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Alvan Lamson

1818 - 1860


Alvan  Lamson was born on November 18, 1792 in Weston, Massachusetts to John and Hannah (née Ayres) Lamson.  He grew up on a farm and then attended Phillips Andover. Lamson graduated from the theologically liberal Harvard Divinity School in 1817. (He later received a Doctorate in Divinity from Harvard in 1837.)  During his student years at Harvard, controversy between liberal and conservative Calvinists was becoming more heated. Starting in 1805, liberal professors such as Henry Ware Sr. attained prestigious chairs on the Divinity School faculty. These liberals critiqued many orthodox Calvinist doctrines, such as the total depravity of human nature, God’s predestination of souls to either heaven or hell, justification (redemption) solely by faith and not moral action, and Christ’s co-equality with God in the Trinity.  Liberals argued that such Calvinist doctrines were not mentioned in the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, these orthodox doctrines undermined Jesus’s message about God’s fatherly love of humans. And they held that some of the Calvinist doctrines challenged reason itself, for example, the idea that the man Jesus had been co-equal with God since the beginning of time.  In part due to his liberal Harvard education, Lamson tended to preach about God as a loving father who sent Jesus on a divine mission to teach humans about their potential for virtuous behavior, and to cause them to seek salvation through moral actions. Lamson’s theology was soon to become known as Unitarianism, as opposed to the orthodox Calvinist Trinitarianism that Joshua Bates, the previous First Church minister, had espoused, and thereby was sown the seeds of a dispute which was to disrupt many New England churches.

Lamson was paid for delivering several sermons in Dedham in the spring of 1817 by the pulpit committee which, impressed with his abilities, voted on July 13, 1817 to dispense with hearing other candidates and instead simply hire Lamson. Despite the objections of several of the “most respectable and substantial inhabitants,” the ensuing August 31 Parish meeting of Dedham citizens voted 81 to 44 to elect Lamson as “the public protestant teacher of piety, morality, and religion” for Dedham’s First Parish. On the same day actual members of the church who were accustomed to Bate’s conservative Calvinism voted to reject Lamson election as pastor by a 17-15 vote. Thus began a controversy which was to bring about dramatic change in the relationship between church and state in Massachusetts.

On Sunday, November 15, 1817, a meeting of church members chose Lamson by an even wider margin, but his more orthodox opponents boycotted this meeting which they declared to be irregular and invalid.  A council of ministers from neighboring parishes was assembled and this conclave ruled that Lamson was a fit minister and called upon fractious parties to resolve this dispute in a “spirit of candor and benevolence, of meekness and condescension.”  When the parish installed and ordained Lamson, the more conservative or orthodox members in 1818 decided to form a new church nearby, today known as the Allin Congregational Church. During the split, the departing members including Deacon Samuel Fales, took parish records, funds and the valuable silver used for communion with them. The parish then elected Deacon Eliphalet Baker who sued for the repossession of the church property at the time in Deacon Fales’s hands.  

This suit was referred to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in October 1820. Arguing for the plaintiffs in the Baker v. Fales case was Daniel Davis, Solicitor General for the Commonwealth, and Daniel Webster argued for the defendants. Chief Justice Isaac Parker wrote the decision finding that the parish, not the church, owned the disputed property. Parker found that the church was an appendage of the parish, rather than a separate partner. According to ancient land grants as well as the 1780 Massachusetts constitution, towns in Massachusetts granted lands and funds to the church to maintain a “teaching church officer.”  By this token, the voting members of the Dedham parish were the trustees of church property who have the ultimate authority to grant funding to and appoint ministers of the town’s Congregational church. The court held that the property taken by Fales had to be returned to First Church. (Church records were duly returned, but the Communion silver disappeared for over 105 years, to emerge from hiding places to be housed and the Dedham Historical Society and later at the Museum of Fine Arts.) The Baker v. Fales decision set a precedent for future congregational splits that would arise in many of New England’s more than 600 churches, as Unitarianism grew. For example, by 1833 Trinitarian Congregationalists in Massachusetts had lost control of over 100 churches to Unitarian parishioners The Dedham case was also a major milestone in the road towards the separation of church and state, as recurring demands of not only Unitarians, but also Baptists, Universalist, and Catholic churches to acquire town tax revenues caused the Commonwealth to formally disestablish the Congregational Church in 1833.

Lamson married Frances Fidelia, the daughter of Chief Justice Artemas Ward Jr. on July 11, 1825 with whom he had four children. He was a great supporter of the Dedham Public Schools and was instrumental in establishing Dedham High School.  It was said of the 24-year member of the School Committee that "probably no citizen of the town ever took a deeper interest in the schools or worked harder to raise their character and standard." He organized reading circles in the parish library and engaged in editorial pursuits with other Unitarian ministers. He was a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the first president of the Dedham Historical Society from its establishment in 1859 till his death on July 18, 1864.


Butler, Jon, Wacker, Grant, and Balmer, Randall. Religion in American Life. New York; Oxford University Press, 2008.
The Dedham Case Revisited on JSTOR
Filing Cabinet: Ministers-1688-1897: First Church Papers- 1627-1965; Dedham Museum and Archive
Filing Cabinet: History: 1839-1900: History of First Church in Three Discourses by Alvan Lamson
The History of Dedham, From the Beginning of Its Settlement, in September 1635, to May 1827 - Google Play Books
Holifield, E. Brooks. Theology in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003., not the church Arguing for the plaintiffs was AAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Alvan+Lamson+1818-1860&pg=PA440&printsec=frontcover
History of Dedham, Massachusetts, 1800–1899 - Wikiwand
Notes on Disestablishment in Massachusetts, 1780-1833 on JSTOR
Privatizing the Church: Disestablishment in Connecticut and Massachusetts on JSTOR
Smith, Frank. A History of Dedham. Dedham; The Transcript Press, 1936.

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