Eugene Michalenko: The revolutionary Cheshire Baptists

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ADAMS — Susan B. Anthony, although a practicing member of the Society of Friends for a large portion of her life, was also the descendant of 18th-century Baptists, men and women steeped in progressive thought and committed to political action. Her mother, Lucy (Read) Anthony, was a Baptist. Lucy's grandfathers emigrated to the Berkshires and made their home in New Providence, on Stafford Hill in Cheshire, a rural hub of commerce for the surrounding area.

On the hilltop, they built the first Baptist church west of the Connecticut River. Tradesmen's shops dotted its crest. The first Masonic Lodge established west of Springfield met at the Remington Inn. At the bottom of the hill, the stagecoach stopped at another inn called the Half-Way House, so named because it was the mid-point in the journey between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers. When the railroad was extended through the valley, this village became a ghost town. Some of its houses were dragged down the hill into Adams. The only signs of life until the 1970s were hayfields and pastureland, after which the farmer/owner subdivided the area for housing lots.

During the Revolutionary War, New Providence supplied more than its share of soldiers. Col. Joab Stafford gathered men at the Remington Inn. Dubbing themselves Silver Grays, they marched to Bennington, Vt to help stop British General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne's German mercenaries from raiding the town for much-needed military stores and supplies.

Elder Peter Werden, from his pulpit in the Baptist church, urged the able men in his congregation to take up arms. His son and his two deacons answered the call. Susan's grandfather, Daniel Read, and his brother Joshua joined the ranks and fought throughout the war. Four years after the Revolutionary War ended, Susan's grandfather and great-uncle armed themselves again during Shays's Rebellion, joining Eli Parsons of the north village of Adams in the failed attempt to capture the Armory in Springfield.

SUSAN'S LITERATE GRANDMOTHER

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While the men were off at war and rebellion, Susan's grandmother, Susannah (Richardson) Read, managed the farm. She was so successful that when the fighting had finished, the family was able to buy 50 acres in Adams.

Susannah's unmarried sister-in-law, Avis Read, was literate — unusual for a woman in these parts — and she subscribed to newspapers. Neighbors visited to hear her recount the state of affairs in the world while she sat in her rocking chair smoking her pipe.

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When Daniel returned from the war, he was a converted Universalist and rejected the doctrine of damnation. In Susan's biography, she is quoted as saying that her grandmother "wore the skin off her knees," praying for her husband's redemption.

Friends were, by belief, pacifists, but some members of the East Hoosuck Meeting marched to the Battle of Bennington. A memorial plaque near the meeting house in Adams states, "They set aside their religious scruples and took up arms in defense of their homes and liberties."

The Cheshire Baptist community is famous for the Mammoth Cheese they sent to President Thomas Jefferson to celebrate the Democratic-Republican victory of decentralized government over the Federalists' effort to consolidate power in the hands of merchants and landed aristocrats. The cheese-making was the brainchild of Baptist Elder John Leland. Not only did he support Thomas Jefferson, but he worked with James Madison to codify freedom of religion in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Elder Leland is buried in the Cheshire Cemetery, but Eugene Bowen of Cheshire erected a monument to Leland near Montpelier, Madison's home in Virginia.

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Elder Leland's commitment to religious freedom went beyond Christianity. He believed that all world religions should be respected equally. He wrote, "Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians."

A remarkable soup of ideas, beliefs, encounters, and actions was bubbling in the Hoosac Valley during the early history of our country. Eventually, it boiled over. And when it did, out of that heady concoction flowed freedoms that we take for granted, spreading the gospel of democracy to places where it had long been denied.

Susan B. Anthony would continue this quest through the second half of the 19th century and into the next.

This is the second in a three-part series on Susan B. Anthony and the influence Adams had on her life by Eugene Michalenko, the president of the Adams Historical Society. The first ran on Jan. 29. In the last part of this series — Innovation and persevering in spite of failure.


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