The English, who landed on America's shores in the seventeenth century and who often viewed themselves as new Israelites, might have
theoretically agreed with this instruction from twentieth century Jewish theologian
Heschel; but, in retrospect, they went astray in some of their interactions among themselves and with the native Americans whom they encountered here.
Within a few years of the English settlors' arrival, the native
Americans were decimated in numbers both from desease and warfare. The
settlors by design or negligence, failed, de facto, to recognize native Americans
prior rights to the lands along both sides of the "Charles" River. The English settlors proceeded to built habitats along that river, called it Charles, and created a Greater Boston, Massachusetts much in the image of the country which they left behind, England.
Using the Charles River as our highway inland, let's peek at some moments
of that English settlement.
Watertown was one of the earliest English settlements, at the site of the Charles River's first major elbow-turn south, near the present day sites of Mt. Auburn Hospital and the river campus of BB&N School. Watertown's early significance, if any, related to its being a westernmost outpost, some six miles upriver from Boston. It was to become a river related industrial town and a farming community. It, also, was to be its own church parish...a must among early Massachusetts communities.
Church parishes played an instrumental role in several aspects of these four Boston communities, particularly, during their first two hundred years (1630-1830) of English settlement.
All members of each particular community, effectively, were required to join the community's parish church. Conversely, each parish church, effectively, could tax every household in its parish. Dissenters, atheists, agnostics, and, certainly, other religionists quickly passed through each of these communities in order not to wear out their welcome.
Richard Saltonstall, an early Watertown founder, is a good example of one whose
religious views determined his return to England when he declared his fellow settlors more
restrictive in their religious beliefs and practices than the Church in England.
The parishioners of these communities evidenced further lack of toleration
in such matters as the location of each community and its boundaries, the location of each
community's parish church, the division of governmental authority among each of these communities, and the division of the landholdings of each parish member.
In spite of the intolerance within and among the parishes, the parish
system in these four communities was conducive to uniform behavior, expectations, and community cohesiveness. During those two centuries, Watertown, as one of the two larger parishes, evolved from a farming community to one with considerable early industrialization. Boston realized itself as the urban center of the four. Cambridge, as the other large parish with a farming base, lay the ground work to evolve its theologically based college into something broader based. Brookline remained a relatively quiet farming suburb.
To some large degree, it must have been the parish system that kept these four communities together during these centuries despite internal conflict. For, as soon as the
parish system was dissolved by taking away the taxing authority from the parish church in the early nineteenth century,
- (1) two of these communities rapidly split into many: (a) Watertown lost huge portions of its area to Waltham, Lincoln, & Weston and lesser amounts to Belmont and Concord; and (b) Cambridge lost huge portions of its
area to Lexington, Arlington, and Newton and a lessor amount to Belmont
- (2) a multitude of new churches (and, later, even synagogues) sprang up immediately.
The centrality of the demise of the parish church in these dramatic changes is exemplified
by the long drawn out conflict between the parishioners who lived near the top of Strawberry Hill and those who lived near today's Watertown Square. That the parish
church/meetinghouse be located at the top or bottom of the hill was argued about incessantly during the eighteenth century. It was an argument left unresolved at the time the parish system ended. The parish church which stood for many years on Common Street was not rebuilt when fire destroyed it. Instead, numerous separate churches on the hill and down below took its place (Followed some years later by a new town - Belmont, uphill - taking some of the downhill town's - Watertown's - land area).