Ashbel Green Vermilye.

A discourse delivered at Newburyport, Mass., November 28, 1856. On occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the building of the First Presbyterian Church online

. (page 4 of 7)
Online LibraryAshbel Green VermilyeA discourse delivered at Newburyport, Mass., November 28, 1856. On occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the building of the First Presbyterian Church → online text (page 4 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

" value of life." Too weak to stand, he preached it sitting in
a chair. And although his manner was not as animated as
usual, his pallid face, evidently sealed by death, the subject,
made it the most efl'ective he ever delivered. He died Decem-
ber 23, 182G.



Avoiding Prelacy on the one hand, and Independancy on the
other, thn (oiiii(lorrtorf<aiii/,oil lliis a Pn'shyttu-iaii cliiirch. 'I\)
Uic luniM-r wilh ilii |{i!iliu|H, cloiical ordciM and roniiii, llicy
hud iu» hniiiiiiiiH -iVoiii llui hiUor Lhcir own ()X|HU'ioni!u ol" its
workings had made them particularly avcrde. It was a loose
democracy, under which, it' passion or prejudice actuated a
church, as in their case, there was no appeal, no redress. They
were forced, in order to obtain their liberty and rights from
church and state, as the law then was, to become another
denomination ; and to guard themselves and children so far as
possible against the evils they had seen and suffered, against
false doctrine and oppression, they became Presbyterian. As
Mr. Williams says in his sermon, " they had sullcred too serious
evils for want of a judicatory to which they might resort under
their grievances, to expose tliemselves again to embarrassment."
Mr. Stearns remarks, " Strange as it may seem to some, who
are in the habit of regarding Presbyterianism as too rigid, and
unfriendly to popular rights, it w^as expressly for the purpose
of avoiding undue rigidity, and in defence of popular rights,
that the founders of this church adopted that form of govern-
ment." In fact, from seeing how capricious and often oppressive
church discipline became under Independancy, and alarmed at
the spread of error, many leading ministers of the day were led
to advocate a Presbyterian government as the best remedy.
President Edwards, for example, said, " I have long been out
of conceit of our unsettled, independant, confused way of church
government ; and the Presbyterian way has ever appeared to
me most agreeable to the word of God, and the reason and
nature of things." Under this way, the government is repre-
sentative and republican. There being a series of courts, be-
ginning with the session ; to which should always be elected
the men most approved in a church for piety and wisdom.


These courts are uuder definite rules. And if injure^ or
aggrieved in the lower, appeal may be made to a higher, even
up to the General Assembly of the whole church. This "was
the system under which our fathers sheltered themselves from .
false doctrine and church oppression ; and their first act was
to choose six ruling elders.

Of the Session I can say, from a diligent perusal of the
records, that, in general, they have been faithful watchmen over
the spiritual interests of the church. It would seom, that till
Mr. Murray's day, the visitation of families was not customary
with the pastor, except on extraordinary occasions.* Mr,
Murray mentioned the neglect of it as one of his objections to
settling here. This work the Session performed. In 1780 they
districted the parish ; each elder pledging himself to a careful
supervision of his charge in spiritual matters. They catechised
the children, assisted in arranging personal difficulties, and
performed other such duties. Several times addresses have
been presented by session to the congregation, wit^i the most
happy effect — in which the state of the church was reviewed,
prevalent sins were brought to their notice, measures of revival
proposed, and means for doing good suggested. Measures of
evangelization among the destitute around, were early adopted
by them. And though, " for want of co-operation in other
churches, less was effected than attempted, yet through their
importunity with Presbytery, and a petition to General Court,
something was done for their relief."!

In its times of difficulty, ov when destitute of a pastoa-, the
Session has often been the safety of the church. Its unity has
thus been preserved, its discipline and purity maintained, the
pulpit supplied, and the interests of piety and benevolence have

*Mr. Lowell in ono of his letters says, it \v6:j pot regarded, when he settled, by niauy of the
ministers around as a necossaj-y pftrt of their work unlee^ seut for. He tirat introduced the
practice in that church.

tWilllains' SeriDOD, p. 2*.



been attended to ; when otherwise, in so large a sfociety, disci-
pline might have been a fire-brand, evils sufl'erc-d to ripen unre-
strained, false doctrine have intruded, and order been lost.

Of the many godly and praying men who have from time to
time composed it, I have not tlie means of giving any sketcli.
Yet the names of some liave come down to us as very eminent
in piety. Such was Captain Jonathan Parsons,* the Christian
shipmaster, who carried leligion and the Sablath abonrJ, and
maintained their influence in forecastle and cabin, in a day when
such men were few — a man learned in the scriptures and in
doctrine, frugal of sleep and meals that he might read and pray,
and whose Bible, his choice companion, lay open, and by early
rising was not seldom read through in a voyage — a model
Elder, a pattern seaman. Such were Long, and Sewall, and
Coombs, and the Moodys ; one of the latter renmrkabie in
prayer, the other, "good old jMaster Moody " as he was called,
the last who occupied the old seats under the pulpit, and
"whose eyes were never known to wander during service, how-
ever long." Such, more recently, were AVheelwright and
Clark,t and Simpson, my venerable friend, liut there is one
who deserves a special notice, Ralph Cross, who may be called
the founder of the church. Of the work of grace in 1740 he
was a noble trophy, and one of its most zealous promoters. To
the poor he was " a dew from the Lord f in liberality, though
dependent on his industry, unwearied, and in ways that were
then even singular. During that revival, he opened his heart,
his house and his purse freely to all who seemed honestly to
befriend it. At length, having found a goodly number, whom
he judged sincere subjects of vital religion, he animated them

*Son of the first pastor, and brother of Major Gcnernl Poi'soiis of Ucvolutonary memory.
Mr. Murray wrote a very eloquent aeruiou at his dcatb, oulitlccJ " Tliu haiipy Voyage com-
pleted and the sure anchor cast."

TFather andaasiB of Bishop Clark of Rhode IslaniJ, and a family of ministers.


to fonn this church.* Aud to his bciicfuctions aud other cxer-
tiouS; at the time, was greatly owing its success iu suruiouuting
the many difficulties it encountered. Its first stated preacher
was boarded at his house, free of expense, for three years. A
principle part of the cost of building the first meeting house,
was defrayed by him. And of the seven who purchased and
presented to Mr. Parsons a valuable house and lot of land, ho
was the chief. In building tlie present house, he, also, rendered
essential aid — and presented that venerable King James' Jiible,
from which Whitefield preached, aud which is still an appendage
and glory of onr pulpit. Yet nmch uiore even was the church
indebted to his piety, his example, his admonitions in word and
writing, aud his prayers, during a long and useful life. He
was an Elder forty-one years ; and died 1788, aged 82. Let
the church, for which to the last his withered hands and
streaming eyes were lifted in the public prayer, hold him and
his in remembrance.!


The first great struggle of this church, was with the old par-
ishes ; and deserves particular notice, both from its character
and consequences. The Puritan fathers did not learn t&leration
from their troubles in Engjand. They only became the more
determined to enjoy peace themselves in their new home. Re-
ligion was, therefore, placed nnder legal enactments. Parish
lines were drawn ; and all within the limits must attend, and
were taxed to support the church there established. Toleration
and the voluntary principle were the fruit of time and trouble.

'Murray's iuueral sermon.

FHis 80U3 Stephen and Ralph, were both members of the Committee of fiafet}* during (he
Revolution. Stephen was taken prisoner at Fort Oswego, aud sent to England; but returned
and died in lt09, aged 73. Ralph was in the battles of Stillwater and Saratoga, aud became
a Brigadier General. He died iu 1800. aged t2. Miss Mnitba Nuwell, a granddaughter, is the
only one of his descendants now connected with the church, aged about 80.



la 1634, Roger Williams had broached the heresy, that "no one
should be bound to worship or to maintaiu worship, without his
own consent." "What! exclaimed his autagonidts, amazed at
his tenets, is not the laborer worthy of his hire ?" " Yes," he
replied, " from them that hire him."

From 1742 to 1770 this church was manfully battling for the
very same principle. One evil of the law was, that in many par-
ishes which were originally Calvinistic, the inhabitants, by a
major vote, had settled Pelagian or Arminian teachers ; whom
the minority must support, when they could not, in conscience,
attend their ministry. If they built a house of worship for
themselves, on the voluntary plan, they were still taxed to sup-
port the old one ; and for rebuilding or repairing it, they must
pay what the parish assessed. Tims, in a time of declension,
the law itself became a weapon of oppression to the real fol-
lowers of the puritan doctrines. So it was with this church in
relation to the first and third parishes. Its mombers could
neither get dismissions, redress, nor freedom from taxation,
which many were ill able to bear. The Quakers had obtained
a special act of exemption in 1737 — the Episcopalians in 1743.
The Anabaptists enjoyed a like favor. To place themelvc:s, there-
fore, on the same footing before the law, and lor other reasons
already stated, this church became Presbyterian.* But the old
parishes long and steadily resisted; and General Court again and
again refused the petitioners the relief they sought, although itself
at the time complaining of the British court for taxing the peo-
ple without their consent. For the old parishes, however, some-
thing may be said. Their spirit, indeed, was bad enough, and
their treatment of these brethren sometimes indefensible. Many
of them, unable to pay their double taxes, were imprisoned.

*ilr. Rogers of Ipswich paiticularly advised such a course. The battle was uot for them-
selves alone, but for many more iu the churches who were similarly oijproased. If this church
succeeded, he said, they might soou form a consoi iation or Prcobytory, T-rhich was much the
bettor way


Mr. Parsons was maltreated, and visited tliem at a risk. Bui
excitement was running high ; the law was on their side, though
even "right too rigid, hardens into wrong." Besides and prin-
cipally, the new society was drawing heavily upon their num-
bers. One thousand souls from tlie first and third parishes,
were said in 1749 to attend the new church. This was,
probably, an exaggeration. Large numbers, however, did go ;
many of them, the opposers say, " unthinking youth and servants
black and white, to be from under their parents and masters'
eyes, and partly to see the extraordinaries, still practiced
among them, but discountenanced in the regular churches."
What these " extraordinaries '' were, we remain uninformed, as
probably Mr. Parsons also was. Thus the old parishes were
greatly reduced. And if General Court were to free the
remonstrants from taxation, a heavy burden would fall upon
those that remained. Besides, other sects might spring up, and
thus the whole parish systeui be disarranged.

This struggle continued, the members of this church paying
double taxes, till 1770. Then one hundred individuals peti-
tioned the town, and the town petitioned tlie Court to grant
exemption ; but the trail of the division remained for years
after. This church, therefore, (if I am correctly informed), has
the honor of being the last suiferer and of breaking up the
oppression of the old colony laws. In 1780 the new constitu-
tion gave equal rights to all, under certain restrictions.

Other troubles, of an intestine nature, have already been
mentioned ; and some besides will come under the next head.


One hundred years make great changes in the habitudes of a
people. Then and within remembrance, women came to church
on pillions, and were not afraid of weather. When Miss


Hannah Tracy used the first umbrella in town, she was roundly
abused for her pride. An item of history sufficiently illustrates
their domestic habits. In 1720 the Scotch Irish emigrants
liad introduced potatoes and the spinning wheel into New Eng-
land. In 1768 the young ladies met at Mr. Parsons', and after
a sermon from Proverbs 34 : 19, they spun for Mrs. Parsons two
hundred and seventy skeins of good yarn. In 1787 they did
the same at Mr. Murray's ; who preached from Exodus 35 : 25,
"And all the women that were wise hearted did s})in with their
hands." Donation jiarties, however, were not much the custom.
Home changes have taken place in the conduct of weddings and
funerals ; for whereas now, the greater number perhaps, go
quietly to the minister to be married, then the bride was
escorted home by a procession of carriages ; and in many houses
a large rcOm was built expressly for weddings and funerals.
At the latter, spirituous liquors were provided for the bearers
and others. On Sabbath, till within thirty years, tithing-mea
v/ere about the streets making reconnoissance and sending
people to church. l>at many still had the bad habit of standing
about the church doors ; which in 1780 the Session vigorously
remonstrated against as a desecration. The clergy, in those
days, were more a class apart than now ; and were readily
known by the hat, looped up on three sides, the large white
wig "full of learning," and other canonicals; all of which,
except the wig, Mr. Milton wore till 1818. The wig, however,'
was at first looked upon with conscientious abhorrence by many.
In 1752 one member in Newbury refused communion with the
church, because the pastor wore a wig and the church justified
him in it. Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians, believed the sufler-
ings of King Philip's war, a judgment from heaven on account
cff the practice.

In this chui'ch, some customs have come down to us from the
beginning, others have been changed for the better. We still


elect elders aunualiy, having from nine to twelve, a nuinbeF
which the budiness of the church requires. Formerly ordina-
tion was sometimes neglected, but we now ordain every new
elder ; and except an occasional instance of witlidrawal from
active service for special reasons, they continue to be re-elected.
In the third parish till 1750, and in the first till 1769, the
scriptures were not read in the public worship ; the puritans
wishing, in this respect as in others, to diifer from Episcopacy,
which requires such reading and prescribes the portion for
every service. The fathers stood in family prayer for the same
reason. But here the scriptures were always read. The first
attempted change in customs related to the singing, and caused
long and serious dissension ; in fact more animosity and aliena-
tion of feeling, than almost any other subject which has agita-
ted the congregation. In 1720 a much needed reform had
commenced. Till that time the churches had but eight or ten
tunes, and they were " tortured and twisted as every
unskilful throat saw fit." The singing sounded, says Mr.
Waiter, " like five hundred different tunes roared out at the
same time," and had become so drawling that " I myself have
twice in one note paused to take breath." The reform caused a
wonderful excitement and opposition — "Truly," says one, "I
have a great jealousy that if we once begin to sing by rule,
the next thing will be to pray by rule and preach by i'ulo and
then comes popery !" It was the attempt to discontinue
" lining out the psalm " that produced the commotion here, and
during the long contest there was some indecorum. For occa-
sionally, whilst one party sang as the Deacon lined it, the
.opposers would finish the verse, whatever the discord. But at
last the innovators triumphed, and peace was restored. The
first organ built in this couutry was in Boston, 1745. The first
playing of one in this town was July 1753, at the Episcopal
church. Here, however, they used the old fashioned pitch pipe


with notes on, and* blown at one end, till Dr. Dana's day, when
the clarionet and bass-viol were introduced — much to the
scandal of one worth}' member, who said '• they had got the
fiddle and only needed that the minister should get up and
dance." I do not find that any of the older hymn books,
Sternhold and Hopkins, Tate and Brady, or the " Bay Psalm
Book," were ever used in this church, although in use around.
In 1718 Dr. Watts sent some of his Psalms to Cotton Mather
for his opinion. The first edition in this country was published
in 1741 ; and probably his version was always used, as I have
seen a copy of the twenty-sixth edition, 17G5, belonging to one of
the early members.

The " half-way covenant " was practiced in this church
throughout Mr. Parsons' ministry ; and although objected to
by his successor, and the cause of much difficulty at times, was
still in vogue till the last years of Dr. Dana's ministry, when
the custom happily went into disuse. To his day, also, the
tabic was " fenced " at the communion ; Mr. Miltimore being
the last who so conducted the service in this house, although
Mr. Milton continued the practice till his death.*

Until the introduction of stoves the winter communion was
omitted, as the usual services in connexion were numerous ; but
in 1818 a change was made from three to six times a year, the
Saturday afternoon and Monday forenoon meetings were
dropped, and only the fast on Tuesday continued. Mr. Wil-
liams discontinued this also, the public relation of " experience "
and likewise the usual confessions of those " under scandal:"

*Mr. Milton's usual form was moJoUed after Mr. Murray's, lu the close of his sermon he
would say : from our sabject we loam who have and who have not arighi to come to this holy
^IjIc. Surely they have uo right here, who trample under their fcot the blood pf the ever-
lasting Covenant and do despite to the spirit of grace— I do, therefore, soleumly enclose and
fence this table, I do warn all uuregenerated persons not to draw near; I debar all who deny
the imputation of sin and righteousness, for they can never hu\e known the plague of their
Own hearts nor the need of a righteousness, answerable to the demands of the law— all Armin-
ians, for they depend and seek to justify themselves by their own works: allAntinomians who
profess to receive him by faith, but in -yvorka deny him— all Arlans and Socinians, &c.


a term of specific meaning. Formerly, instead of sending a
" note " for public prayers, the request was made from the pew ;
sometimes in language as curious as the subjects were various.
Forty-five notes were uu one occasion presented to Dr. Dana
during the second singing ; leaving him but time to classify
them for general allusion.

Of one old custom, which some yet continue, I find little trace
in this church ; I mean the preaching of politics ou Thanks-
givings and Fast days. This was common in the early times
of New England, and partly a necessity ; for newspapers were
hardly known, and the clergy almost the only educated men.
And as Queen Elizabeth first tuned the pulpits when she would
tune the people to a measure, so there was here a reasoa for
political preaching. It was so during the Revolution, when
liberty demanded every voice. But afterwards, when parties
were formed and measures of policy became the question, the
inexpediency of clerical interference soon manifested itself.
They lost ground and influence in consequence. " Unfortu-
nately," says one, " for bands and surplices, federalism went
down, and almost all the clergy happened to be on the losing
side."* With scarce an exception, (during foreign war) my
predecessors seem to have kept political subjects from the

Its many prayer meetings have been a characteristic of this
church. " These, (says Dr. Dana) have been and are the
strength and glory of the church." He has mentioned especially
those of the females, which have always been numerous and
well sustained. Once, the tradition is, an individual went to
parish meeting expressly to oppose some measure, but voted for
it ; and to a question of surprise answered, " What could one
do, with so many women praying all around ?" In this connec-
tion Mrs. Jane Greenleaf will be remembered, as a sh;uiiig but not

«Witbin^on'« election Bermon, 1631.


singular example of female piety. Mr. Josiah Plummer, I am
told, used to spend the Tuesday fast iu prayer, from nine A. M.
till evening. That was formerly of special interest, and many
came from the other societies, not the aged only, but the young.
Such habits, so deeply religious, in the family and in public,
indicate the source of the church's prosperity. God has
remembered his covenant and blessed it. liov. Jacob Little of
Granville, Ohio, writes thus : " My grandfather, Enoch Little,
was born again at the age of eleven under the preaching of
Whiteficld, while holding on to the pulpit railing to prevent
being crushed away by the crowd, and joined the church when
twenty-four— removed to Boscawen in 1773, l)ut came twice a
year to communion so long as he could ride, 70 miles— dying
at eighty-eight, he left a great posterity, the most of whom
have become devoted Christians. My father left nine children,
all hopefully born again in tender years. Of my own six chil-
dren, four obtained a hope at the ages of 22, 13, 12 and 10.
I am so much a believer in the covenant that 1 trace the piety
of the Boscawen Littles to Enoch, to WhileUcld and to the old
church at Newburyport ; and the testimony of all his descend-
ants would show much more fully the fruits of your church."
Other families show the same. Thirty-four ministers and mission-
aries are known to have been reared here. One Elder's family
has given four ministers to the church. And although there
have been but few extensive revivals, the annual average of
admissions to the church under the several pastors, has been
about as follows : —


No. Years.

Wholu No-

Annnal Average.

























Present Pastor,




>ft.< H]

b'i ,*'. .j1' - ui'[:> -la uJ :-.'>-»lvi I
'ill': ')li'

t.H l/ir.«(V

.'■ 1. 'J f



















To one subject more I should be ungrateful not to allude in
this history. As a society tliis, (although others in town merit
a like praise) has from the first been distinguished for kindness
and attachment to its pastors. Each return of my predecessors
has been welcomed with cordial greetings. When the younger
of the two was to preach his first sermon after installation, a
blind man, not knowing the time but fearing to be late, took
his way early in the morning to church ; and to the remark of
one wlio met him, '" You must intend to love your new minis-
ter ;" — " Not more than the last," was his reply. Mr. Williams,
when a candidate, was almost discouraged by the many who
Avere lamenting Dr. Dana's departure, and is himself ailcction-
ately and vividly remembered. '" On this topic, (says Dr.
Dana,) I can bear emphatic and delightful testimony," (concern-
ing his own ministry). Mr. Parsons speaks in a similar way.
Mr. Murray in his will earnestly invoked their kindness in
behalf of his family, and provision was long made for them.
And that this ancient virtue, connected as it is with a religious
habit of thought, has not deteriorated, the present pastor can
bear grateful record.

(7.) HISTORY FROM 1829.

Rev. John Proudfit, D.^ D., now Professor at Rutgers Col-
lege, New Jersey, was installed October 4, 1827. In 1829
alterations were made in the building. At first a " stone
monumental church " was contemplated, but sacred attachments
and the expense defeated the plan. Finally the inside was
somewhat reduced in size, new galleries were put in, the square

1 2 4 6 7

Online LibraryAshbel Green VermilyeA discourse delivered at Newburyport, Mass., November 28, 1856. On occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the building of the First Presbyterian Church → online text (page 4 of 7)