Roads, Religion and Russell: The Establishment of Lincoln, Massachusetts

 In Commemoration of Lincoln’s 250th Anniversary

By the fall of 1753, an ambitious, persistent, growing, tight knit band of individuals residing in eastern Concord, westerly Lexington and northern Weston, had labored almost ten years to establish themselves as a separate entity. Their leaders of a sort included (among others) Edward Flint, Simon Dakin and Joseph Brooks of Concord and Benjamin Brown of Weston.

Beginning in February 1734, the separatists had petitioned Concord and the Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay (the colony’s governing body) to become a town or at least an independent precinct (parish) with its own meeting house and minister. Repeatedly those requests were quickly rebuffed with the exception of the 1735 petition to the General Court presented and supported by the politically connected and socially established Col. John Flint (Edward’s brother), though himself living outside the proposed separation boundaries.

This latter effort received several favorable votes before being dismissed. Unruffled, the rebellious citizens next asked Concord only to allot them monies in the winter months (when poor roads and weather conditions made travel to meeting house impossible), in order that a minister might be hired to preach in private homes. This would alleviate the inability to receive the word of God each Sabbath. But alas, this too was denied.

In each instant, the parent towns of Concord, Lexington and Weston, countered the separation petitions with consistent arguments in citing their opposition: loss of tax revenues; lessening of monies to support their ministers and meeting houses; ruination through loss of land mass; false and invalid claims of deficient roads or insufficient proposals regarding new or improved ways; inaccurate and exaggerated presentations of the problems in attending Sabbath services or other meetings. It was also noted that within the proposed bounds resided families who wished to be exempt from belonging to any new town or precinct. In some instances, these non-petitioners explained that they were closer to existing meeting houses then they would be in either of the suggested new entities.

The disgruntled citizens continued to press ahead for change, still centering their unhappiness upon travel difficulties that hampered or precluded reaching of the meeting house. This was a major, emotionally charged issue. By the middle of the 18th Century, men had inherited and settled families on land at increased distances from established town centers and the meeting houses. Easterly Concord was no exception. This sprawl with its associated disadvantages caused discontent that then led to requests for assistance and eventually, separation (Littleton, Acton, Bedford, Carlisle for example). Not only were ability to receive the word of God and involvement in governance negatively impacted, but the social life of isolated families, centered in the meeting house -especially for the women – became virtually non-existent.

The final distress that caused fracturing and irreversible relations between petitioners and Concord came with the hiring of the town’s new minister, Rev. Daniel Bliss, in 1738. He was a “new light” of the Great Awakening movement, preaching in an emotional, interactive, dramatic manner all the while presenting the new theology that based salvation and the avoidance of hellfire on travail and conversion. The conservative, “old light” separatists desired no part of Bliss or his church and were not partial to providing funds for either.

In rapid succession (1740 and 1741), petitioners filed requests first for an independent precinct, then for funds to hire their own minister. Each failed to receive support from Concord. All the while, religious discord over Bliss continued to expand. Finally, a 10 August 1744 petition signed by 46 men (with another 33 inside the stated boundaries opposed) passed through the General Court and received approval on 16 April 1746. The issue had been somewhat forced when in 1745, 22 men formed a “society”, received land from Edward Flint and began the erection of a meeting house without permission. Thus was established the 2d Precinct of Concord with its own public place of worship (current vicinity of Old Stone Church), the ability to use its ministerial funds to pay its own preacher and the right to form a church governing body.

While religious separation was an acceptable, temporary solution, it did not seem to quench the desire for complete autonomy and self-governance in the form of a township. Thus, new petitions were prepared and local roads (whether repaired or newly constructed) continued their failure to meet needs or expectations in size, location or travelability. The Precinct petitioned the General Court on 4 October 1753 to become a town. However, in this instant, it called upon The Honorable Chambers Russell, Esq., recently returned from Charlestown to reside upon his east Concord estate, as its presenter and supporter.

In Russell the petitioners had a landed gentleman of status, Harvard graduate (1731), judge (Justice of the Peace, Court of Common Pleas, Court of Vice Admiralty, Superior Court), former selectmen (Concord and Charlestown) and former representative to the General Court (Charlestown 1744-46; Concord 1740, 1750-52). Additionally, he was married to the grand daughter of former governor Joseph Dudley. While no longer a legislator, Russell had powerful friends with whom he had served and the attention of Governor William Shirley. Also of note in this scenario should be the various quarrels that Russell had endured with Concord concerning politics, a pew at the meeting house, a bridge over the river and roads on or near his property.

Politics being what they have always been, it seems that in 1754 the Governor needed assistance in passing bills to further his projects related to the war against the French and Indians and connected with the Albany Convention. Russell’s township request presented the opportunity for a quid pro quo arrangement. As the Governor’s legislation passed, so did the judge’s petition (one of only three new towns in 18 years and passed in but three weeks).

On 19 April 1754, the General Court approved incorporation of the new township, listed in one House of Representatives document as “Nichawaug” (tradition notes use of the term “Niptown” supposedly referencing the land having been “nipped” from three other towns). Following several days of procrastination, Shirley signed the law (23 April) and the first official town meeting of “Lincoln” was called to order on the 26th of April.

As Russell was its most distinguished citizen and crucial founder, to him was given the privilege of naming the town in addition to building the meeting house’s first pew. He selected “Lincoln” to honor his ancestral home in Lincolnshire, England. Perhaps also effecting the choice were his wife’s great grandfather having served as steward to the Earl of Lincoln; the colony founder’s wife Lady Arabella Johnson being daughter of the Earl of Lincoln; and the house of Lincoln’s active support in settling Massachusetts Bay.

Thus did Lincoln become erected from a composite of disjointed pieces of farm land in three different towns, first into a Precinct and finally an incorporated, self-governing entity, prepared to take its place among equals in the stirring, momentous events of the last half of the 18th Century and on into to the 21st Century.

Post Script: Provincial law was subject to review in London. In the case of Lincoln’s incorporation, this was accomplished by the Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations and a Committee of the Privy Council, both of which made recommendations to the King. Thus, Lincoln was not “official” (though having functioned for two years) until 2 July 1756 when His Royal Majesty George II signed the approving Royal Decree!

Author Bio

Donald L. Hafner is Drum Major of the Lincoln Minute Men. When he is not serving as a fifer in the ranks of the Minute Men, he is a Professor of Political Science at Boston College. His scholarly work has been principally in the fields of arms control and U.S. foreign policy.

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