Charlemont — Religious Societies

Extracted from "History of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts, Volume II," by Louis H. Everts, 1879.

      One of the conditions of the act of June 27, 1735, granting certain tracts of land to the town of Boston, provided that within five years from the confirmation of the plan the proprietors should "build and finish a suitable and convenient house for the public worship of God, and settle a learned orthodox minister in each of said towns, and provide for their honorable and comfortable support; and also lay out three house-lots in each of said towns, each of which is to draw a sixty-third part of said town in all future divisions,—one to be for the first settled minister, one for the ministry, and one for the school." It seems that, so far as Charlemont was concerned, no attempt was made by the early proprietors to fulfill these conditions, and that the settlers themselves were obliged to provide the means of education and the privileges of public worship. One of the most prominent of these, Capt. Moses Rice, memorialized the General Court, June 5, 1752, setting forth the non-compliance of the proprietors, and earnestly praying for a tax to help carry out the promised measures.
      In answer the General Court, on the 4th of December, 1752, ordered a penny tax on every acre of land not set aside for public purposes for the space of three years, and that a portion of the money so raised should be used for the "meeting-house already agreed and engaged to be set up in said township." Accordingly, at the first meeting of the proprietors, after this order, Jan. 17, 1753, £100, old tenor, of the first year's tax, were appropriated for preaching, and Eleazer Hawks, Moses Rice, and Joseph Wilder, Jr., were appointed "to provide for the same the current year;" and on the 3d of May, the same year, the proprietors assembled at the place where it was proposed to set the meeting-house, which place is a little south of ye south line of Hancock's farm, between it and ye north line of Thomas Stearns' land." They voted "that the house should be five and thirty feet long, thirty feet wide, and eighteen feet stud." Moses Rice, Thomas Stearns, and Joseph Wilder, Jr., were chosen to agree with Thomas Dick, of Pelham, "to set up a frame and finish said house on the outside and lay the lower floor." The frame was set up by Mr. Dick in the summer of 1753, but he did not complete the house that year. In fact, it was never finished, although the proprietors endeavored to have it done, and the following year "voted that Mr. Dick be notified to cover the roof of the meeting-house with boards and shingles, and to board the gable ends."
      The same year, 1754, a minister's lot was set aside, near this frame, "to be 200 rods long and 80 rods wide." This property was located in the southern part of the present town of Heath, the farm being at present the property of William Bassett. One hundred pounds were also voted for preaching.
      The troublous events of the French-and-Indian war, coming on about this time, prevented anything further being done until May, 1762. In that month the proprietors held a meeting and appointed Col. White, Joseph Wilder, and Aaron Rice a committee "to see to covering the meeting-house, or, if the former frame will not do, to set up a new frame and cover it." The committee, having decided that the old frame would not do, contracted with Mr. Dick, in 1762, to build a new house as follows:

      "Know all men by these presents that I, Thomas Dick, of Pelham, in the County of Hampshire, Innholder, For and in consideration of a former obligation I gave to Mr. Othniel Taylor, Treasurer of Charlemont, to build a meeting-house in Charlemont, do by these presents covenant and engage to set up a frame in said town, in the place where the old frame now stands, it being 33 feet by 30, and 18 feet post, to cover the outside with chamferred boards and the roof with boards and shingles, and put up weather boards, to lay the lower floor with boards on sleepers or joice well supported, and to complete the same, workman likes by the last day of September next. Otherwise, on failure thereof, to pay said Treasurer 26 pounds for the use of said Proprietors. THOMAS DICK.
      "N. B. The proprietors are to find boards, nails, and shingles, and rum for the raising."

      This house was erected on the site of the old frame, but it, too, was never completed, and in 1769 it was sold to Col. Asaph White, who removed it to his farm near by, and remodeled it for a dwelling, which was long occupied by him and his family.
      Meanwhile the town had become incorporated, and as there was now prospect that the taxes for the support of the gospel would be regularly levied and collected, measures were taken to provide a pastor. Until this period (1766), preaching had been supplied by various ministers,--in 1753 by the Rev. C. M. Smith, of Hatfield, and at later periods by the Revs. Eleazer May, Mr. Treat, Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Swan, Simeon Strong, and Eliphalet Huntington. The meetings were held at the houses of the principal inhabitants, and, for a short time, in the unfinished meeting-house.

      On the 16th of March, 1767, David White was sent by the town to Walpole, N. H., to invite the Rev. Jonathan Leavitt to preach as a candidate. An invitation to settle as a pastor followed, and in case of acceptance it was voted to give him "One hundred pounds settlement,"—sixty pounds the first year, and forty the second; also a salary as follows: "Fifty pounds the first year, and to raise two pounds a year for five years, and there to continue until there are sixty families in town; and to rise one pound upon each family that shall be added above sixty until it comes to eighty pounds a year, and there to remain during his continuance with us in the work of the ministry; and likewise to find him his wood."

      Mr. Leavitt having accepted this proposition, Aaron Rice, Othniel Taylor, and Gershom Hawks were appointed to provide for his installation. It was also agreed to build him a house on the lot of 100 acres before mentioned, and to which he was entitled as the first minister in town. The church, probably, was organized about this time, September, 1767, and had as its deacons Aaron Rice and Gershom Hawks. The installation, which took place soon after, was preceded by a solemn fast, and was closed with feasting and rejoicing, according to the custom of that day. The pastor, the Rev. Jonathan Leavitt, was a native of Suffield, Conn., had graduated at Yale in 1758, and was ordained to the ministry at Walpole, N. H., from which place he was dismissed in 1765. His sermons were learned, and it is said that his prayers were incredibly long. A fellow-minister said of him: "He dressed in the costume of his day, wore a great white wig and a cocked-up hat, making an elegant appearance. He could do more execution with one nod of his wig than you or I could talking half an hour." He remained with the church until its dissolution, about 1785, and died in Heath in 1801.
      Before the settlement of Mr. Leavitt the town had decided to build a new meeting-house. Aug. 8, 1767, it was "voted to build another meeting-house, half-way from the one already built to Mr. David White's dwelling-house, or the nearest convenient place thereto, 45 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 20 feet posts." Aaron Rice, Jonathan Taylor, and Jonathan Hastings were appointed "to settle the place," and Aaron Rice, David White, and Timothy Thayer to oversee and carry on the meeting-house. It was occupied in the fall of 1769, but was not completed before 1772. In that year, Samuel Hunt, Asaph White, and Asahel Thayer were selected by the town to finish it. In the division of Charlemont the house fell within the bounds of Heath, and that town took the building to Heath hamlet in 1789, where it was used as a meeting-house until 1833.
      No records having been preserved, it is not possible to give full history of the church over which Mr. Leavitt presided About fifteen years, and of which he was the only pastor. Various causes tended to bring it to an end. Some accused Mr. Leavitt of Arminianism, and others questioned his loyalty of the patriot cause; but it is probable that neither was the case. It is more likely that the people found it inconvenient to pay him his salary, and for that reason wished to termiate his pastorate. It appears that he was not willing to have his pastoral relations dissolved until his arrearages were paid and their supposed grievances had been submitted to regular council of the neighboring churches. The town, however, assumed the right to dismiss Mr. Leavitt, and in 780 approved the action of the selectmen in shutting up the meeting-house, so that Mr. Leavitt could no longer preach from its pulpit. But he continued his ministrations in the school-house near by and at his own house, and when the town could not agree to a proper settlement, he sued to recover his salary. It was awarded him by the Supreme Court, which held the inability of the town to dismiss a minister without the consent and concurrence of an ecclesiastical council.
      These unfortunate dissensions had a depressing effect on the religious interests of the town, causing the dissolution of the church and preventing, for several years, the formation of a new society. For about three years the town had no church within its bounds, but on the 6th of June, 1788, was organized what became known as the First Congregational Church In Charlemont.

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