Church in Dorchester
“To Tend to the Generall Goode”
Remarks on the 375th Anniversary of First Parish Church in Dorchester
Sunday, March, 20, 2005
J. Charles Swift, Church Historian
(not as delivered)
I would like to take the opportunity to greet everyone this morning, with the words spoken by the Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris on the occasion of First Parish Church moving into the fifth meeting house on December 2, 1816.
“We behold too, convened in one assembly, those from whom we have been divided, and some to whom we have been strangers; who come to congratulate us on this auspicious occasion, to unite in the same acknowledgements of gratitude, and to mingle accordant voices in the same anthems of praise.”
Most of us here are Dorchester residents by choice, not by birth. This would not have been the case in 1816, when many parishioners could still trace their ancestry to the early settlers of Dorchester. While a few of us here today trace our ancestry back to the passengers on the Mary and John, most of us have ancestors who made their own journeys overseas more recently and I’m sure even as I speak someone new is arriving in Dorchester to make this place their home. Newcomer or not, we all adopt the identity of a “Dorchesterian”.
I want to talk a little today about the earliest history of First Parish and the beginnings of Dorchester. Dorchester’s history is overshadowed by that of Boston. Even the site of Dorchester’s greatest claim to fame in the American Revolution, Dorchester Heights in South Boston, was taken from Dorchester by the legislature in 1804 and awarded to Boston at the behest of Boston based real estate speculators.
Few outside of Dorchester know that Dorchester was founded before Boston, if only by a few months. I bring up Dorchester’s founding date because Dorchester’s settlement marked an unusual experiment in New England’s history: the earliest settlers of this town gathered in England, formed a congregation, and emigrated as a congregation with ministers. The Rev. John White of Dorchester England, the impetus for the Dorchester settlement, was one of the originator s of the movement for the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter. White and others raised money to put a colony in New England—an investment opportunity, which resulted in Salem. Salem almost failed, but White was not deterred, and continued to encourage settlement.
Those who met in Plymouth, England to come to Dorchester were carefully selected: two ministers, two magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Company, which had invested in the journey, several older men with adult families, and a group of single or just married men. In this last group we see the names that have stayed in Dorchester’s history: Stoughton, Clap, Minot, Hall, Strong. Some men were chosen for their military experience. On March 20, 1630 this group elected the Reverends John Warham and John Maverick their leaders, and embarked on the Mary and John for America.
Emigration was about religion, but also had a financial incentive. Settlers in Dorchester could expect to receive a land grant, which, to land starved Englishmen, was a powerful incentive. The question was not so much religious freedom, as we often hear—early Dorchester residents had little use for Quakers for example, but rather freedom to practice a particular type of religion. The Dorchester settlers were Calvinists. According to Calvinist precepts, all mankind deserved damnation, but a few were destined to be saved. Those saved were the elect, but the problem was that one had no way of knowing which group one fell into. Calvinists also believed that they were bound by a covenant to see to the enforcement of God’s laws in society. Even though they couldn’t earn salvation through good works, good behavior would help them in the here and now to avoid wars, famines and other things that might be attributed to God’s displeasure with their actions. This concern with behavior helps create the image we have of the Puritans today: dour, censorious, and far too concerned with the activities of one's neighbors.
The Mary and John landed at Nantasket on May 30, 1630 after seventy days at sea. The initial plan was to settle in the mouth of the Charles and a small group explored up as far as present day Watertown. But the cows needed pasturage and Dorchester’s abundant salt marsh provided that. The passengers may have also been too tired to go further: one of the first orders of business after landing was to have a doctor come up from Plymouth to bleed some of the passengers, who were likely suffering from scurvy.
The earliest town settlement was in an area known as Allen’s Plains, in the vicinity of Edward Everett Square. The orders from Massachusetts Bay Colony company included instructions that towns should mark out a pale, in which all people should make their homes. Land was assigned according to investment in the company. For example, a 50 pound share entitled one to 200 acres, a town house-lot, and 50 acres for each family member. Non-stockholders received 50 acres, and masters received 50 acres for each servant. Most were non-stockholders.
In general, the earliest houses were within a half mile of the meeting house, which was located at the site of present day E. Cottage and Pleasant Streets, just down the street from us today. One of those houses, the Blake house, has survived under the care of the Dorchester Historical Society. The meeting house served also as a general meeting hall for the tow and also as a fort. Not only did this help the settlement protect itself, but the requirement for locating homes close to the church reflects the Puritan concern with enforcing moral order.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter was for a trading company, not for a civil government. Only three of the first Dorchester residents were known to have been shareholders. One of the first orders of business for the General Court in Massachusetts was to extend freeman status, which meant one could vote in colony affairs. The requirement for becoming a “freeman” was usually membership in the church, not land ownership as was the case in other colonies. Twenty four Dorchester men were granted that status in 1631. This brings me to an important point: not all who attended church were members of the church, which is something Reverend Kellaway will address.
Dorchester’s lasting contribution to American history is the town meeting. The earliest affairs of Dorchester were guided by the two ministers, Warham and Maverick, with the magistrates’ advice until freeman status was granted to the twenty four residents, then for two years every order was voted on by the freemen. The first recorded town meeting in America was held on 8 October 1633, where the citizens of Dorchester, Massachusetts "ordered that for the general good and well ordering of the affayres of the Plantation their shall be every Mooneday before the Court by eight of the Clocke in the morning, and p'sently upon the beating of the drum, a generall meeting of the inhabitants of the Plantation att the meeteing house, there to settle (and sett downe) such orders as may tend to the generall good as aforesayd." It was agreed that twelve men, each with an equal vote, would vote on issues brought before the town.
After Dorchester formed its town meeting, other settlements followed suit and in 1636 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony adopted a law regulating town meetings. The town meeting was very much an work in progress: in 1645 the town set down rules regarding a published agenda, appointing a moderator, the proper acceptance of motions, all of which should sound quite familiar to those of us who regularly attend community meetings.
Much of the town business in the early records consists of assigning land, but there other items which are still with us today. In 1633/34 the burying ground (present day Dorchester North Burying Ground, on the corner of Stoughton Street and Columbia Road) was set aside. Dorchester residents were also concerned with maintaining harmony: in 1634 it was decided that “No man shall sell his house of lot to any man without the plantation, whom they shall dislike of.”
The town approved the first water mill on the Neponset at Lower Mills in 1633. Israel Stoughton was given the privilege of erecting a fish weir on the Neponset, but agreed to sell the alewives to the town at a specific price and to give inhabitants preference in purchase. The General Court approved this with requirement that Stoughton keep a horse bridge in good repair. In almost all town business there is an underlying acknowledgement of larger responsibilities beyond commerce. Much of the town land was held in common—people of Dorchester petitioned for the right to cut timber, or gather fallen wood in the common lands. The town understood that the conservation of resources was essential to survival.
Dorchester’s first great test came in 1635, when almost half the town begins the process of leaving for Connecticut, along with the town’s minister. Why Connecticut? River bottom lands along the Connecticut near present day Windsor and Hartford were more appealing than rocky Dorchester fields. This was a source of great concern and debate in the General Court. Moving was made easier by an influx of settlers in 1635 which helped provide purchasers for the land of those wishing to leave for Connecticut. This new influx brings more familiar names: Blake, Bird, Clap, Humphries, Davenport. Perhaps in response to the exodus, the General Court granted more territory to Dorchester in 1636 which included Milton, and again in 1637 which included Canton, Stoughton, Sharon, and Foxborough.
The early history of Dorchester shows a group of people struggling to reach a way to order their town, to work together, to provide for the general good, at a time when few models existed for accomplishing these goals. I think we see the same effort today in our churches, our community groups, our civic associations. We are not the inheritors of Dorchester’s history but rather its stewards, protecting, preserving, and adding to what has come before us. We are joined in these efforts by institutions like the Dorchester Historical Society and by all the residents of Dorchester. For it is in the history of Dorchester that we find some of ourselves, and much to celebrate.