenting from their views, and early became dominant in New England.

How fared it with the Baptists, the Quakers, or those who held to the liturgical worship of the Church of England? In the colony's history what they endured is unpleasant to read. In Medford's history little is written or known. Mr. Brooks made no specific local mention thereof, but Mr. Usher alludes to one case of clash between a Medford churchman and an officer of the law. His story is quoted quite fully by Mr. Hollis, the chronicler of Grace Church (Register, Vol. V, p. 25). Of this [p. 51] case we have never seen any other account in American print, and are left in doubt as to its final outcome. The Medford records (Vol. 2, p. 314, 315, 316) contain a list of one hundred and twelve names, rated (i.e., assessed) the sum of ‘One hundred Pounds being ye Ministers Rate for ye year 1732.’ This list was committed to the constable the third of July for collection and payment by him to the treasurer by the fifteenth of October next ensuing.

Richard Sprague, who two years before had erected a substantial house just out from the market-place, ‘on the way to Blanchard's,’1 was the constable, and the minister whose salary he was thus to collect was Ebenezer Turell. But there was one man in Medford that refused to pay his rate because he was of the English Church.

The tax list of that time is divided into three classifications. Space forbids its entire reproduction, but here are four of its names:—

Thomas Brooks0-11-0–
Peter Seccomb1-13-01-0-31-0-8
Richard Sprague1-13-00-7-60-3-5
Matthew Ellis1-5-30-4-9

We do not quite understand how the first (above named) was only assessed a ‘head’ or poll tax, or how the latter, a resident, nothing for his head. But he had some ‘faculty,’ as Constable Sprague found when he presented that Medford tax bill so long ago. Upon persistent refusal to pay toward the salary of Parson Turell, the said Matthew Ellis was by Constable Sprague speedily lodged ‘in His Majesty's gaol.’ How long he remained in durance vile we may not say, but on paying the tax and added costs he was released.

Then he took up the battle for religious freedom by bringing an action in court against Sprague ‘for assaulting, beating, wounding and imprisoning him, and detaining him in prison till he paid Sprague a fine of [p. 52] £ 3-1s.’ At a subsequent town meeting Andrew Hall was chosen constable, and the record says (page 328) ‘payed for not serving five pounds,’ and Joseph Thompson was chosen and qualified. On the twenty-eighth of November, 1733, the selectmen directed him to warn a town meeting to be held on December 4, 1733, at 1 P. M.

To know what method they will take with respect to sute in the Law Commenced against Richard Sprague the last years Constable by Matthew Ellis of Medford.

It appears (by the Massachusetts Archives) that Ellis lost his case in the Inferior Court on December 11, and appealed to the Superior Court. The town meeting alluded to had adjourned to December 18 at 12 o'clock. It was then

Put to Vote, whether the Town will reamburst Richard Sprague his Reasonable charges in managing the Law Sute commenced against him by Matthew Ellis, he bringing in a just account to the Town thereof. Voted in the affirmative. Benj. Willis Town Clk.

Thus it appears that the fight was on, and reinforcements were coming to the aid of Sprague, erstwhile constable of Medford. The fame of the case spread, and in other towns men elected constables were shy of accepting office because of Sprague's experience.

At the Superior Court, on January 29 and July 30, 1734, Ellis fared no better, but ‘was cast,’ i.e., judgment was against him. But he had good fighting qualities, and appealed to the king for a hearing.

The Medford selectmen hearing of this called a meeting

to know the mind of the town. . . and chuse some sutable to assist in that affair. . . or see what the town shall see meet to do.

Seven persons were chosen, but farther than that we find nothing in Medford records.

The conflict was next in the Provincial legislature, but there was ‘a long-name society’ across the water which evidently had a part in it, as it continued for several years. [p. 53]

From ‘Historical Papers,’ page 317 (New England Historical and Genealogical Society, Boston) we reproduce—

Matthew Ellis to the Society.

To the Honourable the Society for the Propogation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The humble Petition of Matthew Ellis of New England, Husbandman, a Member of the Church of England, as by Law Established

That your Petitioner being informed that this Honorable Society was desirous to have the power of the Independents in New England, which they used to oblige the Members of the Church of England to contribute to the maintenance of dissenting teachers or preachers lawfully examined into it, being apprehended to the contrary to the intent of the New England Charter, your petitioner upon whom a small sum of 40s N. England money was levied for the maintenace of a dissenting teacher, did bring his action in N. England, against one Sprague who levyed such sum in order to try the right and having no benefit by that Action in New England, your petrs there demanded an Appeal to his Majesty in Council, but was there refused it.

That an Application being made on your Petitioner's behalf to this Honourable Society some time since, that you would be pleased to take the said case under your care as the same might procure a judicial determination & tend to settle that great point.

The Society as your Petitioner is informed verbally declares taking the same upon you in the situation it then was, or until application to his Majesty, an Appeal should be actually allowed here so that the mere point of right might come in question

But declared as your Petitioner humbly apprehends that when your Petitr should have obtained liberty to appeal your Petitr might then hope for assistance of this Society.

That thereupon your Petitioner hath at considerable expense to himself (far more than his own particular right is concerned) obtained Liberty to appeal to his Majesty in Council, but is unable to bear the further expense of prosecuting the same, and the rather so since the Province of the Massachusetts Bay have made the Cause of the Respondent Sprague their own and have undertaken the defence thereof for him portending to be a matter of high concern to their Province

Your Petitioner therefore submits his Case to this Honorable Society, and humbly prays such relief to himself and therein to the Members of the Church of England in general as this Society shall think proper

And as in Duty bound shall Pray.

[p. 54] We quote also the following from the Massachusetts Archives:—

From Province Laws, p. 210, Chap. 194 (first Session).

A petition of Richard Sprague, late constable of Medford in county of Middlesex. Showing that in the year 1733 Mathew Ellis of that Town was assessed Forty shillings as a part of a Tax for the support of the Minister there which the said Ellis Refusing to pay, the Memorialist, Agreeably to his Warrant, Committed him to his Majesty's Goal in said County; whereupon the said Ellis brought his Action of assault Against the Memorialist, charging his damage at three hundred pounds Sterling; in which Action he was Cast in the Infr and Superiour Court; Upon which he Claimed his Appeal to his Majesty in Council, which the judges thought him not Entitled to; But upon their denial the said Ellis, Applying to his Majesty, Obtained his Order in Council for the hearing of his Appeal; and the Memorialist is Accordingly Notified to Answer it; And for as much as the Memorialist has done nothing in this Affair but in obedience to the Laws of this Province: Therefore praying that he may be freed from any further Trouble and Charge in the Affair or otherwise Relieved. the Comtee on the petition of Richard Sprague Reported the draught of a letter to Mr Agent Wilks on that Subject which was read and accepted in both Houses and signed by the Governour. [Passed Jan. 3, 1736.]

Page 526 (second Session).

A petition of Richard Sprague: Praying for some allowance from this Court for his expence occasioned by a complaint of Matthew Ellis to the King and Council for the Petitioners destrayning on him for his Tax, as he was Constable of Medford

Read and in answer to the Petition

Voted, that the sum of Fifteen pounds nineteen shillings and two pence be granted and allowed to be paid out of the public Treasury of the new Tenour Bills to the Petitioner Richard Sprague in full satisfaction of and to reimburse him for his time trouble and expence in defence of the affair within mentioned [Passed Dec. 21, 1738-9.]

In Council Read and Concurred

Consented to

We are informed that ‘the [original] petition of Richard Sprague is not found in the Archives,’ and that on July 1, 1737, [p. 55]
Order on the recommendation of the Committee that the appeal be admitted on the usual security, and that Ellis be allowed copies of the proceeding under the Seal of the Province, on paying the usual fees.

July 30, 1737. Ellis's petition for an early hearing referred to the Committee for Appeals.

Aug. 14, 1737. Committee appointed Feb. 25 to hear the appeal.

As on May 6, 1737, Ellis is styled as ‘late of Medford, husbandman,’ it is presumable that he had then removed. Though he was taxed for real estate, we have been unable to find where in Medford he resided. We find that in 1733-34

John Whitmore, Jonathan Hall and Jona Bradshaw be Depeud [deputed?] to vew the Highways by Matthew Ellises and make Report to the Town what they Judg Mr. Ellis should have allowed him for moving Som Large Rocks in the Country Road nearby his house in sd. Town and Report be made at the adjournment of this meeting.

The meeting was adjourned to seven o'clock of that evening at the house of John Bradshaw. We look in vain for the committee's report, and greatly fear the pious deacons on the committee allowed their distate for their churchman's non-conformity to warp their judgment in the large rocks matter. They might at least have reported.

We have been unable to find trace of Ellis at the Registry of Deeds, and thus to fix his location, nor do we know how long he lived in Medford. From the meagre data we conclude that he did two good things— improvement of the highway, and (in the courage of his convictions) helped along the coming of the enjoyment of religious liberty in Medford.

1 See Frontispiece.

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