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William L. (William Ladd) Chaffin.

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

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tancy in such important affairs, is not willing to agree to the
proposition made to him that the pastoral connection may be
dissolved without a council, and asks for the privilege of "four
weeks yearly for the purpose of visiting my friends at a distance,"
etc. The parish granted him the yearly vacation he asked for,
and agreed with him that " in case any root of bitterness shall
arise among us so that the minds of two thirds of the members
of the parish shall be alienated from their minister, by giving
him a year's notice that they do not desire his continuance with
them as a minister any longer, he may be discharged with a
mutual council."



REV. LUTHER SHELDON.



335



In preparing for the ordination the church was repaired, the
supports of the galleries strengthened, and a committee ap-
pointed to wait upon strangers. "The Band" was invited to at-
tend and furnish music, if they would do it with no compensation
except the entertainment. It was voted that " all the council and
their ladies, and all the gentlemen of Public Education and their
ladies " may attend the entertainment. Joel Drake agreed to
provide the collation for eighty dollars, provided not over sixty
persons attended it. The Rev. Holland Weeks preached the
ordination sermon. This was October 24, 1810.

The Rev. Luther Sheldon, D.D. was born in Rupert, Vt.,
February 18, 1785. He was the fourth child of the Hon. David
and Sarah (Harmon) Sheldon, the oldest son, Thomas, being
the first child born in Rupert. David Sheldon in early man-
hood, leaving a young wife and infant in Sufiield, Conn., had
emigrated, axe in hand, alone and on horseback to the primeval
forest, driving a couple of cows before him. There, at what
is now Rupert, he made his clearing, built his log house, put
in his crops, and then brought to this lonely spot his wife and
infant son. Soon some of his former neighbors and relatives
joined him, and a settlement was formed. He improved his
land, and gradually made an extensive and beautiful farm in a
pleasant valley between high hills, owning land nearly to their
summits, where his large flocks found a cool retreat in the heat
of summer. A beautiful trout-stream ran through the intervale,
and furnished many a sweet morsel for the farmer's table.

About three years after he settled here his son Luther was
born. It was the desire and intention of the parents that this
fourth son should inherit the farm and care for the " old folks,"
and his early training and education were directed to this end.
He acquired a practical knowledge of every kind of farm-work,
and developed a robust constitution and physical strength and
endurance. But several years before he reached his majority he
became particularly interested in religion, and urged his parents
to give him a more liberal education in order that he might pre-
pare for the ministry. They however did not feel willing to
give up their cherished plans, and held him to the homestead
until he was nearly twenty-one. At that age he began to fit for
college under a private tutor ; and he applied himself with such



336 HISTORY OF EASTON.

diligence and enthusiasm that in a little more than a year he
not only mastered the Preparatory studies, but also those of
the Freshman and Sophomore years, and entered college in the
Junior class, graduating with honor in 1808. Forty-three years
after this his Alma Mater gave him the degree of Doctor of
Divinity.

He began the study of theology with the Rev. Holland Weeks,
of Pittsfield, Vt., and was licensed by the Rutland Association
May 30, 1 810. He preached his first sermon on the first Sun-
day in June, in Rupert, the next on the second Sunday in
Suffield, Conn., the home of his ancestors for several genera-
tions, and his third sermon he preached in Easton, where, after
preaching for about two months, he received a call, and where
he was ordained in the following October, as already narrated.
He at once purchased a small farm with a residence a few rods
northeast of the church. September 26, 181 2, he married and
brought to his parish and home Miss Sarah Johnson Harris,
who was born in Canaan, New Hampshire, January 30, 1790.
She had gained quite a reputation as a teacher, and afterwards
materially aided her husband in the family school which he kept
in his own house, to eke out the slender salary of four hundred
and fifty dollars and twelve cords of wood. She was an intelli-
gent. Christian lady, well read, entertaining in conversation, no
mean opponent in argument, devoted to the interests of her
home and the welfare of the parish. She became in the latter
part of her life deeply interested in the abolition of slavery. It
was at a day when " Abolitionist " was a term of reproach ; but
she never shrank from declaring her sympathy for the down-
trodden slave, and avowed her faith in his ultimate redemption
from bondage. She died October 10, 1853, sixty-three years of
age. Her funeral sermon was preached by Richard S. Storrs,
of Braintree, from Acts ix. 36, 37.

October 24, 1855, two years after the death of Mrs. Sheldon,
Dr. Sheldon was married to Mrs. Elizabeth A. Keith, a widow,
daughter of Bernard and Elizabeth Alger. She was an intelli-
gent and estimable lady, an especial favorite of Dr. Sheldon's
first wife, and greatly beloved by the family. There was con-
siderable disparity in their ages, but this increased rather than
lessened her endeavors to render his life pleasant and fruitful



REV. LUTHER SHELDON.



337



of good. She endeared herself to his friends by her watchful
care for his comfort as the infirmities of age came upon him.
She died October 14, 1863.

When the youthful pastor began his ministerial labors in
Easton, his work was hard. The parish included all the town
except those who belonged to some other society, and there was
then no other society in town but the Methodist, which was
small. Two written sermons must be prepared for Sunday, and
there was a Sunday evening " lecture " expected, with occasional
week-day services in schoolhouses or private dwellings in vari-
ous parts of the town. There were extended religious services
at funerals, and a good deal of parish work. All this made the
life of the young minister full and crowded ; and here his vigor-
ous constitution proved a great blessing.

In 1 81 5 the subject of building a new church was agitated.
January 29, 1816, it was voted "to set it north of the old meet-
ing-house," and additional land was purchased of Capt. Oliver
Pool. Josiah Copeland and Captain Pool were given the con-
tract for building it, and they were not to exceed an expense of
seven thousand dollars. Wade Dailey was the master carpenter.
The frame was raised June 10, 18 16, the day after a great frost,
when the frost could be scraped from the timbers. This was
the " year without a summer," when there was a frost every
month, and corn and vegetables were destroyed in August.
The church was finished in 181 7, and was dedicated on the
third Wednesday of September, Mr. Sheldon preaching the
dedication sermon. The sheds were built the next year.

At this time there were no stoves in church, though the now
antiquated foot-stove, being a perforated tin or sheet-iron box in
a wooden frame with a pan inside for receiving coals, was in
general use, and was pushed from one person to another in the
pew in order that at least the feet might have the chill taken
from them for a few minutes. The cold was sometimes so in-
tense that there would be quite a general knocking of the feet
together and rubbing of the hands ; the minister's breath would
be frosty, and one might suppose that his allusions to nether
fires would lose their force upon those whose chattering teeth
and shivering limbs made fire a welcome thought. Why it took
our ancestors nearly two hundred years to discover that comfort

22



338 HISTORY OF EASTON.

was not a sin, and that a stove might be a means rather than a
hindrance to grace in our churches, it is difficult to understand.
But it is quite certain that it was not until late in the winter of
1822 that this innovation was timidly and not without protest
introduced. Even then it was tried on the plea of merely mak-
ing an experiment. In May, 1822, it was voted " to continue the
stove in the meeting-house until the effects of it can be fairly
proved." The "effects of it" appear to have been satisfactory,
and we find that in 1826 the parish accepted the gift of a stove
from Gen. Sheperd Leach. The spirit of innovation was abroad,
and the parish, after setting up the new stove, voted to paint the
meeting-house. It was also voted to procure a new bell that
should weigh twelve hundred pounds.

The cost to the worshippers for church expenses of every kind
must have been quite small, as the parish fund had an income
sufficient to pay the minister's salary, and other expenses were
light. Mr. Sheldon was a prudent and careful manager, and
was able by means of his farm and his family school, in addi-
tion to his salary, to provide for and educate his children well,
and to save money besides. The kindness and generosity of
his people made many substantial additions to his income in
various ways. General Sheperd Leach for years presented him
with fifty dollars credit on his store account, a quarter of beef,
a huge cheese, and various other articles as occasion offered.
Many others were equally generous in proportion to their means.
From the time of his settlement it was the custom of the people
to make the minister and wife annually a " donation visit." At
such times substantial presents of money and of many useful
articles were freely bestowed. After a hearty repast the evening
would be spent in pleasant social intercourse by the older ones,
while the youth and children enjoyed a merry bout at their
games. They were seasons of real old-fashioned social enjoy-
ment, — the pastor, who was no gloomy ascetic, entering with
much zest into the innocent pastimes of the children, greatly
to their delight. These happy occasions were closed with hymn
and prayer. All these things show the strong hold which Mr.
Sheldon had upon the affections of his friends. The material
aid which their generosity provided formed no small part of his
yearly support.



DIVISION OF THE PARISH.



339



We come now to a consideration of the controversy which
led to a division of the parish and church. A few of the par-
ticipants still live, and many descendants of those who took part
on either side have often heard the story of that long and dis-
tressing contention. It is natural that they should justify the
party which they or their parents and friends espoused. The
stories and traditions that have come down to us need careful
sifting because they were colored by strong feelings, which
necessarily distort and misrepresent. The writer has availed
himself of every means known to him to get at the exact facts,
and, what is quite as important, to put upon those facts the cor-
rect interpretation.

It is well known that early in this century there had grown
up a decided divergence of opinion among the ministers and
people of the Massachusetts Congregational Churches. There
was a silent, steadily growing modification of the extreme Cal-
vinism that had been prevalent. This made two parties in
nearly all the churches, — parties that came to be known as
Orthodox and Unitarian. In many of the churches this diver-
gence of opinion caused an open rupture and separation. When
this occurred there was usually a secession of the minority from
the parish, and the formation by them of a separate church.
In most parishes the Unitarians were found to be in the
majority when the division took place, and they therefore held
the old churches and church property, and the Orthodox with-
drew and built anew. In Plymouth County, for instance, all
but one or two of the original Pilgrim churches were found to
be Unitarian. A majority of the voters in these parishes sym-
pathized with the new movement, and their votes controlled
the issue. The church, strictly speaking, was the body of the
church-members, a voluntary association not legally recognized,
and having no separate voice in the control of the business
affairs of the parish. Probably in most cases the majority of
the church-members remained Orthodox.

The division of most of the churches occurred during the
early years of Mr. Sheldon's ministry. Of course there were
two parties in Easton as elsewhere. There was the same fer-
ment of opinions. It was less marked here because, notwith-
standing an impression to the contrary, the Rev. Mr. Reed, the



340



HISTORY OF EASTON.



last minister, had not espoused the new views, and his preaching
seems to have ignored all these controverted questions. Never-
theless there was a steady growth of Arminian and Unitarian
opinion in the parish. This was perhaps more marked because
of the decided conservatism of the minister, Mr. Sheldon. " In
his religious belief he was notoriously Evangelical, rigidly Or-
thodox, as most would say from the present stand-point. He
called himself a Hopkinsian, though he differed on some doc-
trinal points from Hopkins, and coincided with those called Cal-
vinistic." This is the statement of his son, the Rev. Luther
H. Sheldon.

The two parties in the parish ardently espoused their own
particular views, and were gradually developing into decided dis-
agreement. But it deserves especial notice that Mr. Sheldon
had ministered to the parish for the long term of twenty years
before there was any open contest. June 8, 1830, the first action
was taken, according to the parish records, which recognized the
existence of any trouble. It was then "voted that it is the wish
of the Parish that neighboring Congregational ministers in regu-
lar standing should minister with this society as was formerly'
the practice." This vote needs explanation. When the division'
of the Congregational churches into Orthodox and Unitarian
took place, a considerable number of the neighboring churches
took the Unitarian position. Taunton, Norton, and the Bridge-
waters were examples. It was natural that Mr. Sheldon, regard-
ing the views of the ministers of these churches as heretical and
dangerous, should not wish to have these views presented in his
pulpit, and hence that he should drop these preachers from his
list of exchanges. It was equally natural that the majority of
the parish who favored these views, or who at least desired that
the old friendly relations between these parishes should be con-
tinued, should be aggrieved by the position of Mr. Sheldon,
The vote just noted had no effect.

The parish waited for a year Snd a half, and then in Novem-
ber, 1 83 1, voted "to request the Rev. Luther Sheldon to ex-
change pulpit services with the neighboring Congregational
ministers indiscriminately, agreeable to the practice that pre-
vailed at the time of his settlement." Elijah Howard, Daniel
Wheaton, and John Pool were appointed a committee to inform



DIVISION OF THE PARISH.



341



Mr. Sheldon of this vote, and to request an answer of him in
writing. In a parish meeting held April 16, 1832, this com-
mittee reported that they had served him with a copy of the
vote alluded to, and "that he has not seen fit either to make the
reply or the exchanges, agreeable to the vote of the parish." In
their report they complain that by the course he has adopted,
the society is "entirely cut off from all intercourse with a large
majority of the societies with whom we have had connection."
They complain that all communications with Mr. Sheldon on
this subject " have been met only by studied neglect or taunting
rebuke," and they thus continue : —

" Upon a view of his whole conduct in relation to this subject, the
Committee are fully convinced that it is his intention not to comply
with the vote of the Parish. Under these circumstances, it becomes
a question of importance what measures it is advisable for the Parish
to adopt. That a refusal of Mr. Sheldon to conform to the known
and long established customs and usages of all former ministers of
this Parish is such a breach of his duties as will exonerate the Parish
from the obligations on their part, there can be no doubt."

This brings us to the gist of the whole controversy. The
main point at issue was this : Did the refusal of a Congrega-
tional minister to exchange with neighboring ministers at the
request of his parish constitute a breach of his covenant, ex-
onerate the parish from the payment of his salary, or form a
sufificient ground for his dismissal ? The committee of the
society answered this question in the affirmative. The Court,
as we shall see, ultimately decided it in the negative.

In regard to his complying with the request of the parish, it
should be noted that a large minority of the parish and a de-
cided majority of the regular church-goers joined with him in op-
posing such exchanges. The contest waxed warmer. May 12,
1832, a committee of twenty persons, representing both parties,
were appointed to consider and report upon the situation ; but
they could come to no agreement and made no report. June 4
the parish instructed the trustees to propose to Mr. Sheldon
that he continue to officiate as pastor, provided he would ex-
change with Congregational ministers in the vicinity according
to custom ; and in case he would not do this, to ask him to join



342



HISTORY OF EASTON.



in calling a mutual council to dissolve the connection between
him and the parish ; and if he refused to join in calling a mutual
council, the trustees were instructed to call an ex-parte council
for that purpose. They were also authorized to supply the
pulpit until further notice.

June II the trustees informed Mr. Sheldon of the action of
the parish ; he took no notice of their communication. July
24 they requested him to join with them in calling a mutual
council ; he paid no attention to their request. This persist-
ent silence was, of course, exasperating; the trustees and their
adherents interpreted it as an intentional slight. His silence
was, however, maintained by legal advice ; but some notice
might, it would seem, have been taken of such official commu-
nications without compromising him in a legal point of view.
This question also arises : Knowing that at least half the voting
parish, among whom were many leading men, were decidedly
opposed to him, why did not Mr. Sheldon consent to call a
mutual council and dissolve the connection .-' This would have
stilled the strife, and his friends might then have rallied about
him and formed a new church. Several considerations help us
to answer this question. Foremost of all, no doubt, was that of
the parish fund. The adherents of Mr. Sheldon were members
of the parish, and therefore had a claim upon this fund. If they
withdrew from the parish to form another society they would
lose this claim, and the fund would fall wholly under the control
of their opponents.

Mr. Sheldon's friends had, in fact, proposed a peaceable settle-
ment in the May preceding. They proposed that the meeting-
house and all the parish property should be sold, and the proceeds
divided among the members of the parish corporation in propor-
tion to the amount of taxes they severally paid. They suggested,
if this plan failed, two other propositions: (i) That the income
of the parish property should be annually divided among all the
religious societies that were or should be organized in Easton
and which should be provided with a place of worship ; {2) That
the parish property should be sold and be divided among such
societies. But these propositions were all voted down in parish
meeting. This will answer the question, Why was not Mr.
Sheldon willing to call a mutual council and accept a dismissal .-*



1



DIVISION OF THE PARISH. 343

To do this, and form a new society of his adherents, would
forfeit their claim to any share in the parish funds. The two
parties were so nearly equal in numbers that Mr. Sheldon's
friends might hope by holding on to gain a voting majority,
when they would be able to control the parish organization
and manage the fund.

Another reason for this refusal was that the Orthodox Asso-
ciation to which Mr. Sheldon belonged desired him to test, and
thereby to settle, the question whether or not the refusal of a Con-
gregational minister to exchange with certain other ministers
at the request of his parish, formed a valid legal reason for his
dismissal. The question of the non-payment of Mr. Sheldon's
salary had not yet arisen, for this was in July, 1832, and June 4
the parish had voted to pay him his salary to October 24.

In August the trustees of the parish issued letters-missive,
calling for an ex-parte council. Then Mr. Sheldon first broke
the silence, sending a letter in which he declined to assist in
calling a mutual council, and declaring that the trustees had no
authority in the matter.

September 6, 1832, the ex-parte council assembled. The
specifications against Mr. Sheldon were read. They were, first,
his refusal to comply with the request of the parish to exchange
with neighboring ministers, by which "clergymen of the liberal
denomination " were excluded from the pulpit ; second, that he
had never deigned to answer any of the communications ad-
dressed to him by the parish ; third, that he had endeavored to
drive from the parish individuals opposed to him ; fourth, that
he had neglected the duty of making pastoral visits ; fifth, that
owing to want of confidence in him his usefulness as a pastor
was impaired ; sixth, a want of confidence in his moral honesty
and integrity by many in the parish.

At this conference the Rev. Pitt Clarke, of Norton, was mod-
erator, and the Rev. Mr. Farley, of Providence, Scribe. Mr.
Sheldon was invited to appear, and he came and presented a
paper objecting to the jurisdiction of the Council. This Council
adopted a resolution to the effect that his refusal to exchange with
neighboring ministers, his neglect to reply to the communications
officially made to him by the parish, " and his loss of the confi-
dence of a large portion of his parishioners in his moral honesty



344 HISTORY OF EASTON.

and integrity, having been substantiated by the evidence offered
by the committee on the part of the parish, require a dissolu-
tion of the ministerial connection now subsisting between him
and the parish, there appearing to be no ground for a belief that
peace and harmony can otherwise be restored to said parish."

As justice is the highest of all considerations, it should not be
forgotten that this was an ex-parte council, where evidence upon
only one side was given. No proof of a " want of honesty and
integrity " in Mr. Sheldon was declared to exist, but only of a
"loss of confidence" by a part of the parish in his possession
of those qualities. The Council resolved that the situation was
such as to " require the dissolution ; " but they did not venture
to pronounce the pastoral relation dissolved. Their word was
advisory rather than decisive.

The Council was held on the 6th of September, 1832. On
the 8th the trustees reported the result to Mr. Sheldon, and no-
tified him that after the following Sunday his services would be
dispensed with. It is dif^cult to understand why the trustees
committed so obvious an error as this. It would seem that
they must either have misunderstood the action of the Council,
which, while it resolved that the circumstances of the case " re-
quired " a dissolution, did not venture to pronounce the pastoral
relation dissolved, or they supposed the Courts would, if appealed
to, confirm their action. Mr. Sheldon was neither ecclesiastically
nor legally dismissed, and the action of the trustees therefore in
dispensing with his services had no validity whatever, as they had
no authority to dismiss him. He was still the minister, was en-
titled to preach, to draw his salary, and to perform all the duties
and claim all the rights and privileges of his position as minister.

Sunday, September 16, 1832, the circumstances occurred
which led to the open and final breach between the friends and
the opposers of Mr. Sheldon. It was the second Sunday after
the session of the ex-parte council. The trustees having noti-
fied him that his services would be dispensed with, engaged
another minister to preach. Perfectly confident of the validity
of his position, Mr. Sheldon, with characteristic determination,
prepared to maintain it. Accordingly, on the Sunday morning
in question he entered the church fifteen minutes earlier than



Online LibraryWilliam L. (William Ladd) ChaffinHistory of the town of Easton, Massachusetts (Volume 3) → online text (page 32 of 78)