Religion IconFrom Specimen of Printing Types from the New England Type Foundry (Boston, 1834). Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Religious communities have long been central to life on Cape Ann, yet to some extent, the history of religion here is one of schism. Theological and political debates occurred in the pews and were incited from the pulpit; evidence of disagreements and disputes can also be found in print and in personal diaries and letters. Many churches maintain their own archives, but Cape Ann’s historical societies hold some of the earliest materials.

One of the area’s first religious leaders took an early stand against the British, decades ahead of the revolutionary fervor that would dominate the area. In 1683, John Wise (1652–1725) was ordained as the pastor of the newly organized Chebacco Parish in Ipswich. Just five years later, he led that town’s citizens in a protest against the royal governor, Edmund Andros, and colonial taxation. Wise served time in prison for incendiary activities and is remembered as “the first man in America ever known to oppose the idea of taxation without representation.”[1] In The Churches Quarrel Espoused (1713), Wise advocated for democratic representation of lay people in the ruling of the church.[2] His argument for democracy transcended the particular clerical schism addressed in the pamphlet, and it proved popular in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. A copy of Wise’s sermons, printed in Boston, belonged to the Reverend John Rogers (1719–1782), who was the minister of the Fourth Church in Gloucester for thirty-eight years. He saw his parishioners through the Revolutionary War but did not live to see independence.[3]

Cape Ann’s place in the history of early American religions stems more from theological disputes than from overtly political discord, however. The ideas of Universalism were already in vogue in Gloucester when the Universalist minister John Murray (1741–1815), on his second visit here from Boston in December 1774, decided to settle in the town. He described his new home as “a taste of heaven,” but despite support from some of the community’s leaders, he met with considerable opposition.[4] Though based in theological differences, the dispute came down to money when sixty-one citizens of Gloucester refused to pay taxes that supported the Congregational Church. By 1786, this new Church of Christ had achieved its independence. Within a year of Murray’s arrival, Universalism had taken hold, and in anticipation of the first general Universalist Convention at Oxford, Massachusetts, the men of his Gloucester congregation adopted a Charter of Compact, outlining how the affairs of their church would be carried out. Murray took a draft of this document, which the Cape Ann Museum holds, with him to Oxford as a model for the societies represented there.[5] Upon his return, the congregation engrossed on parchment a final copy, signed by male members, including the African American Glocester Dalton (ca. 1723 –1813). When he died, Dalton was remembered by the Reverend Thomas Jones as “a believer in Jesus Christ ... [who] belonged to the independent Christian Society many years.”[6]

Universalist ChurchChurch of the First Universalist Society in America, ca. 1939. Photographed as part of the WPA Historic American Buildings Survey. Gift of James O. Runkle. [Accession #2274]

A number of members of the First Church of Gloucester were criticized when they left to join Murray’s Universalists. On February 11, 1777, the church drafted a letter to its “delinquent members” inquiring “why they absented themselves from the worship and ordinances of God in his House." The letter writers explained that “we are mutually bound ... to watch over one another in ye Lord and to admonish one another as occasion may require.” The letter concluded with an invitation “personally to appear and give your reason for such absence either in writing or verbally as you shall choose” in a week’s time. The parishioners who left were then excommunicated from the church. After Murray left Gloucester in 1793, no one immediately took his place, and in the wake of the Revolution, few permanent religious leaders of any denomination were installed on the North Shore.<a data-cke-saved-href=">[7]  This scarcity did not last long, however.

Universalism continued to spread, with churches established in Gloucester, Boston, Salem, and Charlestown by 1811.[8] Sandy Bay (Rockport) was quick to follow, establishing its first Universalist Church in 1829, though a Universalist Society was meeting there as early as 1821. In an 1841 meeting, the members chose to “invite Rev[erend] J[ohn] Allen to be pastor of this Society” after considering the conditions he stipulated. His third, and final, condition was the right “to have the use of the house to Preach on Temperance, Abolition, Peace, etc. so that it would not interfere with the regular service on the Sabbath.”[9] The Reverend Allen’s temperance message was warmly received, and at a meeting in August of that same year, forty people signed the temperance pledge.[10] His message of abolition was more controversial, though the Universalist Church continued to promote it until the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In 1861, just seven months after the start of the Civil War, a “bag of powder ignited by a fuse ” was thrown through a window into the church during a lecture delivered by the staunch abolitionist Parker Pillsbury (1809–1898).

About the same time that Allen settled in Rockport, Wakefield Gale (1797–1881) was installed as the third minister of Rockport’s First Congregational Church. He had attended Dartmouth College and Andover Theological Seminary, and had been the pastor of a church in Eastport, Maine, before coming to Rockport to succeed the Reverend William R. Jewett.[11] Wakefield arrived before his wife, Mary, and he wrote to her of getting settled, assuring her that “our friends all think Gloucester very pleasant.”[12] His abolitionist stance made him a controversial figure at first, but he soon found purpose, writing to Mary, “I begin to feel that they are my people and on the whole am inclined to think Providence has been kind and has done well by us in directing us here.”

Mary articulated her own fears and reservations in a number of letters to her father-in-law and to Wakefield, first from Eastport and then from Gloucester. She expressed her trepidation more fully in her personal diaries, which are housed at Sandy Bay Historical Society and Museums. In the letter on display, Mary writes to her father-in-law from Eastport, alluding to Matthew 5:14 and to John Winthrop’s speech to the Puritans on the Arabella: “We are like a city on a hill. Many eyes are fixed on us.”[13] From Eastport, Mary reported on the religious diversity she encountered, “Unitarians and Baptists and Roman Catholics all about us and in so small a place as this.” Mary’s letter is written in cross-hatch, a practice used “when paper was dear and postage high,” as one nineteenth-century letter-writing manual explains.[14] Eight years after this letter, the Gales had to adjust to life in Sandy Bay, where Mary would serve the community as an “exemplary Christian, beloved, and respected.”[15]

As the nineteenth century wore on, religious life on Cape Ann became more diverse. Immigration from Italy, Portugal and Ireland meant that more Catholics lived in the area. The first Catholic Mass was celebrated in a private house in 1849, and six years later, the Catholics established their own church.[16] Both the Catholics and the Baptists built new houses of worship in the 1870s, St. Ann’s for the Catholics and a new Baptist Church at the corner of Pleasant and Middle streets. The Jewish religion did not have a presence in Gloucester until the end of the century: between 1895 and 1906, thirty-two Jewish men applied for American citizenship,[17] and in 1904, they formed Chevra Ahavas Achim.[18] In the twentieth century, the tensions that characterized much of the early history of religious groups on Cape Ann lessened, as culture and politics in the United States became increasingly secular.


[1]. Robert Crowell, History of the Town of Essex from 1634 to 1868 (Essex, Mass.: published by the town, 1868), 245.

[2]. Wise inscribed the date May 31, 1710 in the dedicatory epistle, but no copy of a 1710 edition is extant, nor is there evidence beyond this inscription to suggest that the pamphlet was printed that year. See George Allan Cook, John Wise: Early American Democrat (New York: Octagon Books, 1966), 105.

[3]. John J. Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann: Including the Town of Rockport (Gloucester, Mass.: Procter Bros., 1860), 313.

[4]. John Murray, The Life of Rev. John Murray, ed. L. S. Everett (Boston: A. Tompkins, 1860), 211–213.

[5]. Richard Eddy, Universalism in Gloucester, Mass. (Gloucester, Mass.: Proctor Brothers, 1892), 27–28.

[6]. As quoted in Eddy, Universalism in Gloucester, Mass., 188.

[7]. William Bentley, Diary of William Bentley, 1803–1810, vol. 3 (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1907; reprint: Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1962), 36.

[8]. Bentley, Diary, vol. 4, p. 45.

[9]. Thank you to Lise Breen for bringing this record book to my attention.

[10]. Marshall W. S. Swan, Town on Sandy Bay (Canaan, N.H.: Phoenix, 1980), 126.

[11]. Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, 501.

[12]. Wakefield Gale, “Letter to Mary Gale. May 5, 1836.” MSS., Annex Box 2-1 (Rockport, Mass.: Sandy Bay Historical Society and Museums).

[13]. Mary Gale, “Letter to Joseph Gale from Mary November 12, 1828,” MSS., Annex Box 2-1 (Rockport, Mass.: Sandy Bay Historical Society and Museums).

[14]. J. Willis Westlake, How to Write Letters (Philadelphia: Christopher Sower, 1876), 43.

[15]. John W. Marshall, Newell Burnham, Henry Dennis and Levi Cleaves, eds., History of the Town of Rockport as Comprised in the Centennial Address of Lemuel Gott, M.D., Extracts from The Memoranda of Ebenezer Pool, ESQ., and Interesting Items from Other Sources (Rockport, Mass.: Rockport Review Office, 1888), 139.

[16]. Mary Ray, Gloucester, Massachusetts: Historical Timeline, 1000–1999, ed. Sarah V. Dunlap (Gloucester, Mass.: publisher not identified, 2002), 124.

[17]. Sarah V. Dunlap, The Jewish Community of Cape Ann: An Oral History (Gloucester, Mass.: Cape Ann Jewish Community Oral History Project, 1998), 3.

[18]. Ray, Gloucester, Massachusetts: Historical Timeline, 188.


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