1724 - 1755
Samuel Dexter was born in Malden, Massachusetts on October 23, 1700, son of of John Dexter and Winnefred Sprague. Samuel graduated from Harvard in 1720 where he received a deathbed blessing from Harvard President Increase Mather and was considered by his teachers to be a young minister of great are now potential though "severely introspective and self-critical.” Dexter taught school for a while in Malden, Taunton, and Lynn and preached his first sermon in Dedham on October 15, 1722 in the ailing Reverend Belcher’s stead. Dexter also delivered sermons in other eastern Massachusetts towns and so impressed congregants that he received calls from several churches, including Yarmouth, Westboro and Medford during this period before he accepted Dedham’s offer and was ordained as the town’s fourth minister on May 6, 1724.
Five months after his ordination Dexter married Catherine Miers of Roxbury. In late 1724 he wrote, “I have been ordained pastor of a church and I have married a wife. The lines have fallen to me in a pleasant place for situation, though the people are not so easy and agreeable as might be wished for, though they are better than I deserve and my companion is a kind, tender and virtuous woman.” Samuel and Catherine ultimately had eleven children. Dexter was described as a man of delicate health, extremely modest and of somewhat melancholy frame of mind. Indeed, he described himself thusly: ”This is so much my natural disposition that it makes my life very weary.”
Samuel Dexter’s ministerial tenure in Dedham was somewhat turbulent due to interpersonal, fiscal and geographic factors. To begin with, Dexter was a sensitive man who was easily distressed by criticism and contradiction. His susceptibility sometimes led him to defensive behavior that aggravated his relations with congregants. For example, when he and fellow ministers in surrounding towns decided to stage days of fasting and prayer in rotation in their parishes, some of Dexter’s congregants reportedly balked because Dexter had not consulted First Church members before making this decision. As Dexter related in his diary, they suspected that “ministers were going to deprive the churches of their power.” When some congregants simply ignored Dedham’s first fast day, Dexter intemperately decided to reprove them publicly in his sermon the following Sunday. Dexter’s indiscreet reprehension irritated the scolded congregants and “called forth additional severe remarks.”
Another source of conflict between Dexter and congregants was in essence fiscal in that during his ministry New England’s economy was in the throes of escalating inflation. Starting in the 1690’s colonial governments began to issue “tax anticipation script’ (bills of credit for future taxes) to pay for military campaigns against the French and Native Americans. Since these tax credits, along with credits based on loans, western lands or warehouse stores, were not redeemable in gold or silver, their circulation tended to stoke inflation until colonial merchants in alliance with British policy makers began to prohibit issuance of bills of credit in the 1750’s in favor of the silver-backed currency. Thus during his tenure as minister, the buying power of Dexter’s initial 1724 salary of 100 pounds would depreciate every year for the next quarter century. Church leaders responded to Dexter’s incessant complaints about his straitened circumstances by augmenting his salary first by providing him the agricultural produce of designated church lands, next by increasing his yearly salary by 50 pounds, later by allotting him funds to purchase wood, and still later by, as a church historian reported, providing him funds “for his negro to take care of the meeting house, ringing the bell, and at last performing the whole duty of sexton” (by which we learn that Dexter owned a slave named Primus.) Until the end of Dexter’s life, due to the continuing fall of the value of bills of credit, recalculating what was owed Dexter was a perennial point of contention between minister and parish.
A third source of conflict was geographical. It might be recalled that in the 17th and early 18th centuries Dedham’s church was called the Church of Christ. However, at the beginning of Dexter’s tenure, Dedham was comprised of what are now western land or warehouse the towns not only of Dedham, but also of Norwood, Walpole, Natick, Westwood, Dover, and other neighboring locales. Residents in these outlying districts had grown restive because of the inconvenience of travelling to Dedham in order to attend church. Consequently, they had begun to agitate for the establishment of churches in their own areas, often at somewhat rowdy Church of Christ congregant meetings. And not surprisingly, Dexter and church leaders resisted these demands for fear of loss of congregant funding. As one town historian recounted, “He (Dexter) was here during what may be called the dark age of the town. His people were much scattered in the woods, badly educated and strongly inclined to religious contention.” As a consequence, for several years Dexter was frequently confronted by, in his words, “certain sons of ignorance and pride” who dared to “insult and revile” him. However, by 1748 the desired separation of the town into many different precincts with their own churches had been effected and the Dedham church, located as it was in the First Precinct, came to be known as First Church. It should be noted here that, perhaps animated by a hard-won conciliatory spirit, in later years Dexter voluntarily relinquished the parochial taxes of several town folk who worshipped at St. Paul’s, the recently founded Anglican church.
Dexter went on to publish two sermons, one in 1727 on the accidental death of the child of a congregant family and another in 1738 on the first centennial of the church. As a successor First Church minister later observed, “Mr. Dexter’s sermons were written in a serious and practical style, without any attempt at ornament or fine writing. He had little imagination or eloquence; he addressed chiefly the understanding, but there was a warmth, a fervor, a truth in his piety that, united with good sense, so pervaded all his performance that, while intellect was awakened, the heart could hardly stay cold.”
Dexter died on January 29, 1755 and was buried in the Old Village Cemetery. Catherine survived him by almost 40 years, dying at the ripe age of 95. Their son, who shared the name Samuel Dexter, served in the Great and General Court and on the Massachusetts Governor's Council and their grandson, also named Samuel Dexter, was a senator from Massachusetts, as well as Cabinet Secretary in the administrations of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Beach, Seth. Covenant of the First Church in Dedham: With Some Facts of History and ... - First Church (Dedham, Mass.) - Google Books
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
Ministers: the largest slave owning group in Dedham Land Grant towns – Laurie L. Kearney (lauriekearney.com)
Smith, Frank. A History of Dedham. Dedham; The Transcript Press, 1936.
Robert E. Wright. “Lessons from America’s First Great Inflation.” Lessons From America’s First Great Inflations | AIER