Home
Up

Chapter 5 - Pages 52-63

Historic Rehoboth 52

Now these picked English families, which settled Rehoboth under the head of that celebrated divine, Samuel Newman, were the best seed ever planted for the growth of colonial life. The home was the center and circumference of toil, thought and affection. For this they perilled all, and its value was more precious than life. Naturally enough in this isolated life in a wilderness it developed what was and is the glory of our New England society, a race of stalwart, individual, independent men and women. You have doubtless often wondered how the free spirited Minerva of our early days could have sprung full panoplied from the head of the monarchical Jupiter of English society of the seventeenth century; but it is not a wonder of an hour’s duration when you picture the conditions of that rugged pioneer. The homestead and the farmsteads were detached, one apart from another, often miles away. The great house with its lean-to was the product of the carpentry and masonic skill of the owner. The good man made his own tools, furniture; carts, wagons, ploughs, etc. Within doors, the good wife made herself more famous than the virtuous women of the Proverbs of King Lemuel, for she also sought wool and flax, and wrought diligently with spinning wheel, distaff and loom, for the clothing of her household, by day and by night. Like the merchant ships she brought her food from all obtainable quarters. She often considered a field, to buy it, and with the fruits of her hands she planted her vines. She perceived that her merchandise was good, and her candle went not out by night while she laid her hands to the spindle and the needle. Neither she nor her household feared a New England winter, for her hands had wrought the garments that protected. She looked well to the wants of her children, and ate not the bread

 
Historic Rehoboth 53

of idleness. As the result, we, her descendants, rise up and call her blessed, and can say most devoutly: Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou, 0 good-wife Newman, Bliss, Carpenter, et id genus omne, excellest them all. This was a training for citizenship that a prince might envy, yet never possess. Not only was each man and woman the architect of his own fortune, but everything that related to it, and the lazy dog who would not earn his daily bread, and the shrew who talked and scolded, was either disciplined at the whipping post or ducked in the frog pond. There was then no Illinois prairies and Minneapolis flour mills to feed the family; no cattle market at Chicago, and no Porkopolis at Cincinnati. All was home produced and home consumed, except as the laws of barter and interchange enabled one neighbor to accommodate another. The Massachusetts town of two centuries ago was as independent a community as could be found on the planet, and each of its integral families was self-protecting, self-supporting and self-perpetuating, and without any law of primogeniture as to landed estates or rank, the families of the tenth generation to-day cultivate the ancestral acres and cherish the family heirlooms of the settlers of the first planting.

In the midst of such a society, peerage was a common inheritance, for every man felt himself the equal of his neighbor, and blood counted only as it was capable of conquest over a stubborn soil and an inhospitable climate. An attempt was made in the sister municipality Of Swansea to transplant there a foreign system of ranks to her soil, corresponding to the three Roman orders, the Patrician, the Equestrian and the Plebeian. In 1670 the town passed a law, that the people should be divided into three ranks, according to the landed property of each; the first

 

Historic Rehoboth 54

rank holding three acres to two for the second and one for the third, in this way building up a landed aristocracy, with a committee for the admission of inhabitants and the appointment of land. The full meaning of this aristocratic legislation was not seen until it was ordered, in 1681 that Capt. John Brown, formerly of Rehoboth, and others, their heirs and assigns, forever should enjoy the full right and intent of the highest rank. Then the town entered its unanimous protest against the undemocratic acts of the magnates, and this element of feudal tyranny passed into everlasting oblivion. This independency of the individual, the integrity and purity of the family, and the almost complete autonomy of the town, were the result not only of the native spirit and genius of this remarkable people, but also were supported and perpetuated by agencies which were of universal application in the Puritan or Pilgrim towns of these colonies.

As has been seen, this New England town grew out of the germ of associated action. The proprietary, the church, the village, all required aggregation, combination and unity of action. Self-preservation and a common sentiment of protection compelled this course. See what valuable results flowed from what may have been at first only an impulse to preserve life and property. Social order was mach possible. Scattered settlements generated excessive individuality and independence. Mankind easily revert to barbarism, often easily enough in the midst of civilization, but more readily in isolated life. Hermitism is only one remove from criminal desperation. It is the morbid sentiment which leads men to attempt to destroy society by a removal from it a determination to punish society for its offences by punishing one’s self; a sort of moral and social suicide. With the savage in the forest, the homes

 

Historic Rehoboth 55

of New England were protected only by the midnight guard which could watch over the village. What was a virtue of necessity, was also the virtue of instinct, and the guarantee of the highest social order, and the existence and protection, of the best agencies and forces in society. In union was their salvation as well as their strength.

In the first place, the morals of society were protected in this village life. The common scandal of the town was at once the prevention and the cure for social disorder. "What will the neighbors say?" had a powerful deterrent influence among the evil minded. Village gossip, conducted by Mrs. Grundy, her ancestors and descendants, may be a hateful medicine, but it works wonderful cures. The thumb screw and the whipping post were terrible inflictions, but these were no terrors to the common scold, the termagant, or the disturbers of the village peace. Public opinion in a New England village two hundred years ago was the real preserver of the high standard of virtue, morality, high regard for law, and the protection of individual and social reputation more potent than the officer of justice and the lockup. In the second place, church life was made possible in the New England village of our fathers. Robust religious life is best fostered in a community of sturdy settlers, each of whom has an identity, a home, and the means of general intelligence, The two sermons on Sunday, the weekly prayer meeting, the lecture, the prayerful visit of the Godly minister, the personal solicitude for souls, reaching almost to morbid fanaticism, were only possible in communities more or less compact and united by a common and a personal interest. Inter-marriages made the interests the sharper, and the inter-twinings, linkings and lacings of our New England families are the marvellous studies of the genealogist and

 

Historic Rehoboth 56

socialist of our times. Young men and maidens fall in love, court and marry in a sensible way, only in the presence of their fellows. These delightful experiences lose all their romance, and half their delight, outside the restraints, the counter-matching, the frolicking and the flirting of the town. Compare the loneliness of a courtship with your lady love twenty miles away in a log cabin in the woods, with no rival wooer, whose plots and counterplots are your daily study and nightly dream, with the sprightliness, the joy and the heavenly satisfaction of wooing and winning the belle of the town, after repulses and rebuffs, encouraging smile and discouraging rival; her whose beauty has smitten the heart of every bashful village beau, and whose heart and hand have been sought by all whose courage was equal to the encounter. With such sport, trout fishing or fox hunting have small attractions and little fun, and the capture of the beauteous village maiden is an exploit which in its progress has occupied the pens of novelists and poets for the ages. ‘Twas the village that gave zest and interest to the four week’s publishment, the first announcement of which was so much more entertaining to the village gossips than the environments of modern engagements and match making. And then again, where could the donation parties, the tea parties, the quilting bees, the huskings, the paring bees, the house raisings, the ploughing matches, have found their free development and fruition save in our old New England towns. When we consider that all that is left to us of all these old-time social joys is the degenerate skating rink, we may well sigh for some return of the good old days of town life before railroads, telegraphs and hourly mail deliveries had made it possible to conduct business in your office easy chair, with people half round the globe

 

Historic Rehoboth 57

whom you never expect to see; court and marry by lightning, and listen to the minister’s sermon on Sunday by the telephone leading from the sounding board in the church to your bed-chamber.

Little emphasis, so far as I know, has been placed on New England village life as the patron and fosterer of that remarkable ministry which has made that era so wonderful in its theology and this logical outcome. Look back over New England life two and one-half centuries ago, and the central figure of every town is the minister of the old church on the hill top or on the village green. The dignity, the majesty of that early day is personified in the pastor and teacher of the town. When you think of old Dorchester, the Mathers rise before you; Brewster, of Plymouth; Peter Hobart, of Hingham; John Harvard, of Cambridge; Roger Williams, of Providence; John Myles, of Swansea; and Samuel Newman, of Rehoboth men of piety unfeigned, of sobriety unchallenged, of scholarship profound for the times, of continuous preaching capacity, endless. The New England pastor of olden time was the factotum of the town—minister, teacher, judge, counsellor, doctor, surgeon, undertaker, scribe, school committee, town clerk, et cetera, et cetera. Where duty or necessity called there you found him. He answered every call from the cradle to the grave, and listened to all appeals either to shoulder his musket and march against the Indians, or to lead his sermons with ammunitions fit to kill rebellious souls. He dispenses preaching in large measure but often dispenses with the Gospel. His theology was as terrific as Sinai, square-faced as the Pyramids and as dry as a mummy. Should another deluge engulf the earth, a library of the theology of the Christian fathers of New England would be the dryest if not the

 

Historic Rehoboth 58

hottest place that could be discovered. By its aid and, in spite of its terrific thunderings and lightnings, it saved New England character and energized its life. Only the descendants of Thor could stand and prevail midst the display of his mighty energy. The main body of our literature till within a century came from the brains and pens of our divines. Cruden’s Concordance, of such world-wide use in the study of the Bible, was the product of Rev. Samuel Newman, of Rehoboth, who was styled the Neander of New England. The length of their pastorates made them objects of special veneration, and it is not to be wondered at that the Barrington urchin of 1785, ‘when asked who was the first man, replied "Mr. Townsend," since his venerable form and figure gave to all the impression of the nearness of the Ancient of Days.

 

Historic Rehoboth 59

 

in civil affairs. As the pastor was the central figure among individuals, so the church was the all powerful organization in society. Rehoboth was created for the church, not the church for Rehoboth. The church was in many senses the town. The town elected and supported the minister, determined his qualifications, and dismissed him for cause. His orthodoxy or otherdoxy was determined in town meeting. He was the father of the town fathers, and at the same time was the servant of their servants. Town politics and State policy were discussed in the pulpits; and everybody went to church to hear the new publishments, to learn the news and the latest gossip, to get fresh unction on the doctrine of predestination, the perseverance of the saints, and condition of unregenerate infants and heathen, and name the candidates for tithing men, constable or deputy to the General Court. The meeting-house was the scene of baptisms, polemic theology and funerals on Sundays, and of the most tremendous muscular Christianity on the following week days, when the intellectual giants of the town met to settle town and State destinies.

I wish I could portray to you the religious aspect of the early town meetings of our grandfathers. The scene is worthy of an abler artist, and would demand an evening’s portrayal. Let it suffice that I call attention to it, that some of our new society may take the task to preserve its profusely sacred lineaments. Here freeman met freeman with an honorable desire to glorify God, and to serve the civil community. The ballot box, which was originally probably the senior deacon’s bell crowned hat, witnessed no stuffing unless, perchance, it may have been with the deacon’s new bandanna, used occasionally to relieve the good man’s snuff-taking olfactories, with stentorian accompaniments. The ministerial prayer opened

 

Historic Rehoboth 60

 

the annual and special town-meeting, as it did almost every gathering at which the minister met his people, while the long meter doxology closed the services in which victor and vanquished politician joined with grace and heartiness. Even as late as 1870, in the town in which I reside, at its last town election prior to its merging its corporate life in the great city of Boston, the exercises were commenced by a devout prayer offered by Rev. Dr. Means, the pastor of the Congregational church. Gradually as the years rolled on towards the middle of the eighteenth century, the hold of the clergy on the people, of the ecclesiastical on the civil, lessened, but the influence of the minister and the church, while less directive in social and civil affairs was not diminished, but rather increased, and while we can never cease to recognize and be grateful for what the churches and ministries of old New England have done in the making of New England, we may also be grateful for their enfranchisement of State and church, each to occupy more as became an advanced civilization, their true places in the harmonious development of man and society.

Too much importance cannot be attached to the town meeting of our early colonial history, as an educator of the people, and as a preserver of their liberties. In the open town meeting were discussed the weightiest affairs of church and State. All the freeman not only had a voice in these discussions, but were compelled by law to attend, at the cost of fine or imprisonment. In the town meeting, the meeting houses were located, and the minister selected; highways were ordered laid Out, public houses were granted rights, and licenses were allowed, military affairs were discussed, arms and ammunition were provided, and military officers were elected; officers were elected to preside over the town’s affairs, to look after and

 

Historic Rehoboth 61

care for the poor, to return a valuation of estates and to levy taxes, to provide wolf-traps, brand marks for horses tything man to collect ministerial rates, and watch incorrigible boys on Sunday; schools were set up and schoolmasters chosen. The town meeting ordered the records of births, marriages and deaths; chose all necessary town officers and deputies to the General Court. In 1670 it was voted "that none shall vote in town meeting but freemen, or freeholders of twenty pounds ratable estate, and of good conversation, having taken the oath of fidelity."

What a school of training was this in the arts of town craft and states craft. Vigilance in matters relating to the town was naturally extended to other matters, relating to the affairs of sister towns, the colony, and sister colonies. So sprung up these little commonwealths, where the intelligent and responsible freeholders exercised themselves in all their public affairs, the greater commonwealths to which were transferred the same jealous care, honest service, and high-minded administration.

But I must not leave unnoticed another figure which looms up giant-like in the midst of the men and events of that earlier day. I refer to the village or district schoolmaster, the much hated man of his own day, and the much praised man of ours. James Russell Lowell says that the American Revolution Was really fought, and its victories won a century and more before it occurred, when Massachusetts passed the law establishing free schools in every town in the colony. The people of these old towns in Plymouth Colony were as earnest to educate as to Christianize their children, and the right ways of learning were to them as sacred as the right ways of the Lord. In fact the road to the church led past the school house from every New England home, Three years before the famous

 

Historic Rehoboth 62

Massachusetts ordinance of 1647, the Magna Charta of our liberties, the proprietors of this town set apart lands to the value of £so for the school master, and the records of the town bear witness to the interest the people took in the school life of their children. It is quite true that the early school-master was not always the most learned man in the community, provided, he was a man that was orthodox and able to flog the big boys. Brawn rather than brain was one of the chief requisites in the qualifications of a good school-master. Possibly some of the audience have not forgotten the lineal descendants of Ichabod Crane, who wielded the birchen rod, in the old red or no-colored school house, of their early clays.

You can say with Goldsmith:

A man severe lie was and stern to view

I knew him well as every truant knew

Well had the boding youngster learned to trace

The day’s disasters in his morning face.

Full well they laughed with counterfeited glee

At all his jokes, for many a joke had lie,

While words of learned length and thundering sound,

Amazed the simple rustics gathered round

The school-master was not a worldly man, then, as he is not to-day. Bliss says in his history of "Rehoboth, that in 1680 the townsmen made a treaty with Mr. Edward 1-loward to teach school for £20 a year, in country pay, and his diet, beside what the Court doth allow in that case." The court allowance here referred to was an apportionment of certain moneys from the income of cod fisheries and whales. Mr. William Sabin was a man of so generous a mould that he freely proffered to diet him the first quarter. William Carpenter was ordered to procure shingles, boards and nails to repair the school house, and make it fit to keep school in. Later Thomas Robinson was engaged to keep a reading and writing school, Later

 

Historic Rehoboth 63

still Robert Dickson was engaged to " do his utmost endeavor to teach both sexes of boys and girls to read English and write and cast accounts," for which he was to receive "Ji3 pounds, one-half in silver money and the other half in good merchantable boards at the current and merchantable prices."

John Lynn was engaged to teach school for a year at "the ring of the town," "the neighborhood on the east side of the ring of the town," 21 weeks ; "Palmer’s River," 14 weeks; "Watchornoquet Neck," 13 weeks; Capt. Enoch Hunt’s neighborhood and "the mile and a half," 9 weeks.

In the old school house, with its fire place at one end, and the master’s desk at the other, flanked on either side by the slab benches without backs, with the roguish boys on one side of the room casting more than sheep’s eyes at the red-cheeked girls on the other, were raised the youths who were preparing to be tithing men, fence viewers, hog reeves, town clerks, surveyors, selectmen, grand jury men, constables, sheriffs, deputies to the Great and General Court, and some even had the ambition to become school-masters in town to get late vengeance on the injustice of their own masters.

But while it would be most gratifying to dwell on these and other agencies and influences which have made the old towns of New England famous in America, yea, the world’s history, more practical lessons are before us in the work to which this Hall and its associate rooms are to be devoted, and the work to which New Rehoboth is to give itself; for turning from the past, we find ourselves in an age of marvellous progress, an era whose watchword is co-operation; its emblems are the steam engine and the telegraph. The old word and work were independency;