History Moment The Backstory on our church founders and specifically, Samuel Page Fowler.
There was quite a variety of people who came together to begin worshipping here. First, there are the names for 42 members who were “dismissed” from First Church in the Highlands, which included Samuel Fowler. Then there were 12 other men, not members of First Church, who gathered with them in the spring of 1844 to set up committees to form the new church. Finally, there were 12 additional men and women who came from area towns, dismissed from churches as far away as Moultonborough, NH who banded together for this new Christian endeavor that would originally be called Third Orthodox Congregational Church. All told, there were at least 66 men and women who gathered in the freshly built church on January 22nd, 1845 to hear the dedication sermon of Reverend Richard Tolman. It has yet to be determined how many children were in tow but it certainly was a hearty gathering for our opening day!
Samuel Page Fowler was born in 1800 to a wealthy family with business interests both in Salem and Danversport, which was then called the New Mills section of Danvers. His father, Samuel Page Fowler Jr., owned one of the largest leather tanning businesses in New England, an operation on Liberty Street of about 450 tanning vats. His grandfather, Samuel Page, was a shipping merchant who owned 13 schooners and other vessels, with interests in Salem wharves and local iron foundries. His great grandfather, Colonel Jeremiah Page, Danvers Revolutionary War hero, lived until Samuel Page Fowler was 4 years old. It was Colonel Page in 1787 who first proposed Danvers be divided into school districts, placing school houses throughout the town.
Young Samuel Fowler was a very fortunate child, with family role models, hero stories and other advantages of his upbringing. Business success, community leadership and strong civic character ran deep in his heritage.
Despite the success of Colonel Page’s support of schools it’s important to note there was no high school to attend during Fowler’s youth in Danvers. Perhaps more surprising, between 1800 and 1850 there was a total of 11 pupils from Danvers schools who attended and graduated from college. Samuel Page Fowler was not among them but he was a great success as a self-taught amateur scholar so common in America at that time.
It’s easy to reduce his accomplishments to a list, as the record of his service and dedication is massive:
Beginning in the 1830’s he was a Danvers Selectman, Assessor, Overseer of the Poor, Town Meeting Moderator and School Committee member
He was elected Danvers Representative to the Massachusetts Legislature and later, a Danvers delegate to update the State Constitution in 1853
He was among the Founders of the Essex County Natural History Society and the Essex Institute which he served as Vice President and Curator
In 1866, he was a founding Trustee of the Peabody Institute Library, serving as President and member of the Board until his death in 1888
But what inspired him to become a leader in the break with First Church? Through the years Maple Street Church has carried the belief that opinions about slavery played a role in forming our church. Did Samuel Fowler share a position on the abolition of slavery that served as a guiding force for our founders?
By the time Fowler joined First Church in 1832 a national debate was raging around the anti-slavery movement. The message from the pulpit of Reverend Milton Braman at First Church did not support the “Immediatist” position of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, which called for all elected officials to act on the immediate abolition of slavery and manumission or freeing of all slaves. One review of Braman’s preaching said “He did not approve of the particular measures that some were ready to adopt for (the) removal (of slavery)”. 1
We do have one record that shows that Samuel Fowler could indeed have held differing views to Rev. Braman regarding abolition. In 1838 the Essex County Anti-Slavery Society held a convention in Danvers under the banner “An Address to the Voters on Their Duty to the Enslaved”. There were 110 delegates from surrounding towns who pledged to endorse only candidates for office who supported immediate abolition. On the listing of 36 Danvers delegates, Samuel Fowler was at the top of the list. Two other delegates were also First Church members and supported the “Immediatist” position. They were Deacon Frederick Howe and Warren Sheldon. 2 In a little over 5 years after this Convention these three men, Fowler, Howe, and Sheldon, would leave First Church and help lay the plans to start our congregation.
Our founding in 1844 was definitely done in the thick of the controversy on slavery. While Samuel Page Fowler was the most esteemed of our founders there may be other roles he played and deeper connections to be discovered in our historical records.
1 Rev. Charles B. Rice, The Proceedings at the Celebration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the First Parish at Salem Village, Now Danvers, October 8, 1872. Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1874. p.141.
2 “Proceedings of the Essex County Anti-Slavery Convention Held at Danvers, October 24, 1838”. Salem: Printed at the Gazette Office, 1838.