The Church in Pleasant River Valley
The pioneers who came to this down-east valley ‘now over’ two hundred years ago had keen eyes for both beauty and utility. They viewed the bold headlands and the sparkling waters of the bay and the rugged mountains in the distance, the broad marshes heavy with salt hay for their stock, and the primeval forests filled with towering pines for their sawmills and named their future home—Pleasant River.
Their settlements were not compact like those at Machias, but families were scattered at intervals here and there along both shores of bay and river from Cape split to the head of tide and beyond. For many years their only road was water.
Not only were the people scattered, like all frontiersmen they were poor. Lumber was almost their only source of income, and during the seven lean years of the Revolution English vessels patrolled the coast and ruined the lumber trade. The settlers were self-sufficient but they had little surplus for such things as schools and churches. In 1780 the number of people living within the present limits of the towns of Addison, Columbia Falls, and Columbia did not greatly exceed two hundred. More than thirty years elapsed before the pioneers at Pleasant River secured legal titles to their homesteads or had formed a town government.
While the Pleasant River settlements were slowly growing, the religious life of New England was experiencing profound changes. The established church was Congregational and its ministers were supported by taxation. They were influential, highly respected, and most of them were college graduates. For more than a century established church had the entire field to itself, but in the later decades of the eighteenth century new denominations had arisen, of which the Baptists and Methodists were most active. Their ministers, with notable exceptions, had little formal education, and their preaching was less intellectual and more emotional than that of their Congregational rivals.
The field was large enough for all. In fact it was too large for the number concerned. The district of Maine was growing rapidly and numerous settlements were too new and too small to support a settled minister even had one been available. The Reverend James Lyon of Machias was the only regular Congregational minister in Washington County from 1771 until his death in 1794. As late as 1820 Maine had only seventy-one congregational ministers and the pulpits in sixty-one churches were vacant. The same situation with the other denominations prevailed.
Methodists attempted to meet this challenge through their system of circuits and circuit riders. Congregationalists sent out men from time to time who made long journeys through the frontier settlements, preaching sermons, distributing literature, marrying and burying, baptizing infants and converts, and organizing little churches wherever a few earnest believers could be gathered together. Baptists did the same except that they did not believe in infant baptism.
One of the earliest and most active of these dedicated itinerants was the Reverend Daniel Little, pastor of the congregational church at Kennebunk from 1851 to 1801. He made so many visits to Eastern Maine that he was sometimes called “the Apostle of the East.” His first mission was in 1772 under the auspices of the “Trustees for Eastern Mission.” In 1774 he spent several weeks between Castine and Gouldsboro, and came east again several times after the Revolution. While there seems to be no existing record that he ever came to Pleasant River, it would appear probable that he visited here several times.
Edward E. Bourne, in his History of Wells and Kennebunk, wrote of Mr. Little: “His labors were very arduous. There were no roads, and he was obliged to travel on horseback through forests, and much by boat among the islands and on rivers, and was occasionally in much peril.” However, he “pursued his way with a cheerful heart. ‘The more labor, ‘ he says, ‘for the good or others, the more peace and comfort within.”
Of the Congregationalists, the Reverend Jotham Sewall, 1760—1850, labored most abundantly of them all. The Reverend Calvin M. Clark of the Bangor Theological Seminary wrote: “He had beyond question assisted in ordaining more Congregational ministers, and in forming more congregational churches, in every part of Maine, than any other Congregational minister in the whole history of these churches.
On his many missions to eastern Maine, “Father” Sewall preached 43 times at Addison, 30 times at Columbia, and 233 times at Machias. His first journey was in 1801 under the auspices of the Massachusetts Missionary Society. Sept. 13, he wrote in his diary: “rode to Columbia and preached in the evening to quite an assembly, and God graciously offered his aid both in preaching and in prayer, a solemn season. Thanksgiving and praise to my good Master.” Sewall went as far east as Eastport and on his return in October preached one afternoon at Columbia and that evening at Addison. One or two candles lighted the meeting place only and the dimness added solemnity to the occasion.
In spite of the labors of Little, Sewall, and others, Congregationalists never organized a church or gained a firm foothold in the Pleasant River Valley, perhaps because the Baptists were too strongly entrenched. In 1785 the Reverend John Whitney, then of Gouldsboro, preached for some time in this area. “Several persons professed piety and the character of the people considerably improved,” testified the Reverend Joshua Millett in his History of the Baptists in Maine. Whitney was a Free Baptist itinerant and was active at that time in preaching “in the eastern country.”
The first Calvinist Baptist of record to labor in the Pleasant River Valley was Elder Elisha Snow. A prominent businessman in Thomaston he was converted to the Baptist faith at a series of meetings held there by the Reverend Isaac Case, who later married his daughter. Mr. Snow was pastor of the Baptist church at Thomaston from 1794 to 1821.
Elder Snow visited Columbia in 1786. “He preached the gospel to them, “wrote Millett, “light celestial dispelled the darkness from many minds; the doctrines of grace supplanted their works of righteousness, and many became converts to the gospel as preached by Elder Snow. At their request he embodied them into a regular church. Although favored with but little preaching for many years, and in the midst of various modes of opposition, they lived in unity and love and prospered.”
The Baptist Church at Columbia was the first Baptist church east of the Penobscot, and the second Protestants church of any denomination in Washington County. It later became the mother of Baptist churches in Addison, Indian River, and Harrington. One would like to know more about this early church and its members but, as Millett says, “much of their early history remains in obscurity.”
Their first and only regular minister for nearly thirty years was the Reverend Joshua Young who served as their pastor from 1794 to 1797. Again Millett, who was at one time pastor of the Baptist church at Cherryfield, tells us that “Mr. Young found himself in the center of a vast community, comprising several settlements nearly destitute of the gospel. Among these he labored most assiduously. Nor were his efforts in vain. God blessed them. In 1796 a revival was experienced in Columbia and Addison, and was extended to other places.”
Alexander Baring, who later became Lord Ashburton, was in Pleasant river in 1796, and wrote: “It (Pleasant River) presents more the appearance of cultivation and of old countries than any other and I should certainly prefer it as a place of residence. The people are agreeable and when we were there they were getting their church ready by subscription and had appointed their clergyman and built him a handsome mansion.”
The same year James Murphy, a Baptist from Nova Scotia, who later served as pastor at Cherryfield and then at Eastport, joined the church by letter and received a license to preach. “Now commenced a train of circumstances adverse to their influence,” wrote Millett. “In 1797 Mr. Young and Mr. Murphy ceased their labors in Columbia, and for seventeen years the church had no pastor. In 1799 a Methodist minister came among them, who scattered seeds of contention, the fruits of which were, much wrangling and disputing about the doctrines “Divine efficiency,” ‘election’, and final perseverance. In their extremity Elder Case visited them and with the skill of a wise peacemaker he allayed the strife, and placed things again on their proper basis.”
Elder Case had already had experience with the Methodists who had built the first Methodist meeting house in Maine in Readfield where he had organized a Baptist church of which he was pastor. Some were fearful that the newcomers might try to make proselytes among his members but he declared that they were “Case-hardened.”
The Reverend Isaac case came to Maine from Rehoboth, Mass., and was pastor of the Baptist church at Thomaston from 1784 to 1792 and of the one at Readfield from 1792 to 1800. He was active in home mission work during that time and after 1800 devoted the remainder of his long life to that service. As Millett says: “Many of the churches in Maine owe their existence to his efforts, and multitudes of souls, their salvation to his instrumentality.” He earned a place beside Father Jotham Sewall in that respect.
Elder Case was probably in Columbia and Addison in 1796, since he aided Elder Young in holding revival services and organizing a church at Cherryfield that year. He came eastward many times later and was most helpful in keeping the little church alive and prosperous when they were sheep without a shepherd.
Elder Case preached at Addison in October 1805 when converts were made and thirty-four members were added to the church. The following December he visited Steuben, Columbia, Addison, and other places in Washington County. At Addison he baptized (by immersion) six persons. He noted in his diary: “The tide had ebbed about six inches, had it continued ebbing it would not have been so convenient; but as the Lord would have it, there came in an undertow, as they call it, and the water was higher than before. I think I was never in any place where Christians were more engaged in religion and where people took more pains to attend the word. Some came as many as twenty miles.”
Ministers of the established church were supported with tax money by the town. These taxes were extremely unpopular with Baptists, Methodists, and other newer sects. They had to maintain their own minister and help support the orthodox minister as well. So much opposition finally developed that the custom was abandoned. Two votes taken by the town of Columbia throw a ray of light on this situation. In 1801 the town voted to raise $75 for the support of the gospel and chose Deacon David Wass to secure a minister, presumably a Baptist since that was the only church in town. The next year the town voted that the $50 raised for that purpose be used instead for the support of schools.
From 1797 to 1814 the Baptist church was without a minister, but it was visited from time to time by itinerants among who besides Elder Case were Elders Henry Hale, Robert Low, and John Haines. In 1814 Elder Benjamin Lord of Surry was engaged as minister. He remained until 1816 and then returned to Surry. While he was here “another revival blessed the community and the church, ‘Second Addison’ was constituted,” under the leadership of Elder Isaac Bridges, with twenty-five members. It was at first called the Jonesboro and Addison church and was apparently located at Indian River some distance from the parent church.
The departure of Elder Lord issued in another time of trouble for the original church, which was now a member of the Eastern Maine Baptist Association. Millett relates the story: “1819 was a year filled with darkness, division, and painful trials. Elder McMasters, who was their minister, labored in vain to restrain the raging elements. Two parties, claiming to be the church, existed, and each reported itself to the Association as such. A committee was sent by the Association to look into their state, who visited them, and after examination and deliberation, reported to these brethren, that it was their decision that all those members who could unite in a renewal of ‘covenant’ was the church. Whereupon, a large majority of both parties signified union and fellowship, and soon most of the minority joined them. This method of settling the difficulty was accepted by the Association. It was not considered a re-organization, but a restoration of union.”
Meantime Methodism had come to Pleasant River from Canada in the person of the Reverend Duncan McColl of St.Stephen. Duncan McColl was a Scotsman who had served in the British Army in the War of the Revolution. He came to St.Stephen in 1785 and soon began to preach the gospel according to the Methodist faith. He continued to labor there and at Calais until his death in 1830. He was also endowed with the missionary spirit and preached at times in the smaller towns on both sides of the international boundary.
“One of his excursions,” says the author of the Annals of Calais and St.Stephen, “in 1787, reveals the condition of things then, in several respects. He went to Pleasant River in Maine, and spent several weeks in preaching and trying ‘to Build up Zion.’ Being ready to return; the good people of the place gave him as the reward of his labor, $3.50 in money, and three cheeses. He started homeward a happy man. He reached Indian Point in safety, but found there no vessel to take him home and no road leading up river. But go he must; and shouldering his three cheeses, he walked along the pathless shore of St.Andrews Bay, all the weary way to Robbinston. There he found a boat to take him to St.Stephen. The generosity of Pleasant River, the absence of roads, and the hardihood of the man, are characteristics of the times.”
However, not until the coming of Jesse Lee was any organized attempt made ot plant the Methodist flag in the Pleasant River Valley. Jesse Lee has with reason been called the father of Methodism in Maine. He was one of the greatest of the early Methodist evangelists and his field of labor extended from Canada to Florida. He made several journeys to Maine, preaching, baptizing, and organizing churches. He preached what he considered the first Methodist sermon in Maine at Saco in 1793, and dedicated the first Methodist meeting house in the District two years later. He made two or more journeys east of the Penobscot and came first to Pleasant River in 1795.