Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: Rev. Seaborn Cotton / The Half-Way Covenant

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Rev. Seaborn Cotton

After the retirement of Mr. Wheelwright from the pastorate of the church, the people were not long dependent on Mr. Dalton alone, for the performance of ministerial labor. Within a few months negotiations were entered into for obtaining the services and settlement of the individual, who afterward became their pastor. The first intimation of such a negotiation, furnished by the records, is the following vote passed in the spring of 1657: "It is ordered and agreed that Brother Page & Bro: Dow shall treat wth Mr. Bradstreet and with the Elders in the bay, to forder [further] the calling of Mr. Cotton according to former agreements." The person here referred to is Mr. Seaborn Cotton.

From this vote it is evident that this was not the commencement of the efforts made to secure his services. Mr. Bradstreet here mentioned was Mr. Cotton's father-in-law; [Gov. Simon Bradstreet]. and hence the reason for desiring his influence in favor of Mr. Cotton becoming their minister. A few months afterward, we find the town engaged in providing a house for a minister; but we have no direct evidence that Mr. Cotton labored here until late in the next autumn. His receipt is on record for £65, for his maintenance for a year immediately previous to its date--November 24, 1658.

In the summer of 1658, the town voted to continue the sum of three score pounds to Mr. Cotton for the next year, together with the use of the house and lands purchased of the teacher, and in time convenient to remove his goods, at the town's charge, to the said house. Mr. Cotton accepted the terms, and a contract was made accordingly. The time of his ordination is not known. Tradition assigns it to the year 1660. It is reasonably evident, however, that he received ordination soon after the agreement between himself and the town, or at least as early as the autumn of 1658.

There were no records of the church kept before the settlement of Mr. Seaborn Cotton; or, if any had been kept, they were lost before the close of his ministry. Nor have we anything more than a fragmentary record during his pastorate. A few memoranda found among his papers after his decease, and transcribed into a book of records by his son and successor, are all that have come down to us. This is greatly to be regretted, as it leaves us in a great measure ignorant of the true condition of the church for about half a century. We know not the number of members, nor the terms of membership; all our information as to the officers of the church, must, of necessity, be gleaned from other sources, of which the town records are the most important.

From the memoranda just mentioned, we find that the Half-way Covenant had been introduced into the church; and from the number of persons that "owned" it in a given period, compared with the number that were admitted to full communion during the same period, it is probable that the former class far outnumbered the latter.

We know not the number of the former class; but Mr. Cotton has left a list of members in full communion on the 18th of September, 1671. The whole number at that time was 68, 30 males, and 38 females. The list is subjoined:

Seaborn Cotton
Christopher Hussey
Godfrey Dearborn
Jno. Marian
Wm Fuller
Abraham Perkins
Samuel Dalton
Dea. Robert Page
Francis Page
Thomas Marston
Henry Moulton
Thomas Sleeper
Robert Smith
Samuel Fogg
William Sanborn
Henry Robey
Thomas War
Thomas Coleman
John Clifford, Senr.
John Clifford, Junr.
Anthony Stanyan
Jn°. Cram
Thomas Webster
Benjamin Swett
John Cass
Nathl. Weare
Thomas Philbrick
Isaac Perkins
Henry Dow
Isaac Godfrey
Frances Fuller
Sarah Perkins
Mary Perkins
Mrs. Dalton
Goodwife Drake
Goodwife Dearborn, Senr.
Goodwife Dearborn, Junr.
Goodwife Garland
Goodwife Lewis[Leuit?]
Goodwife Wall
Goodwife Aborn
Goodwife Marian
Goodwife Robey
Goodwife Marston, Junr.
Goodwife Marston, Senr.
Goodwife Hobbs
Goodwife Palmer
Goodwife Batchelder
Goodwife Sleeper
Goodwife Philbrick, Senr.
Goodwife Fifield
Goodwife Dow
Goodwife Cole
Goodwife Smith
Goodwife Sanborn
Goodwife Clifford, Senr.
Goodwife Clifford, Junr.
Goodwife Cram
Goodwife Green
Goodwife Swett
Goodwife Cass
Goodwife Shaw
Goodwife Philbrick, Junr.
Mrs. Stanyan
Mrs. Colcord
Hannah Gove
Margaret Bean
Hannah Jennings

From another record it appears that four of the men, and thirteen of the women enumerated in these lists, had been admitted by Mr. Cotton. One other man, Robert Drake, who was not at this time living, and two women, whose names are not given here, had also been admitted to full communion by him.

The arrangement of the seats in the meeting-house did not allow of families being seated together. A large number of children occupied seats in the gallery, and these must be cared for. Accordingly, in town meeting in February, 1664, it was ordered, "that two of the inhabitants of the town should sit in the gallery, to keep the youth in order in time of the public exercises, [and to see] that they keep their places and sit orderly and inoffensively." Under this arrangement, Thomas Sleeper and John Redman were to sit in the gallery the first Sabbath, and they were to give notice to John Brown and William Fifield for the next Sabbath, "and so to take their turns about the town successively."

The constable was "to take care to see that the youth were all brought into the Meeting-house, to prevent their playing abroad in the time of the exercises, or profaning the Sabbath, and that the law of the country herein should be observed."

A few weeks afterward the following vote was passed: "The Towne haue voted & agred yt those yt are willing to haue their children called forth to be catechised, shall give in their names to Mr. Cotton, for that end, between this & the second day of next month."

But the religious instruction of children was not restricted to this method of catechising by the minister. Parents and guardians were expected to teach those under their care, at least the principles of religion. An old law of Massachusetts required "that all masters of famylyes do once a weeke att least catechise theire children & servants in the grounds and principles of Religion, and if any be unable to doe so much, that then, at the least, they procure such children or apprentices to learne some short orthodox catechisme without book, that they may be able to answer to the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechisms, by their parents or masters, or any of the selectmen."

The Half-way Covenant

It has been stated, that the Half-way covenant was in use here during Mr. Cotton's ministry. When it was introduced, we have no record to inform us. From an isolated account of a church meeting on the 13th of January, 1667, it is evident that the church had already allowed it to be used. One principal object of this covenant was to allow those parents, who felt themselves unworthy to partake of the sacrament of the Lord's supper, to have the rite of baptism administered to their children. Adults, also, who had not been baptized in infancy, were admitted to baptism, on owning the covenant. Baptism appears to have been regarded by such as, in some sense, a saving ordinance. Hence the desire that many people manifested, to have the ordinance administered to themselves and their children. Those who had been baptized in infancy were considered as having such a connection with the church, as gave them a claim to the watchful care of all the members, and as exposed them to the censures of the church, when they were guilty of any immorality.

At the church meeting mentioned above, "it was unanimously agreed and ordered, that some of the brethren should be chosen to unite with the pastor in preparing adult church children connected with this church, for publickly owning their Lord, and renewing the covenant made with them, in and by their parents." This preparation was to be made by questioning, instructing and exhorting them. It was further agreed without a dissenting voice, that in cases of erring adult church children--that is, those who were twenty years old, or upwards--they should be dealt with as other members, for scandals, or clear breaches of the moral law. In two or three weeks from that time, five young men owned the covenant, and two weeks later, five others. In the course of a year, more than thirty persons owned the covenant, while a very few were admitted to full communion.

Mr. Cotton continued in the work of the ministry till his labors were terminated by his death, which occurred very suddenly on Tuesday, April 20, 1686, when he was in the fifty-third year of his age. His funeral took place the next Friday. On the following Sabbath, Rev. Samuel Phillips, of Rowley, Mass., preached to the bereaved people.

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