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The First Thomsons and the
Fourth Baptist Church of Bellingham, MA

by Nancy Thomson

In the early days of its founding, Mendon was a community literally and figuratively built around the Congregational Church. The first meeting house was constructed in 1668. Here the first settlers gathered for the worship of God.

The Thompsons of Mendon were among the early supporters of Mendon's Congregational Church. The "Annals of Mendon" states that both John Thompson senior and junior signed a document on 1 December 1669 relating to provisions for Rev. Joseph Emerson of Concord, the first settled minister of the town.

Some of the Nipmuk Indians living nearby were converted and known as "praying" or Christian Indians. But relations between the town and Indians deteriorated. On 14 July 1675 Mendon was attacked by the formerly friendly tribe. This was the first attack on a Massachusetts colony in what became known as King Philip's War.

Six months after the attack, Mendon was abandoned by the frightened townspeople. In the words of Cotton Mather, "Another candle of the Lord was extinguished." Mendon's inhabitants escaped to relative safety in towns to the east, which was a wise decision in spite of the threat of losing their claim to land, for early in 1676 the Indians burned down Mendon's remaining buildings.

Perhaps it was during their exile that the people of Mendon became acquainted with the Baptist religion. In 1663, John Myles, a traveling preacher from Wales, had arrived in Rehoboth, about 15 miles southeast of Mendon, and there started the fourth Baptist Church in America.

Once the Indian uprising had been quelled, many, but not all, of the original families returned to Mendon. John Thomson senior and John Thomson junior were among the first to return. By 1678, quite a few families had returned. Rev. Emerson did not return; Rev. Grindal Rawson became the new Congregational minister and stayed until his death in 1715.The population increased rapidly. By 1685, upwards of 200 people were living in Mendon.

That same year, on November 9, 1685, "John Thomson, sen" (senior) died, willing to his "beloved and dutiful son, John Thompson...all my lands, chattels, household goods, wearing apparel, and whatever estate I dye seized of."

By 1690, the town had outgrown the meeting house built in 1680 and on 1 January 1694, John Thompson Jr. purchased Mendon's "old Meeting House" (which had been the Congregational Church) for four pounds in current money of New England.

During the next two decades, the Thompson family and others began feeling disenfranchised with life in Mendon. On November 17, 1719, they made a formal complaint that they lived too far from the Congregational Church and the school to utilize their services, yet were required to pay taxes to support them. As a solution, they proposed establishing a new town‹ Bellingham, and laid this petition before the General Court:

"That Whereas ye above sd Inhabitance are Situated at a Remoat Distance from ye Respective Towns ... and that they have Little or no Benefit of Town Priviledges or haveing Benefit of ye Schools we do Respectively Pay to... Our Prayer Therefore is That your Honours would Graciously plase to Consider our Difficult Circumstances and grant us our we may be Enabled in Convenient time to obtain ye Gospel & Public Worship of God Settled & our Inconveniences by Reason of our Remoatness be Removed: granting us such Time of Dispence from Public Taxes...."

This petition was signed (in part) by:

John Darling
John Thomson
Ebenezer Thayer
Cornelius Darling
Samuel Hayward
John Thompson jr.
Richard Blood
Joseph Holbrook
Samuel Thomson
Samuel Darling
Joseph Thomson

The establishment of Bellingham was vigorously opposed by Mendon. There is some question as to whether it was inspired merely by inconvenience or by an even greater desire not to pay taxes in support of the Congregational Church. Certainly, many of the protestors who founded Bellingham later became Baptists and, as such, claimed their right not to pay Congregational Church taxes.

In 1736, eight Bellingham men were baptized at the nearest Baptist Church, in the town of Swansea. Swansea had been formed by the founders of the Baptist Church in America who had been been "warned away" from Rehoboth for refusing to support the Congregational Church there. The original eight men, along with seven others, subscribed a Baptist church covenant at Mendon in 1737. They were:

Nicholas Cook
Benjamin Force
Ebenezer Hayward
Eleazer Hayward
Samuel Hayward
Elaphalet Holbrook
Joseph Partridge
Edward Pickering
Eleazer Taft
John Thompson
Jonathon Thompson
Peter Thompson
Samuel Thompson
Elnathan Wight
Joseph Wigth

This group formed the fourth Baptist Church in Massachusetts. In April 1739, the "History of Bellingham" lists the following Bellingham men as Baptists :

Ebenezer Hayward
Samuel Hayward
Eliphalet Holbrook
Joseph Scott
John Thomson
Jonathon Thomson
Peter Thomson
Elanthan Wight
Joseph Wight Jr.

For several years, the Baptists of Bellingham held informal meetings with no regular times. But the Baptist faith was spreading. In 1740, New England had 21 Baptist Churches. The first record of an official Bellingham Baptist Church appears in 1742. Not having a settled pastor, they selected a ruling elder and well as "two Princebel men" to certify to the Town assessors their members who would be exempt from taxes for the town church. In 1744, member Elanthan Wight deeded the church land:

"I Elnathan Wight of Bellingham in his Majesty's Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England Yeoman for Divers good Causes & Valuable Considerations, and for five Shillings paid by Jonathan Thompson, Eliphalet Holbrook and Joeseph Wight all of Bellingham Yeomen, have granted unto the road to the Second Bridge River...for and so long a time as the said church shall hold to and walk in the faith which they now possess....Feb 22 1744."

A 30x35 foot church was raised March 20, 1744, and used for 50 years, often for town meetings. They still had years to wait for a settled minister. Elanthan Wight, who had given the land, studied for the ministry and finally was accepted the first pastor in August of 1750.The "History of Bellingham" makes note of the occasion:

"The Baptist Church Leaguly Assembled together at the House of Peter Thomson of Bellingham and Put the Votes whether the Church will chooes two men to go and Discours with Mr Elnathan Wight for one month's preaching upton Liking or Approbation."

In October of 1750, a lengthy church covenant was adopted. It was signed (in some cases long after 1750) by:

Elanthan Wight
Eliphelet Holbrook
Joseph Wight
Eleazar Taft
Jonathan Thomson
Peter Thomson
Elezer Hayward
Samuel Hayward
Ebenezer Hayward
Samuel Darling: juner

John Thomson
Aaron Thayer
Silas Wheelock
Jonathan Wheelock
Josiah Partridge
Isaiah Blood
Aaron Perry
Nathan Man
Noah Alden Elder
Elhanan Winchester junr
Martha Wheelock
Abigail Blood
Joanna Alden
Martha Wight
Catherine Clark
Lucy Alden
Hannah Haven
Betty Bixby
Abigail Partridge
Abigail Holbrook

Jemima Thomson
Hanna Wheelock
Ruth Alden

The Bellingham Baptist Church grew slowly but steadily. Meanwhile, Baptists were still being arrested for not supporting the Congregational Churches. In 1753, Eleazer Adams of Medway, age 66, was imprisoned in Boston. John Jones and Jesse Holbrook of Bellingham were summoned to jail. It was demanded they pay the church tax; they refused absolutely. The Bellingham Baptists collected 100 pounds to send a representative to England to protest this treatment. But the Revolution was approaching, and the trip was never made.

In 1757, vessels for the Lord's Supper were bought for the Bellingham church with a small legacy from Peter Thompson.

In 1767, an association of Baptist churches in New England was formed. Only four churches dared to join; Bellingham's was one. Bellingham became a center for the Baptist Church in the region and led the struggle for religious freedom.

In the decades following, a series of pastors was called to the Bellingham Baptist pulpit. The last, Valentine Rathbun, didn't receive the full support of the congregation. He left to accept a call in Bridgewater. After his departure, the church seemed to die out. By  1799, there were just church 48 members. The Baptist Religious Society (which could be joined by non-church members who were willing to support the concept of Baptist worship and/or protest the Congregationalist state-supported church), was larger than the church.

At the annual Bellingham town meeting of 1800, the families supporting the construction of a new Baptist Church include Holbrook, Wight and Darling. The name Thompson is no longer among them.

Annals of Mendon
History of the Town of Bellingham Massachusetts by George F. Partridge, published 1919
The Thompson Genealogy by Adrian Scott & Henry Whitney published by the Mendon Historical Society, 1913
"Gleanings from Mendon's Early History" compiled by Anna H. Pond, 1950
"Early Mendon and King Philip's War" by Rev. Carlton A. Staples, 1901

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Copyright 1997-2017. Thompson Family Researchers.
Updated: 16 Jan 2017 12:51 PM