Rev. Joseph Willard, our fourth minister, was installed as co-pastor of First Parish Church in 1773 to assist the aging Rev. Joseph Champney, and assumed the duties of Pastor upon Champney’ s death. His salary was agreed to be 120 Pounds in “old tenor”. But when war came to the Massachusetts in 1775, inflation quickly eroded the value of the new Continental currency (so called “new tenor”), depriving Rev. Willard of much of his salary. While the Parish periodically gave Rev. Willard one time payments to help compensate him, they refused to adjust the terms of his contract permanently, maybe because they thought the new currency would stabilize. It did not.
The letter below was prepared by Rev. Willard to be read at a Parish meeting called to consider his financial plight. He wrote several subsequent letters to the Parish seeking relief, but to no avail. Finally, on November 19, 1781 he resigned his Pastorate to take the position of President of Harvard College (at a much improved salary).
To the inhabitants of the first parish in Beverly in parish meeting assembled January 25, 1779
When I settled in the work of the ministry, it was with an expectation of receiving from you a support. What you at that time agreed to allow me was a decent living for a family, and nothing more. By a turn of affairs, then unexpected, our medium has become such that the nominal sum for which I settled has, for a great while past, you must all be sensible, gone but a little way toward supplying my family with the necessities of life. At your meeting last March, to relieve me under this evil, you voted 300 pounds in addition to the nominal sum of my slated salary, which made the whole 420 pounds. Even at that time, this sum by no means made up for the depreciation of the medium. The lowest articles of living were then five times as much as when I settled; and many others were seven or eight times as much- but what you allowed me amounted to but three and a half; so that the sum of 420 pounds, at the time it was voted was not equal to more than half my salary in supplying the expenses of my family. Hoping that some method would be devised, in some for the former, to make the medium more valuable, I was silent about this great deficiency, but instead of finding it grow better, I have constantly experienced the increase in the price of all the articles of living and for the last half of the year past, the necessities for family, have upon an average, cost a good deal more in lawful money of the present medium, than what they used to cost in old tenor.
So sensible have some of my parishioners been of the depreciation of the money that when I have brought articles of them and have objected to the price, the answer has immediately been “lawful money is not better than old tenor used to be if so good”.
You can all see the great difference as it affects yourselves. I hope you will not be blind to it as it affects your minister. I have designed the present meeting to give you an opportunity of showing your regard to justice, by voting to make up the deficiency of my living for the last year over the year 1778. Several parishes in this county, as well as in some others, have lately voted to make up to their ministers the deficiencies in their balances for the year past: I flatter myself that this parish which is very large and whose ability to support the ministry is beyond all dispute will not be the last to see the justice of such a measure and to practice upon it.
I am sensible that it has been said by some that ministers ought to bear a part of the public burden. Without entering into a discussion of this point I would ask, whether ministers whose salaries are commonly, but a brace support ought to defray a part of the public expense vastly greater in proportion to their living than any other order of men? Reason and logic will immediately answer, no. But that I have borne vastly more in proportion to my income than any man in the parish has paid in taxes according to his estate or living may, I believe be made very evident by consulting the town and parish books and at the same time considering what I have received for my salary. In the fall of the year 1775 almost everything began to rise in price. In the beginning of the year 1776 this rise became so alarming that our General assembly thought it was necessary to make a resolution. But of the effect of that act you need no information. Taking that year though, we shall find that the money depreciated full one third. For the year 1776 therefore I did not receive my salary by 300 Pounds old tenor. Taking the year 1777 through, the money at the most was not above half value it was when I settled here. For the year 1777 therefore I did not receive my salary by $450 old tenor. If anyone looks back he will find that I have set these deficiencies at the very lowest rates they can be reckoned. For those two years my parish never has made me any consideration. I have therefore been virtually taxed by the sum of 750 pounds old tenor or 100 pounds lawful money as the medium was when I settled which according to the present price of necessaries and consequently the value of the medium would now be at the lowest estimate $3000 when these things are can considered must be blind indeed who does not see that for those two years I have borne an enormous burden vastly beyond all proportion to my income.
A few individuals have been liberal in their private donations whose kindness I gratefully acknowledge, but notwithstanding these so great has been the deficiency in the parish that I have been obliged to expend much of my settlement or my family must long ago have suffered even for the necessities of life. My parish ought by no means to have reduced me to this necessity as a settlement is always supposed to be in the room of a parsonage house. If therefore I am obliged to expend this for the support of my family how am I to be furnished with a house?
Thinking it highly unreasonable that I should suffer in my salary for the last year as I did for the two years immediately preceding I now lay the Memorial before you in which I have endeavored to represent matters in so clear, fair, and just a light that I think there is no person but might understand and at the same time must be convinced of the reasonableness and necessity of considering me unless he is obstinately set against correction. No such unreasonable person can. I propose to be present at your meeting. I therefore set forth that you will now with thankfulness and without the least hesitation determine to make up the deficiency of my salary for the year past and then show that respect to justice, without which there can be no true regard to Christianity, and to process to be governed by its precepts would be but an empty prelates.
I am brethren
Your pastor and sincere friend