The Burnt Church

Intolerance was not recently invented.  It has probably been simmering among humans since they began to live in groups thousands of years ago.  It’s certainly not new to the United States, having disembarked the boats with the first Europeans who decided to move across the sea and to start new lives that would feature not the intolerance they were fleeing but instead freedom of religion, freedom to gather when and where they chose, and freedom to speak their opinions freely.

Intolerance featured prominently in an early chapter of Worcester history.  It deeply affected many of the 1718 Scotch Irish immigrants who had come to the city with their own hopes for a new kind of life.  They were Presbyterians, though, and that was a problem for the Puritans who had arrived first in town. The hostility between the groups reached an ugly pinnacle in the year 1740 when the church that the Presbyterians had scrimped and saved to build was burned to the ground in what was apparently a little-concealed act of arson.

Here is one account, from Caleb Wall’s Reminiscences of Worcester:

Of the one hundred families that came over in 1718 to escape persecution, then rampant, which pursued them from their original home in Argyleshire, Scotland, across the channel, to the “Emerald Isle,” where they remained as long as they could, large numbers of them settled in Worcester, where similar illiberal hostility was manifested toward them by our Puritanic ancestors, who, although reverent worshippers of God themselves, could tolerate no form of manifesting that reverence except such as was ordained by the State.

Having formed a religious society here, these Presbyterians met first in the old garrison house at the north end of the town, where, and in “God’s first temple,” the open air, they enjoyed for a time the ministrations of Rev. Edward Fitzgerald and Rev. Wm. Johnston.

On their attempting to build a meeting house, which they did on the west side of Lincoln street, just north of “The Oaks,” they had hardly completed the frame work of it before the prejudices of the other settlers obliged them to desist, a mob by night demolishing what had been put up during the day, so those who came here to enjoy the freedom of “worshipping God in their own way,” were obliged to forego that inestimable privilege, and accommodate themselves to the mode adopted by the majority around them.

Some of the persecuted emigrants left and joined their friends in Pelham, Mass., and Londonderry, N. H., but a large party of them remained here, and became contributors to the support of the regularly established church, whose edifice was on the Common.

Arthur Latham Perry (1830-1905), professor of history and politics at Williams College, wrote an extensive piece called Scotch-Irish in New England that includes more details on this story.  He describes here the early days of the Scotch-Irish Presbyterian worship in town:

The English had put up a rude log meeting-house the year before the Scotch-Irish came, and the year after a more commodious structure was erected on the site of the “Old South Church” (but quite recently removed) ; the Ulster Presbyterians, from the very first, liked to have worship by themselves, and in their own way, whenever and wherever they could ; it is known that they held service, sometimes in summer, in the open air, and for a considerable period, by vote of the town, they occupied for preaching purposes one of the old garrison houses, commonly called the ” Old Fort.”

Here having formed a religious society, they enjoyed for a time the ministrations of Rev. Edward Fitzgerald and Rev. William Johnston; still, they did not abandon the Puritan Church on the Common, and were taxed, of course, for its support. This taxation made friction, for they were poor and could not support their own minister besides contributing to the support of the other ; and Mr. Fitzgerald, being unable to procure proper maintenance, removed from the town.

After some years had passed, the group decided to organize a more permanent church.  Perry describes the efforts involved and the reaction of their neighbors. Both his anger at the arson and his shame at being related to some who likely were perpetrators jump off the page:

Now, notwithstanding these repeated drafts on the home colony and church at Worcester, to Colerain and Pelham and elsewhere, those who remained there were still determined to build a meeting-house of their own. They had been weakened, but not disheartened.

They naturally chose a site near to the “Old Fort,” which had been to them more or less a worshiping-place, on the “Boston road,” not far from the center of their scattered homesteads. I have often been in the neighborhood of this place, and am confident I can point out the spot within a very few rods.

In their extreme poverty they raised the needful moneys, the timber was brought to the site, framed and raised, and the building in the earlier progress of construction, when the other inhabitants of Worcester, many of them persons of consideration and respectability and professed piety, gathered tumultuously in the night-time, leveled the structure with the ground, sawed the timbers, and burnt or carried off the pieces and other materials. This was in 1740.

The defenseless, but indignant strangers were compelled to submit to this infamous wrong.  The English Puritans and their irresponsible hangers-on chose, indeed, the night-time for their mob-violence and devilish meanness, but no blackness of darkness can ever cover up a deed like this ; no sophistries, no neighborhood mis-affinities, no town votes, no race jealousies, no wretched shibboleth of any name, can ever wipe out that stain.

The blood of English Puritans and of Scotch Presbyterians mingles in my veins ; my great-grandfather Perry, my grandfather of the same name, my uncle, too, in the same line, officiated as deacons for ninety-four successive years in the old South Church on the Common, which originated and perpetrated this outrage on humanity ; nevertheless, I give my feeble word of utter condemnation for this shameless act of bigotry, the details of which I learned as a little boy at my mother’s knee.

The ill-fated church appears to have been located just north of the current location of Worcester’s DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) chapter on Lincoln Street (number 122, also known as the Paine family mansion), a quick walk from Federal Square. (see pictures below)

An article from the Worcester Telegram dated 8 September 1972 has a different year for this event and a different description of the location of the church:

In 1719, persons of Presbyterian faith had attempted to build a church at the intersection of the Boston and Lancaster roads but it was demolished in the night by other townspeople.

Some of the 200 or so Scotch-Irish who came to Worcester in 1718 had moved off to other locations by the time of the 1740 church burning but that crime led to the departure of more.

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