376 years ago today, a group of people organized by the Reverend John White of Dorchester, England, gathered in Plymouth, England to form a new church and embark for America. This church, now known as First Parish Church in Dorchester, marked an unusual experiment: it is the only church in New England that I know of which was organized in England and emigrated as a congregation. You can read my post written for the 375th anniversary of First Parish Church in Dorchester here.
One of the best accounts we have of the founding of First Parish Church and Dorchester comes from the memoirs written by Captain Roger Clap, who emigrated to America on the Mary and John when he was about twenty one years of age. What motivated people like Clap to join up with the company of people who were going to embark for an uncertain future in New England?
Roger Clap was born in Sallcom, in Devonshire (Salcombe Street in Dorchester, where descendents of his built a house, honors his birthplace) and when he was in his teens he went to live with the family of William Southcot, who took Clap into town every Sunday to hear the various ministers in Exon. As Clap says, "I then took such a liking unto John Warham, that I did desire to live near him, so I removed into the city" where he lived with another family. He goes on to say, "I never so much as heard of New England until I heard of many godly persons that were going there, and that Mr. Warham was to go also. My master asked me whether I would go? I told him, were I not engaged unto him I would willingly go, he answered me that should be no hindrance". But when Clap wrote his father, his father was apparently so upset he didn’t even send an answer to Roger. But then, as Roger Clap explains, 'God sent the Rev. Mr. [John] Maverick, who lived forty miles off, a man I never saw before; he having heard of me, came to my father’s house; and my father agreed that I should be with him and come under his care, which I did accordingly."
On March 20th 1630 John Warham was elected Teacher and John Maverick was elected Pastor and the two new ministers of First Parish and the company embarked for New England with a congregation of around 140 persons. From Roger Clap's account it sounds as if the first ministers of First Parish chose the congregation as much as the congregation chose the ministers. But Clap was also ready to go, motivated by religion and also likely by his own status in England--he had lived in two other households besides that of his family and his chances for advancement were slim. Both Warham and Maverick had been ministers in the Church of England and it is unlikely that they would have been allowed to form a Congregational Church except for the fact that plans had already been made to leave England.
Clap prospered in Dorchester, becoming the town's representative to the General Court and serving as Captain of Castle William, a local fortification. Clap's descendents stayed in Dorchester for another 300 years, and the Dorchester Historical Society owns the houses of Lemuel Clap and William Clapp. More information about the Clap family can be found here.