Founding of the First Church in Cambridge

Address of Alexander McKenzie [at the celebration of the Two Hundred and Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the Founding of Cambridge, 1905]


On February 1, 1636, O. S., the First Church in Cambridge was formed. This was the eleventh church in Massachusetts. The first church under Hooker and Stone was about to remove to Connecticut, but a few of the members, including John Bridge, were to remain here. Thomas Shepard was called from England and reached Boston in the ship “Defence” in October, 1635, accompanied by about sixty friends. They had not intended to make this their permanent home, but they found that this was expedient. They purchased the houses which were to be deserted, and the new church was organized, and Mr. Shepard was chosen to be its minister. That church has kept its place to this hour. The men who composed it were Englishmen, a fact which explains their action. They sought a greater liberty than was permitted in England, and a church which should be separate from the State and purer than the one which they had left. Others agreed with them in principle preferred to seek the reformation of the Church in which they were born. These men took the bolder step which brought them hither. In Governor Winthrop’s words, they saw “no place to flie into but the wildernesse.” They wished to be joined in a church for their own edification, and that they might advance their purpose “to carry the Gospell into those places of the world, to help on the cuminge of the fulnesse of the Gentiles.” They were conservative with all the boldness of their enterprise. They asserted the right to do their own thinking, which is a permanent Puritan trait, and they were prepared to maintain that right at any cost. But they recognized authority, and they turned to the Bible which in 1611 had been published in the authorized version, and there they sought the truth which they were to hold and to teach, and the form of organization which they should adopt. In matters of belief they were well settled. They had not broken from the National Church upon questions of faith. They had the old creeds and did not find it necessary to add to their number. But they required every one who entered into fellowship with them to declare his own belief and to justify it in his experience. A book kept by Mr. Shepard containing fifty of these personal confessions is preserved, although by some unwarranted mischance it has passed out of the hands of the Church to which it belongs. They held the general theological belief of their time. The clearest statement of their faith and fellowship is embodied in the compact to which they agreed. I have not been able to find a separate form of words; and I have assumed with good reason that they accepted the form which had a little before been adopted by the First Church in Boston. That form is still in use here and is both a creed and a covenant, and as it now stands is in these words:

We who are now brought together and united into one Church, under the Lord Jesus Christ, our Head, in such sort as becometh all those whom He hath redeemed and sanctified to Himself, do here solemnly and religiously, as in His most holy presence, promise and bind ourselves to walk in all our ways according to the rule of the Gospel, and in all sincere conformity to His holy ordinances, and in mutual love and respect each to other, so near as God shall give us grace.

The fitness of this agreement for its purpose is manifest; and the spirit of the men, in the humility of their courage, is revealed in the happy phrase which closes and seals their agreement, “so near as God shall give us grace.” They adopted the only form of organization and government which was practicable, and for this they believed they had full precedent and authority. Their method and action, beyond their thought, were a prophecy of the Republic which was to come. Soon after came the Westminster Confession, to which they agreed, and the Cambridge platform, which is still the basis of the Puritan Church. It is not accurate to call these founders Calvinists, although for the most part they assented to Calvin’s teaching and felt his influence. But he had been dead more than twenty years, and in the year of his death Shakespeare and Galileo were born. Thought had not stood still in this interval. When the Plymouth people were about to leave Holland, Robinson warned them against entrenchment in the past. “Saith he, you see the Calvinists stick where he left them.” He told his people to be expectant of further light and to be ready to receive it. This was the temper of the Puritans who came here. They had no thought of abandoning the principles of their belief, but they sought to understand them more fully. There were many strong points in Calvinism and to these they adhered. They believed stoutly in the sovereignty of God and the sanctity of duty; in His election and predestination, in which they believed they were embraced. They taught the divine mercy, while at times they suggested the limits of the illimitable. The robust virtues of the system were incarnate in them: an unconquerable will, daring, persistence; in their firmness they were stubborn. Calvinism which should have made fatalists made heroes, and, in Froude’s words, “set its face against illusion and mendacity.” They had the rugged virtues which were adapted to a rugged climate and a hard soil. Men of less vigor would not have come, or coming would not have stayed. Art, which is often more truthful than biography, has presented the men in two representative statues of bronze: of a clergyman and a deacon. John Harvard sits over his open book while the snow falls on his uncovered head; and John Bridge from the Common looks into the wintry wind wearing his summer suit. That is the kind of men they were, calmly defiant of the weather. It is this generation, not their own, which has erected these monuments.

They were rigid and needed to be; intolerant of evil within their gates and of interference from without. They never pursued a man to his harm, but they insisted on the rights for which they had paid a great price. If others differed from them, and persisted in doing it, there was room enough along the coast and in the interior for them to enjoy their diversity. Others might do as they pleased if they would allow them to do as they pleased on their own ground. Intolerance against interference was their habit. The method had this advantage, that it diffused liberty. Roger Williams would not have done the work of which Rhode Island boasts, if he had not been urged with some insistence, and against his will, to transfer himself and his desires to the vacant field where he could fulfil his purpose unhindered and unhindering. Providence dates from 1636. We are to-night commemorating the earliest days of the town and I must not come through later generations. There are things afterwards which we deeply regret, but these belonged in the times and to the world, – to “Old England” more than to New England. We can forgive much to men who wrought for the advantage of those who should come after them, whose work has lasted, into whose sacrifices and toils we have been glad to enter. The ruder side of their life and estate forces itself upon our notice. It was not all rude. Women were here, and children. There were pleasant homes and faithful friendships, and the days were not devoid of the things which brighten and lighten life. They kept Christmas in spirit, though fearing its companions. They read the carols, and I fancy that they sang them quietly. Their letters are rich in loving and tender thoughts. You do not greatly change men by bringing them across the sea. The heart will beat.

Our founders were large-minded men. The leaders among them were well born. Many had been trained at Cambridge and Oxford. They had inherited a love of learning and confidence in its utility. I cannot do better than to recall the words of Mr. Lowell spoken from this platform: “That happy breed of men who both in Church and State led our first emigration were children of the most splendid intellectual epoch that England has ever known.” It is in witness to the men and their spirit that in the beginning they set up their College in the wilderness. The events recorded at the College gate are in their order and in the terms of their thought. After they had builded their houses, provided for their livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government: “one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the Churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.” The Churches and the ministers led the way, and the College was founded, and endowed with a minister’s money and a minister’s name. It was placed here, rather than elsewhere, because this was “a place very pleasant and accommodate,” and “under the orthodox and soul flourishing ministry of Mr. Thomas Shepheard.” Thenceforth the Church and its minister,” with the neighboring Churches and ministers, made their College the object of their special care, giving out of their poverty for its support and out of their wealth for its guidance. In its turn the College helped the Churches even as it had been planned. No town has a finer beginning than this. The studies of the College were worthy of the scholars who ordered them. The circumference of their learning was as large as it is now, but there has been a vast filling in as knowledge has grown from more to more. By this the Church profits as it expected to do. How close the connection has been is signified by the fact that even to-day the memorial slab of Henry Dunster the first President rests on the grave of Jonathan Mitchel, the second minister. I may speak of the College only in this alliance, and from the side of the old Church. Both Church and College have lived, which means that they have grown, and less in numbers than in life. The truths which were believed have been illumined in the increased light. They have drawn upon the life of the world. Facts have more meaning and force; proportions have changed; statements and definitions have been renewed. The College keeps the Church engraven on its seal and emblazoned in its windows. It was not intended, but when an inscription was sought for the wall over our heads nothing was found better than the words of the prophet which an earlier generation had written above the grave of the graduate of 1712, who longer than any other had served the Church as its minister; words which we read in the Vulgate as often as we come hither, “Qui autem docti, fuerint fulgebunt, … in perpetuas aeternitates.”

I must not attempt to trace the history of the Church far from its beginning. It has lived to do its part for the town which has dealt generously by it. The Church taught patriotism and devotion when the Colonies declared their independence. Among the histories of that time is one entitled “The Pulpit of the American Revolution,” which recognizes the influence of the ministry. In our own day the Church has asserted Union and Liberty and has defended them that the Republic might be preserved. Samuel Adams was not the last of the Puritans. For fourteen thousand Sundays the Church has served the community and the country in its teaching, and over one hundred thousand days by its varied ministries. It has taught duty, virtue, piety, and has sought to breathe into the common life the spirit of truth and charity. Many churches have gathered around the first, where they stand in their strength, the largest society known among us, in the range of its purpose and effort. The latest are one with the earliest in the power of an endless life.

I must not obscure the fact that after an unbroken fellowship of two hundred years the old church became two households. There is no contention save as both contend for truth and duty; and both stand for helpfulness and good will. There are two houses, but we keep Thanksgiving Day under one roof.


This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 1, from the years 1905-1906. Our Proceedings are available for download