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During the last ten or fifteen years the First Congregational parish in Shirley has been subject to a change common to towns situated near, yet not directly upon, the line of a railroad. The villages that gather about the stations have a tendency to bring within their focus the tradesmen, and other business workers, and gradually draw away the young men from the surrounding farms. This of necessity must deplete the church support and attendance that is left behind. Thirteen and more families who gave the first church their presence and assistance have emigrated to Ayer during this period, and have left their sittings vacant. Drains have been opened other ways with the same sad effects. Worse than all, the farms, upon which a rural parish depends for its sustinence, have largely passed into the ownership of a Catholic community, who have no regard for religious institutions outside the forms of their own communion, and who give neither their persons nor their property in any way to sustain a Protestant worship,—the corner stone of that liberty which the Catholic foreigner first in his life realizes in this land of his immigration !
The first society in Shirley, with many other NewEngland churches, has suffered from these causes.
Its funds, however, with an awakened energy on the part of its remnant members, may eventually resuscitate it to renewed action, and give it a name and standing among the religious institutions of the land.
Orthodox Society – Church Organization Meeting
Houses — Ministers-Miss Jenny Little-Benefactions—Sunday-School, etc.
The next religious division that occurred in Shirley was made by the organization of a Trinitarian Congregational Church.
When the First Congregational Parish was incorporated a minority of its members did not fully sympathize with the doctrinal opinions of the majority. They continued, however, to worship at the same altar for the space of six years.
During this period divisions had been effected in the Congregational denomination, throughout those parts of the Commonwealth, where what was termed the "liberal sentiment" had established its claims.
In the vicinity of Shirley this division had extensively prevailed. In almost every town two church spires arose when but one had previously existed. It was therefore deemed expedient that however small a town or precinct, it should not be exempt from this rule; and hence the rule was adopted in Shirley, with all its attendant good and evil consequences.
The trinitarian minority regarded their doctrinal speculations as being at such variance with those of the unitarian majority, that they could not conscienciously worship at the same altar, but must seek out a new locality as a resting place for the "ark of the Lord.”
That this history may present a true record of this new movement, an account of it is transferred from the archives of the seceders, and given in their own words:
"Shirley, Feb. 3, 1828. A number of people in this place met at the house of Miss J. Little, and after prayer, the Rev. J. Todd acting as moderator :
Voted, that it be expedient to form a church in this place, of evangelical principles.
" Voted, that a committee of three be appointed to make the necessary arrangements.
** Voted, that Samuel S. Walker, Imla Wright, and Dea. Joseph Brown constitute this committee.
" Voted, that the churches in Groton, Dunstable, Harvard, Leominster, Townsend and Fitchburg, be invited to constitute an ecclesiastical council for the purpose of organizing said church.
" Voted, that Thursday, February 14th instant be observed as a day of fasting and prayer.
"SAMUEL S. WALKER, Scribe.” It was settled that when the proposed council should assemble, the business meeting should be at the house of Samuel S. Walker, in the forenoon, and that the public religious services should be in the afternoon, in the south [Universalist] meeting-house; and that the church be called "Orthodox Congregational.”
At the appointed time the council was convened, and the following extract from its proceedings will be a faithful and permanent record of the origin of this important movement :
"March 12th, 1828. At an ecclesiastical council, convened by letters (missive) at the house of Samuel S. Walker, for the purpose of organizing a new church, on evangelical principles, the following churches were present by pastor and delegate :
"Church of Christ in Dunstable, Rev. Samuel H. Tolman, pastor, Mr. Joel Keys, delegate; church of Christ in Harvard, Rev. G. Fisher, pastor, Dea. Reuben Whitcomb, delegate; Union church of Christ in Groton, Rev. J. Todd, pastor, Wm. L. Chaplin, delegate; church of Christ in Leominster, Rev. P. Payson, pastor, Abel Kendall, delegate; church of Christ in Fitchburg, Rev. Rufus A. Putnam, pastor, Dea. F. Downe, delegate ; church of Christ in Townsend, Dea. J. Adams and Bro. Samuel Walker, delegates.
"The council organized by choosing Rev. S. H. Tolman, moderator, and Rev. Rufus A. Putnam, scribe.
* The moderator led in prayer for light and direction.
"The articles of faith and form of covenant, proposed to be accepted by the candidates in being constituted into a church, were examined, and after a few amendments were approved by the council.
" The candidates (sixteen in number) then presented themselves for examination, viz: Joseph Brown, Esther Brown, Rhoda Brown, Harriet Walker, Saml. S. Walker, Esther R. Jefts, Jenny Little, Nancy Holden, Imla Wright, Sarah Meriam, Amelia Shipley, Lucy Porter, Jacob Harrington, Sarah B. Harrington, Elizabeth Harlow, A. Livermore.
"Rev. J. Todd led in prayer at the throne of grace.
"The candidates were then examined in regard to their faith, religious experience, reason of their hope in Christ, and their determination to confess him before men; in all of which respects the council obtained satisfaction. Whereupon it was voted, unanimously, that this council proceed to organize said persons into a church of Christ, to be denominated The Orthodox Congregational Church in Shirley.
"The parts for the (public) services were assigned in the following order, viz: That the Rev. Mr. Fisher read the scriptures and offer the introductory prayer; that Rev. Mr. Todd preach the sermon; that Rev. Mr. Tolman read the articles of faith and form of covenant, administer baptism and offer the consecrating prayer; Rev. Mr. Putnam to express the fellowship of the churches; Rev. Mr. Todd to preside in administering the holy supper ; Rev. Mr. Payson to offer the concluding prayer.
"The council then adjourned to meet at the south meeting-house for the performance of the above-named services. The council met according to adjournment, and the church was constituted accordingly. (Signed,) "SAMUEL H. TOLMAN, Moderator.
"RUFUS A. PUTNAM, Scribe. "A true copy from the original minutes. * Attest:
RUFUS A. PUTNAM, Scribe.”
From this beginning Trinitarianism has progressed until its body has assumed a respectable position with the other religious societies of the town. The church with which it has been mainly identified has had its seasons of prosperity and adversity, passing through each with a good degree of equanimity, and sustaining a zealous interest in the privileges and ordinances of a stated gospel ministry. In its early years it had two " protracted meetings,” which were followed by encouraging revivals of religion. In fine, it has enjoyed all the ordinary and extraordinary means of grace that circumstances could afford or that the efforts of its friends could produce. Three or four persons have been excommunicated from church fellowship; and one ecclesiastical council has been called to settle a difficulty occasioned by the removal of the location of the place of worship, which change will be more particularly noticed in a subsequent page of this history:
There are few corporate or associated bodies, however high or holy their motives may be, who do not occasionally err from the paths of rectitude, and indulge in short-comings—for all men are human; but the more than fifty years of the history of this church prove the general uprightness, sincerity and devotion of its members; that it has been their design to save themselves and the masses from that moral degradation towards which an unchecked community is prone to hasten ; to fulfil the purposes of a true earthly being, and secure a good hope of future blessedness in the eternal world.
It may be proper here to record the names of the persons who have filled the official position of deacon in this church, viz: Joseph Brown, John Park, Asa Douglass, Jacob Harrington, William Boynton, Daniel Livermore, John W. Thacher.
The congregation with which this church was connected had no legal existence until 1846, when it was duly incorporated by the name of the Orthodox Congregational Society in Shirley.