Ecclesiastical (2/3)

CHAPTER IV.

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 ECCLESIASTICAL.

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The Clergy of New England — Rev. Samuel Stearns — Page and Hartwell Fund —
Will of Anna Page — New Meeting-house — Singing-School — Sabbath-School.

The clergy of New England, in its early years, constituted what may be styled an educated aristocracy and to a large degree circumscribed their order by intermarriage. The common people were so burdened in their struggles with the Indians and with foreign nations, together with their efforts to subdue the wilderness and maintain their families, that but little time was left them for self-culture. Their education was limited and they relied upon the clergy for much of their moral and religious sentiment. The fourth minister was Rev. Samuel Stearns and the last called by the town in its parochial capacity. He was ordained April 27, 1796. Mr. Stearns was a grand type of the New England clergy. He was the son of a minister, and his paternal and maternal ancestry were of the clerical profession. He had inherited a truly pious spirit and was possessed of a firm and decided nature. He was a graduate of Harvard College and studied theology with Rev. Jonathan French, of Andover, whose eldest daughter (Abigail) he married, May 7, 1797,

“a lady of rare fortitude, energy, intelligence and practical wisdom, as well as piety.” [*1]

For nearly thirty-seven years Rev. Samuel Stearns was the teacher, leader and undoubted friend of this entire people, and no one person ever did more in this town to mould the character of the rising generation and lead the passing generation

“into green pastures and beside the still waters of eternal peace.” [*2]

During this ministry so many reforms were introduced and grand changes made in both secular and religious affairs that they cannot be hastily passed by. In preparing for the ordination of the fourth minister the town voted to take down the cracked and useless bell,

“sell the bell-house at public vendue, level the ground on the south side of the meeting-house and prop up the galleries.” [*3]

Interested people flocked from the neighboring towns; families of two or three, mounted on the back of one horse, were seen galloping in from different quarters and the meeting-house was filled long before the hour appointed for the service. The Common was covered with booths in which the venders of food and various

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[ portrait print ]
Sam^l Stearns

[ p 15 ]

wares carried on a lively business. Rev. Jonathan French, of Andover, preached the sermon. His text was Isaiah xl. 1–5. [*4] The new pastor bought the estate occupied by his immediate predecessor in office and settled in the midst of his people. The large mansion-house which he occupied during his life and the surrounding acres are still in the possession of the family. [*5] Mr. Stearns received from the town as a “settlement” eight hundred and fifty dollars and an annual salary of three hundred and thirty-three and one-third dollars and twenty cords of fire-wood. Through a depreciation in currency the salary was changed at different times until it reached five hundred dollars per annum. Mr. Stearns also had a loan from the town of one thousand dollars, without interest, from 1801 till his death. The new minister’s regard for order and system began to make an impression at once, as the church and town records plainly show. The custom of public confession of certain sins was abandoned and cases of discipline were conducted with the best of judgment. There was one case that kept the church and town in a state of disturbance for years and involved many important questions and resulted in cold-blooded murder. The light of the present has a mitigating effect on the case, for had the present scientific and humane treatment of incipient insanity been in practice the sad act might have been averted. [??] Mr. Stearns was possessed of a fine musical talent, having a rich tenor voice, which contributed to awaken an interest for music in the town, particularly in sacred music. In May, 1798, the town voted

“that the four pews in the front gallery are assigned to the use of the singers.”

A tuning-pipe keyed on A was then in use and held as a valuable piece of the town’s property. November 1798, the town appropriated twenty dollars for singing-school. In 1815 the town’s viol was placed in the hands of Deacon James Wright,

“for the purpose of assisting in taking lead in sacred music.”

Mr. Stearns never voted in town affairs, but was conducted to the place of meeting by the selectmen and began proceedings with prayer, after which he retired.

September 6, 1812, the town chose a committee

“to receive the donations given to the town by the widow Anna Page and Mr. William Page, deceased, and to take care of and apply the use of the same, agreeable to the wills of the donors.”

By these wills and that of Samuel Hartwell, probated in 1822, “The Page and Hartwell Fund” was created. The following is the preamble and clause relating to the town in the will of Anna Page. The others are similar in expression and provision:

“In the name of God, Amen.

“I, Anna Page, widow and relict of Thomas Page, late of Bedford, in the County of Middlesex and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Yeoman, deceased. [*6] . . . I humbly commit and commend my soul to God my Creator, in and through Jesus Christ my Redeemer, whose righteousness and grace are all my hope for pardon and eternal salvation. My Body I recommend to a christian burial at the discretion of my Executor in the blessed hope of a joyful resurrection at the last day. [*7] . . .


Taking into consideration the vast importance and necessity of supporting the Gospel ministry, it is my will that after my Executor shall have paid all the foregoing leagacys — all debts, bills of cost and charge of every kind [^1] — all the remainder of my estate of any kind and wherever found, be appropriated to that use, and accordingly I do hereby give and bequeath said remainder to the town of Bedford as a fund to aid in the support of the Gospel ministry, to he disposed of in the manner following. That is to say: The capital of the fund shall be put and always kept on interest, upon good security — with sufficient sureties for the same. One-sixth part of the income arising therefrom shall be annually added to the principal as an increasing fund forever — the other five sixth parts of the annual income to he appropriated annually in aid of the support of the Gospel ministry in the present standing order or congregational order forever, and no part of said fund shall ever be appropriated in aid or support of any other than the present standing congregational order forever, and no part of the said fund shall ever be appropriated in aid of any suit at law or any contention whatever, and my will further is, that three persons, all belonging to the church, shall be annually chosen by the town as a committee to take care of the said fund, and that a Book shall be kept by the town clerk, for the time being in which shall be fairly entered this clause in my will and also the capital of the fund and the annual income thereof together with the annual appropriations and expenditures of said income, to be kept open for the perusal of all persons therein concerned forever — but my will further is, that whenever the income of the said fund shall be more than sufficient for the support of the Gospel ministry in Bedford, the remainder of the income of said fund shall be appropriated to support the Poor, Teaching Sacred Music, and the support of Schools or Public buildings, and my will further is, the said sum, whatever it may be found to be, shall be paid by my Executor to the committee to be chosen for the above purpose, in two years after my decease, and a true report of the said fund, with the annual appropriation and expenditure thereof, shall be annually made to the town by the Committee having the care of the same forever, which report shall be recorded by the town clerk in the Book which is kept by him for that purpose forever.

Dated, signed and sealed, February twenty-third, 1810.

Anna Page.”

The town being residuary legatee received from the estate of Anna Page $663.93. The Samuel Hartwell legacy was $300, and that from William Page was $500. For some years the trustees of these funds were chosen in town-meeting and the record-book was kept by the town clerk, but for the last half-century the First Parish has appointed the custodians and the Unitarian Church received the income. The “Page & Hartwell Fund” (now 1889) amounts to $2691.78. The church received by the will of Anna Page a solid silver flagon, costing $140, and by vote of the church a second flagon was procured at the same cost. A silver cup was donated by Mrs. Hannah Merriam. By other donations and purchases the church was now furnished with an elegant solid silver communion service in place of the pewter dishes thus far used. Rev. Samuel Stearns was kindly remembered by this trio of public benefactors. The irregularity of the windows in the meeting-house is suggested by votes like the following: September 3, 1804, voted,

“To allow Mr. Jeremiah Fitch to put a window in his pew in the northwest corner of the meeting-house in any part thereof.”

May 19, 1783, voted,

“To allow Timothy Jones the liberty to put in a glass window in the meeting-house on the back side of his pew at his own cost.”

With the exceptions of such additions the people were contented in the old house of worship, but the great “September gale” of 1815 devastated the noble forests, and hundreds of stately pines lay prostrate. The people seized upon this as

[ p 16 ]

an opportunity for procuring lumber at a reasonable rate, and the town voted to build a new meeting-house. The last service in the old house was in July, 1816, and in the following week the frame was stripped and demolished— such timbers as could be utilized were selected for the new house.

The frame was prepared and put together on the ground and pulled into place a side at a time, by the assembled multitude, who had gathered on the morning of July 8th, and at the appearance of the sun were ready for the order “Bear it up.” On the 17th of the same month the people assembled for a service of Thanksgiving on the floor of the new house. When the house was completed, the town chose a committee —

“To appraise the pews by assessing the whole expense of building said house, including extra bills, etc. (levelling the common and hanging the bell excepted), on the same according to rank and situation of said pews. [^2] . . . [^3] It was further voted ‘that no town-meetings nor trainings or choosing militia officers shall ever be held or done in the meeting house, and no other town business shall be done in said house, except by permission of the selectmen for the time being, and that this vote shall be annexed to the article for the sale of the pews.’ ‘No person shall hang his hat on any post or on the wall of the house, or on any other machine about the railing of the pews on the lower floor, in the body of s^d meeting-house, nor on the front of the galleries, nor on the walls in the galleries.'”

The house was dedicated July 8, 1817. Rev. Samuel Stearns, the pastor, preached the sermon, which was, later, published in pamphlet form. [*8] This was the first dedication service held in the town, it being contrary to the New England spirit and custom when the first house of worship was completed.

James Wright, Jr., was appointed to the responsible position of “sexton.” His duties were carefully defined, not the least of which was

“to carry into the house the basin of water for the ordinance of baptism, when requested.”

The bell, imported from London by Jeremiah Fitch for the town, was first rung on the morning of July 8, 1817. Mr. Fitch contributed the clock to the town, which is ornamented with a gold-mounted eagle and balls, and still marks off the hours in the meeting-house; but the bell, being rudely handled in a seeming display of patriotism, was rendered useless and sold in 1863, by the First Parish, and has not been replaced. The cost of the meeting-house was $6623. The pews sold for a sum sufficient to liquidate the debt, and left a balance of $487, which was assigned for a ministerial fund, by a vote of the town. The “Page Fund” was of use in providing an annual singing-school, and in 1818 Leander Hosmer was employed by the town

“To perform sacred music for said town for ten dollars pr. year, on a Bass Viol, and furnish himself with a viol.”

In July, 1818, a Sabbath-School was organized, which proved to be one of the first Church-schools in the country, the history of which, prepared by the author of this sketch, was published by the Trinitarian Sabbath-school, in connection with the celebration of its seventieth anniversary in 1888. [*9]


SOURCE TEXT


EMENDATIONS

  1. kind ∨ kind.
  2. bell excepted), ∨ bellexcepted),
  3. . . . ∨ . .

WORKS CITED


ANNOTATIONS

  1. cf. William A. Stearns’ “Samuel Stearns” (1868)
    in The Congregational quarterly: Volume X (p 6)
  2. cf. KJV’s Psalm 23:1-3
  3. “public vendue”: public auction
  4. cf. KJV’s Isaiah 40:1-5
  5. “the large mansion-house”: the Penniman-Stearns House: 26 Great Road
  6. “relict”: survivor
  7. “recommend”: commend
  8. “the sermon”: Discourse delivered at Bedford (1817) [ no scan ]
    Rev. Stearns preached from Genesis 28:17. (Church) pp 159-161
  9. cf. Brown’s Historical address (1888) [ no scan ]
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