Minnie Douglas Bennett
for the occasion of the 125th Anniversary of the building of the present meetinghouse
Revisions and Additions by
Bruce J. Crowther
Richard J. Ross
Earle T. Stewart
For the celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Church
This post is part of The History of the Original Congregational Church of Wrentham series. Previous posts can be found here.
David Avery became the fourth pastor, but served only eight years, 1786 to 1794. This graduate of Yale, a renowned chaplain and soldier of the Revolutionary War, caused great dissension among his parishioners because of ecclesiastical polity. Among other things, including that the atonement consisted in the obedience of Christ, and that Christ's suffering and crucifixion made no part of it was at variance with the preaching of former ministers, and was believed to be contrary to the Scriptures. He was dismissed, and with those members who adhered to his beliefs withdrew to establish a church in the north precinct (now Norfolk), in 1795. He left behind a weak, distraught and divided congregation. Mr. Avery was a brilliant man and a dedicated patriot who, right or wrong, had the courage of his convictions. Two of his sermons on "The nature and evil of professors of religion not bridling the tongue", are available and show the tenor of his thought.
The dissension in the Church spurred a far-reaching controversy; whether the Town should join with the Church in the call of its pastors, as had been done for over a century. Dissenting members objected to the tax levied by the Town to pay the minister's salary. To remedy this, the Congregational Society was established in 1799 by an act of the General Court to provide the funds to pay the pastor and allow the Church to conduct its affairs on a separate basis. Thus ended the close relationship of the Town and Church. To some, victories had been gained, but the cost was great. After five years without leadership, it was a Church reduced to but ten members, who in June 1799, ordained young Elisha Fisk.
The Reverend Mr. Fisk, graduate of Brown College, soon proved that he was a wise peacemaker and a judicious leader. Confidence in the Church was quickly rebuilt, membership was again on the upswing, and efforts were soon under way to improve facilities at the meetinghouse. In the first years of his pastorate, a bell, a clock, and an organ were purchased and installed. The funds for the organ were raised by the women of the Church, who made fancy straw bonnets and sold them to the fashionable milliners in Boston.
Because state laws had been enacted to require the towns to provide grammar schools to teach college preparatory courses, Day's Academy was built on the location now known as the Lower Town Common in 1808 (and later moved to the present site of the Fiske Memorial Library). Mr. Fisk was largely responsible for raising the necessary building funds, and in the charter granted by the General Court he and the Church deacons were named to the Board of Trustees. The school was named for Benjamin Day, the largest contributor. About 1814, Susan Bulfinch formed a reading and work group for the young ladies of the parish. While she taught them reading, they braided straw to sell. With the money received they created a fund to be used for the charitable purposes. This is the first record of missionary work under the sponsorship of the Church. Their generous impulse led to the formation of the "Women's Benevolence Society." Another first during Mr. Fisk's tenure was the organizing of the first Sabbath School in 1827. Its organization was quite impressive. A number of the inhabitants met in the school house with Judge Ware in the chair. The following committee was chosen to draft a constitution: the Reverend Elisha Fisk, the Honorable Jairus Ware, Colonel George Hawes, Deacon Benjamin Hawes, Mr. Abijah Fisher, and Deacon Benjamin Shepherd. When the constitution was drawn up, the committee met at the home of Mr. Fisk and appointed officers:
President ....................................Honorable Jairus Ware
First Vice-President .................Reverend Elisha Fisk
Second Vice-President ..........Colonel George Hawes
Secretary ...................................Mr. Robert Saunders
Treasurer....................................Mr. Robert Blake
When first formed, its time of meeting was directly after the first Sunday service, but not being sacred enough to meet in the church, the teachers and pupils were lined up and marched down past the Common to Day's Academy, where the session was held. To insure perfect order, three men called "overseers," at least one of whom had to be a deacon, sat near the leader's desk. Still another first, on October 11, 1820, by a vote of the Church, the pastor was authorized to invite on Communion Sundays all visitors present who were church members in good and regular standing to partake with them at the Table of Christa manifestation of a new, more liberal spirit.
To be continued…