Stearns (1879) [5/8]

2. I pass now to consider my second proposed point, viz., the relations of Bedford, as a town, to the interests of the church and religion.

This part of the functions of a town had its root in what was the prime object of the settlers of this country. We have seen how this object stands foremost in all the plans and motives of the settlers here, and the prominence that was given it in the charter.

The meeting-house, being now finished, at least so far as to be occupied, £40 was raised (the first money ever raised by the town as such) “to maintain preaching among us.”

Next, as in old Bible times, the people “offered willingly,” [*1] and a subscription of £179 10s. was made on the spot, in sums of from £5 to £36 to a man.

Then they held a fast, and after the fast a town meeting for the election of a minister; and the choice fell on Mr. Nicholas Bowes. This done and the terms for settlement and salary agreed upon, the pastor elect signified his acceptance, and the ordination took place July 15, 1730.

At the same time, and by the same council, the church was organized. The covenant on which it was founded is very

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clearly and happily expressed and breathes an earnest and evangelical spirit. Twenty-four male members, including the pastor, set their names to it, and a few weeks later the Lord’s Supper was first administered.

Of the ministry of Mr. Bowes I glean but little. One eminent citizen of the town and member of the church, John Reed, Esq., made profession of his faith during his ministry. We are already familiar with his name by its frequent recurrence in the town records. He died Nov. 20, 1805, in the seventy-fifth year of his age, during the ministry of Mr. Stearns, to whom he was as a counsellor and a father, and who, at his death, paid a most affectionate and admiring tribute to his memory.

Mr. Bowes sustained the office of minister here about twenty-four years. Some occurrences of a painful nature, it is said, led to his dismission. There must have been, however, some redeeming features in the case, or the town would not have employed him five months after his dismission as a teacher of one of their schools, nor the military company already referred to have chosen him for their chaplain. His dismission was given him by the church Aug. 22, and by the town Sept. 2, 1754. The whole number received into the church on profession of their faith during his ministry is one hundred and thirty-four.

The next minister was the Rev. Nathaniel Sherman, brother of that distinguished civilian, Roger Sherman, of Connecticut, and grand-uncle of Judge E. R. Hoar, late attorney-general of the United States, and of Hon. George F. Hoar, United States senator from Massachusetts. Mr. Sherman seems to have been a man of earnest piety and ardent zeal; but he was a man of feeble health and thereby subject to frequent interruptions. The town dealt generously by him in providing for the supply of the pulpit

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when he was disabled, and only once seem to have got out of patience. It was during his ministry that Hugh Maxwell, whose name has been mentioned here more than once, came into the communion of the church. The Maxwell family came to this country from Ireland in 1733, and settled in Bedford. The parents were of the Scotch-Irish race, and very strict in their religious principles. Hugh was but six weeks old when they embarked with him for America. He must have had his home in Bedford about forty years. He was a fine specimen of a Christian soldier, as ardent in his piety as he was unflinching in the service of his country. He served not only, as I have said, five campaigns in the old French war, but through all the Revolutionary war, from Bunker Hill till peace was fully restored. It was in that old French war that he narrowly escaped butchery from the savages. And to the impressions made upon him in that providential rescue, he ascribed his conversion. The whole case is very tenderly related by his daughter in a beautiful memorial of him, in which we find this record: “At the age of twenty-two he joined the Congregational Church in Bedford, Rev. Mr. Sherman, pastor, and during his whole subsequent life gave evidence that his professions were sincere.” [*2]

Some time after Mr. Sherman’s settlement a controversy arose respecting the terms of church membership. It was not peculiar to this town, but was one that was agitating the community of churches. The people deflected (some of them) from their pastor, and that led to his dismission. His ministry lasted only twelve years, during which, it is said, forty-seven were received into the church.

The next minister was the Rev. Joseph Penniman. His ordination took place May 12, 1771. A curious vote of the town stands on record here: “The town voted that the day should be religiously observed, agreeably to the solemnity of

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the occasion, that they were determined, as much as in them lay, to prevent all levity, profaneness, music, dancing, frolicking, and all other disorders.” [*3][*4] Very good in the main! It is to be hoped, however, that sacred music was not intended to be excluded.

Mr. Penniman is said to have had some marked peculiarities. His expressions in prayer, it is said, were sometimes grossly irreverent and familiar. In my childhood several such were currently reported by the old people. Charity, however, would lead me to hope that some of them had got somewhat exaggerated.

However that may be, dissatisfaction at length arose on several accounts. An ecclesiastical council was called, and after three days’ session, they advised unanimously a separation. The church and town accepted the decision, and he accordingly took his dismission Nov. 1, 1793. Thereupon, the town voted, “To exempt Mr. Penniman’s estate from taxation for five years, provided he should continue to occupy it so long.”

I come now to the ministry of Rev. Samuel Stearns. [*5] It was the last ministry which the town, as a town, had, and by far the longest. Having heard a large number of candidates, the church chose him for their pastor and the town concurred, and having agreed with him as to the provisions for his settlement and support, they made arrangements for the ordination.*

Col. Timothy Jones made the generous offer to entertain the council and other ministers and candidates, free of expense, which offer was accepted. Five men were chosen

* Mr. Stearns’ salary was changed several times during his ministry, to meet the fluctuations of the currency and other changes of the times, and was not finally settled until the year 1811. [^1] In this matter the town always manifested toward him a generous liberality.

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as a committee to prop up the galleries, also to reserve seats for the church and council, and pews in the galleries for the singers.

The churches of Lexington, Billerica, second in Woburn, Concord, Lincoln, Carlisle, Andover, Epping, N.H., Chelmsford, and the Rev. Drs. Willard, President of Harvard College, and Tappan, Professor of Theology in the same, constituted the council. Rev. Mr. French, of Andover, preached the sermon.

A little anecdote may serve here to illustrate old times. When the answer to the call was sent in, the new pastor’s expected father-in-law passed a Sabbath in Bedford and read it to the people. On his calling the next morning at the house of one of the parishioners, conversation fell naturally upon the young lady who was to be the minister’s wife. The story is, that the old grandfather, sitting in his big chair in the corner, put in a question, perhaps roguishly, “Can she work? Can your daughter work?” “Work! Oh yes,” was the quick reply. “I wish you could see. She works laces and muslin beautifully!”

Mr. Stearns was the son of Rev. Josiah Stearns, of Epping, New Hampshire, a native of Billerica and a descendant of one of the first settlers. His mother was the daughter of Rev. Samuel Ruggles, one of the ministers of that town. He was prepared for college at Phillips Exeter Academy, and was a protégé of its honored founder. [^2] He passed the first two years of his college life at Dartmouth, and then removed to Cambridge, where he was graduated in 1794.

During all the early years of his ministry, he kept up very close and cordial relations with his Alma Mater, whose president and one of the most distinguished members of its faculty, as we have seen, took part in his ordination. They

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were accustomed to send to him their suspended students, and a long list, including some afterwards-distinguished names, were from time to time thus placed under his care and instruction. Among these was President Webber‘s own son, a young man of high promise and many attractive qualities, whose early death sent sorrow into the hearts of many. During his stay here, the visits of President Webber and his estimable lady were very frequent at the pastoral mansion. [*6] In those days, when there were no theological seminaries, young men preparing for the ministry were accustomed to place themselves under the guidance and instruction of pastors competent to instruct them. Mr. Stearns, from time to time, had several, one of whom attained to high distinction. I refer to the Rev. Dr. Willard Preston, of Savannah, who used to speak with much apparent satisfaction of having preached his first sermon in our old first Bedford meeting-house.

In those days, the demands on clerical hospitality were much greater than people now have any conception of. The country taverns were not always a pleasant place of accommodation for willing ministers. Hence those who were disposed to be hospitable found their hospitality often drawn upon quite beyond their convenience. Such was the case not seldom at the pastoral house in Bedford, yet I never heard either its master or its mistress utter a word of complaint, although the children, especially the boys, did sometimes experience rather close packing. [*7]



  1. Stearns’ ∨ Stearns’s
  2. Phillips ∨ Phillips’s



  1. cf. KJV’s 1 Chron. 29:6-9
  2. cf. The Christian patriot (1833) p 15
  3. “profaneness”: blasphemy
  4. “disorders”: disturbances (of the peace)
  5. “Rev. Samuel Stearns”: b. 1770 — d. 1834 (BHB) II: pp 37-38
    Whether out of humility or an understanding that most of those listening would already know, Stearns never mentions that Reverend Samuel Stearns was his own father.
  6. “the pastoral mansion”: Domine Manse: 110 Great Road
  7. Stearns is here referring to his brothers and himself.

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