UU Minute #74

The Dedham Case: Conclusion

Baker v. Fales, also known as The Dedham Case, came to trial in 1820. The jury, you’ll recall, deliberated all night about “Which church is the Dedham Church?” In the end, they ruled that the church was built and run at the parish's expense for the benefit of the whole parish, and the minister worked for the benefit of the whole parish. Therefore, the parish had the right to call the minister and the parish owned the assets.

The case was appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme judicial court, and, a year later, 1821, the state’s supreme court unanimously ruled that Massachusetts’ “Bill of Rights of 1780 secures to towns, not to churches, the right to elect the minister.” They also ruled that the connection between First Church and First Parish was indissoluble. Even if only a minority of church members stayed, as happened in Dedham, it was those members who had a right to the name of the church, to choose deacons, and to hold church property.

The decision rocked the Standing Order churches, many of which had already started to come apart. In some towns, a liberal minority left to establish a new church. In others, an orthodox minority left to found a congregation of their own. The reverberations went on for decades, with a quarter of Massachusetts Standing Order Congregational churches becoming Unitarian within the next twenty years. Three of the churches chose to become neither Unitarian nor Congregational, but Universalist.

The case accelerated the conversion of Congregational churches into Unitarian ones, and it was a major milestone in the Massachusetts’ road towards the separation of church and state and led to the state, in 1833, formally disestablishing the Congregational Church.

* * *
Interesting story about the return of the communion silver:
Despite the court ruling, the silver did not stay with First Church. It was returned to First Church, but then stolen one night by Pliny Bingham and [Samuel] Haven. The set was broken up, with various pieces going to different homes for safekeeping. Rumors abounded about where it was, and some of it even was displayed at the Worcester Fair in the 1850s, but it not appear again publicly again in Dedham for more than a century. The flagons were found one morning on the steps of the Dedham Historical Society. The rest remained hidden away until 1969 when it was donated to the Historical Society as a neutral third party. The service has been on permanent loan to the Museum of Fine Arts since then and replicas have been made for both churches. ("Baker v. Fales," Wikipedia)
There was also the matter of the church records. Most were returned as the court ordered. But there was one volume of church records that remained missing. It turned up over 100 years later -- in 1926 -- in an attic in Dedham and was returned to its rightful owners.

NEXT: The A.U.A. Begins, 1825

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