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CHAPTER VI.

First Congregational ParishFormation of the First

Parish-Engagement of Rev. Mr. Chandler-His Settlement Hymn Books - New Bell SundaySchool-Ladies' Benevolent Society— Alteration of the Meeting-House-Legacy of Thomas Whitney, Esq.Legacy of Hon. James P. WhitneyChurch Organ-Removal of the Meeting-House-Other alterations-Benefactions to the Society-Library, etc.

As we have seen in the foregoing chapters, congregational church government and worship prevailed without dissent in the town of Shirley until the year 1780, when the Shaker secession occurred. This secession was opposed without avail, both by municipal legislation and mob-law persecution. The number of secessionists was, however, so small that their loss could not materially disturb the ecclesiastical arrangements of the majority. But when, in 1812, the Universalist Society was organized, it was judged expedient, by those who wished to retain the ancient church order, to rally, and by the formation of a parish, disconnect their prudential affairs from the municipal oversight and charge of the town. Yet the difficulties attending such a change were so great that several years passed away before the cherished object could be effected.

The time for its accomplishment, however, came; and, at the request of petitioners, Caleb Butler, Esq., of Groton, a justice of the peace, issued a warrant deputing Thomas Whitney, Esq., of Shirley, to call a meeting for the purpose of organizing the First Congregational Society.

This meeting was convened March 20, 1822. Nathaniel Holden, Esq., was elected moderator, and Thomas Whitney, Esq., was chosen parish clerk. Mr. Stephen Barrett, Capt. Artemas Longley and Mr. Willard Porter, were chosen parish committee. Dr. Benjamin Hartwell, parish treasurer, and Mr. Daniel Dodge, parish collector.

For the space of twelve years there was no stated ministry connected with the First Parish. It called its annual meetings and elected its officers, and in this way preserved its identity. During this long period, however, there were steady yet declining efforts made to have the pulpit supplied a portion of the time. For a few of the first years there was preaching for about nine months each year during the pleasantest part of the season ; afterwards, the parish was able to raise funds for only six months of the year, and finally the time was reduced to three months ; and in the year 1832 the pulpit was occupied only for a single sabbath. But few permanent beneficial results could be realized from such a transient ministry. Indeed, a gradual decay of religious interest was manifest throughout the town. The sabbath lost its sacredness as the sanctuary declined, the young grew up without the influences of public religious instruction, and a moral dearth seemed to pervade every class of society.

To save the parish from complete dissolution different plans were projected. At one time it was proposed to raise a five years' subscription, and have regular ministrations of the word at once established and placed upon a permanent basis.

But after canvassing the town every effort failed of securing an adequate sum, and the project was necessarily abandoned. At another time a proposal was made to unite the Universalist society with the First Parish, and have each pulpit supplied by the same individual, in proportion to the amount raised by each society. But after a few incipient efforts this plan was not found feasible, and was rejected by both parties.

With the failure of this last project the hopes of even the most sanguine began to waver, and strong signs appeared that the

ancient tabernacle of the Most High would be literally forsaken.

While the town of Shirley was thus covered with religious gloom, sectarian effort was at work in many parts of the commonwealth, to divide the congregational order and make a separate denomination of that part adhering to the trinitarian theory.

In 1828 this new schism reached Shirley, and a few families seceded from the First Parish, took up their relation with the First Church, and gathered around an altar of a more congenial faith.

The adherents of the First Society had now become so reduced that very few hopes were entertained that it could ever be so far resuscitated as to resume the public worship of the sanctuary with any prospect of its continuance. Yet, a few faithful souls remained who could not be deterred from further effort. Like the Israelites, when enduring their captivity in Babylon, these persons looked towards the sanctuary of their fathers as the place where they could best worship. And their hopes, though often disappointed and long deferred, were at length fully realized.

In the year 1834 a vigorous effort was made to raise, by subscription, the sum of four hundred dollars with which to secure the exclusive services of some minister for one year. The effort was successful, and the parish was prepared to hear candidates. A Mr. St. Clair came and preached on the two last Sundays in May, of the abovenamed year. On the first two Sundays of the following month, the pulpit was supplied by a Mr. Chandler, who resided, at the time, in Oxford.

At a parish meeting, convened for the purpose, it was voted to hear no more candidates, but to decide by ballot which of the two who had already presented themselves should be employed for one year. Mr. St. Clair received six votes, and Mr. Chandler received twenty votes, and was declared elected.

At the expiration of his first contract with the parish, Mr. Chandler was engaged for a longer period; and,

having remained the incumbent of the pulpit about two and a half years, it was proposed that he receive a permanent settlement as the minister of the First Parish.

At a meeting duly called, the following votes were passed unanimously :

"1. Voted, that the parish invite the Rev. Seth Chandler to settle with them in the gospel ministry, upon a salary of four hundred dollars per annum, to be raised by subscription ;-it being understood that either party to the settlement may at all times be at liberty to terminate it, by giving the other party three months' notice of such intention.

"2. Voted, that Thomas Whitney, Amos Day, and Joshua B. Fowle, be a committee to communicate to Mr. Chandler the foregoing vote.”

The committee concluded their letter to the candidate, embodying these votes of the parish, with the following words: "The above named committee have the pleasure to communicate to the Rev. Mr. Chandler the foregoing votes, and at the same time to express a wish that he may comply therewith.”

To this invitation the candidate gave an affirmative answer, whereupon a committee was appointed to invite a council of ministers from the neighboring towns to assist in the installation services.

On the day of appointment the council assembled, and were gratuitously entertained by the hospitality of Thomas Whitney, Esq. The minutes of the council are here inserted from the records of the parish :

"Shirley, Dec. 14, 1836. By virtue of letters missive from the First Congregational Church in Shirley, an ecclesiastical council convened at the house of Thomas Whitney, Esq., in said town of Shirley, and was organized by the choice of Rev. Nathaniel Thayer, moderator, and Rev. Washington Gilbert, scribe.

"The moderator led the council in an address to the throne of grace.

On entering upon the deliberations

connected with the occasion, a call being made, the following churches were found to be represented :

"Church in Lancaster, by Rev. N. Thayer, D. D., and Bro. J. Wilder; church in Bolton, by Rev. Isaac Allen and Dea. "Pollard; church in Fitchburg, by Rev. Calvin Lincoln and Bro. F. Perkins; church in Pepperell, by Rev. Charles Babbidge and Bro. J. Tucker; church in Groton, by Rev. Charles Robinson and Bro. W. Livermore; church in Littleton, by Rev. Wm. H. White and Bro. N. Harwood; church in Harvard, by Rev. W. Gilbert, Bro. J. Gardner and Dea. Jno. Fairbanks; church in Marl boro', by Rev. Wm. Morse and Dea. E. Rice.

"After having attended to the reading of the proceedings of the church and society in reference to the settlement of Mr. Chandler with them in the gospel ministry, and after taking into consideration his qualifications for the office, it was voted unanimously to approve of the same and proceed to his installation.

"The public services were assigned as follows: introductory prayer, by Rev. Mr. White; reading the scriptures, by Rev. Mr. Gilbert; sermon, by Rev. Mr. Lincoln; installing prayer, by Rev. Mr. Morse; charge, by Rev. Dr. Thayer; fellowship of the churches, by Rev. Mr. Babbidge; address to the society, by Rev. Mr. Robinson ; concluding prayer, by Rev. Mr. Allen. "The council then adjourned to the church.

" (Signed)

"NATHANIEL THAYER, Moderator. "Attest: WASHINGTON GILBERT, Scribe."

This was the establishment of a ministry, commenced under the most disheartening circumstances, which by the blessing of God has been continued more than forty years.

As has been recorded in a previous chapter, the Psalms and Hymns of Dr. Watts were first used in the public worship of the sanctuary Dec. 2, 1777, and for almost half a century the hearts and tongues of the people had been enlivened by the elegant strains of that truly

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