It is a fact, First Parish in Norwell, formerly the Second Church in Scituate, was born in controversy, a controversy that was etched into the founding document of our church in 1642. This was not the controversy of Unitarianism, but the controversy of baptism, not whether God was one or three, that controversy came much later, but which mode of baptism was the proper and acceptable one. The First Church of Christ in Scituate, now the First Parish in Scituate, had already had a falling out with its previous minister, the Rev. John Lothrop, over that very issue. Rather than become embroiled in a bitter dispute about the seals, the term they used to refer to the two major sacraments of baptism and communion, the Rev. Mr. Lothrop, packed his bags and took half of the church with him to Barnstable, presumably because the hay fields were more plentiful down Cape. A bare majority of those remaining voted to extend a call to a new minister, the Rev. Mr. Charles Chauncy, of Plymouth, a brilliant and educated man, who later became President of Harvard.
The problem was that the minority half of the congregation in Scituate did not vote to extend a call to Mr. Chauncy because of his position regarding the mode of baptism. Mr. Chauncy had already become embroiled in a controversy over the mode of baptism while he was in Plymouth. Bradford's "History of Plimoth Plantation" makes the following notation: "ther fell out some differance aboute baptising, he holding it ought only to be by diping, and putting ye whole body under water, and that sprinkling was unlawful. The church yeelded that immersion or dipping was lawful but in this could contrie be not so conveniente." Mr. Chauncy would not "yeeld" and "removed him selfe to Sityate."
Bradford goes on to relate that Mr. Chauncy practiced his cold water winter baptism on two of his own children, one of whom swooned away or fainted, when dipped in the frigid water. Another child, not his own, being frightened, caught hold of Mr. Chauncy's coat and nearly pulled him into the water for a second immersion. Not even this experience changed his mind or attitude toward the practice.
What happened was that the hasty and ardent temper of Mr. Chauncy came head to head with the cool headed stubbornness of William Vassall, leader of the dissidents, who wanted nothing to do with baptism by immersion. Mr. Vassall was also a highly educated man and he could argue point by point with any minister. Vassall also had a more open and liberal view of communion than Mr. Chauncy. He was willing to allow members of the the Anglican Church to partake of church communion, which led Mr. Chauncy to accuse his critics of being "inclined to the Bishops." Moreover, he requested his opponents, nearly half the church, to refrain from appearing at communion. He, as it were, read them out of the church, depriving them of their rights and privileges of membership.
It was this that led William Vassall and Co. to renew their covenant as a gathered church on February the 2nd, 1642. Their conception of what they were doing was that they were renewing their covenant as the original Church of Christ in Scituate, believing that those who had called Mr. Chauncy to be their minister, had separated themselves from the original covenant, and therefore renounced their church standing. For many years afterwards both churches claimed they were the First Church in Scituate and that the other group was the Second Church. The General Court later ruled that since the up River group (meaning our church) had built a church of their own, and left the original building to the followers of Charles Chauncy, that they were the second Church in Scituate, not the first. Later, when South Scituate and Norwell became separate townships it no longer mattered. Both churches are now First Parishes in their respective towns.
Needless to say, Mr. Chauncy did not take this renewal of covenant by William Vassall, Thomas and Suza King, and others, lightly. He wrote and voiced his opposition to the Elders and leaders of the churches in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony. He accused the dissidents of renewing their covenant "surreptitiously" without due notice, that it was done "suddenly" in the "extremity" of a "greate snow" on the 26th of November when few could come, and that it "was done irreligiously without fasting or prayer." He warned the Elders of neighboring churches not to be defiled by sharing communion with any of them. Moreover, in the heat of passion, Mr. Chauncy charged that he was in fear of his life from Mr. Vassall, which the latter said was not based on any "just cause for fear." Nevertheless, to alleviate Mr. Chauncy's fears, Mr. Vassall refused to meet in the same room with him to discuss their differences. Mr. Chauncy later admitted that he did indeed suffer from "the disadvantages of a hasty temper," but added, it had been "corrected by his holy temper." Whether by a hasty or a holy temper the two factions of the First Church in Scituate had come to a parting of the ways.
Mr. Chauncy's charges to the neighboring church elders were vehemently denied by Vassall and the others--Chauncy had the wrong date, there was no greate snow, some members of the First Church had been invited as witnesses, and members of neighbor churches in Roxbury and Barnstable were present for the occasion. They reasoned that by a wise ordering of Providence "a convenient Congregation may be settled with Mr. Chauncy, and another with us, and though we cannot live to be one Congregation, yet if we be two, we may live comfortably both." The Plymouth Elders counseled mutual reconciliation and reunion between both parties while the Mass. Bay Elders recognized the right of the up River members to form a church of their own. And so it was done. They called their first minister, William Witherell of Duxbury, a grammar school teacher, and ordained him on September 2, 1645. In a 39 year ministry he recorded the performance of 608 baptisms. Parents came from near and far to have their children baptised by sprinkling and laying on of hands by beloved Mr. Witherell.
It is hard to believe that the controversy between the two churches, fueled by the temperamental differences between Mr. Chauncy and Mr. Vassall, lasted for more than 30 years and agitated the colonies in both Plymouth and Boston. What brought it to an end was Mr. Vassall's returning to England in 1648 and Mr. Chauncy's resignation in 1654 to become President of Harvard. As the Rev. Samuel Deane records in his History Of Scituate, "A reconciliation was easily accomplished after Mr. Vassall and President Chauncy had left the ground." The reconciliation was formalized in an exchange of letters between the two churches in 1674-75. The Elders from our parish said in their letter: "We...do willingly and gladly lay aside all former offences taken up, or ancient disagreements betwixt us; we desire to forgive you and us whatsoever may have been displeasing to (God)."
William Gould Vinal, in his booklet on "Old Scituate Churches In A Changing World", published in 1954, writes that "people of today are not so contentious as to whether one is immersed, sprinkled, or dry cleaned." We find other things to be contentious about, some less important, some more important. One thing is evident from our early history. They took their theology and forms of religious practice seriously in those days. The question for us is, do we, and if so, how seriously should we take them? Is there any place for a sense of humor in our religious life together? I would hope that we would take our religious commitments as seriously as our spiritual forbears took theirs. However, I would also hope that we would not take ourselves so seriously that we squeeze the life out of our gathered religious community.
Perhaps if Charles Chauncy and William Vassall took themselves a little less seriously they could have found room for accommodation, or at least tolerance of one another's views, and acceptance of one another's right to exist. Sometimes human personality and the human ego is more of a problem in religious and other human controversies than the apparent controversy itself. Remove the personalities and egos involved and the controversy resolves itself. Sometimes you have to take the long view and wait for the key players to die or leave town, as happened with Chauncy and Vassall. Matters are more serious, as in Northern Ireland, or Yugoslavia, or the Middle East, where you have the egos of entire nations, races, cultures or subcultures involved in the controversy. In such cases you really do have to fear for your life and we can only pray that it doesn't take a Thirty Years War to end the controversy as happened in Europe and the old Holy Roman Empire in the early 17th Century.
There were other controversies in the history of First Parish in Norwell, some large and small, some serious and not so serious, and some amusing to report after the fact. During William Witherell's ministry he once embarrassed one of his flock, John Bryant, who came late to meeting one Sunday. After his prayer Mr. Witherell addressed him so that all could hear: "Neighbor Bryant," he said, "it is to your reproach that you have disturbed the worship be entering late, living as you do within a mile of this place. Especially since here is Goody Barstow who has milked seven cows, made a cheese and walked five miles to the house of God in good season." John Bryant apparently took his dressing down in good spirit because he later married the minister's daughter, Elizabeth. I promise not to embarrass any of you who might come into meeting late on a Sunday. We're glad to have you come anytime, anyway we can get you. Just be sure you get here before the collection.
During the ministry of Deodate Lawson (1694-98) the parish had a problem with the long and continued absence of their Pastor. He would disappear for months at a time, never letting his congregation know when and where he was going, nor when he might return. He was presumably engaged in more lucrative secular pursuits. They were finally advised by the Elders of neighboring churches to "use all Evangelical endeavors to settle themselves with another Pastor, more spiritually and...fixedly disposed." Taking a lesson from Deodate Lawson I have done my best to let you know when and where I am going on my forthcoming sabbatical and when I shall return. I trust I shall still have my pulpit waiting for me when I come back from England and Romania.
The only incident surrounding the Unitarian controversy of the early 19th Century within the South Scituate parish was recorded by Samuel Deane, minister and historian, on the 6th of May, 1820: "The church this day tarried after communion to consider the request of Nabby Barker to be dismissed from her communion and recommended to the Communion of the Church of Christ in Hanover because the Pastor did not inculcate total depravity, particular redemption, special grace and three persons in one God." After much discussion and further investigation into the practices of other churches it was moved to grant her request "on account of her uneasiness but not on account of difference of sentiment. It was without forming a precedent."
The church in South Scituate was one of few that was not split over the Unitarian/Trinitarian controversy in New England, largely because of the long spiritual tutelage of Dr. David Barnes (57 years), a progressive and tolerant minister of his day (his sermons were said to be "clusters of maxims" and inspired thoughts on the divine providence revealed in the natural world), followed by the ministry of Samuel Deane, another minister of generous and liberal sentiments, poet and local historian, whose hymn at the conclusion of our service, was sung at the Dedication of our Meeting House in 1830.
There were other controversies in the life of our 350 year old parish. More serious were the controversies surrounding the efforts of the Rev. Dr. Samuel Joseph May, on behalf of Temperance and Anti-Slavery. He organized a Cold Water Army of a few hundred young people, carrying banners through town and chanting "eternal hate to all that doth intoxicate." He put the rum dealers and liquor establishments out of business. But the people still loved him as a pastor.
There were some, however, who were not well disposed towards his preachments against the institution of slavery. Donald Yacovone, in a recently published biography on Samuel Joseph May and The Dilemmas of the Liberal Persuasion reports that May "scolded his parishioners for their lack of compassion for the poor and the oppressed, (and) offered to remit fifty dollars of his salary if thecongregation would employ it toward payment of church taxes for the poor." Moreover, May "opposed segregating the poor and blacks in the rear (balcony) of the church." Yacovone reports that...
during one service, he declared that if a slaveholder with gold and fine clothing had visited the church he would be given the best seats, "but his colored slave, the victim of his tyranny (though he might be a disciple of Christ) would be sent up to the negro pew." The comment upset many church members, who then became enraged when he asked for abolition of the segregated pews. Wishing to avoid an ugly fight, May resigned his pulpit in the summer of 1842...(and) accepted a position as president of the Lexington, Mass. Normal School...for the training of teachers.May held no bitterness towards his former parishioners. He later urged a fellow colleague, the Rev. William Fish, to accept a call to South Scituate. Fish had a long and prosperous 20 year ministry and was instrumental in the procuring of funds for the building of the James Library which served also as a Sunday School and parish meeting hall. Years later, when he was in his 60s Samuel May returned for a visit to Norwell where he was warmly received and fondly remembered. He was so touched by his reception that he could hardly speak for the tears that came to his eyes. In spite of the controversy he had had a good ministry here. By the time of his return the Civil War was over and segregated pews were a thing of the past.