Up until the mid-1800s what we call “churches” were called “meeting houses.” I appreciate this. The church is a body of believers, not a building.
As Orwell Bible Church is taking initial steps toward having our own permanent meeting house, I’ve been reading different books about this. One interesting tome I came across is Historical Discourse Delivered at the Rededication of the Baptist Meeting-House in Foxborough, Mass, published in 1879. Listen to the concluding words of this account:
The history of this church presents little that is of striking interest. There has been nothing remarkable to record. Nor is there anything to regret in this fact. A quiet history is one of the results of harmony and discretion in the conduct of affairs. This church has never been given to hasty, impulsive counsels. On the contrary, it may justly be called somewhat slow and conservative. It does not take quickly to new methods. It clings to the things that have been tried and proved.
When the Lord moved in an unusual manner (called an awakening or revival) in the winter of 1879, the church said,
It was manifestly a work of the Holy Spirit, and was traceable to no special instrumentalities or methods of work. It seemed to be the result of the faithful use of the ordinary means of grace—the ministry of the Word and prayer.
I greatly appreciate these sentiments, and pray that the Lord will help Orwell Bible Church and others to strive for harmony and discretion, faithfully using the means God has provided–the Word of God and prayer.
Delivered at the Rededication of
the Baptist Meeting-House in Foxborough, Mass., January 22, 1879
By William H. Spencer, Pastor
We are assembled to-day for a two-fold purpose. First, we desire, with fitting ceremony, to dedicate anew this renovated structure to the sacred uses of religion. With glad and solemn vows of consecration, we would again set apart to the worship of God this house, in which He has, in days past, manifested His power. It is the old house, dear to us all, and yet it is, in nearly all visible respects, a new one. It has passed under the hands of workmen of all kinds, it has been raised to a new plane, it has assumed new and larger dimensions, and, by including within its walls a convenient place for the administration of the ordinance of baptism, it may claim to be more truly a Baptist church than ever before. It is fitting, therefore, that we renew the solemn forms of dedication, in which other men gave this house to the Lord nearly a generation since.
In connection with this solemn service, another object presents itself to us. While we look into the future with hope, we remember also that we have a record to look back upon with gratitude. There are special reasons for making this a day of review and commemoration. Our Jubilee Anniversary came in the interim between two pastorates, and so passed by without notice. Nearly twelve years have gone by since then. There still remain, however, a few of the original members of the church, who remember the former things of old, and are able to show them to us. We cannot expect to keep them with us long, but before they pass on out of our sight, we would stand with them on one of the mountain-tops in our journey, and trace the way by which we have come.
Another reason for a historical review is found in the fact that the year just past has been a year of memories for the whole town. We have had brought before us a view of the progress of the community, in its secular interests, during the first century of its corporate existence. It is fitting that a review should be made of our religious history also. And if, within the year, our brethren of the Congregational church observe their centennial anniversary by making a similar review of their origin and history, a fair degree of completeness will be reached in the pleasing work of review and commemoration.
The rise and progress of Baptist sentiments in this town are included within the present century. In a brief sketch of the origin of this church by Warren Bird, he says, referring to something that took place in 1804: “Brother Caleb Atherton and wife, who now resided in a remote comer, were, probably, at this time, the only baptized persons in the town.” They lived in East Foxboro, about one mile from where the railroad station now stands, and were members of the Baptist church at Taunton Green. Mr. Atherton was blind; and yet, such was the devotion of this couple to their own church, that they were often seen, on Sunday morning, walking together to Taunton Green, twelve miles distant, and returning the same day. Such an example is worth remembering by the present generation of church members.
For at least ten years after the date given above, or as late as 1814, a Baptist was a rare object to meet in this town. Our aged sister, Clarissa Torrey, remembers the first baptism that ever took place within the town limits, so far as is known. The candidate was Mrs. Esther Hewes, whose descendants to the fourth generation are members with us to-day. She was baptized in the year 1808, perhaps earlier, by Rev. James Read of North Attleboro, whose labors were abundant in this whole region during the first fourteen years of this century. The baptism took place in the pond in South Foxboro connected with the factory now used in the manufacture of leather-board. Joshua Stearns, a brother of Mrs. Hewes, and his daughter, Patty Stearns, were also immersed some years before there was any prospect of the formation of a Baptist church here. The daughter is remembered as a woman of excellent spirit and good understanding.
Besides these five persons, no others in this town are known to have embraced Baptist sentiments until about 1814. At that time, it was the custom of Baptist ministers to visit neighborhoods beyond the limits of their own towns, to hold meetings in dwelling-houses, and preach the Word wherever they could find willing listeners. Some of our aged members recall the preaching of Rev. William Gammell of Medfield, Rev. Henry Kendall of Sharon, and Rev. Thomas Paul, a colored preacher of Boston, in the houses of Mr. Fairbanks and Philip Hewins, still standing, near Mr. Frank Boyden’s place.
In October, 1814, a Baptist church was constituted in Sharon. Some of its constituent members lived in Foxboro, and had been converted under the preaching of the men just referred to. They were probably baptized in Billings’s pond, one of the most beautiful places for the administration of the ordinance in the whole region, but, unfortunately too far from any church for convenient use. It was here that our sainted sister, Clarissa Comey, was baptized by Rev. Henry Kendall, when it was necessary to cut away the ice for the purpose.
But the time for the formation of a Baptist church in this town had not yet come; nor were circumstances favorable to the growth of a new denomination here. It was a time of coldness and dearth in religion throughout the community. The few scattered ones, who had felt constrained to give the answer of a good conscience by submitting to immersion at the hands of a Baptist minister, were looked upon as promoters of a needless division among brethren. We must not judge too harshly the men and women who opposed us in those days. There were devout, earnest souls among them, zealous for the truth; but they had not breathed the atmosphere of true religious liberty. The old church of the Standing Order, in this town, had already seen a temporary division in its own ranks, caused by the ordination of a minister, who had decided leanings towards Unitarianism; and now this new sect appeared to threaten the unity and harmony of the church from another quarter. It is true, there was a devout, religious earnestness, and a loyalty to the Word of God in these converts and proselytes to the new faith, which ought to have won respect for their opinions; still it is not strange that they did not. It was the misfortune of the Baptists, as it always has been everywhere, that their whole position was not recognized by their opponents. They have been reproached for building a new sect on a single point of outward ceremony; but they were no less peculiar and divergent from the Standing Order in their claim for absolute freedom in religious concerns, which was, and is, a stronghold of their position. For this, if for nothing else, there was abundant reason for the rise and growth of the Baptist denomination in the world, as well for the preservation and purity of other denominations as for its own sake. If I am not mistaken, all our friends join with us today, at least in thanking God for the full recognition throughout the land of this dearly-bought liberty, to think and to worship God according to the bidding of conscience; a result, which is due, in no small degree, to the persistence of the Baptists.
To be continued next week…