Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 3


At the 1894 Spring meeting of the New York Presbytery, a petition from some members of the First Boston R.P. Church and First United Presbyterian Church of Cambridge was presented requesting the organization of an RP mission station in Cambridge. The Presbytery was reluctant to approve this, but instead organized a commission “to visit the people in Cambridge and endeavor to reconcile them to our Boston congregations.” The commission could not convince the petitioners to join either of the Boston churches, but the group persuaded the commissioners to act as pulpit supplies so that they could have Sabbath worship. They began meeting in the Central Square YWCA Hall. In addition to the commissioners, several other RP ministers, including W. M. Glasgow, preached to them during this interval.

In October, a new petition from Cambridge was sent to the Presbytery, and again it was declined. In May of 1895, the Presbytery met again. This time, the meeting was held in the Second Boston RP Church building, a large structure on Beacon Hill that the congregation had purchased in 1878. An even larger group of petitioners requested a new congregation in Cambridge, but this was again declined.

Inasmuch as the records of the New York Presbytery for this period appear to have been lost, it is not possible to determine precisely the Presbytery’s reasons for declining the organization. However, the Presbytery’s decision was appealed to the Synod, which was scheduled to meet one month later in Denver.

The Synod of 1895 received four papers pertaining to the appeal. Two were from petitioners who sought an organization, one was from Rev. McNaugher at First Boston, and one was from a majority of the ruling elders of the First and Second Boston congregations. So long after the fact, it may be impossible to ascertain the whole truth, but many of the claims brought before Synod are worth examining.

The Cambridge group presented an appeal from the action of Presbytery and a request for organization of a congregation.  They argued that the location of the Boston congregations was inconvenient for them and that Cambridge was an open field for evangelism. One of their subpoints suggested that they could not attend church in Boston without using streetcars on the Sabbath. They noted that their worship services had been well-attended and that their financial means were sufficient to make them self-supporting. The petitions, which pledged their commitment to the Covenanter church, were signed by two members of the First Boston church, several persons holding letters of standing from First Boston, and a number of others, including several members of the First United Presbyterian Church of Cambridge. A total of 47 signed the two petitions.

Samuel McNaugher, who was unable to attend Synod, asked in his paper that the organization of the new congregation be denied.  In addition to making various insinuations about two petitioners from his congregation (one of whom had stopped coming to church almost immediately after he arrived), he claimed that the ecclesiastical standing of the petitioners was “bad,” and that several of them had ended up in the Cambridge U.P. church [ 1 ] after leaving the Second Boston congregation.  Noting that a dozen of his families lived within walking distance of Central Square (the commercial heart of Cambridge at the time), Rev. McNaugher expressed fear that he would lose them to the new group.

One of McNaugher’s greatest concerns was that the Boston congregations were both heavily in debt. First Boston had made no progress whatsoever in reducing its mortgages in the prior decade, and Second was occupying its Beacon Hill home at great cost. He argued that because many of the people in the congregation could not afford the rents in Boston, most lived in Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and other areas outside Boston; therefore, a new work in Cambridge would suck away the lifeblood of the two struggling Boston groups.  McNaugher felt that if these people wanted to be Covenanters, they should join one of the Boston congregations.

The petition from the ruling elders is the longest, and perhaps the most interesting. We can surmise that it was drafted largely by a member of the Second Boston session, as it contains a number of details about parties who had left that congregation previously. The Second Boston elders signed the petition first, consistent with the hypothesis that it originated there.  It was signed by all the First Boston elders and four of the six elders of Second. Second Boston’s pastor, James Mitchell Foster, also did not sign it, but he was granted time to address the Synod.

The ruling elders argued along some of the same lines as McNaugher, and accused the group of falsely advertising itself in the Boston Herald as “The First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Cambridge.” Aside from repeating the dire proclamation that the Boston congregations would soon fold if the organization were granted, the elders attempted to cast doubt on the character of the petitioners. Apparently, several of the United Presbyterian petitioners had left the Second Boston congregation in 1891 (one of them had been a ruling elder there) and it was alleged that they had taken the pulpit, chairs, and collection box of the 2nd Boston building with them to help establish the newly-organized U.P. church in Cambridge. This congregation, they warned, “may go out of our church as soon as perfected,” just as several of its principals had left Second Boston.

The elders further complained that “the religious weeklies of our church have uniformly given favorable reports to these petitioners and [have] insinuated that the Covenanters here [in Boston] are selfish and opposed to the enlargement of our church and to an effort to save the perishing. This we regard as an injustice and wrong.” Like McNaugher, they argued that the Cambridge group should join an existing congregation and that the creation of a new congregation would doom the Boston congregations to the status of pensioners of the denomination, or worse.

One charge in the ruling elders’ petition appears to have been crossed out before it was presented to Synod, [ 2 ] although it is still legible. It said, in part, “A generous use of money leads us to fear as to the ingenuous judgment of some who will be called to pass judgment upon us…. It would be right if those who have received new suits of clothes by visiting this so-called mission should refrain from voting on the complaint.” This was obviously a slur against the RP ministers who had preached for the Cambridge group.

On the afternoon of June 12, after hearing the arguments in the case, a large majority of the Synod voted to overturn the decision of New York Presbytery and referred the matter back to the Presbytery. The congregation was organized by a Presbytery commission on July 9, 1895.


Although the debate over the organization of the Cambridge congregation lacked the forceful acrimony and fireworks associated with the formation of the Second Boston church, the congregation’s organization was obviously not without controversy. What are we to make of the available facts?

With regard to the arguments made by McNaugher and the other elders, it is true that the presence of another RP congregation would give Covenanters in Cambridge and Somerville a more convenient worship venue than either Boston church. But it is important to keep in mind that the area the elders were claiming as their exclusive mission field included nearly three-quarters of a million people. The elders themselves noted in their petition that the City of Boston alone contained 400,000 people. Even if the Boston elders had in mind a ministry limited to Irish immigrants, it was not entirely accurate for them to claim that working-class people could not afford to live anywhere in Boston. For example, the North End and South End districts were full of working-class apartments at the time. There were reasons to doubt the claim that such a field could not support three congregations.

In fact, the arguments made by the Boston elders left them open to a number of questions. Why were they willing to maintain two heavily-indebted buildings within walking distance of each other and located in two of the most expensive districts in the city?  [ 3 ] If two congregations could be justified so close together in Boston, why would it be unreasonable to suppose that a third could be justified on the other side of the Charles River? In fact, the Boston congregations could have substantially relieved their financial difficulties by selling the Second Boston building. First Boston’s building was large enough to accommodate both groups combined – or they could have met separately – and the debts of both congregations could have been greatly reduced. But since three of the Second Boston elders had themselves departed from First Boston (and one of these had been a part of the original schism in 1871), such a course would probably never have been considered. There are indications that the maintenance of two separate buildings may have been more a matter of pride than of necessity.

It does seem that the Cambridge group had been somewhat deceptive – or at least overeager – in advertising itself as the First RP Church of Cambridge before such an organization existed. And there are evidences that some of the group were using the streetcars to attend Sabbath worship in Cambridge anyway, so that argument was rather misleading.

On the other hand, it is clear that the Cambridge petitioners, though free from any disciplinary charges against them, could not have comfortably joined either of the Boston congregations. The letter from the Boston ruling elders breathes a certain hostility towards the Cambridge group, and parts of it are quite petty. One doubts that they could have expected the Boston congregations to receive them with open arms!  Further, it is clear that they were convinced that an evangelism effort in Cambridge required a congregation in Cambridge. Joining one of the Boston churches – neither of which was in a position to give attention to mission work in Cambridge – could not have satisfied this desire.


Within a short time, the newly formed congregation had called as its first pastor the Rev. Samuel Gormley Shaw and continued to meet in the Central Square YWCA. Desirous of their own place of worship, yet mindful of the building debts that were burdening their brethren across the river, in 1896 they built an attractive but modest building not far from Central Square, on a piece of land donated by one of the members.

Despite the concerns that had been expressed by the Boston elders, there was no mass exodus from the congregations, although from time to time there were transfers to Cambridge. [ 4 ] It is also clear that the congregation did not drift away from the denomination, as had been predicted.

In time, the conflict surrounding the formation of the Cambridge congregation seems to have been largely forgotten. The sister congregations enjoyed joint social occasions and observations of the Lord’s Supper. Following the disorganization of the Second Boston congregation in 1929, and that of the First in 1953, some of the members of those churches transferred to Cambridge.

Thus it would appear, 116 years after the fact, that the judgment of the Synod of 1895 has been vindicated. By God’s grace, although Reformed Presbyterians are no longer situated at the Hub of the Universe, we have at least remained within sight of it.


I am grateful to the office of the Stated Clerk of the RPCNA, Pittsburgh, for giving me access to the Minutes of the Session and the Minutes of the Board of Officers from the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Boston, as well as the original papers filed at the Synod of 1895. Thanks are also due to Dr. Jonathan Watt for the use of his copy of Blaikie’s Presbyterianism in New England.

Anonymous; “The Beginning of the Congregation,” entry in the Minutes of the Session, First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Cambridge, p. 3-4.

Blaikie, Alexander; Presbyterianism in New England: Its Introduction, Growth, Decay, Revival And Present Mission, Boston (printed for the author by Alexander Moore, 3 School St.), 1881

Cambridge Historical Commission; Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge: East Cambridge; (The MIT Press), 1988

Graham, William; “Historical Sketch of Twenty-Five Years of Pastoral Work,” in Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter, p. 322 (1885).

Whitehill, Walter Muir; Boston: A Topographical History; Cambridge, Massachusetts (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 1968

(1) The petitioners from the Cambridge U.P. Church had apparently become dissatisfied there because the church had begun using an organ in worship.

(2) Apparently, someone had the good sense to recognize that the accusation therein could have been considered libelous.

(3) Second Boston had the opportunity to witness the financial troubles that First Boston had faced with this property, but it had nonetheless chosen to buy a building in the one neighborhood that was more prestigious than the Back Bay.

(4) Ironically, one such transfer, in 1897, was that of an elder who had originally opposed the organization of the congregation.

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1 Response to Covenanters At the Hub of the Universe, Part 3

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

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