Cambridge Farms Parish Covenant, 1696

What the first meeting house may have looked like
Early in 1692, having finally gotten the permission they had been awaiting for a decade, the people of the Farms, now Cambridge’s North Precinct, lost no time in putting up a meetinghouse and engaging a minister. Unfortunately, we have neither a plan, a picture, nor even a detailed description of the meetinghouse. This sketch, based on what is known about typical 17th-century Massachusetts meetinghouses, shows what it might have looked like when it was finished. According to Charles Mumford’s History of Lexington (the source of the account, including quotations, that follows on this page), the Farmers' first recorded public meeting was held on April 22, and was the ancestor of all Lexington’s future town meetings, which still continue. It’s clear that members of the community had already been busy with the project, for the meeting, as soon as it had elected a clerk to “wright the votes” and keep a record, was ready to take action:
it was voted that Mr. Benjamin Eastabrook shall be the man that should be invited to preach to them by a clear voat and that he shall be spoken to to preach to us a year from the first of may 1692 and that Samuell Stone senior and David Fiske senior should shold speak to him to com and preach to us as abouesaid.

it was voted that wee will give him 40 pounds for a year half in mony (viz) 20 pounds and 20 pounds in other pay at mony prise and that it should be for his salory and to sattisfy for his Entertainement.
Obviously, a search committee had already done its work. Benjamin Eastabrook (whose family name was spelled Estabrook in later generations) was the son of Concord’s minister. He had earned the Bachelor of Arts degree at Harvard College in 1689, at the age of 18, and was automatically granted a Master’s degree three years later (Harvard’s standard procedure at the time). At the time the Farms congregation called him to preach, therefore, Mr. Eastabrook was 20 or 21 years of age. Massachusetts’ economy in the 17th century was not as fully cash-based as it is now, and cash—especially in small rural villages—was often scarce. So there’s nothing surprising about the condition that only half the minister’s compensation was to be paid in “mony,” and the rest in goods “at mony prise.” Given the amount of bartering that went on daily, everybody knew the money price of a bushel of corn or fifty pounds of hay, so it's unlikely that the goods portion of Mr. Eastabrook’s salary would have been worth much more or much less than the £20 he was promised.

An undated list of those who subscribed money for the meetinghouse also survives, and Mumford believed that this, too, was made before the April meeting. If the building was at all ready to accommodate the congregation that heard Mr. Eastabrook’s first sermon on Sunday, May 1, 1692, the historian must be correct. But the meetinghouse wasn’t yet up to the new parish’s standards, and it took a few years more to get it thoroughly finished inside and out.

The parish’s second public meeting took place on March 1, 1693, ten months after the first. The business of that meeting was an agreement to purchase a piece of land, the produce of which would go toward the support of the minister. The land was to be bought from the town of Cambridge, which still owned the “outlands” that it had feared losing, according to its petition of 1683.

In a meeting held three weeks later, the parish declared its wish to settle Benjamin Eastabrook as its minister—an expression meaning that the contract between church and minister would become permanent, rather than subject to periodic review and renewal. By that time the people had heard nearly a year’s worth of Mr. Eastabrook’s sermons, and they’d obviously liked what they heard. The record describes the permanence of the arrangement with slightly surprising precision: “…it was voted that we will give mr Benjamin Eastabrook a call to setel with us our minister for time to com till gods prouidens [‘providence‘] shall other ways dispose of him.”

During the next two years, the villagers continued work on the meetinghouse, and also built a house nearby for the minister, which they presented to him “without any obligation but his setteling with us and his taking ofis with us and abiding with us.”

Mr. Eastabrook was also offered, and accepted, a somewhat more generous salary arrangement, starting at £45 pounds per annum, to be supplemented by quarterly collections for a period of three years, and finally arriving at the steady figure of £56 (some of which would still be paid in goods rather than cash).

When the parish had its meetinghouse and other affairs in order, it ordained and settled its minister in a public ceremony attended by clergy and other visitors from several nearby churches. (The Massachusetts Puritans had adopted from the Separatists the conviction that only a congregation could legitimately ordain a minister—a tradition still followed, with some variations, in churches that trace their descent in one way or another from the Puritan/Separatist community, including the Congregational, Baptist, and Unitarian-Universalist churches.)

The ordination ceremony was held in October, 1696. Less than a year later, however, Benjamin Eastabrook died of a sudden illness, and the shocked and bereaved congregation (which hadn't expected "gods prouidens" to be manifested so soon) needed to look for a successor. The man they found was John Hancock—grandfather to the well-known revolutionary leader of the same name. (In 1697, however, when he was called to preach at Cambridge Farms, he was not yet anyone’s grandfather, being only 26 at the time). Mr. Hancock was fortunately blessed with good health and impressive longevity: the parish settled him as minister in 1698 and he served it in that office until 1750.
1696 Parish Covenant, page 1 (courtesy of the Lexington Historical Society)
Every parish in the Puritan/Congregational spiritual community was considered to be gathered and held together by means of a covenant: a formal joint agreement by the congregation to accept and defend the articles of faith as defined by the larger church to which the parish belonged. They pledged to maintain an appropriate relationship with the larger church, honoring its ministers and accepting their guidance, and to form a loving community that looked out for the spiritual and material welfare of all members, helping one another as appropriate.

The congregation of the new parish in the Farms adopted—the word used at the time was “owned”—a covenant in 1696, written at the time their first minister was ordained and settled. The ceremony was also the church’s official “gathering,” its first appearance on the public stage. No doubt the congregation had understood the covenant to be implicit from the beginning in 1692. The Farms parish knew it was about to achieve this status publicly and officially at the time of the ordination ceremony. Samuel Sewall, one of the public officials who attended, noted that, although no one had stood up to testify to the working of divine grace in his or her life (as was sometimes, but apparently not always, done on such occasions), “[there was] a Covenant sign’d and voted by 10 Brethren dismissed from the churches of Cambridge, Watertown, Wooburn, Concord for this work.” The signers (in fact there were 11, plus the minister) had not been expelled from the neighboring towns’ churches, but merely given leave to transfer to the new parish in their own town. Although, technically at least, every dweller in the Farms was a member of the Cambridge church, it appears that some who lived around the periphery, closer to those other churches than to the one in Cambridge, had made different arrangements. But now that their own village had a church, they were happy to join it. The eleven lay signers may have been the only full members of the church at the time, or they may have been chosen to represent all the congregants.
1696 Parish Covenant, page 2 (courtesy of the Lexington Historical Society)
The names of Mr. Eastabrook and the eleven prominent lay signers were written by the scrivener who wrote out the text of the covenant rather than by the signers themselves. The names of the parish’s next two ministers—John Hancock who took the place of Mr. Eastabrook so tragically soon, and Jonas Clarke, who replaced Mr. Hancock some five decades later—have been added at the bottom of the list. Their names are of course in different hands, most likely their own. Mr. Clarke had to work with care to get his name and the year onto the bottom of the page, which must already have been crumbling.

The covenant is an impressive piece of work, full of the Puritan spirit that had created the “Bible commonwealth” of Massachusetts Bay 60 years before. It would be hard to conceive an author who was not a member of the clergy. And, in fact, it appears that we can identify him.

William Brattle, who became the minister at Cambridge in 1696, kept a book mostly composed of parish records and statistics. He also inserted copies of several documents that he thought might be useful as “forms,” or templates, for various purposes—for example, letters certifying that this or that person had been a parish member in good standing, or texts that could be used in ministerial ordinations, adult baptisms, and so on. One of these is headed “The Rev Mr Willard’s Form for the Gathering of a Church Called at Cambridge Farms.” And the text, apart from a few minor scribal variations, is identical to that of the 1696 covenant now preserved in the archives of the Lexington Historical Society.
Rev. Mr. Samuel Willard
Samuel Willard (1640–1707)—the only Reverend Mr. Willard in Massachusetts at the time— was a prominent and influential Puritan cleric, a respected preacher and theologian as well as a prolific writer. (A Complete Body of Divinity, a series of 250 sermons that formed a systematic explication of the Puritan catechism, was published posthumously in 1726: at 250 folio pages the largest book printed in English North America up to that time.) He was the minister of Boston’s Third Church—the Old South Meetinghouse—and during the last seven years of his life served as Harvard College’s acting president. Somewhat more to the point, he was the Reverend Mr. Benjamin Eastabrook’s father-in-law.

Mr. Willard is said to have been both a gentle and understanding pastor and a firm defender of old-line Puritanism’s stern doctrines. As one might expect from a conservative religious thinker, the result was a well crafted and thoroughly traditional testament, one that the first settlers of Massachusetts Bay would have been quite comfortable with. But, coming from a man who was also an empathetic pastor, it didn’t try to scare anyone straight with invocations of Doomsday. (The Puritans’ alleged enthusiasm for this topic has, according to Samuel Eliot Morison, been greatly exaggerated.) The parish covenant of 1696 may not have literally described the lives the Farms congregation were living, but it expressed an ideal they were proud to aspire to.