Destruction of the Venerable Pine: Free Congregational Society, 19th Century Florence, and a little Boniface for Good Measure

photo from Historic Northampton Daguerreotype portrait of Gertrude Kimber Burleigh and Charles C. Burleigh, Sr., circa 1850.

photo from Historic Northampton Daguerreotype portrait of Gertrude Kimber Burleigh and Charles C. Burleigh, Sr., circa 1850.

This past weekend I took part in a history walk in my little village of Florence, the focus of which was the history of the Free Congregational Society on the occasion of its 150th anniversary.  The Free Congregational Society was what was left over after the utopian community, called the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, failed.  The Free Congregational Society is also one of the ancestors of my home congregation, the Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence.

They were such amazing and progressive people.  The following is from their Articles of Agreement signed on May 3, 1863:

Respecting in each other and in all the right of intellect and conscience to be free, and holding it to be the duty of everyone to keep his mind and heart at all times open to receive the truth and follow its guidance, we set up no theological condition of membership and neither demand or expect uniformity of doctrinal belief; asking only unity of purpose to seek and accept the right and true, and an honest aim and effort to make these the rule of life. And recognizing the brotherhood of the human race and the equality of human rights, we make no distinction as to the conditions and rights of membership in this society, on account of sex, or color, or nationality.

1863!  From these folks I am spiritually descended! Now, that’s pretty kickass!

The walk was sponsored by the David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History – another great local institution — and was led by the matchless Steve Strimer.  Steve is a fount of knowledge about Florence history, particularly about our little village’s history, and he always has an eye to progressive threads from history that are still available to us today.

In the course of this walk, we walked to an old stand of pine trees behind the Florence Congregational Church.  There, Steve read the following text, originally printed on April 21, 1885 in the Hampshire Gazette and Northampton Courier.  It began

The grand old historic pine which has stood so many years, one of the most prominent landmarks of the village, has finally fallen a victim to the woodman’s axe, and its huge trunk and branches are being demoralized into firewood.

As soon as I heard this, I was reminded of Saint Boniface in the 8th century.  Boniface was a Christian missionary who traveled around what is modern-day Germany, attempting to convert the indigenous pagans and heathens whose spiritual life was nature-based.

On the smooth area of green sward beneath the ample share of this splendid pine were convened some of the first assemblages ever called together in the village. It was indeed the original temple of worship, the first auditorium of the place, before church or hall was reared, and dedicated to the cultivation and advance of the social and religious elements.

Though there were some converts by peaceful persuasion, it was not enough for Boniface’s (or Pope Gregory II’s) ambitions.  Boniface, like other Christian missionaries before and after him, turned to more coercive and violent methods to wipe out the spiritual practices they felt were, at least, problematic and more likely, of high offense.  In 743, Boniface felled an enormous oak tree, called the Oak of Donar or Oak of Thor, which was a sacred place to the peoples there.  According to legend, Boniface used the wood to build a Christian chapel that was dedicated to St. Peter.

Though there were a few old pine trees from the 19th century still there, the Florence pine grove was not the size of its former self, for it had been cut down, but not to build a chapel for St. Peter.

It stood near the Congregational chapel; which was destroyed by fire last February, and the location and dimensions of the new structure about to be reared on the site of the old are said to render the removal of the monarch of the original forest a necessity.

The founders of this church, like those of the Free Congregational Society, were dedicated to Abolition, though they were of the gradual inclination, whereas the Free Congregationalists wanted to enact liberty and equality (and heaven) in the here and now.

It was under the evergreen shade of this forest giant, long ago that congregations gathered and listened with the most profound attention to the inimitable eloquence of Wendell Phillips, and when Wendell Phillips, in his prime, stood the monarch of oratory eloquence in America, and in fact through the world. From the sylvan platform under this tree Wm. Lloyd Garrison hurled many of his most terrible anathemas against the system of chattel slavery.

So though they shared social and political values in common, the Congregationalist represented a very a different religious perspective and one that was hostile towards the free thinkers.  Theirs was an evangelical Christianity, much more conservative than the folks who are my spiritual ancestors.

The first speaker of the Free Congregational Society (they were originally anti-clerical and thus, did not have a minister) was Charles Burleigh, Sr..  There is a famous photograph of Burleigh, with his wife, Gertrude, in which Charles has long hair and Gertrude has shorter hair.  One of the local newspapers, The Springfield Republican, conservative then as now, once mocked these free thinkers and the company they kept as “long-haired men and short-haired women.”

Chas. C. Burleigh, Henry C. Wright, Stephen S. Foster, together with many other reformatory and religious speakers and teachers, leading champions of oppressed and down-trodden humanity, have in years long since passed given utterance to some of their greatest appeals for right and justice over-shadowed by the emerald foliage of this pine, while men and women by the hundred assembled from far and near and listened to their eloquence with that deep attention which their oratory and their themes were so well calculated to evoke.

Burleigh had vowed not to cut his hair, nor shave his beard, until slavery was ended.  He wrote against the death penalty and was an avid advocate of women’s rights.

The end of the Gazette/Courier article from April 1885, which I have quoted here so liberally, was prescient:

Is it any wonder that the group of living residents, who will cherish the remembrance of these olden times, should experience a feeling of sadness and regret, at the destruction of the venerable pine, which so impressively memorialized the associations of long ago.

Indeed, sadness and regret is what this living resident felt as I cherished the remembrance of these olden times in this place I call home.

** Thanks are due to Fran Krumpholz, who found the 1885 article that is the foundation of this post.

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