Church And State In Colonial NH


by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr._DSC2528
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

Captain John Mason, who obtained a grant for land in what is now New Hampshire, can be credited with giving the state its name.
Mason lived in the County of Hampshire in England and named the land granted to him as a new Hampshire. The first English settlers in the new land were Protestant Christians and the New Hampshire settlements that became what are considered the state’s first four towns did not try to separate church and town government. Those towns are currently named Portsmouth, Dover, Exeter, and Hampton.
Settlements were established on the river called Pascataqua by the Company of Laconia in 1623, one called Strawberry Bank (Portsmouth), and the other called Northam (Dover). Charles B. Kinney, Jr., in his book Church and State, The Struggle for Separation in New Hampshire- 1630 – 1900, published in 1955, says “Among the four towns, two, Hampton and Exeter, were organized as church organizations. The other two, Dover and Portsmouth, had much more confused beginnings.”

Historic marker designating where Rev. Stephen Bachiler made first settlement.

Still, even though they seemed to follow to some extent the laws they were use to in England each town appears to have been virtually self-governing with the church leaders involved in making the rules. George Barstow in his History of New Hampshire, published in 1842, tells us that Dover and Portsmouth were “…divided into two distinct communities and were familiarly called the Upper and Lower Plantations. They were subject to different regulations, were carried on under different auspices, and were afterwards two distinct governments, like independent states.”
Historians seem to agree that the seventeenth century settlers in New Hampshire did not come here in pursuit of freedom to worship as they felt right, as did the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, but for commercial reasons. They were enticed by the stories of the great wealth that could be obtained by engaging in the fishing and fur industries and the possibility that the land contained great quantities of precious minerals. But, though the first inhabitants of Portsmouth and Dover may have been primarily here to seek material wealth and may have not done well in supporting and keeping ministers in their churches, they did keep their ties to their Christian heritage and the importance of worshipping God. A church building for worship was built at Dover with a minister that Thomas Wiggin, the superintendent of the town, had brought over from England to fill that position.
A controversy over religious doctrine in Boston led to the establishment of a settlement about fifteen miles from Portsmouth which was named Exeter. This settlement, unlike Portsmouth and Dover, came into being because of religious convictions. Rev. John Wheelwright had disagreements with the Puritan leaders in Massachusetts and was banished from the Commonwealth by the General Court. Wheelwright led a small group of followers to a tract of land that he and his sister-in-law, Anne Hutchinson had purchased from the Indians where a church and town were organized, being a clear example, not of the separation of church and state, but of their oneness. It should be kept in mind that all of these early settlers of New Hampshire were of the Christian faith, some (Puritans) coming to America to be free of control of the Church of England (Anglican), and others continuing their loyalty to that church denomination. Rev. Wheelwright declared that the church of Exeter was loyal to King Charles and the laws of England while also that it was the determination of the people of Exeter to set up a government that would be agreeable to the will of God, doing so in the name of Christ and in the sight of God. He added that additional laws might be made which would be according to God, enabling the people to “…live quietly and peaceably together, in all godliness and honesty.” That was in 1639. Historian Barstow described Exeter as “…a specimen of a true democracy”, and wrote “This little association of exiles I consider to be the first institution of government in New Hampshire.”
The fourth of New Hampshire’s original settlements was also organized as a church group, though in those somewhat uncertain times as to who had jurisdiction over what land, it did so by permission from Massachusetts. Many of its first inhabitants came over here from Norfolk, England. One of my ancestors (and likely that of some of our readers) was chosen as the minister of the Hampton Church. His name was Stephen Bachiler, who is sometimes listed as the founder of the church and town. Like Wheelwright, Rev. Bachiler had his problems with the Puritans which led to his move to Winnacunnet or Hampton. My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Lieutenant John Smith married Rev. Bachiler’s granddaughter, Huldah Hussey in Hampton on February 26, 1667. Bachiler was born in England about1561 and arrived in Boston in 1632, but his advanced age did not prevent him from having an eventful life and ministry in the New World. He was even called to minister in Exeter, but was prevented from carrying out that mission by the General Court. He also lived in Strawberry Banke from 1647-50 before returning to England where he died in 1660.
Barstow referred to the New Hampshire towns as “these first four republics of the wilderness” and wrote that they were “ …in fact governments of the churches. The Bible was their law book; and when the magistrate enquired his duty, he asked only what is the will of God.” He noted that Portsmouth might be an exception of having a government by the church. However, Charles Kinney, wrote that , even though “Dover had its religious difficulties, each town tried to create a religious establishment.”
The four original New Hampshire towns, all begun before the year 1640, and having no common government agreed to become part of the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Colony in 1641 and continued to be in that arrangement until being declared a separate province in 1679 after English officials decided that the four towns of Portsmouth, Dover, Exeter, and Hampton “were out of the bounds of Massachusetts.” (quote from Barstow)

Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. lives in New Hampton.