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Early Ecclesiastical MovementsFirst Mecting-House

Candidates for the Ministry Settlement of Mr. WhitneyFormation of a Church Church Covenants,

The separation of the state from the church, and the adoption of the congregational form of church government, confined the ecclesiastical movements of New England within a compass of great sameness and simplicity. The church was an essential object of the thought and care of the early colonists, and to secure a free church they would submit to any sacrifice. Still, the history of one church community is essentially the history of them all, unless some serious quarrel chanced to occur to give incidental notoriety to a particular locality.

For the first century and a half ecclesiastical history consisted, generally, of accounts of especial fasts, the calling, ordaining and burying of ministers, (for it was rarely the case that one was dismissed, or voluntarily relinquished his position while he lived,) of forming churches, disciplining members, and of building meeting-houses. Occasionally this history has been varied by the minutes of councils that have been called to deal with immoral brethren, or with those accused of heresy; but as these

latter evils have never disturbed the equanimity of religious progress in this town, nothing more can be expected, in this department, than a brief statement of the first-named, commonplace facts.

True to the principles and policy of a Puritan ancestry, the early settlers of Shirley were regular worshippers with their brethren in Groton until they were able to erect a public altar among themselves. The distance was from three to nine miles; the roads were rough and hilly, and they had no other means of crossing the Squannacook than by fording it, or by a narrow foot-bridge. Yet few, of either sex, were found missing from their accustomed places in the church, unless prevented by sickness, bad weather, or bad travelling. The family horse, equipped with saddle and pillion,—and this latter appendage was frequently substituted by a small blanket—was the only means of conveyance for families of the best estate, while far the larger part pursued their journey on foot.

About six months after the settlement had become regularly organized as a district, a meeting of the voters was called to ascertain if public worship could not be established nearer home. The following records relate to the subject, and constitute the first regular movement in this important relation.

" At a legal meeting begun and held at the house of Mr. Jonathan Moore in sa District

Art. 24 To see if the town would hire any preaching this spring. Passed in the negative."

Nothing daunted, the friends of religion and order persevered in their good work by calling another meeting which was more successful, as the following record shows :

"At a legal meeting begun and held at the house of Mr. Jonathan Gould, in s' District of Shirley, it was voted to raise Ten Pound, lawful money, to hire preaching."

Now when it is understood that the current expenses of the town, aside from the ministry and the schools, were that year met by an outfit of £13 6s. 8d. we cannot deny that a most commendable zeal was manifested for the support of the ordinances of religion in this infant settlement.

For the space of nine years no minister was settled, yet the people did not leave themselves without the word of life publicly dispensed.

The following extracts from the town records, and other reliable sources, show the position of the people on this subject.

Although ten pounds had been appropriated for preaching within the first year of the incorporation of the district, as above stated, it is not probable that any portion of it had been drawn, if raised, until the opening of spring the next year, 1754; when, at a meeting held May 2d, it was "voted to hire three months'preaching;” and then, at a meeting holden Nov. 29th of the same year, it was "voted to have six weeks' preaching this winter.” During the next summer, that of 1755, we do not learn from the records that any public religious service was held, and it is probable that the people were too poor to meet the expense of any such service. Yet they did not, at the call of poverty, dismiss the duty as impracticable, but resorted to another measure. At the September meeting of the colonial legislature, 1755, the following petition was presented for the consideration of that body.


"To His Honour Spencer Phips, Esq., Lieutenant-Gov

ernor and Commander-in-chief of said Province; to the Honorable, His Majesty's Council and House of Representatives, in General Court assembled at Boston, September 24th, 1755 :

"The petition of John Whitney, James Patterson and Jonas Longley, a committee duly appointed by the District of Shirley, humbly sheweth, that the said District is small and many of them poor; but the great distances they lived from the Public Meeting-House in Groton, obliged them to get off from said town, in order to receive privileges among themselves; altho' we have been set off more than three years, we have not been able to settle a minister, tho’ we have built a small House for the publick worship of God,

and have hired preaching part of the time since we were set off; and so it is, that there is now about one-third of our Ratable Polls are inlisted into His Majesty's Service; but we being desirous to settle a Minister among ourselves, (but think ourselves not able without some further assistance than to raise our Estates, and what Polls we have,) and there being several Hundred of Acres of unimproved Lands lying within our District, which is made much more in value for our improvements; so that we humbly pray your Honour and Honours, to enable the said District of Shirley to assess all the unimproved Lands lying within the said District, for three years next coming, at two Pence per Acre, to enable us in settling of a Minister, and other necessary charges in said District; and to assess and collect the same in such way and manner as your Honours shall see meet; as in duty bound shall ever pray.



"Read and ordered, that the Petitioners serve the Nonresident and other Proprietors of the unimproved Lands in the District of Shirley with this Petition, by inserting the substance thereof in one of the publick Prints for three weeks successively, that they show cause (if any they have) on the second Friday of the next setting of this court, why the prayer should not be granted. Sent up for concurrence.

"T. HUBBARD, Speaker. "In Council, Sept. 26, 1755. Read and concur'd.

"THOMAS CLARKE, Dep. Sec'y. "Copy examined,

Per THOMAS CLARKE, Dep. Sec'y.”

The above was taken from the "Boston Gazette, or Country Journal,” and was printed in that paper October 6th, 1755.

Whether public worship was entirely suspended from November, 1755, until the following July the record does

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