Seth Chandler (December 2, 1806-October 4, 1889) was a Universalist minister, one of the leaders of the Restorationist Controversy within the denomination, minister of the First Parish Congregational Society (Unitarian) in Shirley, Massachusetts for forty-five years, and the author of the first significant history of the town.
He was born in New Ipswich, New Hampshire to Roger and Lydia (Marshall) Chandler. His parents ran their own farm and his father did odd jobs when they were available, such as helping to dig sections of the Middlesex Canal. Seth’s education was at the town’s public school. When he turned seventeen he moved to Waltham, Massachusetts to work in a machine shop. He did so because he was “weary of the monotony of work and life on the family farm.” Later he moved to a similar position in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts.
In Lowell, Chandler attended the Universalist Church and heard its message of “Universal Salvation.” Convinced that it was the religion that made sense, he soon joined. When he was twenty-three, he decided to become one of its ministers. There were no Universalist seminaries or colleges so for the next three years, 1829-32, he trained for the ministry by assisting Adin Ballou, the Universalist minister in Milford, Massachusetts.
Adin Ballou was a leading member of the Massachusetts Association of Universal Restorationists, which taught that while all humankind would be saved, sinners would first suffer a period of limited punishment for their actions. Hosea Ballou, a distant relative, and the foremost Universalist theologian of the day, opposed this idea insisting everyone would be immediately saved when they died. The result was a controversy, which almost split the new denomination. Eventually, however, the Restorationist position triumphed. Chandler was a Restorationist and served for a time as secretary of the Restorationist Association.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Arvilla Tenney on August 16, 1831. They enjoyed fifty years together and while they had no children, they did have cats, for Arvilla loved them and always had a houseful.
The next year he was ordained at the Universal Friends Society, Medway Village, Massachusetts under the authority of the Providence Association of Universalists. His first parish was the nearby Universalist Church in Oxford, Massachusetts, one of the first Universalist churches in America. He was installed as their minister on May 25, 1833, but served for just a year because, as the Unitarian publication, The Christian Register, reported, “he did not agree with those of the denomination who confined the consequences of sin to this life.” In June of 1834 he accepted the position of minister with the First Parish Congregational Society (Unitarian) in the neighboring town of Shirley.
First Parish in Shirley traced its origins to the first religious gatherings in the town and while the society had flourished during the long pastorate of its first minister, Phineas Whitney, it floundered after his death. During the 1820s it barely survived. This was also the decade of the Unitarian controversy; Puritan congregations were split between Calvinists demanding strict adherence to covenants and Liberals who tolerated broader interpretations. In the majority, the Unitarian faction took over the Shirley parish society in 1828 while the minority, holding Puritan beliefs, left to form another church. This split furthered weakened the First Parish. Finally, in 1834, the members acted, held a successful fundraising campaign, and called Chandler to be their minister. His selection was approved by an ecclesiastical council of local neighboring ministers, which then installed him as minister December 14, 1836.
During most of his Shirley pastorate, the Chandlers lived on the northwest side of the town common directly opposite the church, which had been constructed in 1773. It had been built in the center of the common, but it was moved in 1851 to one side, a position its still occupies. In 1836 the building acquired a bell and, a decade later, a tracker organ. When the church closed in 1944, after a long period of dormancy, a local organization, the First Parish Meeting House Preservation Society was established to assume responsibility for maintaining it as an important part of the community’s heritage.
In his History of the Town of Shirley, Massachusetts (1883) Chandler wrote about the good relationship that existed between him and his Shirley congregation. “The length of Mr. Chandler’s ministry,” he said, “in these times of sensational preaching, fitful hearing and short engagements, is tolerable evidence that there have been mutual forbearances and mutual confidences between the parties, and mutual good feeling largely entertained during the entire continuance of the union.” He then gave statistics about the condition of the Society between 1834 and his resignation in 1879. When he started, he reported, the organization had just 26 members but during his pastorate he was able to add 109 new ones, baptize 146 persons, marry 574 couples, and bury 616 individuals. Chandler's ministry in Shirley was, in the words of Adin Ballou, “a position which he held and honored through a long and useful ministry.”
His preaching during this ministry reflected the traditional theology then the fare of many New England Unitarian ministers rather than the more controversial and radical views of either Ralph Waldo Emerson or Theodore Parker. Yet he did not limit himself to what can be described as strictly religious themes for some dealt with contemporary issues: “The Negro Question,” “Capital Punishment,” “Effects of Northern Abolitionism,” “The Political Crisis of 1862,” and “National Thanks Given for Victories.”
During his first fourteen years in Shirley, Chandler collected material for his history of the town. By 1848, with much of that research work done he became more involved with town government. He was a member of the School Committee, 1835-71, a trustee of the Honorable Leonard M. Parker Fund for the High School, 1856-89, and town treasurer, 1868-85. In addition, as one of the town’s clergy, he took part in various civic ceremonies including giving the “Prayer” and the “Benediction” when the corner-stone for the “town-house” was laid on July 5, 1847, delivering the “Address” a year later at its dedication, and in 1861 when Fort Sumter fell to the “rebel army” he invoked “the throne of grace in prayer” at the town meeting that was held to raise “a company of volunteers, to join the Fifty-third Regiment of Massachusetts Militia” in their efforts to preserve the union of American states.
The Reverend Loren B. Macdonald who served the Shirley society for two years during the 1880s summarized his ministry: “I estimated it a rare privilege to come into personal contact with one who represented, as he did, that old-time, unambitious, faithful devotion, which distinguished the life of many of the ministers of the past generation in our New England country parishes. The large library which Mr. Chandler had gathered and the extent of his information, especially upon historical subjects, proved him to have been a diligent student. He had not much sympathy with the modern, scientific view of the universe. His thought and language were moulded in forms familiar to an earlier generation.”
Seth Chandler retired as minister of the First Congregational Society in 1879 after forty-five years of pastoral care and service. Two years later Arvilla passed away. Chandler now finished writing and editing his History of the Town of Shirley, Massachusetts: From its Early Settlement to A.D. 1882 (1883).
He had collected material for the history from the start of his ministry. His carefully documented facts are one of the book’s leading values. His Shirley friend George A. Whitney, a relative of the parish’s first minister, initially encouraged him to pursue the history. Further encouragement came when he was elected a Corresponding Member of the New-England Historic Genealogical Society in 1845.
The Shirley history as with the other New England town histories then written, several of them by either Universalist or Unitarian ministers, focused primarily on the governmental and ecclesiastical history of the town. But just as important was its “genealogical“ section. The Universalist Quarterly and General Review, that denomination’s widely respected scholarly journal, declared, “The more such local works are increased the more reliable will be our future general histories; and to all who contemplate telling the story of their own town, we commend Mr. Chandler’s History of Shirley as affording a first-class model.”
Chandler died in 1889. His last words were “I have always wanted to live, for I have always enjoyed life so much, but now, in my suffering I am ready to go.” At his request his friend Richard Eddy, the notable Universalist historian and minister, officiated at his funeral service, which took place at the Shirley church on October 7. One hundred and twenty-five people were present.
The obituary in the Universalist Register said that he retained throughout his life a lasting sympathy with the “faith and methods” of Universalism. That belief, and his friendship with its historian, Richard Eddy, led him in his will to bequeath “to the Universalist Historical Society about six hundred valuable books, embracing the periodical literature of the Restorationists.” Those books and periodicals are now a part of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library of Harvard Divinity School.
Chandler’s American Unitarian Association ministerial file and 10 letters are at the Andover Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nineteen sermons, records of the Shirley Unitarian Church, and other documents are at the Shirley Historical Society in Shirley, Massachusetts. Chandler's hand written listing of funerals, 1829-77; sermon manuscripts; and Charles K. Bolton’s 1948 manuscript, “Rev Seth Chandler: Minister of the First Parish, Shirley Centre, Massachusetts” are at the Hazen Memorial Library, Shirley, Massachusetts. A typed copy of the short Bolton manuscript is also in his AUA Ministerial File at Harvard.
For further biographical data see: Alan Seaburg, The Reverend Seth Chandler: “An Earnest Student of History,” (2011); Memorial Biographies of The New England Historic Genealogical Society, (1907); Adin Ballou, Autobiography of Adin Ballou, 1803-1890, ed. Williams S. Heywood (1896); Inventory of Universalist Archives in Massachusetts (1942); Ethel Stanwood Bolton, Shirley Uplands and Intervales; Annals of a Border Town of Middlesex (1914); Forrest Bond Wing, The Shirley Story (1981); Mary D. Whitney, The Faithful Pastor (1874); Percy MacKaye, Yankee Fantasies: Five One-Act Plays (1912); Charles L. Clay, A History of the Schools of Shirley (Holographic mss, 1900-01); and Harold Field Worthley, An Inventory of the Records of the Particular (Congregational) Churches of Massachusetts Gathered 1620-1805 (1970).
His writings include History of the Town of Shirley, Massachusetts: From its Early Settlement to A.D. 1882 (1883); “Shirley” in History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts: containing carefully prepared histories of every town in the county by well-known writers, Ed. Samuel Adams Drake (1880); Discourse, Shirley, February 1, 1841, Interment of Mr. Stillman S. H. Parker (1841); and An Historical Discourse Delivered Before the First Congregational Society in Harvard, Massachusetts, October 22, 1882 with an Appendix by Samuel A. Green (1884).
For reviews of his Shirley history see Universalist Quarterly and General Review n.s. 21 (1884); and Anson Titus, “History of the Town of Shirley, Massachusetts by Seth Chandler,” The New England Historical And Genealogical Register 37 (1883). For information on his Restorationist beliefs see Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope The First Century of the Universalist Church in America 1770-1870 (1979). There is a brief obituary in the Boston Transcript, (1889) and more extensive ones in The Christian Register, (1889); The Universalist Register (1889); and The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, (1893).
Article by Alan Seaburg - posted January 15, 2012