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Rally the Scattered Believers
Northern New England's Religious Geography
By Shelby M. Balik
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2014 Shelby Balik
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No Schism in the Body
The Town Church in Crisis
William Jenks, the Congregationalist minister of Bath, Maine, surveyed his town's religious climate with some distress in 1810. When he had arrived from Cambridge, Massachusetts, four years earlier, he had found a unified town eager to settle a minister. But over the next few years, Bath's residents split off into three churches—two Congregationalist and one Baptist—and the Methodists threatened to add a fourth. Troubled by the splintering of Bath's churchgoers, Jenks devised a "plan of union." His solution: the Baptists, like the Congregationalists, should offer communion to any converted believer but still retain the "peculiarities" of their own practices. That way, Jenks thought, they could enjoy liberty of conscience without opening a "schism in the body," or a rift in the town's spiritual unity. Never mind that open communion violated Baptist doctrine—Jenks's main goal was not to promote diversity or toleration but to preserve the town as a godly unit, in keeping with Congregationalist town-church tradition. If churchgoers did not assemble together regularly for worship, at least they could mingle for the Lord's Supper so as to keep Bath's religious community intact. "A reciprocity of Christian love," Jenks proposed, "could tend to close the breach which now separates chief friends."
Jenks's plan, which never came to fruition, sought to reconcile two competing models of religious community. The first—Jenks's preference—was the Congregationalist town church, which placed the town's residents under a single church's watch and persisted in New England well into the nineteenth century. The second, which the Baptists and other dissenters favored, was the itinerant model, which attracted churchgoers based on shared doctrine rather than neighborhood. As the anchor of the local religious community, the town church bore almost all responsibility for discipline, religious instruction, and its own financial support. Relatives and neighbors gathered in church regularly, under the steady guidance of one minister, and kept watch over each other's spiritual and moral well-being. This system depended on towns that were both financially secure and socially stable enough to construct meetinghouses, support ministers, and fund religious education. But more importantly, the town-church ideal also assumed that churchgoers would embrace a corporate mindset that tied individual piety to the fate of the community. According to this cooperative vision, neighbors chose to join a religious community rather than pursue individual desires to opt out, thereby sustaining the town church morally and spiritually.
The religious geography of the town church, in its ideal form, conceived of each church as an organic religious entity rooted in a particular place and visually oriented around a meetinghouse. This physical layout reflected its spiritual landscape, in which believers and non-believers arranged themselves in inward-looking circles around the town minister. Neighbors who shared spiritual and physical space could police each other and enforce moral standards, thereby extending the church's reach through (but not beyond) the town. The town church, then, was both a spiritual construct and a concrete, tangible place that could not exist without the families, neighborhoods, and buildings within its bounds. But the town church was never as stable in northern New England as the ideal suggested it should be. Scattered settlement, transience, and poverty prevented many towns from settling ministers and gathering churches, even when settlers hoped to do so. Town churches developed nonetheless, but with fragile physical and spiritual boundaries. When these boundaries gave way to the combined pressures of disestablishment, sectarianism, and divisions within Congregationalism itself, many feared for the town church's survival. As a church's borders became increasingly permeable, the ideal of a stable town church became increasingly untenable. In northern New England's ever-shifting religious landscape, Congregationalists grappled with the question of how to reshape their boundaries so they might ultimately preserve their communities.
At the core of the town-church tradition lay the town itself: a geographic entity with physical borders that contained the church and its members and excluded outsiders. Accordingly, the physical geography of the town church reinforced both the town lines that bound the community together and the space within, where a spiritual community took root. The equation of town and church dated to early American Puritanism, when New England colonists devised a state-church system in which overlapping town, church, and household authorities supported the religious community and reinforced doctrine and moral discipline. According to the New England Way, which embodied this confluence of town and church, the community of neighbors sustained the community of believers—and, ideally, the two were one and the same. As the Congregationalist establishment persisted into the early republic, town churches remained deeply rooted in their physical landscapes and architectural layouts, and their religious practices reinforced these connections between physical and spiritual space.
According to the town-church ideal, geographic proximity nurtured spiritual unity; the town itself was important because it provided visible boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Only by sharing sacred and secular spaces could members of the town church truly know each other's hearts and bolster each other's piety. Although outsiders sometimes participated, their status was clearly secondary to that of the local members. Such was the case when out-of-town church members tried to usurp control of the Congregational Church in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1805. The Hanover church had long welcomed members from towns across the river in Vermont. Not only did these border towns lack churches, but Hanover churchgoers relied on outside membership for funding. But a factional dispute erupted over which minister to hire: many of the Vermonters supported one candidate, and the local Hanover churchgoers (who comprised a minority of the church membership) favored another. The locals argued that town rule—not majority rule—should guide church policy. Accordingly, the committee of the Hanover church asked the Vermonters why local residents should "resign to you the Temple that we have built for the worship of our God," leaving the meetinghouse to interlopers while locals went "as sheep without a shepherd, seeking places [to] worship among strangers." The Hanover residents' concerns were paramount; whatever the church majority wished, the town's first priority was to maintain the boundaries of its own spiritual community.
When residence defined membership in a particular community, a person had no need (and could even find it damaging) to seek religious sustenance elsewhere. After the Wilton (New Hampshire) Congregational Church lost members over a doctrinal dispute, the church committee declared that "the separation from the church of members residing in the same place ... we look upon as highly schismatic and irregular." Even after these members reorganized as the Second Congregational Church of Wilton, the original church refused to recognize their departure. Similarly, Thomas Merrill, the pastor at the Middlebury (Vermont) Congregational Church, argued that a church should not permit a member "living near the meeting house" to worship elsewhere, regardless of whether the member in question preferred the minister at the second church. "To grant such a request," Merrill argued, would be tantamount to "splitting up Christians." He added that "there is something if not scismatic yet extremely disagreeable in having one of the same faith ... drive away from the meetinghouse" every Sabbath morning to attend a different church. For Merrill, the town's geographic boundaries and organic bonds trumped the tug of conscience that might draw a churchgoer to a more distant congregation.
This rule also applied to those who adopted new faiths. Town churches rarely considered sectarian preference grounds to permit a parishioner to seek another church. Joel Winch, a Vermonter who had been raised a Congregationalist but embraced Methodism as a young adult, asked his town church to dismiss him to a nearby Methodist church in 1802. The congregation refused, arguing that Winch was bound to obey his covenant to the town church as long as he believed it to be a true Christian church. After several votes in which the church refused to dismiss or expel him, Winch finally walked out, declaring that he "determined to stand fast in the liberty whare in Christ had made me free." The Cumberland (Maine) Association also resisted losing church members due to sectarian differences. In 1824, the association advised one of its ministers to discipline a Universalist, not for doctrinal error but for skipping regular worship instead. "The belief in Universalism as the alleged cause of that neglect," they declared, was "not a justification of the delinquence." The association assumed that all townspeople would support the church and attend worship, whatever their spiritual bent. Neighborly bonds tied churchgoers together in a united community.
As sectarian competition intensified through the early nineteenth century, town churches and societies guarded their institutions' geographic integrity with ever-greater vigilance. With an eye toward preserving the church's financial base and spiritual bedrock, leaders fiercely defended their parishes from infringement and objected when churchgoers asked to withdraw. When some members of the Congregational church in Greenfield, New Hampshire, sought to form their own Presbyterian church in 1822, the church refused to allow them to leave. An outside council supported the church's stance, insisting that such an exodus "would be hostile to the best interest of this people." But the conflict persisted; the Presbyterians repeatedly asked to withdraw, to no avail. Church leaders argued in 1825 that "two churches ... would greatly strengthen division among the people ... and thus prevent the future united and harmonious enjoyment of gospel privileges, and the means of grace." They finally agreed, however, to dismiss members who wished to transfer to Presbyterian churches in other towns. Because the compromise allowed the Presbyterians to join other congregations rather than visibly disrupt their own religious community, the Greenfield Congregationalists found the solution more palatable. By tolerating departures only on the condition that they not yield another church in their town, local leaders acknowledged dissent but maintained the primacy and integrity of the town-church geography.
Many features of the town-church ideal focused not on teaching a uniform orthodoxy but rather on creating ways to join Christian neighbors in shared rituals and institutions. Ritual reinforced the town church's physical geography because the town itself provided the stage on which believers and observers acted out their spiritual relationships. The most important ritual was the Lord's Supper, or communion, which featured preaching and prayer along with the actual sacrament. Churches usually hosted quarterly communions, but since this was one of the few rituals that depended on a minister's presence, remote settlements often did without for years at a time. Although the Lord's Supper itself took place during one service, the communion season typically lasted several days. After a series of preparatory meetings, members gathered to witness or participate in the sacrament. The ritual reinforced the religious landscape of the town church: the minister presided over the ceremony in which members old and new assumed prominent roles as they took communion. Those who were not members, whether hopeful converts or other churchgoers, might have joined in preparatory prayer but could only watch the communion ritual.
Sacramental seasons became town gatherings that dramatized Christian fellowship and the unity of all believers. Consequently, town churches looked askance at the separate communion seasons that some other churches held. The Congregational Church in Wilmington, Vermont, disciplined several members who, in 1806, joined a church that "refuses fellowship and communion with us thus depriving us of their watch ... and refusing ours over them." Clergy often tried—sometimes successfully—to convince dissenters to join their communions. When Stephen Peabody of Atkinson, New Hampshire, sought his congregation's approval to let a Baptist woman commune with them, they allowed it. Congregationalist missionary Samuel Goddard similarly invited the Methodists in Lyman, New Hampshire, to unite with the rest of the town for the Lord's Supper. And in Bath, William Jenks repeatedly reissued his invitation to "all who love our Lord Jesus Christ, of whatever denomination of professed [Christians], and who are in regular standing in their respective Chh's to partake" in the Lord's Supper. Most Baptists in Bath, as elsewhere, declined.
But many dissenters preferred open communion, and they sometimes broke with their own churches and joined the Congregationalists for that reason alone. A Bangor, Maine, churchgoer was excommunicated from her Baptist church solely because she preferred to commune with the town. In all other respects, she favored Baptist doctrine, but the Congregationalist church received her anyway. Like many other town churches, the Bangor Congregationalists hoped that open communion would strengthen the bonds of common faith and transcend denominational idiosyncrasies. To be sure, not every Congregationalist agreed with this principle; many preferred not to seek the fellowship of Baptists and other religious rivals. But most Congregationalist town churches, and especially their ministers, hoped to maintain the integrity of the geographic churchly community, however spiritually divided it may have become.
The point of open communion was to sustain the town as a united core of believers who invested in each other's spiritual welfare because they shared physical space as neighbors. Town churches sought other ways to accommodate a range of beliefs, thereby giving churchgoers fewer reasons to leave. Many drew up flexible covenants and confessions of faith, which contained broad principles of Protestant Christianity rather than specific Calvinist doctrines like predestination. The constitution of the Church and Society of Bridgewater, New Hampshire, declared that its purpose was "not to regard any Denomination in preference to another neither Sectary or Perswasion," but rather to ensure that "each denomination Shall injoy as equall priviledges as our several sentiments will admit of." Similarly, one of William Jenks's colleagues advised him to "make as few articles in the profession as essential to belief as you can." By taking this approach, town churches hoped to attract and maintain a large local membership.
Alternatively, many churches allowed new members to write their own statements, as long as these pledges did not include elements that Congregationalists considered un-Christian (like tenets of Universalism). It was exactly this kind of policy that led to the split in Wilton, New Hampshire. When the church allowed new members to compose their own confessions of faith in 1822, many congregants protested, arguing that such a policy would raise the risk of introducing "not 'one faith,' but many, and those contrary and opposite one another." But the church leadership responded that most doctrinal differences were mere distractions that clouded the essential truths of Christianity. "Certainly it must be offensive to the great Head of the church," they lamented, "to erect these interpretations into a fence to debar Christ's disciples from the ordinances." The Wilton committee valued neighborly unity over doctrinal purity, so that "none may have occasion to say that our religion is a religion of strife and debate."
To be sure, town-church defenders had the luxuries of power and precedent on their side. Most longstanding town churches were Congregationalist, and the tendency to wax indignant about defections masked bitterness over losing support, not to mention jealousy toward new churches. Nonetheless, the principle of a community bound by spiritual, civil, and geographic ties was deeply embedded in Congregationalism. Whether unanimity was historically coerced or genuine, the visible signs of its deterioration distressed those who embraced the ideal.
The town church's physical landscape was cemented not just in religious organization and ritual but also in the structures of churches themselves. The demarcation of churches as sacred spaces was a relatively recent development among Congregationalists. Early Puritans did not distinguish the meetinghouse in such a way. Their doctrine did not require a consecrated building for worship; the "church" referred to the communicants rather than the physical structure in which they gathered, which commonly doubled as a town hall. But during the early eighteenth century, southern New England's congregations replaced simple and often dilapidated meetinghouses with more permanent and conspicuous structures that emphasized their religious functions with such embellishments as elaborate pews and pulpits, steeples, bells, and detailed woodwork. New England meetinghouses still were not consecrated, and many continued to serve civil purposes (particularly in smaller towns and parishes). But these structures increasingly featured elements that clearly marked the space within as sacred. And their growing presence in northern New England's built landscape anchored the town-church ideal in the physical geography.
Excerpted from Rally the Scattered Believers by Shelby M. Balik. Copyright © 2014 Shelby Balik. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of ContentsForeword by Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein
A Note on Places
Introduction: Churching the Northern Wilds
1. No Schism in the Body: The Town Church in Crisis
2. Zion Travels: The Itinerant Enterprise
3. Scrambling for the Right: Disestablishment and the Town Church
4. 'Tis All on Fire: Landscapes of Religious Community
5. Fairly Missionary Ground: The Congregationalist Turn to Itinerancy
6. A City Set on a Hill: Northern New England's New Religious Geography
Conclusion: A Place of Paradoxes
What People are Saying About This
In this beautifully written and richly researched work, Shelby Balik shows how the travels of early nineteenth century Methodists, Universalists and freewill Baptist itinerant missionaries and congregations recreated the geography of New England Protestantism, setting in motion (literally) a tension between religious rootedness and religious uprootedness, center and periphery, that endures to today. Early American religious history in Balik’s retelling of it is one of bodies in constant movement in and out and around the city on the hill. The delight Balik takes in maps and journeys is infectious. This is a wonderful addition to American religious historiography.