The Founding of the Congregational Church of Topsfield
THE FOUNDING OF THE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF TOPSFIELD occurred in the Fall of 1663 during a time of declining overall church membership in the Bay colony. The third generation of the original “planters” were less inclined to engage in spiritual conversion and lacked the commitment to accept the covenant with the church. Ministers and lay leaders were concerned that the decline in church membership was pervasive and progressing.
They introduced a new idea known as the “Halfway Covenant.” A religious synod created this concept in 1662 to attract the less spiritual members of the third generation. The covenant was a form of partial church membership – as long as they agreed to abide by the church’s creed, the “halfway” members were allowed to have their children baptized. Not all churches accepted the “halfway” covenant; some viewed the movement as yet another example of religious erosion and refused to adopt it. When Topsfield’s church was gathered in 1663, it refused to adopt the Halfway Covenant. [A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, Emerson W. Baker, 2015, Oxford University Press].
There may be two reasons for the declination of the covenant. The first is that the congregation was augmented by several families from Rowley Village (Boxford) who were vocal in their support of the Topsfield church primarily because it was considerably closer to them than the distant church in the Town of Rowley. Their numbers ensured a vibrant congregation and greatly added to the church’s ability to raise the funds necessary to support a minister
The second reason is that Topsfield was then considered an outlying community less affected by regional religious conformity. Membership in the church was mandatory and the Topsfield villagers together with the families from Rowley Village likely constituted a strong spiritual community that pledged to adhere to strict Puritan orthodoxy.
In 1645, The General Court of the colony entered a finding into the record: that New Meadows (later, Topsfield) was sufficient in size population, and area to become separate from the Town of Ipswich. In 1650, the General Court incorporated the area as the Town of Topsfield. Thirteen years later, in 1663, the Congregational Church was “gathered.” In this eighteen-year period, the potential members of the church grew and were significantly augmented by their neighbors in Rowley Village. They likely saw no need to adopt the Halfway Covenant and permit their religious beliefs to be compromised.
A 360 Project of the Board of Community and Communications
Celebrating 360 Years of the Founding of the Congregational Church of Topsfield