In the 18th century, there was opposition to the Congregational ministers in almost every Berkshire town. These old squabbles would be only mildly interesting today except that the issues fomenting rebellion against the supremacy of the Congregational Church were similar to the issues fueling revolution against England.
The first issue was the separation of church and state. In Township Number one, Tryingham and Monterey today, the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell wrote that he disapproved of the "neglect of prayer at town meeting." The ministers did not see the necessity or the desirability of separating church and state. It was required that Berkshire towns hire a Congregational minister to be incorporated. These ministers were not only spiritual leaders, they were also early settlers who were influential in organizing and governing their towns. They filled both church and government positions, and their philosophy reflected their personal experience.
Moreover, the minister’s salary was paid out of town taxes and voted at town meetings. As the towns grew, not all citizens were members of the Congregational church. Members of the Dutch Reformed Church, Baptist and Presbyterian churches, and Quakers, came to town. They did not want to attend the Congregational church, and resented that their taxes paid for it.
They refused to pay Rev. Strong in New Marlborough and Rev. Hopkins in Great Barrington. In most cases they were forced to continue to pay because provision of a minister’s salary, a minister’s lot, and a meeting house were requisite to receive the benefits of incorporation. While it differs in the particulars, in principle, this was an objection to "taxation without representation."
The intermingling of church and state went further. Bidwell wrote there were "too many scoffers of religion with profane tongues." One solution was that behaviors considered grounds for excommunication also should be made illegal. The Rev. Stephen West of Stockbridge and Samuel Hopkins of Great Barrington agreed with Bidwell. They sincerely believed that which was immoral should also be illegal. In the cases of adultery, fornication, and drunkenness, they had their way.
The ministers also thought it their right and responsibility to encroach on their congregants’ private lives. The ministers defined virtue as conformity and obedience to the church. They encouraged church members to report each other if they used profane language, worked on the Sabbath, did not attend church, or committed other sins. It became more and more difficult for Hopkins, and other ministers, to garner support or maintain church attendance when they preached that "all men were loathsome in the eyes of God."
Hopkins was eventually dismissed. The Rev. Munson in Lenox considered the congregants too lax while they considered Munson too strict. They squabbled for years -- cutting the minister’s allotment of firewood in the winter to express their displeasure. Colder and wiser, Munson finally left Lenox.
The members of the Congregational Church were the most disgusted with the Rev. George Throop. While preaching strict adherence and condemning their failings, Throop was found guilty of "loos living and bad conduct."
Hypocrisy is always loathed and Throop’s transgressions were so severe that the congregation believed he had been ordained fraudulently. The townspeople went to the General Court in Boston, begged Throop be removed from their pulpit, and defrocked.
Naturally, 260 years later, we want to know just what Throop did. Unfortunately the people of 18th-century Berkshire were too well-brought-up and polite to elucidate his "loos living," and only one example of bad conduct is detailed, a fraudulent land deal. Ah well.
In Sheffield and Partridgefield, citizens tried a civilized approach. They appointed committees "to treat with" (negotiate with) the Revs. Hubbard and Tracy about their "doctrinal differences." It was nicer but no more effective.
From town to town the "doctrinal differences" were always the same. The ministers did not believe in the peoples’ ability to govern themselves.
Although there was debate within the church, most ministers believed in a ruling class of superior men identified by God, who should lead. The church encroached into their private lives, and blurred the line between spiritual and civil matters including governance, the law, and taxation. These were fundamental issues that would be resolved in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Our forefathers established a government of the people by the people and for the people; separation of church and state; the right to privacy; freedom of religion, and taxation only within a representative government.
What elevates the importance of these old battles is we never resolve them. Actually, we debate to this day. Can we have a crèche on the town green? Can we say a prayer in town meeting that is clearly a Christian prayer? In the public schools, should we have a Christmas celebration? Whatever your opinion, I wish you all the very best this holiday season.
Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.