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Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. Thomas Jefferson
History is a constant tragedy in which we are all involved, whose key note is frustration and anxiety, not progress and fulfillment. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
The main street in Wenham, Massachusetts, has witnessed the most astounding revolution that has occurred in this or any other century. This street, which is built on an old stagecoach route and today is graced by the presence of old trees and antique houses from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is actually more of a vantage point than a witness. It is from here, and from within these houses, that families have looked on a world that has changed before their eyes.
Revolution is not, of course, the word that naturally comes to mind when one walks through Wenham today, unless perhaps one should glance along Larch Row, which turns off Main Street, where Ezra Lummus's old tavern still stands. The tavern has long since abandoned its trade, but during the past century it was an important stopping place for stagecoaches along the Newburyport Turnpike, which, Adeline Cole tells us, "shot a straight line" from Boston, "over hill, brook and ravine to its destination, Newburyport." At this tavern, horses were changed and travelers wondering about the hills and ravines ahead could revive themselves with a shot of West Indian rum, for which the tavern was well known. Down the street that bounds the north side of the old tavern, Larch Row, one is greeted by the sight of European larches, twisted and gnarled by many a wintry storm and said by old-timers to have been planted during the Revolution. But that was a long time ago, and most people do not know that. What they see is simply a quaint New England town that is now fiercely protective of its heritage. If the hamburger merchants want to service the good people of Wenham, they must do so from a distance, and those who own the antique houses on this street can make changes only with permission. The townsfolk see the evening news on television and learn about the day's crime, but it mostly happens in Boston, seldom in Wenham. Here the cops seem to have so little to do that they can give their undivided attention to careless motorists. In Wenham, inattention to posted speed limits is never wise. Wenham is a decent, solidly middle-class town, an enclave of civility in the midst of a nasty world, a town with old families, old money, and still quite a few old ideas. The more one knows about this little town, the more incongruous the idea of revolution seems.
But the truth is that few of the townsfolk would even remotely recognize the world of 1870 if we could take them back to it. Though they are often traditional people, they, like everyone else, are now part of the modern world. Since that time the country's industrial output has increased almost 5,000 percent. It has created the material basis for what utopians used to dream about — and, paradoxically, it has also brought a world of despair and complexity that few fully understand. In its multiple daily assaults upon the individual, it is rending the fabric of private consciousness.
Wenham is not a "typical" town today, nor, indeed, has it ever been. Occupying seven square miles and with boundaries that have never changed, it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries part of a line of farming towns that had trading links with and were serviced by such seaports as Beverly, Salem, and Gloucester. The farming towns produced grain crops, livestock, and poultry; the seaports offered the services that these small agricultural communities needed, such as facilities for shipping, warehouses, and fish markets. Their economies, social organization, and existence differed, and no one town was exactly like another. Furthermore, America in the nineteenth century, to which we need to look back in particular, was bursting with new life, ideas, inventions, and disagreements, all of which affected each town and city differently. It is, therefore, impossible to find a single paradigm for understanding the American experience, one place that might serve as a crucible in which these changes could be examined in ways that would be applicable to everyone else. That, as a matter of fact, is why Wenham is so interesting. While the rest of America was being roiled by change, Wenham was an astonishing island of tranquillity, a little town that seemed to have its own internal gyroscope, that seemed to treasure its capacity for being oblivious to the outside world, even though it is situated only twenty-five miles north of Boston. It is because Wenham has not been typical of other towns and its residents have not been typical of other Americans that it provides a fascinating aperture through which to observe some of the great changes that have engulfed our world.
The Delicious Paradise
Wenham was Salem's "little sister," a spur of civilization that was inspired by a sermon. The preacher was Hugh Peters, first pastor in Salem, and the sermon was delivered just eighteen years after the Pilgrims had landed in Plymouth. At the time, Oliver Cromwell was still just a farmer. In due course, Peters was to return to England and become one of Cromwell's chaplains. While he was still in Salem, however, in 1638, he led a small group of people to the Great Pond, now known as Wenham Lake, to view the land with the idea of increasing the settlements there. He preached on the text "in Aenon, near to Salim, because there was much water there ... they came, and were baptized." The sermon had its effect, and a village was started, which was first known as Enon, until its incorporation as Wenham in 1643. A short while after, in 1686, John Dunstan, Esq., came visiting from England and must have pleased the settlers by describing their small town as "a delicious paradise." He added that "it abounds with all rural pleasures, and I would choose it above all towns in America to dwell in."
The words of Peters's text were obviously chosen because of their seeming appropriateness to the geographical situation in Massachusetts, not in order to draw attention to a figure especially revered by the Baptists, John the Baptist, whose baptizing is recorded in the text. Peters had no intention of using the waters of the Great Pond to baptize, much less to establish a Baptist settlement. He was a Puritan and, like the early Puritans, had little patience for Baptist sensibilities. Baptists, as a matter of fact, did not settle in the town until the 1790s. Among them and probably the first was Rebecca Goldsmith, a schoolteacher, who was described by one of the townsfolk as being not only "an active and zealous worker in the 'vineyard of the Lord'." but also "an ardent lover of the sect then so universally opposed." Wenham Baptists, perhaps with good reason, began meeting outside the town, and the first Baptist church was not built in the town until 1831, some two centuries after its incorporation. The old Puritan ideals lived on in Wenham, but their principal channel of transmission was not the Presbyterians, and certainly not the Baptists, but the orthodox Congregationalists. It was through them that the Puritan ideals flourished well into the nineteenth century, imparting to the town some of the uniqueness of its character.
Wenham's character was also formed from the kind of people who were drawn to it. The original settlers were English, many of them apparently from Wenham in Suffolk, which probably accounts for the change in name from Enon. They seem to have been prosperous people in England, and they apparently brought with them that sense of deference toward the aristocracy that their class often had. This sense was tested during the Revolution, and it had to be transformed subsequently into something more obviously American. In the first half of the nineteenth century, however, the steady transformation of Wenham society in this direction increased: 31 percent of the men were classified in court records as "gentlemen," as opposed to professionals, tradesmen, artisans, or maritime or agricultural workers — up from 14 percent for the comparable period in the previous century. This was a designation more of class than of occupation. So it is, perhaps, no accident that today Wenham bounds the Myopia Hunt Club. On occasion, one can still hear the sound of the bugle and the baying of the hounds as horses, red-coated riders, and dogs race along the town's trails and through its fields. It is one of the very few places in America where this remnant of British aristocratic life is preserved. And to the sense that the well-bred English gentleman brought to life were joined the values that were part and parcel of being well-to-do farmers and prosperous landowners, which is what most of the settlers rapidly became, the one then merging into the other. Thus the character and outlook of the townsfolk were formed.
Wenham remained a small town in a rural setting, even into the nineteenth century, when it seemed that every other town was abuzz with change. Boston was the recipient of waves of immigration in the century past, mostly Catholics, from Britain, Ireland, and other European nations. Between 1825 and 1875, its population grew six-fold, from 58,000 to 340,000. During the same period, the population of the whole United States tripled. By 1850, Catholics were the largest religious body in America, and at about this time in New England the Methodists were gathering strength and had become the second largest body. Though Wenham farmers took their produce into Boston (they could make the round trip in one day by horse and cart), Wenham itself stood entirely aloof from these changes. Its population grew only a little in the first half of the century and then dropped off in the second half. In 1800, its population was 476; in 1850, it was 977; by 1900, it had fallen back to 847. The great swelling tide of immigrants that flowed into Boston in this time did not produce so much as the smallest eddy twenty-five miles north in Wenham, and to this day the town has neither a Catholic nor, for that matter, a Methodist church. It is true that during this time a significant number of migrant workers visited the town looking for work, and an increasing number of tramps passed through, but few outsiders managed to establish a foothold in Wenham unless they did so through the bonds of marriage. The truth is that Wenham's capacity to change was limited. There were complaints that the town was getting crowded. Certainly its economic prospects as a farming community were frustrated as land became scarce. Some of the town's sons were forced to seek better prospects elsewhere because land could not be had. But these limitations also served to insulate the community from a changing world.
If Wenham stood splendidly isolated from the surrounding demographic changes, it also stood aloof from the extraordinary industrial transformation that was happening. With the invention of power looms, carding machines, and new technology for the production of metals, factories were springing up everywhere. Along rivers, the new mill towns were coming into being. Consider Lowell, for example. Located some twenty-five miles northwest of Boston at the confluence of the Concord and Merrimac rivers, it was once known as "the Spindle City." In a very short span of years it was transformed into the one of the leading textile centers in New England; business was so substantial and thriving there that workers had to be imported from Europe constantly to keep the mills running. In 1900, almost half of its population of 95,000 was made up of immigrants — Canadians (both French and English), Irish, Greeks, and Britons.
But Wenham had neither the natural resources to exploit the new industrial climate nor, what is as important, the inclination to do so. It steadfastly eschewed any of the newfangled ways of making a living. The sole exception to this was, on the face of it, a highly implausible scheme, though it turned out to be quite a success. Between 1844 and 1873, ice was carved out of Wenham Lake and shipped off in huge blocks to countries as far away as India and Scandinavia. So pure was the lake then, before dirty rivers were diverted into it, that it was said that newsprint could be read through two feet of its ice, and "Wenham Lake ice" in Europe became a byword for purity. In 1873, a disastrous fire put a stop to this brief experiment with modern industry, and Wenham reverted to what it had always been: a quiet, undisturbed town, a town of rural tranquillity and beauty that was not "modern" in any discernible sense.
Not only did it cease any further involvement with the industrial age, but it continued its cottage industries, shoe and boot-making and lace-making, long after factories and efficient machinery had supplanted the old ways everywhere else. As a matter of fact, in 1930 there were still some eighty shoe-making shops in operation! Most of them were run out of residences, either in the house itself or in an adjoining barn. Artisans continued to make shoes, boots, and other leather goods, such as harnesses and saddles, for the most part in the old way.
It is no surprise, then, that Myron Allen, the town's first historian, wrote in 1860 that Wenham was "a small country town" that was in "no way conspicuous among its neighbors." Still later, in 1929, a reporter called it a "drowsy little town." This reporter was giving an account of a Wenham concert featuring descant singing — something he viewed as very strange in a town whose "Main St. has a single car track and, most of the way, just one side-walk." But if Wenham gave the appearance of having slept through the century's great developments — and it did because it had — it nevertheless was a town of exquisite charm and character, a town whose boundaries were clear and whose citizens were undoubtedly the citizens of Wenham. We need to think a little more fully about their life in this town, because it was destroyed by modernity with the suddenness of the executioner's sword — and as irreversibly. What was it like, then, to be a Wenhamite?
A Puritan Town Revisited
Harriet Spofford, in writing about the childhood of the remarkable Gail Hamilton in the early nineteenth century, observed that to the New England farmers in places like Wenham, "the Church was a central point, the orthodox Congregational Church, which had much of the authority still that it had in the days of the Puritans. The subjects of conversation were its articles of faith, and the Bible was its literature." 9 As a matter of fact, Congregationalism remained the established religion in Massachusetts until 1833, some time after established religion had fallen on hard times elsewhere in America. And even after disestablishment, Wenham retained the ethos of the Puritan town it had once been.
The Congregational church was visually the town's center. One of the first things the Puritans had always done when building a new town was to establish the church in a position of prominence, at the center of the community. The same kind of thing can still be seen in many British and European towns with their magnificent cathedrals and churches. But the Puritans were not interested simply in a visual eminence and certainly not in aesthetic extravaganzas. Their churches were plain in looks and design. They saw the town's church as both the place where God addressed his people through the preached Word and as the knot that bound society together, the hub into which all of life's spokes were fixed by covenant. Even though much water had passed beneath the bridge since the days of Hugh Peters, the spiritual and social outlook of the citizens of Wenham in these respects had changed little. The church was the town's center, spiritually and socially. In the first part of the century, all important social occasions took place there. The minister was the town's First Citizen. Christian faith — more particularly, evangelical Christian faith in a Congregational form — permeated all of the town's life.
Excerpted from No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? by David F. Wells Copyright © 1993 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 21, 2009
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