Ecclesiastical (1/3)



 Relation of First Church and Town — Dismission of Rev. Nicholas Bowes —
First Bell — Ministry of Rev. Nathaniel Sherman and Rev. Joseph Penniman.

The ecclesiastical and municipal relations of the town are so thoroughly interwoven for the first century of her history that it is difficult to separate them; but as it is our purpose to briefly sketch the town’s history, topically rather than in chronological order, we shall aim to treat of the social and political relations separate from spiritual and religious, now that we have combined the two sufficiently to show the steps of organization. By the early Provincial laws every tract of territory, when becoming a town, by the same act became a parish; hence the town of Bedford for little more than a century was the parish. They provided for the support of the Gospel at the

same meeting in which they made provision for building and repairing highways.

In our effort to separate the relations we shall class all that pertained to the house or service of worship as ecclesiastical.

The first three pastorates of the town were cut short for obvious reasons. Rev. Nicholas Bowes, the first pastor, was graduated at Harvard College in 1725, and ordained July 15, 1730, and was dismissed August 22, 1754, after a ministry of twenty-four years. Mr. Bowes came to the new town of Bedford under many flattering circumstances. He married Miss Lucy (Lucie) Hancock, the young and accomplished daughter of Rev. John Hancock, of Lexington. Soon after locating in Bedford, Mr. Bowes built a residence on the land deeded him by the town as a part of his settlement fee. [*1] It is now standing, and is a stately mansion, reminding one of the superior dignity attached to the pastoral office of that day. Eight children were born to Rev. Nicholas and Lucy Bowes while in this town. William, the oldest, born December 3, 1734, was baptized four days later by his grandfather, Rev. John Hancock. They all lived to maturity with the exception of Thomas, who died at the age of two years, eleven months. Of the pastoral acts of Mr. Bowes but little is known. The church and town grew and flourished; 161 were admitted to the church, and there were 303 baptisms. The rite was administered to all who owned the covenant and their children. [*2] Confessions were publicly made, but not carried to so great an extreme as in many New England churches. Intemperance and theft were frequently confessed. Mr. Bowes, together with nine other ministers in the vicinity of Cambridge, refused to admit Rev. George Whitefield to their pulpits in 1745, because of his denunciation of Harvard College and many New England clergymen. Through some indiscreet acts the pastor’s usefulness was brought to a close, and satisfactory confession being made, he was dismissed, and it was voted—

“That he be owned and treated as a brother in good standing and charity.” [*3]

He could not have lost his influence in the town, as he was employed to teach the school in the following winter. In 1755 he was chaplain in the Northern Army, at Fort Edward, and died at Brookfield on his return home. But little more is known of his family, save that his daughter Lucy went to live with her maternal grandmother, the widow of Rev. John Hancock, and there made the acquaintance of her grandfather’s successor, Rev. Jonas Clark, of Lexington, and became his wife. The estate was sold to John Reed, and still remains in the family. It was near the close of the first pastorate before the town purchased a bell. In April, 1753,

“Voted, to buy a bell not exceeding six hundred nor less than five hundred pound weight.”

They also

“voted to build a house of sufficient height to hang the mouth of the bell sixteen feet from the ground.”

The “Bell-house” was some rods from the

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[ house photo ]
Old Parish Meeting House.

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meeting-house. The bell was ready for use at the time of the dismission of the first minister, and in the treasurer’s accounts of that year, Deacon Israel Putnam is charged with an order

“for lamb for the council and hemp for the bell-rope, 5 shillings.”

The meeting-house was the shrine of these early settlers, doubly precious because of their great sacrifice to erect it, and because of the great distance formerly traveled to reach the house of God. On April 5, 1731, they voted

“that it should be swept six times a year,”

and Deacon Israel Putnam performed the service for ten shillings a year. In 1743 the pay was increased to £1 15s., “Old Tenor,” and John Mansfield hired to sweep it twelve times a year and

“attend to opening and shutting the doors.”

In 1783 the young men were refused the

“hind seat in the gallery,”

and the pew next to the pulpit stairs was made

“a ministerial pew.”

The town and church concurred in extending a call to Rev. Nathaniel Sherman, and he was ordained February 18, 1750,

“having preached twenty-six Sabbeths, one Fast and one Thanksgiving”

during his candidacy. He was given, as a settlement fee, £113 6s. 8d., and an annual salary of £53 6s. 8d., and twenty cords of wood annually,

“after he shall come to need it for his own firing.” [*4]

Mr. Sherman was brother of Roger Sherman, the distinguished patriot of Connecticut, and endowed with both talent and culture. As a young, unmarried man he entered the work of the gospel ministry in this place. He married Lydia Merriam, March 1, 1759. She was the daughter of Deacon Nathanial Merriam, of this town. They had three children born here, one of whom, Thaddeus, died August 22, 1765. Mr. Sherman was a man of feeble health, and labored under difficulties. Notwithstanding the oft-repeated breaks in his labors, his pastorate was regarded as very successful— forty-six were admitted to church and sixty-seven were baptized by him. It was during the ministry of Rev. Mr. Sherman that Hugh Maxwell, of Bedford, consecrated himself to the service of Christ and became the “Christian Patriot,” whose biography, published in 1833, is a most inspiring work. [*5][^1]

A controversy arose in the churches of New England, about the time of the settlement of Mr. Sherman, concerning the “half-way covenant,” by which persons were admitted to the privilege of baptism without admission to the communion. November 6, 1765, the Bedford church voted

“that there should be but one church covenant.”

Faith in Christ, repentance for sin, holiness and a belief in the Assembly’s Catechism were required of all candidates.

Some of the changes were unpopular; the affections of the people were alienated from the pastor, and the relations entered upon for life were brought to a close. Upon the request of the pastor an ecclesiastical council was called and gave advice in the matter, in which the town concurred. The record of the

church is:

“Upon the request of the Rev. Nathaniel Sherman, the church then dismissed him as a brother of the church and recommended him to the Church of Christ in Mount Carmel, New Haven.”

He was installed there and preached many years. He died at East Windsor, July 18, 1797, aged seventy-three years.

The dismission of Rev. Mr. Sherman caused not only the severing of pastoral and social relations, but family ties were sundered, and the town had no settled minister for a period of three years, during which time the church agreed upon the terms of communion as follows:

“This church will have but one covenant and therefore require the same qualifications in all; yet if any person can desire to enter into covenant and receive baptism for himself or children, and yet fears to approach the Lord’s table at present, he shall be received, he promising (though he come not immediately to the Lord’s table) that he will submit to the watch and discipline of the church.”

Rev. Joseph Penniman was the third minister of the town, ordained May 22, 1771. He received a settlement fee of £133 and an annual salary of £66 13s. 4d., and fire wood. [^2]

In planning for the service of ordination the town voted

“that the day should be religiously observed throughout the town in accordance with the solemnity of the occasion;”

determined as much as in them lay to prevent

“all Levity, Prophainness, music, Dancing and frolicking and other disorders on ^sd Day.”

A committee of five was chosen

“to open the meeting-house and to keep the seats below the deacons’ seat and town’s pew for the church and council.”

A new pastorate was an occasion for advanced steps: 1773

“Voted to bring in Doct. Watt’s versions for the present, and to have Messrs. Jeremiah Fitch and James Wright sett in the fore seat in the front gallery as they are appointed to begin the Psalm or tune.”

The fluctuation in the currency of the country made it necessary for the town to grant relief to their pastor, and in 1780 the town voted

“to grant Rev. Mr. Penniman one hundred bushels of grane, fifty of Rye and fifty of Indian Corn.”

The people manifested their gratitude for a successful termination of the Revolutionary struggle by repairing their meeting-house. It was then clap-boarded and covered with a coating of “Bedford Yellow,” a sort of mineral paint found in the town. The old bell and bell-house were also repaired. Like the people of the town, they had seen hard service during the war.

The bell had sounded the alarm on April 19, 1775; rung for liberty when the Colonies declared their independence; pealed forth its notes of rejoicing over the surrender at Yorktown, and by its cracked tongue and faltering notes, most fittingly suggested the sufferings of the people during the war, in its final attempt to swell the volume of thanksgiving, following the treaty of September 3, 1783. The pastorate of Rev. Mr. Penniman covered the years of struggle for free-

[ p 14 ]

dom from the mother country, and was successful in many respects. Forty-one were added to the church and one hundred and eighty-three baptisms are recorded during his ministry.

Some of the public acts of Mr. Penniman gave evidence of extreme eccentricity, which increased by repetition until the church took the following action July 12, 1793:

“The church met at Deacon James Wright’s and held a conference with each other respecting the unchristianlike behaviour of their Pastor, Mr. Joseph Penniman, the last Lord’s day, it being communion day, and every member of said church being grieved thereat.”

The conference resulted at length in the dismission of Mr. Penniman October 29, 1793. In the light of the present, it would be declared that strong drink caused the trouble. Rev. Joseph Penniman was born in Braintree, and graduated at Harvard College in 1765; after his dismission he removed from Bedford to Harvard, where he died. He was possessed of respectable talents. Social customs of his time aggravated natural eccentricities and led to extreme peculiarities of expression, particularly in public prayer. At the funeral service of his townsman, Captain Jonathan Willson, who was killed at Concord, April 19, 1775, he is said to have uttered the following: [^3]

“We pray thee, O Lord, to send the British Soldiers where they will do some good, for Thou knowest that we have no use for them about here.” [*6]

When visiting the school of the town he is said to have used the following expression in prayer:

“We pray thee, O Lord, that these children may be well trained at home, for if they are not, they will act like Sarpints when they are abroad.”

The act that led the church to close the doors of the meeting-house against the pastor brought the town into public reproach. While the people were seriously considering the circumstances a rougish fellow placarded the doors of the meeting-house with the following brief summary of affairs:

“A wicked priest, a crooked people,
A cracked bell without a steeple.” [*7]

The bill for entertaining the Council at the dismission of Mr. Penniman amounted to £33 0s. 4d. 2f. There were born to Rev. Mr. Penniman and Hannah Jackson, his wife, while in Bedford, four children, two of whom died here and were buried in the old cemetery. [*8] The epitaphs now seen upon the crumbling headstones are most suggestive of the peculiarities of the father. They are quoted in this connection:

“Dec. 22, 1790, Hannah, daughter of Rev. Joseph Penniman and Hannah, his wife, aged 18 yrs., 4 mos., 11 days.

Ah! now, no notice do you give
Where you are and how you live!
What! are you then bound by solemn fate,
To keep the secret of your state?
The alarming voice you will hear,
When Christ, the Judge, shall appear.

Hannah! from the dark lonely vault,
Certainly, soon and suddenly you’ll come,
When Jesus shall claim the treasure from the tomb.”

“August 21, 1778, Molly, aged 3 yrs., 6 mos., and 3 days.

Ah! dear Polly, must your tender parents mourn,
Their heavy loss, and bathe with tears your urn,
Since now no more to us you must return!”



  1. 1833 ∨ 1830
  2. £133 ∨ _133
  3. Willson, ∨ Wilson,


  1. “a residence”: Domine Manse: 110 Great Road
  2. “owned”: consented to
  3. “owned”: considered
  4. “firing”: fuel (for a fire)
  5. cf. The Christian patriot (1833)
  6. cf. Shattuck’s “History of Bedford” (1835) p 268
  7. cf. Josiah A. Stearns’ “Bedford” (1880)
    in Drake’s History of Middlesex County: Vol I p 246
  8. “the old cemetery”: the Old Burying Ground: 7 Springs Road
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