A Brief Historical Sketch: The Religious Life of the Berkshires during the time of the Mercersburg Movement

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Welcome to Pittsfield. I believe this is the first time that the Mercersburg Society has traveled so far from its geographical center of gravity in Pennsylvania to cross into New England.
Since two of the historical traditions that went into the creation of the United Church of Christ are the German Reformed and the New England Congregationalists I thought it might be interesting to explore the question: “What was happening here in Pittsfield during the Mercersburg Movement?” To answer that question we need to go back to the gathering of this church (First Church of Christ in Pittsfield) in 1764, and trace the contours of its life through the tenure of its first eight pastors, which will bring us to 1873, the year John Todd died (pictured, above left.)
Pittsfield was settled late by Massachusetts standards. The Berkshires are naturally isolated (or protected) from the rest of the world by the Taconic range on the West, which you traversed if you came in from New York State and the Hoosac Range to the East, which you climbed if you came up the Mass Pike. When Jonathan Edwards was exiled from Northampton to Stockbridge in 1750 the description of the Berkshire Hills as “a howling wilderness” was not metaphorical. Thomas Allen sometimes referred to Pittsfield as the farthest outpost of Christendom; never mind that for centuries French Jesuits had been up and down the Mississippi, and Spanish Conquistadors had been in Florida and the Southwest, the perception had the ring of truth to this eighteenth century New England Puritan.
The Berkshires have always been insular, politically independent, and somewhat suspicious of the outside world. This area was a hot spot for the insurrection known as Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, and you can still hear locals speak with suspicion of Boston or congregants of the Conference at Framingham. Before the Massachusetts Turnpike came through the hills it is fair to say that New York was a greater influence than Boston, but both were less than proximity would seem to dictate.
In the days of this church’s gathering Northampton was the outpost of civilization which influenced Pittsfield the most. Colonel John Stoddard, a brother to Solomon Stoddard of Northampton and an uncle to Jonathan Edwards, was one of the original grantees of Pontoosic Township, the early name for Pittsfield. Parson Allen himself and four of the “eight foundation men” who gathered the church were from Northampton. On February 7, 1764 these eight laymen signed a document, made up of two parts, a Confession of Faith and A Covenant, which formed a Church of Christ in Pittsfield. Present at that gathering were representatives of other churches, including the Reverend Stephen West of Stockbridge, Jonathan Edward’s successor and The Reverend Samuel Hopkins of Great Barrington, two important figures in the Edwardsean School and the emerging “New Divinity,” which would help to spark the Second Great Awakening around the turn of the nineteenth century. Two months after the gathering of the church, the first pastor, Thomas Allen, age twenty, a newly-minted Harvard graduate, was duly ordained on April 18.
Even in 1764 the foundations of Puritanism were eroding. Jonathan Edwards is the last best example of Puritanism, in much the same way as J. S. Bach is the final flower of the Baroque. In both cases, others would claim the name, but the movement’s best days were behind it. The presence of Samuel Hopkins at the gathering of this church is intriguing. I am inclined to think that the camel’s nose of liberalism was already in the tent of orthodoxy, for Hopkins’s theology was trimming the doctrines of human sin and divine sovereignty to fit his moral and evangelistic vision.

For Hopkins sin was “actual” rather than “original,” and conversion was the result of the active enterprise of the human will. These motifs would be taken still further by the next generation in men like Nathaniel Taylor and Lyman Beecher. It is not hard to see how these impulses would provide fertile soil for the controversial “new measures” of the Second Great Awakening, and later the excesses of Charles Finney to which John Williamson Nevin (pictured left) took such exception.
Pittsfield’s Thomas Allen has become a legendary figure, “The Fighting Parson,” who carried a musket into the pulpit and was chaplain to the revolutionary forces at White Plains and Bennington, where he is reputed to have fired the first shot. He was a fiery Patriot during the war and a fiery Jeffersonian Democrat after it, and continued to harass the Federalist parishioners from the pulpit, so much so that a large number of deacons and members seceded in 1807 and formed and incorporated a Union Parish in 1808. Allen served for 46 years and died in 1810. During his tenure, in 1793, the second meeting house was built, from a Bulfinch design (Some years after this paper was given the first citation mentioning baseball in America was discovered in the Berkshire Atheneum, in a statute prohibiting ball-playing outside the new meeting house.)
Parson Allen was followed by one of his sons, the Reverend William Allen, who resigned in 1817 on the same day as the pastor of the Union Parish to facilitate a reunion of the two congregations. He became Professor of Theology at Dartmouth under the presidency of his father–in–law, John Wheelock, and later he was appointed president of Bowdoin College in Maine.
The Reverend Heman Humphrey was invited in 1817 by the newly reunited church to serve as the third minister of the First Church. You can see his portrait in the church parlor. A Connecticut man and Yale graduate he had studied with President Timothy Dwight, and come from the pastorate of the First Church in Fairfield, Connecticut. A supporter of the revivals Humphrey invited the evangelist Ashahel Nettleton as a guest to the church on several occasions. Humphrey left First Church in 1823 to accept the presidency of Amherst College.
He was succeeded by the Reverend Rufus Bailey, who had a short pastorate of three years, during which time the highlight was the hosting of General Lafayette at a lavish reception in the church. In later years Bailly became President of Austin College in Austin, Texas.
The fifth minister here was the Reverend Henry Philip Tappan. Tappan also had a short pastorate of three years. Like Nevin he was a graduate of Union College in Schenectady, at roughly the same time. Union College was a united effort between the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Dutch Reformed. Tappan had done his divinity degree at Auburn Seminary, the new Prsbyterian school in Western New York, and he had been an assistant of Dr. Van Vechten of Schenectady. Tappan left Pittsfield to become Professor of Moral Philosophy at NYU, and later became president of the University of Michigan and the creator of their curriculum.
The Reverend John Williams Yeomans was the sixth minister of the First Church. He graduated from Williams in 1824, with the second honor of his class, Mark Hopkins taking the first. He completed his theological studies at Andover in 1827 and came to Pittsfield in 1831, remaining for over two years. In 1834 he became Pastor of the First Presbyterian church in Trenton, New Jersey, and lived out his days as a Presbyterian. In 1841 he became President of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.
The seventh minister The Reverend Horatio Nelson Brinsmade, came in 1835 and left in 1841 to become pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Newark. New Jersey. He became president of Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1879, the sixth consecutive pastor of First Church to become a college president.
The eighth pastor was the Reverend John Todd, the quintessential nineteenth century man, who was born in 1800, and came to Pittsfield from Philadelphia as a 42 year–old man with several successful pastorates behind him to build his ecclesiastical empire during Pittsfield’s growing period. It was during his tenure and by his impetus that the present Victorian Gothic church (no longer called a “meeting house”) was constructed. He led First Church out of the period of waning Puritanism, disestablishment, and into Congregationalism and the emerging theological liberalism. His “carriage trade” congregation was proud of their “prince of the pulpit” and the new meeting house was the pride of Pittsfield. Todd still contained some lingering vestiges of Puritanism and more than a little Calvinism, but we need to view him as a transitional figure into the period that Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom calls “The Golden Age of Liberal Theology” (see Chapter 46 in Ahlstrom, The Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.)
This brings us from the beginnings of the church to its heyday at the time of the waning of the Mercersburg theology. What patterns can we discern? First, that six pastors became college presidents should alert us to the fact that Congregationalism during this period was not a denomination so much as a civilization rooted in the old New England theocracy, but moving well beyond it in scope and substance. The founding of colleges, missionary movements, and other voluntary associations was an important part of the religious impulse of these New Englanders.
Notice too, how many of the pastors of this church either came or went from or to Presbyterian churches and institutions. This period from 1800 to 1850 was during the time of the Plan of Union between New York State and Western Presbyterians and the Consociated Congregationalism of Connecticut. Nothing illustrates this discovery better than the fact that Jonathan Edwards, Jr., a Connecticut Congregationalist became President of Union College, and later was a Presbyterian delegate to the Plan of Union meetings. Keep in mind that there was no Unitarian Schism in Western Massachusetts. Here the influences were not Harvard’s Arminianism, so much as Yale’s New Divinity and the Second Great Awakening, a somewhat different response to the Enlightenment, but one no less shaped by it.
Geography, too, no doubt played a part in this county’s religious traditions. I remarked on the early influence of Northampton, but later both men and ideas seem to flow up the Housatonic from Connecticut. There was some interaction with the Dutch Reformed Churches 50 miles west on the Hudson in Albany and Schenectady, but it was limited by language and ethnictiy. There was a great deal of interaction with Presbyterians during the Plan of Union years. The Congregational Synod of Albany in 1850 was the real beginning of Congregationalism as a denomination as well as the official end of the Plan of Union. Then Pittsfield saw itself less as on the boundaries of the mission field and more in the thick of things. John Todd’s crowning moment was giving the invocation at the driving of the golden spike in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads met to form the first transcontiinental rail line. The enterprise was no longer the churches of the established order, but the vast new continent that stretched from shore to shore.
The Berkshires place on the edge of New England gave it a front row seat on the expansion to the west in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Second Great Awakening washed over its towns and churches. The modern missionary movement began under a haystack at Williams College in 1806. Shakerism, that very American phenomenom, flourished at Hancock on the edges of Pittsfield. And it was also just over the mountain in New Lebanon, New York, near the mother colony of Shakerism, where, in 1827 Charles Finney met with his theological opponents from New England and defended his new measures. Among the accusers were Lyman Beecher and Asahel Nettleton. Not long after that Finney led a successful revival in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and, well, you know all about that!
So Pittsfield, and its surrounding county, represent in micrcosm the contours of America’s religious story from Puritanism to the Gilded Age. That story tells of the rise and fall of the evangelical consensus, and the erosian of a vital Reformed Theology. It tells too of the strange failure of the churches of the Congregational Way to maintain themselves as a churchly movement rather than as a loose federation of congregations. I think one strong clue to the question of why a vital theological movement such as Puritanism, for all its contributions to American life, failed to perpetuate itself institutionally in the churches can be seen in this comment by Douglas Horton: “ . . . For the first two hundred years of the history of Massachusetts and Connecticut the state in completely Erastian fashion did duty as the denominational framework for the churches: it provided a unifying bond between them. No inter–colony or inter–state, and remarkably few intra–colony and intra–state synods were called in American Congregationalism between 1648 and 1852 because none or few were needed, since the colonial and, later, the state legislative assemblies were available for the discussion of all relationships among the churches. Meetings of ministers and, in the early nineteenth century, of voluntary associations, such as those which launched the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, provided forums for the fellowship, but the bedrock legislation as to the founding, maintenance, and ministry of the churches was in the hands of the state in Connecticut until 1818 and in Massachusetts until 1834. It is not strange that the overwhelming number of congregations under the Plan of Union in the early part of the nineteenth century became Presbyterian: the wonder is that more of them did not, for when a Congregationalist crossed the Western border of Massachusetts or Connecticut into New York State, he left behind him the primary symbol and organ of connection in Congregationalism.” (Introduction to Williston Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, p xiii)
That legacy is still alive in the churches of New England, as it is indeed elsewhere in America, and the insights of the Mercersburg theologians offer much that can correct it.
(This is a paper I delivered to the Mercersburg Society at their Annual Meeting held at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on June 18, 1997. It was published in the Fall 1997 issue of The Mercersburg Review)
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