The Beginning: The First Congregational Church, Rowley*
The First Congregational Church, Rowley, In Rowley, Massachusetts as well as the town itself was established in 1639, the seventh month and fourth day. At that time in history, the New Year was celebrated on March 20, the spring equinox, which made the seventh month September. Ezekiel Rogers, the leader of the settlers here, was the assistant pastor at St. Peter’s Church of England in Rowley, Yorkshire England. The leaders of the English church sent down a decree telling the pastors of their churches to encourage their parishioners to play ball and in general to engage in sports of the Sabbath Day. Horrors!!!!!
Rogers refused to allow his parishioners to participate in such unholy actions on the Sabbath, and in due time gathered together those who were inspired by fiery speeches to observe a strictly religious and puritanical observance of Sundays. At least twenty-one families left Rowley, England, with Rogers when they came to the New World and settled here. These emigrants were very industrious and considered comfortably well-off in England. Most of them had been clothiers (makers of cloth). Some were the owners of shops for the production of cloth and others were those who wove cloth on consignment. They were the first people in the new world to set up the making of cloth. They spun wool, flax and hemp and wove it into linsey-woolsey. Here was built the first fulling mill in America on Mill River.1 1 Look for the sign telling about the mill on Route One close to Jewell Mill.
Ezekiel Rogers, born in 1590, was a firey, forceful preacher of a strong, strict, puritanical faith. Ezekiel’s father, Richard, had been a “Preacher of the Word of God” of Wethersfield, Essex, England. Ezekiel, himself a graduate of Christ’s College and a Master of Arts from the University of Cambridge, was appointed by the Church of England to Rowley, Yorkshire Church of St. Peter, to be an assistant minister on February 21, 1619, where he remained for seventeen years. The Church of England was a rather liberal organization under the leadership of the ruler of England, at that time King George III. When the church decreed that sports should be allowed on “God’s Holy Sabbath” Rogers refused to read the decree on Sunday and was suspended from his duties at the church.
Rogers was a leader of men and many men of his parish chose to follow his puritanical beliefs. Rogers preached in private homes over the next three years while he secured his inheritance to take with him from England and his followers did the same.
The families of Rowley, Yorkshire, England, were industrious weavers of more than common wealth. Twenty-two families pooled together enough of their funds combined with other families of the same ideals and came to America on the ship John in 1638 knowing they would in all probability never see their homeland again. Their faith in their leader, Rogers, and their belief in God’s will gave them the courage.
Rogers was a prolific letter writer. Copies of many of his letters can be found in Jewett’s book “Rowley, Massachusetts, Mr. Ezekiel Rogers Plantation, 1639-1850.” From these letters one finds that he was a man of irreversible determination.
His fame as a Christian speaker was widespread and after twelve years in his ministry in Rowley he was persuaded to set up fortnightly lectures for inhabitants of other towns. These were very successful.
Rogers became a persuasive leader in the development of Puritanical government of the Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was one of four ministers from Essex County with four others from each of the other counties chosen to discuss and settle the questions of church law which was also the colony law. He was the first recorded preacher at a council of Congregational Churches in New England. As he preached there were many who were offended by his religious zeal. Among his strong beliefs was that private members should not make speeches in church assemblies. The minister was “the leader” and “ruler.”
Rogers was first married in 1627 to Joan Hartopp. She came to America with him and died in Rowley in childbirth along with the child she bore him. His second marriage was to Joan Nelson who was much younger than himself in the hope of producing a son. She too died in childbirth as well as the child. His third wife, widow Mary Barker, was more nearly his age and outlived him by about 17 years.
The home of Rogers, the furnishings, his library and all the church records were destroyed by fire on the night of his third marriage, July 16, 1651. It was commonly believed that a woman who wanted to be his wife set the fire out of jealously. Undaunted by age (he was 61) and infirmity (he was arthritic) he built a new house and replenished his library.
A few weeks after the fire he fell from his horse and broke his arm which became permanently useless. Not to let life’s misfortunes overcome him he learned to write with his left hand. He had never been strong physically. He felt that the natural constitution of his body was “feeble and crazy.” He studied Phyics (medicine) when he was a young man because, his lively imagination about a “crazy body” told him it would require constant attention to the rules of health if his life was going to be a long one.
Throughout his ministry in Rowley he was a concerned leader and teacher of children. His own background in education made him determined that all children should have schooling. And as is usual for persons as they grow older, he was discouraged by the youth growing worldly. He grieved about the rising generations attitude “everyone for himself,” and other things that were amiss such as boys trend to long hair. He wanted children to go back to the old custom of children being on their knees as they asked their parent’s daily blessings.
Ezekiel Rogers died January 23, 1660, and was buried in the Rowley Cemetery. In 1805 his remains were removed a few yards west. In 1851 a new monument (the present one) was erected in his memory. It is believed the original marker had been an oak slab, typical of the era.
He left a lasting heritage to us, the members of “his church,” and the residents of Rowley.
The First Covenant
The first covenant found upon the records of the first church in Rowley is the following:
“You do solemnly covenant and promise before the Lord and his people, that by his help, forsaking all ungodliness and former lusts in your ignorance, you do avouch the Lord Jehovah ELOHIM, one God in three persons, to be your God and portion; you do also own the Lord Jesus the only supreme head and saviour of his church, to be your King, Priest, and Prophet; and you do further covenant to walk in a professed subjection unto all the holy ordinances and orders that Christ has appointed in his house; and to walk as becomes God’s covenanting servant with the members of this church, unto mutual edification and helpfulness, according to the rule of the gospel, so long as God shall continue you a member of the church of Christ.
“We also do acknowledge ourselves engaged by the same solemn covenant to watch over you, and to afford all Christian helpfulness to your edification, as God has required, and by his assistance.”1
1Gage, “History of Rowley, p. 67
The land for the settlement of Rowley was purchased for 800 pounds from Newbury and Ipswich. Each man in Rowley, according to the amount of money he contributed to the purchase, was granted acreage for his home and an adjacent garden, marshland for hay, salt marshland for salt hay for bedding his cattle and for roofing, and an area where he could get what was termed black salt hay ( less salty) for fodder as well as upland, meadowland, and woodlots. Hundreds of acres of land had to be portioned out. Some of the pasture land close to town was held as common land where cattle could be pastured in wintertime and in case of calving or sickness.
Ezekiel Rogers and Thomas Nelson each received six acre lots in town. Rogers land was across from the Center School on Wethersfield Street (approximately where Albert and Helen Haley’s home is now). Nelson’s land was the land on which our present church stands and the area around the home of Robert Todd across the street from the church. These were the two largest grants and the two wealthiest men.
The first church, which was also the meeting house, was erected on Central (then Holmes) Street across from Deacon Rogers land. The church was the town and the meeting house was the center of the town’s activities.
Distances between towns were measured from one meeting house to another. The first church was erected before the close of 1639; it’s timbers were hand hewn and fastened together with wooden pins. The boards were sawed by hand and nailed together with handwrought nails. A marker is by the sidewalk by the Center School telling where it was located.
Every man eighteen years or older, with few exceptions, like age or infirmity, was compelled to stand watch for Indians, wolves, for which there was a bounty, and diverse other dangers. A watch tower for that purpose was built on the hill behind the present library.
A quotation from Jewett’s History tells us about the kind of men who settled here. “A colonist seldom made his way to New England unless he were a man of more than usual energy; and he seldom stayed unless he was a man of unusual stubborness.”
First Congregational Church Buildings
The original church building was dedicated December 3, 1639. The town itself was incorporated in the seventh month, the fourth day in 1639 (September 4, 1639). Just as soon as temporary shelters were built the church building was erected at the intersection of Central Street (then Holmes Street) and Wethersfield Street. It was a simple frame structure. The timbers were hewn by hand and fastened together with wooden pins, the boards laboriously sawed by hand in the saw-pits and nailed to the frame with handwrought nails. It had a gallery and glass in the windows.
It was used not only for the worship of God on the Sabbath and on Lecture Days (midweek services), but also for the transaction of all town business. A church never was called “CHURCH” because Cotton Mather said, “I find no ground in Scripture to apply the name church to a house for public assembly.” Every person who was a church member was assigned a special place to sit within the meeting house. If he sat in another place he was fined five shillings.
The meetinghouse was repaired many times. Every family was taxed to pay for nails and bolts (nails were the most expensive part of the building).
In 1695 the town voted to build a new meeting house, the second. It was to be fifty feet in length and forty foot in breadth and eighteen inches between joints. It had a gallery and glass for windows which materials were used from the first meeting house.
The building was raised in May 1697. All notified persons had to help with the raising or be fined three shillings per diem (day). It had four sides, a roof which went to a peak in the center, and the roof was surmounted by a turret. On the turret was a weather vane with the date 1697 cut in it (see the vane at the historical house). The bell was set up outside the meetinghouse door.
Benches were provided with men sitting on one side and women sitting on the other. The better educated, wealthier, or persons connected to the first families, sat forward, artisans and tradesmen came next with the servants and poorer people following, and last of all Indians and Negroes whether they were slaves or free.
In 1747 it was voted to build a new meeting house, the third one, sixty feet long by 42 feet wide with a steeple on the north side and a porch on the south side. Inside, the pulpit was high up on the back side, a heavy sounding board was over the speaker’s head, a broad aisle was in the center and galleries on the front side and both ends. In 1770 the old iron weathervane was removed and in it’s place on the iron spindle was put a golden Weathercock This is the weathercock we have today. In August of 1777 the meeting house was struck by lightning. Repairs were finally made in 1781 after the Revolutionary War was over. Repairs to the building were paid for by the selling of space to build pews. According to Helen Foster (as reported by her Mother) the historical meetinghouse in Amesbury is very much like the third church building. Helen’s Mother showed her where their family would have had their pew in the Rowley building.
In 1841 it was voted to build a new church building—the fourth meeting house. Parishoners were divided about changing the location to the corner of Hammond and Main Streets. The vote to change the location was won by one vote—24 to 23. Voters on the north side of the brook voted against and the voters on the south side were in favor of moving the site for the building. So bitter was the decision for some of the parishioners that they dropped their membership in the Rowley church and went to the Byfield parish instead.
From 1639 to 1824 (185 years) there was no heat in the meeting houses. Any heat there was came from footstoves carried from home or from an obedient dog which was willing to have his owners feet on him during the long sermons.
Every person was expected to attend Sunday services. If anyone was not in church an appointed delegate was sent to find out why. Only bedridden sickness or death was excusable. Mainly for this reason it was agreed that Congregational Churches were to be built every six miles or less apart so that no one would have to walk more than three miles to church in rain, snow, sleet, freezing weather or unbearable heat. Think about that statement. Start at Belleville Church in Newburyport and follow the old Bay Road (Route 1A) through Newbury, Rowley, Ipswich, Hamilton, Wenham, Beverly, and so on. You will be able to see a Congregational Church just about every six miles.
Business of the Church
The business of the church was divided into four parts—the PARISH, the CORPORATION, the SOCIETY, and the CHURCH.
The most important duty of the Society and the Parish in the mid 1800’s was to set the rate of the ministers salary and to raise the money for it. Selected persons were chosen to solicit funds to pay the pastor’s salary from those who regularly attended church services. These persons were paid a certain percentage of the funds received for their work. They also had to oversee the upkeep and maintenance of the church property. Assessors were chosen annually to sell any available pews belonging to the parish and the parish treasurer received the monies and gave deeds for the pews.
The Parish legally held all the real estate of the church which owned various lots of pasture lands and woodlots. Most of these had been willed to the parish specifically to be set aside to provide income to the church.
The pasturelands were leased as “Cowrights” (for pasturing cows). The woodlots were sometimes leased to others. The wood from some of these lots was also used to heat the church and the parsonage and some of the wood was sold. The major portion of income raised by the parish was through assessment of taxes.
The Spiritual affairs of the organization were handled by the Church. Discipline of the church members was strict and exemplary male members were chosen to oversee wayward parishioners. Committees of men were chosen to investigate acts contrary to the rules of the church. Some such misdemeanors were: (as taken from parish records) mistreatment of a father-in-law, attending a dance, holding a dancing school, staying away from church services, profanity, difficulties between husband and wife, disagreements between sisters, intoxication, etc. If the appointed committee could not resolve the problems the committee was dismissed and another committee formed to resolve the misdemeanor. If no resolution was found, the persons or persons were dismissed from the privileges of the church. At a later date a person could be restored to communion with the church, if he qualified as shown by his behavior and his willingness to conform to the church rules, and more often than not by the payment of a fine and a public apology. Church records read as though many of the transgressors were out of grace constantly.
Joshua Jewett, clerk of the church for sixty years, kept accurate records of names, types of misdemeanors, and the excommunication and reinstatement of these parishioners as well as the final and irrevocable dismissals.
*© 1997 Marian Chase. Excerpts taken from Marian Chase’s Book “Rowley, Massachusetts: An Historical Perspective”