Beacon Street Diary blog

What cranberries can tell us about the Congregational Way

The other history newsletters can take care of the Pilgrims, turkey, and pumpkin pie. We'll bring the cranberries.

Last month, our New England's Hidden Histories program digitized a three-page document from the Second Church in Wrentham, Massachusetts. While one of our interns from Simmons, Marya Shotkoski, was processing the document, she saw something curious: the church's pastor was dismissed because of something having to do with cranberries. Marya and our digital archivist Sari Mauro dug in to figure out what happened.

The story is more serious than the headline. An eighteenth century dispute over cranberries turned out to be a prime example of the Congregationalists' commitment to just and thoughtful governance. The Wrentham document had just a few short lines, but it tells an interesting story.

Two congregants of the Second Church of Wrentham got into a disagreement over a cranberry crop. The two couldn't agree on the price of the cranberries and argued over whether one owed money to the other.

Wrentham's young pastor, Rev. Caleb W. Barnum, learned of the dispute and thought he should step in. Barnum offered to pay the difference in the price of cranberries. He probably thought that if everyone was satisfied with the amount of money they had, the dispute would be settled, and there would be tranquility in Wrentham.

How wrong he was! The congregation disagreed with this solution. They worried that the pastor was taking sides in the dispute, implicitly saying that one price was right and one price was wrong, even if he was the one who made up the difference. If the pastor was taking sides in the community, he was no longer fit to serve as the pastor.

The congregation sought guidance in an ecclesiastical council made up the Reverends Bucknam, Payson, Frost, and Hall from the southeastern Massachusetts area, and delegates from their churches. After reviewing the case in late October of 1767, the council recommended that unless Barnum felt called to stay, he should resign from the Second Church of Wrentham.

Barnum was only trying to help, but the congregation bristled at this show of partisanship. They wanted their pastor to be a more neutral arbiter of disputes. Barnum left Wrentham after the judgement and went on to serve at the First Parish in Taunton. We do not know if he intervened in any more disputes before his death in 1776.

History matters, even in the produce section. Consider this when you buy cranberries next week.

 


photograph of cranberries courtesy of user Cjboffoli via Wikimedia Commons