Early Universalism in Milford, MA: 1785
Although he did not announce to anyone what he was doing, it did not take long for his neighbors and friends to discover where he was spending his nights. Some condemned his actions, describing them as blasphemous. But even though some of his fellow Universalists were uncomfortable with his nocturnal habits, they nevertheless supported his eccentric behavior and thereby demonstrated their commitment to these words in the incorporation papers:
“That we mutually agree to walk together in Christian fellowship, building up each other in our most holy faith, and rejoicing in the liberty wherewith Christ has set us free and to no more be entangled by any yoke of bondage.”
Immediately after the religious pioneers of the Milford (MA) Universalist Society decided in late August 1785 to incorporate what they referred to as “The Independent Christian Society of Universalists”, they became involved in a whirlwind of denominational activities. Somehow, despite the absence of most of the means of communication that we enjoy today, the news of that incorporation reached Rev.John Murray in Gloucester(MA) in less than a week. Known as a man of strong convictions and decisive action, and undoubtedly fully aware of the fact that Rev. Adams Streeter was the preacher of the infant congregation, Rev. Murray immediately accepted the Milford Universalists as bone fide adherents of his beliefs. In a letter that arrived in Milford in late August, 1785, he invited them to attend what was consistently referred to by him and others as the “First General Convention “ of the denomination. He indicated that the Convention was scheduled to be held on September 14,1785, less than a month after the signing of the Milford Incorporation papers.
In addition, the letter from Rev. Murray indicated a “desireing (that) the Society would send a commity of one or more persons to Oxford (MA) to sit in an Association to act upon Matters that they shall deem proper.”(Minutes of the Milford Universalist Society: 1785-87)
Although some of the Milford Universalists were undoubtedly amazed by the rapidity with which they had become recognized by Murray and by his unexpected invitation to attend what was one of the first (if not the first) conventions ever convened by American Universalists, they rose to the challenge. Many of the members were committed to other tasks on that date but, after much discussion, three members were selected to represent Milford: Ebenezer Sumner, Samuel French and Noah Wiswell, the man who had been instrumental in bringing Adams Streeter to Milford.
It was later reported to the Milford congregation that thirteen men had attended this meeting of what was called “The Second Religious Society”: Elder John Murry, Rev. Elhanan Winchester, Shipia Townsend of Acton, Abijah Adams, Daniel Fish, Francis Lyscomb, Daniel Nelson, Jonathan Lasell, the three Milford delegates, Laban Bates of Mendon and Rev. Caleb Rich. (ibid).
Apropos, it has been said the Rich was the first to proclaim that there would be no punishment after death.
Imbued with the spirit and political beliefs of the new nation’s founding fathers that only in unity is there strength, it was recommended and so adopted that “its few infant societys organize and affiliate.”(ibid).It was also recommended and approved that their congregations form themselves in a way that is “most happifying and secure in the matters of Religion and morality.” (ibid)
Rather than appear to dominate the convention, Rev. Murray stepped aside and suggested that others assumed leadership of this embryonic group. As a result, Rev.Elhanan Winchester, a minister so imbued with the spirit of independence that he had by then composed sixteen Revolutionary War hymns, was selected to be moderator and Dr.Daniel Fish became its Clerk. It was also decided that “the several societies adopt the name of Independent Christian Societys commonly called Universalists.”(ibid)
Furthermore, it was voted that each of the Committees recommend to their several societies that together with the name they adopted,”…they will also consider themselves as one semented body consequently bound by the ties of love and friendship to assist each other at any and all times when occations shall require.”(ibid)
In order to make certain that it became “one semented body” in deed as well as word, it was voted that the several societies represented at the convention appoint committees of correspondence that would share with its congregations the proceedings of
the convention and which would foster and bind the ties of love and friendship and mutual assistance through regularcorrespondence with each other and through periodic meetings. When thee agreements appeared in printed form, they were referred to as “The Charter of Compact.”
It soon became apparent that while Rev. Murray acted decisively and quickly, the Milford denomination was unaccustomed to doing so. At a meeting held on December 5,1785, almost three months after the convention, the articles adopted at the Convention were laid before the members for their individual and collective perusal .After acknowledging the presentation of the articles, the Milford congregation decided not to take any action. It was not until February 21,1786 that the convention articles were adopted by the Milford Universalists. It was also somewhat belatedly decided at that meeting that given the fact the congregation had become part of a larger body and had accepted articles that now governed them, they should formally renew their agreement with Elder Adams Streeter. They therefore invited him “to preach with us” once a month and agreed to pay him by contribution. He agreed to conduct monthly meetings to be held at each of the members’ houses on a rotating basis. Considering the fact that Elder Streeter had been ministering to their religious needs for at least four years, this agreement was somewhat overdue.
Alas, according to the minutes of the Milford Universalist Society, Elder Streeter died exactly seven months later, “to the great lamentation of all his hearers.”(ibid).
Rev. Streeter’s death gave the Milford congregation an opportunity to demonstrate the love and friendship that they had committed themselves to in the Charter of Compact they had agreed to the year before. Rev. Streeter had sired seven children and now they and their mother were without any means of support. In those days, no governmental aid was available to widows who found themselves in such a situation. And few if any employers felt obligated to be of any assistance. But Milford’s enlightened Universalist congregation thought otherwise. Without prompting, it was decided to pay Rev. Streeter’s widow his salary for the remained of 1786 and beyond, if necessary. This gave his widow ample time to decide where she and her children would make a permanent home. By December 1786, she and her family left Milford and moved in with some of her relatives.
As a consequence of Elder Streeter’s death, this new congregation lost their mainstay and was left to prematurely fend for itself. Fortunately they were able to engage Rev. Zephaniah Lathe shortly thereafter to preach to them once a month, but this time, they specified the amount of his salary; he was to receive twenty dollars that year. Apparently this man did well during his one year of preaching; the next year he received twenty-five dollars.
As before, many of the monthly meetings were held in the home of Noah Wiswall who received ten dollars a year to defray any expenses he may have incurred for doing so.
In the years and decades to come, this congregation was shepherded by some illustrious ministers. These included Thomas Whittemore who was a prolific writer, editor and hymnologist and who was an energetic advocate of abolition and an ardent foe of the Fugitive Slave Law, Ebenenzer Fisher who left the Milford congregation to become the first president of what becamethe St. Lawrence University and Theological Seminary, and of course Adin Ballou who, after serving the congregation for six years, established a religious commune in the Hopedale section of Milford called “The Hopedale Community” that was to become a model for similar religious organizations.
Although it has undergone several permutations during the subsequent decades and centuries and has been confronted with type of the problems many other congregations have had to cope with and triumph over, the Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Milford still exists to this day.
It was thus that the Milford Universalist congregation became involved in the very beginning of Universalism in our newly formed nation.
James Buckley holds an Ed.D. from Harvard and has written over 1300 published articles in the field of History.