Churches are scary places with scary people. Having observed or been involved in the polity and politics of them from childhood into membership and onto chairing committees and boards, I have long outgrown the idealized world of Godly sorts doing good.
None of my direct experiences equals the wanton assault on Canton, Massachusetts’ first minister, Joseph Mors (a.k.a Morse).
Biking South of Boston, I passed the main Canton cemetery many times. I toured once, finding the really old stuff on the far Southwestern corner next to the UU church. The more recent focused trip included enjoying the 18th and 19th Century New England iconography. One that caught me was Mors’ three-skulled stone.
It turns out that with good reason there’s considerable history available on the late minister. His is a tale of caution for even modern clerics.
Consider his epitaph, including:
Within this silent grave here now doth ly,
Him that is gone unto Eternity.
Who when he liv’d was by good men respected,
Although by others was perhaps rejected;
Yet that done hinder his Triumphing Joy,
With saints above where nought can him away.
I couldn’t leave that. Thanks to long-dead local historians and Google’s digital books project, I didn’t have to.
As background, what is now Canton was in terms of religious governance part of the colonial town of Dorchester, a.k.a. New Grant or Dorchester Village. Mors was the first minister there, for a decade from 1707. Subsequently, this became part of Stoughton, which seemed promiscuously to hand it pieces of itself to neighboring towns. The area where the town of Canton, including its main cemetery are, broke off in 1797, with what seems like whimsical name, suggested by macher Elijah Dunbar, on the approximate belief that it was exactly half way around the globe from the Chinese province of that name.
What Could Go Wrong?
Ministerial careers were much less linear in the colony than today or for that matter in England at the time. While Mors, born 1671 graduated from Unitarian founded Harvard, he started as his education suited, as a teacher. In Providence, he and another teacher, Amity Harris, wed. They moved to Watertown, MA, where he gathered a congregation as well as taught. The locals built a meeting house, but never got the church organized. Then in 1707, he got an offer from the future Canton, then New Village, to settle and preach.
All started out swell, and in fact, from other sources, it turns out that The Morses were both die-hard teachers and pretty open minded. The local Natives, the Ponkapoags, welcomed both of them. They “were well loved by the Ponkapoag Indians, who appreciated the couple’s efforts to educate them and bring them spiritual comfort.”
Life was rough for all and this was a period of various epidemics as well. The Morses gave religious and school instruction, and Joseph ministered to the Ponkapoag families.
Yet, it was the demon deacons, and not the Wake Forest ones, that undid Mors.
As the astonishingly and fastidiously detailed Huntoon history of the town put it, “In those days the office of deacon was regarded with very great respect…” The ones at First Parish were maybe worse than others, it turns out, bringing charges of “false doctrine” against the new minister. “The deacons considered themselves as umpires on matters of doctrine, and, letting the greater part of the sermon slip by without interest, were on the alert to detect and remember the slightest dogmatical inaccuracy or unguarded expression which in the hurry of composition might have escaped from the pen of the minister.”
Whole Town Watching
Snidely I must note that had the locals and deacons lived in our days of sports teams and cable TV, they might have had more if not better concerns and distractions. As it happened, when the deacons were charging Mors, it was a big deal.
“This charge, preferred by one of such high standing and authority in the church, was a cause of much alarm and difficulty. Meetings and fasts were held concerning it, and the communion was suspected for more than six months. Finally, the church voted that they were not dissatisfied with the pastor on account of the allegations brought against him.”
The deacon then backed down. The minister was cleared. From our distance of three centuries, we’d suppose Mors won and was untouchable. Ha!
“The disaffected only awaited an opportunity for a fresh attack; nor was it long before an occasion offered itself.” Upon the request of local Elhanan Lyon “who seems to have been a thorn in the flesh both th Mr. Morse and his successor” was on a committee of the General Court (legislature) and called Mors before that committee with accusations.
This in turn was like a Bill Clinton thing. If you have the interest, read all of the pages of this section of Huntoon for the nasty details. The short of it is that Mors was tripped up on alleged lies. Lying being flat out for ministers, at least at the time.
The underlying issue is that some unnamed person claimed that Mors got tipsy at a dinner party in Canton. Then, when grilled about it, he said he did not overindulge. Hence, those after his scalp, and likely still angry about being rebuffed in the earlier vote of confidence, said he was lying about it.
So the minister was twice tainted, alleged to be a sot and liar. The Dorchester Village council met on the issue a few times. When it came to a vote, by a single one, he was judged unworthy of continuing his ministry.
To little effect, another council meeting of nine churches censured everyone, “requiring them to acknowledge their faults to each other.” By this time, Mors was dead in the pulpit, figuratively. The lasting stain on his was that, like Clinton, he was permanently known as a liar, or as one in the council wrote later “guilty of designed false speaking.”
Again from 304 years distance, it’s impossible to know whether in the mind of the locals it was worse that Mors might have had a glass too many or that he refused to admit it.
He lived out his remain few years in the town, but not as a minister. He had an offer to preach elsewhere, but did not accept it.
I know a lot of clerics, all of whom have political tales. They tend to note there’re folk in every congregation looking for trouble. They also say congregants and sometimes staff members can be willing to seduce them. Both perils could get a cleric shipped away.
I can recall the first church feud I was aware of when I was 8 or 9. In a large Methodist church in the South, the minister’s wife ran the church in many ways. She disliked the excellent organist/choir director, perhaps because he was very popular among adults and kids alike. She was determined to oust him, which came with time constraints in those days. Methodists were in a given church for only three years before reassignment, in the tradition of the circuit riding John Wesley.
She tried to stir up animosity and got only a little traction in accusing him of this or that. Eventually though, he got real tired of her sniping and attitude. He got an offer to tour Europe as an organist and snapped it up, going on to relative fame.
In other churches, I’ve seen worse. Consider the downtown Boston UU one where I revivified the personnel committee and then ran the board for a couple of years. Two key staff members, each with her own constituency went head to head and rumor to rumor in competition for resources and congregant affection. Staff meetings got so contentious, replete with shouting and tears, that the senior minister stopped holding them and met with one member at a time.
Neither would give a millimeter and each said she was the primary reason congregants came…and pledged. The implication was if they left, the church would collapse. It was ugly, but at least no one was trying to ruin the career of the senior minister.
The devilish duo were so intractable that I finally accepted that they had to go. I convinced one that she wasn’t ever going to find what she wanted there and to look for a larger, better paying church. The other had included me on her hit list and tried to get me removed from both committees.Instead. my personnel report on the problems convinced her that she too was not going to have her way. She and her rich hubby left in a huff, moving from Boston, and prophecizing doom for the church without her talents and his money. Nothing like that occurred and she was easily replaced with a rational and pleasant person.
My minister chums note that many who work at or attend churches are both emotionally needy and feel that being there gives them righteousness points. Regardless of the motives, the Godly places can be ungodly nasty.