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.  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 in good standing, asked her fellow Church members to be dismissed from the First Parish Church and be recommended for membership in 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 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 its locus  was the 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 of a Parish as long as all other requirements of law were met.  This autonomy was so important that, despite many efforts to form a permanent governing council of Puritan Ministers, such a body could never be agreed.  Conflict between two parishes could be legally addressed only through a temporary Ex Parte Council, made up of neighboring ministers.

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 leave one Parish Church (known as dismission) and join another (known as recommendation).  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Cambridge Platform was 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 away from the old Parishes and 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:  The petition was read aloud to members after the service, debated, and voted.  An affirmative vote led to the friendly termination of the relationship between the requester and First Parish Church (dismission), and a letter of recommendation written by the minister to the minister of whatever Parish the requester was joining (recommendation).   A negative vote placed the requester 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 of dismission from members who wanted to be recommended for membership in the Third Parish Church.  In keeping with the terms of the Cambridge Platform, most used as their reason that they wanted 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 to the Third Parish Church should not be granted so easily:[1]  The Church would allow petitioners to attend Church services at Third Parish Church, but it would not dismiss them from the watch and discipline of the First Parish Church 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 petitions.  Rev. Abiel Abbot agreed with Rantoul that, in order to make the point, they needed to set an example, ideally of 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 Parish Church.  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 complained 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 alleviate her misgivings, but Tamma requested that he call a “Mutual Council”, a meeting with a 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 his surprise and anger at their sudden appearance, and refused to attend the proceedings.  The Council was not legal, he charged: It had been convened, not by a Minister, but by a lowly female congregant, one who could not 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 (the first Minister of the Andover Church, whose current 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 this would not 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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