William L. (William Ladd) Chaffin.

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

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by this arrangement, so as to obtain more favorable terms of
settlement ? If the latter, they underrated the staying and en-
during power of the minister, and failed to see that if it were a
question of wearying, he would under the new arrangement have
the advantage, and would be sure to get the best of it in the
end. Therefore their summons did not in the least intimidate
Mr. Sheldon. One is filled with amazement, not unmingled with
admiration, at the nerve and resolution which enabled him to
face this unfriendly audience, knowing that they entertained to-
wards him feelings of dislike and hostility, — and to do this, not
merely on some one decisive occasion that might be met and
soon passed, but week after week, for more than a year. How he
could conduct religious services, preach and pray, in the presence
of an unsympathizing congregation, is a problem difficult to solve.
Not more than one minister in a thousand could have done it ;
but the parish had yet to learn that in this regard Mr. Sheldon
was this one in a thousand. It was, indeed, a critical and mo-
mentous occasion when for the first time, after four and a half
years, he stood up again in his pulpit in the old church to con-
duct religious services. His sermon is foreshadowed by his text,
which was from Acts x. 29 : " Therefore came I unto you with-
out gainsaying as soon as I was sent for : I ask therefore for
what intent ye have sent for me .-' "

This new arrangement did not prevent Mr. Sheldon from con-
tinuing to minister to his own flock, nor did any of his people
follow him back to the old church. For a time he conducted
services in both houses, — four services a day, besides evening
meeting. In order to do this he shortened the services in the
parish church. This provoked his unfriendly hearers, not be-
cause they desired his long services, but because they did not
wish the other society to profit even by what they might other-
wise esteem an advantage to themselves. They therefore in-
sisted that if they must pay his salary they were entitled to his
full services, long sermons and all. They soon had cause to
regret this demand. They were handling a two-edged sword,
and were dealing with a man who could give as well as take.
Mr. Sheldon's sermons thenceforth gave no cause of complaint
because of brevity ; and his opponents soon found that they
could not annoy him without equally annoying themselves. To


accomplish their purpose, however, they were willing to submit
to considerable discomfort. Daniel Wheaton, Sr., a tall man and
not very well, used occasionally to stand during the latter part
of a long sermon, not to show disrespect, but to rest his long
legs, which were cramped by sitting through lengthy discourses.
Some of the more impatient ones would take out their news-
papers and letters and read them. Bernard Alger on the turn-
pike, and Daniel Wheaton at the south end of the Bay road
were postmasters, and they or their neighbors used to bring
mail matter to church on Sunday mornings to distribute, — which
explains the presence of papers and letters at church.

Mr. Sheldon soon employed a licentiate from Andover Theo-
logical Seminary to act as his colleague, who preached half a
day in each church. The parish complained of this arrange-
ment ; they renewed their demands for exchanges with neigh-
boring Congregational ministers ; they also charged Mr. Sheldon
with restricting his parish visiting to the members of the other
society. He however insisted on his right to provide this sub-
stitute for half the time; the matter of exchanges had already
been disposed of ; and as for visiting them in their homes, he
might urge that this could be pleasant and profitable neither to
them nor to himself. But the parish even went so far as to vote
to hire a man to come and do the parish work which they al-
leged Mr. Sheldon neglected. Doubtless some of them found
new cause for vexation in the fact that Mr. Sheldon under the
new arrangement was actually having an easier time of it than
before, in regard to the preparation for the pulpit at least ; for,
preaching but half the day in each meeting-house, he had now
but one sermon a week to write, instead of two as formerly.
The weapon his opponents had used proved to be to them a

This state of things could not continue indefinitely. A meet-
ing of the parish was called for April 7, 1838. It was known
that important action relative to existing difficulties might be
taken, and there was a full meeting. There were one hundred
and ninety-six votes cast for moderator, of which Oakes Ames
had one hundred and thirty-two. This was after the once ex-
cluded members were again allowed to vote. It was proposed
and voted that the parish were willing to leave the whole case


out to the arbitration of three disinterested persons, to be agreed
upon by the two parties, whose award should be final. Five
days after this the " Proprietors," acting as a society, at a meet-
ing held in the chapel, appointed a committee "to carry the Rev.
Luther Sheldon's communication to the parish trustees."^ The
same Proprietors, May 7, proposed, if pending negotiations failed,
that " we will all attend at the old house, and fill the house up
and stick to them." This proposition was not adopted. They
then proposed that " every person withdraw his name from the
parish list, and Mr. Sheldon to leave the old house and preach in
the new house, and in case the parish bring a suit against Mr.
Sheldon for damages, we will defend the suit and leave him
harmless." This proposition was " accepted by a small majority,
but finally not put in practice until further consideration." A
committee, consisting of Capt. Lewis Williams, Dr. Caleb Swan,
Capt. Isaac Lothrop, Capt. Tisdale Harlow, Bernard Alger, Esq.,
Martin Wild, Joel Drake, and Lincoln Drake, was chosen to
meet the trustees and make propositions for settlement. They
proposed to be satisfied if the parish would pay Mr. Sheldon
what was due on his salary. May 21 they voted "that in case
the trustees will not accept of the proposition that is presented
by the Committee by the last day of May, that we will attend
meeting at the old house."

The negotiations between the rival societies made very slow
progress, and June 25 the Proprietors "voted to go back to the
old meeting-house one week from next Sabbath." It seems that
pending these negotiations Mr. Sheldon had not been required
to preach there, for the Proprietors vote also to inform Mr. Shel-
don " that negotiations are closed, and request him to notify the
parish clerk that he shall resume preaching in the old house."
The day proposed for going back to the old house was July 8.
For some reason this intention was not carried out. On Mon-
day the Proprietors held a meeting, at which "various subjects
were discussed and much said about returning to the old house."
Capt. Lewis Williams and Joel Drake were appointed a com-
mittee to call on Daniel Wheaton and Oliver Ames, Esq., and

1 This quotation and those that follow are taken from the Proprietors' records,
now in the possession of L. S. Drake, by whose courtesy the writer was permitted to
examine them.


see if there was not some misunderstanding relative to the pro-
position for settlement. The Proprietors met again the next
day, and their committee reported " that the other committee
would give three thousand dollars and no more." The Proprie-
tors asked that in addition to this they should pay the "cost that
has been made on account of Mr. Sheldon's claim." The parish
would not agree to this. Subsequently Mr. Sheldon agreed to
relinquish all claims of whatever kind upon the parish if the
parish would pay to him the sum of three thousand dollars.
November 19, 1838, Mr. Sheldon and Lemuel Keith signed an
agreement releasing the Congregational parish from all charges,
liabilities, contracts, etc., ** from the beginning of the world to
this day."

Neither in this settlement nor in the negotiations preceding
it is anything said about any division of the parish fund. A
large part of the three thousand dollars paid to Mr. Sheldon
seems to have been due on his salary. It was almost six years
since the parish had voted him any salary, and there is no record
of his receiving any from the parish during that time. The
parish, therefore, in this settlement did little if anything more
than pay the salary due to Mr. Sheldon. The parish fund,
moreover, was not divided ; the debt for salary was largely paid
by sales of the parish land. The contest had cost both parties
heavily. The parish, in addition to lawyers' fees, had the court
costs to pay, which in the two suits of Mr. Sheldon amounted
to 1^188.39. They had also paid for the supply of the parish pul-
pit while Mr. Sheldon was preaching in the new meeting-house.
But of course the pecuniary expense was far more burdensome
to Mr. Sheldon's friends than to the parish, because the latter
could pay charges with the parish fund, while the former must
pay from their own pockets. Their willingness, however, to
bear so heavy a burden is sufficient indication of their earnest-
ness and devotion to their position. It was one of great
sacrifice, involving not only the payment of the legal charges
referred to, but also the erection of a new meeting-house at a
cost of about six thousand dollars. As the new society had
since October, 1832, been paying Mr. Sheldon a salary, they
had a just claim to the three thousand dollars paid him by
the old society.



And thus ended the memorable controversy. It dates from a
vote passed by the parish June 8, 1830, and continued over eight
years. It awakened a strong party spirit, caused hard feeUng,
separated friends, and divided families. Its unhappy effects were
felt for many years. Outsiders and thoughtful young persons
were heard to say, "If this is what churches come to, we will
get along without them." There can be little doubt that the
cause of true religion would have been the gainer if either party
had yielded enough at the beginning to prevent this unfriendly

In the account of this controversy the writer has done his best
to place the exact facts before his readers, only indulging in such
comments as seemed necessary to the elucidation of the facts.
His statements are based mainly upon the parish and court
records, the records of the " Proprietors of the Easton new Meet-
ing-house," and upon such personal testimony as appeared, after
careful sifting and comparison with other sources of informa-
tion, to be entirely trustworthy. Nearly fifty years have elapsed
since the settlement of the contest. Most of the contestants
have passed away, and those who remain can talk calmly together
about those exciting events of long ago. Before his death,
Dr. Sheldon was a welcome guest and friend in the families of
those who once were arrayed against him. Many unfounded or
distorted traditions have grown up regarding the controversy
in question, which do injustice to both parties. It is hoped that
this account may do something to silence such traditions, to pro-
mote a better understanding, and thus to serve the interests of
justice and charity.




The First Congregational Parish after the Division: Successive
Pastors, — William H. Taylor, Paul Dean, William Whitwell,
George G. Withington; Services Discontinued; The Meeting-
house Burned. — The Evangelical Society : Rev. Dr. Shel-
don's Resignation; his Character; The Celebration of the
Fiftieth Anniversary of his Settlement in Easton; Succes-
sive Pastors of the Evangelical Society ; The New Meeting-
house ; Sunday Schools. — Spiritualism in Easton: its Origin;
its Patrons; The "First Spiritual Society of Easton;" The
"Easton Society of Progressive Spiritualists."


XT 7HEN the Rev. Mr. Sheldon was notified in September,
* ' 1832, that his services would be dispensed with, the par-
ish made arrangement for the supply of the pulpit. No new
minister of course was settled, but supplies were provided prob-
ably for most of the time until Mr. Sheldon, having by law es-
tablished his right to the pulpit, was directed to occupy it,
which was in April, 1837, ^^^^^ ^"^ ^ ^^^^ years after he had
been excluded from it. In November, 1838, affairs were ad-
justed between the contending parties, as we have seen, and
both societies were henceforth entirely independent of each
other. On the 29th of April, 1839, the parish voted "that the
committee for supplying the pulpit be instructed to employ some
person, if practicable, who will not make doctrines or sectarian-
ism a leading feature in his discourses, but will insist mainly on
the moral duties and obligations of his hearers."

June 8 they extended a call to the Rev. William H. Taylor to
become their minister, at a salary of five hundred and fifty dol-
lars. Their past experience led them to make it a condition
that after the first year the connection of minister and parish


might be dissolved by a three months notice being given in
writing by either party. Mr. Taylor accepted the call in a letter
written the next day after the call was given. He came here
from Lynn, the parish paying the expense of his moving. It
was immediately voted to build a parsonage, which was done at
an expense of about a thousand dollars, and it was situated a
few rods west of the church. Mr. Taylor did not long remain :
he was thought to be more interested in phrenology than in re-
ligion ; and he excited considerable amusement in the course of
a lecture at North Easton by examining the head of the ingen-
ious and witty rhymster James Adams, and pronouncing him
decidedly deficient in the poetic faculty. But he had the grace
afterward, when some of Adams's stanzas were recited to him,
to acknowledge that they had a true poetic ring.

About this time the pulpit was supplied for a few months
each by the Rev. Stephen A. Barnard and a Rev. Mr. Dudley.
There was some disposition to hear Universalist preaching ; and
at a parish meeting in April, 1841, a vote to engage such preach-
ing was passed, but it was so strenuously opposed by the minority
that it was reconsidered. In April, 1843, with a glance back at
the past, the parish instructed their committee to have any min-
ister who may supply for more than four Sabbaths exchange
pulpits with ministers of societies in adjoining towns. This
remained a sensitive matter with the parish, and was made
prominent at various times. In 1845 the meeting-house under-
went thorough remodelling. A second floor was built, making
a church-audience room above, and a hall below. This hall was
hired by the town, and was used for town-meetings until the
building was destroyed by fire. The church was re-dedicated
on the 24th of December, 1845, and at the same service a newly
chosen pastor was installed, of whom mention will now be

In April, 1845, the parish expressed a wish that the Rev. Paul
Dean be employed to supply the pulpit. He was accordingly
engaged by the parish committee, and continued pastor for five
years. Mr. Dean was a man of character, refinement, and ability.
He was born in Barnard, Windsor County, Vermont, on the 28th
of March, 1783. He had been connected with the Universalist
denomination, but was so disgusted with the ultra opinions of


the then dominant wing of that sect, — who denied any future
retribution, and affirmed the immediate salvation of all men at
death, and were therefore styled " death-and-glory " Universal-
ists, — that he with Adin Ballou and others left them and be-
came known as Independent Restorationists. His theology was
more conservative than that of the conservative Unitarianism of
to-day, and except in his pronounced restorationism he stood on
fully as conservative ground as that which gives promise of be-
coming the dominant Orthodoxy of this time. He was eminently
a Christian gentleman, dignified and courteous, of comely figure
and pleasant countenance, and was noted for a graceful and per-
suasive pulpit oratory, making practical piety and morality the
substance of his preaching, and treating other denominations
with candor and charity. Mr. Dean became well known and
highly respected, preaching numerous occasional discourses, in-
cluding an annual Election sermon before the General Court in
1832 ; he also left a volume of lecture sermons on Universal
Restoration. His connection with Masonry is well known in
this town, as the Masonic lodge is named for him, — Paul Dean
Lodge ; in the lodge-room may be seen an excellent crayon pic-
ture of him. He died at Framingham, Massachusetts, on the
18th of October, i860.

Soon after the Rev. Paul Dean left Easton, which was in
April, 1850, the parish engaged the services of the Rev. William
Whitwell, who remained as an acting pastor for about seven
years, his ministry being quiet and uneventful. He was a good
man and a cultivated scholar. He was afterward settled at
Chestnut Hill. At the conclusion of Mr. Whitwell's ministry
the Ames families discontinued attendance upon the First Parish
Church, as a Unitarian Society had been formed at North Easton
village, where they resided. A proposition was made to unite
with the latter society in the support of a minister who should
supply both pulpits, but the proposition was not carried into

In May, 1858, the parish extended a call to the Rev. George G.
Withington, who accepted it and remained as pastor for over
twelve years, retiring from the parish and from the active minis-
try in November, 1870. Mr. Withington was the son of George
R. Withington, Esq., a lawyer in Bolton, and afterwards in Lan-


caster, Massachusetts, and was born in Bolton on the 26th of
July, 1 83 1. He graduated at the Meadville Pennsylvania Theo-
logical School in the class of 1854, and for the succeeding year
was engaged in the West as a missionary, acting under the
auspices of the Western Unitarian Conference. He was or-
dained at Hillsboro, Illinois, as pastor of the Unitarian society
in that place in 1855, remaining there two years, and afterward,
as already stated, settling in Easton. On the 22d of January,
i860, Mr. Withington married Ellen Jeannette, daughter of the
Hon. Elijah Howard, of Easton. In the years 1868 and 1869,
besides attending to his ministerial duties, Mr. Withington was
master of the High School in Easton.

Since his retirement from the ministry, Mr. Withington has
engaged in the druggist business in North Easton. He served
the town as a member of the school committee from 1859 to
1 87 1, and has held the office of town clerk and treasurer for ten
consecutive years, discharging its duties with exceptional ability,
his clear head and painstaking thoroughness giving him a special
aptitude for such work. He has been Master of Paul Dean Ma-
sonic Lodge, and now holds the office of Justice of the Peace.

The Rev. Mr. Withington was the last settled pastor of the
First Parish of Easton. Preaching was discontinued after his
resignation. As there seemed to be considerable doubt about
the parsonage being any longer needed, it was sold in 1872, and
was bought by Albert A. Rotch for one thousand dollars. Dur-
ing the summer months of 1874 and 1875 the church was opened
for afternoon services, the pulpit being supplied by the Rev.
Edward C. Towne, who was then living at North Easton. For
another season it was opened for afternoon services, the preacher
being the Rev. Mr. Beal, of Brockton. The society is at present
quite small, and perhaps owes its continued existence to the
parish fund, which however is not large. On the morning of
January 27, 1886, the meeting-house of this old First Parish of
Easton was destroyed by fire. The town subsequently bought
the parish lot of land on which it stood, and has erected upon it
a town hall, — a building which, though not especially orna-
mental, is likely to be useful.



When the First Congregational Parish, as before narrated,
had made a settlement with Mr. Sheldon, forty-one members
withdrew from it. Others soon joined them, and on the 28th
day of January, 1839, these friends of Mr. Sheldon formally
organized themselves into a religious society, adopting the name
of the Evangelical Congregational Society of Easton. April 8,
the society entered into an agreement with Mr. Sheldon in re-
gard to his becoming their permanent minister. Some such
agreement was necessary, because his connection with the old
parish had terminated and a new society had been formed. He
was given a salary of five hundred dollars payable semi-annually,
was allowed a vacation of four weeks, and it was agreed that in
case a dissolution of the pastoral connection were desirable it
should be effected by means of a mutual council. It was further
agreed that an installation was unnecessary. There is nothing
of special interest to record during the remaining years of Mr.
Sheldon's active ministry over this society.

In March, 1855, it was voted that a committee be appointed
to confer with Mr. Sheldon in regard to a dissolution of the con-
nection between him and the society. It had for some time been
thought desirable that this change should be made ; and after
a conference of two committees with him, on the 3d of May,
1855, he> resigned his connection as active pastor of the society,
which resignation was accepted. Subsequent to this action there
was some doubt as to the precise nature of the relation which
Mr. Sheldon sustained to the church and society. He always
maintained that he resigned merely his active charge and labors
and salary, but still stood in the relation of senior pastor. This
gave rise to some discussion. His successor, before accepting
a call, desired the opinion of the committee " as to whether Mr.
Sheldon does or does not stand in any connection with this
church or society which might render the position of another
minister embarrassing." The committee replied " that so far
as the society was concerned, all connection with him had been
dissolved." This was obvious, as the society had entered into a
business contract with him which was now cancelled. Whether
or not Mr. Sheldon retained the connection of senior pastor to


the church is an interesting problem. The church had origi-
nally, in 18 10, joined with the parish in settling him : the church
had taken no action to dissolve its connection. The church
committee, when asked for " information respecting his pastoral
relation to the church," answered ambiguously "that all matters
relating to Mr. Sheldon's connection with the church might and
would be amicably adjusted, so that there would be no occasion
for anything to arise that would be unpleasant." Mr. Sheldon's
own mind was clear upon the subject, and in the church records
he states that "by mutual understanding, also, the relation of
pastor and minister, with its appropriate privileges, was to remain

Thus closed an active and eventful ministry of forty-five years.
The account that has been given of the great controversy has
shown us one side of Mr. Sheldon's character, — his conserva-
tism, his unwavering adherence to his principles, his strong will
and inflexible resolution. But his conservative views did not
prevent his manifesting a cheerful disposition. His prayer-
meetings he tried to make social and cheerful. He was accus-
tomed to say, " If any person in the world ought to be happy, it
is the Christian." Mr. Sheldon was very fond of children, and
might often be seen chatting pleasantly with them, or allowing
them to " catch a ride" in his wagon as he drove along the road.
He could engage in a hearty laugh as well as any one, and even
the " Minister's Wooing " was not too heretical for him heartily
to enjoy reading. He had a fondness for pets; and in addition
to the usual fowls of the homestead, one might see upon his prem-
ises turkeys, guinea-hens, peacocks, pigeons, rabbits, and dogs.
Sometimes gray squirrels having a home in his attic would sit
on his shoulder, pry into his pockets, or run about his grounds.
The noisy martins were comfortably provided for, and the air
was vocal with the hum of honey-bees, many swarms of which
he delighted to keep in the latter part of his life.

Mr. Sheldon never lost his love for farm-life, and enjoyed

Online LibraryWilliam L. (William Ladd) ChaffinHistory of the town of Easton, Massachusetts (Volume 3) → online text (page 34 of 78)