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Saint Anne's Church and the Rev. Theodore Edson

Saint Anne's Church and the Rev. Theodore Edson

by Martha Mayo



One persistent story regarding Lowell’s female textile workers is that Kirk Boott, Agent of the Merrimack Company required all operatives to pay “pew rent” and “37 ½ cent monthly fee” in support of his church, St. Anne’s. In attempt to verify this story, a careful investigation of the history of St. Anne’s Church and the general history of the 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 the church on the north side of the Merrimack River – Pawtucket (Congregational) Society Church. By November 1823, when the Merrimack Manufacturing Company began producing cloth, several hundred additional men and women had moved to this 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, the Massachusetts legislature expanded the power to organize religious societies to justices of the peace. On February 16, 1824, Cyrus Baldwin (Chelmsford Justice of the Peace) issued a warrant in response to an application by Kirk Boott and eleven others to form the Merrimack Religious Society located in East Chelmsford.1 The Board of Directors of the Merrimack Company encouraged the establishment of this Society in hopes of attracting a better class of workers. In addition, they supported this religious society by providing space for worship in the upper rooms of the Merrimack Company schoolhouse.2 Within a year, 97 men had become members of the Merrimack Religious Society, it should be noted that women were not allowed membership.3 These male members were Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Universalists from Chelmsford, Dracut, and Tewksbury.4


1 Consecration of St. Anne’s Church by John O. Green. Contributions Vol. 3

2 Saint Anne’s Church Centennial Anniversary 1825-1925 by Wilson Waters, p. 23. The Board of Directors of The Proprietors of Locks and Canals would continue to provide support and land to other religious societies – Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, and Catholic

3 Contribution vol., p. 164

4 Edson’s Diary, 1824; Town histories. 


Edson’s Selection:

In February 1824, the Merrimack Company Board of Directors sent William Appleton, Board member and Kirk Boott, Agent to invite Theodore Edson a divinity student in Boston to hold worship services in East Chelmsford for a trial period. They expressed the Board’s wish that services be acceptable to the greatest number of people.5 Edson traveled to East Chelmsford on March 6, 1824, to preach to members of the newly formed Merrimack Religious Society.6

Massachusetts Public Worship Tax

Later in March, after hearing Edson preach for several Sundays, 73 subscribers (all men) successfully petitioned the town of Chelmsford to approve Edson and to pay the Commonwealth Public Worship Tax to him through the Merrimack Company rather than through Chelmsford.7 Dating from the colonial period, the Massachusetts Public Worship Tax was levied to support Protestant churches and ministers. This petition seems to indicate the petitioners desire to have greater control over the collect and distribution of their taxes. Massachusetts was the last state to abolish this tax in 1833.

The Stone Church

In 1824, the Merrimack Company Board of Directors 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 Board in early 1825. The Episcopal society was fairly small in Massachusetts, and although a few Directors were Episcopalian, the majority were Unitarians. Their decision was influenced by the fact that their agent, Kirk Boott, and his family were Episcopalians. The success of Edson first year was also a factor in the selection of the form of worship and minister. In February 1825, Theodore Edson was formally ordained “Priest,” and on March 16, 1825, the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts consecrates the Stone Church as the Protestant Episcopal Church – St. Anne’s.8 From April 1824 to November 1827, Edson received his salary directly from the Merrimack Company under the Commonwealth Public Worship Tax. The Merrimack Company retained from its operatives (the Commonwealth Public Worship Tax seemed to apply only to men) 37 ½ cents quarterly ($1.50 annually) for the support of public worship.9

New Churches

Lowell was incorporated as a Town in 1826 and a year later the population was about 3,000 including 1,200 textile workers (1,080 female and 120 male). In 1826 and 1827, several new churches opened: First Baptist Church 1826, First Congregational Church 1826, First Universalist Church 1826, and Methodist Church 1827.10 With the opening of

5 50th Anniversary Sermon by Edson, 1875

6 Edson’s Diary, March 6, 1824

7 Edson’s Diary, March 19, 1824; Contributions Vol. 3

8 Saint Anne’s by Waters, p. 23

9 Ibid, p. 33

10 City Directory, 1833 organized: Baptist Church 1826, Congregational Church 1826, Universalist Church 1826, and Methodist Church 1827


these new churches, attendance at St. Anne’s Church dropped dramatically. According to Edson, Sunday service on May 6, 1827 saw only “26 present and those who may be reckoned communicants here (13) 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.”11 Although many women rented pews in the newly formed churches, St. Anne’s records show only men rented pews.12 St. Anne’s records list women as communicants from the beginning, but they were not allowed membership until 1924.13

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 textile workers 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 members of families in the area. So far, the only exception is Deborah Skinner; the first weaver brought from Waltham, MA to work in the Merrimack Company. Additional research is necessary but the involvement of female operatives in this organization seems very limited. During 1826 and 1827, many members of this non-denominational group left to join one of the newly formed churches. The Beethoven Musical Society formally dissolved in September 1827.14

Reorganization of St. Anne’s

In early 1827, Edson expressed his discouragement at the loss of those attending St. Anne’s and seriously contemplated leaving Lowell.15 In an effort to sustain an Episcopal church in Lowell, a committee of the Merrimack Religious Society was formed in October 1827 to request separation from the Merrimack Company. In a letter to Edson, Boott disapproved of this request expressing concern for the financial stability of the Society. He also noted that the current strong religious excitement,16 which had drawn members from the Society, might pass.17

The Society ignored Boott’s recommendation and continued with their plans for reorganization. The obligation of Edson’s salary was transferred from the Merrimack

11 Edson’s Diary

12 Saint Anne’s Church Records, 1824-

13 Saint Anne’s By-laws, 1924

14 Saint Anne’s by Waters, p. 163-167

15 Edson’s Diary, 1827

16 City Directory, 1833 organized: Baptist Church 1826, Congregational Church 1826, Universalist Church 1826, and Methodist Church 1827

17 Saint Anne’s by Waters, p. 34


Company to the Merrimack Religious Society, and the Society entered into a lease with the Merrimack Company for the church and parsonage buildings.18 Kirk Boott was not pleased. He was not among the subscribers for St. Anne’s new organ in 1827 and 182819 and finally about 1830 he left St. Anne’s Church and joined the Universalist Church. In 1831, the Merrimack Religious Society was renamed “The Congregation of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church.”20


The evidence is clear; women did not rent pews at St. Anne’s Church. Furthermore, collecting money to support churches and ministers was not a decision made by the textile companies, but required by the Massachusetts legislature until 1833. There is no evidence that textile companies continued collecting the tax for public worship after 1833. One question remains, were women textile workers required to pay the Massachusetts Public Worship Tax? I believe it is unlikely, given the evidence: women did not sign the petition to organize the Merrimack Religious Society, women did not sign the petition to transfer the collection of the Massachusetts Public Worship Tax from the town of Chelmsford to the Merrimack Company, and as yet here are no accounts of women paying the Massachusetts Public Worship Tax.

What do these corrections to an old persistent story mean? I believe there is an overwhelming desire on the part historians and laymen to embrace a certain degree of mythology regarding Lowell’s early textile period. “The corporations were evil and the workers were victims.” 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. Additional Note: Although not addressed in the brief piece, there is a lingering question regarding how ridged the corporations were in their policy of church attendance. Religion was an integral part of life in the mid-1800s. Attending church was encouraged and supported and expected as much by the employees as by management, there is no evidence in letters, diaries, and articles that any action was taken because workers did not attend church. 21 To use this policy as an example of corporate control or even corporate paternalism may not be accurate.

18 Ibid, p. 34

19 Ibid, p. 63

20 Ibid, p. 37

21 Letter: Mary Lucinda Hovey to Elizabeth M. Stevens, August 8, 1847 - “the old woman [ed: boardinghouse keeper] makes or tries to make us all go to meeting but you see she can’t drive me and she has almost given up the idea that she can...”