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  • MM 1823, Jerusalem
  • Grand Chaplain 1828-1833


From Proceedings, Page 1873-284:


In 1822 there was not within twelve miles of Northampton, going in any direction, a Baptist Church; at-least, such is the statement of the book of records of the Baptist Society in Northampton. In August of that year Mr. Benjamin Willard entered the town as an agent of the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society. He was entertained in an old house occupied by two men as tenants, whose wives were members of a Baptist Church in West Springfield. In this house, the only one accessible to a Baptist minister, Mr. Willard preached a few times. He visited a few families, obtained Dr. Stebbins as a general agent for the Baptist Magazine, and attracted some attention. In January, 1823, Mr. Willard visited Northampton again, and in the course of seven weeks preached in more than thirty places in the town. In the following April he was present again, and three persons were immersed, as the first fruits of his work. Mr. Willard preached at the water-side to more than one thousand persons, who had never witnessed a similar scene. Through much opposition that had the semblance, if not the substance, of persecution, the brethren struggled on until April 30, 1824, when a Baptist Society was organized, consisting of forty members, fourteen males and twenty-six females. A new meeting-house was opened on the 8th of July, 1829.

Mr. Willard continued to be the pastor of the church for several years, though often absent for months on missionary labors. Sometimes months passed without the meeting-house being once opened for preaching. Mr. Willard resigned his pastorate on the 25th of February, 1838.
— History of Western Massachusetts, by J. G. Holland, 1855.

The First Baptist Church in Northampton, Mass., was organized in 1824. In the beginning they were few, the number of constituent members being eleven. Previous to the formal organization a good deal of missionary labor had been done by Revs. Mr. Rand and Willard, and other Baptist clergymen. The Massachusetts Missionary Society sent Mr. Benjamin Willard here in 1826. On his arrival he found no Baptist Church within twelve miles of the town. He was entertained by two Christian Phoebes, who belonged to Rev. Mr. Rood's church in West Springfield. Their husbands were tenants of an old house, the only place accessible to a Baptist. Baptists in that day were looked at with eyes dilated to a most grievous extent of surprise. They were looked at as having dropped down from some erratic planet, or as having been spouted up like some unexpected Jonah from the river-bed of the old Connecticut. They were told, frankly, on application for certain privileges, that there was no need of any such organization in town. Still, in spite of such hospitable invitations to leave town, Mr. Willard concluded to stay, and did so, preaching several times in the old house; and he had so much of God in him that he shook the souls of the time-honored, traditional religionists, and created a decided sensation. People were roused to hear the Word as at Antioch. He did some efficient pastoral work in connection with his preaching, and procured Dr. Stebbins as general agent for the Missionary Magazine, which some of the "standing order" looked on as a "diabolical machine." Though reassured by a chief man of the place that he was not "needed" in town, in the following January, in 1823, he came on another mission of mercy; and, during a space of two months, preached the pure Word in thirty different places within the limits of the town, and God owned the truth. He drew goodly congregations, and converts were multiplied.

He was a horseback herald of Christianity. Like Philip, he went everywhere, and so in course of time he left the town to visit other places; but, as if in love with old Northampton, he returned in the following April, to find that most of his converts had joined the Congregational Church, under the care of Rev. Mr. Williams, which was probably the first instance of Baptist fish being placed on a Pedo-Baptist string. But, like all such cases, they were troubled in conscience, and came out and submitted to a true baptism, by burial with Christ. And so they were received into the fellowship of the Baptist Church, in West Springfield, by Rev. Thomas Rand. A very large audience assembled at the water-side, who had never seen a regular apostolic administration of baptism, and were suitably addressed by Rev. Mr. Willard. After a month of incessant preaching and pastoral work he left town. He soon returned, under appointment of the Missionary Board, but in three weeks was summoned home by the sickness of his parents. The school-houses were closed against Baptist ministers, and one of the true-hearted, indomitable brethren procured a hall in which to hold services. This act was like an alarm of war; a practical challenge to a conflict of arms. Many were aroused to an intense opposition, and declared the deed an encroachment on their rights. In the latter part of August Mr. Willard again visited the town, and preached on Sabbath days, at West Farms, Roberts' Meadow, and Shepherd's Factory, and went from house to house during the week, as Paul did at Ephesus. He continued in such special timely labor till April, 1824, when he came to Northampton to live. Mr. Willard was ordained November 12, 1823. The services were held in the "Old" Church, which was, at the time, the only meeting-house in the town. It was a profoundly interesting occasion to the Baptist brethren and sisters.

During the winter, under the smile of God, they resorted to Jordan's banks several times, till the number of the immersed increased to ten. Other additions from various sources were made at different times till it was considered proper and desirable to form a distinct local church organization. To accomplish this end a meeting was called, April 25, 1826, and there were present twelve brethren and fourteen sisters, members of Baptist Churches, the "sect everywhere spoken against." They proceeded to adopt articles of faith and a church covenant, and chose Brethren J. Pomeroy and S. Ensign to serve as deacons. Appropriate measures were immediately inaugurated to secure recognition of the little flock. Accordingly, an Ecclesiastical Council convened at Mr. Willard's house, July 20th; after a careful examination of articles and covenant it was unanimously voted to receive this church into tho sisterhood of the churches. After examination the Council, by prayer and laying on of hands, set apart J. Pomeroy and S. Ensign to the office of deacons. In connection with this service Mr. Willard was elected clerk. Having reached this point of progress no small stir was made. Fierce opposition was fomented. Instead of the fervent, hospitable embrace of Christian love, they were assailed by a bigoted, intolerant spirit at every point; and so strong was the spirit and method of the opposition that the Baptist faith in the town was well-nigh extinguished. Their opposers branded the place of their meeting as a "NEST," and they were bound to break it up. They were wealthy, and so they purchased their meeting-place. So immensely unpopular was the cause of John the Baptist, and so maltreated were its professed friends, that they were compelled to meet in private houses, and as a result the rate of increase and progress was inevitably slow.

No person of any considerable wealth or social standing dared join them. Such was the early formed social habit, and so it has been to this day. But the inveterate persecution of the chosen seed was overruled, like the Jerusalem persecution, for good. Kicking a fire scatters the brands. God blessed the Baptists of that dark, obscure, persecuted period. He acknowledged their humble instrumentality, unquestionably. Just before the formal organization of the church there was quite a revival interest, which resulted in several accessions by baptisms to their meagre ranks. "This Baptist revival" alarmed the souls of the "standing order," and set them to the work of lifting up the standard of piety in the town. They labored strenuously. While Mr. Willard was absent laboring for Christ in neighboring towns they invited distinguished men from abroad to come and commence revival efforts. A Pedo-Baptist minister was hired to hold a three months' meeting in South Street. What these jealous supporters of the sacred ark could be thinking of to treat Christ's little ones in such a way I don't know. They seemed to be smoking with the spirit of Papal intolerance, and fulminating thunders of dissatisfaction, like those which once rolled from the windows of the Vatican. But while the lion was roaring, the lamb found the Master Shepherd's bosom. We believe that when the standing order of fifty years ago reach heaven and see the members of the reviled Northampton nest by the banks of the river, they will see, in the clear light, their great mistake. In the first letter to the Westfield Association, this church reported forty constituent members and three additions; one by baptism and two by letter. It asked for admission and was received.

In the year 1828, in absence of a suitable place for worship, the church made a special and vigorous effort to secure funds to erect a meeting-house. Several thousand dollars were raised by subscriptions and loans from friends abroad, and a building committee was appointed, consisting of Brethren Willard, Ensign and Pomeroy. Having procured this site, they erected a house, which was dedicated July 8, 1829. A large audience assembled. Fourteen ministers attended, and many of them participated in the services. Prof. Chase, of Newton Theological Institute, preached the sermon. In 1830, fourteen members were received into the church from Amherst, with the understanding that they should be a branch having power to receive, discipline and dismiss members, support public worship and administer the ordinances, always returning to this church a statement of their proceedings when desired. In 1832 these members and others were dismissed to constitute an independent church.

In 1832 Mr. Willard resigned his pastorate, having occupied the position for fourteen years. During this period he was often absent, rendering missionary service, for months at a time. He was in Vermont, in employ of the Baptist State Convention, and while he was away the house was closed — sometimes for six months — and opened at irregular intervals.

In 1833 it was offered to the Edwards Congregational Church, whose new church edifice graces the opposite side of the street, — a monument of sanctified benevolence to the extent of ninety-five thousand dollars. Just how many accessions were made under Mr. Willard's ministry, I am not able to discover. Some were added by baptism, some by letter and experience, so that at one time the number rose to sixty. Subsequently, it was so reduced by deaths, exclusions and dismissions, that there was serious apprehension of its becoming extinct. In 1835 it numbered thirty. The church was pastorless from the date of Mr. Willard's resignation till February 23, 1840.
— Historical Sketch of the Baptist Church in Northampton, Mass. Prepared in August and September, 1872, at the request of the Westfield Baptist Association.

The self-sacrifice and devotedness of the Baptist missionary in the prosecution of his ministerial labors, as evidenced in the above excerpts, together with a knowledge of the fact that Bro. Willard was Chaplain of the Grand Lodge throughout the entire period of the Anti-Masonic proscription, prompted the effort to learn something more of him than is related by the authorities quoted. It was desirable to know, at least, when and where he was born, and when and where he died. After many inquiries in one direction and another, the thought happily occurred that R.W. Bro. David W. Crafts, of Northampton, the scene at one time of Brother Willard's ministry, might render inquiry successful. He was appealed to. To his kind and ready assistance, the subjoined information should be credited : —

Brother Crafts sends an extract from the records of Jerusalem Lodge, Northampton, dated Feb. 18, 1823, by which it appears that "Mr. Benjamin Willard, a Baptist missionary, at present residing within this town, made application to be made a Mason." On that day he was received, passed and raised "without fees." The records also show that he attended the Lodge until 1829, and was its Chaplain during nearly all the time of his connection with it.

Truly, the Brotherhood were not behind the "two Christian Phoebes" in hospitality to the earnest, though opposed laborer in the vineyard of Him whose devoted servant he was. Much, no doubt, was due to his affiliation with Freemasonry, for his final triumph in planting the standard of his faith among a people prejudiced against the doctrines it was his mission to promulgate. Not that Freemasonry favored his denominational views; it only secured for him that moral support due to a good man, but necessary to the prosecution, under difficulties, of what he deemed a great and necessary work for the benefit of mankind.

Brother Crafts has also been so obliging as to forward a note which he received from Mrs. S. C. W. Gamwell, of Holyoke, the "second daughter of Rev. B. Willard." This epistle is in the highest degree interesting, and teems with recollections of her father, partly her own and partly those of older members of the family. From it the ensuing extracts are taken: —

. . . . "Being one of the youngest children, I remember little of our father's official life; yet he kept a journal always quite full in details of his public career, which we now have, and into which I have been looking a little this evening, so that I can now answer the questions you asked with sufficient accuracy perhaps; though, with more time, I might have found other data interesting for record."

"Benjamin Willard was born at Lancaster, Mass, Nov. 12, 1783, where he resided at the paternal homestead till manhood, and for many years after commencing his public ministry. Feeling undecided as to his duty or life-calling, he declined invitations for settlement, while alternately teaching and preaching to churches in that vicinity. He was not a graduate of any college, though a scholar, both classical and scientific."

" In 1822 he was employed as an agent by the Massachusetts Missionary Society, in which capacity he first visited Northampton. He subsequently assisted in organizing there a Baptist Church; was ordained as its pastor; and in 1824, removing his family thither, made it his residence till 1837, when the death of his wife caused the breaking up of a pleasant borne."

"He was for four years employed by the Vermont State Convention, travelling, preaching, and otherwise laboring with feeble, destitute churches in that State. During this time he married again; and his voice having become too weak for public speaking, and his health being in other respects too impaired for continuous mental labor, he came (temporarily as he then thought) for rest and recuperation to this place (Holyoke), then called 'Ireland Parish.' He never made another settlement as a pastor, or resumed preaching as a vocation, though he always preached as occasion prompted."

"In 1849, circumstances and inclinations drew him once more to Lancaster, his native place, where he resided for the next ten years, which proved most disastrous to him pecuniarily. Then, somewhat broken in health and spirits, he returned to Holyoke, at the solicitation of his wife, it being her native place and home. Here, living in a hired house, dependent on a son for means of support, he passed his remaining years in reading, writing for various publications, and in horticulture, for which he always had a fondness."

"Here he died Dec. 2, 1862, aged 79. His remains were carried to Northampton for burial, and laid beside the wife of his youth." . . . .

"Not long ago I was looking at our father's Masonic diploma or certificate of membership, and was surprised to find it of so early a date as Feb. 18, 1823, so soon after his going to Northampton. To-night, turning to this date in the volume of his journal for that year, I found his record of the event of his admission to Jerusalem Lodge at Northampton. His comments thereon were intensely interesting to me. I should like to quote some expressions contained in the record. I found it difficult to realize that the event had occurred, and the account of it was written, fifty-one years ago."

"Pondering on this record, I was reminded of some things I heard from my mother when I was a child; told not to me of course, but to an adult friend with whom she was talking, concerning the abuse and persecution which father had received because of his belief and profession as a Mason; ministering brethren and others declaring that they could no more fellowship him; could never hear him preach, or listen to a prayer from him again; and such denunciations as shocked me then, though I understood naught of it all. I also remember her quoting Saint Paul's assertion, 'If meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth,' adding, that father, on this principle, had felt that it might be his duty to refrain, for a time, at least, from joining in processions, public meetings, etc., of the Fraternity, and from much that he would otherwise do and enjoy. Memory retained the impressions of ideas received from this conversation; of course not exactly of words used, but understanding them as I now do, I think I give both correctly. I have often wondered whether father resumed such intercourse and action after that period of excitement passed. I am now much interested in the Order, as some of my dearest friends belong to it."

The widow of Brother Willard still survives at the great age of 87 years. Her home is in Holyoke, Mass.

From the website First Churches:

In August of 1822, Benjamin Willard (1783-1862), an itinerant missionary of the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society, arrived in Northampton, Massachusetts. Mr. Willard circulated a few copies of the Baptist Magazine, and noted [in his papers]: “visited several families and witnessed some attention.” Despite the determined hostility of the First Church (Congregational) minister and most of the town establishment, Northampton experienced its first vigorous testament to experimental religion since the departure of Jonathan Edwards in 1750.

Preaching in an old tenement on South Street, Benjamin Willard slowly organized a Baptist Church, with the help of Rev. Thomas Rand of West Springfield and Baptists from the West Farms area of Northampton. In 1823, Benjamin Willard was ordained in the newly formed First (Baptist) Church. A few months later, in January of 1824, he baptized two young people “thro the ice” with over 2000 curious Northampton onlookers. On April 25, 1826, 44 men and 26 women approved a Church Covenant and chose two deacons. That summer, in July of 1826, The Baptist Association Church Council formally recognized the First Baptist Church of Northampton. Rev. Willard resigned in 1838 to do evangelical work in Vermont. He died in Holyoke, Dec. 2, 1862, at the age of 72.

Distinguished Brothers