Early Universalism in Milford, MA: 1785
by James J. Buckley
In the summer of 1785, a Universalist congregation was formed in Milford MA, making it one of the first to do so in the U.S. It is no accident that it was formed there. That community had struggled for almost 100 years to be freed from the control of Mendon so that it could form its own independent Congregational Church and be able to govern itself. The length of this struggle that ended with Milford’s incorporation in April 1780, encouraged dissenters of all kinds to conclude that eccentric behavior and aberrant religious opinions were tolerated there.
To a certain extent such a conclusion was accurate. The minister of the Milford Congregational Church Rev Amariah Frost, who served in that capacity for forty-nine years, was a strong-willed and forceful shepherd of that separatist congregation who readily tolerated the existence of outspoken dissenters in his town. For example, one of the signers of the Milford Universalists’ incorporation papers was Noah Wiswall. He seldom made any effort to hide his beliefs and opinions, many of which flew in the face of Congregational orthodoxy. Indeed, according to Milford and Universalist historian, Adin Ballou, Wiswall was the most zealous of the Milford Universalists. Yet Rev. Frost agreed to marry him and his bride Susanna, albeit some years before 1785.
In time, Wiswall played a pivotal part in the creation of what was called in the incorporation documents, “The Independent Christian Society commonly called Universalist.” It was he who encouraged Adams Streeter to become the preacher of this embryonic congregation.
Adams Streeter(whose first name was his mother’s maiden name) began to preach his unorthodox beliefs in Milford in 1781.His career as a preacher was both diverse and colorful. He became a lay Baptist evangelist around 1760 and preached in that capacity in Charlton MA. His preaching abilities made him so popular in that region of the Bay Colony that he continued to
fulfill that role for fourteen years. Because of his demonstrable success as a preacher, the Baptist Society in Douglas MA called him in 1774 to be its minister.
During the years between 1774 and 1781, Streeter’s beliefs began to verge farther and farther away from the tenets of the Baptists, such as their belief in the Final Judgment and Divine Retribution. Consequently he soon became the target of scathing criticism from members of his congregation and more importantly, from the leaders of his denomination. Such criticism intensified when he began to champion such unorthodox beliefs as universal salvation. When his Baptist congregation and his superiors could tolerate his behavior no longer and feared that he was becoming a troublesome and divisive force in the Baptist denomination, he was formally accused of advocating heretical beliefs. He was ejected from his Baptist congregation and defrocked as a Baptist minister.
Bereft of his role as a Baptist preacher after having filled that role for over 21 years, he eventually decided after much soul-searching to preach his dissenting religious opinions to like-mined residents of the Milford area. His selection of Milford as the place to begin his new ministry was not capricious. The struggle the citizens of Milford had recently undergone to win control of their own church and become an independent community made it a likely place in Streeter’s opinion to share his dissident religious ideas. As a result he became a self-ordained preacher in the Milford and in the distant community of Oxford MA, preaching at both places at least once a month.
Apparently he achieved some success in that regard because in November 1781, he was asked by Wiswall to serve the Milford adherents of Universalism and in particular, Universal Salvation. He answered that call by moving his wife Dinah and their seven children to Milford.
A primary reason why he did so was because he had found the life of an itinerant preacher- in contrast to his prior position as Baptist minister- to be harsh and financially unstable. So he welcomed the opportunity to move to Milford especially because Noah Wiswall had invited Streeter and his large family to move into the Wiswall household located not too far from the center of that town. Wiswall has been described as being a generous-hearted, enterprising, public-spirited and charitable citizen. Certainly his willingness to house a family of nine indefinitely proves that such a description was justified.
In the years before 1785, Elder Streeter preached in private homes, at first in Noah Wiswall’s house but later in the homes of the other ten co-signers of the 1785 incorporation papers.
The signers of the Milford Incorporation papers included some men of substantial means who generously supported the infant congregation. Ebenezer Sumner was the owner of a considerable parcel of rich farming land and therefore was a prominent member of the Milford community. John Claflin was the sire of nine children and a large land -owner as were Ebenezer Wheelock and Samuel Bowker. Thus from the outset, the Milford Universalist Congregation did not have financial problems and soon became financially solvent. As a result of their prominence in their community and their favorable financial status, these men were immune to any adverse reaction from their neighbors about the founding of the denomination.
Other signers were not as fortunate. Samuel French was a member of an illustrious, large and financially comfortable family. His father was a deacon of the Milford Congregational Church. That meant that words were exchanged between father and son when Samuel expressed his belief in the Universalists’ tenets. But Samuel’s riff with his father did not deter him; he persisted in his commitment to the newly created group. Eventually he too became a landowner of considerable means.
One of the signers, Nahum Clark, reaped the whirlwind of condemnation for having signed the incorporation papers. He was condemned for having expressed beliefs contrary to those held by the local Congregational Church. When he maintained that he had committed no sin, he and his wife were summarily ejected from that congregation.
But the most colorful of the signers was undoubtedly Noah Wiswall. Throughout his lifetime, Wiswall manifested Christian charity despite the antagonism generated against him. Illustrative of this point was the reaction of a member of the Congregational Church when Noah brought him a load of much-needed wood. When the needy recipient met Parson Frost the next day, the man described Wiswall’s act in the following fashion: “The good Lord yesterday sent me a load of wood by the hands of the Devil!”
Part of the reason for such a harsh description was the fact that Wiswall had become an adherent of Universalism. But another reason was the eccentric behavior he manifested throughout his lifetime.
A commitment is not valid nor sustainable if it has not been tested and has survived the testing. The commitment of the signers to the incorporation papers to universal fellowship and charity toward one’s fellow man was sorely tested by the behavior of Wiswall.
Toward the end of his life, Noah Wiswall built a stone tomb on a plot of land where the first Catholic Church was eventually erected in Milford. Then, in unconscious or perhaps deliberate imitation of a penitential monastic order, he began to spend each night sleeping in the tomb.