Without looking up facts, which would be easy to do, I suppose I'm safe in saying that Harriet Beecher Stowe attended the First Parish Congregational Church at Brunswick, in the State of Maine. Mrs. Stowe, the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852), was the wife of a Bowdoin College faculty member, and a sister of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher who said to the hen, "You're a beautiful creature." When our Civil War president, Abraham Lincoln as I recall, was introduced to Stowe, he said, "So this is the little lady who wrote the big book that made this great war."
Taking the blame for that conflict is monumental, but Stowe's novel did lift slavery into a tremendous historical cause, and perhaps she did meditate on her subject while enduring the pews of this Congregational church, a denomination that never related comfort with piety.
I was just now thinking that some writer should do a bang-up history of this particular church to show the way government in the United States derived from the established parish of New England, a likelihood if not a fact, and at least a laudable try in the direction of democracy. The parish came first, and then the town meeting.
The Brunswick church is a beautiful building, with a high beamed interior where angels undoubtedly hover and perch. It sits at the gateway of the Bowdoin College campus without having any connection with the institution except that the college uses it for academic assemblies from time to time. It is also where members of the college worship if they are so disposed.
Historically, the First Parish Church belongs to the First Parish of the town of Brunswick, and in strict application of original Colonial law the society of church members that meets there is merely a tenant at sufferance. It is not about to happen, I assure you, but it is amusing to suppose that the voting members of the parish could, in pique or whimsy, kick the church out and set up a bowling alley or a motel.
I have an example to support my drollery. A newly "called" minister, strange to the parish system, attended a parish meeting soon after he was settled into the parsonage. As the meeting progressed, he had a comment. Accordingly he addressed the moderator, and was recognized. But before he spoke, another member said, "Mr. Moderator, I rise to a point of order!"
"You will state your point of order."
"Yes, the gentleman is not a parish member and is not privileged to speak."
It was even so. He needed to be in residence three months to be qualified. Sorry, Reverend! So this church has all manner of history to make a book, and we need a new-day Stowe.
I have a couple of possible chapters. One is about Prof. "Buck" Moody. Head of Bowdoin's mathematics department, he'd come to church and sit in a pew right in front of the pulpit. And he developed an odd manner of tipping his head back to stare at the great wooden beams overhead that supported the church roof. He'd point with a finger, completely absorbed, clearly paying no heed to the homily.
This continued Sunday after Sunday until worshipers gave him their total attention and Dr. Thompson Ashby, who held his honorary DD from the college, was distracted from his text. A conference decided to have a committee to inquire what occupied Moody and ask if he wouldn't sit up back. Thus they learned that Moody was considering which timbers were architecturally in stress and which in strain, and how many could be removed before the roof would fall in. Otherwise Moody was beloved and owned a mythical racehorse named Parallelepipedon that had never won a race in 72 years at the Topsham Fair.
The other story about the First Parish Church that I would like in the history would be of the aids they installed for members with impaired hearing. This was back in early radio days. Ralph Derby, who was an instrumentmaker for the college physics lab, donated the aids. A microphone on the pulpit brought the sermon to a battery of earphones at the front pew, and on the trial Sunday the deacons had selected 10 sweet grandmotherly ladies to sit in the front pew and listen. Parson Ashby explained all this to the congregation, adjusted the microphone, and began his sermon.
In those days, the tracks of the Androscoggin & Kennebec electric railway came from Bath, made a turn around the First Parish Church, and continued toward the terminal at Lewiston. This was before radios were common, and before anybody knew much about static and interference. Nobody knew that every time a wheel passed a joint in the rails, an electric car broadcast a noise like beating a dishpan with a long-handled spoon.
Parson Ashby was leading his sermon by the still waters, and the glory was filling the tabernacle when the 11:30 trolley turned the corner. Ten devout ladies rose six feet in a group, which would be a total of 60 feet, clasping a hand to each assaulted ear, shrieking in utter terror, and articulating imprecations I cannot reproduce here because I don't know how to spell them. Ashby was abashed. Even Ralph Derby was taken by surprise. They got the devout little ladies calmed down about suppertime.
Don't you think that would make a good book?