Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sacrament Rock- Barnstable, Ma

If you are ever driving along route 6A in Barnstable, Massachusetts, you may notice there are several odd rocks and stones bearing plaques. If you are like me, you might wonder what these plaques say, why they were put there, and who put them there in the first place. Investigating all of these memorialized stones would take a lifetime. However, one stands out because of its odd shape and the effort Cape Codders took to make sure this spot and stone were remembered in future generations.

Very simply, Sacrament Rock is the site at which the Christian sacrament of communion took place for the first time in the town of Barnstable, potentially in all of Cape Cod. However, the story behind how these early Yankee Christians arrived in the heart of the New England frontier to observe their religious practices is anything but simple.

As with many Yankee stories, the tale behind Sacrament Rock begins in England. In Seventeenth Century England, the only legal religion was the Church of England. The King was considered the head of the church. Any other religion was considered outlawed and would only have been practiced in secret.

Of course, it was this same regulation that caused the Plymouth colonists of 1620 to seek religious freedom in the New World. Back in England other churches that were considered Separatist and Puritan continued to be persecuted by the English government.

It was one of these Separatist congregations that would eventually create the tradition of Sacrament Rock. According to Dan R. McConnell, author of The Howes, Lothrops, and Linnells of Kent and London, England, and Scituate and Barnstable, Massachusetts, in 1625 a Cambridge educated clergyman named John Lothrop moved to London from Kent to minister to the former congregation of Henry Jacob, who had fled England to the New World.

Henry Jacob’s ministry is considered the first Independent Church in London, and like all other religions outside of the Church of England, was illegal. Therefore, the members of the congregation had to meet in secret, generally in the houses of known members.

According to McConnell, the Jacob/Lothrop congregation practiced in secret for nearly a decade. However, in 1632 Lothrop and 41 of the congregation members were arrested and brought before the Court of the High Commission. Their supposed crime was perhaps somewhat unusual from our perspective. McConnell states:
“Because of their covenant relationship, Separatists believed that every congregation could be a church unto itself, and could elect it’s own Ministers, by vote of it’s elders, based upon the model of the early Christian church [pre-Constantine]. To do so meant they had no need of the Church of England, and did not accept the authority of the Bishops. This was unacceptable to the Crown.”
During the trial, the Archbishop of Canterbury even went so far as to state of the Lothrop congregation, “You are unlearned men, who seek to make up a religion of your own Heads! You are desperately heretical.”

When I teach about religious heresy, I often have to remind my students that religion meant so much more to our ancestors than it means to many people today. If a powerful clergyman made the above accusation to a citizen of the 21st century, he might be laughed at. However, the members of Lothrop’s congregation were facing accusers who had legitimate political power as well as an enormous amount of perceived spiritual power. To them, their lives and souls were at stake.

In addition, Lothrop and his friends faced these accusations without the right to legal counsel and with very few protections against abuses of power. The punishments given to heretics by the Court of High Commission could be very severe and frightening.

McConnell describes how ministers who had been convicted of publishing material criticizing bishops of the church could have their ears cut off or their faces branded. Some people would be sentenced to life in prison, where they would quickly die.

If the congregation wished to avoid these punishments, they were required to sign an oath of allegiance to the Church of England. In doing so they swore to abandon any practice considered contrary to the Church. This would of course result in a loss of their unique religious practices.

According to McConnell in Reverend John Lothrop and the Founding Congregation of Barnstable, every member of Lothrop’s congregations refused to sign the oath. In retaliation, they were imprisoned. Some members of the congregation died before the majority was released a year later.  However, John Lothrop was left in prison for two more years because he was deemed too dangerous.

Although McConnell states that he was eventually released to care for his dying wife, some sources indicate that his wife had already passed away by the time Lothrop left prison. These sources indicate that his six children were reduced to homelessness and begging.

Lothrop was released with the understanding that he would leave England for the New World. Because he did not immediately set sail, the court ordered that he be arrested again. However, before this could happen, he, his children, and some members of his original congregation left for Plymouth Colony in New England. In 1634 they originally settled in Scituate, Ma, which still claims to have the oldest Congregational Church in the US.

According to Amos Otis in Genealogical Notes of Barnstable Families, Scituate did not seem to suite Lothrop’s congregation well. Ultimately the congregation was split. In 1639 Reverend Lathrop and others were granted the right to settle in Mattakeese, the area that would eventually be incorporated into the town of Barnstable.

Otis makes it clear that at the time of Lothrop’s arrival in Barnstable there was no meetinghouse; in fact very few families actually lived in Barnstable prior to the arrival of Lothrop and his crew. They did seem to have a religious leader, named Joseph Hull, but Otis states that the congregation was not legally organized. Of the first religious meetings, Otis says:
“No meeting house had been built, and tradition points to a large rock near the dwelling house of Mr. Edward Soudder as the place where he and his followers held their first meetings for public worship.”
Otis goes on to say that while no record really mentions this rock as being religiously significant. Although, to him, the tradition seemed reliable. He also states that in his time a large part of the rock had been split off in order to build the foundation for a new jail. He states that, like Plymouth Rock, this rock in Barnstable should be preserved for posterity.

Furthermore, other sources like The Names of Cape Cod, indicate that Reverend Joseph Hull, who eventually fell into disfavor with colonial government, had been the first to use Sacrament Rock as a site for religious worship sometime before the arrival of the Lothrop congregation. However, like Plymouth Rock, there are no actual records to support either claim, simply tradition.

The Barnstable Congregational Church seems to have taken the advice of Otis. According to the inscription on Sacrament Rock, and The Names of Cape Cod, the church hired a geologist to recreate Sacrament Rock, which seemed to have been broken into many more pieces after Otis wrote about it in 1808. The pieces were assembled into the current Sacrament Rock, including the plaque, in 1916.

The plaque on Sacrament Rock
Reverend Lothrop built his home about a half mile from the site of their first celebration. The house served as his home and as their first meetinghouse until a larger one was built in 1646 near to Lothrop Hill Cemetery. His home is now part of the Sturgis Library, and contains many Lothrop artifacts, the most important being the bible he carried when he fled from England.
John Lothrop died not much later, in the year 1653. He and many of the members of his congregation were buried in unmarked graves in or near Lothrop Hill Cemetery. A plaque was created to memorialize the congregation members and their leader.
Plaque dedicated to the Lothrop congregation
Lothrop Hill Cemetery
Although Lothrop didn’t necessarily go on to fame and fortune in the New England colonies, many of his descendants have become well known. According to the NEGHS, this list of people includes George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Billy the Kid, Franklin Roosevelt, and Benedict Arnold. An odd crew to say the least.

Looking into the history behind Sacrament Rock reminded me just how much of our history and culture we ignore on a daily basis. I have driven past this monument hundreds of times and have never given it more notice than I would your average fire hydrant. Like all of us, I am very busy, and never considered that this odd shaped rock on the side of the road had anything to do with New England history or the struggle some New Englanders endured to secure the religious freedom Americans enjoy today.

So, next time you drive by that odd stone with a plaque on it, why not stop for a minute? Actually read it. You might find a spider web of surprising connections to your town, street names, and other familiar landmarks in your town. Sometimes these threads touch or brush our own lives in interesting ways, and we begin to see how the lives and choices of the Yankees of yore echo through history in modern New England and the world.

Friday, February 3, 2012

American Students and History

I am currently working on a post about Sacrament Rock in Barnstable, but this video arrived in my email thanks to a student of mine. It was pretty scary, but not that surprising. Sometimes it seems like teaching is a real uphill battle. I wonder if the result would be the same if a random group of adults were asked the same questions. If that were the be the case, our country is in a whole lot of trouble. 

Additionally, I wonder why questions regarding the American Revolution were defined as “trivia.” To me, this type of information does not seem trivial at all. It is at the heart and core of why we are a sovereign country.  Anyway, take a look.