Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: Rev. John Wheelwright

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Rev. John Wheelwright

The man first selected by the church and town, to assist Mr. Dalton, was Mr. John Wheelwright, the founder and first minister of Exeter, but then pastor of the church in Wells, in the province of Maine.

The contract between Mr. Wheelwright and the church, under date April 12, 1647, begins with a preamble, as follows:

"The church of Jesus Christ in Hampton haueing seriously considered the great paines & labours that the reverente & well-beloued Mr Tymothy Dalton haue taken among them in the worke of the ministry euen beyond his abilitie or strength of nater: And haueing upon sollemne seeking of God settled their thoughts upon the reverente & well-beloued Mr John Whelewright, of Wells, as a help in the worke of the Lord with the sayd Mr Dalton our prsent & faithfull Teacher: And haue[ing] given the sayd Mr Whelewright a call to that end, with the consent of the [w]hole towne; the which the sayd Mr Whelewright doe except off [accept of] according unto God:" therefore, the agreement was entered into, by which he was to have a house-lot, and the farm which had once belonged to Mr. Bachiler, but which had been purchased by the town. This was to be given to him, his heirs and assigns, unless he should remove himself from them without liberty from the church. The church and town were also to pay some charges and give Mr. Wheelwright as a salary £40 per annum. The farm was afterward conveyed to him by deed, and in 1654, ten pounds were added to his salary.

As it appears from the receipts annually given by Mr. Wheelwright for his salary, that his year was considered as commencing on the 24th of June, it is not unlikely that at that time in the year 1647, he became pastor of the church by installation. But there is some uncertainty about the length of his ministry. The latest receipt for salary, entered upon the records, is for the year ending at midsummer, 1655, and there is no record of any vote after that time, to show that he still continued to preach, and perform other ministerial labors in the town. It is evident, however, that the pastoral relation continued to a somewhat later period, for near the close of the year 1656, the town voted as follows: "To seeke out for helpe for the minestry to helpe wth or teacher untill wee see how God will dispose of us in respect of our pasture [pastor]." This being the first act on the part of the town for procuring another minister, seems to indicate that Mr. Wheelwright had but recently suspended, or closed his labors here. It was then doubtful whether he would resume his labors. There is no record to show that he did resume them; and sometime the next year another person was employed, who not long afterward received ordination and became pastor of the church.

After leaving Hampton, Mr. Wheelwright went to England, where he was favorably received by the Protector, Oliver Cromwell, with whom he had been in early life associated at the University of Cambridge. While in England, he did not forget the people of Hampton, as appears from his letter to the church, April 20, 1658, in which he mentions an interview with Cromwell, "with whom," he writes, "I had discourse in private about the space of an hour. All his speeches seemed to me very orthodox and gracious."

After the accession of Charles II to the throne, Mr. Wheelwright returned to New England and became pastor of the church in Salisbury, Mass., where he remained till the close of life. He died November 15, 1679, being about 85 years of age, and the oldest pastor in New England. [See Genealogies--Wheelwright.]

Rev. John Wheelwright was of Lincolnshire, in England, and was born about five or six years before the close of the sixteenth century. "His ancestors, no doubt, were of respectable standing in society, for he inherited a considerable real estate, which he disposed of by his last will. His parents had the good sense to bestow a portion of their wealth in giving their son a learned education. He had bright parts, and in youth was remarkable for the boldness, zeal, and firmness of mind he displayed upon all occasions. He was educated for the ministry, but embracing the Puritan sentiments, he necessarily incurred the censure of the church for non-conformity." [Judge Smith.] He came to America in 1636--whether for the first time or not, we do not pretend to decide--and landed at Boston on the 26th of May. He and his wife were admitted to the church in that town, on the 12th of June following.

About the same time he was suspected of having embraced the Antinomian sentiments held by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Anne Hutchinson. Some efforts were made to have him called to be a teacher of the church of which he was a member; but this movement was opposed by Governor Winthrop, who said that "he thought reverently of his godliness and abilities, so as he could be content to live under such a ministry; yet seeing that he was apt to raise doubtful disputations, he could not consent to choose him to that place."

Mr. Wheelwright became pastor of a church near Mount Wollaston--now Quincy, but then a part of Boston. Near the beginning of the following year, a general fast was kept in all the churches, one of the reasons assigned being the dissensions in the churches. Mr. Wheelwright preached on that occasion a sermon, for some statements in which he was called into court. The sermon was produced, and "he justified it." The court adjudged him guilty of sedition and also of contempt.

Omitting whatever transpired relative to this difficulty during the next nine months, it remains to be told that by the General Court that met the next fall, Mr. Wheelwright "was disfranchised and banished," and ordered to leave the jurisdiction of the court within fourteen days. This he did, as he probably supposed, and having bought of the Indians a large tract of land around Squamscott falls, founded the town of Exeter, and became pastor of the church formed there in 1638. In 1642 the people of Exeter voluntarily placed themselves under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts.

Mr. Wheelwright, being still under sentence of banishment, removed to Wells, in the province of Maine. A considerable number of the members of his church accompanied, or soon after followed him to his new abode, and he still continued to be their minister.

After Mr. Wheelwright had been several months in Wells, he wrote a letter to Governor Winthrop, expressing his sorrow for the part he had taken in the controversy several years before, and his grief for the censorious speeches that he then used; and declaring his readiness to give satisfaction, if it should appear to him "by scripture light, that in any carriage, word or action," he had "walked contrary to rule."

"Upon this letter, the court was very well inclined to release his banishment; and thereupon ordered that he might have a safe conduct to come to the court, etc."

This inclination and act of the court having been made known to Mr. Wheelwright by the governor, he replied, March 1, 1644, by a very manly letter. While thankful for the safe conduct proffered, he thought it not expedient to appear before the court in person; for, while he adhered to the spirit of his recent letter, he could not condemn himself for such crimes and heresies as had been charged upon him, which were the chief grounds of his banishment, but must hold himself free to make his defense.

Governor Winthrop, in reply, still advised his attendance at court, saying that though his liberty might be obtained without his personal appearance, yet that was doubtful.

Notwithstanding the doubt expressed by the governor, the next court released his banishment without his appearance.

In consequence of charges made against Mr. Wheelwright during his pastorate at Hampton, the town undertook his vindication. In town meeting, May 1, 1654, it was voted that the petition, framed and signed at that meeting for the vindication of Mr. Wheelwright's name, should be presented to the next General Court. The substance of their declaration, as given by Dr. Cotton Mather in the Magnalia is as follows:

"They, hearing that Mr.Wheelwright is, by Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Weld, rendered in some books printed by them as heretical and criminous, they now signify, that Mr. Wheelwright hath for these many years approved himself a sound, orthodox, and profitable minister of the gospel among these churches of Christ."

At the session of the court which commenced two days after the town meeting just named, the petition was presented, and considered, with this result:

"In Ansr to the peticon of the Inhabitants of Hampton. The Court doth declare, 'though they are not willing to recall those uncomfortable differences that formerly passed betwixt this Court and Mr. Wheelwright, concerning matters of religion or practice, nor doe they know wt Mr. Rutherford, or Mr. Welde hath charged him wth , yett Judge meete to certify that Mr. Wheelwright hath long since given such satisfaction, both to the Court and Elders, generally, as that he is now, and so for many years have binn an officer in the church of Hampton, wthin or jurisdiccon [jurisdiction], and that wthout offence to any, so farre as wee know; and there, as we are informed, he hath binn an usefull and profitable Instrument of doing much good in that church.'"

After the excitement occasioned by the discussions about Antinomianism, and the conduct of the persons charged with having embraced that doctrine, had subsided, and the people were enabled to examine calmly and dispassionately the whole subject, the measures adopted by the government were generally thought to have been far too severe. Even at the time of the excitement, Governor Winthrop, although he favored the proceedings against Mr. Wheelwright, yet said publicly, that "he did love that brother's person, and did honor the gifts and graces of God in him." Rev. John Cotton, of Boston, says: "I do conceive and profess, that our brother Wheelwright's doctrine is according to God, in the points controverted."--Dr. Cotton Mather speakes of him as "being a man that had the root of the matter in him."--Governor Hutchinson calls him "a zealous minister, of character both for learning and piety."--Dr. Belknap styles him "a gentleman of learning, piety and zeal."

Mr. Wheelwright's fast-day sermon, which occasioned his banishment, has been preserved. Hon. James Savage, of Boston, having read it, made the following declaration concerning it: "I unhesitatingly say, that it was not such as can justify the Court in their sentence for sedition and contempt, nor prevent the present age from regarding that proceeding as an example and a warning of the usual tyranny of ecclesiastical factions." Lastly, Judge Smith, of Exeter, after having carefully read this sermon, declared on the matter of sedition and contempt: "I have no hesitation in saying the charge was wholly groundless. There was not the least color for it."

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