History Of The Little White Church and Cemetery Tour
The following was prepared by Keith Henney and Joan Simonds as part of the 1979 centenary anniversary of Eaton’s Little White Church.
These people were Freewill Baptists, a denomination as native to New Hampshire as the white pine. Founded in New Durham in 1780 by Benjamin Randall, its tenets were carried by the founder himself on foot and on horseback deep into his native state and into Vermont and Maine. In our rocky long-wintered country it found ready acceptance; it fit the people like a tailor-made suit.
This was a serious religion, an emotional, evangelical, “experimental” religion; a convert had to experience God to become a member of one of its many groups, each of which called itself a church. Baptism was by immersion and the rules of the faith and practice came direct from the Bible. Written sermons were taboo; they were to come straight from the heart of the minister; in few churches was instrumental music allowed. Especially prohibited was music made from wooden instruments like the fiddle which might incline feet to dancing. To remain in good standing its members had to tread a narrow path and any one of numerous possible infractions of its rules could (and did) call for a visit from an appointed committee, or a summons before the group as a whole, to make an accounting or amends.
The gentle founder, originally a Congregationalist, had been converted by George Whitefield but he soon rejected many of his former beliefs such as the damnation of infants, the total depravity of man, the doctrine of the elect and the tenet that only an educated man could interpret the Word of God. To the old hellfire, predestination-minded Calvinists the Freewillers were completely obnoxious, along with the Quakers.
One of the chief guardians of the more ancient religion, Timothy Dwight of Yale, felt that the ignorance of the Freewill Baptist minister was an “evil of incalculable magnitude”, but neither he nor the other Calvinist theologians in New England were able to do much about it. College graduates had shown no overwhelming desire for pastorates in the back woods and most of those who tried it were not successful; the exceptions were usually boys from the farm.
The time had gone by when such heretics as the Freewillers could be sent into exile. Dwight and his ilk could only hope that, once started west, such people would keep on going until they were out of New England. The Freewillers did not accommodate them. They settled down in many a New England town and flourished. By 1880 there were 9202 Freewill Baptists in New Hampshire, and in August of 1979 there were still Freewillers practicing their faith in Carroll County.
The local minister, the Elder, was apt to be a friend down the road. If he walked in the footsteps of the founder he accepted no pay. Small congregations were scattered over the countryside, here and there, each served by its own elder or by an itinerant minister. Local meetings were held in homes, barns, taverns or schoolhouses, but if weather permitted and if a noted revivalist appeared, the meeting was held out of doors with Elder on a stump, a stone wall, or a gravestone if nothing else presented itself.
A hike of six, ten or even fifteen miles for some of the attendants was not uncommon. Men sat or stood apart from the women; a sound precaution, for the meetings often threatened to get out of hand in response to the emotionalism of the sermon or the experiences related by the audience. Fellowship reigned, loneliness vanished, repressions found outlets, and the gnarled farmers and their wives went home feeling that they were not living in exile. God at least was with them.
It was a new thing in the early days of Eaton for a minister to come to the congregation instead of making the congregation go to him. It was a hopeful religion; heaven was open to everyone. Thus it was natural that by 1826, when the written record of the Little White Church begins, three separate Freewill churches has been formed in Eaton. In that year, a group of Eatonites “met this day according to appointment for the organization of a church at Mr. (Jonathan) Kenison’s barn, opened the meeting by prayer & Supplication to God for his assistance in the procedure”. Here, over on the Eaton-Brownfield boundary, began what the founders called the Third Freewill Baptist Church in Eaton. The numbering system of these early congregations is a bit confusing (there was more than one “first” church), but the numbering does not matter. The Eaton church was on its way.
The group which met in the Kenison barn on September 8, 1826, 104 of them, agreed that the organization should consist of two sections called “conferences”, collectively to be known as the Eaton and Conway Church, that one group would meet at the schoolhouse near Silas Ward’s (on Stuart Road), and the other at Mr. Lovett’s in Conway (near the Eaton-Conway line). They agreed “unitedly to stand together heart and hand to serve the Lord and the Church”. The names of those 104 (men and women listed separately, of course) are set down in the first book of record and among those names are ancestors of present Eaton families – Atkinsons, Beans, Bryants, Brooks, Shackfords, Thurstons.
Other Freewill Baptist groups were organized in Eaton during the next fifty years or so, usually in places where people tended to build houses more closely together. Individual conferences waxed or waned or split apart over differences which could not be patched up.
For the devout these Freewill churches filled the social calendar wit sermons, prayer meetings, baptisms in the lakes and ponds, suppers and Quarterly Meetings when members over a wide area came together for song and prayer. Then a great feast was prepared with the women trying to outdo each other with their chowders, cakes, puddings, cookies; too tired, probably, to sit through the long sermons.
In the old days when the local meetings were held in the second floor of Edwin Snow’s store (for many years the Eaton Town Hall) there was no need to be present at the church meetings. All one had to do was to open the house windows; the leather-tongued Elders, accustomed to preaching out of doors, could be heard as far off as the cemetery.
Aside from prayers and singing, not much gets noted in the records of the weekly meetings. Occasionally, however, a sheep would stray from the fold. Then the group went into action. “November 14, 1835 Met in Conference… Voted to withdraw fellowship from Brs. Flood and Joseph Atkinson in consequence of ‘disorderly walk'”. Disorderly was not defined; it could mean drunkenness, swearing, adultery, back-biting, working on Sunday, or non-attendance at church, but it was seldom spelled out. Still, on November 24, 1829, a difficulty was noted between Sisters Palmer and Hamilton about whipping a boy; another difficulty between the same sisters about the bars being left down and so on.
In an October meeting in 1847, Bros. S. S. Clark and W. Bracket were appointed a committee to visit Eli Drown to discuss with him “having dancing in his house and dancing himself”. The offending brother later said that he was not at all sorry for dancing. He was rejected from the church!
Existing records are pretty much matter-of-fact statement that people met, sang, prayed or could not meet because of the weather. Other sources make clear that the singing was strictly congregational, the Elder reading the first two lines of a hymn, then the congregation, “all that could and some that could not”, sang the lines. The Freewillers were serious about their devotions; they were not once-a-week on Sunday morning affairs; many an hour during the week was required, and the people had some bad times as well as the good; they had winter storms and periods of a “low state of religion”.
Through it all the Eaton people had their religion to hold them together in “good fellowship”; they “stood together heart and hand”. They held their meetings here and there and probably dreamed of a Little White Church of their own.
Specifications were put down, from the underpinning (“good stone, well split two feet wide of the usual thickness well set on good binders and there shall be eight suitable stone piers to support the center”) to the belfry (“a strong substantial structure sufficient to swing a bell of 2000 pounds weight”). The complete specifications may be found in pages 106-109 of “The Eaton Records”, published in 1972.
Robert, Henry and Charles Robertson agreed to build the structure and to complete it before June, 1879. They were to get $1200 for the job “to be paid by the subscription list for the 40 pews at $25.00 each”, and the rest from money in the treasury and from “subscriptions collected by the Robertsons at their expense”. The pews were to be like those in the Church at Conway except without doors and except the rail and arm to be of oak, ash, maple, black or yellow birch. Many of the pew holders worked out their obligations and the carpenters, stone experts and others were named Drew, Head, Hatch, Paul, Robertson, Russell, Shackford, Snow and Stuart. Among other bills was the architect O. L. Hurd’s fee of $2.00.
The Church did not cost much by our standards, about $2000, and annual subscriptions brought the debt down to $256.00 by 1891 after which the Robertson family took over the debt to balance the books finally.
Upkeep for the Church – oil for the lamps, wood for the stove, repairs to the building, the minister’s salary – was provided by contributions and by assessing the pew holders. The 1880 treasurer’s report showed the sum of $4.00; there was no money in 1882, but on hand was a cord and a half of wood. January 4, 1895: “Bal. in Treasury… $0.00”. The Church was not in the money-making business.
The structure was complete May 31, 1879, a few days ahead of time and was declared to be “a good structure, well build and of good proportion and admired by nearly every looker over”.
At the annual meeting in January 1880, the pews were assessed at 75¢ each and 18 people paid by wood, five by oil and six with cash. The following year the chimney needed repairs and 40 people contributed six, seven or eight cents toward the job. Forty-six gave an average of $1.50 towards a furnace and twelve gave oil and wood. In 1888, the Church was painted at a coast of $118.07. It must have been done by an expert with good old-fashioned paint because the next painting was in 1915.
A big cleanup occurred in 1925 with new roofing ($102.57), window repair, plastering and carpeting. By 1929, a new furnace was needed. It cost all of $215.00 and to help pay for it a whist party brought in $25.00.
Beginning in 1921, when Camp Wonalancet for boys was founded by the late Arthur W. Evans, and continuing until 1960, a weekly service was held at the Church, the boys singing as they left camp and as they returned. No records exist to show what songs the boys sang. During the early years, girls from Waukeela also attended. It is said, without confirmation, that the founders of the camp for girls was encouraged by the local people to locate the new camp (for girls) as far as possible from that of the boys. Later still, Crystal Lake Camp also used the Church for weekly services.
In the winter of 1933, the Rev. Mr. Moorhouse of the Conway Congregational Church came to preach. On his first visit the collection of $3.15 from the twenty-five present was given him. It was decided to give all the collections under $5.00 to him, with anything over that amount to go into the Church treasury. This could not have amounted to much as the average weekly collection in 1933 was $2.75.
Long before Eaton’s happy experiences with the Reverends Farrell and Moorhouse, the people had had other experiences with ministers. In April 1799, Eaton agreed that its pastor, Elder Mears, might preach part time in the Conway Church. Within two months, Conway had moved Mr. Mears into the Conway parsonage and there is nothing in the record to show that Eaton ever saw him again.
1933 was an active year. A Sunday School was formed with Mrs. Myron Allard as the Superintendent and Mrs. Helen Head as treasurer. A penny collection was taken. At Easter there was a solo by Beulah White (Bailey) and a duet by Mrs. Hiram Paul and Miss Grace Leavitt (the late Mrs. Herbert Morrison). Luther Dearborn (a Quaker) was the reader. Fifty-eight people “were out” and the Sunday School presented “The Dawn Immortal”, starring Junior Dearborn, Richard Paul, Beatrice DeWitt, Bobby Morrison and Zoe Head. The same year, in September, a harvest and baked-bean supper held at the Town Hall for the benefit of the Church netted $18.55 by charging adults 25¢ and children 15¢ each.
In 1935, the ladies of the Church had a table at Town Meetings selling sandwiches, doughnuts and coffee to help raise money for a quilt they were making and for electric lights for the Church.
By the end of the Second World War, the number of Freewillers in Eaton had dropped to a grand total of one and this was a lady well into her nineties.
What to do about the Church was debated at much length with several alternative solutions being possible. Finally, for $1.00 the Church was purchased from the Freewill Society to become the Community Church of Eaton, to be governed and maintained by an Association in which anyone could be a member.
Under the articles of agreement of the Sate of New Hampshire by which the Church was incorporated, the object “is to establish a non-denominational, non-sectarian religious group for the maintenance of religious worship, preaching and teaching the gospel and to maintain the truth recorded in the Bible; establish a place of worship; promote the spiritual, educational and community interests in the community of Eaton”, a document signed by Grace Morrison, Harry Ellis, Jr., Dorothy Russell, Cora Bean, John H. Fuller and Charles W. Hurll.
An annual meeting was to be held on the second Monday in August. At the first such meeting in 1947, Cora Bean, John Fuller and William Perkins were elected trustees; Arthur Evans, President; Harry Ellis, Jr., Vice-President; Grace Morrison, Secretary and Mrs. Joyce Fuller, Treasurer.
Two years before the incorporation of the Community Church (that is, in 1947), the late Rev. James Thornton Lodge had retired from the Episcopal ministry and had moved to Center Barnstead. His daughter, Mrs. John Edge, approached him with the thought of his conducting a midnight service in the Church on Christmas Eve. For a month before Christmas, the townspeople were busy. Birch bark candle holders were made, ropes of pine boughs were woven, postcards were sent to everyone in town. For this first midnight service, the Church was filled.
This observance was maintained for several years, if a priest could be obtained to conduct Holy Communion, and then it was suggested that an earlier service should be held for the children. Libby Edge (Mrs. John) wrote a pageant based on the Holy Birth which starred and continues to have as its finest performers, the children of Eaton. It is held every Christmas Eve and only once in the many succeeding years has the service been cancelled – this once because of a blizzard.
During the 1930s, a young boy, Bill Stevens from Canada, was a member of the camp for boys. Already he showed great promise as a pianist. After his boyhood passed, he returned to the camp as a counselor and again he played the piano in the Church. Then, for many years, as a concert pianist he came back to Eaton each summer to give a full-sized concert. In planning and handling these popular affairs, the Eaton Center Sewing Circle, as in many town matters, played an important role. The concerts were always standing-room-only affairs with many listeners enjoying the notes that came to them through the open windows.
A long-to-be-remembered occasion in the Church was the July 1976 Bicentennial observance with “Charlie” Hurll in his Revolutionary costume that he made himself, reading the Declaration of Independence.
This typical New England Church of a past generation has been a busy edifice. Many a wedding, baptism, memorial service or commemorative occasion has taken place within its doors.
So, for over 100 years the Little White Church of Eaton has been an emblem of people standing “together heart and hand”, an edifice known all over the world from countless calendars, jigsaw puzzles, placemats, postcards, snapshots and even from Cinerama. Many a New Yorker, hurrying through Grand Central Station to catch the old “State of Maine Express” for the north, had a lump in his throat when he was astonished to see in full color in the Kodak exhibit, the Little White Church of Eaton.
Here stands a small New England Church, a friend to all its citizens in times of sorrow and joy and known beyond the stone walls of our town to many as the “Little White Church”.
“History of the Freewill Baptist”, by Normal Allen Baxter, published by the American Baptist Historical Society in 1957.
“The Life of Elder Benjamin Randall”, by John Buzzell, 1827.