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  William Vassal: A Biographical Sketch
Dissension Begins: The Scituate Church Division

William Vassall is best known for his role in the division of the church at Scituate 1644-5. It began, as so many schismatic movements in Christianity seem to begin, with a controversy over baptism. At the First Church of Christ in Scituate, disagreements arose as to whether baptism should be by sprinkling or by immersion. Rev John Lothrop eventually took about half the church with him in a split and moved to Barnstaple. William and daughter Judith were part of the congregation which remained at the Scituate church, and which now needed a new minister. Most of the congregation voted to call Rev Charles Chauncy of Plymouth; William, Judith, and a few others refused to call him [William Vassall, Thomas King, John Twisden, Thomas Lapham, Suza King, Judith White and Anna Stockbridge].

Chauncy had been embroiled in controversy over baptism before. He favored baptism by immersion, and while his Plymouth church congregation conceded it was probably the more theologically sound way, it was impractical for their climate. The Plymouth church consulted with ministers from other area churches, all of whom opined against Chauncy's position. Chauncy would not back down, and left the Plymouth church.

But even before this controversy, Chauncy had been involved with the persecution of non-conformists in England during the reign of Charles I, a fact William was probably well-acquainted with.

William wanted nothing to do with Chauncy and led the dissident Scituate faction. He was highly educated and could argue any point Chauncy (an Oxford graduate and no intellectual slouch) threw his way. William also supported allowing Anglican church members to partake of communion, a controversial position. He argued publicly it would allow for expansion of the church through evangelism, but his primary motivation was one of tolerance.

Chauncy then took the very curious step of trying to re-organize the church based on the people who had called him. He allowed that those who did not call him might be allowed into the covenant if he "saw cause." This is remarkable because, in the Colonies, a minister was not a minister unless he was called by a congregation. His power derived from the congregation, not from any external source. This was clearly a power play on Chauncy's part.

Chauncy accused William of being "inclined to the Bishops" (an allusion questioning William's Protestant credentials). Chauncy then asked the entire Vassall faction (which had grown to about half of the Scituate congregation) to refrain from communion, effectively kicking them out and depriving them of members' rights and privileges.

William's faction, including a Thomas and Suzanna King (related to Anna King Vassall?), renewed their covenant as a gathered church on 2 February 1642. They called themselves the First Church of Scituate, believing that Chauncy had effectively established a new church by re-writing the rules of the covenant. Chauncy and his followers insisted they were the First Church. The matter ended up in court, partly due to related issues of land ownership. The court eventually found in Chauncy's favor. Vassall's congregation became the Second Church of Scituate.

The Second Church wanted a peaceful separation and took a "live and let live" approach. They called William Witherell of Duxbury, a grammar school teacher, to be their minister, ordaining him 2 Sep 1645. He had been pastor of the Duxbury church, which refused to release him. John Cooke of Plymouth Church, and Josias Winslow of Marshfield Church (Edward and Susannah's son and Resolved White's half-brother) were sent to try to convince Witherell not to leave. [View text of a letter from William Vassall to Duxbury minister Ralph Partridge, decrying the other churches' interference.] Witherell left anyway.

Josias began attending the the Second Church of Scituate and brought his children to be baptized there, even though it was 10 miles away. Perhaps the fact that Witherell favored baptism by sprinkling or by the laying on of hands had something to do with it! Regardless, Witherell was a highly successful pastor, continuing in his position for the next 39 years until his death.

The church at South Scituate that William Vassall founded continued through the years in peace and tranquility. Samuel Deane called its doctrine “moderate Calvinism.” He wrote: “The religious character of the people, it is remarked, has been sober, modest and rational in general, not corrupted by metaphysical subtleties, nor distracted by sectarian zeal. Hospitality, charity and sociability are characteristics of the state of society.”

The feud between William and Chauncy, and the two churches, went on for thirty years, agitating both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. Vassall left the colony in 1646, and Chauncy resigned his ministry in 1654 to become president of Harvard, which helped disperse some of the animosity. But the churches weren't able to formally reconcile until 1674-5.


Part IV: Dissent Grows: The Call for Greater Democracy >
< Part III: Dissension Begins: The Scituate Church Division

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