The Dismission of Tamma Kilham

Charles E Wainwright


Tamma Kilham was an excellent example of a Beverly woman who stood up for her rights in spite of overwhelming circumstances.  We salute her courage.  Today, Tamma’s story is all but forgotten except in the records of the First Parish Church.


The early nineteenth century was, arguably, the most tumultuous period in the First Parish Church’s long history.  The 1802 installation of Rev. Abiel Abbot triggered an immediate resignation of a quarter of our members to establish the Third Parish and Church on Dane Street.  For the next quarter century, contentious confusion reigned within the common boundary of the two parishes that came to a head when Tamma Kilham, a single woman, and member of the First Parish Church in good standing, asked her fellow Church members to allow her to be dismissed from First Parish Church and recommended to the Third Parish Church, barely one hundred and fifty yards away.

Born Tamay Kilham in Wenham on 2 July, 1770, Tamma was the daughter of Jonathan Kilham, an affluent farmer and Elizabeth Davis.  By the time Tamma was 12, both parents had died and she had been sent to live with relatives in Beverly.  Tamma was a person of means; but as a woman, she could not vote, and besides, being an unmarried orphan, she carried absolutely no influence in the affairs of the Parish.

From its gathering in 1667, the covenant of the First Parish Church had been based on the principles laid down in the Cambridge Platform, a document written in 1648 that set out the rules of Puritan Church government and discipline. It established the primacy of the Parish as the spiritual and political unit of local governance in Massachusetts.  The parish was comparable to today’s ward, except that the locus of the Parish was its Church, supported by a tax levied upon Parish residents in the tradition of the English Shire system.

The Cambridge Platform stipulated that there should be no external interference with the practices within a Parish as long as all other requirements were met.  The importance of this autonomy was so important that, despite many efforts to form a permanent governing body of Puritan Ministers, such a body could never be agreed.  The only way conflicts between Parishes could be addressed was through a temporary Ex Parte Council, made up of neighboring ministers, and convened only by request.

The Platform laid out the rules for the most important religious rituals of the Parish Church.  It defined who was eligible for baptism, who could take Communion, and how a Parishioner could obtain permission to leave one Parish Church (known as dismission) and obtain leave to join another (known as recommendation).  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Puritan doctrines described in the Cambridge Platform were an anachronism to all but the Parish Churches themselves.  At the same time, new religious groups, such as the Baptists and Methodists, were drawing Parishioners into their newly established Churches.

The stage, therefore, was well set when the Massachusetts Legislature granted the charter of the Third Parish, completely within the boundaries of the First Parish.  The Charter required it to observe the terms of the Cambridge Platform; but its Parishioners expected to pay taxes to support only their own parish church.  The leaders of the Third Parish proposed to the leaders of the First Parish a policy of “open doors”, whereby parishioners could attend services and take Communion at either Church, and decide in their own time which Parish Church they might join.  Leaders of First Parish Church felt this would lead to unstable membership lists and make it difficult to forecast annual budgets.  Rather, they proposed, there should be a two-year period of open doors, by which time Parishioners would be required to commit themselves to their chosen parish.  The doors would then be shut.   The disagreement became contentious, leading ultimately to hearings before the Massachusetts Judiciary Committee.

The granting of a Dismission and recommendation was not a small matter for First Parish Church:  Each request was read aloud to the members after the service, debated, and voted.  An affirmative vote led to the friendly termination of the relationship between the requestor and First Parish Church (dismission), and a letter of recommendation written by the minister to the minister of whatever Parish the requestor was joining (recommendation).   A negative vote placed the requestor under the watch and care of the other members of the Church.   The vote needed to be unanimous, so if the petitioner’s character was questioned by any Church member, or by the minister, the request would be denied and a subcommittee of members would be selected to investigate the transgression.  If there was any question, another meeting would be held to consider their findings, or allow the petitioner to repent his transgression.

The two Parishes shared members for two years, the period stipulated by First Parish leaders as the open doors period.  In 1804, First Parish Church began to receive petitions from members who wanted to be dismissed from First Parish Church and recommended for membership in the Third.  In keeping with the terms of the Cambridge Platform, most used as their reason that they wanted to better edification in their worship experience- a reason specifically allowed by the Platform. On October 28th, 1814, in order to discourage the flurry of requests, the membership of the First Parish Church adopted a resolution put forward by Deacon Robert Rantoul that dismissions and recommendations should not be granted so easily:[1]  The Church would allow requesters to attend Church services at Third Parish, but it would not dismiss them from the watch and discipline of the First Parish without a good reason.  In principle, it was a simple policy but as a practical matter, it was difficult to enforce and did little to stem the tide of requests.  Rev. Abiel Abbot agreed with Rantoul that, in order to make the point, they needed to set an example of someone submitting a dismission request, ideally someone who was not in a position to defend themselves, or instigate political upheaval within the Parish.

On June 2nd, 1820 Tamma Kilham petitioned the First Parish Church to be dismissed and recommended to the Third.  The membership, led by Deacon Rantoul, voted unanimously that her request for recommendation should be granted, but her request for dismission should not.  Instead, she would be allowed to attend services and take communion with the Third Parish Church, but kept under the watch and care of the members of First Parish Church.  The example, it would seem, had been made.

On August 1st, the Church received a letter of appeal from Tamma that laid out her feeling that she had been treated unfairly.  The decision, she wrote, should be reviewed based upon the following:

  1. Whether a Church of Christ should deny any member a dismission and recommendation to a sister church provided that there should be nothing alleged against their moral & Christian character
  2. Whether the reason Tamma had offered to the Church be sufficient ground for dismission and recommendation.

A committee led by Deacon Rantoul reviewed the previous decision and, on December 2nd, they reported they saw no reason to change the decision regarding Tamma’s request.   Armed with these findings, the members unanimously voted to uphold their previous decision[2].  Rev. Abbot visited with Tamma to try to alleviate her misgivings, but Tamma requested he call a “Mutual Council”, a meeting with an uninvolved neighboring Minister who could arbitrate the issue as provided in the Platform.  This request was rejected by Rev. Abbot.  Case closed, Abbot and Rantoul thought:  They were very wrong.

On October 2nd, 1821, Tamma Kilham informed Rev. Abbot that a 15-member ex parte Council was scheduled to assemble at her home to review his Church’s decision to deny her a dismission from the First Parish Church.   On the same day, a shocked Rev. Abbot received a letter from the Council Clerk informing him of their purpose and intentions.  He wrote back to the Council his surprise and anger at their sudden appearance, and refused to attend the proceedings.  The Council was not legal, he wrote: It had been convened, not by a Minister, but by a lowly female congregant, one who could not even vote in Parish affairs: It violated the sanctity guaranteed by the Cambridge Platform for the actions of his Church.  Besides, Tamma was free to worship at the Third Parish Church and be under their watch and care, as well as the watch and care of the First Parish.

The action of the Ex Parte Council was swift and decisive.   In a one day session, it dismissed Rev. Abbot’s allegation that an individual congregant could not convoke a council, explaining that Rev. Dr. Worcester (first Minister of the Andover Church, whose present Minister was part of the Council), had been part of many such councils in the years before his death.  It affirmed that a Church could not deny any congregant in good standing a dismission and recommendation to another Church whether that Church be in the same or a different place.  It found Tamma’s reasons for leaving the Church were valid whether she was moving her residence or not, and that First Parish had dismissed and recommended many others to the Third Parish with no apparent breach of covenant.  The Council advised Tamma to renew her request for dismission and recommendation to First Parish Church and, if it were not given in a timely manner, she should consider herself free to offer herself to the Third Parish Church, and that Church should feel empowered to accept her as a full member in good standing.

The matter should have rested there, but it did not.  It seemed the impertinent actions of this single woman had challenged the authority of the Parish, but her actions were especially repugnant to Deacon Rantoul.  Upon minute scrutiny of Kilham’s letter to the Council, Rantoul noted that She had inaccurately written that she had been denied a dismission and recommendation from First Parish, when in actuality she had been generously offered a recommendation- only the dismission had been denied.  Rantoul demanded that she confess her error, and this she did in the spirit of bringing the matter to an end; but Deacon Rantoul knew that nothing would change the findings of the Council.  In frustration, he penned a lengthy letter to the “Boston Recorder”, A Trinitarian newspaper.  In characteristic style, Rantoul vindictively wielded his weapons of legal logic and biting sarcasm to rip into the council and its findings, challenging its authority and the reasoning of its members.  Rantoul dryly observed that if individuals could simply leave their church whenever it suited them, then the whole basis for the Congregational Way was gone[3].  It was, in many ways, a prophetic statement, for the whole system of Parish governance in Beverly was about to be turned on its head.

In the winter of 1820-1821 a Constitutional Convention convened in Boston called into question the propriety of public support for religious institutions.  In 1823, a law was enacted that allowed groups of ten or more people to declare themselves a religious organization and, thereby, avoid paying taxes for the support of their established Parish Church.   In 1833, the Legislature removed Article III from the Massachusetts Constitution, making religious institution responsible for raising their own money[4].   It is ironic that the words of Rantoul in his letter to the “Boston Recorder” are some of the last written in defense of the Trinitarian style of worship expressed by any First Parish Church leader.  By 1828, the Church had shifted its loyalties squarely toward Unitarianism.  Rev. Abiel Abbot left Beverly for a health Sabbatical to Cuba in 1827.  He died on his way home to Beverly, aboard a ship quarantined in New York Harbor, on June 7, 1828, and is buried in Staten Island.   Robert Rantoul continued to serve as Church Deacon and Parish Clerk until 1858, when he suddenly resigned his posts just weeks before his death.  His strict, almost obsessive, attitude towards religion morphed over the years from Trinitarian to Unitarian but it never mellowed.  Tamma Kilham died on April 30, 1827 and was buried out of the Third Parish Church on Dane Street, the religious institution that had admitted her as a result of the Council.  She is remembered today only by an entry in the official History of Essex County[5], and by her tombstone in the cemetery on Dane Street.

Tamma Kilham stood firm in her resolve against Parish authorities to exercise her right to better religious edification.  Like the women of 1692 Salem and surrounding towns who were unjustly persecuted as witches, she was singled out by those in authority as a supposedly powerless individual upon whom an example could be made to enforce the status quo.  Much like the Women of Salem, Tamma’s courage and perseverance illustrate a strength of character that was rarely seen in her time, and is no less important in our time.   Tamma had the power necessary to control her own life regardless of who would tell her otherwise; a lesson that all should bear in mind.  It is a lesson lost, until now, to the pages of First Parish history, but one that I hope will now inspire us all.

[1] (First Parish Church in Beverly, MA, 1830) p259

[2] FPCR3 p48

[3] FPCR3, pp199-209

[4] (Meyer, 1930)

[5][5] (Wheatland, 1878



First Parish Church in Beverly, MA. (1830). First Parish Church Records, Volume 3 1803-1830. Beverly, Massachusetts: Unpublished.

Meyer, J. C. (1930). Church and State in Massachusetts from 1740 to 1833. Cleveland, Ohio: Western Reserve University.

Wheatland, H. (1878). Standard History of Essex County, Massachusetts: Embracing a History of the County from Its First Settlement to the Present Time, with a History and Description of Its Towns and Cities. The Most Historic County of America. C. F. Jewett & Company.

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Owning the History of First Parish

From a sermon delivered 28 September, 2008 by Charles E Wainwright

Saturday, September 20, 2008 marked the three-hundred-forty-first anniversary of the day that Rev. John Hale and fifty members of the Salem Church owned their covenant and thereby established our beloved Church as “The Church of Christ at Bass River Side”.  Did you attend the party?  Maybe you sent a birthday card?  No matter, no one else did either.

Maya Angelou wrote “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you”.  I stand here before you this morning because I have an untold story to share.

I am a genealogist and historian by avocation.  Each Sunday morning, I drive to the center of this City.  I climb the stairs at the front of our Church’s elegant, weathered edifice.  I walk through those the front doors into our old Sanctuary, past those curious ancient articles arrayed in the back, past these worn stone plaques and take my seat in pew 11, just behind the plaque commemorating where President Taft sat when he attended our Church, in front of this beautiful hand crafted pulpit and this magnificent organ.  As an historian and a member of First Parish Church, I love it!

The First Parish Church and its congregation are quite simply the oldest things in Beverly.  Our original membership came from Salem, the second oldest settlement in the Massachusetts Bay colony.  Even though we claim our gathering year as 1667, the Church was functioning as a viable teaching institution as early as 1656. This building, erected in 1770, is actually a comparatively recent addition, being our third house of worship.    Our Church served as the seat of Government until 1715.  Members of this Congregation helped to write the US Constitution, founded one of the earliest Sunday Schools in America, pioneered religious and social reform in Massachusetts and contributed the original volumes of the Beverly Public Library.  Our Congregation’s theology has run the gambit from a creed far more conservative than any of today’s Fundamentalist sects to one of the most liberal religious agendas in the world, all the while maintaining the roots of its worship tradition.   Members of our Church founded the First Baptist Church, the Dane Street Church, the Second Parish Church in North Beverly and the first Church at Beverly Farms.  Our parishioners were, at the beginning of the 20th century, among the wealthiest and most influential people in Beverly.  If you ponder these facts for a moment you ought to start to feel pretty good about the role our Church has played, and continues to play, in the Beverly community.  And yet, how much of this is generally known?
As a new member of the Church in 2001, I was asked by Rev. Howe to clean up the balcony and figure out what we should do with the junk up there.  Among this “junk” was a footlocker containing historical records and early photographs of the Church.  Upon further snooping, I found a book case in the Prince Room, a storage rack in the basement, and a bank vault that contained records chronicling the Church’s operation since its formation.

Now, many of you older members have been aware of these things for a long time, but for me, it was like waking up on Christmas Morning to a brand new electric train set running around the Christmas tree.   Along with David Shawn, we embarked on the lengthy process of assessing, preserving and cataloging the records into an inventory of about six thousand individual books, documents and artifacts relating to all kinds of activities carried on in our Church over the years.  In the process, we co-founded the Beverly Archives Project, a community organization dedicated to preserving the ancient records of Beverly Churches and other local institutions.  We obtained grant funding and secured the services of a professional Archivist who performed an assessment of our documents and trained us in techniques of archival preservation.  We organized the material and developed an index catalog of its contents.  Most importantly, we began studying some of the documents in detail.  We are certainly not finished, but we are now in a position to appreciate and communicate to you the significance of our Church’s long history as represented in our records.  They show that this Church has been functioning and making an impact on Beverly for almost three hundred and fifty years. Throughout this time the Church has borne witness to annual parish meetings and regular worship services:  great music and influential sermons; auctions, fairs and building projects; calls to war and pleas for peace; times of great confusion and times of great clarity- an almost infinite number of little event threads that, taken individually, betray no particular fabric; but when woven with other events and the context of their time, provide us a tapestry that illustrates what it was like to live in Beverly past.   The men and women who once lived here and worshiped at this Church, your ancestors by blood or tradition, struggled to establish the framework of the Church we know today.  It was their efforts and their strength that makes it possible for you to sit here now    All the accouterments you see before you- the pews, the pulpit, the chimes, the choir, the organ, the organist,  even the building itself are still here because of the efforts of these “people of the hour” .  Each has a unique and fascinating story to tell.  There are so many stories; it sometimes seems to me agonizing.

It is agonizing as well that so few Beverly residents are aware of the history of our Church.  A historical tradition as long and honorable as ours should be celebrated every year in Beverly with a parade and brass bands.  Yet, when I ask for directions to this Church I am likely to be greeted with a blank stare.  One lifelong Beverly resident even told me recently she thought this building had been abandoned and condemned!  Our Church, which gave birth to Beverly and has been involved in so many of the social innovations of this city deserves better than that.

At a recent Leadership Retreat, we discussed the value our history as a Church asset, and how we could capitalize on it.   We determined that it is an underutilized possession of our Church that had great potential and needed to be exploited.  This is not to suggest that as a venerable institution we should simply sit on our laurels and expect some kind of special treatment from the City.  Rev. Cressey, in a sermon delivered in 1917, called on our members to be “men of the hour”.  By this he meant that all First Parishioners ought to do whatever they can to better our Church, just like the earliest First Parishioners did in their turn.  By leveraging our past, I believe that we can influence the future both our Church and our community.

There is much that we can do with the knowledge of our history but it requires that we all take part.  We are, each of us, ambassadors of this Church, and should represent our pride in the Church’s critical role in the formation of the City, and remind neighbors and friends at every opportunity.

Moreover, we can leverage this information for the benefit of our Church:    We will start of course by refurbishing our old building, referred to on its renovation in 1835 as “the best example of Greek Revival architecture in the US”. The Capital Campaign Committee is pursuing construction grant funding available to institutions of established historical significance.  I think it is safe to say that we qualify on that account.

But it cannot end there.  Here are some additional things to consider:

  • We have a First Parish History web page, and are looking for ideas and material to put there.  If you enjoy writing and researching, we would love for you to research snippets of our history from our records and uncover the story behind them.
  • It has been suggested that members of the Parish might write a regular column on Beverly History in the local newspaper.  This has been done successfully before, mostly written from the perspective of church histories.
  • In the coming months, members of the Historical Committee do lay services that highlight aspects of our History.    Our purpose is to inform the Congregation on some of the origins of our rich traditions.  Some of the themes we are considering are:  The story of our communion Worship Service, early worship traditions, and biographical sketches of past Ministers and other notable Parishioners.
  • The Committee is preparing a book for publication in the first half of 2017.  “Honoring our Past, Forging our Future” will be a mixture of stories about of the history of our Church and perspective on our current state.  Proceeds from the sale of the book will be used to offset the costs of our anniversary celebration in September, 2017.
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