Many items of local history will be of interest to a circle of Churches in Worshester Country. They relate to the town, the Church, its pastor, its associations, and its usefulness in giving origin to other Churches and in sending forth men to other fields. For the facts recorded as to the town the writer is indebted to his former school-mate J. B. Willard; for those relating to the Church and its pastors to its present pastor and senior members; and for those indicating its associational relations to the historic discourse of Rev. Dr. Weston and the contributions of his college-mate Rev. Dr. Bowers.
At the time of the first settlements of Salem and Boston the valley of the Nashua, written also Nashawogg and Nashaway , was occupied by bands of Indians ruled by a chief named Shaumaw or Sholau; whose headquarters were at Waushacum now Sterling. On a trading visit to Watertown Sholau asked settlers for his valley. Lancaster was incorporated May 18, 1653. Five years afterwards the town authorities asked the General Court at Boston to send a commission to aid in the government on the east bank of the Nashua. Simon Willard, whose estate is now in part held by his descendants, was sent; and the settlement of the
hamlet now known as Still River was one of the earliest in the State; precedng by many years that of Harvard proper. Simon Willard 's first and second wives were of the family of President Dunster of Harvard College; and, from the first, Baptist views prevailed in the settlement. It was a grandson of Simon Willard, Dea. Lemuel Willard, son of Henry Willard and Mary Dunster, who though he died in 1775 and was a deacon in the established Church, used to say, "If I lived where there was a Baptist Church I would unite with it." Among the earliest settlers, whose descendants for generations have been mainly Baptists, were the Houghtons, Athertons and Hasketts.
Simon Willard's second son, Samuel, became minister of the old South Church, Boston, then President of Harvard College. Probably it was from the relation of these two Presidents, Dunster and Willard, to the College and to the settlement, that the name Harvard was given to the new town on the east bank of the Nashua, incorporated in 1732; which included the hamlet of Still River. The opposition to superstition fostered by Baptist views, was illustrated in the clear reasoning and earnest energy of President Willard in opposing the witchcraft delusion.
The first record of the Church in existence is a memorandum made in 1870, and headed: "Account of the gathering of the Baptist Church, Harvard, with its additions." It begins: "1776, June 27th, fourteen persons imbodied themselves into a Church," &c. Their union-pledge reads: "We, Stephen Gates, Tarbell Willard, Isaiah Parker, Wm.
Willard, Jr., Josiah Willard, Joseph Stone, Ruth Kilburn, Sarah Kilburn, Jemima Blanchard, Rachel Willard, Annie Willard, &c." In one week's time, on the 4th of July, 1776, Tarbell and Annie Willard were tried for holding Universalist views and excluded. Isaiah Parker, M. D., who had studied medicine under Dr. Thomas Green of Leicester and became a Baptist one year before, in 1775, was ordained as pastor under an old elm; Dr. Stillman of Boston preaching the sermon. Among the first baptized was Joseph Haskell, then ninety years of age, who became a deacon, and died aged ninety-three. Dr. Parker baptized during his ministry of twenty-four years, 90 persons. He resigned late in 1798 because of difficulty as to the doctrine of universal salvation. In this early period appear the names of Jacob and Levi Haskell, baptized in 1782, and of Misses Lucy and Sarah Whiting, in 1785. Josiah Haskell, a son of Dea. Joseph, became a member of the Society, and his son Jacob of the Church; several of whose descendants have been active members during its entire history.
In the Spring of 1799 Elder Geo. Robinson became pastor. During the next year, 1800, a season of revival followed, when 28 were baptized. Soon after a division as to Universalist views resulted in the first adoption of Articles of Faith, May 5th, 1803. This was succeeded by another event, marked at the time; the election [on] August 23, 1803, of Benj. Willard to lead the choir. During this period the wife of Abel Willard became a member of the Church.
The Harvard Church was the eighth Baptist
Church organized in what is now Worcester County; the Churches preceding being Sutton in 1735, Bellingham in 1737, Leister in 1738, Dudley in 1744, Spencer in 1767, Grafton in 1767 and Douglas in 1774; but in numbers and influence the Harvard Church soon took the lead. The Warren Association, formed in Rhode Island in 1767, which had gathered into its body the leading Churches of Massachusetts, met witht the Harvard Church in 1790; when the Church was found for years to have had more communicants than the 1st Cambridge, 2d Boston, 2d Newport, and even the 1st Providence Churches; while also the Association was so hospitably entertained that they voted to meet again in the same Church in 1792. When in the town of Worsester only three Baptist communicants could be found, the Harvard Church numbered over 150 members.
On the 14th September, 1811, Rev. Geo. Robinson having resigned, Rev. Abisha Samson became pastor. During his ministry of twenty years, the Church began its mission in the neighboring towns. Not only were members drawn in from distant locations, as the Haynes family in bolton, the Chase family in South Lancaster, and the Burbank family in North Lancaster, but incursions were made into all surrounding towns. In June, 1816, as the Church record states, "Elder Samson preached in Boxboro and baptized four converts." In 1816 Levi Howard, Jr., was chosen deacon. "to aid Dea. Haven; and Chas. Chase, Jr., to serve the branch in South Lancaster." It is significant of growing conviction that the three were ordained together, August 4th, 1819. During the first twelve years of Elder Samson's pastorate
114 person were baptized. In 1821 the members in Littleton asked permission to sustain gospel preaching among themselves; and February 5th, 1823, thirty-four were dismissed to form a new Church. The record of May 1st, 1823, makes mention of a Committee of the Church appointed to superintend the S. School; a custom of Church supervision perhaps worthy of perpetuation. July, 1823, Benj. Willard, twenty years before appointed chorister, is licensed to preach. In 1824 the Church list is revised; and the number of members retained is 111. In 1827, as a farther step towards Church supervision, a S. S. Association is formed "with Elder Samson as Prest., Jacob Haskell as Treas., A. Burbank and Dea. Chase as Assistants." In 1829 Dea. Chase is "appointed Superintendent"; and A. Burbank is licensed to preach and recommended for ordination as pastor of the Townsend Church.
In the year 1831, the year of "Four Days' Meetings," a series of sermons by neighboring pastors from Tuesday through Friday, led to an extended revival; during which Calvin Haskell, Wm. B. Willard, with their wives, and many others of mature age, were baptized; as also some children, and among them the youngest son of the pastor. Of the fruits of that work of grace, and of the twenty years preceding pastoral labor, Rev. Andrew Dunn, pastor from 1860 to 1863, wrote; "Eternity alone will disclose the amount of good accomplished during this pastorate. Many who were converted through his instrumentality and ripened into mature Christians under his faithful watch care, still live and are active members of the Church. Doubtless long
after he shall have entered upon his final reward his name will be held in affectionate remembrance by the children's children of them who revere him as their spiritual father."
During this period, the weekly prayer meeting was held in a private house; the Sunday evening service was in a large dining room of the old Haskell mansion; and while the deacons usually took charge of this service, the pastor preached a third sermon at South Lancaster and other towns within a few miles range. Through this missionary work the germs of the following Churches were planted and nurtured: West Boylston, West Townsend, Fitchburg, Leominster, Littleton, Acton, Bolton, Clinton and Ayer Junction; most of which became distinct Churches later in the history of the Harvard Church.
During this period, in October, 1819, the Worcester Baptist Association was formed; among whose founders the pastor of the Harvard Church was prominent. Thirteen Churches formed this Association; the first in point of members being Holden with 165 and second Harvard with 144 members. Not long after the Massachusetts Baptist Convention, uniting all the Associations into one Representative body, was formed; and it is mentioned by Dr. Bowers as indicative of the comparative influence of the Harvard Church, that though such men as "Stillman, Baldwin, Sharp, Bolles and Going," were among its representative members, "Abisha Samson was elected President of the Convention more years in succession than any other minister who has ever served in that office."
During this period several men of mature years and one or two converted in early life were led into the Christian ministry. Among the former were Benj. Willard and Aaron Burbank, already mentioned; and among the latter was your speaker of to-day. Benj. Wallard was the father of Rev. F. A., of Andrew and of George Willard; the former of whom became so eminent in the ministry. Of the remaining period of the life of that pastor whose ministry closed in May, 1832, Rev. Dr. Weston makes this record in his history of the Worcester Association: "In the midst was Abisha Samson, pastor of the Church at Harvard. He remained a quarter of a century in the Association he had help to form; being pastor at Southboro till 1844. Then old and blind, he went to complete his life in the family of his son Dr. Geo. W. Samson, President of Columbia College, Washington, D. C." He died in June 1861; surrounded by regiments encamped on the College grounds, just when the booming cannon told of the first battle of the war over the Potomac. He had often expressed the wish that he might not outlive his usefulness. If prayer is of any value that wish was granted in the abundant blessing poured on the Church of which he was then a member; which from a little band of 21 members is now six flourishing Churches. If prayer is of any avail his were heard, when, quietly lying on his lounge he would exclaim as he heard the cannon, "George, can nothing be done to stop this cruel war!" and then would audibly plead with God that it might be "overruled for good."
The third and fourth eras of the history of the Harvard Church lose nothing in the brightness in comparison with the two previous eras.
In June 1832, Benj. Willard, a licentate, was invited to supply the pulpit. The building of the new-house of worship absorbed attention for some months, during which Mr. Manning remained. In November 1832, Rev. J. E. Lazell became pastor; but failure of health preventing him from preaching; the pulpit was supplied mainly by students from Newton Theological Institute; and in August, 1833, Mr. Lazell resigned. He died afterwards of hemorrhage from the lungs; beloved by all for his genial spirit.
In October, 1833, Rev. Benj. Hawthorne succeeded. He, too, was feeble in physical constitution; though earnest in manner. The untimely death of the lady to whom he was to have been married greatly affected him; and after a pastorate of less than two years he resigned in March, 1835.
In May, 1835, Rev. Moses Curtis, who enjoyed a ministry of about fifty years and was blessed with frequent revivals in several pastorates, succeeded. In 1841, during a special revival about thirty were baptized; some of whom were young men who became pillars in the Church. In March, 1842, Mr. Curtis resigned, and entered a new pastorate in Blecher town; where he died in 1874, at the age of 79 years.
In April, 1842, Rev. Clark Sibley became pastor. He was a man who "lived the Gospel." During his pastorate the "Second Advent" excitement compelled the withdrawal of the hand of fellowship from
some; but the pastor's calm and forbearing spirit specially fitted him to guide in such a storm. Many valuable additions were made to the Church under his ministry. He suffered long from cancer, but bore his pain with Christian fortitude. He resigned in 1850; and died some years later.
In August, 1850, Rev. Chas. M. Willard became pastor. He served till October, 1856; when amid the season of financial embarrasment the Church was for some time without a pastor.
In June, 1857, Rev. John A. Lerned succeeded. The social meetings assumed an unusual interest. But, as no special work of grace was manifested, he resigned in March, 1860.
In April, 1860, Rev. Andrew Dunn became pastor. His ministry was characterized by faithful labor; but after three years he resigned.
In July, 1863, Rev. Leonard Tracy became pastor of the church, and continued in office until July, 1868. During his ministry the church was prosperous; the additions to its membership were not large, but the genial, kind spirit of the pastor was manifest in developing union in every good word and work. While he was pastor of the church the meeting-house was remodeled, and a chapel added to it, for the use of the Sabbath School and for social meetings. As the result of his sowing, others have since been gathering in the fruits of his labors. His memory is precious.
In 1868, Rev. John A. Lerned again became pastor for one year.
In 1870, Rev. Wm. Leach became pastor. He died the next year, March 31, 1871, of an affection [infection] of the brain; the only minister that ever died on the field. His remains and those of his wife sleep in the Harvard burial ground; and he lives in affectionate memory for his own and for his work's sake.
In 1871, Rev. John W. Dick succeeded. After a brief pastorate he resigned in 1873.
In 1874, Rev. Daniel Round, the present pastor, began his labors. Ordained in 1839 at the Barnstable Association, he gathered the first Church at Nantucket, succeeded in rearing their house of worship, and served them five years. He was next pastor for six years of the High St. Church, Pawtucket, R. I.;
and afterwards eighteen months at Cohoes, N. Y., during which time a house of worship was there built. Engaging then for a time in secular buisness because of a throat difficulty, he began preaching in a schoolhouse in East Providence; which led to the forming of a Church, the building of a house and a pastorate of five years. Becoming then pastor at N. Wrentham, now Nofolk, another house was built during a pastorate of six years; when he removed at the request of Father Fitts to Baldwinsville, and in eleven months secured the erection of a house of worship. Taking charge then of the Church in Franklin, Mass., undertaking in trying times the effort to secure them a house, after two years he was obliged to take a second respite for three years. His pastorate in Harvard, begun in 1874, has brought fresh encouragement to the mother of so many Churches whose more favorable location has given them a more rapid recent growth.
Writing a summary view of the pastors of the Harvard Church, numbering in all fourteen, paying a fitting tribute to each, Dr. Bowen, gives the following designations of those deceased who where specially known to him: "Six have gone to their reward; first, the gentle and beloved Lazell; then, the earnest and vigorous Hathorne; next, the excellent Curtis; again the meek and tender Sibley; then again the genial gentlemanly Tracy; and sixth the kind and un obtrusive Leach." Of the entire list he says: "Of the fourteen ministers who during one hundred years have led the Church, no stain rests on the memory or moral character of a single one. All of them have been marked by a high sense of
virtue and honor; while some have been very eminent in piety and cconsecration. May this honored Church have men of as much woth of character during the next hundred years!"
[From G. W. Samson, Baptist Succession, Or Baptist Principles in Church History, 1876. The document was provided by Pastor Steve Lecrone, Burton, OH. - Transcribed and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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