History of the Congregational Church in Hampton

By Reverend John Alexander Ross

From Granite Monthly -- Vol. 43, pgs. 142-9 -- 1911

[In view of the publication, in the last two numbers of the GRANITE MONTHLY, of an extended article on the noted Rev. Stephen Bachiler, the venerable first pastor of the church in Hampton, the presentation at this time of a history of that church -- the oldest in the state -- for the first 250 years of its existence seems most appropriate. This is condensed from a sermon, preached on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the church, August 10, 1888.]

Reverend. John A. Ross, trustee of Hampton Academy,
pastor of First Congregational Church, from The Hampton Union,
December 9, 1909.

In September of 1638, the fifty-six original settlers laid out the township of Winnicunett, and organized, or may be continued the organization of, the oldest church in New Hampshire, with Stephen Bachiler as pastor. The name seems to have been changed to Hampton on June 6, 1639. I should like to give here a paper probably written by Father Bachiler, but it is too long. Instead I will give a short extract from Johnson's Wonderful Working Providence: -- After stating that Hampton had her foundation stone "scituate not farre from the famous river of Merrimack," and that "the great store of salt marsh did intice the people to set down their habitations there, having about four hundred and fifty head of cattle," the writer proceeds, "and for the form of the town it is like a Flower de luce, two streets of houses wheeling off from the main body thereof; the land is fertile, but filled with swamps and some store of rocks, the people are about sixty families; being gathered in church covenant, they called to office the reverend, grave and gracious Mr. Dalton, having also for some little space of time the more ancient Mr. Bachiler to preach unto them also."

Thus the church is planted in the wilderness. But a place is needed in which to meet for worship. Before their own homes were finished the little log meeting—house went upon the Ring, near where Mr. Holmes now lives. And the bell must have summoned the worshipers, for at the second town meeting of which we have any record, "on the 22nd of the 9th mo., 1639,'' we find this vote; ''Wm. Sanborne (with his consent) is appointed to ring the Bell before the meetings (on the Lords's dayes and other dayes) for which he is to have 6d. per lott of every one having a lott within the Towne." How strange the sound of the bell, startling the echoes amid the pine woods, and rolling across the marshes! How sweet the sound to the early settlers in the wilderness! Memories of home were in it. It recalled the green lanes of old England, and the ivy-covered churches where many of them had plighted their marriage vows, and some had left their dead. But we hear no word of repining from these brave men and true women. And a worthier home for the worship of their God must be built. In a town meeting of the following year it was voted, That Richard Knight build a "meeting-house frame 40 foot long, & 22 foot wide, with ye studdes, 13 foot high (between joynte) 8 or 9 inches broad, and 18 inches only betwixt studd & studd with girt windows & a place for the Bell (now given by ye reverend Pastor) 5 or 6 beams; 5 or 6 pair of principal rafters, & the rest answerable, to be payed, the one halfe in money or work by the tyme the frame is up, and the other halfe in money or beasts (at reasonable prices) within one year after." At a town meeting one year after this, "agreement is made to defray the charge of ye meeting-house by voluntary gifte." And although not completed in 1644, it must have been occupied in 1640, for we read then of the porch being used as a watch-house.

It was a plain building, without chimney or stove, at first without galleries, with a pulpit, and may be a pew for the minister, with unenclosed seats, probably without backs where the men and women sat apart, and the young people sat by themselves, and the services of the tything man were needed to keep them in order. The prayers and sermons were long. But the people met for worship. They believed in a God who was ever with them, and ordered all the events of their lives. With fervor they sang from Dunster's Psalms. Devoutly they stood through the long prayer. With patience, if not always with profit, they listened to the always doctrinal, but not always practical, sermon, and during the week discussed its teachings in the field and by the fireside. We will not look too closely into the causes of the fierce quarrel between Father Bachiler and his colleague, Teacher Dalton. They were both men of high temper and stubborn will. Father Bachiler was deposed and excommunicated, left Hampton in 1647, married a third wife when eighty—nine years old, and returned to England in 1650, where he married again, his third wife being still living. The chronicler quaintly adds, "How much longer he lived, and how many more wives he married is unknown." He died at Hackney, near London, in his hundredth year. [This is not true, click here.]

With Father Bachiler was associated as teacher Timothy Dalton, one of the original settlers. After Father Bachiler's departure he seems to have had a fairly quiet and prosperous ministry. The meeting—house was completed during his ministry. He had a farm of 300 acres, and for some years at least a salary of forty pounds. After 1652, he seems to have received no salary, and, probably owing to failing health, performed no pastoral or ministerial work, although retaining the title and (I think) the official authority until his death, December 28, 1661. Rather singular duties were expected of ministers in those days. At different times he was chosen with two others "to sett the bonds between Hampton and Colchester (now Salisbury), with five others "to go and view the highways towards Colchester," and "on a committee to confer about a ferri-place." Teacher Dalton was a more consistent man than his first colleague, but I think not so able a man, nor so unselfish. He seemed to know how to look out for himself, and acquired considerable property. Still we find him relinquishing four years' salary which the town owed him, and his famous Deed, from which came the ministerial fund, was partly gift. "He conveyed by this Deed to the church and town of Hampton for use of the ministry forever, certain portions of his land for the sum of 200 pounds sterling." He was an able theologian, strictly orthodox, and somewhat intolerant. He had a keen eye for Quakers and witches, although not directly concerned in the persecution of Eunice Cole. Johnson sings of him:

"Age crownes thy head, in righteousness proceed
To batter down, root up and quite destroy
All Heresies and Errors that draw back
Unto perdition, and Christ's folks annoy."

What is mortal of him rests in yonder cemetery. Peace be to his ashes. He laid a foundation stone in this venerable church. I would lay my tribute wreath on his tombstone, if I could only find it. Is it not somewhat to our shame that the tombstones of these fathers of the church and town are lying neglected, and hidden by the rank grass?

But how did the strictly orthodox Dalton get along with his somewhat heretical colleague, John Wheelwright? It seems to me that there must have been friction between men of such positive characters as they both were, and so divergent in theological opinion. In those days men contended rather too earnestly for what they were pleased to call the faith once delivered to the saints. Of course they were "the saints." Wheelwright was brother-in-law of the famous Mrs. Hutchinson of Boston, and shared to some extent her views. If he did not, as she did, claim immediate revelation as the guide of his conduct, nor denounce in equally extravagant terms the magistrates and ministers, he had very little respect for authority, civil or ecclesiastical, and in his doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit came perilously near to fanaticism, and pushed his doctrine of justification to the verge of antinomianism. When Mrs. Hutchinson was banished from the colony and went to Rhode Island, he withdrew to Exeter and formed a settlement and a church there. His claim to Winnicunett, founded on a grant from Indians, was rightfully disallowed by the General Court of Massachusetts. We next find him at Wells, in the province of Maine. The General Court having removed the sentence of disability on the acknowledgment of his errors, he was called to Hampton, then claimed by Massachusetts. The call is a curiosity. I should like to give it in full, if I had time. The good people of Hampton were evidently somewhat afraid of his love of change or aptness to stir up strife. They frame the call with all the carefulness and minute particularity of a legal document. Mr. Wheelwright is offered free transportation from Wells to Hampton, 40 pounds per year, a house and house-lot, and "the farm that was Mr. Bachiler's" To raise the salary it was voted: "Every master of a familie shall pay 5 shillings to the some of 40 pounds, & be more or lesse, according as the some or somnes of the rates are, & all single-men, which goeth at ther owne hand, ore that taketh anye wages for themselves, they shall likewise paye 5 shillings as aforesaid." "Then what remaineth shall be raised upon the estate of every person equally, according to that they do possesse -- be it in houses, land, cattle, boates, or otherwise, excepting only ther come, which shall goe rate-free." A like salary was at the same time voted to Teacher Dalton.

It is not certain when he left Hampton. He was here in 1654, for in December of that year it was voted that 10 pounds be added to his salary. This year is noted for the remarkable hail-storm. The storm was in June. In some places, the hail lay twelve inches deep, "and was not all dissolved 2 days after the storme, in many places, as we are informed by many eye-witnesses, and many of which haile were said to be 3 or 4 inches in length." I infer from the record of a town-meeting held December, 1656, that he was then about leaving, or that there was trouble between him and Mr. Dalton. But the vote is so ambiguously worded that no positive statement can be ventured on it. In 1658 he was in England, and in high favor with Oliver Cromwell, who said that, when he and Wheelwright were fellow-students at Cambridge, he was more afraid of meeting him at football than he was afterwards of meeting an army in the field. He returned to this country, and died in Salisbury in 1679, between 80 and 90 years of age.

Mr. Wheelwright's successor and Mr. Dalton's next colleague, Rev. Seaborn Cotton, so called because born at sea, inherited all the stiff Calvinism of his father, the famous John Cotton of Boston. Mr. Cotton was installed pastor in 1660 or thereabouts, two years after that unseasonably cold weather that came on after the apple trees were in blossom -- the change in temperature so sudden, and the cold so severe that "in a fishing boat belonging to Hampton one man died before he could reach the shore, another was so chilled that he died in a few days, and a third lost his feet." His salary was fixed at 60 pounds. He had also a house given him, and a farm of 200 acres laid out at Hogpen Plain. In those days young people did not behave so well during services as they do now. At a town meeting in 1663: -- "Itt is ordered thatt two of the inhabitanc of the towne shall sitt in the gallery to keepe the youth in order in the time of publick exercises to see that they keepe their plases & sitt orderly & inofensavely." At a town meeting in June, 1675, it was voted, -- That all the inhabitants over twenty meet at the ringing of the bell to assist in raising the new meeting-house, and a fine of twelvepence in money is to be imposed on all who "faile of appearance." It was some years before the meeting-house was finished. In 1679 we find a vote for seating the people in the new meeting-house, so that it must have been then occupied. In 1680 it was voted that the old meeting-house be taken down. The heathen, as our fathers termed the Indians, were now making trouble, for in 1689 "it was voted that all those which were willing to make a fortification about the meeting House to Secure themselves and their families from the Violence of the Heathen they shall have free libertie to doe it." Captain Samuel Sherburne was the first man to whom was granted liberty to build a pew for his family in the meeting-house, "provided," the record characteristically reads, "he builds it not so high as Mr. Cotton's seat is built." This was in 1687. The minister was then the great man. He was king in his Jerusalem. To him the boys took off their hats, and the girls courtesied, and from his lips was received the law as well as the gospel.

Eunice Cole, of whose exploits as a witch tradition has so much to say, was a sad trial to Mr. Cotton, who inherited all his father's abhorrence of witchcraft, and a continual vexation to the town. Miserable must have been her death, alone and unattended in her wretched hut on the Ring; and melancholy her funeral, her body hustled without religious service into a hole near by, with a stake driven through it to which was attached a horse-shoe. About the same time the following shameful warrant was directed to the constables of several towns, and executed in Hampton and other places: -- "You and every one are required, in the King's Majestic's name, to take those vagabond Quakers, Anna Coleman, Mary Tompkins, and Anne Ambrose, and making them fast to the cart's tail and drawing the cart through your several towns, to whip them on their naked backs not exceeding ten stripes apiece on each of them in each town, and so convey them from Constable to Constable till they are out of this jurisdiction, as you will answer at your peril, and this shall be your warrant.''

Mr. Cotton died pastor of this church, April 19, 1686, at the early age of fifty. He was the author of a catechism not now extant and is described in Mather's Magnalia as "a thorough scholar and able preacher." He certainly was a hard working minister, delivering well studied sermons on the Sabbath, calling the young people about him for frequent catechising, and visiting among the families of his flock. Also a doughty fighter of the Arminian heresy and zealous for the truth as he understood it. If he did flee to Boston to escape imprisonment, he was no coward. If he did bend to the storm, he was not a reed shaken in the wind. Should the storm blow too fiercely he would stand firm, and rather be uprooted and laid prostrate like one of the Hampton pines by the strong wind than deny the faith. He left a list of the names of sixty-eight members of the church.

His successor was his son, John Cotton. He was ordained pastor of the church November 19, 1696, ten years after the death of his father, but was acting pastor some time before his ordination. In 1694 the town voted a salary to our present minister, Mr. John Cotton. The vote is somewhat of a curiosity. I give it as recorded: "The Town will give our present minister, Mr. John Cotton, Eighty-five pounds a year for his paynes in the work of the ministry amongst us to be paid every half year in Wheat five shillings pr bushel, Indian Corn three shillings pr bushel, Mault and Rye at four shillings per bushell, pork at threepence Per pound, all marchble and good over and beside the contribution every quarter formerly agreed upon, and the use and benefit of the House land and Meadow that is appointed for the Ministry. And the Town to maintain the outside fence of said land and Meadow, and besides what the Towne shall see case to to doe for him in wood towards maintaining his fiers." The church was in a sad state of spiritual decline when Mr. Cotton became its pastor. Only twenty—five members, ten male and fifteen female. During his pastorate of thirteen years two hundred and twenty were added to the church. In 1698 fourteen were dismissed to join the church in Exeter. The congregation must have grown, as there was a demand for more seats in the meeting-house. Discipline was enforced, and active measures were taken to bring the young people to a sense of their covenant obligations. In 1704 it was voted, -- "That the Present Selectmen take care that all the Clay Walls in the Meeting House that are not ceiled shall be Smoothed over with Clay and Washed with White Lime & made Hansom," "to have the fore over Beams of sd Meeting House covered with Bords, and these bords that are Seasoned Joynted & nayled Down." A parsonage was built, and the fortification was removed from the meeting-house. There seems to have been a general waking up. The life that cometh down out of heaven was astir in this church. From these scattered farm-houses they crowded the roads that led to the Ring, and fervent prayers were answered, and discouraged, and almost despairing, souls were lightened, and eyes dim with watching again saw the salvation of the Lord. The able preacher and faithful pastor, maybe worn out by overmuch work, died suddenly March 27, 1710, at the early age of fifty-two. During his ministry 320 were admitted to full communion, and there were about 975 baptisms.

His successor, Rev. Nathaniel Gookin, who had married his daughter, was ordained pastor November 14, 1710. At a town meeting held in April, 1710, quite a number dissented from the vote to hire a minister for the town for reasons which do not appear on the record. The prosperity of the church continued under the earnest labors of this excellent man. Although. besides the ordinary losses, in 1711 forty-nine members were dismissed to form the church in Kingston, and in 1726 twenty to join the new church in Rye, at his death the church numbered two hundred and fifty—three members. A new meeting-house was also built. It was voted that it be built on "ye meeting-house green as near ye present meeting-house as shall be judged convenient"; and that ''it be built 60 feet in Length & 46 in width and 27 feet in stude between joints, and yt a steeple or Turret be built to the house at one end thereof from ye beam upward of convenient and suitable bigness & heidth to said house, and that there shall be one pew in sd house, & that for the minister's family." By a subsequent vote these dimensions were slightly changed to make "it more proportionate and hansomer." The old meeting-house was to be sold for the benefit of Mr. Gookin. On October 18, 1719, the new meeting-house was occupied for the first time. Mr. Gookin died August 25, 1734, at the early age of forty-eight. "Learned, prudent, pious, and very much loved," a contemporary writer describes him, "excelling as preacher and divine:"

Mr. Ward Cotton was chosen to assist Mr. Gookin, who was in feeble health, and was ordained a few months previous to his death June 19, 1734. The salary finally voted by the town was: -- 100 pounds in paper money, and 20 pounds in provisions; after four years five pounds to be added annually till the salary amounted to 120 pounds in money and 20 pounds in provisions, the use of the parsonage, hay and land sufficient to keep two or three cows and a horse, and the necessary fire-wood. During his ministry 437 members were added to the church, and there were about 1,200 baptisms. In 1738 we have the first record of a contribution for Home Missions. The meeting-house was repaired and a new steeple built, four new flagons and four cups purchased for communion and other improvements made. One sad event happened then, the terrible throat distemper, which first appeared at Kingston, in May, 1735, and "ravaged from Pemaquid to Carolina." "The general discription of it is a swelled throat, with white or ash-colored specks, an efflorescence on the skin, great debility of the whole system, and a strong tendency to putridity." Fifty-five children died of it in this parish, in the second parish (Hampton Falls) where it was specially fatal, it carried away one-sixth of the inhabitants within thirteen months. This was a time of much spiritual prosperity and readiness for the work. But a dark cloud gathered on the clear sky. The pastor became physically infirm, and, maybe in consequence of this infirmity, lapsed into sad immorality. A council was called, and he was dismissed November 12, 1765. At a meeting held June, 1776, it is recorded, -- "In consequence of Mr. Cotton's confession -- Voted, to receive Mr. Ward Cotton to the Charitable Communion of this Church as a Brother in Communion with us." But he did not again become its pastor.

Before the next pastor was settled, on June 14, 1776, Deacon Joshua Lane was killed by lightning on his doorstep. A more terrible storm now swept the whole country, but the church kept on the even tenor of her way. You would not know from the church records that now the war for our National Independence was being waged. Rev. Ebenezer Thayer succeeded Mr. Cotton, and was ordained September 17, 1776. There was some opposition to his settlement. The church then consisted of two hundred and sixty-four members. It grew amid the storm. During Mr. Thayer's pastorate one hundred and two were added to the church. The meeting-house was renovated, new pews added, and seats made for the singers. A parsonage was also built. One of the most important occurrences of Mr. Thayer's ministry was the change of hymn books. Up to this time the book used was the Bay State Psalm Book as improved by Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard College, in conjunction with Richard Lyon. It was voted at town meeting, January 17, 1772: "To exchange Dunster's Version of Psalms for Doctr Wattses Psalms and Hymns." Mr. Thayer preached on Sabbath, and died next day, November 6,1792. The town paid his funeral expenses, and gave a gratuity to his widow. He was a man of singular purity of life and singleness of purpose; yielding and yet manly; a lover of peace, without any sacrifice of dignity.

After Mr. Thayer's death an unfortunate division rent the church. As far back as 1712 we find Presbyterian tendencies. They now come to the surface. After unsuccessful attempts to settle Nathaniel Thayer, Daniel Dana, and Jonathan Brown, the town voted at a meeting held October 19, 1795, "to give Mr. William Pidgin a call to settle in this town according to the Presbyterian form of church government." The vote stood 63 for, 20 against. As the town could not, according to Congregational usage, settle a minister without the consent of the church, and as a vote for the call of Mr. Pidgin was negatived by the church, this was a necessary step if he was to become the minister of Hampton. The church held a meeting on the same day, and adjourned to the 27th, when it was voted, "Not to give Mr. William Pidgin a call to settle with us." Mr. Pidgin addresses his acceptance of the call "To the Presbyterian Church & Society in Hampton." At a church meeting held January, 1797, a unanimous call was voted to Jesse Appleton, who was ordained February 22. Then began the angry controversy and lawsuits, into the history of which I have not time to enter. A sad cloud rests on Mr. Pidgin's character. Under the wise and judicious leadership of their talented pastor the Congregational Society prospered. Being ousted from the old meeting-house they built a new meeting-house in 1797 (our present town house), and dedicated it November 14th of that year. On November 10, 1807, Mr. Appleton was dismissed to assume the presidency of Bowdoin College, and the old difficulty seemed healed only to break out in another shape.

The Presbyterians returned to the old church, and the reunited church used the new meeting-house. Rev. Josiah Webster was installed pastor June 8, 1808. The town voted him a salary of $525, and the use of "the house parsonage." Mr. Webster was as upright in character as in person; scorning to do anything mean or dishonorable; an untiring worker in all moral and religious reform; a diligent pastor and able preacher; earnest in revival work, treating opponents with manly frankness and Christian courtesy; maintaining his own opinions without regard to consequences, and giving respectful attention to the opinions of others. He was a leader in the temperance movement, when it cost something to be a temperance worker. By vote of the church October 4, 1835, the use of ardent sprits was prohibited to church members. There was but one vote in the negative. The first Sunday School was organized during his pastorate in 1818, and three years later the first Sunday School library was introduced.

On March 31, 1825, the present articles of faith and covenant were adopted, "former attempts to adopt articles having failed, but" as the record reads, "God has produced a mighty change within the last 17 years." Stoves were introduced by a vote of the town in 1821. The stove was so to be placed "as not to injure the meeting-house, or any person who sits therein." Mr. Webster was an earnest worker in revival efforts; but, strange to say, there was much opposition in the church to special efforts and revival work. But he persevered in face of opposition, and much success attended his labors. There was a marked work of grace in 1819, and thirty-four members were added to the church. In the long and bitter controversy with the Baptist Society respecting the ministerial fund, and which resulted in the separation of the town from the church, Mr. Webster never stooped to take an unfair advantage, and this cannot be said of all the parties to this strife. At the March town meeting 1835, it was voted, "That Mr. Webster be no longer minister of the town, and that the Ministerial funds be divided." To this vote the selectmen of the Congregational Society objected. The controversy was substantially settled by a division of the fund among the three Societies in 1836, though the echoes of the strife lingered about three years longer. In 1844 the old meeting-house became the town house. Mn Webster died March 27, 1837. During his ministry one hundred and seventy members were admitted to the church. In yonder cemetery a granite shaft fitly symbolizes the strong and upright character of him whose dust rests beneath.

I can merely glance at his successors, confining myself to the installed pastors. Erasmnus D. Eldredge was called to the pastorate in 1838, and dismissed because of failing health in 1849. During his ministry the building we now occupy was built. Under his faithful labors one hundred and fourteen members were received on profession of faith. His successor, Rev. Solomon P. Fay, was ordained in 1849. The church was then on a sea of troubles, but the skilful pilot at the helm brought her safely through. At this critical period of her history it was well for the church that there stood in her pulpit one who was so able a preacher, and so wise and judicious a pastor. Mr. Fay was dismissed August 29, 1854. Rev. John Colby became pastor of the church in October, 1855, and was dismissed in November, 1863. The next settled pastor, Rev. John W. Dodge, was installed October 19, 1865, and dismissed November 18, 1868. His labors here were abundantly blessed, and many members were added to the church. After being about a year acting pastor, Rev. James McLean was installed December 15, 1870, and was dismissed after a short, somewhat troubled, but on the whole successful pastorate of one year. The next pastor of this church, Rev. Walcott W. Fay, was ordained February 20, 1884, and dismissed November 26, 1886. The unbroken harmony of the church and frequent additions to its membership during this short pastorate testify to the successful labors of this young, energetic, and talented minister, whose worth the churches are now finding out.

This brings the history of the church down to the present time. It has now 136 resident members, 49 males, and 87 females. The little sapling has grown to be a great tree. The little congregation, that met in the rude log meeting—house two hundred and fifty years ago, has continued its unbroken history, the oldest church in New Hampshire, down to this year of grace, 1888. Many changes have taken place. The pine forests of Winnicunett have been cut down. The Indian wigwams have vanished. Productive farms and comfortable homes have displaced the wilderness. The old landmarks are disappearing. Meeting-houses have been built, and taken down and rebuilt. Creeds have changed; and new modes of worship crowded out the old. But the church remains the same, because her foundation is He who is the same yesterday, today and forever.