The Old South Church Turns 200 -August 2009

Two centuries of a Nantucket landmark

by: Ted Anderson

photography by: Jim Powers

The Town Clock that has famously regulated life in Nantucket from its place in the tower of the Unitarian Church is not the only chronometer in the building. There is another on the inside – strategically installed above the entrance to the main hall. During the sermon, the only person who looks directly at it is the one preaching from the pulpit. It is “in his face.”

More books of sermons were published in the early 19th century than survive. Understandably. Old sermons are not the sort of reading one takes to the beach. Nevertheless, several sermons by Reverend Seth Swift can still be found tucked away between crumbling black covers on seldom explored shelves.

Printed, they tend be around 32 pages long. To read one aloud would take at least an hour; more if all the biblical passages were quoted in full instead of merely cited by chapter and verse.

After listening to a 32-page dissertation during the Sunday-morning service, people returned to the unheated, un-air-conditioned church for an afternoon service. That may help explain why the clock facing the minister was inscribed Tempus Fugit. A young lad eager to demonstrate his proficiency in the language of Cicero simultaneously slipped in a comment on sermons when he translated this inscription as “Time Fidgets.”

Stories and anecdotes passed orally from one generation to the next frequently misplace things chronologically. They fiddle with time. For instance, it is said the generation of Nantucketers who built the Unitarian Church in 1809 were so wealthy they could have built it out of mahogany and covered it all over with gold; but being frugal by nature they restrained themselves to gilding the dome and installing a mahogany pulpit.

On all three counts this anecdotal account has fiddled facts into anachronisms. The 1809 steeple did not have a dome at all, let alone one covered in gold leaf; the mahogany pulpit was installed in the 1830s along with the Goodrich organ and the Carl Wendte trompe d’oeil wall decoration, and since there was no Unitarian denomination in the United States in 1809, how could it have been built as a Unitarian Church?

The South Church Preservation Fund commissioned Betsy Tyler to write a history of the church to explain, among other things, the many names by which it is known. The Nantucket Preservation Trust recently published this informative and beautifully-illustrated book under the title “Unitarian Meeting House, A History Commemorating 200 Years.”

Using records written during the formative years of the church by the people involved, I would like to introduce a few of the individuals who became part of that history at its beginning.

Whether starting a church or a democracy, beginning is difficult and success never certain. Before the first service can be held, a group of like-minded people has to gather together, find a place to hold it and engage a minister to lead it. That means finding money.

On July 23, 1808, five Nantucket “gentlemen,” Captain Thaddeus Coffin, William Riddell, Samuel Cary, Jonathan Briggs and John Brock, purchased “Fish Lot Share Number Two and Three” on Orange Street from George Gorham Hussey for “two thousand eight hundred and fifty dollars.” The plot is described in the bill of sale as 23 rods in area with a dwelling, barn and outbuildings. At 160 rods to the acre, the price seems a bit high for an approximate eighth of an acre, but it was an ideal location for a church. Moreover, these men were experienced businessmen. They put up the money and would not have paid the price unless they felt, if not the best they could do, it was at least fair.

The next step was to build a building. For this they hired Elisha Ramsdell. Ramsdell built to last.

The year 1809 was an auspicious time to build. There was plenty of virgin timber available to turn into 20-by-20-inch beams 50 feet long and pine siding three feet wide. One of the problems impeding the restoration of old buildings is that there is simply no equivalent timber. If Ramsdell had not over-built with excellent lumber, the church building could not have survived the abuse inflicted upon it by later modifications.

Another reason why 1809 was a good time to build was that the people of Nantucket were prospering. The population was growing by leaps and bounds, so there was need for expansion.

There was also money to fund new building. The War of 1812 temporarily put an end to the economic boom, but it did not stop the population from growing. When prosperity and confidence returned a generation later, building resumed – but in a different architectural style. The North, Methodist, Universalist and Baptist churches were all constructed during a post-war boom that continued until the Great Fire and the collapse of whaling. If Nantucket had not had to struggle economically through the second half of the 19th century, the old whaling town would not have been preserved.

While Ramsdell and his men were hauling the huge timbers in place and filling Orange Street with the din of construction, the five “gentlemen” were busy looking for a minister. They settled on a young man from the Cape who had just graduated from Harvard and come to Nantucket to teach. His name was Seth Freeman Swift.

There were a couple of bumps in Swift’s undergraduate career. He had been suspended for participating in a student protest that pointed a finger at the college bursar for the “foul black and green meat being served up in the commons.” The dean did as many others have in similar circumstances. He announced that the students were not being served anything but the very best cuisine. As evidence of his sincerity he probably even went to the commons for lunch. Then he suspended Swift for a semester, and quietly fired the bursar.

The one condition of employment the five “gentlemen” insisted upon was that the young candidate find himself a wife before becoming the spiritual counselor to their wives and daughters. Fortunately, the young lady Seth had in mind already had him in her mind. Seth married Valina Rawson in 1810 and soon the population of the Orange Street parsonage was on the rise; with Caroline, in 1811, Edward in 1813, Joseph in 1817, and Charles in 1819. A small stone in the oldest section of Prospect Hill marks the grave of Charles Coffin Swift. The worn inscription is still sufficiently decipherable to ascertain the Swifts’ youngest child lived less than a year. Nantucket Town is encircled by cemeteries, each originally serving a different congregation. Prospect Hill was the South Church burial ground.

On Nov. 9, 1809, Rev. Seth Swift conducted the first service in the new meeting house: Thaddeus Coffin, Nathaniel Barrett and Henry Riddell were installed as deacons. Coffin was also elected treasurer. The process of gathering a new church set in motion by the five “gentlemen” would seem to have reached its goal, but there was one more step to take: that of becoming part of the established church of Massachusetts. This took an act of the state legislature.

That happened on June 4, 1810, by a vote of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts. The Second Congregational Meeting House Society became part of the state church often called The Puritan or Congregational Church. By this act, 33 men, with Thaddeus Coffin’s name at the head of the list, were legally incorporated as the “proprietors” of the South Church with the exclusive power to make and enforce bylaws, regulate church finances, swear in its officers, and conduct all the business of the church, including hiring, and firing, the minister. While the congregational polity of the established church was, in some respects, democratic, when the church voted it was the proprietors’ votes that were counted. Both the minister and the clerk who recorded the decisions of the meetings make a clear distinction between church and congregation. When they refer to the church as the deciding body, they mean the proprietors, the people who put up the money to purchase the land and build the building and thus claimed ownership. The proprietors were all men and all gentle. The congregation included everyone else who sat in the pews: mainly women and those of modest means.

Like the nation, within the denomination the process of becoming truly democratic had a long way to go.

A stone adjacent to that of young Charles Swift marks the grave of Miss Eliza Bailey, “former teacher of the African School.” Eliza died in 1841. She was not a proprietor but in 1837 her vote finally counted. She voted with Hepsibeth Riddell, Susan Barnard, Dinah Gardner, Nancy Folger, Sally Smith, Lydia Briggs and a score of other women of the congregation after a new minister, Henry Edes, persuaded the proprietors that the votes of all who sat in the pews mattered. By that vote the congregation abandoned the old rules and became Unitarian.

Ted Anderson is the retired Minister Emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Orange Street, where he served for 30 years.

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