The story of Vineyard Christianity begins in 1642 with Thomas Mayhew Jr.
The younger Mayhew, as he is often referred to in Dr. Charles E. Banks’ three-volume history of Martha’s Vineyard, stepped into the role of Island minister after nobody else could be found to take the job. There were few settlers at the time — less than 36 in the first ten years of post-colonization — and not enough incentive for an educated minister to take up residence on an isolated island.
In 1643, Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony noted that a group moving from Watertown to the Vineyard had “procured a young man, one Mr. Green, a scholar, to be their minster, in hopes to soon gather a church there.”
“He went not,” Gov. Winthrop continued in his correspondence.
With no relief arriving from the mainland, Thomas Mayhew Jr., took on the task of ministering to the English population of the Island, though he is best known for his missionary work converting the Wampanoag population to Christianity. As Banks notes, “the details of his life outside of his missionary work are very meager...he apparently gave no time to other pursuits, and rarely left the island on secular business.”
Mr. Mayhew learned Wampanoag and befriended Iacoombes, who became the first Wampanoag Christian on the Island and was invaluable to Mr. Mayhew’s cause, eventually leading his own services. Mr. Mayhew conducted the “week-days” lectures, and Iacoombes those on the Sabbath, as the Reverend Thomas Prince wrote in his book, Indian Converts. Mr. Mayhew was also assisted for a time by Peter Folger, the grandfather of Benjamin Franklin, before Mr. Folger became “irregular with his orthodoxy,” and embraced the views of the Baptists, then a sect.
For many years there was no official meeting-house for services and Mr. Mayhew often preached in open-air assemblies. A rock marking the site of one of these areas lies just outside Edgartown. The Mayhew Hancock Mitchell meeting house was built in 1653.
Thomas Mayhew, Jr. was lost at sea in 1657, leaving a void in the ministry. As was the case a decade earlier, no one wanted the job. His father, Thomas Mayhew, Sr., the governor of Martha’s Vineyard, stepped in temporarily even as he tried to encourage the minister of Branford, Conn., to take up the job.
“This expectation proved futile,” Mr. Banks noted.
Eventually the services of an off-Islander were secured, but maintaining the minister proved challenging. John Cotton, Jr. of Connecticut accepted the call of Edgartown in 1665, at which point “the townsmen made immediate arrangements to build a new meeting-house.” Mr. Cotton left just two years later after falling out of favor with Thomas Mayhew, Sr. This left the English in Edgartown again without a preacher.
Thomas Mayhew, Jr. had two sons, Matthew and John, but at the time they were too young to take up the call and the faithful would often attend services conducted by Wampanoag preachers. When John Mayhew eventually came of age, he became “Minister of the Gospell to the Inhabittants of Tisbury & Chilmark united,” as his gravestone notes. His brother Matthew, however, was a bit of a religious skeptic, having informed his brother-in-law once that “Religion is so Redicolas a thing that seaven thousand of the wisest Gentlemen in London have declared themselves to be ath[i]ests.” After the construction of the second meeting-house in 1680, Deodate Lawson arrived from the mainland for an even shorter period of time than John Cotton, barely lasting a year. Upon returning to the mainland he authored the first pamphlet regarding witchcraft in Salem, in 1692. The next minister, the “grave and saintly” Jonathan Dunham of Falmouth, came to Martha’s Vineyard despite being neither a college graduate nor an educated minister (“only a lay preacher in reality,” Banks writes). Still, after his arrival in 1684, he remained in the service of the church and of Edgartown for 30 years, having been ordained 10 years after his call and “laboring with ever increasing satisfaction to the church until he had reached the ripe age of eighty-five.”
The ministry of Mr. Dunham was succeeded by that of John Newman, the brother-in-law of an Edgartown resident. Mr. Newman arrived from Gloucester in 1747, a year after Mr. Dunham’s death, and was “an entirely different character from his predecessors.” Not only was he, at the age of 31, the youngest pastor yet to preach in Edgartown, he was also “imbued with the commercial spirit,” and owned a shop in addition to conducting services.
Mr. Newman’s account book from his shop indicates that he had a prosperous business, selling everything from fabrics to tobacco pipes to “ship chandlery.” The very definition of an 18th century Renaissance man, he was also “skilled in physick and surgery” and a homegrown dentist.
The older generation disapproved of Mr. Newman (though not so the younger church members), and he at one point sued his own deacon, Benjamin Daggett, for slander. Mr. Newman won the case, but asked the town for dismissal from his post shortly after, leaving in 1757. He maintained his shop, however, as well as becoming a court justice and colonel of the Dukes County militia in 1761.
Mr. Newman’s first replacement lasted only one year. His second replacement Samuel Kingsbury began ministering in November 1761 and he remained until his death from smallpox 17 years later. Little is mentioned of Mr. Kingsbury’s tenure, despite it coinciding with the Revolutionary War. A fourth meeting-house was completed in 1769. Echoes of the Revolution were felt when Joseph Thaxter of Hingham was called to Martha’s Vineyard in 1780 by unanimous vote of both the town and the church. Mr. Thaxter was a member of patriot forces at the battles of Concord and Cambridge, and was Colonel Prescott’s chaplain during the battle of Bunker Hill. After receiving the town’s request, in which they offered him a salary of one hundred pounds, he accepted, but not before making a request of his own for (among other items) “ten cord of good oak wood, three tons of good English hay, forty-five bushels of Indian Corn, fifteen bushels of rye [and] eighty weight of good fleece wool.” This request, made so that Mr. Thaxter could easily adjust to life on the Vineyard, was granted.
Mr. Thaxter’s service proved a lengthy one, and the parson was “easily the most distinguised personage in Edgartown,” according to Banks, remaining fashionable through his “cocked hat, short clothes, knee and shoe buckles, and...long cane familiar to the generation that lived during the Revolution.” The war veteran returned to Bunker Hill when a monument was laid there in 1825, offering prayer, “reported in all the current papers of the time,” as the official chaplain.
One year after Mr. Thaxter’s death in 1827 at the age of 84, the fifth meeting-house was dedicated on Christmas Eve, 1828. Though ministers would come and go in the centuries to come, the building would remain. Today it is home to the Federated Church of Edgartown, located at the corner of Summer and Cooke streets. Although other religions would eventually blossom the Island, this is the oldest church building still in its original location.