Perhaps This Isn’t Such a “Little Town” After All
by William E. Boylan
O little town of Byfield, how silly of God to choose you. But then God is known for choosing silly people in silly places just to prove that the power belongs to Him and not to them. Byfield is deceiving. It looks like a town, yet it is actually a parish. It looks too tiny, too out of the way and too obscure to matter much to anyone. But looks can be misleading. History reveals that Byfield has already influenced America and may be doing so once more.
The pastors of the Byfield church are an interesting lot. Reverend Henry Durant preached at Byfield from 1833 to 1849. Horace Bushnell, Durant’s classmate at Yale and close friend was a frequent guest at the manse. Thomas Buchanan Reed, the poet and another friend of Durant, is said to have written his “Closing Scene” in the Byfield parsonage. When Rev. Durant left Byfield for California, he founded U.C.L.A. and served as it’s first president.
Of extraordinary interest is Byfield’s second pastor, Reverend Moses Parsons. Between November 20, 1748, and January 20, 1760, Parson’s baptized five men most influential in American history. Samuel Tenney, Theophilus Parsons, John Smith, Eliphalet Pearson and Samuel Webber were born almost within the span of a single decade. Tenney was a surgeon, scientist and statesman, who served in the House of Representatives between 1800 and 1807. Theophilus Parsons defeated Alexander Hamilton in court, and in 1806 became Chief Justice of the United States. John Smith was the first professor at Dartmouth College, where he taught until his death in 1809. Eliphalet Pearson and Samuel Webber contested for the presidency of Harvard, which position Webber won.
Reverend Parsons and evangelist George Whitefield came to be close friends. Whitefield led the Byfield pastor to Samuel Moody of York (ME) when Parsons was founding Governor Dummer Academy. Governor Dummer is the oldest incorporated academy in the United States. Lieutenant-Governor William Dummer had willed his Byfield farm on the Parker River for use as a school. This appearance of the “Dumr Charity School,” as it was first called, and the impact of Master Moody, made an immense contribution to this nation. Gage, in his history of Rowley, writes, “Perhaps no country parish within the Commonwealth has educated more young men, according to its population than Byfield.” In Whitefield, Parsons, Moody, Pearson and Webber a providential hand can be seen moving in the parish of only 12 square miles.
Pearson was a Calvinist, Webber a Unitarian. These two sons of Byfield Parish were the flesh and blood of the decision Harvard faced regarding the theological direction the school would take as it entered the nineteenth century. Harvard College was founded on September 8, 1636, to ensure the continuation of an educated clergy. By 1800, two opposing camps existed within Congregationalism who contended for the presidency of the college. Samuel Webber, born in the Caldwell house, one-half mile from the Academy to the east and one mile to the west, was chosen the 13th president of Harvard on March 3, 1806. Eliphalet Pearson broke with Harvard and led the founding of Andover Seminary on the Phillips Academy campus.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, Andover supplied churches with evangelical pastors and missionary candidates. Not until after the Civil War did Andover, itself, fall to the liberal theology that charmed Harvard earlier in the century. Theological liberalism, after capturing Harvard and Andover, was free to ravage New England and make it the graveyard of the church.
Unitarianism is the logical consequence of theological liberalism. Liberalism puts Christianity into reverse. Faith in the grace of God reverts to faith in the goodness of man. Liberalism appeals, not to the God who works miracles, but to human governments. Christ is portrayed as the servant of Caesar. Theological liberalism attacks the doctrine of Christ and transforms social action into social activism. This was the direction Samuel Webber represented when he drove the evangelicals off to found Andover. This same reversal eventually stalled Andover and spurred Adoniram Judson Gordon on to start his own training school.
When Andover fell, the evangelical churches were once more without the means to train pastors and mission workers. A.J. Gordon, fabled pastor of the Clarendon Street Church in Boston, established a missionary training school at his church in 1889. This school developed into the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In 1969, a Gordon graduate came to Byfield intent on turning Congregationalism back to its evangelical roots. In 1984, exactly two hundred years after Samuel Webber graduated from Harvard, the Biblical Witness Fellowship of the United Church of Christ was born at Governor Dummer Academy by invitation of the Byfield Parish Church.
Byfield is, indeed, deceiving. The fact we are tiny, remote and even somewhat obscure doesn’t mean we aren’t on center stage. A providential hand is on us once again, and only time will tell what the Spirit of God may be pleased to do with the lives we offer up to him.