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Behind the Museum – Rev. John White’s Rectory, Colliton Street, Dorchester, Dorset

Mark North © DCM 2014

An article written by Captain J. E. Acland taken from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Volume 42, 1922 concerning 'The Founding of Dorchester, Massachusetts and the Rev. John White'

The founding of Dorchester, Mass., dates from the year 1630, i.e., ten years later than the better known expedition of the Mayflower to Province-town and Plymouth. The movement that induced "The Pilgrims," to leave their homes, and face the risks and hardships of the "Great Enterprise," was in its origin of a definitely religious character, thus quaintly recorded by a chronicler of the period. He writes - "When many most godly and religious people that dissented from the way of worship then established by law in the realm of England were being denied the free exercise of religion after the manner they professed according to the light of God's Word, and their own consciences, they did remove themselves and their families into the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, that they might Worship God without any burthensome impositions, which was the very motive and cause of their coming." 

In connection with this Puritan (or Separatist) movement, definite and combined action may be traced as early as 1607, when William Brewster, a gentleman of good social position, organized a Church of Puritans at the little village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, where "on the Lord's Day he entertained the members with great love" in the Manor House. William Bradford of the near-by village, Austerfield, who became afterwards Governor of Plymouth (Mass.), was closely allied with Brewster in this movement. In the following year, 1608, being threatened with imprisonment (for the Act of 1593 made Puritanism an offence against the Statute law), they and their friends left England for Amsterdam, under the leadership of Rev. John Robinson, removing to Ley den in Holland in 1609. Not wishing to lose their English nationality, which must have been the case had they remained in Holland, they once more started on their travels, sailing to Southampton in the Speedwell, August, 1620. Here they found other Puritan Pilgrims waiting for them in the Mayflower with the object of crossing the Atlantic, and founding new Colonies in a new land, with freedom of laws and religion which they could not hope for at home. The Mayflower and Speedwell started down channel in company, but after delays at Dartmouth and Plymouth, Speedwell was finally abandoned, some of her passengers being taken on board Mayflower, which little vessel of 180 tons, with 102 passengers, left Plymouth on 6th September, and after a dangerous voyage reached Provincetown, Cape Cod Harbour, on 21st November, and New Plymouth, 21st December, (N.S.) 1620. Although, up to this time, Dorset had made no important contribution to the flow of settlers into the New Country, there can be no doubt that the movement was coming more and more under the influence of the Rev. John White, Rector of S. Peter's and Holy Trinity, 1606 - 1648, " Patriarch of Dorchester," known later as “Father of the Massachusetts Colony." Born at Stanton St. John in Oxfordshire in 1575, he was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxon, being elected Fellow of the College, 1595. A man of conspicuous piety, learning, and power, a moderate but earnest Puritan, he was in touch with the struggle for religious freedom from its earliest days. Living in Dorchester at the time, he would have been specially interested in the emigrations of the “Pilgrims" from the Southern ports, Southampton, Weymouth and Plymouth, and gave both sympathy and assistance to the original emigration in the Mayflower. In 1623 he personally organized the formation of a trading post," or station for fishing vessels, at Cape Ann, under Roger Conant. Near the spot where the first settlers landed there is now a fine bronze tablet set in a rock at State Fort Park, with the words

‘On this site in 1623 a Company of Fishermen and Farmers from Dorchester, England, under the direction of the Rev. John White, founded this Massachusets Bay Colony.’

About 20 years later, this Cape Ann settlement was given the name "Gloucester," as at that time a large number of emigrants from the English town of that name had arrived there. White next devoted all his energies to the acquisition of a Massachusetts Bay Charter, a most important event in the history of New England; it being mainly due to his skill and perseverance that the Company was ultimately formed. He journeyed frequently to London to create and cement the great alliance between the wealthy London merchants, and the seamen of the West of England. Before the final consummation of this work, other enterprises closely connected with Dorchester and Dorset were undertaken by Parson White, which prepared the way for future developments. The founding of Charlestown, in which the Spragues of Upwey took a leading part, is recorded in a pamphlet written by Mr. Henry Sprague, published in Boston, U.S.A., in 1910. He proves by evidence from early records that the first permanent settlement in Massachusetts Bay was due to three brothers, Ralph, Richard, and William Sprague, sailing from Weymouth in the Abigail in June, 1628, reaching Naumkeag (now Salem) on 6th September. He quotes from an independent historical account of the settlement, (John Greene, appointed to transcribe the records of Charlestown, at a meeting of the Select men, 18lh April, 1664) that " the inhabitants that first settled in this place, and brought it into the denomination of an English town, was in Anno 1628, as follows, viz.:—Ralph, Richard and William Sprague, John Meech, Simon Hoyte, Abraham Palmer, Walter Pamer, Nicholas Stowers, John Stickline, with Mr. Bright, Minister to the Company." The father of the three brothers was Mr. Edward Sprague, a fuller, and owner of the old mill at Upwey. There seems little doubt that the Spragues went out in the Abigail with John Endecott, himself a native of Dorchester, selected as supervisor of a Company organized by J. White (more or less in the Puritan interest) for the purchase of land between the Merrimac and Charles Rivers. They would have been of great assistance in promoting this undertaking, being described as men of “character, substance and enterprise, excellent citizens, and generous public benefactors." In the following year, 1629, his Company was re-inforced by emigrants filling three ships, one of them called the Lyon's Whelp, consisting entirely of passengers from Weymouth and Dorchester. Endecott had full power to take charge of the plantation, and to begin the " Wildernesse work." As a ruler he was zealous and courageous, behaving to the Indians with marked justice. It is recorded of him that, together with his Puritan Council, he objected to the growing of tobacco, as they " believed such a production, except for medicinal purposes, was injurious both to health and morals." They also insisted on the abolition of the use of the Book of Common Prayer, Endecott earning the title of " Puritan of Puritans." He exercised the chief authority as Deputy Governor, until the arrival of John Winthrop, the lirst Governor elected under the Charter of the home authorities. The original Mass. Plantation thus became a self-governing community, by: Royal Charter, sealed 4th March, 1629, to the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay, in New England. The embarkation of Winthrop and his company from Yarmouth in the Arbella, in March 1630, was the occasion of the issue of a remarkable letter entitled "The humble request of his Majesties Loyall subjects, the Governor and the Company late gone for New England, to the rest of their brethren in and of the Church of England for the obtaining of their prayers and the removal of suspitions, and misconstruction of their intentions." It was printed in London, in all probability drawn up by John White himself, although not one of the emigrants, being in fact a formal leavetaking, and exhibits very clearly the spirit in which the enterprise was undertaken. It has been re-printed, facsimile, by the New England Society of New York, a copy being presented to our Museum Library by the John Carter-Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island, from which a few extracts are now taken, of special interest with reference to the reputed author. It begins " Reverend Fathers and Brethren, the general rumour of this solemn Enterprise, wherein ourselves with others are ingaged, as it may spare us the labour of imparting our occasion unto you, so it gives us the more incouragement to strengthen ourselves by the procurement of the prayers and blessings of the Lord's faithfull servants...... We beseech you therefore lo consider us as your Brethren, standing in very great need of your helpe, and earnestly imploring it." "And howsoever your charity may have met with some occasion of discouragement through the misreport of our intentions, or through the disaffection, or indiscretion, of some of us, or rather amongst us, yet ws desire you would be pleased to take notice of the principals and body of our company as those who esteemc it our honour to call the Church of England from whence we rise our deare Mother, and cannot part from our native Countrie where she specially resideth without much sadness of heart and many teares in our eyes........ Bepleased therefore Reverend Fathers and Brethren to helpe forward this worke now in hand, which if it prosper you shall bee the more glorious." "It is an usual and laudable exercise of your charity to commend to the prayers of your congregations the necessities and straights of your private neighbours ; Doe the like for a Church springing out of your own bowels......... What goodness you shall exiend to us in this or any other Christian kindness, wee shall labour to repay in what dutie wee are or shall be able to performe, promising, so farre as God shall enable us, to give him no rest on your behalfes, wishing our heads and hearts may be as fountaines of teares for your everlasting welfare, when wee shall be in our poore Cottages in the wildernesse, overshadowed with the spirit of supplication through the manifold necessities and tribulations which may not altogether unexpectedly, nor, we hope, unprofitably befall us. Your assured Friends and Brethren From Yarmouth Jo. Winthrope, Gov. Rich. Saltonstall aboard the Arbella Charles Fines Isaac Johnson April 7, 1630 George Philips Tho. Dudley &c. William Coddington"

About a month in advance of the Arbella, a company met at Plymouth, where the Mary and John, a vessel of 400 tons, had been chartered for the voyage, the first ship of the fleet of 1630 to arrive in Massachusetts Bay. These are the Pilgrims that are termed the " Founders of Dorchester." Among them were, Roger Clap, Henry Wolcott, Thomas Ford, George Dyer, William Gaylord, William Phelps, William Rockwell, Israel Stoughton, George Minot, George Hall, Richard Collicott, Nathaniel Duncan, and Captains Mason and Southcote. The 17th June, 1630, (N.S.) may be safely named as the official birthday of our namesake in Massachusetts. It is fixed by two reliable authorities. In the First Parish Church, Dorchester, is a tablet bearing the following inscription :—

“Dorchester, named from the town of Dorchester in Dorset, England. The first settlers sailed from Plymouth, England in the Mary and John, one of the Winthrop fleet, March 20, 1630, arrived at Nantasket, now Hull, May 30, and landed in Dorchester June 6, 1630.(These dates are Old Style.) "

Also, at the great gathering in Dorchester to celebrate the 250th aniversary of the planting of the Church, and foundation of the Town, the 17th June (N.S.), was the date observed. Thus as the Mayflower stands in history for the founding of the New England States at Provincetown and Plymouth, so does the Mary and John mark the commencement of the colony of Massachusetts Bay, composed for the most part of emigrants from Dorset and the Western Counties. When she was ready to leave Plymouth, John White was on the spot to speed the Pilgrims on their way. Although the commercial aspect of the emigration was not forgotten, the religious character of the movement was always kept in view. A proof of this is the fact that before leaving these shores the Pilgrims on the Mary and John selected their pastors, and organized themselves as a Christian Church. One of the passengers has left on record that " a solemn day of fasting and prayer was held, and that Mr. John White of Dorchester was present and did preach unto us the Word of God; the people did solemnly make choice of and call those godly ministers to be their officers, so also the Rev. Mr. Warham and Mr. Maverick did accept thereof, and expressed the same." Two hundred and fifty years after this scene was enacted, two great religious gatherings took place in The First Church and Parish, Dorchester, Mass., on 31st March, and 17th June, 1880, to commemorate the gathering of the Church at Plymouth (just mentioned), and the arrival of the Dorset Colonists in America. The celebration was an important event, the Governor of the State being present, with his staff, and also the pastors of the Dorchester and Boston Churches and many descendants of the early settlers. An address was delivered by Rev. Dr. Hale, an authority on the early history of New England, who pronounced with no uncertain voice the debt they owed to John White. He said:- “If we build statues to our heroes and founders, it would be to John White of Dorchester, the founder of Massachusetts, that we should build the first. Let him be clad in his ministerial robes and bands, as when he spoke his farewell to the colonists. Let him bear in his hand the Sacred Book he was so fond of illustrating. So let us show who conceived the idea of this free State, and who was the very hero who called this free State into existence. Do not think simply of Dorchester. Let us remember that it is the birth of Massachusetts that we are celebrating. It is the birth of the Colony of the Bay that we are celebrating. The hero of the Colony, the founder of the Colony, is John White of Dorchester, England." It was he who made the great alliance between the London Merchants and the sea-men of the West of England. It was he who taught Old England what it was which was waiting for them in the pre-emption of New England. It was John White who blew that Gospel trumpet. (Gather yourselves together, your wives and little ones, the people of Christ oppressed and denied, and be shipped for His Service in the Western world, the united colonies of New England). Yes - John White is the hero of this day," Grand words surely for us to remember, a testimony to his character and life work that had stood the test of two centuries and a half, uttered by one who had personal and impartial experience of the fruitfulness of his labours.

Another glimpse into his personality is given by Thomas Fuller, a contemporary (1608—1661) and indeed Rector of the Dorset parish of Broadwindsor, who gives a characteristic sketch of White in the Worthies of England. "A grave man, yet without moroseness, as he would willingly contribute his shot of facetiousness on any just occasion. A constant preacher, so that in the course of his ministry he expounded the Scripture all over, and half over again, having an excellent faculty in the clear solid interpreting thereof. A good governor, by whose wisdom the town of Dorchester was much enriched; knowledge causing piety, piety breeding industry, industry procuring plenty unto it. He absolutely commanded his own passions and the purses of his parishioners, whom he could wind up to what height he pleased on all important occasions."

Verily he had "a strong sway in the town" as is recorded of him in the porch of St. Peter's Church. There is not much more to be said of Master White and his connection with the Puritan emigration. Our Dorchester declared for the Parliament party at the commencement of the Civil War, with which the Puritan Patriarch would have agreed most heartily. In 1642 a troop of Prince Rupert's Horse attacked the town, broke into Parson White's house, carrying off or destroying his books. Taking refuge in London he was given duty as Minister of the Savoy, and Rector of Lambeth, being appointed also one of the Westminster "Assembly of Divines." He was able, however,, to return to his old home and Rectory, where he died 21st July, 1648, and was buried in the Porch of the Church of St. Peter. Another Memorial to the "Patriarch of Dorchester " may be seen in Holy Trinity Church, Dorchester. An oak panel at the West end of the Church gives a list of Rectors dating from the year 1302 A.D. (The two parishes of Holy Trinity and S. Peter having been united down to 1824 A.D.). It is recorded that this panel, erected in 1902, is " In Memory of the Rev. John White, 45 years Rector of Holy Trinity and St. Peter's, Dorchester, by Members of Holy Trinity Church and those who revere his memory in Dorchester, Massachusetts." Names of Ships trading from England to America, 1620, onwards.

Speedwell

James - from Bristol

Mayflower

Elizabeth

Mary and John

Hercules

Abigail

John and Dorothy

Arbella

The Rose

Lyon's Whelp

Defence

Sparrowhawk - wrecked

James

Books consulted in preparing this paper.

  • Founding of Charlestown, by H. H. Sprague, Boston, U.S.A., 1910.
  • Proceedings at the 250th Aniversary of First Church and Parish, Dorchester, Mass., Boston, U.S.A., 1880.
  • Towns of New England and Old England, State Street Trust Company, Boston, 1920.
  • History of Dorchester, Antiquarian and Historical Soc., Boston, 1859.
  • Narrative History of Good Old Dorchester, Orcutt.

Related Links:

Good Old Dorchester by William Dana Orcutt - 1893

The Pioneers of Massachusetts by Charles Henry Pope - 1900