First Congregational Church,
West Tisbury, Ma.
Written by Joseph Gibbs Kraetzer
The village of West Tisbury has the feeling, the sense of family and friends. It has the store where matters are decided, the Library where matters are discovered, the Town Hall where matters are handled, the Agricultural Hall where matters are beribboned, and then there is "the matter of the Church."
The First Congregational Church of West Tisbury has had a number of titles starting with the Gospel as preached by Thomas Mayhew Jr. Then reference is made to Church and Congregation; Congregation Union; Church of Christ; Congregational Society of West Parish; and First Congregational Society. There were so many possibilities as to the correct name, one lady when making a bequest to the Church added the words "or whatever may be the name."
The early preachers, Thomas Mayhew, Jr. and Senior had no Meeting House. They preached in their home at Quansoo, in other homes or in the open. In all probability John Mayhew had the benefit of the first Meeting House.
A crude drawing or map of the Island, drawn in 1694, includes area well up the Island and marked Tisbury. A fair number of homes are indicated and among them is a building listed as Meeting House. The position of the homes on the map, being about the middle of the drawing, led Dr. Banks to believe the location was the present day West Tisbury. He and others felt the Meeting House could have been near the present Agricultural Hall. (Now called the old Grange Hall)
In 1666 certain Proprietors land was divided into sixteen lots and a part of the land description reads "along the heads of the lots until it come to meet with the highway at the head of John Manters lot which goeth down to the Meeting House." This could place the location across Tiasquam River or it could be a meeting house not further identified or described. Until additional information comes to light, the first site seems to be more logical.
The inhabitants of the Town solved the problem very nicely by voting on June 12, 1701 to build a new Meeting House "after the manner and dimensions of the meeting house in Chilmark" and "to build the same meeting house as Cheap as they Can." There must have been much discussion as to whether the existing House was large enough and properly located. Perhaps the House was on land owned by an individual. The problem was met by James Allen of Chilmark. We find the following in the proprietors records dated October 2, 1701. "Know all men by these presence that I, James Allen of Chilmark, do give and grant unto the Town of Tisbury, and acre of land lying within Abigail Peas's fence, forever, for a burying place and to set a meeting house on." On the same date the Town voted 60 pounds for the Second Meeting House to be assessed and collected by the selectmen. For some reason they refused to do so. So in December 1701 the town voted that Simon Athearn, Robert Cathcart and Experience Luce would assess the Town. It seems that the first two were to make the arrangements and the third to do the work. The building must have been small and stark, for in July it was ready for use.
On July 17, 1702 at a Town meeting it was voted "that the meeting house should be sould at an outcry also it was agreed upon that he that bid most at three times going Round should have it and at the last Time of biding which was the third time of asking on the third going Round Robert Cathcart was the bider who bid five pounds six shillings." Perhaps this gives an idea as to the size and condition of the First Meeting House. The Chilmark records have been lost so we do not know the size or design of the Second Meeting House.
The acre of land given by James Allen lies along the south side of the cemetery. Just inside the entrance the site of the Meeting House is easily seen both by topography and by the slate grave markers which come up to it on the westerly and northerly sides. In the 1920s the foundation was still visible. The entrance road to the cemetery was the original road to Holmes Hole and continued through to Scotchman's Bridge (Lane). The present curving highway did not exist. Building and maintaining the Meeting House and supplying the pulpit was rather different from to-day. We saw the Second Meeting House paid for by a tax. The Ministers were paid much the same way. A committee would be appointed from Church members to find a minister and work out with him the best possible financial arrangement. This done the Commission reported the results to the Town Selectmen and they simply levied a tax.
Usually the minister received a flat sum for the year. Occasionally an additional settlement was given, presumably to help with living quarters. Natnaniel Hancock was to receive extra "in case he doeth learn ye Indian languege and preach lectures to them."
In everything that happened there was no separation of Church and State. It was one and the same with the Church given special attention.
It was becoming apparent in 1732 that the Second Meeting House was not meeting the needs of the peple and a Committee was directed to bring in plans for a new house. In January 1733 the plans were presented and approved. The Third Meeting House was to measure 35 feet by 30 feet. The arrangement of pews was set and each person was to build his own pew within one year. There were certain locations more desirable than others and one paid a required sum. The money was turned over to the Town to help meet the building cost.
The framing of the House must have been completed in June, for a special town Meeting in May provided for entertainment at the "raising." It was to consist of "good wheaten cake, good Beere and Rum and Sugar." Samuel and Whitten Manter were in charge and the whole affair must have been a howling success.
Over the years the general care of the House was to do what was neccessary after it really became neccessary. They were, however, most careful to have a Doorkeeper who also swept the floor. Whitten Manter was paid 8 schillings for two years work.
Although the minister's settlement and allotment was to help him find a proper place in which to live, the Town recognized this was difficult. It appointed a Committee to consult as to "whether or no the Town would purchase an Accomodation of Lands and buildings for a Parsonage." At a Town Meeting September 2, 1760 it was voted to buy from Capt. Samuel Cobb "Land Meadow and buildings on the west side of the old Mill River." (the property recently sold by the Church);"also 2/3 of all the Divisions of Wood Lots on the Eastside of the river" (without doubt the land on which the school stands). Cedar rails and oak posts were to enclose the Parsonage area; they were to shingle the barn, put glass where needed and "keep the wooden work of the Dwelling House in repair and plaster the front rooms and kitchen." All of this should have pleased the minister George Daman.
While this was happening there was much discussion concerning the Meeting House with widely different views and feeling a bit high. So much so the Town voted in January 1768 to seek outside help through a "Comitty chosen of the Naburing Town Detarming what should be Don." Two from Edgartown and one from Chilmark served. The Committee was to decide if the Meeting House was to be repaired, enlarged, or moved and where to. The report came in February 1768 and "the Voters being 32 in number ware equally devided So that their Could Be no Vote to Accept their Report." They must have been rather upset for they voted against having another committee look into what was "Nesseceery."
During the winter the Parishioners decided they could handle the matter themselves. In April a meeting was called and it was decided to cut the House in the middle, add 15 feet there, add two feet in the bakc and move the pulpit back. The windows were to be diamond glass, the interior to be plastered. Later, to preserve the shingles, they were colored with "Tarr and Oker". Not too attractive. This enlargement provided for additional pews. One was purchased by Thomas Waldron who paid 10 pounds 15 shillings eight pence for a "new spot adjoining the pulpit on the east side."
During the next few years the Town, as was the country, was concerned with events leading up to and during the Revolution. The Town continued to pay the minister in various amounts and methods. (money, firewood, beef, corn, wool, flax, etc). There seemed to be no problems with either the Meeting House or Parsonage for there were few requests for boards or shingles or glass.
Holmes Hole was beginning to grow and their interests obviously were in that area. The Meeting House was distant and it was difficult and inconvenient to reach. Some were resisting or refusing to pay the tax and in June of 1780 a Committee was sent to "know what the Cause is that they refuse to pay." Non payment of the tax could have serious consequences as John Davis discovered when he found himself in "gaol." A Committee from the Church was asked to look into the propriety of the General Court in discharging him. He was a Baptist and objected to supporting the "orthodox" (State supported) Church.
In September 1782 the Town received "a Request of a Number of Inhabitants of Holmes Hole and Some Adjacent People" to be exempt from the tax to support a Presbyterian Minister as they were of the "Baptist Perswasion." Again they mentioned the "remote Scituation-Attended with Conspiscious Inconveniences." In November their request was granted.
But things were not all bad. In 1788 six additional pews were placed in the Meeting House, along with some repair, and the remaining seats converted into Pews for the Town's use. Repairs were made to the Parsonage House and Barn.
That two communities had developed is clear with Holmes Hole requesting to be a separate Precinct. This was agreed to in 1790, provided they support their own school and poor. A year later a further separation appeared when Ministers taxes were returned to some people living eastward of Tashmoo Springs. And a year after that 1792, the Baptists requested exemption from any ministers tax. Tax disputes were frequent and East and West appointed arbitrators. Finally, the situation reached the point where a petition was sent in 1795 to the General Court requesting that East of Tashmoo be established as a separate precinct or parish. This line is about the location of the present boundary between West Tisbury and Tisbury. Also about this time it appears taxes no longer were collected to support a minister.
New religious beliefs were coming into the West parish and a vote was taken "that the assessors have the power to tolerate the baptists to preach in the Meeting Hosue". But we're not too sure all went well, for a later vote chose Ezekiel uce "to keep the key of the Meeting House and open the door every SUnday for Mr. Hatch or Mr. Lampson and none other." This in the early 1800s.
There is considerable confusion regarding the Parsonage property. It was both rented out and used as a Parsonage, a pasture and meadow sold, even reference to the sale of the Parsonage itself was made. But in 1822 it was voted to build a barn, with gardens to be planted and attended to by the Congregation - this for the minister. Finally in 1825 it was voted to see if the Town owned the Parsonage anyway. Whatever they learned, the Parsonage continued to be used as such for another 150 years.
In 1832 the Meeting House was approaching its 100th year and was either in poor repair or was not meeting the needs, or both. At any rate in January 1833 it was voted to build a new Meeting House on the same location and the expense to be apportioned on the pews. The pews were valued from $56 to $20 each, all depending on location. The $20 pew we know was almost out the door. During constructon, meetings were held in the School House of the South east District (West Parish in Tisbury).
To go along with the new Meeting House we have a new minister, William Marchant, who requested certain improvements in the Parsonage; a new front door, a threshold, buttery windows repaired, West room and kitchen floors painted, and lastly "the well furnished with a bucket and secured from the falling in of children." We hope this is not in order of importance.
At the Meeting House there also was a problem. A year after completion it was decided to "make a stone for the East Front Door" to correspond with that on the West. It would be a surprise to step through a door on to nothing. However, one already was in the cemetery.
An interesting note from the diary of Richard L. Pease is found in the Intelligencer concerning the new Meeting House. It was in 1839 and again a new minister, Ebenezer Chase. "Went to Mr. Chase's meeting in the P.M. Heard a little organ-first ever in a Church on M. Vineyard." We have embarked on our fine music.
For the next ten years all appeared well with the Meeting House and the Parsonage. But shortly after, the Parsonage again was causing concern, for we find a petition to the Legislature requesting "leave to sell the Parsonage and 40 acres which causes much trouble and expense".
And ten years after that, in 1861 came the first vote to move the meeting house. No reason was given so we can only conjecture. A Committee was appointed to select a site and three weeks later they brought in the suggestion that it be the southwest corner of the Parsonage lot. Obviously the request to th Legislature had not been acted on. Funds were solicited to meet the cost of moving. Contributions came both in money and promised labor.
Three years later, June 1864, another vote was taken - "Voted to move the meeting house on upon the Parsonage Lot and make the neccessary reparis and additions unless some one will give a better lot." Obviously the Church was not entirely happy with the proposed location and they sent out a Committee to procure a lot. On that committee was James Mayhew. They had found that to move the Church to the Parsonage lot would cost $300. It would be difficult to do better. There also was the problem of making financial adjustments with the pew holders. The pew arrangement would be different and values different.
So it was voted "that the pews be appraised and that the owners give or throw them up and that after the House is moved and repaired they be allowed the value in a new pew." This was no easy task for apparently the interior arrangement was changed from the old pews to settees as well. We do not have the original pew arrangements at the time of the move. During the time of moving and placing the Meeting House in order, the School House of the South East district was again used for Church purposes.
At last the final obstacle was overcome, for on February 16, 1866 a deed to the present Church lot was received from James Mayhew and for the sum of $135. For the third time, in April 1866, it was again boted t move the Church with David Cottle and Bartlett Mayhew in charge. The trip from the cemetery to the center of the village was about to begin.
Moving houses or buildings presented no problems in those days as they were frequently moved from one part of the Island to another; simply jack it up, then lower it onto huge beams resting on rolers, set a capstan well out front, attach a hawser and the worthy horse plods round and round slowly moving the building forward.
It was probably moved in the Spring but not ready for use. In November the Church voted "to underpin the meeting house with stone, to paint it, fix the roof, to build a belfry, and to amend and fit up the House so as to render it comfortable and respectable for the worship of Almighty God."
When the bell was installed is not recorded, but later there were instructions as to when it should be rung on Sundays. At 9 A.M. 3 minutes; 15 minutes before service, 3 minutes; and again for 3 minutes leading to the start of service. In addition the bellringer was to open the House, make the fire and seat the people. Not quite but almost a Sexton.
The Church settled into its new location with the main concerns keeping the pulpit supllied and the church itself in condition. In 1884 the House was reshingled and the cost was assessed according to the value of the pew. Happily we have a listing of the values and the assessments to meet the total cost of $113.37. Just how long this method of paying expenses was continued was not found.
In 1894 the pew arrangement of the Church again appears to have been changed. We have a copy of the new floor plan showing pew assignments. There is no record as to values being set. Possibly this could be when the practice ceased.
In 1895 the Church acquired its clock. It was inspired by Hannah Look, who in her will dated December 1, 1875, left to the Congregational Society or "whatever may be the name" the sum of $200 "to be used in placing a suitable clock in the steeple or belfry with face and hands outside." The bequest was in memory of her husband David Look. David Look and Hannah had held title to pew #32 when the church was located in the cemetery. He had served on many of the Church committees. By 1893 the money had grown to $400 and there also had grown a real community interest in acquiring a clock. Specils suppers were given to raise money and one Gentleman lost interest as he had had "too much chowder too many times." Chain letters were sent out with sums received from 10 cents to $5. Althouth the sea Gull, a newspaper published by the Church ladies, had not been issued for several years, a special issue was published for the summer of 1895. The total success was great enough not only to make the clock possible but a new bell as well which corresponded with the cock machinery. No wonder it is know as "the Town Clock." From the annual Church meeting of March 25, 1895 we have the following - "To see what action the Society will take in reference to allowing their church building to be so attended as to admit to a Town Clock being placed in the Belfry of the Church." (Yes) "The Standing Committee to sell the old bell and hangings and use the money toward the new bell."
Actually no money was appropriated by the Town for the purchase of clock or bell. It did and still does provide a sum (for years $10) to be paid to the individual who winds the clock - a weekly task. The appendix has a list of those individuals beginning with 1895.
Music has always played an important part in the Church. In 1903 it was decided to try the new organ in the Gallery for six months. If they didn't like it they would take it downstairs again. Then five years later we learn they carried the old organ to the Parsonage. Was this the original organ mentioned in 1839? Were there two organs at the same time? At any rate the word 'carried' is correct. It must have been quite a sight as the organ went past the store.
With everything that had happened since the Church was moved from the cemetery it is no wonder the interior needed renovations. In 1910 services were held in the Agricultural Hall while repairs were made. In July when services returned to the Church, from the pulpit we are told "This being our first service held in our newly renovated church with steel ceiling, walls tinted and at a cost of $275 - a new carpet at a cost of $55." Well done.
With the building of the Parish House in 1952 a truly great addition was made to the Church and Community. It is difficult to believe its cost was only $5,000.
Under the leadership of Elden H. Mills, the next major change was made in 1961. The interior of the church was completely restored - the steel ceiling removed and the ceiling replastered, floors refinished and walls painted and new pews installed. The interior plan was changed from two aisles dividing the church into thirds, to a center aisle and one on each side. The organ loft was enlarged to meet the needs of a choir and organ. The following year a new organ was given by Jane W. Newhall in memory of her mother. This was the advent of the wonderful music we have today. The steel ceiling has gone but a similar one may be seen in the Lamberts Cove Church.
All through the years the Parsonage had its problems, from structural to whether it was actually owned or not. We find deeds showing the property was purchased from two different people withing two years time. Several times there was discussion as to selling, once with an offer turned down by a vot of 7 to 8. Finally in 1978 the property was sold but with a conservation restriction placed on the south pasture.
1982 brought the minister James C. Martin (Jim), with a feeling, a sense for family and friends.
The year of 1983 brings these notes to an end with the latest addition to the Parish House making its main hall more suitable for larger groups and adding small meeting or conference rooms. Its regular use by many different groups is in itself a great satisfaction.
And so this is "the matter of the Church", or Historical Notes, or as Hannah Look wrote "whatever may be the name."