The Little Congregation that Could

A HISTORY OF THE MONT VERNON CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH

“The Little Congregation that Could” 

(After Watty Piper’s Beloved Children’s Classic, The Little Engine that Could)

Mont Vernon Congregational Church (MVCC) is at geographical and spiritual heart of Mont Vernon, NH. Just look at a map, and you can see the first assertion is true. History argues for the second assertion. 

MVCC ORGANIZED 1780

Our church is 240 years old.

But, in a sense, the desire for a church in Mont Vernon goes back to 1753. That’s the first year 32  residents of the northwest territory of Amherst, NH  petitioned to incorporate as a separate town. (In Colonial New England, there could be no town without a church. So, the Church was implied).

Mont Vernon Residents were religious. Charles Smith writes, in his History of  the Town of Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, “The pioneer settlers of Mont Vernon were a rough, hardy, worthy people. In many of them the religious element was strong. Their attendance at church was regular, though the route was long and tedious.”  In other words, they were church goers. They just dreaded the more than ten mile round trip to worship at the church in Amherst Center. 

But Amherst resisted letting Mont Vernon go.

THE OLD MEETING HOUSE AND THE “GREAT ESCAPE” (from Amherst)

Northwest Territory residents used their church membership in Amherst to promote separation.

In the late 1780’s, Amherst Minister Rev. Wilkins was enfeebled and needed an assistant.

Mont Vernon residents voted as a block against the first candidate for assistant minister, Mr. Blydenburg, who ultimately withdrew. A second candidate, Mr. Bernard, was  also protested against. An Amherst Town history states Mont Vernon residents did not find him sufficiently pious or orthodox

Charles Smith, in his history of Mont Vernon, makes it clear the issue was Mont Vernon’s desire to become a township that motivated the rejection of this candidate. When Mr. Bernard was settled as Assistant Minister in Amherst, the Northwest Territory withdrew. 

The Old Meeting House (today’s Town Hall) was begun in 1780. It was used immediately for worship, despite having no floor, no proper pews, no heat, but “ample provision for ventilation through rattling windows.” Charles Smith says worshipers were warmed by their faith.  

The startup congregation had no settled pastor for three years. But, because there was a church, and a congregation in worship, in 1781, the NH Legislature recognized Mont Vernon. It broke free from Amherst, and became a separate town.

SO, THE LITTLE CONGREGATION THAT COULD BECAME THE DECIDING FACTOR IN THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THIS TOWN

LONGEST PASTORATE  CUT SHORT

According to church records, the first pastor was The Rev. Ebenezer Allen (1783-84). Charles Smith doesn’t count him as a Pastor, however, maybe due to his short stay. Could he have left over finances? His salary was the equivalent of $ 1,300 a year today, or 20 cords of wood (wood being much cheaper in the 1780’s)

Longest Pastorate was the next one, that of The Rev. John Bruce, who served for 25 years, until his untimely death at age 51, shortly after suffering a stroke. 

1818 THE PASTOR TURNS BAPTIST

Most noteworthy of the early pastors was The Rev. Steven Chapin, DD. He followed deceased Rev. Bruce, and served for nine years (1809-18). Ordained Congregationalist, Chapin previously had served as Pastor in Hillsborough, NH. An effective preacher, he received 115 new members into the church, 51 in 1817 alone! 

Described by Charles Smith as “sincere and true, and “a man of positive conviction, and bold, unadorned, and uncompromising in his style of preaching. His earnest, able preaching, and stringent discipline made a deep impression on his people…All hearts were completely united with him.” 

But, Chapin became convinced of the Baptist position demanding adult, not infant, baptism. He engaged in a pamphlet war with The Rev. Humphrey Moore of Milford, NH over issue of infant baptism. This was a hot topic, since Baptists were moving into New England towns, and displacing the infant-baptizing Congregationalists, who had  had a previous monopoly on religion. There was, in fact, a Baptist group meeting for worship in Mont Vernon,  in the red schoolhouse. Eventually the Congregational denomination would be “disestablished” as the “official” church throughout New England. Chapin voluntarily resigned from MVCC in 1818, and became Pastor of a Baptist church in North Yarmouth, ME. 

In 1822 Chapin became Professor of Theology at Waterville (now Colby) College in ME. He served there until 1828, when he became second President of Columbian College in Washington DC (precursor to today’s George Washington University). The first President of that institution died after just six years in office. One wonders how Chapin interviewed for that job, Waterville ME being more than 600 miles from Washington, DC, in an era of very limited and uncertain transportation.

Columbian College was founded in 1822. Establishing a college in the District of Columbia had been promoted by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Presidents 1, 2 and 4). That is, a non-Roman Catholic College (Georgetown already was in place, since 1792)

Chapin served as President until 1841, when, at age 53 his declining health caused him to retire to a Maryland farm. His position was not august. Columbian College was struggling financially. Faculty had resigned en mass the year before Chapin arrived, and the college was temporarily closed. Chapin’s salary was only about two and one third times larger than that of a local pastor. He was given a few acres to grow vegetables on the side, however. 

Chapin endeavored to get $12 million dollars in today’s money left by the Smithson family to support an educational/scientific institution in Washington DC for Columbian. Or, if Columbian could not have the money, Chapin sought to block its usage by anyone else, fearing the development of a new educational institution would rival Columbian College, and put it out of business.

Chapin was opposed by no less than former President John Quincy Adams, then a Representative from MA. Adams won, and the Smithsonian Institution was created with the $ 12,000,000. Maybe that’s why there is a George Washington University, and not a John Q. Adams College, today in DC!

Chapin, was able to put Columbian back in the black during his Presidency. His memory is honored through Chapin Hall on the George Washington University campus. 

SO, THE LITTLE CONGREGATION THAT COULD WEATHERED THE DEPARTURE OF AN EFFECTIVE AND PRINCIPLED PASTOR, AND BECAME PART OF THE CAREER OF A COLLEGE PRESIDENT WHO SAVED A STUGGLING COLLEGE, AND INTERACTED WITH ONE OF THE GREAT FIGURES IN AMERICAN HISTORY!

1830 MVCC TURNS Mont Vernon “DRY”

Late 18th Early 19th Century America faced a public health crisis as serious as the Opioid Crisis today, maybe more so: alcoholism and public drunkenness. An academic, Steven Minz, writes:

“Alcohol was an integral part of American life. Many people believed that downing a glass of whiskey before breakfast was conducive to good health. Instead of coffee, people took a dram of liquor at eleven and again at four o’clock, as well as drinks after meals ‘to aid digestion’ and a nightcap before going to sleep. Women were as likely as men to be drinkers–although not to consume the same quantities. Children were routinely fed alcoholic beverages from an early age. Many communal activities were fueled by alcohol, including house raisings, log rolling competitions, corn husking, harvesting wheat, quilting bees, weddings and funerals. 

According to historians, even church-related events were accompanied by prodigious drinking. Perhaps nothing illustrates the tolerance of excessive drinking in the late eighteenth century as much as the heavy use of whiskey at ministerial ordinations, where considerable drinking and frequent drunkenness were common. 

This crisis was more of an issue in Mont Vernon than most places. Charles Smith notes eight tavern were licensed, for a town of less than 800!  One tavern alone was serving more than 63 gallons of liquor a month. Not all was consumed by residents. Mont Vernon was located on two major roads, so there was an almost constant flow of thirsty teamsters driving wagons, who frequented the taverns. 

Temperance reform began in MVCC and “was vigorously and steadily prosecuted until it expelled liquors from the town,” according to historian Charles Smith. In other words, according to Smith, the church turned the town “dry.” 

THE LITTLE CONGREGATION THAT COULD ACTED VIGOROUSLY ON BEHALF OF A PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE, BENEFITING THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY

1837 WHY DID THE CHURCH CROSS THE ROAD?

After almost sixty years on the east side of (today’s) Route 13, the Old Meeting House was jacked up and moved across the street, probably rolled on big logs, to its present location. Why? Believe it or not, the western side of the road was perceived to be less windy! (Ironically, the second church was built back on the “windy” eastern side of the street).

At the same time, a belfry, bell (which continues to ring the hours today) and an organ were added. The latter was a big step forward for the congregation, since no instrumental music was allowed in the church for at least its first twenty years.

1841 ABOLITONIST STANCE ADOPTED

While antislavery support was widespread in New Hampshire in general, and in the Milford, NH area in particular (Milford was the home of the world famous Hutchinson Family Singers, abolitionists), it was far from universal statewide. A significant portion of the population, perhaps a majority, was either indifferent to or hostile toward the movement. Witness these events across the state, as noted by historians. An agent of the American Antislavery Society, was “lifted from his knees and thrown out of a church in Northfield while leading an antislavery prayer.” A Baptist deacon “pounced upon” two abolitionist speakers in Nashua. In Concord, two antislavery speakers were cursed and pelted with dirt, rocks and gravel. One was hung in effigy. A school in Canaan, NH which had admitted African American children was “dragged from its foundation by oxen and left a useless ruin on the highway.” Its teacher was warned to leave town. All the above transpired just a few years before the congregation voted to exclude slave owners from membership, and from the Sacrament of Communion.

THE LITTLE CONGREGATION THAT COULD COURAGEOUSLY WEIGHED IN ON ONE OF THE CONTROVERSIAL, HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES OF ITS DAY.

1847 APPLETON ACADEMY, MONT VERNON’S FIRST HIGH SCHOOL, STARTS IN MVCC VESTRY

The genesis of secondary education for Mont Vernon was the establishment of Appleton Academy in the church vestry. This evolved into the McCollum Institute and eventually into Stearns School, a private boarding school for boys, which existed from 1906-37. 

LITTLE CONGREGATION THAT COULD STARTED EFFORTS TO BRING HIGHER EDUCATION TO TOWN

1896 THE “PROPOSTEROUS” BECOMES POSSIBLE

In the late 1800’s the Old Meeting House was in dramatic need of repairs–so much so that some church members argued it should be abandoned, and a new sanctuary built from scratch. But, according to most, as put by Charles Smith, “it was considered almost preposterous to expect to secure the necessary funds.” 

Two sisters, Mrs. Richardson and Miss Stevens, offered a substantial down payment, with the provision the town raise an additional $6,000 (the equivalent of more than $160,000 today, from a town of just over 500). Charles Smith states, there was “a generous rivalry among former citizens, natives, summer visitors, and local organizations” and by 1896 the new chapel was completed and paid for, in one year.

The new church was designed by Boston architect G. Wilton Lewis, who apparently also designed the Isola Mansion on Hutchinson Road, which features the same fieldstone foundation, rich wood, portico and a “round room.” Historian Charles Smith labels the New Sanctuary “one of the chief attractions of the village,” and one of the loveliest in the country,” and wrote glowingly of its “beauty” and “elegance” At dedication ceremony Deacon William Conant said, “While some have thought that this church is too good for this little town on the hilltop, we regard it as none too good for the Master we love and the God we serve.” 

THE LITTLE CONGREGATION RAISED THE NEEDED FUNDS, AND CREATES A SANCTUARY OF LASTING BEAUTY.

1927 A MVCC COUPLE GOES FORTH TO WORLD MISSIONS

From 1925-27 Marlin Farnum, a Baptist student at Newton Theological Institution (precursor to Andover Newton Theological School) served as Pastor at MVCC.  He and his wife, Melva, who he met at Colby College, lived in “Purple House” next door. Immediately after his graduation, the Farnums were both commissioned as missionaries to Japan, where they served until 1940 and 41 (Melva left with their two surviving children earlier than Marlin) when World War Two was imminent. It was a good thing Farnums left. During the war, some American missionaries were imprisoned by the Japanese, and at least one was beheaded.

Even so, the Farnums and their children suffered hardships. Their only son died  at age four, after being grossly misdiagnosed by Japanese doctors. They were labeled spies with a hidden radio set, and frequently visited by the Japanese police. They endured shortages of food, fuel and clothing. Still, they bore the Japanese people no ill will. In fact, after death, both their bodies were buried in Japan, next to the young son they lost there.  

For the rest of his career, Marlin served American Baptist Foreign Mission Society at highest levels. Originally in charge of missionary recruitment, he later became Administrative Secretary overseeing all missionaries overseas. Farnum was also Chairman of National Council of Churches Division of Foreign Missions. His efforts were recognized by Keuka College, which awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1955.  

Interestingly, one of his daughters married a Baptist Missionary and served overseas, as did one of his granddaughters. So there were three generations of missionaries in the Farnum family! 

1927 FATHER FOLLOWS SON

Marlin was succeeded as Pastor by his own father, Irving, a licensed Lay Preacher who had been a mail carrier in Melrose, MA. Irving served MVCC for 12 years (third longest pastorate in church’s history). The Farnums are related to the Farnum Family of Francistown, NH, an early family in that town’s history. In fact, they once held a Farnum Family reunion at MVCC.

1987 THE ARTS AND CRAFTS STYLE CHURCH AND THE ARTS AND CRAFTS (see website pages on Mont Vernon Congregational Church and the Arts)

Our current, 1896 sanctuary displays some elements of the Arts and Crafts style, which was popular around the turn of the Twentieth Century. Since its construction, MVCC has been a host to the arts. Thirty-one years of Messiah Sings have been held in the Sanctuary. The church also has hosted twenty-six years of Round Room Coffee Houses, which gather folksingers from across the region on a monthly basis. Through thirteen years of Vacation Bible School, MVCC has introduced Mont Vernon youngsters to Jesus and the Christian faith through arts and crafts

SUMMARY 

For 240 years MVCC  has been a force for the good in its community, promoting worship, public health, human rights, higher education, world missions and the arts, while also over-coming significant challenges, like establishing a town in the face of opposition, worshiping in a drafty unfinished building, moving a huge sanctuary across the road, and funding a new sanctuary. 

Sometimes the Mont Vernon community has looked to and turned to MVCC in difficult moments. For example, in October of 2009, Mont Vernon was site of horrific, senseless tragedy. Kimberly Cates, a 42-year-old mother, was murdered in her home, and Jaimie, her eleven year-old daughter severely maimed. In the aftermath of this tragedy, MVCC became a center for community mourning and healing. The then Pastor, and clergy staff from the NH Conference of the United Church of Christ made themselves available to the community for counseling. Kim’s funeral was held at MVCC. Afterwards members of an Amish community that also had suffered  a horrific loss–the  killing of five school girls, and the wounding of three more in the West Nichol PA Mines School–met at the church over a weekend, to talk with Mont Vernon townspeople about grief, healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. MVCC is at the geographic center of its town, and, for 240 years, in times good and bad, has endeavored to be at the spiritual heart of its community. 

MVCC HAS BEEN, AND REMAINS, THE LITTLE CONGREGATION THAT COULD