Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: The Ecclesiastical Lawsuits

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The Ecclesiastical Lawsuits

Each of the two churches had now a settled pastor, and for each congregation there was a comfortable house of worship; but here was not an end of their dissensions and difficulties. A considerable amount of parsonage property and ministerial funds afforded ample scope for contention. These funds had been derived from the sale of lands purchased of Rev. Timothy Dalton, nearly a century and a half before, for the use of the church and town, and of other land appropriated by the town at different times for the support of the ministry. The parsonage lands then remaining were from the same sources. The Presbyterians having in their interest a majority of the legal voters of the town, claimed the right of appropriating the whole income of this property for the support of their own institutions, and had accordingly, at the settlement of their pastor, voted to give him the use of the parsonage buildings, and had made provision for the payment of his salary out of the income of the parsonage and of the ministerial funds. But Mrs. Thayer was still occupying the parsonage, and, acting under the advice of the Congregationalists, reFused to vacate it.

In. the spring of 1796 the town chose a committee, consisting of Elisha S. Marston, Capt. Benjamin Shaw, Lieut. Cotton Ward, John Moulton, Daniel Lamprey, Capt. Jonathan Marston and Cornet Simon Nudd, "to go to Mrs. Martha Thayer and demand a categorical answer, whether she will move out of the parsonage house which the Town have voted to the Rev. Mr. William Pidgin & quit all claims to any of the Parsonage Lands & Buildings on the same belonging to the Town (which she retains) & remove all encumbrance of hers off the same by a Day appointed by said Committee — she Binding herself by her hand writing to perform the above — they to allow her a time sufficient to accomplish the same." In case of her refusal to comply with their demand, the committee were empowered and instructed "to proceed with her as the law directs, to disposses her of what she withholds from the Town & the Revd Mr. William Pidgin." Vote, seventy-two for and fifty-one against; remonstrance presented to the meeting, signed by fifty-three persons.

Mrs. Thayer, having refused to vacate the parsonage house, and relinquish all claims upon the parsonage lands, the town appointed Capt. Jonathan Marston and Oliver Whipple, Esq., for attorneys, to appear in any court of law in this State, to sue and prosecute any action of ejectment commenced or to be commenced against Mrs. Martha Thayer, in behalf of said town. Thus the matter was brought into the civil court.

The Congregationalists did not approve these proceedings, as they believed that the ministerial property had been bought, or set apart by the town for the support of the Congregational ministry alone. They therefore felt themselves justified in advising Mrs. Thayer to keep possession of the parsonage-house, to prevent its falling into the hands of those who, they believed, had in equity no right to it.

In a communication to the town, May 2, 1796, signed by more than fifty Congregationalists, after giving their views of the purpose for which the ministerial property was intended, they add: "Nevertheless, we being willing and desirous to do everything in our power to promote the peace and happiness of the town, and to prevent expensive lawsuits if possible, would propose making choice of an equal number of the Presbyterian and Congregational societies as a committee, to meet, and, if they can agree upon any mode of accommodation between the parties, then to lay it before the parties in town meeting for their consideration; but if no such agreement should take place, we are ready and willing to leave matters of dispute between us, to the determination of judicious, disinterested men, such as should he mutually agreed upon."

This proposition for a committee of the two parties was brought before the town for consideration more than a year afterwards (July 10, 1797), and Lieut. Cotton Ward, Cornet Simon Nudd, Elisha S. Marston, James Leavitt, Capt. Jonathan Marston, Philip Towle, and Benjamin Shaw were appointed a committee on the part of the Presbyterians, "to meet within a committee that is, or may be, chosen by the Congregational Society, to see if they can agree upon a division of the property bought by the town for the use of the ministry" and report the result for the action of the town.

On the part of the Congregational Society a committee was chosen, August 7, consisting of the following persons: Col. Christopher Toppan, Samuel Mace, Daniel Lamprey, Jun., Jonathan Locke, Abner Page, Joseph Dow, Esq., Abraham P. Towle, John Dow and Joseph Towle, Jun.

Having but little confidence that any settlement would be effected by these committees, the society, the same day, chose Joseph Dow and Christopher Toppan, Esquires, Maj. Josiah Dearborn, and Messrs. Samuel Mace and Abner Page a committee to conduct the case if it should be necessary to bring it into court.

The committees chosen by the two parties for consultation were unable to agree upon any plan of accommodation. The Congregational society therefore commenced an action to recover what they considered as rightfully belonging to them, but withheld from them by the town. The suit was brought in the name of the their minister, Rev. Jesse Appleton, and was managed by the committee previously chosen for that purpose.

The town, on the 30th of July, 1798, chose Capt. Benjamin Shaw and Capt. Jonathan Marston to manage the defense, with full power of substitution. At the same meeting another committee was chosen to join a similar committee on the part of the Congregationalists, with full power to effect a settlement of all matter of dispute, according to their discretion. The committee were: Cornet Simon Nudd, Capt. Benjamin Shaw, James Moulton, James Leavitt, Elisha S. Marston and Jonathan Marston, 3d.

The next spring it was proposed by the Congregationalists to make an equal division of all the ministerial property between them and the Presbyterians; or to leave it to disinterested men to make such a division as they should think proper; or to divide the income yearly according to the assessments on the members of the two societies respectively; or to have the town make provision for the full payment of the salaries of both ministers.

When these proposals were submitted to the town for action, on the 19th of March, the town voted to postpone indefinitely the consideration of them, declaring that the whole matter was still with the committee appointed on the 30th of July preceding.

The Congregational society, therefore, met again and appointed a committee of an equal number on their part, and gave them like power. This committee consisted of the following persons: Colonel Toppan, Esquire Dow, Lieut. Daniel Lamprey, Abner Page, Joseph Towle, Jr., and Levi Batchelder.

The committees of the contending parties having failed to make a settlement of their difficulties, propositions similar to those on which the town had declined to act on the 19th of March, were again brought before th town early in the next autumn. The town voted, that, as they had previously contracted with Rev. Mr. Pidgin, to give him the use of the parsonage house and certain lands, together with the interest of the funds belong to the town, for his support and salary, they would not now be warranted by law to give any part of this grant "to any other minister or society whatsoever;" nor were they "as a town authorized to alien or convey any part of the purchase made by the town in their corporate capacity for their use, to or for any other purpose whatsoever." The articles in the warrant were therefore postponed, the town again voting "to confide in and abide by" the action of their committee formerly chosen.

From this vote, it is evident, that, however desirous the committee might have been to settle the existing disputes, nothing effectual could be done by them that would be satisfactory to the town, unless the Congregationalists would concede to them the whole ground. This they would not do, as they had full confidence in the justice of their cause, and there were also indications, that, although their suits at law had not yet been decided, they would ultimately be given in their favor.

At the next annual meeting, March 18, 1800, the town directed the selectmen to furnish the agents appointed to carry on or defend the lawsuits between Rev. Mr. Appleton and the town, and Mrs. Thayer and the town, with such money as they might from time to time need, or as the circumstances of the suits might require. A few months later Capt. Benjamin Shaw was chosen agent to carry on the suits for the town.

At another town meeting, Oct. 27, it was voted to settle these disputes on terms afterward to be agreed upon, and to choose a committee of six, three from each party, to devise, if possible, some plan likely to effect an accommodation between the parties. It does not appear whether any plan of settlement was agreed upon by this committee, to be submitted to the town. A series of propositions, of similar import with those brought before the town on the 19th of March, 1799, and indefinitely postponed, were again offered for consideration, February 2, 1801, but whether by recommendation of this committee or by request of the Congregational society, we are not informed. The town voted to postpone all the articles, and immediately dissolved the meeting.

At the annual meeting of the Congregational society in the spring of 1802 Josiah Marston and Abner Page were chosen and empowered "to take care of the parsonage land belonging to this society and to prosecute any person that shall cut or haul off any wood from the same." The land here referred to was the home parsonage, which had been in the possession of Mrs. Thayer, the widow of the late pastor. Although a writ of ejectment had been brought against her by the town she had never been ousted. She had now, however, voluntarily removed from the parsonage house and given up all claim to the land, and Rev. Jesse Appleton had taken possession of it and was now occupying the house. This being done under claim of sight, he could not be disseized by the town, unless by a write of ejectment.

In the following summer the society instructed their agents for carrying on the suit against the town for recovering the parsonage property, "immediately to adopt such measures as might have a tendency to bring every matter relative to the affair, to as speedy a determination as possible."

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