Part 1 of this account is here.
As we have seen, there was apparently not much room for a Baptist church in this town in 1814. How then did it happen that only about two years later a Baptist church of thirty-seven members obtained a standing here? The answer to this question is found in the history of one of the most notable revivals of religion that was ever known in this region. It is a matter for grateful recollection, that this church had its birth in a genuine revival. There are some here today, who date the beginning of their hope of salvation from that well-remembered season of religious interest, and whose minds still retain vivid pictures of the scenes witnessed in connection with that remarkable work.
This awakening is spoken of by old residents as a “Great Reformation.” It seems to have been one of those waves of religious interest, which sometimes sweep over a wide region. First, there were tidings of grace from Pawtucket. Then from Attleboro and from Wrentham came great news of the Holy Spirit’s awakening and converting power. This was in the summer of 1815. In September, the shower of grace reached Foxboro, and found the people ready to welcome it. In a brief sketch of that revival by Warren Bird, he says: “The work was powerful from September to March. Many laid aside their secular business almost entirely. Young persons assembled in groups for serious conversation; and such as had obtained hope themselves were, often seen praying amidst a little circle of their inquiring and weeping associates. Religion was everywhere the subject of conversation, and but little else was seemingly attended to in the schools. About one hundred in different parts of the town gave hopeful evidence of a gracious change.” This was at a time when the entire population of the town was only about nine hundred.
The impetus given to Baptist interests by this revival was in this wise. Rev. Stephen S. Nelson was then pastor of the Baptist church in North Attleboro. “Early in this time of refreshing,” writes Mr. Bird, “he was invited to come over to Foxboro; and, having several times preached to crowded assemblies in private houses, he was called, in December, to baptize five persons. Besides some who went to Attleboro for the purpose, three others were baptized in January following, and soon after, six more.” Some of these meetings were held in Mr. Reed’s house, near the leather-mill in South Foxboro, and the converts were baptized in the pond close by. A member of this church, who was then and for a long time after numbered in the Congregational fold, retains a vivid impression of those baptismal scenes. She remembers Elder Nelson, coming up out of the water, singing in a strong clear voice these quaint words:
“John, although a man, baptizing began
Believers in Jordan, confessing their sins”
It is not to be supposed that Elder Nelson, in his preaching, shunned to declare the believer’s whole duty, and hence it is not strange that “the first impressions of many of the converts in this revival were,” as Mr. Bird says, “in favor of believers’ baptism, as that alone, which could be the answer of a good conscience towards God.”
On the 11th of March, 1816, the first step was taken towards giving to Baptist principles a permanent establishment in this town. This step was the organization of a Baptist Society, whose declared object was, “to promote vital piety, and maintain the public worship of God.” This society was composed of persons who favored Baptist sentiments, though it was not wholly composed of baptized persons. It still maintains a flourishing existence, and has always acted in entire harmony with the church with which it is allied, and in whose behalf it assumes the care of its house of worship and the task of raising the funds needed to meet its current expenses.
In April, 1816, five more persons were baptized, and united with the Baptist church in North Attleboro, four of whom had been members of the Congregational church here. These four were, of course, called to account for breaking covenant with their church. In their reply, they say : “We confess with shame our omission duly and prayerfully to consult the lively oracles [Word] of God, to learn our duty when we first made a profession of faith; but as our attention has since been called to this subject in regard to Baptism and several things connected with it, and as we hope we have, in the fear of God, examined His word upon it, so we trust that we have been enlightened to see, and strengthened to perform, a duty, which is imperiously binding on every believer, and which we feel that we had originally neglected.” It is due to the memory of these original confessors of our faith in this town, that we hear their own reasons for making the change, which to many seemed causeless, if not wicked.
As a branch of the church in North Attleboro, the few baptized believers in these distant neighborhoods, poor, and widely scattered over the two towns of Foxboro and Mansfield, strove, in their feebleness, to uphold the cause they loved. In September, 1816, three more received baptism. They were occasionally visited by their pastor, Elder Nelson, who preached and administered the ordinances from time to time.
But this branch was too far from the parent stock to flourish long in its dependent relation. It must strike its own roots in the soil. A new center of life and organization was needed to hold the scattered members together. Finally, on the 30th of January, 1817, with devout desires for divine direction, thirty-three members of the Baptist church in North Attleboro requested dismission, for the purpose of forming a separate church in this place. The request was granted, February 16th, and on April 16th, these from Attleboro, with four others from Sharon, were regularly and solemnly constituted a visible church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Of the thirty-seven, who composed this church at its organization, there were eighteen males and nineteen females. Many of their names are cherished with admiring recollections of long and faithful service; and some of those, who, in the freshness and vigor of youth, on that day entered into a covenant of love and fellowship, still remain, flourishing in the courts of the Lord in their old age, able still to be an example to younger members of the church in their love for the public worship of God and the preaching of the Word. There was Ezra Carpenter, who had been a soldier for independence in the Revolution, and was not afraid nor ashamed to assist again in the support and defense of a feeble, struggling cause. There was Martin Torrey, a man of staunch fidelity and firmness, who was straightforward in word and deed, and who, if he sometimes seemed severe, was always true and kind at heart. There was John Allen, whose kindly face we hoped would grace this occasion, but who, by age and feebleness, is to-day confined to his home in East Providence. There, after more than forty years spent in leading many to righteousness, he is waiting, at the age of fourscore years and six, for the crown that shall be his. There were Francis Carpenter and Boxana Story, who soon afterwards entered into a new and more tender bond of fellowship [marriage!], and remain to this day living witnesses of the grace that saves the soul, and supports it in times of trial. There was Eliza Bradshaw, whom we all know as sister Guild, whose willing feet still seek the place where God’s children meet to worship Him. And there was the name of Jerusha Skinner, long since exchanged for Alexander, who, in a ripe old age, has lived to see her descendants, to the third generation, follow her steps in baptism. Of the original thirty-seven, six are known to be living, though but three of them still remain members of this church.
To be continued next week…