When the town of Bristol, which then included South Bristol, Bremen (known as Broad Cove), and Damariscotta and Nobleboro (known as Walpole Plantation), was incorporated in 1765, it was part of the Province of Maine in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Most people would conclude, therefore, that it could be described as part of Puritan New England. But the story is more complex than that. To begin with, most people have a romantic notion of what Puritan New England was all about. It is frequently assumed that the Pilgrims and the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony came to New England seeking religious liberty. But the religious liberty they sought was not what we mean by that term today. The Pilgrims were separatists who sought the “liberty” to establish their own independent church. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay really sought to create a godly commonwealth and to establish the Church of England, reformed according to their concepts, as the church of that commonwealth. That church would be supported by a church tax, not abolished until well into the nineteenth century, and all residents would be required to attend and pay a tax to support it. Not all residents would qualify as members, however, but only those who could testify satisfactorily before the authorities of the church to an inward experience of God’s effectual call. After they had provided satisfactory testimony, they joined the church by owning its covenant, which usually was very simple: the Salem covenant of 1629 ran as follows:
We covenant with the Lord and with one another, and so bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessed word of truth.
Puritans functioned as the established church, and maintained until the late seventeenth century the fiction that they were Puritan members of the Church of England and had not separated from the Church of England. In actual fact, each church in Massachusetts functioned largely independently; when ministerial associations were formed, they were given only limited advisory capacity. Unlike the French to the North and the original residents of the Pemaquid Peninsula, the Puritans generally made few attempts to understand Native Americans and often dealt treacherously with them.
Unlike the French, they also, with some honorable exceptions, made little attempt to evangelize the Native Americans. The consequences of this would be dire for settlers of the peninsula later on in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during the French and Indian wars.
Initially, it was only church members who could vote in civil elections. The Massachusetts Bay Company, formed as a trading company, cleverly converted itself into a colonial government by taking its charter with it when its members emigrated to America and meeting, not in England, but in New England. The result was not what we think of as religious liberty at all! Settlers who deviated from Puritan doctrine were expelled from the colony, as Roger Williams was, or even hanged, as were Mary Dyer and other Quakers. As a consequence of the treatment of Mary Dyer, King Charles I explicitly forbade Massachusetts from hanging Quakers. Of course, not everyone who came to the area was a Puritan. The original settler of Quincy, Thomas Morton, was a liberal Anglican who established a prosperous and fast-growing colony there, especially profiting from fur trade with the Native Americans, with whom he established much better relations than the Puritans did. He was tried by the Puritans on trumped-up charges, put in stocks, and exiled to Isle of Shoals until he could be sent back to England. Hounded out of Massachusetts by the Puritans, he put his case before the authorities in England, and as a result the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company was revoked. However, before this action could be put into effect, the English Civil War had broken out, Puritans were in control, and when he returned to Massachusetts, he was tried for sedition as a royalist. Released because of his ill health, he spent his last days with royalist protectors in the West country of Maine.
But after their support of the revolutionaries in the English Civil War, when the monarchy and the Church of England were restored it was impossible for the Puritans of Massachusetts to maintain the fiction that they were a legitimate part of the Church of England and to suppress other religious bodies. Anglicans were reluctantly allowed to open parishes in Massachusetts –– Old North Church, where the lantern was hung for Paul Revere, was an Anglican parish founded by Timothy Cutler, the rector of Yale University who was fired when he became a convert to Anglicanism.
I have spoken primarily about Puritans in Massachusetts. What about Maine? Before the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth, Pemaquid and surrounding islands were settled, at first temporarily, by those who were seeking not God but cod. Most of the earlier English in this area were here while they caught and dried fish. A little later a prosperous trading post was established here dealing in the fur trade. It is unlikely that any of those involved were Puritans; they came from the West Country, where Puritanism never had a stronghold. Eventually a few settlers established farms in the area, on land supposedly deeded to them by the Native American sachem Samoset in 1625, although there is a suspicion that the deed was forged. Settlement continued through much of the seventeenth century, until attacks by Native Americans drove most settlers from the area. Settlers came in a variety of waves thereafter. A series of forts were built on the present site of Colonial Pemaquid to protect settlers –– in many cases, not very successfully, since the forts fell twice to the French and Native Americans. Religious services were probably provided sporadically in the fort by chaplains and visiting ministers, Puritan and Anglican. Occasional services were provided about the time of the town’s incorporation by travelling ministers.
The Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots were particularly numerous among the settlers. They came in several waves. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not welcome them in Massachusetts, but were glad to encourage them to settle on the Maine frontier as a first line of defense again the French and the Native Americans. Chip Griffin, an amateur historian in Boothbay, writes:
Midcoast Maine was part of a large gore, or gap, that remained frontier and unclear as to land ownership and sovereign rulers, but it was becoming attractive, at least as a frontier bulwark to protect Boston and at most to expand the Puritan sphere of influence to include Maine and all of Nova Scotia. The Puritans didn’t want the Scots Irish in Boston, but they did want them in a perimeter of about 100 miles outside of and circling Boston for defense. This was nothing new, as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State, James Logan, intentionally attracted and placed far more Scots Irish in the frontier around pacifist, Quaker Philadelphia, the largest city and port of entry in colonial America. Logan, also Scots Irish, knew them to be the fiercest fighters and stoutest defenders for pacifist, Quaker Philadelphia.(i)
Their ancestors had fought fiercely in the border wars between England and Scotland and later as colonists in Ireland had to defend themselves against the resentful native Irish, so they were well known as fierce fighters. Some of them had come as early as 1640. Many of them were settled by Colonel David Dunbar in this area between 1729 and 1734.
Further up the peninsula, General Samuel Waldo persuaded Lutheran and Moravian refugees from the Rhineland to settle in what is now Bremen and Waldoboro in the 1750s. They built what were probably the first churches on the peninsula. The first buildings no longer survive. The present Old German Church, built in 1772 on the East side of the river, was later dismantled and reconstructed on its present site. Jacob Bailey was the Anglican minister at Dresden in another part of Lincoln county until the American Revolution. His ministry flourished, in spite of the opposition of the agents of the Puritan Great Proprietors headquartered at Pownalborough Courthouse. He gives a list of those to whom he ministered: Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Calvinists, Lutherans, Independents, Quakers, and those without religious preference. This gives us some sense of the mix of religions in midcoast Maine at the time. Bailey’s assessment of the state of religion in the county in 1760 makes interesting reading:
Now, is it probable, that the inhabitants of such a wilderness country, in such necessitous circumstances, and so far distant from any large town, or cultivated region, should find means, either to support the Gospel, or to provide proper instruction for their children? Besides, those who were born and educated in these remote parts, were so little acquainted with any religious worship, and had so long enjoyed their native ignorance, that they discovered hardly any inclination for rational or moral improvement. It is true, that these people had either been brought up, heretofore, where the Christian religion had been enjoyed, or were born of such parents as acknowledged the Gospel; but how many melancholy instances have I observed of this truth, –– the impressions of religion and morality will quickly grow faint, or entirely vanish, where neither schools or Divine service are maintained. This I most positively affirm, that when I came to this country, there was no settled minister of any denomination in the whole extensive territory. I found Christians of eight different persuasions; multitudes could neither read nor write; heads of families were unbaptized; some had a very weak and imperfect notion of a future state; and fancied that they should enjoy their wives and children in another world; many, I may add most, houses were destitute of Bibles, or any other books; they had no settled principles; and, in short, their morals were extremely deficient.” (ii)
That brings us to the time that this meeting house was erected. The Massachusetts legislature, the Court of Common Council, insisted that every town provide for the preaching of the gospel. It took Bristol a while to comply after it was incorporated. After several acrimonious town meetings, the town was divided into three parishes and meeting houses were erected at Harrington, Walpole, and Broad Cove or Bremen in 1772. The Harrington and Walpole meeting houses still survive, though neither holds regular services.
It should not surprise us that the town voted to organize its churches as Presbyterian rather than what later times would call Congregational, since so many of the settlers in the area were Scots Irish of Presbyterian background. Doctrinally, Presbyterians and Congregationalists did not differ, since both initially subscribed to the Westminster Confession. Their forms of worship would be similar also –– what a Congregational historian in Britain has described as a sermon and a pastoral prayer put together with metrical psalms or hymns in a hymn sandwich. Puritans used no fixed forms in worship, not even the Lord’s Prayer. The Westminster Directory includes readings from Scripture; this, however, seems to have fallen out of favor in New England, where scripture was used only as it was incorporated into expository sermons. Where Puritans and Presbyterians did differ was in their organizational structure. Congregational churches were largely independent though loosely connected, whereas Presbyterians were much more tightly bound in a denominational structure. Residents of Bristol had no love for the Puritan authorities in Boston, who attempted to claim title to the land on which they had long since settled. So unpopular were the Great Proprietors of Boston, that their agents were driven away by force when they tried to survey lands in the area. Here is Chip Griffin’s account of the resistance of Bristol residents to agents of the Great Proprietors:
In August of 1810, a crowd in Bristol obstructed James Malcom’s attempt to survey for the Brown heirs. Two days later, on August 29, 1810, the Bristol crowd threatened and ridiculed Elliot G. Vaughan, an agent for these same Brown heirs, forced him out of town, stoned his house, and hooted and hollered. This Bristol crowd had warned Vaughan out of town, much as the old Puritans had warned out the Scots Irish out of Boston a century earlier. The Bristol crowd cried, “Never show your head in Bristol again.” One Bristol settler “wish’d to god he could see my blood on the burying ground” and added, “God Damn you I wish I could meet you in some convenient place.” The Bristol inhabitants ritually escorted Vaughan out of town with “considerable noise” of cowbells. Vaughan spent that night in Boothbay, across the Damariscotta River from Bristol, and the Boothbay crowd long after midnight terrified Vaughan by “stoning the house and making almost every noise that can be conceived of.” Vaughan never returned. (iii)
So once again it’s no surprise that Bristol residents did not initially choose to associate with the Standing Order of the Congregational Church.
Let us continue our discussion of worship. While the Bay Psalm Book, the first hymnal of the Puritans, acquired fame as the first book printed in New England, it certainly has never won any literary prizes. In fact, its doggerel is so bad that not even one of its psalms remains in current use! In the early eighteenth century more satisfactory metrical psalms and other hymns were produced by the English Congregationalist Isaac Watts and others, and no doubt those were in use in America by the time the Walpole Meeting House was erected. But hymn singing in those days might strike us as cacophony. New England churches originally had neither the organs nor the parish bands that were used by Anglican churches, not all church members had hymnals, and hymnals seldom included tunes, so the parish clerk would sing hymns out line by line, and the congregation would repeat the lines after him. Eventually singing schools were established, to teach parishioners to sing hymns without having them lined out – what was called regular singing. The most famous teacher of the travelling singing schools was William Billings of Boston.
Communion was probably celebrated quarterly, the Scottish practice. Puritans initially observed it monthly. Only those who were qualified as communicant members by the elders of the church would be admitted. In Scotland, it was customary to give out communion tokens to communicant members to present for admission to the communion table. However, we might suspect that members in Bristol were admitted on profession of faith and evidence of good conduct, and that the older Puritan standard of satisfactory public testimony of an internal experience of God’s effectual call was not enforced. Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians also rejected Christian feasts and seasons, observing neither Christmas nor Easter, but only the so-called Sabbath and periodically appointed days of fasting. Of course, if they were really biblical, they would reckon Saturday as the Sabbath and not Sunday, which is properly called the Lord’s Day.
Given the Scots Presbyterian background of the majority of the settlers, it is also not surprising that when the townspeople finally got around to calling a settled minister, the first one that they called was a Scotsman who had been educated at Edinburgh, the Reverend Alexander MacLean. He seems to have been of a haughty disposition and was not particularly popular. The most notorious incident in his life came when his wife, the daughter of the wealthiest man in the Bristol, sent her slave girl out to look for lost cattle on a snowy night and told her not to come back until she had found them. The girl perished in the night. Mr. MacLean served the three parishes in a circuit, preaching in two of them each Sunday. He served from 1772 to 1798.
There weren’t many Presbyterians in the Bay Colony at the time, and the presbytery was centered far away in Boston. So after a few years the churches in Bristol affiliated with what we now know as the Congregational Church, with local headquarters in Portland.
The end of the eighteenth century saw considerable change in the religious scene in the area. It was the time of a religious revival, and Methodists and various Calvinist and free-will Baptists were active in the area. Bristol was part of a Methodist circuit, and in the next century several Methodist churches would be erected in Bristol. A Baptist Church, established in 1819, dominates the landscape at center of Damariscotta. Roman Catholic emigrants from Ireland who settled in Newcastle were ministered to by travelling Catholic priests in the last years of the eighteenth century and built what is now the oldest standing Roman Catholic church in New England in 1808. Because of the relative independence of Congregational parishes, the simplicity of church covenants, ample enough to be open to a wide variety of interpretations, and the lack of a fixed liturgy to maintain a doctrinal standard, Congregational churches in Massachusetts, influenced by the rationalism of the period, were moving toward Unitarianism or Universalism, unlike their brethren in Connecticut, who were more tightly organized under the Saybrook Platform and maintained Puritan orthodoxy. The Brattle Street Church in Boston was founded in 1699 to uphold “broad and catholick” Christianity, which rejected the Calvinism of the earlier Puritans and no longer distinguished classes of church membership and would in the next century reject the revivalism of John Edwards. By 1800 most Congregational Churches in Boston were in fact Unitarian, and Harvard University became Unitarian in its outlook in the course of the century. In the end, three quarters of the first one hundred Massachusetts parishes left the orthodox Puritan fold. Maine churches felt the same pull, and the Harrington Church would affiliate with Universalists by the middle of the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century also marked the end of an era for established churches supported by town taxes in Maine. Quakers and others protested paying a church tax, and one year a Methodist minister successfully sued the town for support. In 1820 the church tax was abolished in the new state of Maine. With such a mixed population, it is not surprising that only two Congregational churches, now part of the United Church of Christ, remain in the area, located in Bristol Mills, where the center of the town of Bristol has shifted, and in what is now the town of South Bristol, that Bremen now has a Union Church, and that the Brown Church in Round Pond is non-denominational.
The peninsula where men first came seeking cod rather than God is now home to Christians of many denominations, and to those who affiliate with no denomination.
(i) Chip Griffin, “Scots Irish in Bristol and South Bristol.”
(ii) William Bartlet, The Frontier Missionary: A Memoir of the Life of the Rev. Jacob Bailey (New York: Stafford and Swords, 1853), on line at The Frontier Missionary: A Memoir of the Life of the Rev. Jacob Bailey, available on line at http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Frontier_Missionary.html?id=f1PBLnVm3nsC, pages 88-89.
(iii) Chip Griffin, “Scots Irish in Damariscotta.”