William L. (William Ladd) Chaffin.

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

. (page 33 of 78)
Online LibraryWilliam L. (William Ladd) ChaffinHistory of the town of Easton, Massachusetts (Volume 3) → online text (page 33 of 78)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

had been his custom, and took possession of the pulpit. He



began the services early and conducted them to the end without
interruption. But his opponents determined that he should not
preach in the afternoon. They took care that the clergyman
whom the trustees had hired was in the pulpit before the time
of beginning service, and they prepared to- prevent, forcibly if
necessary, its occupancy by Mr. Sheldon. It was understood
that some one should guard the head of each aisle. When
Mr. Sheldon appeared, Daniel Wheaton rose and told him that
the pulpit was occupied. Paying no heed to this, he passed
up the aisle ; whereupon Elijah Howard stepped in front of
him and informed him that there was already a minister in
the pulpit. The pulpit being so high as to conceal the occu-
pant, Mr. Sheldon said, " I see no one there," and endeavored to
force his way past. "The pulpit is occupied," rejoined Mr,
Howard, and pushed him back. Another effort to pass v/as
equally unsuccessful. Meantime great excitement prevailed.
Loud murmurs were heard, and not a few women sobbed aloud.
** Don't let them hurt my minister ! " one of them cried out.
William Rotch, much excited, started up as if to take some part
in the affair, but the towering form of Horatio Ames confront-
ing him, made him feel that discretion was the better part of
valor. From the singers' seats in the gallery rose the gigantic
Solomon Leach, six feet, six inches in height. Looking down
into the body of the church he shouted, " Look out what you
do down there, or I '11 be amongst you."

Finding that he could not gain his pulpit without violence,
and that the excitement was increasing, Mr. Sheldon stepped
back into his own pew and said, " If those who wish to hear me
preach will retire to my grove, I will speak there." Immedi-
ately a large majority of the church-members and of the audi-
ence followed Mr. Sheldon out of the meeting-house and into
his grove, one woman taking her pew cushion with her.

After this he conducted services in the chapel until the new
meeting-house, already begun, was completed, which was in June
of the next year. This chapel was a small two-story building,
standing near the meeting-house. Neither the upper nor the
lower room was, however, large enough for the audience that
gathered to hear Mr. Sheldon. To remedy this defect a novel
expedient was adopted. About eight feet in front of the desk


where he preached upstairs, a hole about six feet in diameter
was cut through the floor ; this was surrounded by a Httle rail-
ing. The male portion of his audience convened in the lower
room, and the female, with the choir, in the upper. " Faith
comes by hearing," not by seeing ; and the ground-floor audience
might therefore hope for spiritual advantage, though they were
deprived of the sight of their pastor's face. This building is
now occupied as a shoe-factory by Lackey & Davie, but was
for many years a barn and work-shop of the late Daniel Reed,
behind whose house it now stands.

After Mr. Sheldon and his friends had left the church, as be-
fore narrated, a slim audience was left; but the services then
proceeded. It is not, however, to be supposed that these ser-
vices were very edifying, considering the excitement that pre-
vailed. Henceforth the trustees supplied the pulpit by transient
preachers, though a Mr. Damon served some time, and was
much liked. Meantime through the week the sound of axe,
hammer, and saw was heard, and a new church was steadily
rising but a stone's throw to the east. Mr. Sheldon was not
allowed to preach in the old church, though he was satisfied that
he was illegally excluded from its pulpit. Party feeling ran high,
and unpleasant things were said on both sides.

Though the parish held out against Mr. Sheldon, it will be
remembered that the church — that is, the organization of the
church-members — adhered to him. It was therefore proper that
he should retain the church (not the parish) records, and transmit
them to his successors. But the church was not a business
organization ; and as Mr. Sheldon's friends began, even before
this rupture, to build a meeting-house, it was necessary for them
to have some kind of business organization. They accordingly
organized as early as May 7, 1832, choosing Lincoln Drake for
secretary, — a position he held for many years. They called them-
selves " Proprietors of the Easton new Meeting-house," and they
began at once to make arrangements for building such a house.
The land was purchased in the summer of 1832, subscriptions
were received, shares taken, and the work proceeded with vigor.
In about a year from its first inception, — that is, June 20,
1833, — the new church was dedicated. This association of
" Proprietors " continued its existence, holding and managing


the church property. Prior to the organization of the " Evan-
gelical Congregational Society of Easton," in January, 1839, the
association did business like any other religious society. It
voted concerning Mr. Sheldon's salary, negotiated as another
organization with the old parish, and acted for the material and
other interests of the new society, of which it was to all intents
and purposes the business organization. Its existence continued
down to 1882, when it transferred to the Evangelical Society
its ownership and right to such property as was left after the
burning of the church, its members being members of that
society, and then dissolved. It was quite an anomaly in eccle-
siastical arrangements, and arose out of the complications of
the contention we are considering.

Early in the controversy Shepard Leach, after consultation
with Mr. Sheldon's friends, made this proposition to the other
party, — to buy all the property of the latter in the church,
pews, sheds, etc., and pay one hundred per cent on its value, or
to sell out all the interest Mr. Sheldon's friends held in the same
property for fifty cents on the dollar. But the parish who were
opposed to the minister did not care, by thus selling, to turn
themselves out of doors ; and it was no object to them to buy at
any price, as they already had more room than they needed, if
they were left to themselves.

We come now to an exciting stage of the contest, and one
that has been generally misunderstood. September 2, 1833, ^
parish meeting was held, and when the vote for moderator was
taken, Elijah Howard, the clerk of the parish, refused to receive
the votes of Lemuel Keith and others who were active in sup-
port of Mr. Sheldon. This unexpected action caused intense
excitement. These men had previously always voted, but now
they were persistently refused the right. To their demands Mr.
Howard said, " If you think I am wrong, you have your rem-
edy at the law. You can sue me and obtain your rights." It
has been represented that Mr. Howard saw that the majority
of those present were Mr. Sheldon's friends, and that he arbi-
trarily excluded enough of them from voting, to give the ma-
jority to the opposing party. In the suit which Lemuel Keith
entered against Mr. Howard, he charged him with " maliciously,
fraudulently, and injuriously" intending to deprive the plaintiff



"of his privilege of voting for the moderator of said meeting,
and him to disfranchise," etc. But the facts show that Mr.
Howard acted according to the instructions of the parish, and
not on his own personal authority. The position taken by the
parish proved to be illegal, but until so proved, he as clerk felt
bound to maintain it. In the parish meeting of April i, 1833,
the trustees were instructed "to revise and correct the list of par-
ishioners ; " and before the meeting of September 2 they had at-
tended to the work. From the old list were dropped the names
of Lemuel Keith and others, active friends of Mr. Sheldon. Why
was this done ? At first sight it appears to have been an arbi-
trary and unjust proceeding, and has always been so regarded by
Mr. Sheldon's friends. But the leading men in the parish had
too much character to commit an act of obvious injustice, an act
for which they did not suppose they had sufficient justification.
The reader may judge for himself concerning the soundness of
their position, but if he carefully attends to the explanation of
their action in the following paragraph, he cannot help allowing
that it must have seemed sound and honorable to them.

In the Act of Incorporation of the parish it was provided that
" all the inhabitants of the town of Easton, who now usually
attend public worship with the Congregational Society of which
the Rev. William Reed is the present minister," shall be made a
corporation, etc. Now, however justified the adherents of Mr.
Sheldon were in the course they were pursuing, it is evident that
they did not at this time, 1833, "usually attend worship with the
Congregational Society," that is, the First Parish ; they did not
attend there at all. It was therefore natural that those who did
thus attend should think that these non-attendants had forfeited
their rights as parishioners according to the terms of the Act
of Incorporation. Moreover, these non-attendants had actually
formed another organization, which was substantially another
religious society, or parish, though they carefully avoided calling
it such. As before stated, they assumed for their organization
the title of " Proprietors of the Easton new Meeting-house ; " but
their opponents regarded this as a mere evasion, for they were
doing business as a regular religious society, were building and
furnishing a meeting-house, were raising money to support a
minister, and were transacting all other business necessary to the



maintenance of a religious society. Now, as the Act of Incor-
poration did not allow any persons to belong to two religious
societies at the same time, and as Mr. Sheldon's friends had not
only absented themselves from the parish church, but had in
fact, if not in form, organized a new society, it was natural
that the majority should regard them as having forfeited the
rights of members, or parishioners, of the old parish. It was for
this reason that their names were dropped from the parish roll.

That this is the true explanation of this transaction is proved
beyond question by the fact that the revision of the list of
parishioners adopted in September, 1833, consisted simply in
erasing from the old list the names of the " Proprietors of the
Easton new Meeting-house." They had all been omitted from
the new list because they were members of the new corporation,
which the parish committee naturally looked upon as a new so-
ciety. What seemed to the committee to be a sufficient reason for
dropping these names did not prove to be sufficient in law ; but
the unbiassed reader will concede that Mr. Sheldon's opponents
believed that their action was justified by the circumstances. It
is at least perfectly evident that Mr. Howard's refusal to take
the vote of Mr. Keith, and of others whose names had been
dropped by order of the parish committee who had been author-
ized to revise the list, was not, as has been alleged, the prompt-
ing of the moment to secure a majority for his party, but was
merely the enforcing of the decision made by the majority vote
of the parish taken six months before. He simply did his
duty as the parish clerk.

By a lawsuit Mr. Keith established his legal right, and there-
by that of the others whose names had been dropped, to vote in
parish meetings. But the Court's opinion of the essential justice
of his case may be inferred from the fact that while Mr. Keith
sued for one thousand dollars damages, the verdict allowed him
one dollar and costs.^

It is worth telling here that when the right to vote had been
conceded to the excluded members, Joseph Hayward, familiarly
known as " Deacon Joe," came forward holding up his vote to
Mr. Howard, and in his piping voice, tremulous with triumph,
said, "I guess you'll have to take my vote this time;" and the

1 Superior Judicial Court Records, vol. v. p. 215, at the Court House in Taunton,



quick-witted clerk responded : "Yes, we've got short of deacon-
timber, and thought we would let you in."

An unprejudiced judgment will probably concede that both
parties believed that their respective courses of action were
justified by the situation, and will allow that in this, as in most
similar cases, there is something to be said upon both sides.
The men arrayed thus earnestly against one another were most
of them men of too much character consciously or deliberately
to do an act of injustice or unfairness.

The excitement was now at a high pitch, and an incident
soon occurred which did not tend to allay it. A short time after
the parish meeting of September 2, 1833, the worshippers of the
old society were amazed, on entering the meeting-house, to find
that some of the pews belonging to Mr. Sheldon's friends had
been securely fastened with padlocks. One afternoon of the
previous week a blacksmith had come from the Furnace Village
with an assistant, and called at Mr. Sheldon's house. He read
a list of names of persons who desired to have their pews fast-
ened up, and asked Mr. Sheldon to go to the church with him and
point out their pews, which he did. It was easy, of course, for
the men attending church the next Sunday to step over into the
pews. It was also easy to unlock and remove the padlocks ;
and this was done.

But this was not the end of it ; for not long afterward a lad
was driving his cows to pasture in the morning, and on return-
ing, as he neared the meeting-house, he heard the clinking of
tools within. Looking inside he saw two men at work appar-
ently under the direction of Mr. Sheldon, this time fastening
up the pews with iron straps, which were securely riveted.i
Only a few pews had been fastened up in the first instance, but]
now a large number, probably nearly all those belonging to thej
friends of the minister, were thus secured. Though there is no
evidence that Mr. Sheldon instigated this proceeding, his pres-
ence at the church makes it certain that he sympathized with
it. It was alleged as a reason for this transaction that one or
two of the pews had been shamefully used ; but if so, it was by
some rascal whose conduct was sure to meet the disapproval of
all respectable persons. This second fastening was done very
early in the day, for it was just at sunrise when the lad referred to,



who is now living and whose memory is perfectly clear about
this circumstance, stood and looked in at the door.^ Mr. Shel-
don waved him away, and fastened the door behind him. This
second pew-fastening greatly increased the excitement. It was
not long, however, before the Furnace Village iron straps were
cut away by North Easton cold-chisels, the head of the hammer
used being covered with leather to prevent making any noise.

January 13, 1834, the parish party appointed a committee
consisting of Howard Lothrop, Daniel Wheaton, and Roland
Howard, with whom any one might confer in the endeavor to
bring about a just and equitable settlement of affairs. Howard
Lothrop had contended from the first that in law Mr. Sheldon
was entitled to his salary, and he desired that some accommoda-
tion of differences might now be made. But Mr. Sheldon's
friends at this juncture were in no mood to accept an overture
of this kind. In April this committee "to receive propositions
from the friends of Luther Sheldon for a settlement of all diffi-
culties existing between him and said parish," reported that no
propositions, either verbally or in writing, had ever been made by
Mr. Sheldon or his friends. It was then voted that the trustees
should be associated with this committee for the purpose already
specified. Evidently, the parish felt that its position was legally
weak, and hoped for some proposition for settlement. The other
party knew that its position was legally strong, and were already
taking steps to punish the parish for its blunder of September,

In the March term of 1834 Mr. Sheldon sued the parish for a
year's unpaid salary, due October 24, 1833, including the twelve

1 The impression has gained ground that this work was done by candlelight,
before daybreak. But there is no good reason to doubt that it was done during the
early morning by the two blacksmiths before mentioned, who finished it soon after
sunrise. The impression referred to has been strengthened by a statement in a
stanza of a satirical poem written during this controversy by the eccentric James
Adams, — a poem which purports to be a " New Year's Address " of Mr. Sheldon
to his parishioners. The statement that access was gained by the window is untrue,
and the holding of the light may be regarded as a poetic license. The stanza alluded
to is as follows : —

" With iron plates some two, three score.
With iron bolts as many more,
We from the window gain'd the floor

At dead of night ;
Then firmly fasten'd each pew door :
I held the light."


cords of wood promised annually. The salary was $450, and the
wood was rated at $36. The interest was carefully computed, and
the claim for salary was $500.03. There was an additional claim
for ;^500, the suit being for $1000. In the Court of Common
Pleas Mr. Sheldon's plea was pronounced " bad and insufficient
in law," and the Court awarded the parish the cost of the suit.^
Mr. Sheldon appealed, and the case was finally settled in the
Superior Court of April, 1836. He sued for ;^ 1,000, but the
Court awarded him $563.65 and the costs at $141.44.^ He in-
stituted another suit in September, 1835, for his salary for 1834,
including the twelve cords of wood and interest due, — the whole
amounting to $500.59. This suit, like the first one, went against
him in the Court of Common Pleas,^ but in the Superior Court
in April, 1836, he recovered $546.27 and costs of suit at $46.95.^
These appear to be the only suits recorded in the Bristol County
courts. The two suits for unpaid salary resulted in his favor ;
the additional claim of $500 made in the first suit was not allowed
him, the Court merely deciding that the parish was still bound to
pay his salary. Incidentally, of course, it was decided that the
refusal of a minister, for conscientious reasons, to exchange with
neighboring ministers at the request of his parish was not a suffi-
cient ground for his dismissal, and hence that Mr. Sheldon was
neither ecclesiastically nor legally dismissed.

The suits having been decided against the parish, Mr. Sheldon
claimed the salary allowed by the Court. The parish declined
to pay it, notwithstanding the Court's decision ; and here a sin-
gular complication arose. It was obvious that if his salary were
to be paid by a general parish tax, it would fall proportionally
upon his friends who had already supported him during the time
for which he sued. But the original contract provided that when
the parish fund had an income equal to his salary, which was
now $450, that income should be used for its payment. The
income had once exceeded this amount, and Mr. Sheldon be-
lieved that it did so at this time, especially as a large amount of
wood had recently been sold from the parish land. If the parish
could be forced to pay his salary from this income, then the

1 Court of Common Pleas (Bristol County), vol. .xxxi. March term.

2 Superior Judicial Court, vol. v. p. 214.

3 Court of Common Pleas, September, 1S35.
* Superior Judicial Court, vol. v. p. 220.



members of his society, already paying large sums for church
expenses without a fund to assist them, would not have to share
this additional burden. He therefore appealed to the Supreme
Judicial Court, asking that the trustees of the parish be sum-
moned to disclose the facts relative to the amount of annual
income from this fund, and of the disposition made of the same.
The appeal was allowed, and the disclosure ordered. But it was
found that the annual income for the years in question was less
than the amount of the minister's salary ; and this being the case,
the salary was, according to the original contract, to be paid by a
tax upon the parish. This the parish were in no mood to allow ;
besides, it would have been burdensome to Mr. Sheldon's friends,
who had already, as has just been stated, borne a heavy expense.

What was to be done now .-' How could the Courts decision
be enforced .-' Mr. Sheldon was obliged to avail himself of the
law which made individual corporators liable for the debts that
their corporation failed to pay. The individual selected to be
levied upon in this case was Howard Lothrop. In theology
Mr. Sheldon and Mr. Lothrop were in agreement. Moreover,
Mr. Lothrop had assured the parish from the start that they
would have this salary to pay ; he thought, however, that Mr.
Sheldon did wrong to stay and divide the parish, and averred
that he had heard Mr. Sheldon say that he would never be
the means of dividing it. But the latter doubtless considered
that circumstances alter cases ; that the divergence between
the two parties was deeper than any personal question ; and
that the changed condition of things justified a change in his
decision. However this may be, Mr. Lothrop's property was
sold under the sheriff's hammer in order to pay Mr. Sheldon's
claim. Mr. Lothrop then, in order to recover what had thus
been wrung from him, attached the property of two other mem-
bers of the parish, Lemuel Keith and Bernard Alger, friends of
Mr. Sheldon. Mr. Keith had instituted two lawsuits to prove
that he was still a legal member of the parish ; and now Mr.
Lothrop, in his practical way, reminds him of one of the re-
sponsibilities of the situation. This unexpected counter-move
by Mr. Lothrop created consternation ; it seemed to open an end-
less vista of legal contentions. In fact the ball was kept roll-
ing ; Mr. Lothrop having recovered of Bernard Alger, Mr. Alger



instituted a suit against Alson Gilmore ; and if the difficulty had
not been settled, Mr. Gilmore would have retaliated upon some
one else, — he had, in fact, selected the next victim. If Mr.
Sheldon's friends remained in the parish, therefore, they were
liable to be taxed to defray the costs of defending lawsuits, even
though these should be decided in favor of their party. The
situation was very peculiar. There seemed to be no way out of
the difficulty, no thoroughfare for either side.

Here were two meeting-houses, side by side. Here were
practically two societies. One of them wanted the minister, and
the other did not. The courts had decided that under the pres-
ent arrangement the society that did not want him must pay his
salary. The question naturally arises here, Why did not Mr.
Sheldon at this time make some proposition for settlement.^
The legal question, for the decision of which the Orthodox As-
sociation had urged him to make a stand, had been settled, and
settled in his favor. The courts had decided that he was entitled
to his salary. He could no longer hope that his friends would
get the control of the parish. What could be gained by delay .■*
Perhaps he thought the parish were in no mood for propositions
of settlement. Besides, he could afford to wait ; he was in a
situation now to dictate terms. He might argue that it was as
much their duty as his to make the first advance. Above all,
they had persisted in refusing to pay his salary though the
courts awarded it to him. Instead of any attempt at pacifica-
tion being made at this juncture, the parish, April 21, 1837, in-
structed its committee "to direct Luther Sheldon to supply the
pulpit of the parish."

This was an extraordinary measure. It was just four and a
half years since the trustees had excluded him from the pulpit.
It had now been decided by law that the exclusion was legally
unsound, and that he was yet minister of the parish. But those
who still worshipped in the old church did not wish to hear him
preach ; they regarded his connection with them as a vexatious
misfortune. Nevertheless, they directed him to come and preach
to them. What could have been their reason ? Did they hope
to break up the new society by taking its minister away .'' Did
they expect the new society would follow him back to the old
church .'' Or did they hope to weary Mr. Sheldon and his friends


Online LibraryWilliam L. (William Ladd) ChaffinHistory of the town of Easton, Massachusetts (Volume 3) → online text (page 33 of 78)