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The First Church Record Book, 1629-1736
The “Original Record Book of the First Church in Salem” is actually the second record book of the First Church begun in 1660 by the Rev. John Higginson (son of the Rev. Francis Higginson and traditional author of the 1629 Covenant). According to its records, John Higginson and the deacons of the church found the thirty-one year old record book to be in poor condition in 1660 and therefore decided to recopy the original records into a new book while omitting certain original entries on the grounds that they were unimportant. Higginson wrote in this very book before you in 1660 the following:
After a sufficient time spent by the forenamed brethren (Major Hawthorn, Mr. Batter, Mr. Price, two deacons, and the pastor) in reviewing the Church booke, they gave this account unto the Church, that they conceived the booke itselfe and paper of it being old not wellbound and in some places having been wett and torne, and not legible and not like to continue long to be of use for Posterity therefore they thought that it best that it were kept in safety by the Elders by that means it may be of good use so long as it will last. (First Church Record Book p. 87 of the version published by the Essex Institute)
While the original Record Book was referred to in other documents as late at 1675, nothing more is known about the original Record Book.
As for the history of this volume, it has a fascinating history all its own. In 1735, the First Church split as a result of a controversy dealing with its minister, the Rev. Samuel Fisk (the 11th Minister of the First Church and the 1st Minister of the Third Church, later renamed the Tabernacle Church.) It seems that Fisk was accused of forgery with respect to a controversial entry in the Record Book in 1718, the year he had been called by the First Church. The whole controversy arose in 1734 out of a disagreement between Fisk and certain members of the church about the appropriateness of lectures that were to be delivered on the afternoon of each Sabbath. To bolster his position, Fisk referred to a vote taken in 1718 pertaining to the delivery of these lectures. The problem was that no one remembered that vote being taken. In addition, when members of the church went to the record book to inspect the votes taken in 1718, it appeared as though the entry under question had been written by a different hand in different ink and was narrowly inserted between two other entries, as if done at a later time.
While the majority of the church sided against Fisk, the controversial Pastor and his followers left the First Church carrying with them the Record book and some of the church communion silver. They maintained that they were the true First Church in Salem. Fisk even continued to make entries up until 1740 in this Record Book, detailing the baptisms and funerals for his supporters and their church.
The argument about who was the real First Church in Salem ensued for some twenty years until the 1762 when members of Fisk church voted to surrender their claim to the title of the First Church in exchange for a portion of the church plate and lands. They henceforth were known as the Third Church and later renamed themselves the Tabernacle Church.
After Samuel Fisk died in 1770, the Record Book passed into the possession of his son, John Fiske, a Revolutionary War general, “with the father’s admonition not to give up the book while he lived.” When John Fiske died in 1797, the volume went into the possession of the Rev. William Bentley, the well-known and controversial minister of the East Church whose love for old books and manuscripts was well known.
Bentley held onto the Record Book for some 14 years until 1811. During that period, the minister of the First Church, the Rev. John Prince, and many members of the First Church asked Bentley repeatedly to return the Record Book to its rightful owners. Bentley was reluctant to comply with this request probably for political and personal reasons. He and John Prince were not particularly friendly and had differing political opinions. (Prince was a Federalist, a popular position in Salem at the time. Bentley was a Jeffersonian, a far less popular viewpoint here in wealthy Salem at the time).
However, some said that General Fiske had expressed the wish that Bentley return the Record Book to the First Church after his own death. But the record on this is not clear. Bentley wrote in his diary the following:
Elder Beckford & John Pickering form the first (sic) Church waited upon me for the first Church Book, which Mr. Fiske gave in charge never to return, & to save from destruction I received from his Son General Fiske in trust. Mr. Putnam (the son-in-law of General Fiske) appeared in behalf of the heirs & declared that at his death the General wished the Book to be given to the Church… As this matter moved just at the time our public elections to make trouble, without advice I sent the Book to Mr. Putnam. (Bentley, Diary IV, 24-25, May 23, 1811)
Thus in 1811, some 76 years after the Rev. Samuel Fisk had taken possession of the original First Church Record Book and broke with the First Church, the volume was returned as a result of the reluctant, but politically astute, Rev. William Bentley.
In the years following, the volume was rebound and placed in a special storage box for safekeeping.
ON DISPLAY THIS MORNING
Forgery or Late Entry: You be the judge. Before you is the entry and alleged forgery by Samuel Fisk in December of 1718.
In addition, you see a special low light copy of the brief entry relating to the excommunication of Rebecca Nurse on March 1 of 1692. p. 172