Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 1

In 1995, in anticipation of our congregation’s 100th anniversary, I set out to do what I thought would be a small research project on the congregation’s beginnings. It soon became evident that I couldn’t properly understand the founding of our congregation without learning about the Boston congregations that preceded it. I ended up poring over session minutes from two congregations (First Boston and Cambridge) and going to the denominational archives for more information. When I was done, I wrote an article that was published in the now-defunct journal Semper Reformanda. As I’ve continued to ponder what I learned from that project, I decided to republish the article here in segments, along with some of my own reflections. I have made a few minor changes and additions to the original article.

The original title of the article was
“Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe: A history of the origins of the First R.P. Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts” [ 1 ]

William Melancthon Glasgow, in his History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America (1888) described the organization of the earliest Reformed Presbyterian group in Boston and exulted that the Covenanter church had taken root in “the cultured metropolis of New England and the Hub of the Universe.” Less than a decade after his History was published, Glasgow himself preached to an assembly that was to become the third Covenanter church in the Boston area. The congregation, located in Cambridge, came into existence through means of three petitions to the New York Presbytery and a direct appeal to the RP Synod.

This paper will examine two questions. First, why was the organization of a congregation in Cambridge so controversial as to require an act of Synod? And second, how were the two sizable Boston Covenanter congregations – now no longer extant – involved?

To appreciate the circumstances under which the Cambridge congregation was formed, it’s helpful to understand how Reformed Presbyterians came to be in the area in the first place. This article will therefore consider some of the history of the First and Second Boston congregations, giving special attention to several key events.

Although a few Presbyterians were influential persons in colonial New England (Peter Faneuil, a Huguenot, gave the city of Boston a large brick hall and market, now part of Boston National Historical Park, in 1742), the earliest sizable groups of Presbyterians in the region arrived as indentured servants. The expansion of Presbyterianism in the 18th and 19th centuries was minimal. [ 2 ] Throughout New England, nine presbyteries of various denominations were created and dissolved between 1728 and 1838. Although the churches of Massachusetts were generally committed to Biblical soundness in the colonial era, the spiritual climate of the area became less and less hospitable to Reformed doctrine with the rise of liberalism, Roman Catholicism, and Unitarianism through the early 1800s. By the time the first R.P. congregation in Boston was founded, most churches that were Presbyterian in the 1700s had either become Congregationalist or had ceased to exist. By 1850, a handful of Presbyterian churches were scattered through New Hampshire and Vermont and there were two in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

In Boston, there was but one Presbyterian Church, First Associate Reformed Presbyterian (after 1858, First United Presbyterian), a congregation which continues today as Newton Presbyterian Church.

From the 1820s onward, the Irish population of Boston grew considerably: by 1850, the city’s 136,000 inhabitants included 35,000 Irish immigrants. [ 3 ] Most were from the Roman Catholic south and west of Ireland. A series of potato crop failures, beginning in 1845, heightened the flood of Irish immigration to Boston’s shores. In 1848, a trickle of Reformed Presbyterians from the Northern Irish counties began arriving on the scene as well. They were ministered to occasionally by preachers from the New York Presbytery of the RP CNA, and on July 12, 1854, a congregation was organized in Boston with twenty-one members, including two elders and one deacon.

After two years, their first pastor, Rev. James Reed Lawson, came to them from the Canadian province of New Brunswick, but returned to his previous congregation after less than a year. [ 4 ] The Boston church depended for several years on supply preachers, with licentiate William Graham arriving in March of 1860. The group found Graham suitable and called him to be their pastor. He was ordained and installed on the congregation‘s sixth anniversary, thus inaugurating a remarkable pastorate that would last until Graham’s death 33 years later.

William Graham was himself an immigrant from County Monaghan, Ireland. He was called to the ministry after embarking on a business career in New York City and was a classical studies graduate of the City University there. The records of the congregation indicate that he was a disciplined and vigorous pastor. Upon his arrival, a board of officers (deacons and elders) was established and it met regularly to discuss congregational finances. During his pastorate, the session met frequently, and the session minutes give testimony to his concern for matters of congregational discipline and oversight. Owen F. Thompson records in Sketches of the Ministers (1930) that Graham “was especially faithful in looking after those who had newly come into our land from across the sea and must find a church home.” The congregation grew steadily, from 39 communicants in 1860 to 131 in only five years. By the end of his pastorate, the congregation had reached 260 members plus 150 or more adherents and children.

The work of shepherding an urban church in the 19th century was anything but easy. There was a steady stream of newcomers from Ireland, the Canadian provinces, and other Boston churches. Though the congregation grew steadily, the session faced various unpleasant duties. Almost every month, the elders found themselves attempting to contact members who were regularly absent from worship, or, worse yet, members who had been accused of various forms of immorality. Charges of drunkenness, fornication, spousal abandonment, and even bigamy [ 5 ] came to the session’s ears and were investigated in turn.

There were other challenges as well. William Graham, giving a speech on the 25th anniversary of his ordination, noted cryptically that at the outset of his ministry there were “seeds of strife and discord” within the Boston congregation. These seeds took root slowly and sprang into full bloom nearly 10 years after Graham arrived. During the week before Christmas 1870, a group of members informed the session that they intended to petition for the formation of a separate congregation. Three church officers – two elders and one deacon – were part of the schism. In the months that followed, one of the three formed a rival prayer meeting group and some members and adherents began meeting for Sabbath worship on their own. In May, 1871, the congregation presented a paper requesting the removal of the three men from their offices to the meeting of the New York Presbytery. When it became clear that the Presbytery was ready to grant the petition, rather than face deposition the three officers resigned in return for the withdrawal of the paper.

A month later, a group of two dozen or so members notified the elders that they intended to have separate worship services until their petition for a new congregation was granted. Several members of the group were openly abusive to William Graham. The session then cited the three former officers for various offenses, including breach of their ordination vows. Others involved in the schism were cited for frequent neglect of public worship; one responded by threatening an elder with bodily harm! To deal with the crisis, the session found itself meeting quite frequently – six times in the month of August alone. As the cases against the former officers progressed, several members called as witnesses refused to testify and were cited for contempt. In October, three officers and several other members were suspended.

At its meeting in Newburgh, New York on October 31st, New York Presbytery faced a complicated tangle of petitions, appeals, and counter-appeals. When all had been heard, most of the suspensions, including those of the three officers, were upheld. However, the Presbytery also granted the petition to organize a new congregation in Boston. In a subsequent meeting with the session, the three officers professed repentance and agreed to receive a public rebuke on the next Sabbath as a condition of having their suspensions removed. When the scheduled time came for the issuance of their rebukes, the minutes record that “none of them responded in answer to their names.” In the days leading up to the organization of the Second Boston congregation, most of the other suspended individuals confessed their sins and repented. [ 6 ] In all, 31 members and numerous adherents departed First Boston to form the Second R.P. Church of Boston on November 21st , 1871. The Second Boston congregation rented a hall in the North End, though within a few years they were renting a place of worship within a few blocks of First Boston’s meeting place.

(1) This article was first published in the Fall 1995 issue of Semper Reformanda under the title, “Reformed Presbyterians At the Hub of the Universe: A history of the origins of the First R.P. Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts.” For reasons unknown to me, the editors of SR modified the original title, but since the title was an intentional reference to part of the article, I have restored the original.
(2) William Blaikie, a former pastor of the Boston United Presbyterian congregation, estimated in 1881 that in all of New England – then a region with a population exceeding 4 million – there were fewer than 6,000 Presbyterians in 35 congregations.
(3) The rapid growth taking place in 19th-century Boston can be appreciated by considering that its population in 1800 was only 25,000; by 1825 it was 58,000.
(4) When I wrote the original article, I had no idea why Lawson left Boston. I was subsequently informed by Professor Eldon Hay of Mount Allison University, New Brunswick, who was in possession of private correspondence from one of Lawson’s descendants, that Rev. Lawson returned to the Maritimes because his wife could not bear city life.
(5) In 1869, a rumor spread in the congregation that a recently-immigrated member had left his wife in Ireland and married someone else. The man declared that he was innocent; as far as he knew, his first wife was dead. The case dragged on for some time, but eventually the woman wrote to Graham and confirmed that she – and their three children – were very much alive.
(6) It’s not clear that there was much contrition in some of these confessions. In one case, the clerk of session recorded that three women “appeared before session to have their suspension[s] removed, [and] after much parlaying and abuse of session they made very reluctantly a kind of explanation and the acts of suspension… were removed.”

Reflections – Covenanters at the Hub of the Universe, Part 1

Reading through the minutes of the First Boston congregation was both fascinating and depressing. Many of the challenges faced by the church 140 years ago were a good deal more serious than any I’ve experienced as an elder at the turn of the 21st century. The notion that “life was easier in the good old days” was pretty thoroughly squeezed out of me by reading through those session minutes. If life in First Boston was typical of the era, immorality in the churches seems to have been no less prevalent in the 19th century than it is today. I found that a big surprise.

The events leading up to the formation of Second Boston present a puzzle that I’ve never completely solved. What was the real cause of the schism? The only available account of the events is in the First Boston minutes, so the evidence is technically one-sided. But the evidence certainly suggests that the issues were not doctrinal, since the departing group did not seek a different denominational affiliation. Moreover, the departing group never leveled any charges against the character or teaching of the church’s leaders; surely they would have done so if a valid accusation could have been made. It’s also clear that the group was not merely desirous of worshipping in a different location, for in the years that followed, the two congregations met in places that were not very far apart.

The most likely explanation of the data is some sort of personality conflict: one gets the impression that these people simply wanted to have their own way. As William Graham was directly attacked in several instances, it may be that his leadership was not acceptable to the officers who sought to leave. Whatever the cause, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that this was an ugly and unseemly split that was not honoring to Christ. It’s particularly disturbing that men who had taken vows to serve as officers were so willing to take the lead in disrupting the peace of the church.

Another matter I’ve puzzled over is the approach taken by the presbytery and session in handling the conflict. When I first wrote the article, I was rather baffled as to why the session and presbytery were willing to accept the compromise through which the three officers agreed to resign. But sixteen years later, I find it easier to understand why the opportunity to avoid the hassle of a trial was attractive. Perhaps, at the time, I would have been willing to do the same thing. But I’ve never been able to rationalize the presbytery’s actions in October, 1871, after it became clear that the resignations had not resolved the conflict. It’s as if the schismatic group was given, in return for its appalling behavior, exactly what it desired: its own congregation. There are indications in Glasgow’s History that, at other times, similar conflicts led to the formation of new congregations in Perth, Ontario and New York City, so perhaps this sort of solution was considered tolerable in the 19th century. I can only hope that it would not be so in the 21st.

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4 Responses to Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 2 | ReformedRuminations

  2. Pingback: Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 3 | ReformedRuminations

  3. For the earlier history of the Covenanters in Scotland, see here:

  4. Pingback: Slightly Random Reflections on “Covenanters at the Hub of the Universe” | ReformedRuminations

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