One persistent story regarding St. Anne’s Church is that women employed in the textile mills of Lowell were required to “rent pews” for which they were required to “pay 37 ½ cents a month” to the companies to support the church. In attempt to verify this story, a careful investigation of the history of St. Anne’s Church and the general history of Massachusetts Public Worship Tax was initiated.
In 1822, shortly after Boston investors purchased the Pawtucket Canal and surrounding lands, there were about 200 men, women, and children in the small farming community of East Chelmsford. Most attended a church on the north side of the Merrimack River – the Pawtucket (Congregational) Society Church. By November 1823, when the Merrimack Manufacturing Company began producing cloth, several hundred men and women had moved to the area to work. Many of these workers would travel on Sundays in large rented wagons to the Pawtucket Society Church.
Merrimack Religious Society
In February 1824, Massachusetts law empowered justices of the peace to organize religious societies. On February 16, 1824, Cyrus Baldwin of Chelmsford issued such a warrant upon receiving an application from Kirk Boott and eleven others to establish a religious society in East Chelmsford. The Board of Directors of the Merrimack Company encouraged the formation of this society in hopes of attracting a better class of workers. They supported this religious society by providing space for worship in the upper rooms of the Merrimack Company schoolhouse. One year later there were 97 men who had become members of the Merrimack Religious Society. These members were Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Universalists from Chelmsford, Dracut, and Tewksbury.
Reverend Edson’s Selection:
In February 1824, William Appleton, an original member of the Merrimack Company Board of Directors and Kirk Boott, agent of the Merrimack Company visited Reverend Theodore Edson in Boston. They asked Edson to hold worship services for the growing community in East Chelmsford for a few Sundays. Appleton and Boott emphasized that these services be nondenominational and acceptable to the greatest number of people. Edson agreed and then traveled to Lowell on March 6, 1824, to preach to the members of the Merrimack Religious Society.
Massachusetts Public Worship Tax
Later in March, after hearing Edson preach for several Sundays, 73 subscribers (all men) petitioned the town of Chelmsford to have the reverend as their minister and to pay the Commonwealth Public Worship Tax to him through the Merrimack Company rather to the Town of Chelmsford. (The Massachusetts Public Worship Tax was a colonial tax levied to support Protestant churches and ministers. Such a request provides evidence that the petitioners desired to have greater control on the allocation of these taxes. The Massachusetts legislature ended this tax in 1833.)
The Stone Church
In 1824, the Board of Directors of the Merrimack Company authorized the construction of the Stone Church under the direction of Kirk Boott. The final decision regarding the form of worship and the minister was still under discussion by the Merrimack Company Board of Directors in early 1825. The Episcopal society was fairly small in Massachusetts, and although a few Directors were Episcopalians, the majority were Unitarians. According to contemporary accounts by Dr. John Green, “the fact that their agent, Kirk Boott, and his family were Church (Episcopalians) people had its influence.” The success of Edson in the first year was also a factor in the selection of the form of worship and minister. In February 1825, Reverend Theodore Edson was sponsored as a Priest, and on March 16, 1825, the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts consecrated the Stone Church as a Protestant Episcopal Church – St. Anne’s.
From April 1824 to November 1827, Edson received his salary directly from the Merrimack Company under the Commonwealth of public worship tax. The Merrimack Company retained from its operatives (it is unclear if the Commonwealth public worship tax applied to women, but it seems to apply only to men) 37 ½ cents quarterly = $1.50 annually for the support of public worship. In his diary, Theodore Edson reports during the Sunday service on May 6, 1827 there were “26 present and those who may be reckoned communicants here are as follows, Kirk Boott, Anne Boott, Rebecca J. Edson, Mary Batchelder, Sarah C. Livermore, Mr. Currier, Joel Lewis, Mrs. Green, Erina Bridge, Hepzibah Bridge, Martha Bridge, Nancy Bridge, Chloe Sprague.” In 1827, the population in Lowell was about 3,000 including 1,200 textile workers (1,080 female and 120 male). Immediately after the opening of the Baptist, Congregational, and Methodist Churches in Lowell, very few people were attending St. Anne’s Church. Although many women rented pews in the Baptist, Congregational, Methodist Churches, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church Records show those renting pews were exclusively men. In St. Anne’s Church Records women were listed as communicants from the beginning, but were not allowed membership until 1924.
Beethoven Musical Society
It is difficult to find participation on the part of female operatives in the Merrimack Religious Society. However, there is some evidence of female operatives participating in the Beethoven Musical Society organized in September 1824 by 75 men and 53 invited women. Members of this singing society were Baptists, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists from Dracut, Chelmsford, and Tewksbury. They formed a “social contract for the purpose of improving themselves in the science of scared music and for the promotion of harmony in the duties which may be assigned as a musical society in the congregation that will worship in the Stone Church, now being built in this place.” Initial research of the invited female members of this society indicates that the majority were from families in the area. So far, the only exception is Deborah Skinner; the first weaver brought to the Merrimack Company from Waltham, Massachusetts. Additional research is necessary but the involvement of female operatives in this organization seems limited. The singing society dissolved in September 1827.
Reorganization of St. Anne’s
In early 1827, Edson expressed his discouragement at the loss of men and women attending St. Anne’s Church as Baptist, Methodist, and Congregational societies were organized with financial support from the corporations. In October 1827, a committee of the Merrimack Religious Society was formed to request separation from the Merrimack Company. In a letter to Edson, Boott disapproved of this request expressing concern regarding the financial stability of the Society. He also noted that the current strong religious excitement, which had drawn members from the Society, might fade.
The Society ignored Boott’s recommendation and continued with the reorganization. The obligation of Edson’s salary was transferred from Merrimack Company to the Merrimack Religious Society, and the Society entered into a lease with the Merrimack Company for the church and parsonage buildings. Kirk Boott was not among the subscribers for St. Anne’s new organ in 1827 and 1828. Kirk Boott left St. Anne’s Church and joined the Universalist Church about 1830. In 1831, the Merrimack Religious Society was renamed The Congregation of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church.
There is no evidence that women rented pews in the early years at St. Anne’s Church. Furthermore deducting money from wages to support the church was not a decision made by the textile companies, but required by the Massachusetts Public Worship Tax until 1833. There is no evidence that the companies continued gathering the public worship tax after 1833. The question remains, what is the likelihood that women employees, between 1824-1833, were subjected to the Massachusetts Public Worship Tax? Since there were no women on the petition to form the Merrimack Religious Society and there were no women on the petition to the town of Chelmsford to transfer the collection of tax to the Merrimack Company, it seems unlikely that women would be taxed without representation.
What do these corrections to an old persistent story mean? One conclusion is that although Lowell’s textile corporations strongly urged its workers to attend religious services and uphold the Sabbath, these corporations did not require workers to spend their wages in support of any particular church or religious society. Furthermore, there is a genuine and deep reluctance to acknowledge any story as myth. Perhaps acknowledging this particular myth is seen as diminishing the power of the textile companies and placing more power in the hands of the workers. Nevertheless, the early history is certainly much more complex than the myths suggest with both management and employees involved in shaping the institutions and foundations of Lowell.