Old Friends: Robin Mingo and Nathan Dane

(From a Lay Service delivered by Charles E Wainwright on 19 May, 2002)

Look around you today.  Chances are, if you attend services at this Church regularly, that you know or are at least acquainted with the persons sitting around you.  You are the Congregation of today’s First Parish.   But, there are additional members of this Congregation.  I refer to those who lived in Beverlyand worshipped in this Church over the past 335 years.   This is the Timeless Congregation of the First Parish.  It includes worshipers of Puritan, Anglican, Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Unitarian Universalist faiths.  In total, its membership far outnumbers that of our present congregation, It comprises parishioners from the founding of the Church in 1667 to the present day.  You may know some of its parishioners- or, rather, remember them because their names adorn our streets, schools and history books.  Most, however, are forever forgotten.  It is for these fellow parishioners that I dedicate this service.

Mingo’s Beach by George E. Woodbury

We trusted beauty-  ‘t is the element

                Wherein the soul unfolds her poising wings,

                                And heavenward soars, and sings;

But in the dawn and by the star-swept tides,

                In dim melodious aisles of lonely pines,

                                We felt the heart of sorrow none devines

                                                That in all things abides


When I was a small boy, I experienced my first funeral- that of my grandmother Lottie.  My mother calmed my fears over this new concept of death by explaining that Nanny would never really be dead as long as there were people still around who remembered her.  This eased my young heart, and for years I would repeat mother’s words to friends and family at other memorial services.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I asked myself  “what happens AFTER all those people that remembered Nanny are gone?”  What then?  The pursuit of this question has driven me to become a student of history, and genealogy.  Over the years I have come to appreciate that most people do die after all those who remember them are gone, their memory lost to the ages. Most, but not all.  Some leave their mark for subsequent generations.  Some write books.  Some do memorable deeds. Some simply are active in Church.  The tragedy is that the memory of so many people is lost only because no one has taken the time to look at the artifacts of their legacy.   And so it is with this in mind that I would like to acquaint you with two people who are a part of our Timeless Congregation.  Two People who sat in the same seats that you are sitting in today.  Who cherished their spiritual principles as you do today.  Who left a mark on our Church.

If you look up in the gallery, through the lens of four lifetimes, you will see Mr. Robin Mingo sitting in the back row.  In 1702, Robin was a Black slave, the property of Mr. Thomas Woodbury, who sat here in the front row.  We know very little of Robin’s early life:  He may have been the person named Mingo who was deposed in a lawsuit brought in 1680 by one Roger Derby against John and Mary Dutch.  You may recognize Robin because he lent his name to Mingo Beach, located near Pride’s Crossing.   And he was a member of our Church.

If you were a member of the congregation of the First Parish Church in 1702, your church-going routine would be different indeed.  Although the fanatical Puritan ethic fostered by the teachings of the late Reverend Hale had subsided, you would still have been expected to attend Sunday worship under penalty of law.  The Church, you see, was at that time the principal instrument of Colonial political life.  All decisions concerning the town were decided within the sanctuary at Town Meetings held after Sunday Services.  And the service itself was no picnic.  It was not uncommon for Reverend Blowers to address his Congregation for over four hours without break- this on hard wooden benches specifically designed to be uncomfortable in order to discourage falling asleep.  Just in case this happened, the Sexton roamed the aisles with a long wand.  One end was used to prod a sleeping man by rapping him on the head.  The other end, adorned with a foxtail, was used to gently tickle the nose of a snoring lady.

The seating in the Church was very carefully established.  Men sat to the right and women to the left of the pulpit.  Slaves, itinerants, and children were relegated to the gallery.  One’s position relative to the pulpit was determined by the amount of assessable worth, age, and military rank- the more you had the closer to the front you sat.  Thus, Thomas Woodbury sat in the front row, while Robin Mingo sat in the last row of the gallery. 

In 1707, Robin Mingo asked Woodbury to permit his marriage to Deborah Tailer, a free Native American woman.  Deborah and Robin accepted Woodbury’s terms, which were recorded in the Town records as follows:

“Deborah Tailer and Robin Mingo, Negro slave of Thomas Woodbery, were after legal publishment and Deborah’s promise before me to live with her said husband’s master and mistress so long as her husband Mingo lived, and then to be dismissed with only two suits of apparel suitable for such a person, whereon said Thomas Woodbery did consent and agree to their said marriage and so they were joined together June 20 1707”

The popular legend goes that Robin Mingo was fond of a stretch of beach in town.  Woodbury, probably thinking he was being very clever, promised Mingo his freedom when the tide at the beach went low enough to permit him to walk out to the most distant rock.  Well, thanks to a full moon and an extremely low tide, the event occurred, and Mr. Woodbury, true to his word, gave Robin his freedom.  I cannot speak to the veracity of this story, but there are artifacts that attest to at least some truth.  Robin Mingo was admitted as a member of this congregation in 1722, at the age of 61.  On the fourth of February 1728, in return for a mortgage of twenty six shillings, Robin Mingo was deeded that portion of land encompassing Mingo Beach from Joshua Byson and Jonathan Woodbury where he built a house for himself and his wife.  Robin died in 1748, apparently a free man.  His wife Deborah died in 1753.

Here in Pew 7, fifty years after Robin’s death, sits Nathan Dane.  You may remember his name because of Dane Street.  Mr. Dane was one of the most accomplished men of the post-revolutionary war period.  He was a member of the Massachusetts Legislature and a noted jurist.  As a delegate to the Continental Congress, he framed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 for the government of the territory west of the Ohio River, and he was a member of our Church.

Nathan Dane was born in Ipswich Massachusetts in 1752, one of eight children on a large farm.  He attended Harvard College, graduating in 1778 and shortly thereafter set up a Law practice in Beverly.  In 1779, Nathan married Polly Brown of Beverly.  He shortly afterward joined the First Parish Church and became an active member.

If you were a member of the First Parish Congregation in 1802, your religious experience would be yet again different.  While you were now allowed to sit with your wife and children, where you sat depended on which pew your family owned.  Pews were bought and sold and at times fetched a handsome price.  The most valuable, of course, were those closest to the pulpit.  Visitors and those who did not own a pew were relegated to the gallery area.  The First Parish Church at this time was nominally Congregationalist, the officially sanctioned Church denomination of Massachusetts.  But the heady experience of the Revolutionary war had stimulated liberalized attitudes within the Church, a period known as the Great Awakening.  First Parish, like all other Churches in Massachusetts at this time was a state-subsidized institution, dependant on the collection of taxes from Town residents for the maintenance of the Church and minister.  Since only about fifteen percent of the town’s population was active members of the Church, tensions inevitably developed between the Church and the townspeople.  First, the Freewill Baptists petitioned the legislature to be allowed to leave First Parish to establish their own church in 1801.  In 1802, citing an alarming trend within First Parish against temperance and the abandonment of the Congregational concept of the Trinity, a group of First Parish members petitioned to be allowed to form the Third Parish Congregational Society, what we now know as the Dane Street Church.  Nathan Dane was appointed a member of First Parish’s Committee to make recommendations about these petitions.  In 1809, the Massachusetts Legislature finally set off the Third Parish as a legal entity with power of taxation.

Dane was well known for his devout religious beliefs.  It was said that he constantly read the Bible in its Hebrew form all day every Sunday except during the service.  He believed that the Church was a vital ingredient in the good moral character of successful Americans.  But as a great legal mind he also recognized that government support of this Religious experience was fundamentally contrary to the principles of American democracy.  In 1811, he was named to a commission to revise the Massachusetts Constitution.  One of the key articles under scrutiny was Article Three, which authorized a general religious tax.  Dane argued strongly to eliminate this tax, and the article was finally amended in 1821.  It is startling to think that Massachusetts, where many of the most liberal religious minds of the time lived, was the very last state in the Union to eliminate the State tax to support Religious institutions.

In his later life, Dane was involved in the Federalist movement.  He was in 1814 a delegate to the Hartford Convention, said to have been convened to consider involvement of the New England States in the War with England. 

In 1829 he endowed the Dane Professorship at Harvard University.  He also divided a huge donation amongst the four Churches in Beverly.  Dane died after a long illness in 1835.  He remained an active member of the Church to the end.  His wife inherited Pew 7, in the third row.  She died in 1840.

We know these things partly because we can examine the early records of First Parish.  Whenever a member of our Timeless Congregation was baptized, dedicated, attended Sunday School, married, paid taxes, served on a committee, or died, the fact was duly recorded by the minister, or the Recording Secretary of the Church.  The record books have long been relegated to obscure locations in the Church, and now stand in great need of cataloging, protection and preservation.    As usual, the major obstacle is money, but it is also a matter of awareness.  The First Parish Historical Committee, responsible for the records, needs your support to find ways of preserving them while maintaining their accessibility.  Only then can the Congregation of today continue to be acquainted with the Timeless Congregation of our past.

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