300 Years of Community

Three hundred years ago, the Town of Longmeadow was born. It did not begin with the Massachusetts legislature—called then and now the “General Court”—officially recognizing Longmeadow as a town; that would not happen until 1783. Before Longmeadow, or any other place could become a town, the people residing there had to become a community. That community formed with the establishment of the First Church of Christ in Longmeadow.

Before a place can begin the process of becoming a town, the people of that place must decide, at some level, to join their fortunes and fates together. This is not automatic; broad swathes of the state of Maine still consist of unorganized townships. From the arrival of settlers in the 1630s until 1713, “longmeddowe” was part of Springfield.

By 1713, a group of people in longmeddowe was determined to worship together. They found the trek into First Church in Springfield too long and too dangerous (there had been an Indian attack against traveling parishioners). This group of people, not yet numbering 40 families, petitioned the colonial General Court for a fourth time to allow them to establish their own church. They were granted permission, but it was conditioned upon the solemn promise that the petitioners would support their minister.

This involvement of a political body in the establishment of a church reflected how much church and state were intertwined in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The British King ruled by divine right, voting for some decades was restricted in Massachusetts to those men with full membership in the Congregational church, and the town’s meeting house hosted church services and the annual town meeting. With the creation of a separate religious community, Longmeadow became a distinct political community, that is, a precinct of Springfield.

It was in 1716 that the meeting house in Longmeadow was completed and the church had its first pastor, Stephen Williams, who would go on to serve for 66 years. One year after his death, the United States gained its independence, and Longmeadow became its own town. In 2015, the institutions of First Church and a democratic town government continue to be cornerstones of the Longmeadow community.

The idea of Longmeadow as a distinct community has persisted long after the establishment of that meeting house in 1716. The living memory of that event died two centuries ago, but the idea is very much alive. Much like the U.S.S. Constitution docking in Charlestown harbor with every board, nail, and sail having been replaced but still existing as the same ship, all of the components of that original community have been replaced, many times over. Despite these changes, there is an unbroken thread that connects the people of 1716 to the Longmeadow residents of 2015.

But none of this was inevitable. In 1716, the first meeting house was constructed sufficiently to allow for its use, but it would take 13 years for the walls to be plastered, and in over 50 years of meetings of all sorts, it never had a stove. Longmeadow was nothing more than an experiment. The challenge of fewer than 40 families supporting a pastor and erecting that meeting house must have seemed daunting. One wonders whether 40 families today could manage such a feat.

Town government and the idea of democracy were mere seedlings in 1716. Town meetings and the election of “select” men to provide executive leadership became practices almost immediately after the colony was chartered, but the governor answered to the King and not the people. Overseas in England, there was a Parliament which prevented the King from exercising absolute power, but it was considered altogether fitting and proper that mere colonists should have no representation. Taxation without representation was the law of the land.

In time, direct democracy in the form of the Town Meeting would become sacred and British interference in Massachusetts local government would figure in the words of the Declaration of Independence. The example of ordinary people deciding questions of local import in meeting houses like the one that resided on the Longmeadow Green would serve as a blueprint for democracy on a national scale. The idea of government by and for the people has swept across every continent, and it continues to gather force.

On October 3, 2015 at 11 am, First Church, members of the Longmeadow Select Board, state representative Brian Ashe, state senator Eric Lesser, and the Longmeadow community will honor Longmeadow history in the kickoff to a year-long celebration of the 300th anniversary of the First Church of Christ in Longmeadow. The fledging religious and political community of Longmeadow has grown from a seedling into a towering oak tree. That living tree, depending on daily nourishment to survive, is still an experiment, but it is stronger than ever.

Alex J. Grant is a member of First Church and the Longmeadow Select Board. His email address is agrant@longmeadow.org.

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