Separation Between Church and Town — Trinitarian–Congregational Society
Their House of Worship — Work of Unitarian Church and
First Parish —
Death of Rev. Samuel Stearns — Stearns’ Descendants —
Church of Christ.
Prosperity followed the erection of the meeting-house, and peace and harmony prevailed until the autumn of 1831, when a difference in opinion, which had for years existed between the Trinitarian and Unitarian Congregationalists of New England, reached that point here, where the relation between the pastor and people was most severely tried. [*1] The love of the pastor of this town for his people, and their strong attachment for the one who had given the best of his life in their service, the regard of many for his feelings in his declining years, together with the unswerving fidelity of the pastor to the principles that he had proclaimed when ordained for the Gospel ministry in this town thirty-five years before, may be assigned as some of the reasons for the severity with which the storm beat upon the community. The church was rent asunder, and the remainder of the ecclesiastical history of the town, as regards the Protestant faith, will be viewed in two separate channels, viz.: The First Parish with the Unitarian Church and The Trinitarian Congregational Society with the Church of Christ. The First Parish, and church connected with it, held the meeting-house, all of the funds and communion service, while the Trinitarian Congregational Society and associated church began their work with empty hands. June 4, 1833, the two resident male members of the church who remained with the First Parish met and chose as trustees William Page and Charles Spaulding, and adopted a new covenant, and accessions were made to their numbers. After the stated supply of Rev. Mr. Davis and Rev. Robert Walcott, Rev. Joshua Chandler, a graduate of Harvard College, was settled over the church and society. [*2] He was succeeded by Rev. George W. Woodward. In May, 1846, he removed to Galena, Illinois, and a series of stated supplies followed — the last of whom was Rev. Jonas Whitman, pastor at Lexington, who continued in charge until his death, in 1848. Services were then discontinued and the house of worship closed, until it was remodeled in 1849.
In April of that year Rev. William Cushing accepted a call to act as stated supply. Mr. Cushing took a great interest in education, conducting a private school in connection with his pastoral work; his successor was Rev. George W. Webster, who was installed as pastor in August, 1860. Extreme peculiarities, tending to mental disease, impaired his usefulness, and after a year and a half, during which the
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church and society relaxed in vitality, he left the charge and entered the Union army from this town. The house of worship was closed for a period of twelve years. It was reopened in the autumn of 1869, and Rev. Grindall Reynolds took charge of the parish in connection with his pastorate at Concord. His call to the position of secretary of the Unitarian Association necessitated a change. Revs. Milstead and Russell acted as stated supply until 1884, when Rev. George Piper assumed the pastoral care of the society in connection with that at Carlisle. During his pastorate the meeting-house has been thoroughly remodeled, the church revived, and the ordinances regularly observed. In addition to the income of the “Page and Hartwell Fund” the society is aided by the Unitarian Association.
The Trinitarian Congregational Society immediately erected a house of worship on land given by Mr. Jeremiah Fitch, of Boston, a native of Bedford. [*3] The building-lot was directly opposite the Stearns mansion, and was given in consideration of the regard of the donor for his neighbor, teacher, pastor and friend. [*4]
The relation between Rev. Mr. Stearns and the town was dissolved by a mutual ecclesiastical council, and he accepted a call from the Church of Christ and Trinitarian Congregational Society of the town, in their united capacity. Services were regularly held in the dwelling-house of Rev. Mr. Stearns until the society completed a meeting-house. Mrs. Hannah Reed presented the church with a suitable communion service. Many of the citizens, who had but fifteen years before, 1818, paid large sums for their pews in the town’s meeting-house, had now freely given a tithing of their possessions for the erection of another house of worship, and, free from debt, the church and society resumed the work of proclaiming the gospel in the Evangelical faith. Rev. Mr. Stearns died in December, 1834, and the fourth and most notable pastorate was brought to a close.
The body of Rev. Mr. Stearns was interred in the family vault in the old burial-ground, and there remained until the death of his widow, Madam Abigail Stearns, in 1858, when they were both deposited in cemented vaults on the western slope of Shawshine Cemetery. [*5]
Of thirteen children born to Rev. Samuel Stearns and Abigail French, eleven reached maturity. No other Bedford family has exerted so great an influence in the world of letters. They ail received the highest advantages for education that the schools afforded. The five sons were all educated at Phillips Academy, Andover, and at Harvard College, and the four who became clergymen attended Andover Theological Seminary. Of thirty one grandchildren twenty-three are living. Almost all have received a liberal education. Of the grandsons, two are professional men and one an artist of rare ability; five granddaughters became teachers, four married professional men; a number are authors of books or writers for leading periodicals. The
descendants in the third and fourth generations are numerous and prominent in the world.
The young man who, in the flush of youth, dedicated himself to the higher interests of the people of Bedford, had become old in their service and been gathered with the fathers. More than five hundred people of the town died and the entire membership of his church had been gathered during his ministry. There were admitted to the church one hundred and forty-three members while worshiping in the new meeting-house, before the separation.
Rev. Jonathan Leavitt succeeded Rev. Mr. Stearns, and has been followed by Rev. S. Hopkins Emery; Rev. Oren Sikes, who died in office December 15, 1852; Rev. Henry J. Patrick, now of West Newton; Rev. W. J. Batt, now moral instructor at the Massachusetts Reformatory; Rev. George Lewis; Rev. Edward Chase; Rev. Otis D. Crawford; Rev. George E. Lovejoy, now of Franklin, Mass.; Rev. Howard A. Hanaford, now of Winchester, N.H., and Rev. Edwin Smith, who took the charge August 1, 1886.
The church has a present membership of one hundred and eighty. That element in our nature which leads us to value things in proportion to their cost was plainly evident in the careful manner with which the people of this town who formed the Trinitarian Congregational Society guarded its interests, and that healthy activity that is generally found among societies that depend entirely upon their own efforts for support has been manifest through the half-century of its existence. No ministerial fund has been established. Small legacies bequeathed to the church have been applied to the promotion of the work and memorials of the donors added to the ornaments of the house of worship. In 1886 the house was repaired, enlarged and refurnished to suit the demands of the times, about $7000 being expended.
Adherents of the Romish Church have gradually settled in town, constituting a very respectable class in society, among whom may be found some of the most thriving farmers. Becoming weary of a journey of five miles to attend worship (as were the first settlers of the town), they erected a chapel in 1885, which is well furnished and adapted to their use; [*6] they maintain religious services in connection with the church at Lexington, Rev. P. J. Kavanaugh being the priest in charge.
- Brown’s History of the town of Bedford (1891) pp 16–17
- LL.D. ∨ L.L.D.
- cf. “Samuel Stearns and the Unitarian controversy” (1868)
in The Congregational quarterly: Volume X (pp 245-275)
- “stated supply”: acting minister
- “a house of worship”: now First Church of Christ: 25 Great Road
- “the Stearns mansion”: the Penniman-Stearns House: 26 Great Road
- “the old burial-ground”: the Old Burying Ground: 7 Springs Road
- “a chapel”: (what was then) Saint Michael’s Chapel
Stood “east of Hillside Avenue and the narrow gauge right-of-way”. (HPN) p 16
Demolished in 1961. (BS1) p 101