The physical fight for the town pulpit

As I ask just what made Dover so ripe for the Quaker message, I see how much earlier conflicts over the town’s official church open the way for an alternative congregation, once itinerant Friends visit town.

Dover’s first minister, solidly Puritan William Leveridge, arrives in 1633 and conducts the first religious service in New Hampshire, but he’s gone in 1635, leaving “for want of adequate support,” meaning salary, which he then finds around Boston and on in Long Island. His surviving scriptural notes are in Latin.

Perhaps two years later, maybe earlier, George Burdet shows up in the pulpit, while also taking over as “governor,” the proprietors’ agent, overseeing the northern half of the New Hampshire province. He feigns sympathy with the Puritans but secretly corresponds with Church of England Archbishop William Laud, who will eventually be executed by the Puritans. Before Burdet flees in adulterous disgrace in 1639 – or a year or two later – things get really interesting, though I’ll spare you the details now. Among other things, he gives the settlement the name Dover, not reflecting the famed English town with the white cliffs but rather an anti-Puritan wit and attorney who also founded the notorious Cotswold Olimpick Games, which included horse-racing, coursing with hounds, running, jumping, dancing, sledgehammer throwing, fighting with swords and cudgels, quarterstaff, wrestling, and gambling.

In contrast, the main sports New England Puritans accepted were hunting, fishing, and the mock battles the militias used for military training.

Dover’s first church probably resembled the one at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. (Photo by Swampyank via Wikimedia)

How did Burdet become the pastor in Dover, in the first place? Specifics are often lacking or blurred in the available records.

The Puritans organized their churches on a congregational structure, where the members themselves managed the affairs, including the selection and dismissal of ministers. The concept also grew into the New England town meeting system for managing secular affairs. It’s about as democratic as you can get.

The Church of England, in contrast, relied on an episcopal hierarchy, where the Archbishop of Canterbury and subordinate bishops ruled.

The differences between the Puritans and the Anglicans go far beyond organization and polity. They include baptism, marriage (a civil contract for Puritans at the time), funerals and burial, prayer (the Anglican Book of Common Prayer versus extemporaneous), liturgy (hocus-pocus, as some Puritans would say) or none at all, rituals and genuflection (superstition to the Puritans), the Virgin Mary and saints (ignored by the Puritans), Christmas (no holiday for the Puritans), and, especially, eternal salvation or damnation (the Puritans being certain that at least some of their brotherhood will be among the Elect God had chosen at the time of Creation). I’ll venture that the Church of England offers more creaturely comforts to its faithful than do the Puritans.

Quite simply, there are tensions within Dover and beyond. The Massachusetts Bay colony has just banished Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and Samuel Gorton, who all scoot off to the new refuge of Rhode Island – and Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, John Wheelwright, heads north to found Exeter, New Hampshire, near Dover. They’re all major figures in American dissident history.

Two mysterious figures then approach a newly arrived minister in Boston and lure him to Dover.

As a young Anglican priest in England, Hanserd Knollys had suffered a religious crisis that led him to resign from the pulpit and begin a quest that brings him to a Mr. Wheelwright, “a silenced minister,” near Lincoln, England. Yes, the same one who founds Exeter. Something in their discussions rekindles a flame within Knollys, liberating him to preach again but with such an intensity that he’s soon imprisoned in Boston, England, until he somehow escapes and sails in 1636 during a difficult voyage with his wife and only child, who dies en route, to Boston, Massachusetts. While living in impoverishment there, and prevented from preaching because of his antinomian theological views, he’s met by “two strangers coming to Boston from Piscattuah, hearing of me by a meer accident, [who] got me to go with them to that plantation, and to preach there, where I remained about four years.”

The only problem is that Burdet is still minister or at least physically present, but the governor’s role has been handed to John Underhill, himself in flight from Massachusetts after leading the militia in the Pequot massacre and running his mouth off.

Burdet forbids Knollys from preaching in Dover but is countered by Underhill.

Within this backdrop, Knollys is credited with formally organizing in 1638 the First Congregationalist Society, now known as First Parish, United Church of Christ (Congregational), and out of its longstanding worship together from 1633, it is regarded as the oldest church in the state.

If only it were that easy.

Hanserd Knollys

Adding to the conflict is Knollys’ evolving theology which will lead to his becoming a founding father of the Particular Baptist denomination, though he’s not yet quite there during his time in the Piscataqua parish. Otherwise, Dover might have been the first Baptist church in America, rather than the one in Providence, Rhode Island, founded in 1639.

From a later Baptist perspective, Knollys “preached with much acceptance upwards of three years. … However, his church in New Hampshire was split on the issue of infant baptism. This brought persecution on him by the Congregationalists. He, with others from his church, fled to New Jersey and eventually back to England.”

To put it mildly.

More directly, from a Baptist point of view, “America does not seem to have been a peaceful place for … Hanserd. While in New Hampshire, conflict arose between Hanserd and another minister, Thomas Larkham, who had arrived in New Hampshire in 1640. Larkham had wealth and influence, and had very lax standards for membership. This produced much division within the congregation, and Larkham at one point had Knollys removed from the pulpit. Many congregants then removed Larkham and restored Knollys as pastor. Larkham had armed men march up from nearby Portsmouth [still known as Strawbery Banke], conducted a trial which found Knollys guilty, fined him, and ordered him to leave. During his time reports circulated that Knollys was also censured for having a ‘filthy dalliance’ with some young females living in his house. Records indicate that this was a false report as other ministers spoke of Knollys with respect. There is also a record that Hanserd had filed suit with a claim of slander. It was never prosecuted, as the Knollys did not stay in the colonies.”

There were even reports of an armed skirmish between factions of the church.

But Larkham, too, suddenly departed from Dover in 1641 and returned to England.

There’s more, as Jeremy Belknap’s History of New Hampshire, reveals:

Larkham “came to Dover, and being a preacher of good talents, eclipsed Knollys, and raised a party who determined to remove him. He therefore gave way to the popular prejudice, and suffered Larkham to take his place; who soon discovered his licentious principles by receiving into the church persons of immoral characters, and assuming, like Burdet, the civil as well as ecclesiastical authority.” Except that Larkham was never “governor.”

Belknap continues: “The better sort of the people were displeased and restored Knollys to his office who excommunicated Larkham. This bred a riot in which Larkham laid hands on Knollys, taking away his hat on pretence that he had not paid for it; but he was civil enough afterward to return it. Some of the magistrates joined with Larkham, and forming a court, summoned Underhill, who was of Knollys’s party to appear before them, and answer to a new crime which they had to allege against him. Underhill collected his adherents; Knollys was armed with a pistol, and another had a bible mounted on an halbert for an ensign. In this ridiculous parade they marched against Larkham and his party, who prudently declined a combat, and sent down the river to Williams … at Portsmouth, for assistance.

“He came up in a boat with an armed party, beset Knollys’s house where Underhill was, guarded it night and day till a court was summoned, and then, Williams sitting as judge, Underhill and his company were found guilty of a riot, and after being fined, were banished from the plantation. The new crime which Larkham’s party alleged against Underhill was that he had been secretly endeavouring to persuade the inhabitants to offer themselves to the government of Massachusetts, whose favor he was desirous to purchase, by these means, as he knew that their view was to extend their jurisdiction as far as they imagined their limits reached, whenever they should find a favourable opportunity. The same policy led him with his party to send a petition to Boston, praying for the interposition of the government in their case: In consequence of which the governor and assistants commissioned Simon Bradstreet, Esq. with the famous Hugh Peters, then minister of Salem, and Timothy Dalton of Hampton, to enquire into the matter, and effect a reconciliation, or certify the state of things to them. These gentlemen travelled on foot to Dover, and finding both sides in fault, brought the matter to this issue, that the one party revoked the excommunication, and the other the fines and banishment.”

Yes, once again, religion and politics mixed.

George Wadleigh, reviewing the events, adds an extra element to the conflict. Larkham and Knollys “fell out about baptizing children.” Remember, Baptists would insist it was for consenting, informed adults only.

Let it not be said that Dover was a sedate fringe habitation.

Dover’s second meetinghouse was something like this, surrounded by a palisade. It was erected in 1654, before the Quakers further stirred things up.

And I’m certain these events all lead up to the faction that welcomes itinerant Quakers a decade later. After all, Dover would have a ready audience and prime examples for the Quaker criticism of “hireling priests” who saw the position as a rewarding salary more than as utter discipleship.

Until then, lingering tensions simmer.


Check out my new book, Quaking Dover, available in an iBook edition at the Apple Store.

Welcome to Dover’s upcoming 400th anniversary.


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