I know my recent posts have focused on my maternal grandmother, Alice Lauretta Lathrop’s, noble family who emigrated from England to Massachusetts, Connecticut, and then onto Pennsylvania and places farther down the Atlantic coast. Specifically, this post, focuses on the 400th Anniversary Year of a church that got its beginnings in England by my 9th great-grandfather, Reverend John Lathrop, also known as Lothropp or Lothrop. Please remember as you read about this man and his church’s 400th anniversary that in the 17th Century, it was a crime in England to worship outside of the established church, the Church of England, and nonconforming ministers could be subjected to cruel punishment, public humiliation, imprisonment, and torture.
In brief, John Lathrop was born into a privileged English family in Cherry Burton, England, and was educated at Oxford and then Cambridge Universities. He was baptized December 20, 1584 in Etton, Yorkshire, England. Unfortunately, Reverend Lathrop lived during “the dismal days of 17th century” in England–a time of severe religious persecution. First an English Anglican clergyman, then an independent Congregationalist minister. After imprisonment for his beliefs and exile from England, he emigrated to New England on the sailing ship Griffin in 1634. There he founded Barnstable, Massachusetts. His home was built in 1644 and became the home of the Sturgis Library . The building is one of the oldest houses remaining on Cape Cod. The house which forms the original part of the library is the oldest building housing a public library in the United States. Since Reverend Lathrop used the front room of the house for public worship, another distinction of the Sturgis Library is that it is the oldest structure still standing in America where religious services were regularly held. This room is now called “The Lothrop Room” and contains a beamed ceiling and pumpkin-colored wide-board floors that exemplify the quintessential early character of authentic Cape Cod houses. Rev. Lathrop at age 68 died on Nov. 8, 1653, in Barnstable Town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts.
Now let’s take a look at this congregationalist and his church that had its early beginnings in the 1600’s in Southwark, London, England.
World’s Oldest Congregational Church Celebrates 400 Years
West Parish of Barnstable is a Congregational Christian Church and a member of the United Church of Christ whose beginnings can be traced back to England in 1616. It is widely recognized as the world’s oldest congregational church. At present, it has a congregation of over 280 members who on May 15, 2016, reenacted a Sunday service as a worship service would have taken place in the 1600’s in the same Barnstable, using the same worship accessories and period clothing, in the meetinghouse they’ve been meeting in since 1719.
In May 2016, the Cape Code Times, a regional newspaper published an article about West Parish. It’s photographers Steve Heaslip and Ron Schloerb provided some wonderful pictures and I thought you would appreciate seeing their images (the full-screen view of the pictures distorts them, but the displayed size is adequate):
From London to Barnstable – A West Parish Timeline (in green–from West Parish’s history page):
1616 – The Rev. Henry Jacob and his followers break with the Church of England and worship in secret: In seedy Southwark, London, England, the Rev. Henry Jacob, despairing of any reform in the Church of England, proposed a separate congregation to several friends. All those present understood the danger of alienating themselves from the Church of England, yet they gathered a church and continued in it, thus laying the foundation for the First Congregational Church organized by that name in England.
1625 – The Rev. John Lathrop succeeds Jacob as pastor of this “congregational” group: Under the leadership of Henry Jacob’s successor, the Reverend John Lathrop, (my 9th great maternal grandfather), the little “Southwark Church” continued with sixty members worshipping secretly in private homes or in the sand pits at the edge of town.
1632 – Lathrop and 42 followers are imprisoned by the Crown: King Charles I and Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, prosecuted scores of Puritans on charges, real and imagined, before the King’s courts. It was April 22, 1632, when Rev. Lathrop and forty-one of his fellow parishioners were arrested while worshipping at the house of Humphrey Barnet, a brewer’s clerk in Black Friar’s, London. Eighteen others managed to escape but the rest were seized by deputies and imprisoned in Newgate Prison. Some of them, including Reverend Lathrop, were transferred to 12th century medieval prison known as “The Clink,” (1144-1780). The Clink was a place of filth and wretchedness whose name has come down through time as a pseudonym for any prison. According to historians at the Clink Museum, “The jailers and guards were entrepreneurial in their corruption, accepting bribes and charging prisoners exorbinant amounts for food and other necessities. Prisoners were flogged, or strapped to the rack, boiled in oil, and were kept in leg irons.”
1634 – Released on condition they leave England, Lathrop and his followers sail for New England: They had been jailed for failing to take the oath of loyalty to the established English church. They remained there for two years. In the spring of 1634, all the parishioners were released, except Lathrop, whose theological influence was considered a danger to the Church of England and it’s king.
Meanwhile, Lathrop’s wife, Hannah Howse Lathrop (my 9th great-grandmother) became ill and died on February 16, 1633/34. After an appeal by one of Rev. Lathrop’s nine orphaned children, King Charles released Lathrop on the condition that he be exiled from the country. John Lathrop arrived in Boston with thirty members of his church, moving immediately to Scituate in Plymouth Colony where some of their number had preceded them. Unfortunately friction soon developed regarding church discipline and the distribution of land.
1639 – Lathrop and 22 families leave Scituate and found the town of Barnstable: In June, the Southwark Church eagerly accepted an offer of land in Mattakeese (an Indian name meaning “plowed fields”), now the Town of Barnstable. According to tradition, one of their first acts upon arrival in October was the celebration of the Sacrament of Communion at a site now known as Sacrament Rock on Route 6A. The ancient pewter vessels brought from England were used in that first communion.
1644 – Worship services are held at Lathrop’s new home, now Sturgis Library: Barnstable prospered under the guidance of John Lathrop, and the first meetinghouse was erected in 1646 about one-half mile from Sacrament Rock.
1717 – Construction begins on West Parish Meetinghouse: By early 1715, however, considerable growth made a second parish inevitable. A piece of high ground on land of John Crocker was chosen as the site for West Parish Meetinghouse and work began in 1717 (the present meetinghouse).
1719 – November 23, 17191 the West Parish held its first worship in their new meetinghouse, which remains in use today.
1723 – After only four years, the building was already too small. It was cut in half, the ends pulled apart and about 18 feet added to its length. A bell tower, one of the earliest in New England was erected in that year. The gilded cock, ordered from England in 1723 serves as a weathervane for the Meetinghouse. It measures over four feet from the bill to the tip of the tail. And, the original bird crowns the tower today.
Early 1800’s – A Revere bell was made and given by the Otis family in memory of Colonel James Otis, father of the Patriot known as the “Firebrand of the Revolution.”
1850’s – The meetinghouse is remodeled in neo-classical style. In the years following the remodeling in 1852, the Meetinghouse fell into disrepair and by 1950 it was evident that radical restoration was necessary.
1950’s- Elizabeth Crocker Jenkins leads a restoration of the meetinghouse. Spearheaded by Elizabeth Crocker Jenkins, the West Parish Memorial Foundation was incorporated and led the way to restoring West Parish Meetinghouse to its original form. It is the oldest Congregational church meetinghouse still in use in the world today. And, the 1717 Meetinghouse Foundation is founded and partners with the church to protect this historical place of worship.
2016 – West Parish congregation celebrates 400 years of continuous worship and leadership in the community. According to Reed Baer, pastor of West Parish for the last 18 years:
A series of events at its historic 1717 Meetinghouse on Route 149 in West Barnstable planned through the remainder of the year will commemorate the 400-year milestone of this congregation.
“The history of the town of Barnstable is in lockstep with the history of the West Parish congregation,” said Margaret Housman, West Parish historian. “You can’t separate the two.”
The Lothrop Bible, which traveled with Lathrop from England in 1634, is part of the collection of the Sturgis Library in Barnstable Village, which was once Lathrop’s home and where he conducted some of his early religious meetings.
During this year of celebration, the congregation has embarked upon a “400 hours for 400 years” campaign for community volunteer efforts, which Baer said he expects will be much more than 400 hours once the work time is tallied.
When asked to look ahead to year 401 and beyond for West Parish of Barnstable, it was all about community for Baer.
“We will continue to look for new ways we can be of service to the wider community,” he said.
John Lothrop Biography, Northwestern California University School of Law, 2014.
John Lathrop (Lothropp) (1584 – 1653) – Genealogy – Geni
West Parish of Barnstable, United Church of Christ » History
Rev John Lothrop (1584 – 1653) – Find A Grave Memorial