1693 - 1723
Joseph Belcher was born on Milton, Massachusetts on May 14, 1669, the son of Joseph Belcher and Rebecca Belcher. He graduated from Harvard in the class of 1690 and settled in Dedham. After hearing several of his sermons, Church of Christ leaders offered Belcher “a call to come and live and laboure amongst us” on December 4,1692. Shortly after settling in Dedham, Belcher married Abigail Thompson with whom he fathered six children. One of his sons, Joseph Jr, after graduating from Harvard in 1717, stayed on to become master of Dedham’s migratory school, teaching in various parts of town for half a decade. Joseph Sr. was awarded a salary of sixty pounds a year, though in 1696 the selectmen reverted to offering Belcher a “free contribution” instead. These voluntary (and doubtless stinting) donations proved to be unsatisfactory to Belcher and in response to his complaints, his salary, funded by town taxes, was restored, ultimately amounting to 100 pounds a year plus firewood.
Reverend Belcher was greatly admired as a preacher. Five of his sermons have come down to us. One was delivered in 1698 to Boston’s Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company and another before the Great and General Assembly of the Province of Massachusetts in 1701. He gave two other sermons in Dedham that were also published, one on “Young Persons” and another on “the Rising Generation.” Lastly, the publication of his ordination sermon on the settlement of Nathaniel Cotton in Bristol, Rhode Island’s church was prefaced by Harvard President Increase Mather, which indicates the respect in which Belcher was accorded by his contemporaries. One unsung accomplishment that has been attributed to Belcher regards the following. In 1692 while some residents of Salem were being imprisoned for offenses related to witchcraft, surrounding towns such as Topsfield, Marblehead, Rowley, Malden and Lynn became embroiled in accusations against and prosecutions of supposed satanic practices by town folk. However, although Dedham, like these sister towns, was riven by judicial, civic, and theological contentiousness, as well as beset by ignorance and superstition, witch-hunting mania never took root there and some have attributed this to Belcher’s “calming influence, rational approach, and general non-inflammatory attitude” which forestalled Dedham’s contamination by the widespread divisive hysteria.
Belcher’s ministry at Church of Christ is also noteworthy because political wrangling between inhabitants of Dedham’s center village and those of some outlying districts. Starting in 1706, some inhabitants of the outer periphery of Dedham complained that the distance between their homes and Church of Christ made it a hardship to travel attend church in Dedham, so they joined churches in abutting towns that were closer to their houses. Accordingly, they petitioned Town Meeting to have the amount they paid to churches in neighboring towns deducted from their taxes. After this petition was granted by Town Meeting, another group of citizens from the northern section of Dedham (some 6 to 10 miles from Church of Christ) asked in 1708 for the Town to raise taxes so they might provide a salary for a minister they then would hire “to preach amongst themselves”, a request to which Town Meeting also acceded. Nevertheless, just 15 months later, the same petitioners asked General Court to allow them to totally separate from Dedham. They argued that “the distance of our livings from & the difficulty of the way to our church & school in Dedham is such that at some seasons of the year by reason of the water being high, we can neither attend church meetings, Town Meetings, nor school meetings, & so lose all our privileges at once.” These petitioners added that they sought to constitute a town separate from Dedham, rather than just become a precinct of Dedham because of fear of retaliation. Indeed, they pointed out that the recent history of Massachusetts was replete with many instances of like petitioners who “when freed as a precinct only, have afterwards met with such hard measures from their town as have been hard to bear.” After negotiating disputes about boundary lines, General Court promptly established Needham as a separate town. Throughout the rest of Belcher’s ministry, Town Meeting dealt with a succession of peripheral petitioners by granting them tax funds to maintain local ministers and by establishing a travelling school that migrated seasonally to various sections of the town. Notwithstanding these accommodations, complaints about taxation to fund Church of Christ ministers would continue to fuel political discord and divisiveness between Dedham village and its outlying districts for years to come.
Joseph Belcher served as minister at Church of Christ for over thirty years. Incapacitated by a stroke in 1721, he passed away at his son-in-law’s house in Roxbury on April 27, 1723. Upon his passing none other than the famed New England theologian, historian and scientist Cotton Mather wrote the following tribute to “the never-to-be-forgotten Joseph Belcher an excellent preacher of a walk with God, who was an excellent pattern of what he preached unto us. God has newly taken unto himself one who walked with him; one who lived what he spoke; who did what he taught us; who was a walker in the paths of His righteousness. A gentlemanly temper and carriage with a sweetness of disposition..., how faithfully, how painfully, how patiently did he feed his flock whereof he was overseer. One would think it impossible for any mouth to open against a shepherd of so much goodness!”
Beach, Seth. Covenant of the Church of Christ in Dedham: With Some Facts of History and ... - Church of Christ (Dedham, Mass.) - Google Books
Hanson, Robert Brand. Dedham, Massachusetts 1635-1890. Dedham; Dedham Historical Society, 1976.
Smith, Frank. A History of Dedham. Dedham; The Transcript Press, 1936.
Filing Cabinet: Ministers-1688, Robert Brand-1897: Church of Christ Papers- 1627-1965; Dedham Museum and Archive
Filing Cabinet: History: 1839-1900: History of Church of Christ in Three Discourses by Alvan Lamson