William L. (William Ladd) Chaffin.

History of the town of Easton, Massachusetts (Volume 3) online

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attended to all the business details involved in the management
of parish affairs. There was one custom of the time that was
very interesting, at least from the standpoint of the minister. In
addition to a salary, the town always voted him what was called
an " encouragement," or " settlement." This was sometimes a
generous gift, and was intended to cover the expense of his
getting settled in a new place, — an expense that was often a
considerable burden in days when goods had to be removed
upon ox-carts through the wilderness.

Mr. Belcher evidently was considered a prize, and had also a
due sense of his own value ; for in the vote giving him a call
there is this clause : " If we can come up to his terms." What
are his terms ? Mr. Short had been receiving fifty-six pounds
for his salary. Mr. Belcher asks for eighty pounds yearly for


the first five years, ninety pounds for the sixth, and ever after-
ward one hundred pounds a year. He is also to have " for his
incoridgment " two hundred pounds. Besides this, he is to be
given the "improvement" — that is, the use — of the ministerial
land. They vote " for his further incoridgment that he shall im-
prove the Land in this town laid out for the use of the ministry,
as he shall have occasion for planting, sowing, mowing, pastur-
ing, timber for his own building, and firewood for his family,
fencing stuf for his own fences," etc. In his letter of acceptance,
quoted below, he has an eye to his worldly good, for he expresses
the hope that his people will not be wanting in kindness "with
respect to my comfortable subsistence among you." We shall
see that this shrewd regard for his financial condition is a
marked peculiarity of the new minister, and gets him at last
into serious trouble.

The town having now " come up to his terms," Mr. Belcher, in
a rather wordy and pretentious epistle, signifies his acceptance
of their call. The following is the document : —

To the Church and Congregation in Easton :

Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ, — Where as I have received
a call from you to settle in the work of the ministry among you, I de-
sire to observe the signal conduct of the Providence of Almighty God
in bringing me among you, I being in a manner a stranger to you, and
in disposing and inclining your hearts to this uncommon unanimity
that attended your call of me to the Pastoral office among you, which
I look upon as a very happy circumstance of my settlement, and as
one peculiar encouragement to me which very much moves upon my
inclinations in this weighty affair.

I am sensible that the work and service unto which you have so
kindly invited me among you is of great importance and concern,
which requireth great deliberation and serious thought. And who is
sufficient for these things .-' I hope I have taken the call which I re-
ceived from you to settle in the work of the ministry among you into
serious consideration, and I hope I have endeavored to deliberate
thereupon with solemnity and becoming affection ; and I hope I have
reason to trust that I have had the Divine direction in the methods of
Piety, together with the advice of judicious and wise counsellors with
respect to my proceedings in the weighty affair before me. And taking
notice of the direction of Divine Providence in the several steps of


your proceedings in your call of me to the Pastoral office among you,
I am persuaded that the Providence of God calleth me to an accept-
ance. Wherefore, thanking you for your kind regards expressed to
me, I accept of the call received from you to settle in the work of the
ministry among you ; and my answer thereunto is in the affirmative,
in which I do willingly and sincerely give up myself to the service
of Christ in the Gospel Ministry among you, hoping that as in your
ability you may be increased, you will not be wanting hereafter in your
kindness and encouragement towards me with respect to my comfort-
able subsistence among you as my circumstances among you may
require. Thus, bespeaking you to join with me in most hearty and
earnest prayers to the God of all strength and grace for his gracious
assistance, direction, and blessing in the important affair before us,
and wishing that grace, mercy, and peace may be multiplied unto you,
I subscribe myself your true friend and servant in office of love and

Joseph Belcher.^

Easton, August 20th, Annoq Dom'", 1731.

The materials for a biography of the Rev. Joseph Belcher are
unfortunately very meagre. He came of what is called " good
stock." He was born at Braintree, August 19, 1704, and was
son of Gregory and Elizabeth (Ruggles) Belcher. Gregory was
a deacon of the church, and was associated in that office with
Deacon John Adams, father of President Adams. The Ruggles
family, to which his mother belonged, was wealthy and influential.
Joseph was sent early to Harvard University, from which he
graduated in 1723, just before he was nineteen years old. He
is not to be confounded with the Rev. Joseph Belcher, the well-
known minister of Dedham, who was his uncle.

Where our young graduate spent his days, or what he did,
from the time of his graduation until his settlement at Easton,
cannot now be told. For a part of this time he was studying
divinity, and he may have taught school, this being a common
thing for graduates of the time to do. He was not settled as
minister previous to coming to Easton, as his ordination oc-
curred here. He married a wife whose given name was Deborah,
but whose family name is unknown. She was known in Easton
as " Madam " Deborah Belcher, this term seldom being applied

^ Town Records, vol. i. p. 25.


then. By her he had nine children. The family record will be
given in the Genealogical History of Easton.

Mr. Belcher was ordained minister of the Easton church on
Wednesday, October 6, 1731. The sum of fourteen pounds was
voted to defray the expenses of the ordination. Ordination ser-
vices were important affairs in those days. Not only were the
most impressive religious services held, but there was also a great
deal of hearty feasting, and not infrequently considerable money
was spent for good liquors as well as for food. In some places,
though perhaps never in Easton, an ordination was a two days'
affair, and was ended with a ball, at which were music and dan-
cing. It is well to think of these things when we are tempted to
fall into the too common cant of condemning our early fathers as
so rigidly austere and gloomy. Their creed may have been so.
But while a gloomy creed may oppress a few sensitive souls
with sorrow or despair, most believers wear it easily. Human
nature asserts itself. The dark shadows are in the distant
background ; hope, love, common-sense are at the front, and
rule our common life. Our early fathers loved a good time.
If the Sabbath strictness was rather hard on them, they knew
how to unbend on other occasions ; and at military trainings
even the minister sometimes became more lively than could
be accounted for except by reference to the stimulants that
were in almost universal use. We may therefore be sure that
if the ordination of Mr. Belcher was a solemn occasion, the feast-
ing which followed was all the more joyous. The people were
very happy in the belief that they had secured an exception-
ally gifted and promising minister, — an expectation that was to
meet with sore disappointment.

In March, 1732, Mr. Belcher bought of Deacon Joseph Snow
the land and buildings that became his homestead property.
It was 33 acres of land just east of the Green, part of it be-
ing between the road and the brook, and not far from the mill.
His dwelling-house was on the north side of Depot Street, just
east of the Green. On the opposite side of the road, east of
J. O. Dean's house, he had an orchard, of which some persons
now living remember to have seen the vestiges.

There is very little that is noteworthy during the early years
of Mr. Belcher's ministry. His salary, according to the original



agreement, somewhat increased as the years went on ; but this
does not satisfy him, and in 1739 he asks for a special gift of
fifty-six pounds. This may have been because of a depreciation
of tlie currency, for the older issues of paper money called "old
tenor" were steadily depreciating in value. But however this
may be, the parish regarded his request as unreasonable, and
at a meeting on February 5, 1740, "Mr. Moderator put it to
vote to see if the town would choose a committy of three men
to treet with Mr. Belcher, to see if that he would not take up
with Know Lees sume then he Requested for ; and they votted
in ye affermitife, 3dly, we made choice of Joseph Grossman,
George Keyzer, and Nathl. Perry for a committy, for to see if
that no Less sume than fifty and six pounds would satisfie ye
Revd. Mr. Joseph Belcher." Evidently Mr. Belcher would not
be thus satisfied, and at a town-meeting a month later the
town refused to vote to him the money he requested. He was
then receiving a salary of one hundred pounds. But the town
was two years in arrears in the payments due him ; and this
tedious delay, which was a chronic characteristic of the town
in its dealings with its ministers in olden times, must have
been very embarrassing to Mr. Belcher. In 1742, the town so
far complies with his request for additional pay as to vote him
" fourty pounds in mony old tener, or other spesee, att markit
price Betwixt man and man the present year." Apparently
disturbed at this increase of its expenses, the town immedi-
ately voted " not to Raise any mony for to support a scholl."
It votes the same additional amount, however, the next year to
Mr. Belcher, which proves to be his last in the ministry. He
was dismissed from his pastorate by a vote of the town passed
April 16, 1744, twenty-eight voting for dismissal to twelve
against it. No cause for this action is assigned. A common
tradition reports that Mr. Belcher became partially insane. Jason
Reed heard from his father, the Rev. William Reed, that Mr.
Belcher became so much deranged that he used often to pray
in the pulpit for "little Gregory," one of his children. He
would sometimes go to meeting with his pockets full of ser-
mons, and would read one after another without regard to the
departure of his audience, ceasing only with the going down
of the sun. Emery's "History of the Ministry of Taunton" re-


ports this tradition ; and it is made probable by the subsequent
conduct of Mr. Belcher, by his giving up the ministry at the age
of forty, and by the fact that insanity appeared in the family
afterward. His grandson Gregory was known as " Crazy Greg,"
and used to roam about the woods.

Rev. Mr. Belcher continued to make Easton his home until
1754, ten years after his dismissal. That his insanity was
only partial, or was intermittent, appears from the fact that
he was a part of this time teaching school. He taught school
in Stoughton a portion of each year from 1747 to 1752 inclu-
sive, five different years ; but old account books show that his
home remained in Easton all this time. In 1748, for example,
he buys here a bushel of corn and a barrel of cider. His
children are born here, and here his wife dies, March 21, 1753,
— three days after the birth of his youngest son, Jonathan.
Evidently his wife's death quite unsettled Mr, Belcher, for he
begins about this time to do business in a reckless manner,
and sometimes in such a way that only the plea of insanity
can save him from the charge of dishonesty ; for he sells land
upon which an attachment had already with his knowledge
been made. Apparently advantage is taken of his condition,
for a prominent but not always upright townsman brings suit
for one hundred pounds against him, having induced him to
sign a note for that amount on some pretext. But Mr. Belcher
has wit enough to defend himself, and not only wins the case
but recovers the cost from the plaintiff. He borrows money
right and left, however, mortgaging one piece of land after
another. In March, 1753, Edward Hay ward, Esq., brings suit
against Joseph Belcher, who had, as the writ alleges, bound
himself to Mr. Hayward as clerk. Mr. Belcher's defence is
that he " was not a clerk at the purchase and service of the
plaintiff, but a gentleman," etc. This defence was overruled,
and the case went against the ex-minister, who appealed to the
Superior Court. In June, 1754, Mr. Hayward brought another
suit against Mr. Belcher, and won the case. The amount in-
volved, including costs, was less than ten pounds. In the
Court's decision was this order : " We command you to take
ye body of ye said Joseph Belcher and commit him to our
goal in Taunton, and detain him in your custody in our goal


until " all claims against him are settled. What a change is
this from the day when, having " come up to his terms," the
parish joyfully ordained him and were so proud of him ! Mr.
Belcher himself feels the change, and determines to escape
from it, and when the sheriff goes for him is nowhere to be
found. Then a committee is appointed to " apprise and set off
so much of the estate " as will satisfy these claims. They find
one lot of six acres and twenty rods southeast of the meeting-
house, which they value at nine pounds ; " and for satisfaction
of ye remaining part of ye execution and charges, was shown
to us a black cow of about seventeen years of age, and both
of her horns cutt of at ye top, which we apprised at twenty-
six shillings." The lot designated was all the real estate of
Mr. Belcher that could be found, and this was made over to
Mr. Hayward. Let us trust that the poor old black cow, " with
both of her horns cutt of at ye top," which had furnished
the little Belchers with milk for so many years, was merci-
fully spared to the now motherless and (practically) fatherless
family of children. Seven of these children were placed under
the guardianship of Ephraim Hunt, of Greenwich, Hampshire
County. Samuel and Jonathan were supported by the town.
Samuel died in 1755, but Jonathan, and his children after him,
were supported as paupers for many years. It is a matter of
sad interest to think that children of the first two ministers
of Easton should need to rely upon public charity for sub-
sistence ! The oldest daughter, Hannah, married Deacon Ste-
phen Badlam, of Stoughton, and was the mother of two sons,
Ezra and Stephen, who became distinguished officers in the
Revolutionary War. Joseph was a soldier in the French and
Indian War, as well as in the Revolutionary War, and finally
settled in Stoughton. William was killed or taken prisoner
while in his country's service at New York, in September,
1776. Gregory married in town and resided here.

What became of the Rev. Joseph Belcher ? Many days of
careful search on the writer's part have failed to find an answer
to this question. He flies from his creditors before April, 1754,
for at that time the town is considering what to do about " the
circumstances of Mr. Belcher's children and estate." Three
years afterward, having waited in vain for his reappearance, it


is voted to sell his books and spend the money as far as it will
go for the maintenance of his pauper children. Mr. Belcher
thus vanishes into thickest darkness. The only glimmer of
light after this is the record in the Harvard Triennial Cata-
logue, that he died in 1773. Though unable to verify this
statement, we may accept it as probably correct. And so
the second minister of Easton, beginning his ministry with
brilliant auspices, ends it in misfortune, and dies in deep




Rev. Mr. Prentice accepts a Call to Easton. — His Exciting Min-
isterial Experience at Grafton. — He is a "New Light." —
Where shall the Easton New Meeting-House stand ? — Stormy
Times. — The General Court invoked to interfere. — They
order it built at the Centre. — It is done, but Disaffection
INCREASES. — Mr. Prentice Threatens to "break the heads"
OF the General Court's Committee. — The Church and Parish
DIVIDED. — Mr. Prentice's Friends begin to build a Meeting-
House. — Church Councils. — Personalities.

THE Rev. Joseph Belcher was dismissed from his pasto-
rate April i6, 1744. The church and town had some
trouble in finding a successor. At the beginning of 1745 the
church gave a call to the Rev. Silas Brett, of Bridgewater, to be-
come its minister, but the town refused, January 17, to concur in
this call. On July 28, 1746, a call from church and town was
extended to Mr. Solomon Reed, who for some reason did not
accept. On January 7, 1747, a call is given to Mr. John Wads-
worth, and apparently accepted, as arrangements are made in
March for his " Instolment." But he unaccountably disappears
from notice, and on September 14, 1747, the Rev. Solomon Pren-
tice, of Grafton, is invited to the pastoral charge of the Church of
Christ in Easton. A salary of ^230, old tenor, was voted him,
*' together with ye improvement of ye ministerial land, (viz.) to
plant and sow or moo or pasturing, to gether with cutting of fier-
wood for his own fier and fencing stufe for to fenc ye ministerial
land with all." Evidently this did not " come up to his terms,"
for in October, " 2ly, We voted to give ye Reverd Mr Solomon
Printice four Hundred pounds old tenner for his yearly Salery
During His Ministry amoung us ; and Beef att twelve pence per


pound to be ye standard for to Eastimate said salary by as said
species shall be sold in ye town of Easton. He Being Excluded
from any improvement on ye ministeriell Lands. Voted in ye

This statement furnishes a means of estimating the present
value of Mr. Prentice's salary. The paper currency known as
" old tenor " was, as we have said, a depreciating one. At the
date of Mr. Prentice's call it does not appear to have been
worth one third of its face value, judging it by the standard
of the price of beef ; for in 1730, when this currency had al-
ready lessened in value, beef was fourpence a pound. If Mr.
Prentice therefore received ;^400 salary when beef was twelve
pence a pound, his salary was equivalent to eight thousand
pounds of beef. It is probable that this means the wholesale
price, as it was quite the custom for persons to buy by the
quarter, or in larger amounts than at the present day. If we
reckon the present value of beef thus bought at ten cents a
pound, we find that Mr. Prentice's salary amounted to eight
hundred dollars. It was, at all events, equivalent to eight thou-
sand pounds of beef.

The word " specie," as used in the above vote, and as else-
where employed in records of that date, has a different meaning
from that to which it is now limited. It does not mean hard
money, but rather the various commodities that are bought with
money, and whose price forms a standard by which to estimate
the real value of a fluctuating currency. Thus on June 8, 1730,
it was voted to raise ^^42 for the Rev. Mr. Short " in mony, or
in speceia at the set price following par Lahore four shillings par
day, Indian corn at five shilings par bushel, rye at six and six
pence, weate at nine shilings, mutton at six pence par pound,
beave at four pence par pound, porke at six pence per pound,
and any other speshew at the market price."

In addition to the salary of ^400, the town voted an equal
sum for Mr. Prentice's "settlement," — a very liberal offer. With
this salary, of the present value of about eight hundred dollars,
and a gratuity of eight hundred more promised, — one half the first
year, and the other half the next, — we can see that there is far
less disproportion between the old time and the present pay of
ministers than is commonly supposed. But it is always easier


to vote money away than to pay it out, and we shall see Mr.
Prentice obliged to sue the town at Court for the payment of the
money voted to him with such apparent generosity. Happy
however in his ignorance of what is in store for him here, Mr.
Prentice accepts the call in the following terms : —

The town of Easton having invited and called me, ye subscriber, to

ye work and office of a gospel minister among them, and voted four

hundred pounds old tenor for my settlement among them, and four

hundred pounds old tenor for my annual salary, stated as their vote of

October ye 23, 1747, doth appear, I hereby manifest my satisfaction

therewith and declare my acceptance thereof ; and in ye name and fear

of God give up myself to his service of ye ministry among them.

Solomon Prentice.
Easton, November ye 2, 1747.

This brief and business-like letter contrasts favorably with the
verbose and affected epistle of his predecessor.

The Rev. Solomon Prentice, the son of Solomon, was born in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 11, 1705, and graduated from
Harvard University in 1727, in the class with Governors Hutch-
inson and Trumbull. He was the first minister of Grafton,
Massachusetts, where he was ordained December 29, 1731.^
Towards the latter part of his ministry in Grafton he developed
marked pecuharities, that led to serious trouble with his parish.
He was one of those ministers who was greatly moved by the
ministry of Whitefield. Whitefield arrived in Boston in the latter
part of 1740, and the churches were thrown into intense agita-
tion by his preaching. Mr. Prentice espoused his cause, and be-
came a zealous "New Light." Against the wishes of his society,
he freely admitted itinerant preachers into his pulpit. He was
charged with making use of fanatical and extravagant expres-
sions, and with joining in the general condemnation of the minis-
ters of the land as unconverted men. In 1743 a disaffection
sprang up in his church in Grafton, and seven members withdrew.
A council was called in October, 1744, and it resulted in showing
that the neighboring ministers had in a manner lost confidence
in his judgment and discretion. He was charged with saying
that " we were to love none but such as are savingly converted;"

^ For details of Mr. Prentice's life and ministry in Grafton, see Pierce's History
of that town.


that the "life and practice are the negative part of Christian-
ity; that a converted man might know if others were converted
merely by conversing with them ; " that he might, in fact, "give a
near guess, if they held their tongues " ! It was declared that
he said of Christ's coming, " The court of Heaven was ad-
journed a little space, till one of the members came down from
heaven to take upon himself humanity." These expressions
were condemned by the council " as discovering a want of sound
knowledge, and implying a variety of absurd notions." He was
said to have used the following language : " To what purpose
is it to preach to an 'unregenerate man, ... to tell him he must
not kill, must not steal, must not do these and those things ?
for he has no power to resist them, for he is the Devil's slave
and vassal, and doeth just what the Devil would have him do."
This was considered by the council as "carrying the matter
rather too far"! He was condemned for introducing unedu-
cated itinerants and exhorters into his pulpit, and obtruding
himself into the parishes of other ministers ; but no charge
was made against his moral character. Peace therefore was
advised, and his people were recommended to listen quietly to
his ministrations, if he should accept the judgment and advice
of the council.

The result of the council was accepted by both parties ; but
it brought only a temporary quiet. In 1746 the dissatisfaction
broke out anew ; church meetings were resumed ; council fol-
lowed council ; advice was again accepted, but again disregarded.
Mr. Prentice was discouraged, and asked for a dismissal, which
he received July 10, 1747. In his communication to the council
he shows a deep concern for the souls of his people. This com-
munication evinces the spirit of a devoted Christian pastor. He
was indeed pious and pure-hearted, but had a zeal tempered
with too little discretion; he was strong and self-willed, and
determined to carry out whatever he began to do. A man more
unsuitable for the trying times about to dawn upon the Easton
parish could not have been selected. A peacemaker, a discreet

Online LibraryWilliam L. (William Ladd) ChaffinHistory of the town of Easton, Massachusetts (Volume 3) → online text (page 10 of 78)