Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Congregational Way Assailed: The Reverend Thomas Goss in Revolutionary Massachusetts

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Congregational Way Assailed: The Reverend Thomas Goss in Revolutionary Massachusetts

Article excerpt

Abstract: Little known today, the Reverend Thomas Goss (1716-1780) attained notoriety in the late eighteenth century when his parishioners' efforts to oust him because of alleged intoxication ignited a showdown over clerical authority in the Congregational Church. At stake was the historical identity of the church. Established in the early seventeenth century as a lay-led gathering of churches, the Congregational Church by the eighteenth century was subjected to both the upheavals of the Great Awakening and a countereffort by a professionally centered ministry to create a more centralized governance structure and to increase ministerial prerogatives and overall denominational authority. Played out in the shadow of rising imperial tensions between Great Britain and the colonies, the Goss affair became a bitter contest over Congregational identity. Ultimately, the episode served to define the character of the Congregational Church as a laity-defined denomination in which clerical professionalism and authority faced definite limits. Author Robert E. Cray is a professor of history at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

The first Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay in 1630 determined to create a "City upon a Hill," to cite Governor John Winthrops famous 1630 phrase. They aimed to create a godly society, based on the scriptures, in which gathered churches, congregations composed voluntarily of believers, called ministers to the pulpit to preach an austere faith that would inspire others in England to follow their religious path. Not for them the ceremonies and ritualism of the Church of England they had deliberately left behind: Puritans were religious reformers pure and simple.

The Puritans failed in their quest to change the Church of England from afar, but they did create a decentralized church structure, the Congregational Church, in which individual congregations defined their own worship standards. At the same time, the Congregational Church inhabited a prominent place in early Massachusetts communities. While church membership was voluntary, all residents of a town were part of the local Congregational parish and local taxes supported Congregational churches and ministers. Critics learned to keep quiet or suffer banishment or worse. And even when the Massachusetts government begrudgingly acknowledged the presence of other faiths in the latter half of the 1600s, the Congregational Church continued to enjoy the allegiance of most settlers. Baptists, Quakers, and Anglicans constituted small minorities.1

In the 1730s and 1740s, the first Great Awakening swept the colonies, popularizing a more emotional, personal experience of religious faith and a more dramatic style of preaching that contrasted sharply with the detached, scholarly style of traditional, known as Old Light, Congregationalist ministers who typically read their carefully reasoned sermons to parishioners. In this period, Congregational ministers and worshippers clashed over issues of authority. And the case of one cleric, the Reverend Thomas Goss, became a flashpoint for the simmering conflicts and discontents within and among congregations.

The Reverend Thomas Goss (1716-1780) seemingly epitomized the eighteenth-century-Massachusetts country parson. Harvard educated, as many Congregational clerics were, Goss spent his professional life ministering to his flock in Bolton, Massachusetts, a small Worcester County farming community. Goss was a staunch Old Light minister wedded to tradition and suspicious of the revivals and emotional sermonizing that manifested themselves in the Great Awakening of the 1740s, but without published sermons to promote his views. What Goss did in the pulpit stayed in the pulpit. That is, until 1769, when parishioners accused him of drunken behavior. Ecclesiastical councils called to arbitrate produced a provincial cause célèbre, as Congregational clergy and lay people manned editorial ramparts to hurl warnings and accusations. …

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