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  • At the age of 62, my paternal grandfather wrote a memoir, which I have been slowly transcribing from his typescript. His name was Charles J. Dutton, and had published 20 books, but this one was not one of them. The elder son of a protestant pastor, Charles was born in 1887. He became a lawyer and then a Unitarian Minister, and later worked as a state historian and parole officer.

    Along with sermons he wrote magazine articles and his books – three biographies and 17 uneven mystery novels. (Here's a caustic recent review of one of them.) Charles always had a fascination with abnormal psychology, which seems to have served him well both as a minister and a writer.

    This is a brief excerpt the memoir, which mostly recollects his boyhood and youth. This part is set in Kittery, Maine, where his family occupied the parsonage of the First Church for nine years. His memoir described life in this seaport town in the mid-1890s, before the town had telephone or electric service and before anyone in town owned a phonograph. In the excerpt my grandfather remarks on the town's religious attitudes and denominational politics.

    As a boy, on my way to school, I used to walk up a long street. At the top, the embankment was 20 feet high. There was a cemetery above it and from the street large iron doors led in to great vaults under the ancient graves. At the top of the street was the historic church to which the cemetery belonged. An old controversy had split the congregation apart and led to the building of a new religious edifice.

    An old sea captain had stored the barrels of rum which he had brought back from the West Indies in the vaults under the cemetery. No one objected at the time; it was a legal business. Everybody used rum. But the day came when it was cheaper to distill the liquor in Boston, and the vaults were empty. A new brewery, just founded, asked permission to use the vaults to store their beer. Then trouble started which split the church.

    The objections seem rather absurd today. Those against beer said, "Rum was a gentleman's drink – used by us all." No objection to rum being under the graves. But beer was something else. It was a cheap, common drink; besides, the brewer did not belong to the church. There must have been more of the beer drinkers, for the brewer won out. Those opposed to him left the church and built a new one. I believe later on in Boston a similar situation arose. In that case, the minister, a rather well known man, resigned and wrote a poem.

    There was a small church a few miles from the town – which came into existence because of an argument over the story of Jonah and the whale. A wealthy sea captain said it was impossible. He had seen whales. True, the animal might swallow a man, but no one could live inside him for three days and nights. He was expelled from the church for "not accepting the Holy Writ." He promptly built a chapel and had his own church.

    Thought it is said the first settlers came to America seeking religious freedom, yet it is hardly true of the Plymouth settlement. That was a financial venture; those who financed the Mayflower and the other vessels lost all they had invested. The real purpose back of the settlement of America was in most cases economic. In the case of those who first came to my town it was purely that.

    They first built their homes, and then came the church. Since they all held the same religious beliefs, and all were poor, it was logical that all were taxed the same amount for the support of the church. Since the minister was the one educated man in the community, it was natural his words were respected. If one studies the history of early New England, it is a surprise to discover how few bigots there were among these early churchmen. There were some. It is mostly of them we hear.

    Of course the first church established in my town was narrow in its viewpoint. But it was a seaport, and seaports are always more liberal than inland towns. No witches were ever persecuted here, though they were believed in. Since they were a small group, isolated from other towns with a trackless wilderness to the north of them, they felt all should share the common beliefs since they shared the common dangers. That everyone must accept the church, follow the accepted rules, was only self-protection. After all, they were alone in an unknown world. One weak link might bring disaster upon them all.

    @image: First Congregational Church in Kittery, ME, c. 1900 (family photo)
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