The Tory minister and religious affairs in Bedford

It has often been said that religion and politics do not make a meaningful conversation. The following article is proof of that statement.

Early settlers in Bedford lost little time in organizing their religious life. Being Presbyterians for the most part, they sought to settle a minister of the persuasion. In an era when the trend is toward seeking unity – or at least peace – among religious groups, it is easy to forget how jealously our predecessors guarded their religious differences. It is recorded that the only real difference between Presbyterian belief and that of the Puritans (Congregationalists) was that the Presbyterians accepted a higher level of authority, a Presbytery, whereas the Puritans were autonomous within their local groups; yet these two groups thought only in terms of their differences. This emphasizing of differences may help account for the tight communities of different beliefs which have perpetuated themselves in New England, especially since the governmental policy at that time encouraged public support of the church favored by the majority in each settlement.

Upon the incorporation of the town (1750), the settlers turned their attention to getting a minister to settle in Bedford. On Aug. 5, 1756, they voted unanimously to give the Rev. John Houston a call to the work of the ministry of the town.

Houston was born in Londonderry and educated at Princeton College. By virtue of being the first minister settled in town, he was enlisted to certain land reserved for that purpose.

Houston is of interest, not only because he was the first minister in Bedford, but because at the time of the Revolution he was the only resident that refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to the revolutionary cause.

In taking this step, he was in direct opposition to the prevailing spirit of the town. And in his public ministrations, as well as private conversations, he gave great offense to his people.

In the warrant for the Town Meeting on May 15, 1775, it was voted that what Mr. Houston gives was not satisfactory to this body. Also that the meetinghouse doors be shut against Mr. John Houston until he comes to his sense of duty. In other words, he was fired as town minister.

This showed the agitations of the times, involving not only the minister’s character but his political opinions as well. He was probably entirely conscientious even though he differed from his congregation and from the great majority of New England clergy.

As Presbyterians, however, the people recognized that he was still pastor of the church, dismissal by the town not being sufficient to terminate the pastoral relation. Houston was dismissed by the Boston Presbytery, in so far as his ministry in Bedford was concerned, in 1778.

After his dismissal, Houston occasionally preached as he had the opportunity, in both New Hampshire and Vermont.

The dismissal trials, severe as they were, did not seem to crush his spirit. No doubt he felt himself injured.

Had it been merely his removal as minister, he could not complain because it was no more than might have been expected in such times. But it is painful to have to add that he was personally abused.

Tradition has it that he was taken away from his family by force one night, and conveyed in an insulting manner out of town where he was ridden on a rail as far as Mast Road which is currently part of the west side of Manchester. He returned home safely, as the leaders of the party had promised his wife when they took him away.

There is an anecdote that the Rev. Emerson of Pepperell, Mass., of strong revolutionary feelings, was passing through Bedford and called to pass the night with Houston. Finding what his sentiments were, and seeing that Houston made use of tea (at that time a very unpatriotic beverage), he declined to sit at the same table, and had one provided in another room.

Houston retained his ecclesiastical standing through all his difficulties. When the Boston Presbytery was divided into three bodies, Houston went to the Presbytery of Londonderry. He had stood out in defense of his views to the point of surrendering his pastoral charge and losing his standing in the synod. Being left free to act accordingly to his own will, he took the oath of allegiance on Oct. 28, 1778. Houston continued to live in Bedford despite his unpopularity.

As the first minister of Bedford, he ws entitled to a large tract of land, said to be 56 acres. Houston had built a very large colonial home in Bedford center with an attached barn in the rear on a lot about a hundred yards from the Presbyterian Church. This writer had the opportunity of visiting this property when it was owned by the Barnard family. The Houston home still exists and is occupied.

Hundred of locals drive by this property every day and don’t have any idea of its historical significance.

Houston died Feb. 3, 1798, at 75. He and his wife were buried in the old graveyard on Back River Road with a suitable gravestone.

(Source: "History of Bedford, N.H. 1737-1971")

Robert Brooks