Mr. Stearns’ ministry, reckoning it to the time when he ceased to preach for the town, extended over a period of a little less than thirty-seven years, or reckoning it to the time of his decease, a little less than thirty-nine years. [^1]
It will, of course, be impossible for me even to allude to the many interesting events of that protracted period. The
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good old fathers and mothers of the congregation came around him, and stood by him with a cordiality seldom realized. They were his counsellors, his supporters, his friends, and they, in turn, leaned upon him with affectionate confidence; and the young people, as they grew up, found in him the most cordial sympathy and the most tender interest in their welfare. Nothing pleased him more than to engage their affections and make them happy, and nothing seemed to please them more than to attract his attention and win his smile of loving recognition.
He preached regularly on the Sabbath morning and afternoon, — never in the evening in the earlier days. The old meeting-house, I fancy, never saw a light except through the doors and windows, and never a fire, except in the foot-stoves.
There was no part of the worship in which Mr. Stearns took greater pleasure than in the music, in which he often bore his part. He had a fine tenor voice, and in his college days had led the singing in the college chapel. If it chanced, as it sometimes did, that the choir was missing, the minister would set the tune and carry his own part; and Uncle Solomon Lane, who had a voice, as they used to say, heavy enough to “make the summers start” in the old oaken ceilings, would put in his bass; [*1] and the ladies, with their sweet, gentle voices, would supply the treble, and the people generally liked it so well that the choir soon got reconciled and came back.
As to evening meetings, they were not much approved in the early days, but prayer-meetings were held at frequent intervals in private houses or at school-houses, and many other methods were from time to time adopted. Among others there was a society of the young people, called “the catechetical society,” in which questions were given out, with
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references to Scripture places, which the members were to find and write out, and to bring them in at a subsequent meeting. The minister had also his semiannual “catechising,” at which the children and youth used to attend, in numbers of from fifty to a hundred. For the younger ones, there was a book of easy questions, and for the older, the larger and more abstruse one. [*2] To encourage attention to this last, it “was provided that those who should recite the answers through at any one time, should be advanced to a special seat, called the “spectators’ seat.” It was very seldom that a meeting occurred, where there was not some one or more, who aspired to that honor. Exercises like these have been superseded by better ones since the introduction of Sabbath schools. But Sabbath schools in those primitive days had hardly been thought of.
In the visitation of the sick, Mr. Stearns was peculiarly assiduous. I have been astonished in looking over his memoranda, to see how constant was his attendance, sometimes daily and even twice in the day, and from month to month, on the sick and dying; and very signal was his success, especially with the young, in soothing their sufferings, [*3] impressing upon them the truths of the gospel, and preparing those who were approaching death for a peaceful and even joyous departure. I could mention names not a few, but that is not desirable.
He took a deep interest, too, in the secular affairs of the town, and used to open the town meetings with prayer, but never voted, except for State officers and in State and national affairs. In these he was always careful not to be wanting. [*4] I remember how the selectmen used to call upon him, sometimes in a body, and walk with him to the place of assembling, and with what feeling of respect I used to look upon that dignified body of town magnates. It was
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one of the special advantages of the old town system, that the minister would regard the whole settlement as his charge, and its highest welfare, temporal as well as spiritual, as a proper subject of his attention. Mr. Stearns felt this, in the early part of his ministry, to an eminent degree. He had taken Bedford as his charge, and having done so, he turned a deaf ear to the most flattering solicitation. His motto was, “I dwell among mine own people.” [*5] One of the objects he had in view, in purchasing the fine, large estate in the middle of the town, which, with his small settlement and moderate patrimony, he hardly felt able to do, was that by bringing the front lots into the market, he might promote the prosperity of the town. [*6] And so it proved. The first store ever built in Bedford was built on ground furnished by him for that purpose, and the first man that ventured on so bold an undertaking was a young friend of his and of his noble wife, by whose joint influence he was induced to undertake it. [*7] When he had leisure or felt the need of recreation, nothing pleased him more than to go out into the fields with the farmers, and to talk with them about their methods and the results, and having had some experience in his youthful days, he would sometimes drop a valuable hint. One of the best farmers we ever had here used to say that Mr. Stearns first taught him the best way to plough. And so it was, in different ways and degrees, in respect to all the interests of the people whom, without distinction of persons, he was accustomed to call “my people.” And the good old fathers of the town saw and appreciated it. They confided in his judgment; they made him chairman of their school committee; they sought his counsel in things secular as well as religious.
And here, I must not fail to mention one of our most characteristic parochial institutions. I refer to the annual wood-cutting, to us boys at the old pastoral house, and perhaps
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also to some of our young neighbors, about the biggest holiday of the year. As a part of the salary of Mr. Stearns, the town had agreed to give him “twenty cords of wood, merchantable oak wood.” It was given out in parcels, larger or smaller, to the lowest bidder, and brought on sleds during the winter, and piled or “corded” up in sticks of four feet long and piles of four feet high, along the east wall of the side dooryard. At the March meeting, the selectmen came, often in a body, and viewed and measured the wood, and if they found it satisfactory, would accept it and so report to the meeting. Thereupon, a time would be agreed upon, and an invitation given to meet and ”give the minister a lift towards cutting it up.” Early in the afternoon, the men of the town, old and young, with axe on shoulder, gathered in the yard. And sure enough, it was a merry time, — forty or fifty axes, wielded by the strong, muscular arms of the farmers of the town, and two or three big saws, each plied by two old men, and the big chips flying in every direction, and the boys running to and fro with their wheelbarrows piling up the wood; and then the lunch, with the big table set out of doors, and the doughnuts and the delicious drop-cakes, and the bread and cheese, and the other refreshments, then regarded as salutary if only taken very moderately, and the jokes and the laughs and the shouts, which now and then made the welkin ring. [*8] I tell you, it was a merry time in the old wood-yard on “wood-cutting day.”
But the most conspicuous event in the history of this ministry was the building of the new meeting-house in 1816 and 1817. [*9] It was a great undertaking as the times were. But the people of the town showed a large degree of resolution and unanimity. Of all the pew-holders, not more than two or three showed any permanent dissatisfaction. The last
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service in the old meeting-house was held early in July, 1816. The sermon of the day took note of the event, but did not dwell upon it. That venerable house had been the theatre of nearly ninety years of the experience of this ancient town. There had the four pastors of the church taken upon them their ordination vows, there had the old fathers and mothers worshipped, and there had three generations of the children been baptized. There too, all through the memorable struggles of the Revolutionary period, had all the town meetings been held. But the dead past must not be in the way of the living and in-breaking future. That very week, as I suppose, the frame was stripped, and the old, heavy, oak timbers came to the ground with a crash. When the new frame was ready for the raising, the people assembled on and near the foundation, and with a few introductory words, the minister led them in prayer. It was a bright July morning, and young and old felt the intensest interest. It was no trifling matter, to take up bodily the huge sides of that heavy frame and fix them together in their places, but the result was soon reached without accident. It took three days, however, to complete the raising, and then again, on the seventeenth day of the month, the people assembled, and the minister led them in a prayer of thanksgiving, “standing,” the record says, “on the floor of the new meeting-house.” Meanwhile, arrangements had been made to hold public worship in the school-house. [*10] The centre school-room was in some respects well constructed for that purpose. The meetings were generally well attended. Every corner of the house, gallery, entry, and floor was occupied with seats. The great wooden shutters, that separated the entry from the main room, were lifted up. We little boys had to sit on the steps fronting the desk, and sometimes on the low, narrow steps leading to the higher
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range of benches. On pleasant days, it was not uncommon to see the window-frames filled with eager faces of those who were standing outside.
The season proved to be one of peculiar religious interest, and was unusually fruitful in Christian results. The interest was kept up during all that autumn and winter, and in the spring, when Election Day came, that holiday of holidays in those times, at the particular request of the young people, the pastor held a service specially for them, and preached to them a very tender and paternal discourse from the second book of Chron. xxv, 9, “If thou seek Him, he will be found of thee.” [*11] At the next communion in June, a company of seven made profession of their faith, among them the pastor’s eldest son, then a student at Phillips Academy. [*12] In a little more than a year, the number received rose to thirty, among them some who proved themselves, through a long course of years, among the most efficient members of the church and citizens of the town. I well remember a remark made by the minister as we were taking leave of that school-house sanctuary, that this had been to him one of the happiest years of his life.
But we were all glad enough when the new house was finished and we got fairly into it. The “dedication day” was a great day in Bedford. Everybody congratulated the people. Many came in from the neighboring towns to attend on the services. The music was prepared with great care, and was sweet and stirring. The rich-toned bell rang out joyously from the steeple, a sound not heard before by us under our own Bedford skies, and the beautiful inside clock, with its rich gilded frame, surmounted by a gilded eagle with spreading wings and a chain of gilded balls held in his beak, though not yet set in its place, was in full anticipation, and now as we look back, can hardly be sep-
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arated in memory; and to us boys and girls, who had watched every timber and board and carving, as the work had gone on, the whole result seemed a peerless specimen of the best and most fitting style of “meeting-house” architecture.
The bell, weighing nine hundred and ninety-three pounds, was imported from London by Mr. Jeremiah Fitch, a merchant of Boston, and the clock was presented by him as a token of his affectionate interest in his native town. [*13] Bedford never had a warmer friend or a more generous and untiring benefactor. The widow’s heart blessed him, the little children saw his carryall pass through the streets, as he came and went on his occasional visits, with a thrill of pleasure, and in the pastoral house his name with young and old was a household word. Mr. Fitch was particularly interested in the children. It made a lively time in the old Centre School when one of his big packages of “picture-books ” was handed in for distribution; and one scene has impressed itself unfadingly on my memory, in which the children in the summer school, being formed into a procession under the leadership of the “schoolma’am,” marched from the school-house to the Fitch mansion, and there being formed into a line, received each his little gift from the hands of two beautiful children of their beloved benefactor. [*14]
The large association of ministers, of which the pastor was a member, were here in a body. Bedford town, in her ecclesiastical capacity, had by the acknowledgment of all acquitted herself nobly, and was prepared to enter upon a new era.
Just one year after this, July 19, 1818, our first Sabbath school was organized. It was the result of a good deal of deliberation and forethought, and was at once attended with decided success. Eighty-seven members were present at
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the first meeting. The largest number at any one time was ninety-eight, the smallest seventy-four, the average eighty-eight, the whole number of different persons during the season one hundred and nine.
The school was divided into four classes, and each class into two divisions, the male and the female. Each division had its teacher. Mr. Benjamin Simonds was the first superintendent, and managed its affairs admirably. The movements were all conducted with a soldierly precision. Punctually at nine o’clock the exercises began, and punctually at the appointed moment we left the school for the meeting-house. Each class walked in the order of its number, with its teacher at its head, and at the head of the whole column was the superintendent. Sometimes in crossing the Common, the pastor, arriving from the other direction, would meet them at an angle, and he then taking the lead, the whole procession would file into the house, and then the whole company disperse to their places. I shall never forget those days, I am sure, or cease to hold them in grateful remembrance. I have been acquainted with many Sunday schools since, and witnessed the introduction of many Sunday-school improvements; but after all, none occupies a more conspicuous place in my memory, or a warmer one in my heart, than our dear old first Sabbath school in Bedford. [*15]
But I must not dwell longer on this department of my subject. The ministry of Mr. Stearns was, as I have said, the last ministry in which the town, as such, exercised its functions. The town of Bedford, in its organic capacity, ceased to act a little less than forty-six years ago. It was an excellent arrangement at the beginning, — this constituting towns into parishes, and making man, woman, and child interested in and responsible for the support of religion, — [^2] but it ceased to be so the moment men began substantially
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to differ. The moment the disagreement became general, the system was doomed. Thenceforth, they who differed in opinion had to become separate in action. I do not propose to discuss here the movements that led to the separation. I was here on the ground during most of them, a not uninterested observer; although, not being at that time a legal voter in the town, I took no part in its proceedings. Much there was that was painful about them. I have never been disposed to hold my fellow-townsmen on either side as altogether responsible for that. They did not originate the movement. It was the result of a great tidal wave of changing opinions and newly awakened activities, which was sweeping over this whole region and was predestined to reach Bedford sooner or later. Different persons regarded the same measures in different lights. I am not here to be either an umpire or a partisan. The whole proceedings were related, as I think, in a very candid manner, many years ago by my lamented brother, the late President Stearns, of Amherst College. [*16] If any desire to read his narrative, it is to be found on the pages of the “Congregational Quarterly” for 1868. [*17] He says, in conclusion, “If we have said enough to meet the demands of the case, let everything else unpleasant be buried forever.” Believing that enough has been said by all of us, and perhaps more than enough, I say with him, “Let everything else unpleasant be buried forever.”
But I have a word or two more to say, before leaving this subject. The proper functions of the town, in its corporate capacity, ceased, as I have said, in this department, with that separation; but their results are not lost, and the responsibility which was once borne and discharged so well under the old system has not ceased, but is only transferred. We have now here two religious societies, each organized upon its own principles, the heirs respectively of the old
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church, and the old town in its ecclesiastical capacity. Let them now, each by their own methods, and according to their own convictions of the true and the right, responsible only to God, and paying all due deference to each other, combine their strength to make this whole favored population, with all that shall arise in it or come into it, in the highest, fullest sense of the words, a pure, temperate, upright, God-fearing and God-loving people! And may God Almighty bless them both in so doing, and guide them in His way!
- Jonathan F. Stearns’ “Historical discourse” (1879)
in Bedford sesqui-centennial celebration (pp 36-46)
- Stearns’ ∨ Stearns’s
- religion, — ∨ religion,
- Brown’s History of the town of Bedford (1891)
- “make the summers start”: shake the rafters
- “abstruse”: obscure
- “signal”: noteworthy
- “wanting”: absent
- cf. KJV’s 2 Kings 4:13
- “patrimony”: church estate
- “a young friend”: Henry Abbott (BHB) p 104
- “the welkin”: the heavens
- “the new meeting-house”: now First Parish: 75 Great Road
- “the school-house”: the second Center school
Moved. Now a private home: 56 Springs Road
- Stearns is evidently mistaken in his citation.
cf. KJV’s 1 Chron. 28:9 (contra 2 Chron. 25:9)
- “the pastor’s eldest son”: Samuel H. Stearns: b. 1801 – d. 1837 (BHB) II: p 37
- “Jeremiah Fitch”: b. 1778 – d. 1840 (BHB) II: pp 11-12
- “the Fitch mansion”: (the former) Fitch Tavern
Now a private residence: 12 Great Road
- cf. Brown’s Historical address (1888) [ no scan ]
- “my lamented brother”: William A. Stearns: b. 1805 – d. 1876 (BHB) II: p 37
- cf. “Samuel Stearns and the Unitarian controversy” (1868)
in The Congregational quarterly: Volume X (pp 245-275)