Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: "Bone of Contention"

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" Bone of Contention"

At the annual town meeting in 1819, there was inserted in the warrant, by request, the following article: "To see if the town will give the Baptist Society in said town a part of the land and monies to support the gospel among them." The town refused to take any action upon the subject.

At an adjourned meeting on the 29th of the same month, the town voted to adopt the report of a committee previously appointed, recommending the building of an out-house at the parsonage, according to a plan presented, and took measures for carrying the same into effect. The passing of this vote called forth a remonstrance, signed by forty-three legal voters. The remonstrance, dated March 31, 1819, is in the following words:

"We, the undersigned, legal voters and inhabitants of said Hampton, do hereby protest and dissent against a vote passed at the adjournment of the last annual meeting, to build any building, or make any repairs, relative to the vote, on the parsonage, at our cost or expense, either by taxes, or our property withholden from us by the town."

It is not necessary to give the names of the signers of this protest. It is sufficient to state -- and that is the purpose for which the matter is here introduced -- that nearly all the signers were connected with the Baptist society, incorporated more than a year before. They had asked for a part of the income of the parsonage lands and ministerial funds, but had failed of obtaining it, and they thought it unfair to he called upon to pay directly or indirectly any sum however small, for the maintenance or convenience of a minister of another denomination, on whose ministrations they did not attend. Whatever opinion may be held as to their right to any part of the ministerial funds, it certainly accords with the prevailing sentiments of the present day, that they ought not, in a case like this, to be compelled to pay a tax.

The passing of the Toleration Act, so called, by the New Hampshire Legislature, in 1819, left people at liberty to act as they pleased in regard to paying a tax for the support of a minister. That act, however, could not impair the validity of the contract previously made with Mr. Webster. His salary continued to be paid by the town, though a considerable number of the inhabitants had, from time to time, "signed off" from paying any portion of it. The first instance of this occurred in March, 1823, when about thirty persons refused to be longer taxed.

No further request for a division of the income of the ministerial property was made to the town during the next six or seven years. But soon after the annual town meeting in 1830, the selectmen, by request, called another meeting, to see if the town would make provision that the Baptist society might receive from year to year their just and equitable proportion of the annual proceeds of the ministerial property, according to taxation, or in any other suitable manner. An ineffectual attempt was made to refer the whole matter to a committee, to report to the town their views. This failing, the question was then put, whether provision should be made for the Baptist society, and it was decided in the negative, the vote standing as determined by a po11, seventy for and eighty-seven against the measure.

At the annual meeting time next spring, the same subject was again brought before the town in a proposition to divide the income of the ministerial property among the several religious societies in the town according to taxation. The following preamble and resolution were then offered, and passed by a vote of ninety-five to seventy—seven:

"Whereas there have been different opinions respecting the ministerial property in the town of Hampton, and already much time and money expended in legal contests respecting this property; whereas the common votes of the town and common suits at law are never likely to setle disputes on the subject; whereas it is highly important to the well-being of any community, that harmony and a general good understanding be maintained among the people; and being desirous that justice and the best interest of the town be promoted; Therefore, Resolved, that all questions respecting the ministerial property of Hampton be referred to three able counsellors at law, to be chosen by a committee of six, three to be chosen by each society, or their agents, which referees shall have full power to make such a disposition of the property between said town and Baptist society in said Hampton, as may be final, or put the subject, if possible, beyond all further dispute."

The preamble and resolution having been adopted, James Leavitt, Esq., Jeremiah Hobbs and Maj. John Lovering were chosen as the committee on the part of the Congregational society. The Baptists generally were opposed to such a reference, and do not appear to have appointed a committee on their part. Hence, referees were not chosen.

A little more than two years afterward another town meeting was called for a similar purpose, when the town again refused to allow the Baptist society any portion of the funds. A poll being demanded, the vote stood forty-five for, and seventy against. Again, about three weeks later, the town not only refused the request of the Baptists, but passed a vote, affirming the appropriation of the parsonage and funds to the use of the Congregational society.

No meeting of time Congregational society had been held for several years, but it was now thought advisable to meet again as formerly. There were, however, no officers authorized to transact any business, or call a meeting of the society for choosing officers. Application was therefore made to John T. Burnham, Esq., of Exeter, to call a meeting, to choose officers for the society and to make provision for holding meetings thereafter. The justice issued his warrant to Josiah Dow, one of the petitioners, requiring him to notify the members of the society to meet for the purposes named in the application on the 25th day of November following (1833). The society met at the time and place designated, and chose Josiah Dow. moderator; Daniel Towle, clerk and treasurer; and Jeremiah Hobbs, Samuel D. Taylor and Samuel Batchelder, selectmen and assessors; and made provision for holding future meetings.

Agitation of the question about the division of ministerial funds was again renewed in 1835. At an adjournment of the annual town meeting, March 24, two questions relating to the subject were to be acted upon: the first, whether the Baptist society should have their proportion according to taxation; the second, whether the funds should be so divided that every legal voter in the town might have his share according to taxation. The action of the town on the first proposition was as follows: Voted, that these funds be divided and the proportion mentioned in the warrant paid over to the Baptist society. The selectmen were instructed to make such a division and the treasurer to deliver the property into their hands for that purpose. To these votes the selectmen of time Congregational society objected, regarding them as "being in direct violation of the eleventh and twelfth articles of the report of the committee of union between the town and Congregational society," which report had been adopted by both parties, and, in their view, was still binding. By those articles, the whole income of the parsonage and the personal or other property in possession of the town and Congregational society for the support of the minister should in the first place be appropriated for the payment of the salary of the minister who should afterwards be settled, and the balance of the salary, if any, should be paid by the whole town. Rev. Josiah Webster had been settled under this arrangement, and while his ministry continued, the funds could not legally be diverted to any other purpose.

The town then voted, "that the Rev. Josiah Webster be no longer considered as a minister of the town of Hampton." It was also voted "that a committee of three persons be chosen to select in certain lots such parsonage wood in [the] Old Swamp, as may be thought decaying to the amount of two hundred dollars, or more, and sold [sell the same] at public auction, on or before the first day of December, 1835, the proceeds to be returned to the town." Aaron Coffin, Tristram Shaw and Abraham Fogg were chosen a committee for this purpose. To these votes time selectmen of the Congregational society objected in open town meeting. The measures were, however, carried into effect by the committee.

About one week afterward there was a meeting of the Congregational society held by adjournment, when, in consideration of the recent votes of the town, diverting the income of the funds to a different object from that contemplated in the plan of union, it was voted, in accordance with an article in the warrant for the meeting, "to revoke the vote of union passed by said society, November 27th, 1807, and also all other votes referring to the same." The right to revoke they had expressly reserved to themselves, whenever, in their opinion, there should be reason therefor.

The society then chose Daniel Towle, Josiah Dow, Jun. and Thomas Ward, together with their selectmen, a committee "to protect the property of the Congregational society by all just and legal means, according to the best of their judgment."

In the warrant for the annual town meeting in 1836 was an article, "To see if the town will vote to revoke all former votes respecting the ministerial funds and parsonage property." The meeting was adjourned to the fourth Tuesday of the same month, when the subject was indefinitely postponed.

Simeon Shaw, Aaron Coffin and Thomas Leavitt, Esq., were chosen a committee, "to go and try to compromise within the Rev. Josiah Webster, and make report" [to the town]. At their conference, Mr. Webster offered to relinquish his claim upon the town for two thousand dollars and the use of the parsonage till he could find another place to which to remove. The committee offered to pay him his salary and one thousand dollars and to give him the use of the parsonage till the next spring. Failing to agree on terms of settlement, Mr. Webster then proposed to submit the matter to arbitration; but after several ineffectual attempts to agree upon referees, that plan was dropped, and nothing more attempted in the way of compromise.

A committee of four men from each society failing to settle the differences, the town next instructed the treasurer "to pay over to the selectmen or agents of the Congregational society in Hampton the one half part of the interest on ministerial funds, and the one half part of parsonage rents for the year 1835 and also time year 1836, agreeably to the Indenture between said town and Congregational Society." Thirteen persons remonstrated against this vote, for the following reason: "Because we believe that there is no legally organized Congregational society in the town. We believe that there has not been such a society in the town for more than twenty-seven years, & we cannot give our votes acknowledging any society of the kind."

The selectmen, by request, soon after called another meeting in relation to the funds, "to see if the town would sell all the parsonage land, except the Home Parsonage and divide the proceeds and all the ministerial funds among all the voters and other taxpayers living in the town, and choose a committee to carry the same into effect; or invest the proceeds of the sales and all the notes and Bank Stock, constituting the ministerial property, in a fund, the income of which should annually be paid to such religious societies as the voters and other taxpayers living in the town, should from year to year direct; -- and where individuals fail to give any direction, such part as they would be entitled to, to be divided equally among the several religious societies in the town;" for at this time, still further to complicate the situation, a third denomination, the Methodist, was gaining adherents. The meeting was organized by the choice of a moderator, and then immediately dissolved. Articles of similar import had been acted upon but failed to be adopted at the previous meeting.

A petition for another meeting, to act on nearly the same articles was within a few days presented to the selectmen; but they, with the result of the last two meetings before them, failed to call a meeting. Application by one-sixth part or more of the legal voters was then made to Uri Lamprey, Esq., a justice of the peace, to call a meeting, and he issued his warrant to the constable, to notify a meeting to be holden on the 23d of May.

At that meeting, Samuel Garland, Jr., was chosen moderator.

It was voted to sell all the parsonage property except the home parsonage and the woodland in the old swamp. It was also voted (twenty-six persons voting), to divide all the interest and income of the parsonage property equally among the legal voters and estates not owned by legal voters [but] owned by persons living in the town, payable to such religious societies as said legal voters and [owners of] estates should severally direct, and in case of no direction, to divide equally among the religions societies in the town; and that a committee of five should he chosen to act in behalf of the town, to sell and give warranty deeds of the above property, on or before the first Monday in June following (less than fourteen days, thus debarring the town from annulling these votes at another meeting).

The treasurer was directed (ten persons voting) to pay over to the selectmen, on or before the first Monday in February following, all the income of parsonage property in his hands. The selectmen were directed to cause a division of the property to be made agreeably to a former vote, on or before the first day of March, 1837 (fifteen persons having voted in favor of the last motion). Objection was made as follows:

  "Hampton, May 23, 1836.

"We, the subscribers hereby object to all the votes passed at this meeting, so far as it regards the ministerial property in this town, in behalf of the Congregational Society.
Samuel Batchelder, {Agents for the
Jeremiah Hobbs, {Congregational
Daniel Towle, {Society."

A vote was then passed to indemnify the committee from all costs and damages. A poll being demanded, thirty-four persons voted in the affirmative and thirteen in the negative.

The committee proceeded to sell and convey the parsonage lands, agreeably to the instructions received.

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