II - The Congregationalists
TWO HUNDRED YEARS OF CONGREGATIONALISM
IN THE TOWN OF EPSOM 1761-1961
An address compiled by Gilbert H. Knowles and
delivered by him at the special Anniversary Service
held at the site of the first Meeting House, Epsom
Center, Sunday, August 20, 1961 at 3:00 pm. The
service was arranged by the Union Congregational
Church of New Rye, Rev.H. Franklin Parker, Pastor.
[note: he gave a similar address in 1975 to the
Epsom Historical Association using these and a few
additional notes written in the margins, below is
a combination of all his remarks.]
As one who has long been interested
in local history I was naturally pleased when I
learned that the New Rye Church was taking cognizance
of the 200th Anniversary of Congregationalism in
the town of Epsom. Epsom was incorporated in 1727
and of course, in 1927 we observed in a big way
the 200th anniversary of the town. But Epsom's first
minister did not come until 1761. Now that does
not mean that the early settlers were without religion
or religious leadership; it does mean, I am sure,
that the sparsely settled township was unable to
support a minister before 1761. There is good evidence
that the quota of twenty settled families as required
by the charter was not reached until 1750, and I
doubt very much if there were more than thirty,
or thirty-five families at most, living within the
bounds of Epsom at the time the first minister arrived.
As early as 1742 it was voted to raise 300 pounds
to hire a preacher, but the settles had to wait
another nineteen years before a pastor was actually
The first minister's name was Rev. John Tucke, and
fortunately many of Mr. Tucke' records are still
in existence. They are with the New Hampshire Historical
Society. I will tell you how they start off: "April
18, 1761. I went to Epsom to preach. June 25, they
gave me a call. August 14, they renewed the call.
August 17, I accepted the call. Sept. 23, I was
ordained. My venerable father preached the sermon
from 2 Timothy 2-1, and then gave me the most sacred
charge. The Reverend Mr. Aaron Whittemore gave me
the right hand of fellowship."
The Church was organized on the very same day as
the ordination and the covenant was signed by the
fourteen original members. Since the first meeting
house was not built until three years later, 1764,
there seems to be no way we can know exactly in
what building, or buildings, the very first meetings
were held. [note 1975: First meetings were probably
held at McClary's Farm Tavern (now land owned by
Sirrine)]. There is some basis for the idea that
there could have been a small community meeting
place here on the hill as early as 1761, or possibly
earlier, or, of course, the first meetings could
have been held in a private home. The meeting house
that was built in 1764 was a building fifty by forty
five feet. It is said to have had galleries, square
pews and an immense sounding board. I was interested
to learn that the town of Loudon in voting some
few years later to build its first meeting house,
specified that it should be build according to the
same plan as the one at Epsom.
During the next ten or fifteen years following the
settlement at Epsom increased much more rapidly
than during the preceding period and the church
membership grew accordingly, so that near the close
of Mr. Tucke's ministry the Congregational Church
in Epsom had more than seventy members, including
a few who were resident of Chichester and Deerfield.
Churches had not yet been established in those towns
and quite a number of people came on Sunday's to
worship with the Epsom group on Center Hill. Membership
included the families of most of the early settlers
of Epsom; the Blakes, the McClarys, the Libbeys,
Wallaces, Sanborns, Lockes, the Mardens, Bickfords
and a little later the Casses, Grays, Chesleys and
a few others. Mr. Tucke left records of some one-hundred
and sixty-seven baptisms of children and among them
of the following three adults; Mr. Tucke's servant,
Abraham; Phebe, a young woman about twenty, no surname
given; and Samuel Blake's man-servant, who seems
not to have had even a first name. We note that
the census of 1773 found 2 slaves in Epsom.
When Mr. Tucke came to Epsom he was a young man
about twenty-one. He was a graduate of Harvard College
and he apparently got along splendidly for some
time, but after a period of ten years dissatisfaction
crept in. Small things became big things; mole-hills
grew into mountains; and a storm developed, so to
speak. It wasn't just a little storm, but a big
roaring halleluiah storm! It all ended up in the
dismissal of the minister in 1774. Feeling ran very
high; so high, in fact, that they not only voted
to dismiss the minister but "that the meetinghouse
shall be shut up till the town sees cause to open
said house again." We can almost visualize
some of those rugged individualists nailing the
Epsom's first minister died about three years later
while on his way to join the Revolutionary Army
as a chaplain. (He died Feb. 9, 1777, in Salem,
N.Y., probably of smallpox.) He left a widow and
at least six children who lived on in Epsom until
around 1790. The Tucke home was where the present
Ambrose home now is. In the year 1797 Mrs. Tucke,
then of Pittsfield, and her children deeded the
property to Simon Heath who made the house into
a tavern and carried on that business for some years.
After a time the old meetinghouse began to be used
some more. There were several temporary preachers.
Rev. Benjamin Thurston supplied for a time and was
given a call. For some reason, however, he did not
accept. Perhaps he was afraid of another "storm".
So there was no settled preacher here on the hill
again until after the close of the Revolutionary
War. Then came the long pastorate of the Rev. Ebenezer
Hazeltine, thirty-years. So far as I know Mr. Hazeltine's
records are lost. That is regrettable. He was evidently
a fine man and had his virtues pronounced in his
funeral sermon. He lived at what is now the Jaquith
place. The house had been built for a parsonage
and Mr. Hazeltine was probably the first to occupy
it. Mr. Hazeltine's grave is here in the old part
of the McClary Cemetery, and on the bottom of the
stone is the inscription, "An Israelite indeed,
in whom was no guile." He died in his 59th
year (a comparatively young man). He did not, however,
leave as many church members as did Mr. Tucke. Historian
Moses once suggested that perhaps Mr. Tucke caught
some of his with guile.
The Rev. Jonathan Curtis followed Mr. Hazeltine
as pastor here at the old meeting house. He had
a ministry of ten or eleven years and was a respected
and capable man. Mr. Curtis became interested in
the early history of the town and there is a pamphlet
that he wrote in the Epsom Public Library which
I sometimes look to for reference.
After 1820 other denominations had sprung up in
the town and there was sometimes controversy over
the way in which the various groups would share
the use of the meeting house. The first meeting
house had been built by the town rather than by
the Congregational Society so it was natural for
the new denominations to claim the right to use
the building part time. For a time controversy centered
around the key to the building. The new groups had
been using the meeting house some and it seems that
it had become quite a habit, when a meeting was
over, for the minister to lock the door and take
the key away. The Congregationalists would come
back and not be able to get in to the building.
After this went on for a time one of the Chesley
families decided to "take the bull by the horns"
so to speak, and have another key made for the door.
But they didn't get the pattern quite right and
the key didn't fit; so they had to wait a little
until they could get hold of the original key to
make comparison and then adjust the new key so that
it too would lock and unlock the door. Having solved
their problem they wrote up a little verse about
"The clergymen, the cheaters,
They do as they please;
They lock up the door,
They carry off the keys!
But we are determined
They'll do it no more;
For now we have a key,
And we'll unlock the door".
After Rev. Winthrop Fifield left Center Hill in
1846 or 1847 there is a lapse of about thirty years
during which period I have not thus far been able
to pick up any records as to who occupied the 'parsonage
house.' It may have been vacant for a while.""Although
I have found nothing written up about it, Mr. Luther
Hall, who died in 1939, and lived in the beautiful
house just west of here until it burned, told Mr.
and Mrs. Lewis Nutter that an ell part of the 'parsonage'
was sold and moved by oxen down the lane and then
made into another house on the lot where Charles
and Ruth Batchelder now live. Mr. Hall told that
in turning the corner on the main road with the
oxen that their load there was some damage to the
grounds of the property of George Batchelder (now
Watson Ambrose) and that Mr. Batchelder made quite
a fuss about it. As Mr. Batchelder died in 1889
the date of the ell moving must have been a number
of years earlier.""Of course the town,
or the Congregational Society, must have eventually
deeded the 'parsonage' to some individual. A tracing
back of the deeds would be the only way to determine
when the transfer was made.
We do know that Mr. and Mrs. George Piper came here
around 1875. They were still living here when I
was a small boy and I remember them very well. They
used to drive down to the store with horse and wagon.
Mr. Piper was a shoe worker and he had a room with
a cobbler's bench, etc., upstairs in the front of
this house (the east front room). He used to try
to complete six pairs of shoes each day. Mrs. Piper's
maiden name was Betsey Langley; she was a sister
of Josiah Langley who lived where my brother George
Knowles now lives. Mrs. Flora Sullivan's grandmother
(Mrs. Chas. Henry Hall) was also a sister of 'Betty'
Piper. As you know, the 'parsonage' property later
came into the ownership of Mrs. Bernice Piper Cox.
She is the granddaughter of George and Betsey Piper.
She has vivid memories of the cobbler's bench and
of her grandfather working there when she was a
little girl.""Mrs. Bernice Cox sold the
property here to Edwin and Doris Jaquith; Jaquith's
sold to Hughes, and now Dr. James Wells family has
full possission, and we hope they will want to live
here for a long long time. One 'Margaret' lived
here in the beginning, and a little 'Margaret' lives
[He inserts remarks here made by Mary L. Cass in
1901 in an Old Home Day speech]
Probably there are but a few present this afternoon
that ever attended a church service in the old meeting
house that stood on the hill at what has been called
I wish I could show a picture of the building, but
I do not think there is one in existence. I used
to go to the meeting there (as it was called, -
not attending church) more than seventy years ago
and can remember perfectly well just how it looked
and the people who attended the service.
It was a large square building with three outside
doors - one facing the South, the front door; one
on the East and another on the West; each of these
doors entered directly into the meeting room; no
entries or halls.
A walk or aisle led directly from the front door
to the pulpit stairs. There were several steps up
into the pulpit which was enclosed by a partition
so high that when the minister was sitting down
he could not be seen by anyone upon the floor.
Over the pulpit was the sounding board, as it was
called; a sort of canopy attached to the ceiling
by a slender rod.
The top of the pulpit or desk was covered with a
dark cloth trimmed with a fringe. Upon this desk
lay the large Bible and the hymn book.
At the front of the stairs directly in front of
the pulpit was the communion table which was a plain
pine board hung to the partition by hinges so that
it could be let down when not needed for use. Between
this table and the pulpit was the Deacon's seat.
There was an aisle around the room far enough from
the wall to give room for a row of seats or pews;
these pews around the outside were raised one step.
There were sixteen of these square pews in the center
of the floor - eight upon each side of the center
There were two long seats in front of the pulpit
known as the old men's seats; the tythingman also
There was a large gallery upon three sides which
was reached by two flights of stairs. A row of pews
was built against the wall, while in front of the
gallery over the front door and opposite the pulpit
were the singer's seats.
Upon the East side of the gallery was a long seat
where the young women and girls sat, called the
girls seat and upon the West side was the boys seat.
Whenever the boys got to whispering or making a
noise, you would hear a sharp tap-tap-tap on the
floor and see the cane of the tythingman pointing
toward the offender. I do not remember ever seeing
the cane pointed towards the girls seat; perhaps
that was because I never sat there myself.
This building was guiltless of paint either upon
the inside or out.
The "meeting" began at half past ten and
the form of worship was similar to what is followed
at the present, except that the long prayer was
a long one indeed; the people were all expected
to stand during it and, as many of the seats in
the pews were hung with hinges, it was customary
to turn them up while the people were standing so
that the preacher's "Amen" was frequently
supplemented with the slamming of the seats as they
were dropped down.
In any of the pews you might see two or three flag
bottomed chairs for the use of the older members
of the family. These pews could accommodate perhaps
a dozen people and were frequently occupied by two
or more families.
The morning service lasted until noon, the sermon
often being an hour long. Then came an hour's intermission
when there was a general handshaking and inquiry
after each others welfare etc.. The dinner baskets
or bags were opened and their contents enjoyed;
and after luncheon was eaten, the snuff boxes were
passed and they had a jolly good time. I remember
particularly the big bright snuffboxes of Dea. Ira
Sanborn and Moses P. Gray, Esq. and how the old
ladies seemed to enjoy the treat.
The young women and girls usually went out for a
stroll in the graveyard just back of the church
if the weather was favorable and then over to squire
Merrill's shed to get a drink of cold water from
the deep well.
The older men usually remained in the house but
the younger men and boys took their dinners out
doors and either on the doorsteps or out on the
common in groups, ate their lunch and enjoyed themselves.
In the cold weather the men folks would go to Capt.
Heath's Tavern (last owner was Watson Ambrose) and
warm their feet by his big fire and their goodies
with a generous mug of flip. I have frequently been
to that same place for coals to replenish the fire
in my Mother's foot stove, for during the cold weather
they always carried these and went to some of the
neighboring houses at noon for new fire.
There were no conveniences for a fire in the old
meetinghouse and in the Winter the services were
held in the vestry where there was a fire.
At precisely one o'clock the minister came again
and everyone at once took his accustomed place and
the services were renewed. Before the pastor began
his long prayer, he frequently read a note from
some of his parishioners asking for special prayer
in their behalf; if a person were sick, prayer was
asked for him; were there a death in the family,
prayer was asked that this dispensation of Providence
might be sanctified to the relative and friends;
if a child was born, thanks was returned; all joys
and sorrows were remembered. The afternoon service
was equal to the morning and the last prayer was
followed by the singing of the Doxology.
It was generally past three o'clock when we got
home from meeting and as we were obliged to leave
home by half past nine, we made quite a day of it,
- yet there were others who had farther to go.
I could tell much about the occupants of the different
pews for they come distinctly to my mind as I think
of this old meeting house in which my parents and
grandparents worshiped; and not only my ancestors
but the ancestors of very many - perhaps most of
this company, but lest I weary you, I close.
Mrs. Cass mentions going to Squire Merrill's deep
well for a drink of cold water. Squire Merrill was
Thomas D. Merrill who kept a store for many years
at the Center. I believe the Merrill buildings were
located west of the old meeting house on land that
had now been part of the McClary Cemetery for a
long time. The deep well is still there in the cemetery
covered by a large mill stone.
Also Mrs. Cass mentions "the graveyard"
in back of the church. It is interesting to learn
that this "graveyear" or "burying
place" as the early records spoke of it, -
and what now for many years we have known as the
McClary Cemetery, had its beginnings the very same
year that the Congregational Society started at
Center Hill. Along from 1906 to 1910 a man names
John M. Moses made considerable study of records,
deeds and vital statistics of early Epsom. Mr. Moses
seemed to have become quite convinced and came to
the conclusion that the first person buried in the
old part of the McClary Cemetery ('the burying place')
was William Blazo Sr.. He was a first settler of
Epsom. He died August 14, 1761 - (the same date
that the settlers gave Mr. Tucke his 2nd call to
come to Epsom). Blazo, a Frenchman, was highway
surveyor in Epsom in 1756 and a 1757 deed called
him a "cooper." Blazo lived, I believe,
just east of the Deinhardt's home. Soon after his
death his sons sold out to Andrew McClary (probably
the 2nd Andrew, the Major who was killed at Bunker
In one of Mr. Moses' articles in 1910 I found the
memorial stone marks the site of the first church.
The cemetery in the rear contains many hundred graves.
At least two hundred and fifty may be counted that
are marked with only common field stones, uninscribed.
The oldest inscribed stone, on which only a few
letters are now traceable, is among the McClary
graves near the south wall and is probably that
of the first Andrew McClary." The first Andrew
died in Epsom between Sept 13, 1764 and October
15, 1765. One cannot now count 250 graves marked
only with fieldstones because along about 1920,
when the south wall was taken down and replaced
with the iron fence given in the will of Mary A.
Evans, the cemetery trustees removed a great many
of the uninscribed fieldstones. This was done to
make the mowing and general care of the old part
of the cemetery easier. Still, if I had been on
the board of Cemetery Trustees at the time, I would
probably have been against the removal of the stones.
Being uninscribed there was no way to tell the names
of the persons in the graves; yet the stones had
meant something to certain people in the earlier
days. Almost all the graves before 1800 were marked
with uninscribed field stones, and likely quite
a lot of those who died after 1800.
Besides the first Andrew McClary and William Blazo
(already mentioned), the grave of another first
settler, Samuel Blake, is also in the old part of
the McClary Cemetery. Blake's grave, and that of
his wife Sarah, have inscribed stones. Samuel Blake
died August 19, 1801. He was Mrs. Nutter's ancestor.
Charles McCoy, Epsom's earliest land owner sold
out to the Sanborn's and left town. Among the early
graves in McClary Cemetery there are nine of Revolutionary
Soldiers, three of four of the War of 1812, and
20 of the Civil War.
I will read just a few of the names on the earliest
A seven year old daughter of McClary died in 1789
Eliphalet Sanborn, Revolutionary War, died 1794,
Capt. James Gray, died 1822
Two of his children 1814 & 1815, his wife 1826
William McCrillis died 1813
John H. McClary 1810
John McClary Esq. died 1801
Elizabeth McClary, died 1807 age 85
Jonathan Chase 1815
Nancy French died 1807, age 21
John Cate died 1829
Samuel P. Chase 1847
General Michael McClary died 1824
Rev. Ebenezer Hazeltine died 1813
Lieut Jonathan Curtis died 1826 age 78, might have
been the minister's father. We do not know where
Rev. J. Curtis is buried, his wife buried in Pittsfield.
Nathan Libbey died 1814
Dr. John Proctor died 1837
John Babb died 1831
Hannah Libbey died 1802 age 7
John Chesley 1841
Frederick Sanborn died 1881
1845 the Congregational Society built another meeting
house down on the main road, located where I know
live. The old meeting house here on this beautiful
hill, over-looking Kearsarge Mountain; the meetinghouse
that had played such a big part in the development
and growth of the town and in molding the lives
of the people, during a period of eighty-five years,
was now sold and moved to Concord. I sometimes wonder
if any part of the old building is still inexistence.
We are ever grateful of course to the Center Historic
Club for erecting the monument permanently marking
the side of Epsom's first meeting house.
The meetinghouse that was built down on the main
road was as large, or possibly a little larger,
that the original building. It had a broad open
platform across the whole front, with a lot of steps
leading down to the lawn. There were two front doors,
a steeple, and inside a hall-way with stairs at
either end leading up into quite a sizeable gallery
which, I believe, was where the choir used to be.
The auditorium of the Church has white-painted pews
and a platform at the far end where the minister's
desk, or pulpit, was. The Congregational Society
used this second building for about forty years.
The first half or two-thirds of this time, the Church
was a very active and thriving organization. The
Rev. Fifield was the first minister and Rev. Rufus
M. Putnam was the second minister there on the main
road, and the Rev. E.C. Cogsell was, I think, one
of the last to preach there. For quite a while they
used to have meetings both morning and afternoon.
It is said that Prescott Locke (of Locke Hill) used
to lead the singing in the meeting house. He used
to walk down in the morning (from the next house
above where Neil Reid now lives) and after the morning
service he would walk back home, take care of a
barn full of cattle, and get back down to the meeting
house in time to lead the singing in the afternoon
service. I do not know too much about the decline
in connection of the second meeting house. It was
not another "storm:, but after 1870 a lot of
other churches had sprung up in the surrounding
territory and towns. Many of the older members had
passed away and a lot of the young people had moved
and so there was a gradual dwindling of membership
and less of interest. I remember when I was a boy
of hearing an elderly person say that there had
been some misappropriation of church funds; that
someone had used some of the Church funds to pay
off personal indebtedness. That may or may not have
been true. We do know that the situation became
so acute that the members could no longer support
a minister and the meetinghouse was closed. The
last few years they held meetings only in summer.
My aunt remembers of the building being used for
a singing school when she was a little girl; then
someone else thinks it was used a few times for
political rallies. When I was a small boy the meeting
house was still standing, although in a very dilapidated
condition. I used to play on the steps and because
the roof had partially collapsed, was cautioned
not to go inside. I sometimes did venture in with
other boys and I have a very good mental picture
of the way the inside looked.
In 1908 Mrs. Eudora Johnson, a lady who had spent
a number of summers in Epsom, bought up the various
shares of the meeting house property there on the
main road, had the building taken down, and built
the house where I know live. Incidentally, Mrs.
Johnson had a distinguished brother in Massachusetts
- the late Judge John W. Hammond of the Massachusetts
Supreme Court. The old judge used to take great
delight when introducing his sister to his guests
telling them "believe it or not, but my sister
has been up to New Hampshire and torn down a meeting
Meantime the Congregational Society had moved their
headquarters over to New Rye. I am glad that they
have prospered, and are prospering, and I am sure
that under the present able leadership the future
ahead is a most promising one.
Two Hundred years have passed since Mr. Tucke began
his ministry here on the hill. We hope that one
hundred years hence there will be another celebration.