MA Relig. Freedom
Relig. Freedom II
Relig. Freedom III
Fun with History
Fun with History II
19th C. Words
19th C. Words II
Proof and Memory
The Word "List"
The Word "List" II
Gitmo Detainees I
Gitmo Detainees II
Words for Fraud
Lucid Intervals I
Lucid Intervals II
Lucid Intervals III
No to Guzek Case
Letting it Go
In Cold Blood I
In Cold Blood II
War in Iraq
Walk the Line
The Road to Unitarianism III
Bill Long 10/14/05
The Dedham Decision (1820) and its Aftermath
As we saw at the end of the previous essay, the Dedham case, formally known as Eliphalet Baker and Another v. Samuel Fales, occurred during the time when the Unitarians and Trinitarians in Eastern MA were at each others' throats. Religious liberalism had been creeping into the Bay State since before Independence in 1776. At first, most people referred to this liberalism as "Arminianism," named after the 16th century theologian who believed in some human ability in the process of salvation. Then, in the early 19th century the liberals called themselves "Arians," after the 4th century theologian who disputed the eternity of the Son. To most outsiders they just looked like liberal congregationalists as they proclaimed the importance of virtue and the imitation of Jesus in their lives. But, to the Orthodox, especially the vitriolic and energetic Jedidiah Morse (Father of Samuel F.B.), the "Arians" were "Unitarians," who believed in the complete humanity (and nothing more) of Christ. Because both Orthodox and Unitarians clergy were Congregational ministers, they had to deal at close quarters with each other, and vicious attacks were the order of the day.
However, each church was really composed of two bodies: the religious society or parish, whose membership was co-extensive with the adult male residents of the geographical area (town) in which the church was located and the church proper, consisting of those who had "owned the covenant" of the congregation by confessing their faith in Christ and giving testimony to the saving grace of Christ in their lives. As it turned out, most of the church members were usually women, and the church membership was much smaller in number than the parish membership. The parish was usually more liberal than the church; most often it would lean towards Unitarianism while the church members were solid Trinitarian Congregationalists.
Back to Dedham
So, in November 1818, the Dedham parish, or religious society, called a liberal pastor, the Rev. Alvan Lamson, in accordance with Article 3 of the Declaration of Rights of the 1780 Constitution. But the congregation voted 18-14 not to concur in the call. The sides were irreconciliable, and so the congregational "victors" took some securites and bonds, derived from the sale of church lands over the years, along with the church records and other documents, departed from the parish and declared themselves to be the "true" parish church of Dedham. However, the parish members, considering that the others had departed, elected new deacons who, under a 1754 statute, were to be custodians of records and securities for the congregation. The parish, in the name of the new deacons then sued the departing members in an action for replevin (i.e., for return of records/securities). The trial court gave the following instruction to the jury (taken from the Supreme Judicial Court case report):
"that although the said grants of land and donations to the church in Dedham, purported to be for the use of the church in Dedham, yet they could not hold the same as a corporation, never having been incorporated as a body politic [i.e, the congregation or church was not incorporated; hence it could not hold land]; and that the same did vest in the deacons of the church, by virtue of the provincial act of 1754...the said grants and donations must be considered as made for the benefit for the whole town of Dedham, for the purpose of maintaining public worship.."*
[*You kind of wonder, after a charge like this how a jury could hold for anyone but the parish.]
I quoted the lower court charge at length because the reasoning of the appellate court followed the charge quite closely. Land indeed seemed to be given to the church at one time (back in the 17th century). But the church, in fact, was not a body which could hold land outright (i.e., would its members have ownership as tenants in common?) but this land was, by the act of 1754, held in trust by the deacons for the support of the ministry, which the religious society or parish was required by the constitution to provide for the citizens of Dedham. In the words of the court:
"..property may be given to the church expressly for the use of the poor of the church; and to this the parish would have no claim [the court also cites a gift of a communion table or baptismal font, to which the parish also would have no claim]. But when the donation is to the church, no trust or use being expressed, and no other implied from the nature of the property, the parish must be the cestui que trust."
The implication is clear. Grants of land to the church in Dedham over the previous 150 years were for the purpose of aiding the public worship of the church. Therefore the church property belongs to the parish and the departing members were just that: individuals who decided to leave the congregation. They didn't "take" the identity of the church with them; that identity remained tied to the parish. Hence victory was declared for the plaintiffs, the newly elected deacons of the church.
The "Shadow" Side of the Decision and Conclusion
After the Dedham decision, all hell broke loose. Over the next decade or so, leading right up to the birth date of OW Holmes, Jr. (1841), churches were splitting in the Bay State. About 1/4 of the Congregational Churches in MA (125/540) became Unitarian Churches because the parishes were controlled by the Unitarians. The Trinitarian Congregationalists could not ignore, however, that the author of the opinion, Justice Parker, was himself a Unitarian, as were most of the leading citizens of Boston and the environs. The Dedham decision hastened the collapse of whatever was left of the Standing Order, and finally the church was disestablished by legislative vote in 1833.
And, to connect this all back to OW Holmes. His grandfather, Abiel Holmes, was pastor of the Congregational Church in Cambridge when the Dedham decision was handed down. He was orthodox, but his congregation tended to be liberal. Shortly after the decision he stopped a practice that had been known in MA for decades, a monthly pulpit exchange with neighboring ministers. This would promote good will and a common sense of mission among the otherwise semi-independent Congregational churches when congregants saw, heard and met pastors of nearby churches. Once he stopped the pulpit exchange (which White, for reasons that escape me, calls the "sermon" exchange--as if people were sending MSS of messages to each other, though I am pretty sure he meant a "pulpit" exchange; p. 18), the congregation ousted him. Thus, the issues relating to the Unitarian/Congregational schism were part and parcel of Holmes' larger family history. His own father, despite being brought up as Orthodox, became a Unitarian. Indeed, many, many Boston families were torn apart by this issue.
This explains part of the background necessary to understand the religious world out of which Holmes came. But we need to do one more thing: to show how Holmes also was touched by the more liberal wing of the Unitarians (an even more liberal wing??). This movement, known as Transcendentalism was especially represented in the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. This is the subject of the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long