Early Congregational Church History

John Fiske’s Notebook, Photograph courtesy of James F. Cooper, Oklahoma State University

 

One of the earliest manuscripts in the Phillips Library is a notebook kept by John Fiske (1601-1677) during his several pastorates at Salem, Wenham, and Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Fiske arrived here from England in 1637 and worked in Salem as physician, part-time schoolmaster, and occasional assistant to the Reverend Hugh Peter until about 1641, when he went to Wenham. He became the first minister of the First Church of Christ founded there on October 8, 1644. In 1655 Fiske moved to Chelmsford, where also he was the first minister, and remained there until the day of his death on January 14, 1677.

The notebook is a small volume, the handwriting, hard to read, and Fiske used abbreviations and characters which made it difficult to transcribe. The entries in the book relate almost wholly to cases of church discipline within the membership, to church meetings where theological matters were brought up and discussed, and to ecclesiastical councils held in the neighborhood, together with a sprinkling of baptisms and names of persons admitted to the Covenant. They cover a period of time from the year 1644 to July 25, 1675.

Fiske’s records of church trials provide an extraordinary insight into Congregational discipline.  The most common sins were lying, gossiping, swearing, working on the Sabbath, or not working enough. For example, Joshua Fletcher shocked the community by “calling upon his love in the middle of the night, entering through her window, and staying to dawn.” Although he denied any wrongdoing, the church reasoned that “when frost and snow was on the ground… it hardly can be [believed that he] … sat and abode with her without fire or other help of warmth in a modest way.” Joshua was not excommunicated for adultery, however, but for failing to confess his sin before the church and convince the congregation of his contrition.

Little remains from Fiske’s long life other than the notebook. Not one of his 3,000 sermons preached in Salem, Wenham, or Chelmsford has survived. The notebook has been transcribed and analyzed and is available to researchers at the Phillips Library.

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