BENNINGTON -- The Rev. Jedidiah Dewey was not only Bennington's first minister, he was also the town's first public school teacher.
This was one of the facts discussed at the talk "The Life and Times of Jedidiah Dewey," presented recently by the Bennington Historical Society. A three-member panel led the discussion, consisting of moderator Don Miller; Charles Dewey, a direct descendent of Jedidiah Dewey; and Jamie Franklin, curator of the Bennington Museum.
Miller said that Dewey "was called to the Church of Christ in Bennington on May 24, 1763, and Vermont has not been the same since."
The town had been first settled less than two years earlier. The first town meeting in Bennington was held on March 31, 1762. Town founder Capt. Samuel Robinson Sr. and others formally organized the Bennington Church on Dec. 3, 1762. This was done through the combination of the Hardwick, Mass., and Sunderland, Mass., churches into one new Bennington Church. People from Norwich, Conn., also populated the town and joined the church.
These settlers were dissenters -- or "separates" -- from the establishment form of Congregationalism then dominant in New England. Separates were also called "New Lights," as opposed to establishment "Old Lights."
The religious sensibility of these first Benningtonians was formed out of the Great Awakening, a religious revival movement that produced significant divisions and dissent in New England's social order. They felt that the established church was becoming too lenient in its adherence to doctrine; more evangelical in their approach, they valued experiential spiritual experience deeply felt.
These dissenters also rejected the idea that civil authorities had the right to intervene in church affairs.
Baptized by a poet
Dewey was born in 1714 in Westfield, Mass., where he was baptized by the Congregational Rev. Edward Taylor, a Harvard-educated native of Britain who served in Westfield for around 50 years.
"Rev. Edward Taylor is considered to be one of the foremost late 17th and early 18th century American poets," Franklin said. "But his work was never published until the mid-20th century."
In 1736, at 22, Dewey married for the first time; two years later he joined the church. In the fall of 1740, the famed New Light preacher George Whitefield came to town and Dewey was probably present. Whitefield "was a tremendous speaker, speaking in an open-air crowd to a thousand people, and presumably all could hear him and he would get them all excited and revved up into a frenzy," Miller said
Miller theorized that Dewey probably gravitated toward being a New Light. In 1749, Dewey stopped receiving Communion in the Westfield Congregational Church, with the explanation "that the Church admitted Members without care to know whether they had the saving grace." This was a frequent New Light objection to Old Light practice.
In 1753, Dewey and friends of like-mind established a separatist church in Westfield.
"Within a year Jedidiah was ordained the minister of that church. He had no formal training, no formal background," Miller said, "but he was ordained ... not necessarily by the Puritan hierarchy but by the members of the congregation that had basically split from the Congregational Church of Westfield."
Dewey actively pastored this church for about three years to 1757, and then joined a group of separatists in Crum Elbow Precinct -- now Amenia -- New York.
In 1760, his first wife, Mindwell Hayden, died after giving birth to their eighth child. Within nine months he married Betty Buck from Amenia, with whom he had another six children.
By this time, Dewey wanted to be pastor of the Amenia separatist church. In early 1762, he asked to be released as pastor of the Westfield Separate Church, but they initially would not release him. Then the call from Bennington came. The resulting negotiations led to the Westfield Separate Church and the Bennington Church of Christ merging in August 1763.
Dewey and his family arrived in Bennington in September or early October of that year.
The first schoolhouse in Bennington was a crude log building around 100 yards southwest of the current Old First Church. The first two attempts to secure a teacher failed, and Dewey was enlisted to serve as a temporary teacher.
In a 2011 article in the Walloomsack Review about Dewey, Franklin writes that when the school was opened with fanfare in October 1763, a severe thunderstorm passed over. Deacon Stephen Story, a settler from Norwich, Conn., said after that all he could think of during the storm were some lines from Shakespeare's "The Life and Death of King Richard the Second" --
"Of Comfort no Man Speak!/Let's talk of Graves, and worms/and Epitaphs, Make dust our/Paper, and with Rainy Eyes/Write sorrow in the bosom/of the Earth."
Dewey was very struck by this quotation, "and apparently quoted it frequently in his memorial services to congregants at the church during his time here in Bennington and then actually requested that it be his own epitaph on his stone," Franklin said.
In fact, Franklin was led to study Dewey's life after Dewey's original gravestone near the Old First Church toppled over in 2008. Charles Dewey and the Bennington Center Cemetery Association then donated the original stone to the Bennington Museum, and a sculptor from Barre created the replica gravestone which now stands in the same spot.
An epitaph from Shakespeare was an extremely rare thing in colonial America. For one thing, Shakespeare's plays were not frequently performed in America until well after the Revolution. "Rhyming ditties of a severely solemn type were far more common than sophisticated literary quotations," Franklin writes.
Franklin thinks that Rev. Taylor's literary and oratorical skills, as expressed in his preaching, had an effect on Dewey. In researching the gravestone, Franklin found fascinating "the idea that there was a very real sophisticated culture here in Bennington from the very beginning."
Though Dewey did not have the formal education at Harvard or Yale standard for Congregational ministers of the day, he had cultural ambition and his own form of education, as did many of the other early settlers, Franklin said.
Dewey was in fact a joiner by trade, which included work in house carpentry and furniture making. The Bennington Museum has a table passed down in the Dewey family along with the oral tradition that it was made by "Parson Dewey," according to Franklin's article.
A formidable man
Miller said he sees Dewey as a formidable man who navigated eventful times and a challenging congregation formed of different elements with different experiences based on whether the members came from Massachusetts or Connecticut.
"I would say he would have to be a pretty charismatic; he was obviously intelligent; he was sought after. He negotiated some pretty tough times. I think he was quick," he said. "I envision Jedidiah like standing on the backs of two horses, one from Massachusetts and the other from Connecticut, bouncing along, and here he is trying to ride both of them at the same time. And as he goes on, other things are happening with New York, the Green Mountain Boys, the Battle of Bennington."
In the first meetinghouse, which was also the church -- which was located on what is now the green west of the current church -- were held "at various times all these meetings and including the declaration of independence from England, New York and New Hampshire. And he's the main man all that time. So I think that was the beginning of something we might refer to as the Vermont tradition."
In 1763, with the arrival of Jedidiah Dewey in Bennington, "you get the beginning of that separate, independent Vermont tradition," Miller said.
When asked during the talk about Jedidiah's personality, Charles Dewey said he couldn't say much more than what the questioner may have read in books. "I don't know a thing about it, because there were no diaries, letters or any personal information about him. What you can read is all that I know."
However, there is one story indicating that he had a good sense of humor. "There was a servant in his house walking around at night carrying a candle and Jedidiah stopped him and scolded him for wasting a candle, and the next night the servant was carrying two candles," Charles said. "And Jedidiah just said nothing and went back to bed."
Another story has Jedidiah working at a house raising. Upon hearing that a young worker wanted to get married, the minister said, "I understand you want to get married. If you will climb up onto that new floor, I will marry you at no expense."
Probably the ultimate Jedidiah Dewey story is that of his clash with Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, a man Miller noted was at the opposite (freethinking) end of the theological spectrum from Dewey.
The Rev. Isaac Jennings, in his 1869 history of Bennington, "Memorials of a Century," quotes a Bennington tradition, noting it may not be entirely reliable, that "on one occasion, when Ethan Allen was in the congregation, and Mr. Dewey was preaching on the character of God, some remark in the discourse displeased Col. Allen; he arose in his place at the head of a prominent pew in the broad aisle, and saying with an audible voice, ‘it's Not so,' started to go out of the pew, evidently with the intention of leaving the house.
"Mr. Dewey, lifting up his right hand, and pointing with his forefinger directly at Col. Allen, said, ‘Sit down, thou bold blasphemer, and listen to the Word of God.' Allen, who had too strong a taste for that style of doing things not to like it under any circumstances, immediately resumed his seat, and gave respectful attention to the remainder of the discourse," Jennings writes.
Jedidiah Dewey died in 1778 and did not live to see the current, and much-celebrated, Old First Church building, which was dedicated on Jan. 1, 1806.
Contact Mark Rondeau at email@example.com or @banner_religion