previous next

The first Parish in Medford.

by Rev. Henry C. Delong.
[Address read to the Medford Historical Society, February 17, 1909.]

THE First Parish in Medford, the first religious society in the town, was the direct and legal successor of the town church. Rev. David Osgood, D. D., died in 1822, after a ministry of forty-eight years. In March, 1823, Rev. Andrew Bigelow was engaged to preach as a candidate, and on May 5 the town invited him to become its minister at a salary of $800 per annum. The vote by which he was chosen was 95 in favor to 70 against him. It is interesting to note that in the vote of the church there was more unanimity, 20 voting for him to three against him. On June 14, Mr. Bigelow accepted the call, approving of the clause the town had inserted in it, and never before existing, that the connection could be dissolved by either party by giving six months notice, a rule which has since continued whenever a minister was chosen. July 9, the ecclesiastical council, invited by the church and town, met to install Mr. Bigelow as pastor. Some names of clergymen composing the council are worthy of remembrance as indicating the weight of influence on the liberal side of the old Congregational order, as it was then known and spoken of. They are President Kirkland of Harvard College, Dr. Abiel Holmes, of Cambridge, the father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Dr. Charles Lowell, of Boston, father of James Russell Lowell, and himself a man of note in his day as pastor of the West Church, Rev. Francis Parkman, Rev. James Walker of Charlestown, afterward President of Harvard College, and Rev. Convers Francis, of Watertown, brother of Lydia Maria Child, subsequently [p. 74] a professor in the Divinity School of Harvard College. His first Sunday as a legal minister of the town was July 13, 1823. But the narrow majority of 25 was a clear indication of much dissatisfaction at his choice, like the rote of the sea which foretells a storm. Mr. Bigelow was known to belong to the school of thought in Congregationalism which was called Liberal, and by this time, owing to Channing's outspoken word at Baltimore, and to the drift of events in many an ancient parish, the word was known to be a mild way of saying he was a Unitarian. It was because this was understood that there was so strong a minority against him in the vote that elected him as pastor. Of this he was fully informed, which leads him to say in his acceptance of the call in a letter to the town, ‘After a painful view of the subject, and a strong internal conflict my conclusion is to accept the invitation.’ In the time that elapsed between his call in May and his installation in July, there was sufficient opportunity in a small community, which Medford then was, for a pretty full expression of opinion, for which small communities have a special aptitude. Mr. Bigelow was cognizant of this; the diminished attendance at church after his call clearly indicating that something would happen. How well he knew it is evidenced by a quaint letter written Monday, July 14, 1823, after his first Sunday as pastor. A copy of this letter is preserved by the church, but to whom written is not known, the name which was first written in having been erased on second thought of the copyist. An extract from the letter will be of interest:—

‘You may have heard of the good ship Medford which has accomplished many adventurous and successful voyages, and which is now abroad on some gainful traffic. Yesterday a statelier vessel freighted with far richer cargo, and bound on an eventful but dubious voyage, set sail under the command of your humble servant bound for Jerusalem, but not to the city which sits solitary and in sackcloth amid the desolations of a land once fair as the garden of the Lord, but to “Jerusalem which is above and free, the mother of us all.” The ship which I sail was constructed by no modern architect. She was built by hands that long ago moldered into dust: and she has [p. 75] since outrode the tides of four successive generations. Woodbridge and Porter, and Turell and Osgood have each at intervals commanded her,—the last a navigator of preeminent experience. Since his recall, this gallant bark was suffered to lie for a season amid conflicting currents, the sport of winds and waves, and the injuries she sustained, there is reason to fear will never be effectually repaired. After a partial refitting she was commissioned anew and entrusted to my charge. Wednesday, the 9th inst. was appointed for the issuing of instructions. Two or three veteran pilots attended by as many more younger assistants came on board to aid her in passing the channel. The vessel under their conduct moved majestically from her moorings and floated to the offing, where she continued to ride without accident for the three following days. Precisely at half past 2 of yesterday, the signal was given, the anchor weighed, and with a fair breeze she stood out into the blue main. It is difficult to say whether she will prove a fast sailor. I wish I could be assured of the soundness of her bottom, the more, doubtless, when I reflect on the preciousness of her lading,—souls, inestimable souls, from which a revenueis destined for the King of Kings. I am to navigate rough and uncertain seas. Rocks there are—sunken and treacherous; here a shoal may threaten: anon some dangerous strait must be passed, and it will be well if I escape extreme disaster from the fury of many winds, popularly called “doctrinal,” which have of late prevailed. Aside too from dangers that menace from without, there are others that must be looked to, within. Symptoms of disaffection to my authority have already been detected. What measures will be adopted I am unable to say; if they will stop short of open mutiny, it will be more than I can anticipate. They talk, indeed, of constructing a launch and putting off for themselves,—a measure which I would gladly aid them in executing, for a company of 1500 is too numerous to sail with advantage in any single hull; and I greatly fear that this it is which gives crankiness to mine and disables her trim.’

The letter concludes with an account of the instructions he gave to his crew upon the rights of the commander, and their duties, ending by saying that he hopes to reach the Cape of Good Hope, whence he will sail over a smooth and pacific sea.

With a quaintness peculiar to him, Mr. Bigelow forecasts what soon happened, for the next month after his settlement a letter was sent to the First Church asking a dismission, for the purpose of forming a second church, by seventeen members, and several more subsequently [p. 76] joined them. The reason is frankly given, ‘that differing as we do in our views of the essential doctrines of the gospel from what we believe to be the views and preaching of Rev. Mr. Bigelow, it becomes our painful duty to separate ourselves from the fellowship and communion of the church with which we now stand connected, for the purpose of forming ourselves in a regular manner into a new and separate church.’ To this letter a reply was made whose spirit was above reproach. It was a serious step about to be taken, which involved the rupture of the ancient parish, and the church would have been less than human if it had not dwelt upon the consequences that must follow, and endeavored to persuade the disaffected brethren from the course proposed. But there was no recrimination, and they were finally dismissed with the friendly words, ‘Permit us to assure you, whether in union with, or separated from us, that we shall ever cherish an affectionate solicitude for your spiritual and immortal welfare. We wish you grace, mercy, and peace from our common Lord. It is our heart's desire that whatever new relations you may form, you may be edified therein, and may be built up in the most holy faith; and we implore of the Lord that both we and you, and all His people may glorify Him in that holiness which becomes His house forever.’

In May, 1824, the First Parish was formed, independent of town support. From July, 1823, to May, 1824, Mr. Bigelow was paid by the town, after that date Unitarianism ceased to be the State religion in Medford; thus relinquishing a right which, though modified, legally continued till 1833, when all churches in the Commonwealth became dependent on their members for support. After the First Parish was legally constituted, and it was possessed of the property belonging to it by decisions of the highest court in like cases, viz: the meeting house, the land belonging to it, church plate, and records, there was an issue made between the selectmen of the town and the First Parish, which, since it was argued before the [p. 77] Supreme Court, was probably a test case for which there was no precedent.

Until 1826 the town, as formerly, had used the meetinghouse for town meetings, but in this year the committee of the parish addressed a letter to the selectmen, stating that since the division of the town into parishes the meeting-house could not be used for town meetings without an arrangement for that purpose with the First Parish. The selectmen maintained their right to the use of the meeting-house, and informed the committee of the parish that on the 17th of May a town meeting would be held in the meeting-house, pursuant to a warrant for that purpose, to choose representatives to the General Court. The meeting-house was closed by the order of the parish committee, and one Thomas Pratt opened and entered it for the transaction of the business of the meeting. The parish committee then brought suit against him for trespass, and on trial the chief-justice maintained the right in law of the parish to the undivided control of its property.

The division of the parish at the opening of Mr. Bigelow's ministry was wholly independent of him. It may have had much to do with his brief ministry of less than four years. Mr. Bigelow was well known, having spent his later youth here. His father, Hon. Timothy Bigelow, a lawyer of eminence, came to Medford in 1808, and as his son Andrew afterward became the minister of the town, it was an instance of a prophet having honor in his own country. He was graduated from Harvard College in 1814, studied theology there, and subsequently in Edinburgh. Two previous ministries were in Eastport, Maine, and in Gloucester, Mass. He was a man of scholarly tastes and pursuits, rather fond of classical quotations in his sermons. His library, inherited in part from his father, contained books in many languages, showing especially his fondness for classical learning. His reputation as a preacher could not have been great, as after a brief ministry in Washington and Taunton, he became associated with the Boston Benevolent Fraternity of [p. 78] Churches, living in Boston afterward on the comfortable property inherited from his father. He was a wide traveller and published two volumes of his travels in the East.

Mr. Caleb Stetson, a graduate of Harvard College, was unanimously chosen as the successor of Mr. Bigelow, in January, 1827, and was ordained to the ministry over this church and parish in February. His service covered a period of twenty-one years, ending in 1848. Personally he was a delightful man, easy in conversation, friendly in spirit, and of ready humor which flashed on all appropriate occasions. His brethren in the ministry were wont to say he was the life of every social hour, but events were happening during his ministry that were very disturbing. The agitation against slavery was growing to whiter heat; the temperance reform was stirring community against the indifference, apathy, and the prevailing social customs as to the use of intoxicating drink, and into these causes Mr. Stetson threw himself with full heart. On both of them public sentiment here was much divided, probably the majority of his parish would have preferred that they should be let alone. But Mr. Stetson could not let them alone. He preached upon them, he prayed about them, and as a result there were many people in his church who did not find his ministrations altogether edifying. As a preacher Mr. Stetson was probably at his best in discourses that touched upon the great sentiments of religion, the love of God being preeminent. Such sermons of his as I have seen are strongest in this quality. His personality, too, was impressive, he was a favorite preacher at Harvard College. His influence was long felt in this community; years after his ministry here ceased many who had known and loved him confessed their regard and affection.

It was a little strange that since the prophet-character of Mr. Stetson had been the cause of his resigning from the parish, that such a hero as John Pierpont, scarred by his war with Hollis Street Church in Boston, should have been the one on whom his mantle fell. It fell on him however [p. 79] by a very narrow chance, for at the meeting of the parish called to choose a minister in 1849, there were 25 votes in his favor and 24 against him. A committee was appointed to communicate with Mr. Pierpont, but before doing so a paper was presented to the legal voters in the parish who were not present at the meeting when the call was extended to him, with the result that 71 were in his favor to 21 opposed, and at a parish meeting, held June 25, 1849, the call was renewed by a large vote. Mr. Pierpont accepted the call, but before he had taken up his residence here the minority in the parish had gathered their forces, and at a subsequent meeting, July 9, 1849, passed the following resolution: ‘Resolved, that in view of the history of this parish, its present condition and its future prospects, it is regarded as inexpedient and hazardous to our best interests as a Christian church, for our pastor to preach any political abolition sermons or discourses in the pulpit on the Sabbath.’ There were then two distinct organizations of church and parish, and as the church could be sooner called together, on July 15 a meeting was held, when Abner Bartlett, one of the most respected members of the church and parish, presented this counter resolution, ‘Resolved, as the sense of this church, that its truest welfare will be best secured by leaving the pulpit under the control of the pastor for the time being, without the interference of the parish in any way, other than as may be stipulated in the terms of his settlement.’ This resolution was deferred a week, when the church again met for its consideration. There is still preserved a letter written by Misses Mary and Lucy Osgood, daughters of Rev. David Osgood, in protest against the act of the parish at its meeting July 9th, in which they say that they wish to express the astonishment and concern with which that resolution has inspired them. After defending the memory of their father ‘who was distinguished through his long ministry for the freedom and fearlessness with which upon the Sabbath, as well as at other times, he discussed in the pulpit every political subject at all [p. 80] connected with the cause of morality and religion,’ they conclude, ‘Contrary to the assertion in the resolution, the history of this ancient church and society abundantly proves that opposition and resistance to all tyranny and oppression were formerly deemed duties most worthy to be enforced from the pulpit, and it is fervently hoped that an earnest protest from each of the present members of the church will refute the declaration now made, that such a course is to be regarded as inexpedient and hazardous to our best interests as a Christian church.’ This meeting of the church unanimously passed Mr. Bartlett's counter resolution, and on the 23d of July, at a parish meeting called for that purpose, the original resolution restricting the freedom of the pulpit was unanimously rescinded. Mr. Pierpont's ministry began August 1, 1849, and continued till 1856, much broken into by his frequent absences on lecturing tours, and the parish did not improve under his care. He is too well known to make fitting any description of him. He holds some rank in our literature as a poet, but will be long remembered for his character as a prophet. But the prophet never has a comfortable time. Neither individuals nor nations altogether enjoy having their sins pointed out. It was a long war he had with the Hollis Street Church, in which he won the victory. As a preacher he was a man of commanding presence, with gifts of oratory that made him widely known. His voice was rich, and finely modulated, and there are those still living who in their youth remember his reading of hymns and scripture as something that uplifted them.

He was followed in 1857 by Rev. Theodore Tebbetts, under whose care the church and parish seemed entering upon brighter prospects. But ill-health, which had forced him to resign his work at Lowell, returned after about two years of his ministry here, though he continued as minister till July, 1860. His was a name I often heard when I first came to the parish. He was deeply and tenderly beloved. The parish was very kind and generous to him, supplying [p. 81] the pulpit at its own charge during his long illness. Indeed there is nothing in the history I have been reviewing which has impressed me more profoundly than that of the friendly relations between Mr. Tebbetts and this parish. He became its minister with a considerable minority against him, but in the brief period of his active pastorate he so won their respect and affection that they were to him the kindest of friends.

In April of the following year, 1861, Mr. Edward C. Towne was installed. Educated at Yale College, he brought to his ministry a competent education and gifts of mind of an exceptional order. To these were added fervor and force, combined with a power of presenting truth that should have made him one of the leading minds of the church he had elected to serve. But controversies vitally affecting the Unitarian Church were then foremost, and deeply interested him. He was not sufficiently reverent of others' reverences, inclined to make differences of view, personal differences, and it was not long before the favor which his ministry created in the beginning changed, and after a serious division of the parish, threatening its welfare, his ministry came to an end in 1867.

In March, 1869, mine began, covering now nearly half of the history of the parish since its organization in 1824.

I have been telling the history of this parish for more than seventy-five years as it is recorded in the life of its ministers, because this way of tracing the history is more convenient. But the minister is little without the people who are behind him, who work together with him for the purpose for which a church exists, the establishment of righteousness in the earth. I could recite names connected with this church during this period which have not only honored it but honored human nature,—men and women eager for the truth, as eager to turn it into life, who being dead yet speak, and urge us to the best which they reverently followed.

During the period of this history the most important outward events have been the building of the meetinghouse [p. 82] in 1839, at a cost of about $14,000, the re-modeling of the interior in 1882 at an expense of $4,000, the destruction of it by fire on January 15, 1893, and the building of a new church, dedicated in June, 1894, at a cost of about $40,000.

The church is known as Unitarian, but the name nowhere appears in its legal organization. It is simply the First Parish in Medford. Not that it is in the least indifferent to the name Unitarian, rather it honors it, but the fact of its absence marks the unsectarian character which our fathers gave it. Sectarian propagandism it has never been afflicted with. Humanity is dearer to it than sect, and in its long history it is humanity which it has most sought to serve. Its interest in temperance and anti-slavery were evidences of this enthusiasm, and in the war of the Rebellion it did much through its Ladies' Benevolent Society to relieve the necessities of our soldiers, in two years making over three thousand garments which were sent to the Sanitary Commission, as well as supplying delicacies to the same benevolent agency for use in the army hospitals.

It is a church without a formal creed, having this simple bond of union, ‘In the love of truth, and in the spirit of Jesus Christ we unite with this parish and church for the worship of God and the service of man.’

On Sunday, March 5, 1909, the First Parish fittingly observed the fortieth anniversary of Pastor DeLong's settlement. He preached, and with characteristic modesty, gave his people generous credit for his success attained.

On Monday evening the church vestry was crowded with friends who gave him a royal reception. Orchestral music, flowers in profusion and artistic in arrangement, the presentation of a substantial token of regard, the formal speeches and poem, together with the hearty congratulations of numerous friends as well as parishioners, marked an occasion rare in the history of Medford. Ed.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: