From Daniel T.V. Huntoon's
History of The Town of Canton, Massachusetts (1893)
THE GATHERING OF THE CHURCH
The early settlers of Canton, in common with all the early settlers of New England, believed in God, - not in a distant and unapproachable being, who held a general supervision over his creatures, but in a God to whom the minute details of every-day life were a subject of interest and inspiration ; they thought that his hand was as visible in these as in the majesty of the storm or the beauty of the rainbow. The more pious felt that as they attended to or neglected the institutions of religion, they should in the world to come receive the curse or the blessing. To such the Church of Christ was the "Alpha and Omega," and civil were secondary and subservient to ecclesiastical matters. A majority of the members of the General Court expressed the sentiments of the people when, in 1692, they passed a law approved by the King, that every person should pay his proportionate share toward the support of "an able, learned, and Orthodox minister to dispense the word of God to them." And every minister, being a person of "good conversation," chosen by the major part of the town at a regular town meeting, legally held, was to be "the minister of such town." The inhabitants of Dorchester Village were anxious to have a minister among them. The nearest meeting-house was many miles away, or, as they quaintly expressed it, "from a sence of ye remote living from any place of ye public worship of God." Thither, through the snows of winter, following the Indian trail, designated by marked trees or piles of stones, they went, anon pausing to remove a tree broken by the weight of the snow, or carefully picking their way through the unbroken drifts. The more fortunate rode on horseback, and the "good-wife" was seated behind the "goodman" upon a pillion.
Feeling deeply this inconvenience, the inhabitants of the "New Grant" represented to the town of Dorchester that they were very uneasy, and petitioned the town that they might be set off as a separate precinct. On May 12, 1707, upon the request of the inhabitants of the "New Grant," the town of Dorchester voted that the said inhabitants be set off, a precinct by themselves, so far and no farther than to agree with and to settle a minister among them, and to raise a tax for his support from time to time. But attached to this liberty was the condition that the said inhabitants "shall remove their meeting-house," or erect another where it shall be thought convenient by a committee which shall be chosen by the town of Dorchester for that purpose. This language would seem to indicate that the house was not conveniently situated for the majority of the inhabitants, although it would appear to have been of ample size. From these statements we are also enabled to fix the time when the village of Ponkapoag ceased to be the centre of population.
The first meeting-house stood in that part of the English churchyard which is known as the Proprietors' Lot. It was probably built by the apostle Eliot, although a writer in the Boston Transcript, in 1871, says that it was not built until 1705. [Mr. Samuel C. Downes says that he has always heard that there was a meeting-house on this site long before the erection of the English church.] As a rate was placed upon the inhabitants in this part of the town that year "to pay their minister," it shows that the English settlers had - a pastor at that time. William Ahauton, Samuel Momentaug, and Amos Ahauton, Indians of Ponkapoag in 1708, in behalf of their tribe, thanked the town of Dorchester for- its-care of them and their interests, in settling the boundaries between them and their white neighbors; and understanding that the town was offended because they had leased their land to the English, promised to lease no more, and gave up all their right to that parcel of land about the Ponkapoag meeting-house, containing about three acres, "for a burying place and training field."
This first meeting-house was sold to Ebenezer Tolman, of Dorchester, who removed it thither, and converted it into a barn, where it remained within my remembrance.
The committee chosen by the town of Dorchester to appoint the place where the meeting-house should stand, consisted of Samuel Topliff, Samuel Clapp, and Samuel Wales. They notified the petitioners when they would meet them and consult about the matter. Accordingly, in the early part of June they viewed the places proposed, and finally agreed "that the meeting-house should be set on the hithermost or northerly end of ye plaine commonly called by the Indians, 'Packeen Plaine,' upon the right hand side of the road leading from Milton towards Rehoboth;" and the spot selected was upon the land which is now included in the Canton Cemetery. I find no conveyance of this land to the precinct. The records of the precinct show that a committee was appointed March 3, 1721, "to inquire into ye Precincts title to ye land, and to get a stronger confirmation of ye same if need be;" but the committee in their report confine themselves to running the bounds, and the rats have left to us only this information : —
March 15, 1722, and we have opened . . . limits of the Meeting-House land, and we find the . . . From the south corner of the Rhode twenty ... on ye east and twelve rods to a black . . . and a half to a stake : and on the west end . . .
Samuel Chandler told me that Mr. Morse gave the land. I have seen a plan of Morse's land which shows that he owned twelve acres in this vicinity, while his deed, in 1725, gives him only ten acres.
In deciding on the site for the new house, the Dorchester committee and the settlers were governed in their selection by its nearness to the centre of population at that time. The meeting-house was set on a hill, so that it could not be hid. The most beautiful and appropriate spot was selected ; the sightliness of its position also afforded a view of any approaching danger to the majority of the inhabitants. Thus, everything having been satisfactorily arranged, the town of Dorchester gave to the settlers £30 to assist them in completing their meeting-house.
This meeting-house was situated nearer the westerly part of the plain than its successor, or in other words, directly back of it. Its southwest line was nearly parallel to the northeast side of the reservoir of the Canton Aqueduct Company, and covered the spot which is now occupied partly by Lots 55, 56, 57, 62, 63, 64, as represented on the plan of the second addition to the Canton Cemetery. The building was thirty feet square and supported by uprights twelve feet high.
Although the inhabitants of the "New Grant" had "set about" building their meeting-house in 1707, it was some time before it was completed. In 1716 the precinct voted that there should be £ 15 raised by a rate upon the inhabitants, and that the money should go toward finishing the meeting-house. John Fenno and Richard Hixson were chosen to receive the money, engage workmen, and pay them for their labor. The next year a new door was made near the west corner of the meeting-house, and the seats were joined together in the centre of the house. The spaces thus left vacant on the sides were subsequently replaced by long seats. In 1718 £20 was raised, a portion of which was ordered to be laid out upon the meeting-house.
In 1720 the house seems to have been in a dilapidated condition, for a committee was appointed "to save ye meeting-house." The sills had become rotten, and needed to be "banked up;" the roof was not much protection on a rainy day; and the minister's pew was tottering.
It would appear that this meeting-house had galleries, for March 1, 1724, it was voted by the precinct "that thare should be a seet or seets set up in the gallarry, which may be thoft nedfull;" and in 1740 it was decided that the best place for the boys was in " ye frunt higher galary and ye west higher galary."
The seating of the meeting-house was an event of great importance. In this precinct that delicate duty was performed by Henry Crane, Samuel Bullard, John Fenno, Joseph Hewins, and John Puffer. I say delicate, because there was great discussion as to the award of the places of honor and dignity. In the seating of the worshippers in the meetinghouse, regard was had in the first place to the age and honorable standing of the person. Again, the amount each contributed toward the ministerial rate had its influence; and the committee had a hard time to decide who should have the chief seats, and at the same time not offend the others.
In 1727 an article was inserted in the warrant for town meeting to consider upon "making more rume in the Meeting House," and the following year to take measures to enlarge and repair the meeting-house.
The pew adjoining the west end of the pulpit was reserved for the family of Mr. Dunbar; and in 1731 a floor was laid, and window made, in this pew. A part of the meeting-house was reserved for the Indians for their encouragement to attend upon the public worship of God.
There are some curious old bills relating to repairs upon the meeting-house; for instance, William Wheeler received for sweeping ye meeting-house the sum of two pound, eight shillings, from March, 1734, to March, 1735. Ebenezer Wiswall presented the following bill: —
To three feet and a half of new glass at three shillings, six pence, per foot........ £ 0,12, 3
To seventy-eight quaries at five pence a peise . . 1,12, 6
To leading and bands........ . . 1, 9, 7
To mending the pew windows........ 12, 3
£ 4, 6, 7
March 20, 1737-8.
The use of the word "quaries" in this bill leads to the inference that some if not all of the lights were diamond-shaped, set in lead. Mr. Wiswall was a Dorchester man, and was frequently in demand to mend the windows, and is spoken of as a "glashur."
The same year Joshua Whittemore presented a bill of five shillings for mending "ye old wenders and for making of ye new glass for Stoting old meeting-huse."
The house remained standing until 1748, when, on the 14th of August, it was voted that the old meeting-house be "puld" down for "ye use of ye new as soon as ye new cun be conveinently met in on ye Sabbath."
On the 23d of October, 1747, the Rev. Mr. Dunbar preached his farewell sermon in the old meeting-house. His text was from Heb. x. 32, "But call to remembrance the former days." Would that a copy of that sermon were in existence to-day, that we might follow the reverend gentleman as he reviewed the history of the old meeting-house, and the people who were accustomed to worship within its sacred walls ! A large and crowded audience honored him with their presence; and on that occasion he undoubtedly upheld the reputation which he had acquired of being " a rousing preacher."
Here, in a sparsely settled community, in an almost unbroken forest, the meeting-house was built, and the voice of the first minister was heard therein, upon the spot where, but a short time before, had smouldered the embers of the war-fire. He not only preached the word of God to those who had left the shores of cultured England to worship Him as they thought best; but he taught forgiveness and forbearance toward enemies to the untutored savage also, whose only creed had been revenge.
Here was erected the church, which, hand in hand with the schoolhouse, was destined to extend the power of religion and of education throughout the land, concurrently with the extension of that land's political growth.
The committee chosen by the town of Dorchester to select a situation for the meeting-house were also empowered to lay out the bounds of the precinct. They began at a pile of stones upon the plain near Blue Hill, which was formerly a part of Captain Stoughton's farm, ran north and northeasterly over the top of Blue Hill to the Braintree line, thence following the Braintree line to the Plymouth line; "this line to be the southern boundary." The west bounds began at the westerly part of "Mashapaug" Pond, thence ran northeast to the Dedham line, " this Dedham line to be the northern boundary until it comes to the stones first mentioned."
We have seen that the town of Dorchester had willingly granted the petition of the inhabitants of the "New Grant" to be set off as a separate precinct; but a petition addressed, to the General Court for an Act of incorporation, soon after June 23, 1708, had been unsuccessful. It received the approbation of the House of Representatives, but was not concurred in by the Council. This placed the early settlers in a very awkward position. They had no legal corporate existence ; they might pass whatever votes they chose among themselves, but they had no power to enforce them. They could select and settle a minister, as any precinct or parish might do; but they could not tax the inhabitants to pay for his support. The clergyman whom they had chosen could not be ordained; the sacrament could not be administered, nor the rite of baptism performed, unless their pastor were assisted by some ordained clergyman.
The hardships arising from this state of things were numerous. It was difficult to obtain the necessary funds to pay the minister. Many of the settlers had become discouraged, and although perfectly able to bear their portion of the expense, I either refused downright to do so, or were so dilatory in their payments as to render their aid useless; consequently, the burden of payment fell heavily upon a few. So hard was it to raise funds that the minister was obliged to appeal to the town of Dorchester for a contribution for himself, which was granted him.
Again, the young men and maidens found that this state of things interfered with their comfort. If they desired to be married, they must go to Milton or some neighboring town, I and be joined in matrimony by an ordained clergyman. So they had to go from home, in order that their children might; receive baptism from consecrated hands. Sometimes, indeed, the settlers would postpone their weddings or the baptism of their children until some ordained clergyman should come to the new village. The Rev. Peter Thacher, who was settled at Milton, September, 1681, was the nearest ordained minister, and was better known to the early settlers than any other clergyman in the vicinity. At first his labors had been devoted to the conversion of the Indians at Ponkapoag. To render his ministrations more effective, he had studied the Indian tongue; and Mather says "he furnished himself with skill in their sesquipedalian language," that he might be able to converse with them in their own dialect. He visited Ponkapoag monthly, and on lecture-days imparted to them the gospel of salvation. In this way he became acquainted with the settlers; and they, appreciating his moral worth and his exemplary character, were accustomed to carry their children to him to be baptized. So it happened that the dates of many of the baptisms of the children of the first inhabitants are found upon the church records of Milton. He performed the first baptism in Canton of which we have any information : —
"Feb. 27, 1707-8. — Punkapog. At a fast of ye English inhabitants, Mr. Danforth, of Dorchester, preached in the forenoon, and I in ye afternoon; and at ye close of ye public worship, Mr. Danforth advising it, I baptized Mary, ye daughter of Sister Wintworth."
Peter Thacher died in 1727. He had a son, Oxenbridge, born May 17, 1681, who graduated at Harvard College in 1698, and joined his father's church at Milton, March 3, 1700-1. He preached for a short time in his early life, and is sometimes styled "Reverend;" although in the Triennial Catalogue of his university his name is not italicized, from which it may be inferred that he was not ordained. It is undoubtedly true that he entered into an arrangement to preach to the first settlers at some time subsequent to 1700, and previous to 1707. He may be the person referred to in the vote of Dorchester, 1705, Dec. 10, "Voted that the selectmen shall make a rate upon all the inhabitants of Dorchester beyond the Blue Hills to pay their minister?" He is recorded as haying been the first man to preach to the English inhabitants of Canton. I do not believe he resided in Canton ; and I think his preaching was of short duration and missionary in its character. He left the ministry on account of ill health, and engaged in business in Boston. At his father's death he returned to Milton, and for several years represented that town at the General Court. He died Oct. 29, 1772, at the advanced age of ninety-three years. He had two grandsons who were clergymen, sons of the eminent lawyer and patriot of the same name, who died in Boston in 1767. These were Rev. Thomas Thacher, who was settled at West Dedham, and the more distinguished Rev. Peter Thacher, D.D., of Brattle Square, Boston. One of the original settlers of Canton went over to Dedham in his old age to hear Thomas, the grandson of his old friend Oxenbridge, preach; and when he had finished his discourse, the old settler approached him in a rapture of enthusiasm, and exclaimed, "Your grandfather Oxenbridge was the first man that brought a Bible among us."
But the time had now come when the early settlers were anxious to have a clergyman of their own. They were averse to calling upon some neighboring minister to perform parochial offices; and, as before stated, they had no legal authority to raise money. Suffering deeply from the discouragements attending their condition, they resolved again to apply to the General Court for an Act of incorporation. In their petition they represented that they lived very remote from any place of public worship, the nearest being six miles distant. They gave a detailed account of the attempt which they had made to be set off as a separate precinct. They mentioned that they had met with the committee appointed by the town of Dorchester, and that they had mutually agreed upon a site for their meeting-house; and they stated that their former petition had passed in the House of Representatives, but had not been concurred in by the Council. They prayed, therefore, that the General Court would please to confirm the town vote and the doings of the committee thereupon, and that they might be a distinct precinct, empowered to choose fit persons among themselves to assess and levy a tax for the support of their minister and the defraying of other charges, and to do such other acts as might be agreeable to the laws.
The General Court, on the 10th of December, 1715, granted the prayer of the petitioners, and they were duly constituted on that day with full powers to exercise all the rights incident to a separate precinct; and on the 19th of the same month the order was read and concurred in by the Council, as will appear by the following: —
In the House of Representatives,
December 10th, 1715. Read and Ordered that the Prayer of this petition be granted so far as, that a new precinct be constituted and sett off with all the necessary powers and privileges used and exercised in precincts for the maintenance of the gospel ministry, agreeable to the limits and conditions expressed in the report of the committee appointed by the town of Dorchester for that end, which is signed, Samuel Clap, Samuel Topliff, and Samuel Wales.
Sent up for Concurrence, Daniel Epes, Speak'r pro-Tempore.
December 19th, 1715. In Council, Read and Concurred.
Samuel Woodward, Seer.
The "New Grant," from this time forward called the Dorchester South Precinct, including a large portion of Wrentham, extended to a point within about one hundred and seventy-six rods of what is now the easterly line of the State of Rhode Island; namely, about half a mile beyond Angle Tree. The South Precinct of Dorchester was about nineteen and a half miles long on its southerly line; and the last four and a half miles of that line was on what is now the south line of Wrentham.
"The New Grant was bounded southerly by the line of the colony of Plymouth, now called the Old Colony Line, northeasterly by Milton and that part of Braintree now Randolph, and included the present towns of Canton, Sharon, and Stoughton, nearly all, if not quite all, of Foxboro', a large tract of Wrentham, and about one quarter of the present town of Dedham. That tract now belonging to Dedham is a tract of land varying in width from one mile and one third to three fourths of a mile along on the westerly side of Canton, and may be seen by drawing, upon the map of the County of Norfolk, a straight line from the angle or bend of Neponset River in South Dedham to a point in Dedham about three fourths of a mile northwesterly of the north corner of Canton, where the boundary line between Canton and Milton strikes the Neponset River, and by drawing another straight line from the said bend in the river to Sharon line."
On the 28th of March, 1716, the early settlers assembled for the first time to enjoy their new liberties. Joseph Hewins seems to have had his full share of honors on the occasion. The precinct chose a moderator to preside over their deliberations ; and they selected Joseph Hewins. They chose a precinct clerk to make good and legible records of their doings; and Mr. Joseph Hewins was again selected. [Joseph Hewins was the son of Jacob Hewins, of Dorchester, born May 3, 1668. He appears as one of the lessees of Revnolds's Misery in 1705. He resided in what is now Sharon from that time until his death, which occurred Feb. 24, 1755, in the eighty-seventh year of his age. He married, Jan. 29. 1690 Mehitable Lyon, daughter of Peter. She was born Oct. 23. 1669, and died Sept. 14, 1733, in her sixty-third year. Mr Dunbar says "she was a gracious woman, a very peacable, humble Christian." They lived near Meadow Hole Dam, and both are buried in the Chestnut Tree Cemetery. He appears to have been an active man in church, precinct, and town affairs. He was chosen deacon with Benjamin Blackman in 1718, and afterward elder, and was one of the first selectmen of Stoughton, town clerk in 1730, moderator and assessor in 1738.] They also proceeded to choose three assessors; and of course Mr. Joseph Hewins's name was added to those of Henry Crane and John Fenno.
The records of the precinct until the incorporation of Stoughton are of no particular interest. The men of those days seem to have attended diligently to the duties which devolved upon them, but these were very limited. At most of their meetings, the common subjects of discussion were: the raising of money to defray the necessary charges of the precinct, and to pay the minister; the choosing of a clerk and assessors, the latter of whom managed the "prudentials" of the embryo town; the question of what title the precinct had to the land on which its meeting-house was situated ; and whether this or that man should be allowed to withdraw from them. But in the midst of these minor details, they always looked forward to becoming a township. As early as 1718, they voted to petition the town of Dorchester to set them off as a township, to be bounded the same as the precinct then was. Failing in this, the next year the)' desired their part of the ministerial land and their proportion of the school fund of their mother town. Then the southern part of the precinct became uneasy, and was anxious to be set off a township; but to this of course the northern part objected.
In March, 1721, the inhabitants living "beyond Joseph Tucker's saw-mill" desired that they might be constituted into a township; and the May following their petition was again heard, but was "passed in the negative." A petition was subsequently preferred from the "Inhabitants of Punkapoag " to be a township. On Now 8. 1725, however, it was voted by the town of Dorchester "that the inhabitants of the South Precinct and all the lands bevond should be set off a township by themselves, they having their proportionate part of the school lands lying within that part to be set off." This was "passed in the affirmative," - thirty-four to twenty-nine. Preserved Capen, Ebenezer Holmes, and Edward Foster were appointed a committee to draw up a petition and present it to the General Court; and later, a similar vote was passed, the following change occurring in the phraseology: "The inhabitants on ye south side of Sawmill River in ye twelve divisions," and "that all y' land beyond y six thousand acres, or Ponkapoag Plantation, be. set off a distinct township."
The inhabitants of the extreme western part of the Dorchester South Precinct were anxious to beset off and attached to the town of Wrentham. They resided within three or four miles of the meeting-house in that town; and on town meeting and training days it was far more convenient to go there than to Dorchester Village. They applied to the town of Dorchester to be set off; but the town denied them their wish, and they therefore petitioned the General Court on June 19, 1724. A hearing was had. The town of Dorchester objected, but the General Court granted their request; and on Nov. 27, 1724, a large portion of the South Precinct was attached to, and has ever since remained, a part of the town of Wrentham, as will be seen from the following extract from the records of the General Court: -
Upon the petition of Jonathan Blake, Solomon Hews, and sundry others, Inhabitants of the Westermost part of Dorchester, praying to be set off to the town of Wrentham, as entered June 19th, 1724, —
In the House of Representatives, Read together with the answer of the town of Dorchester thereto, and in answer to this petition :
Voted, that the petitioners and their estates be and hereby are annexed to the town of Wrentham, to do the duty and enjoy the privileges of the Inhabitants in that town, the School Farm in Dorchester, in the present possession and improvement of Solomon Hews, to be exempted, and that they be freed from doing duty to Dorchester, and they are so to continue until this Court take further order about them.
In Council, Read and Concurred.
Consented to, Wm. Dummer.
By drawing a line on the map of Norfolk County from the southerly extremity of Walpole to a point about two thirds of the way from Angle Tree to the Rhode Island line, the size of this part may be ascertained ; and the reader will observe that the territory thus taken from the South Precinct was about as large as one half of the present town of Canton.
The efforts of the inhabitants of the South Precinct to become a town were at last to be crowned with success. The last official act of the precinct was to receive and grant the petition of Samuel Bullard, John Bullard, Ebenezer Bullard, Samuel Bullard, Jr., William Bacon, Timothy Gay, Hezekiah Gay, Ebenezer Healy, Samuel Holmes, John Holmes, Simon Pittee, Josiah White, James White, James White, Jr., John White, Moses White, and B. White, all living in the westerly part of the precinct, beyond the Fowl meadows. They said that they had for some time contended with many difficulties and hardships with respect to the enjoyment of public worship, their distance from the meeting-house, and the "difficulty of the way." They wished to be freed from rates "so long as we shall hire and maintain an orthodox minister to preach the gospel among ourselves."
On the 14th of November, 1726, Capt. Isaac Royall, Ensign William Billings, Capt. John Shepard, Silas Crane, and George Talbot were appointed a committee with full powers to petition the Great and General Court -
"That this precinct with the lands beyand it, in ye Township of Dorchester, be sett of a distinct Township, with ye one half or proportionable part of the annual incom of ye School lands lying within ye south part of s'd Town, according to a vote of ye Town of Dorchester passed at a Meeting of ye Inhabitants of s'd Town, on the eight day of November, 1725."
On the 22d of December, 1726, the South Precinct of Dorchester ceased to exist; and the old record-book closes as follows: "John Fenno, Peter Lyon, and Joseph Tucker, Assessors of ye South Precinct in Dorchester, now called and formed into ye town called Stoughton."
The creation of a new municipality rendered a change necessary in the manner of supporting public worship. Formerly, all such matters had been transacted in town meeting; and the calling to account in 1731 of Joseph Tucker, John Fenno, and Peter Lyon, who had been in charge of the prudentials since 1726, would seem to indicate that the time had arrived when it was necessary for those who were interested in the church to take charge of it and conduct its affairs themselves. An Act passed in the tenth year of the reign of George I. had given liberty to five or more of the freeholders to petition to a justice of the peace for a warrant. Advantage of this was taken by William Crane, George Talbot, John Shepard, Silas Crane, and Charles Wentworth, who applied to Isaac Royall, Esq., who on the 17th of March issued in due form with a seal his warrant, notifying the freeholders and other inhabitants to "meet at our public meeting house in Stoughton on Monday the fift day of Aprill next att two of the clock in the afternoon." At this meeting, only an organization was effected.
"Whereas five of the freeholders of the first precinct in Stoughton (viz.), William Crane, George Talbot, John Sheppard, Silus Crane, and Charles Wentworth (agreeable to an made In the tenth year of King George Ye first. Chap, the 5) made applycation unto me the Subscriber to Issue out a warrent for the assembleing of the free holders and other Inhabitants sd quallyfied to vote in town affairs. These are tharefore In his majesties name to Require you, William Crane, forthwith to notifie ye Inhabitants afforsd, as the Law directs in the affor^ act, that they meet at our public meeting house In Stoughton on Monday, the fift of Aprill next, att two of the clock in the afternoon, for the Ends and purposes hereafter mentioned : —
1. To choos a Moderator.
2. To choos a Clerk.
3. To choos assessors.
4. To choos a comtee to call meetings for the futer.
Givin under my hand and seal att Stoughton, March the 17th. In the ninth year of his Majesties Reigne, anno domi 1735 6.
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