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Seth Chandler Biography




By Alan Seaburg








Seth Chandler, minister for forty-five years and then minister emeritus for another ten of the First Congregational Society of Shirley, Massachusetts, and author of the town’s first major history, was born December 2, 1806 at New Ipswich, New Hampshire, a town close to the border of Massachusetts. His parents who were married January 2, 1796 in Chelmsford, Massachusetts where his mother had been brought up were Roger and Lydia (Marshall) Chandler.

When the Middlesex Canal, which was chartered by the General Court of Massachusetts as a public utility in 1793, was being builtbetween Charlestown/Boston and Middlesex Village (now Lowell) at the close of the eighteenth century Seth’s father Roger and his Uncle John were hired by the canal proprietors as two of the principal private contractors to dig sections of it.Christopher Roberts in his scholarly 1938 study, The Middlesex Canal 1793-1860, identified the Chandlers as yeomen who held large canal digging contracts, crediting John as responsible for 332 rods and Roger with 476 rods of canal work. Yeomen were used Roberts explained because they “had had experience in digging ditches, draining meadows, and removing stumps, roots, and stones from their rocky farms.”  By the time his son Seth was born, however, Roger was again making his living from farming and manufacturing cotton.

Seth was educated in the public schools of his local town and when he was seventeen got a job in a machine shop in Waltham, Massachusetts where he learned “the trade of machinist.” He did so because he was “weary of the monotony of work and life upon the farm”. Later he relocated to a similar job in Lowell and started to attend the Universalist Society there, which he eventually joined. In 1829 when he was twenty-three he decided that he wanted to become a parish minister and contacted the Rev. Adin Ballou, a nearby Universalist minister, to see if he would be willing to train him for the profession. Ballou, best remembered today as the founder of the utopian community at Hopedale, Massachusetts and as a pacifist, agreed to do so.


Figure 1 - Adin Ballou
Figure 1-Adin Ballou

n Ballou’sAutobiography this is what he had to say about his young theological student: “I took about this time under my care and tuition a young man who had been living at Lowell, Seth Chandler by name, for the purpose of educating and training him for the work of the Christian ministry in the interest and fellowship of the Universalist denomination. He had in some way conceived a liking for me, and for some time a correspondence had been carried on between us in regard to his becoming my student. It resulted in an arrangement whereby his wishes were to be gratified, but sickness and death in my family had prevented it from being carried into effect. After the interruptions and changes occasioned by my bereavement had passed by, however, and I was fairly settled again in my plans and work, having secured board at the table of Mr. Adams Perry, Sr., to whom I had rented my house, Mr. Chandler came to Milford to enter upon his proposed course of study. This was in the month of June 1829. He obtained an abiding place with Mr. Perry, so as to be with me as much as possible, receiving instruction from me and all the guidance and information I could impart to him in the way of equipping him for his chosen calling. This opened a new page of duty and responsibility for me to fill out.

“He was about 22 years of age, a young man of excellent principles and moral character, with respectable talents and a moderate preliminary education, yet of laudable ambition, willing and anxious for improvement. His general knowledge was somewhat extensive and he was well posted in the literature of Universalism. I put him under such drill as I thought suitable, finding him an apt scholar, but so sensitive to criticism that it took me some time to make my correction and discipline fit his peculiar organization. We soon, however, came to understand and to adapt ourselves to each other, and his progress was rapid and satisfactory to a high degree. He remained under my tuition and influenced till he was ripe for the pulpit–some three years.”

During his ministerial training with Ballou Chandler got married to a young woman he had known as a youngster while growing up in his hometown of New Ipswich. She was Arvilla Tenney, born on July 18, 1807, to Joseph, a farmer, and Judith (Adams) Tenney.They were married August 16, 1831 and enjoyed fifty years of companionship until her death in 1881.While they never had any children their home was nevertheless a busy place for,as Arvilla was a “cat” person, it always overflowed with them.

During this period while he was training Chandler Adin Ballou became a leading member of a small group of ministers and lay leaders, which broke off in 1831 from the main Universalist movement to form the Massachusetts Association of Universal Restorationists. Its chief teaching was that while all humankind would be saved, sinners would first suffer a limited punishment for their actions. Other Universalist ministers such as their greatest theologian Hosea Ballou said that there would be no punishment after death but rather that sinners would be punished during their lifetime. This schism,which lasted about ten years, was known within the denominational as the Restorationist Controversy.  Some of the Restorations ministers remained within the Universalist fold after the controversy collapsed but a few like Ballou and Chandler became Unitarian ministers. (1)

Seth Chandler,clearly influenced by his teacher, immediately became a member of the new Association, and was even for a time its secretary. To promote their views the Restorationists established their own newspaper the Independent Messenger and Chandler is listed as subscribing to twenty-five copies of the first issue most of which he gave away to potential converts to its point of view.

In October 1832 Chandler was ordained to the ministry under the authority of the Providence [Rhode Island] Association of Universalists. The service was held at the short-lived Universalist Society, the Universal Friends Society, Medway Village, Massachusetts.  Adin Ballou described the service in his Autobiography: “He had been my student in theology and I was much interested in his success. The occasion was a pleasant and edifying one. Four sermons were delivered at as many public services by Revs. George Blackburn, Paul Dean, Charles Hudson, and myself, respectively–the last being an ordination sermon from Acts, 20:27. ‘I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God.’ The ordaining prayer was offered by Brother Dean, the charge and delivery of the Scriptures by Brother Hudson, the right hand of fellowship by Brother Wright; all of which parts were printed with the sermon in an early issue of the Independent.”


Figure 2-Oxford Universalist Church

Meanwhile, in Oxford, Massachusetts the Universalist Church, which had fired its minister in January 1832, was seeking a replacement pastor who shared their Restorationist theology. One of the men they talked with was Chandler. The congregation found him to their liking and therefore hired him to preach for a period of thirty-two Sundays at a salary of “$325 per annum.”

Chandler accepted their offer and was installed on May 25, 1833, as their new minister.  At this time the church’s name was the Second Christian Church in Oxford. This group was one of the earliest Universalist churches in America having been founded in 1785 by the Rev. Adam Streeter. The order of service was; Introductory Prayer by the Rev. Thomas J. Greenwood, the Scripture Reading by the Rev. Charles Hudson, the Sermon by the Rev. Samuel J. May of Brooklyn, Connecticut, the Consecrating Prayer by the Rev. David Pickering, the Charge to the Minister by the Rev. Adin Ballou, the Right Hand of Fellowship by the Rev. Ebenezer Robinson, the Address to the People by the Rev. John Goldsbury, the Concluding Prayer by the Rev. Nathaniel Wright, and the Benediction by the newly installed minister. Of the occasion Adin Ballou wrote the “hospitality of the society [was] generous, and the communion of saints pleasant.”Samuel May who gave the sermon went on to become one of the century’s most significant abolitionists as well as one of its leading educational andwomen’s rights reformers. Hudson, Pickering, Wright and, of course, Ballou were clearly avowed Restorationists.

A year later on May 24, 1834 Chandler was taking part in another installation. That was for his friend, the Rev Philemon R. Russell, also a Restorationist, who had just become the new minister of the Liberal Congregational Church of West Boylston, Massachusetts. But earlier in that same May month he had told his congregation that he wished to leave the Oxford church. The Unitarian publication The Christian Register said he left because “he did not agree with those of the denomination who confined the consequences of sin to this life.” His last sermon in Oxford was on the Sunday after Russell’s installation service. Ironically, the denomination eventually adopted the idea about there being a period of punishment after death.

In June he accepted the position of minister in Shirley.It became the focus of his life as a minister and was, in the words of Adin Ballou, “a position which he held and honored through a long and useful ministry.”



          When Seth Chandler assumed the pulpit of the First Congregational Society of Shirley it was a Unitarian church. It traced its origins, however, to the first religious gatherings in the town, which had been held soon after the founding of Shirley in 1753. As such they were part of the Puritan State Church that was initially set up by the first English settlers to what we now call Greater Boston, Massachusetts.

Shirley’s first significant minister was Phineas Whitney, a Harvard graduate (1759)who served the parish from 1762 until his death in 1819. His ministry was marked, according to local memory, by religious “harmony” and “peace.”Indeed, his flock called him with affection “Priest” Whitney. His theological belief-Armenianism-was consistent with the teachings that then defined seventeenth-century New England Congregationalism. He also avoided all contemporary religious controversy, which is a position that many congregations prize in their minister. (2)

Although his ministry and life ended years and years ago several generations of his family continued to live in the town and contributed in positive ways as he did to its history and culture. This is the way Seth Chandler phrased it in his history: “the descendents of the first minister have been among the most efficient supporters of those Christian institutions he labored to establish.”

Figure 3-First Parish in Shirley center as it appears today
Figure 3-First Parish in Shirley center as it appears today

The First Parish building we know today, which was constructed in 1773, was first located on the Shirley Center Common about where today’s stands the town’s Civil War monument. In 1851, however, to open the Common for larger town gatherings and events it was moved to the militia Training Field on the side of the Common and sits to the right of the Town Hall, which had been erected in 1847. A short dirt road runs just behind the church connecting the Town Hall, the old Town Pound and Horse Sheds to Parker Road on the left and Horse Pond Road and the Churchyard Burial Ground on the right. It was unofficially named Town Hall Road until Lucy P. Longley, the Town Librarian for many years, asked the selectmen in the 1960s to name it the Seth Chandler Road, which they did. “Priest” Whitney also has a road named for him, which runs appropriately enough, in front of the Seth Chandler house.

In 1836 the First Parish acquired it’s current bell and in 1847 a Steven’s tracker organ, the gift of Mrs. Henrietta Whitney, which was moved by ox-cart from the shop of its maker, George Stevens, in East Cambridge, to the Meetinghouse. It is still in use today.

On March 20, 1822 the First Parish, which as an organization had effectively collapsed after the long ministry of Whitney, was re-organized as the First Congregational Society.  But this did little to make it an effective religious society and for twelve years it had no minister. Then in 1828, as a result of the Unitarian Controversy within the Congregational churches of New England, and elsewhere, the congregation was split apart when a majority of the members came to profess Unitarian beliefs. As a result those who held firm to the Congregational Way withdrew and established a new Congregational Church on Parker Road. That group continues today, but in another location, as one of the roots of the non-denominational United Church of Shirley. (3)

As the situation of the church did not improve after the dispute/split of 1828 those who remained decided in 1834 that if the society was to continue they needed regular ministerial services and so they conducted a fund campaign to raise four hundred dollars to pay the salary of a minister. When that amount was achieved they invited two candidates to preach for them: a Mr. St. Clair who delivered two sermons on the last two May Sunday services and then during the first two services in June Seth Chandler. The congregation then held a parish meeting to cast votes to select one of them to serve for a year as their minister. St. Clair received six votes, Chandler twenty. And so Chandler came to be their minister for the period of 1834 through June 1835. Having provided satisfactory services during this trial engagement he was then hired for another year and finally in 1836 made their permanent minister.

Seth Chandler

 Figure 4-The young Seth Chandler

Seth Chandler readily accepted their “call” and a council “of ministers from the neighboring towns” was invited to approve his selection and assist in his installation as their minister. The ecclesiastical council met in Shirley on December 14, 1836 at the home of Thomas Whitney where they “were gratuitously entertained by the hospitality of Thomas Whitney, Esq.” After “an address to the throne of grace” the council deliberated on the matter and gave their approval to Chandler’s call.

A public service of installation was immediately held where the Introductory Prayer was given by the Rev. Mr. William H. White, the Scripture Reading was read by the Rev. Mr. W. Gilbert, the Sermon was delivered by the Rev. Mr. Calvin Lincoln, minister of the church in Fitchburg, the Installing Prayer by the Rev. Mr. William Morse, the Charge by the Rev. Dr. N. Thayer, the Fellowship of the Churches by the Rev. Mr. Charles Babbidge, the Address to the Society by the Rev. Mr. Charles Robinson, and the Concluding Prayer by the Rev. Mr. Isaac Allen. This service was conducted, as The Christian Register observed, “in the usual manner of the time, with the expectation of the life service which actually followed.”

In the chapter of his history dealing with the First Congregational Society Chandler wrote about the good relationship that existed between congregation and minister during this period. He put it this way: “The length of Mr. Chandler’s ministry, 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.”

Historian Chandler went on to give some statistics about the condition of the Society between 1834 and 1879. When he started, he wrote, the organization had just twenty-six members but during his pastorate he was able to add 109 new ones. Further, he baptized 146 persons, married 574 couples, and buried 616 individuals. Some of the funerals, he noted, were for folks not living in Shirley.

These statistics reveal two things about the Society. First, they give a picture of the life of a country minister in a parish with less than one hundred active members, and second, they help to explain the difficulty the Society experienced in attempting to sustain itself as an active organization after Chandler retired. It was just too small to do so especially when the automobile came on the scene, which allowed potential church adherents easy commutes to nearby churches more to their liking.  An additional problem was the society’s lack of adequate financial funding.

In the 1840s Chandler exchanged a series of letters with the official Secretary of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in Boston. He may have done so during other decades too but only the ones from the 1840s seem now to exist. These letters deal mostly with securing subscriptions to AUA tracts and the matter of sending to the AUA financial contributions to support their national work. Chandler was able, he told the AUA Secretary, to get thirty-seven monthly tract subscriptions along with the payment for the same. However, he complained that the AUA sent him but twenty copies and asked him to send the remainder. But it is unclear if he ever received those additional copies.

As for sending headquarters money that was another matter and in an 1848 letter he tells the Secretary about the congregation’s money problems in the 1820s and 1830s and that they can still only afford to pay him but the $400 that they had originally voted to give him each year. Beside that they had he said a large debt to pay off. He closes his letter by saying that perhaps “on some future occasion we will try to come up to your help.” His response was clearly not what any denominational administrator likes to hear. But Chandler must have been on friendly terms with the Secretary, at least with the Rev. Charles Briggs when he held that position, for he addresses one letter to “Rev C. Briggs Gen. Sec. (not the Bishop) of the A.U.A.” and closes with “You humble Curate at Shirley.”

In connection with his work as a Unitarian minister Chandler visited as the above letters often mention the bookroom of the American Unitarian Association’s national headquarters in Boston. He also stopped from time to time at the Boston Athenaeum to use its library. In his first decade in Shirley he made the trip via the various integrated stagecoach lines. It was a slow and somewhat tedious journey. However after the Fitchburg Railroad became operational in 1844 he went by train. The Fitchburg had several trains a day which stopped at Shirley and the trip via Concord and North Cambridge to their impressive depot on Causeway Street in Boston, took only about two hours.

Along with his usual ministerial duties, Chandler during his first fourteen years in Shirley collected material, as will be seen later in more detail, for his history of the town. A goodly portion of this research was completed by 1848 and that allowed him the opportunity to play a larger role in the daily business of running town government. As such he “became a trusted authority in its affairs.”He was the town treasurer for seventeen years (1868-1885), a trustee of the Hon. Leonard M. Parker Fund for the High School(1856-1889), and a member of the School Committee (1835-1871). As a school committee member he wrote six of its annual reports.

 In addition, as one of the town’s clergymen, 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 after the fall of Fort Sumter 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 the American states.

During most of his Shirley pastorate the Chandlers lived on the northwest side of the Common at 80 Whitney Road. The house was owned when they arrived by David Livermore, a devoted member of the church, who played for forty years the bass viol in the choir. It is unclear just where the Chandlers first lived in Shirley for they did not purchase the Livermore house until 1857.Charles K. Bolton in his biographical essay on Chandler suggested that at first the Chandlers boarded with Livermore. Other sources seem to indicate that the Chandlers were definitely living there from 1838 onward. Yet Livermore is listed as the owner in 1847. That year, however, was when his wife died, which might have made Livermore consider selling the large house. Anyway, by1857, the property is listed as owned by Seth Chandler. The location was a good one for the minister because all he needed do on a Sunday morning was to stroll across the Common to his church and pulpit. 

Figure 5- Seth Chandler Houseas it appeared in his day.


His preaching from that pulpit represented 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. Fortunately over one hundred of his manuscript sermons have survived and they provide an insight into what those sitting in the pews listened to Sabbath after Sabbath. This conclusion from one about the drought of 1845 is typical of many.  “We think it difficult to walk by faith-but were it not for faith which looks forward and realizes things, at present unseen, all worldly labors would immediately cease. Here every man has long patience and waits until he receives the early and late rains. God sends showers where they are most needed and so it is not until the heart cries out to God that He strengthens that which was ready to perish. The promise stands recorded, ‘Everyone that asketh, receiveth, and he that seeketh, shall find.’”

Yet he did not limit himself to what can be described as strictly religious themes. Here are a selection of some of those dealing with contemporary issues of his day: “The Negro Question”, “Capital Punishment”, “On the Early Death of Children”, “Defensive War”, “Political Evils of the United States”, “Effects of Northern Abolitionism”, “The Political Crisis of 1862”, and “National Thanks Given for Victories”. Clearly Seth Chandler was not reluctant to mix politics and religion in his pulpit remarks.

One can safely assume, due to his many years as their minister, that most of the congregation liked his preaching. But perhaps not everyone for this amusing comment has been found in a hymnbook used at the First Parish in the 1860s: “I think Rev. Seth had better omit the rest of his sermon for there is ever so many asleep now.” 


Arvilla Chandler

Figure 6 - Arvilla Chandler

Charles Bolton, in his short biographical account on Chandler, described his daily living as “a pastoral life.” Citing local memories of the time he wrote that Chandler “set forth each day in his ministerial gown, Bible in hand, to drive the cow to pasture. Arvilla had her cow duty too: caring for “her chickens and cats.” Some twenty or more of them, at one count, which she housed in the back attic of the house.

He also worked long hours in his garden, dressed in his oldest clothes.” One day “a boy and his girl, desiring to be married, called at the parsonage. Seeing Mr. Chandler at work the boy yelled, ‘Say, Pat”-a bit of Irish racism then in existence-‘where does the minister live.’”

Bolton relates two further Chandler stories both of which are about Arvilla. Her brother ran the first story “was a liquor dealer in Worcester, and when kegs of whiskey came as a welcome gift she carried them unaided into the house.” The other stated that those who knew her recognized that she had “a kindly heart” and told of how once “when a horse fell down near her house and the neighbors came to put him on his feet Mrs. Chandler ran to her door, procured a bottle of camphor, and held it to the horse’s nose.”

The Chandlers often had dinner parties at the parsonage and just as often were invited out for social evenings with neighbors and friends. But no social event compared to that of Friday evening December 20, 1850 for that was when Arvilla and Seth Chandler entertained a special guest and neighbor–Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had come to the Shirley town hall from his Concord home, sixteen miles away, to lecture to the local Lyceum, for which he was paid the handsome sum of twelve dollars. After the program was over instead of journeying back home to Concord he stayed overnight with the Chandlers. Ethel Stanwood Holton described the southwest room where he slept as “large and commodious, with a lovely view over the field to the woods and the sunset beyond.” Ever since he occupied it for that one 1850 evening the various owners of the house have pointed out to visitors-with pride– the chamber where Mr. Emerson spent the night.

Just how the Shirley Center congregation and the Shirley neighborhood felt about Chandler was caught and expressed in a poem written for his fortyish anniversary as minister there. The poet was Mary D. Whitney, a member of the Whitney family that had played such a major role in the life of the town. She had been a parishioner of Seth Chandler from the start of his ministry in 1834, regarded him as her teacher, and appropriately entitled her poem “The Faithful Pastor.” Most of the congregation shared her view of his “faithful” ministry to them all. (4)

The Rev. Loren B. Macdonald who for two years during the 1880s served the Shirley society after Chandler had retired well 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. He had, however, a kindly interest in the younger men in the ministry, and was tolerant of the new views which most of them held, as he knew. His life and his ministry were both eminently practical; and both by example and precept he aimed to inculcate those homely virtues of industry, sobriety and purity of life which are our inheritance from our Puritan ancestry. With a small salary, never much in advance of that with which he began in 1834, he was content to live and labor in the one chosen field, putting his best into his work, satisfied if he could serve, even in a small way, the Master whom he loved and tried to follow.”

As regards the longevity of the First Congregational Society after Chandler retirement and passing, Harold Worthley, the longtime Librarian of the Congregational Library in Boston, in his excellent and carefully researched study of the early Congregational churches of Massachusetts, states that about 1890 the Society for all practical purposes became extinct. But not completely for it did attempt to have some ministerial services and programs during its final fifty years as an organization. The Rev. Crawford Nightingale served there in 1883 and the Rev. Loren Benjamin Macdonald from June 1885 until October 1887. A portion of his service was while he was earning his A.B. at Harvard(1886).  The next individual to be listed in the AUA annual yearbook as minister in Shirley was the Rev. Amos N. Somers who was there for two years (1898-99).  But most of the time the yearbook listed Shirley with supplies or as dormant.  Sometime the word that described the society was “[blank]”. Throughout much of the last decades of its existence the one group that continued to be vigorous and carry on programs, at least until 1932, was its local branch of the national organization the Alliance of Unitarian Women.

Finally, in1944 under the leadership of Dr. Clifford K. Shipton, Librarian and Director of the American Antiquarian Society and head of the Harvard Archives, who lived in Shirley Center in the very house that the Chandlers once owned, a local organization-the First Parish in Shirley- was established to assume responsibility for maintaining the now unused Unitarian Church as an important part of the community’s heritage. As a part of its mission it keeps the First Parish building in repair while also promoting its use “for weddings, funerals, musicals, and historic and dramatic programs.”


          Chandler, as has been indicated earlier, began to collect material for a history of Shirley at the start of his ministry. He wrote his history, he declared, to allow people “to connect the present with the past, so as to give the existing actor an opportunity to understand his obligations to those who shall come after him, by his indebtedness to those who have gone before him.”In its preparation he was always careful to document his facts, which is one of the book’s values.As he put it in his introduction, “The sources of all quotations made, the reader will find duly acknowledge; and no assertion had been hazarded without good authority as to its accuracy, especially when it has come through the uncertain channel of tradition.” Credit for attempting the history in the first place belonged, he said, to his friend George A. Whitney at the time living in Boston but originally from Shirley. Another source that encouraged his historical work came when the New-England Historic Genealogical Society elected him on September 3, 1845 a Corresponding Member.

By 1848 he had been able to prepare a good basic draft manuscript based on his careful and relentless research. Therefore, when Caleb Butler asked him in the spring of 1848 if he could borrow the manuscript to prepare a short appendix about Shirley’s story to be included in his forthcoming history of Groton, Shirley had originally been a part of that town, Chandler was in a position to loan it to him. Unfortunately Butler did not credit the use of Chandler’s manuscript in his book so he had to provide Chandler with a letter to be inserted into theShirley history acknowledging that fact in order to eliminate any confusion that could have been raised by critics.

The Shirley history as with the other town histories then being written, several of them by either Universalist or Unitarian ministers, (5) focused primarily on the governmental and ecclesiastical history of the town. But just as important was its“genealogical“ history. His research approach here, he said, was through conversations with those living in the community, which allowed him to collect “many facts relating to the history of the settlements and to the genealogy and biographies of the settlers.” When the town in November 1871 voted five hundred dollars toward the printing of the history, Chandler completed his work on the historical section and proceeded to enlarge and make the genealogical and biographical “register” its own major section. In preparing it he was assisted by James Freeman Dana Garfield. (6)

History of the Town of Shirley
Figure 7 - Title page of the Shirley History by Chandler

Chandler dedicated his book, most appropriately, “To the memory of the early settlers of Shirley, to their widely-scattered descendants, and to the present inhabitants of the town.”

The author realized, of course, that his book would never be a “best seller” but did hope that it would be easily available to those wanting to know more about the early history of the region in which they dwelled. That did happen. The Granite Monthly, a New Hampshire magazine of history, for example, carried an advertisement that the book could be examined and purchased at George E. Littlefield’s Antiquarian Book-Store, 67 Cornhill, in Boston.

          When the book came out it received positive reviews. The Rev. Anson Titus, scholar, author, member of numerous historical societies and a prominent Universalist minister, wrote in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register that ‘The author is to be congratulated on the satisfactory manner in which he had been able to present the results of years of labor to the public; and the citizens of Shirley and the natives of the town who reside in other places may well be proud of the handsome volume which so faithfully preserves the history of the place.”

The Universalist Quarterly and General Review, that denomination’s widely respected scholarly journal, declared “There never need be a handsomer book come from any press than this, concerning which we wish to say a few words, more by way of bringing it to the notice of lovers of local history, the source of all reliable general statements respecting the State or Nation.” The reviewer then went on to say that the author was “A resident of Shirley for half a century” which allowed him “the best advantages for collecting and sifting evidence.” In its conclusion the review stated “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.”

A little more than a generation after Chandler’s book came out another substantial Shirley history-Shirley Uplands and Intervales; Annals of a Border Town of Middlesex–was published. It’s author who lived in the town as had Chandler was Ethel Stanwood Bolton, the wife of Charles Knowles Bolton, historian and Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum. She was in her own right a respected artist, writer and “antiquarian.” Her history nicely supplements Chandler’s account and clearly indicated her approval of his work. Two examples will suffice to show her view: “Mr. Chandler has so vividly portrayed” and “Mr. Chandler has told about the later mills so well and so fully that it is unnecessary for anyone else to attempt the task.”

A very different tribute to his Shirley history, and one most historians prefer above all other praise, is the fact that others working on historical events such as Shay’s Rebellion and the history of the Shakers and, of course, those interested in family genealogical matters, often quote from his description of these subjects as they relate to Shirley’s story and list the book as one of their trusted textual sources. 



Seth Chandler retired as minister of the First Congregational Society in 1879 after forty-five years of pastoral care and service.  He did so reluctantly and the text of his final sermon as their minister was “Cast me not off in my old age.” The congregation in appreciation of his faithfully performed duties made him their Minister Emeritus. Sadly, soon after his retirement, and before his history of Shirley was published, his beloved wife and companion Arvilla died on March 22, 1881. She was said to have been by those who knew her both an “estimable lady” and a “worthy helpmeet of a worthy minister.” If she never had children to care for she did have her cats and when she died she left to the ministration of her husband twenty-one of them.

During the last years of his life he was often invited to preach to his former congregation and he was more than pleased to do so. In addition in 1882 he supplied for a few Sabbaths until the installation of their new minister Edward B. Maglathlin, the pulpit of the First Congregational Society in the nearby community of Harvard. During his years at Shirley he had often preached there during pulpit exchanges with its ministers. One of his sermons he gave now was later published in 1884: AnHistorical Discourse Delivered Before the First Congregational Society in Harvard, Massachusetts, October 22, 1882 with an Appendix by Samuel A. Green. The sermon dealt with the history of the church and to it the publisher, G. E. Littlefield, added material prepared by Samuel A Green regarding the general history of the town of Harvard. 

Two other very significant events took place in the 1880s for Seth Chandler.  The first was the publication of his History of Shirley, which came out in 1883.  The second was his meeting and immediate friendship with the Rev. Richard Eddy, Universalist minister and denominational historian, whose “magisterial” and “scrupulously accurate” history of Universalism in America was published in two volumes, 1884-86.  Eddy was at this time, 1881-89, the minister of the nearby Melrose, Massachusetts Universalist church.

Dr. Richard Eddy
Figure 8 - Rev. Dr. Richard Eddy

The two clergymen took to each other from the start and their warm friendshipbecame most meaningful to Chandler. It represented a renewal of his early Universalist ministerial connections that had proven so important for him at the start of his career. While he had largely served a Unitarian parish Chandler was always in his religious views and outlook both a Unitarian and a Universalist. Further, with his deep love and devotion to historical matters, he was able to assist Eddy with his history of Universalism, especially concerning the activities and thinking of the leaders of the Restorationist movement that took place within the denomination during the 1820s and 1830s.(7)

          A verbal snapshot of Chandler exists from 1888, just a year before his death. He was then in his early eighties. It is a remembrance from Charles K. Holton at the time a student at Harvard College. One day he came out to Shirley by train to pay a call on Chandler. He found him “friendly and sociable.” After they had converse a while the old minister, “putting on his ministerial gown,” took his young visitor across the Common to inspect the cemetery.“He showed me the graves of prominent citizens and called special attention to a finely engraved slab surrounded by a fence of stone posts and chains. ‘There,’ said he,’ lies a widow, a town pauper. Her relatives were so shocked that they provided the gravestone and fence.’”

          Gradually Chandler’s strength began to fade yet two weeks before his death he managed to go to church. But the next Sunday, when the minister who was to take the service failed to appear and he wanted to take charge and preach, he found that he was just too weak to do so.  Clearly his end was near.

Seth Chandler died on Friday October 4, 1889.  Mrs. Edward Holden who was living and caring for him during his last years provided an eyewitness account of his passing away which says in part: He died “in his home in Shirley in the south-east upper room (over the parlor, and looking upon the Common, church and Church yard). Mr. and Mrs. Edward Holden living with him, also a ‘helper’ by the name of Emma   from West Groton. [The text here indicates that for some time he had been suffering with heart trouble] Mrs. Holden was away for a day or more previous to his death, but returned home in the early forenoon of the day he died. When she came into the room she found him sitting in his chair and looking at her, he said ‘I am so glad to see you.’ These were the last words, which he spoke aloud afterwards speaking only in whispers. Later he went back to his bed and seeming to suffer more and appearing to grow weaker he said, ‘I have always wanted to live, for I have always enjoyed life so much, but now, in my suffering I am ready to go.’ Holding Mrs. Holden’s hand he said ‘Goodbye,’ and for some minutes looked in her face and that of the ‘helper’ fell asleep easily and peacefully.” (8)

At his request his friend Richard Eddy was the officiating clergyman at the funeral service, which took place at the church on the following Monday afternoon, October 7, at two o’clock. One hundred and twenty-five people were present. The music included “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and at Chandler’s request “While Thee I Seek, Protecting Power.” The Boston Unitarian weekly, The Christian Register, reported that the service was truly “impressive.”

. “The morning of the day of the funeral services was rainy,” reported The Christian Register, “but the afternoon was brightened by sunshine that lit the autumn colors which inspired the Scripture saying ‘We all do fade as a leaf.’ The day, the season, and the sheaves of wheat placed by the coffin were all in fit symbolism of the passing away of the venerable pastor in the autumn of life.”He was buried next to his wife in the nearby church cemetery; their grave marker is a seven foot tall marble obelisk consisting of two marble squares, the second smaller than the first, topped by a five foot marble obelisk.

The notice of his passing in Memorial Biographies of The New England Historic Genealogical Society noted “In his long pastorate he identified himself with all the interests of the town, and became a trusted authority in its affairs.” Further, that “he was an earnest student of history, both general and local.”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, and a complete set of the periodicals published by the Unitarians.”

These books were to come, almost one hundred years later, to the Harvard Divinity School along with the rest of the library of the Universalist Historical Society when that collection in 1976 was donated to its Andover-Harvard Theological Library. One of the volumes was a copy of his own History of Shirley, which in time was scanned and stored in the digital database of Google Books and so made freely available to readers everywhere via the World Wide Web. (9)

Some of the other books from his library have remained in Shirley Center, not far from his old parsonage. Because the Chandlers had no children local tradition says that his library, or some of it anyway, remained in the parsonage after his death and eventually became the property of the Unitarian minister, Rev. Edward Baxter Fairchild, when he purchased and moved into Chandler’s old home in 1897. Fairchild lived here until 1909 when he moved due to his old age to nearby Lunenburg to live with his daughter. When his collection was auctioned off after his death in January 1911, William Barnard, the great-uncle of Harley P. Holden, purchased them. Today they are in the library at Holden’s home on Horse Pond Road, just a few steps away from Chandler’s old home.

In concluding this biographical essay on Seth Chandler it seems only proper and fitting to do so by reproducing the wording of the bronze plaque to him which is prominently displayed at the front of his Meeting House: “To the memory of Seth Chandler Pastor of the First Parish Church of Shirley For More then Fifty Years. Historian of the Town, Scholar, Counselor and Friend.  1806-1889. ‘A man he was to all the Country’s ear.’”



(1) To know more about this movement see Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope The First Century of the Universalist Church in America 1770-1870 (Boston, 1979)111-26.


(2)For a brief excellent overview of Whitney’s life see “Phineas Whitney” by Clifford K. Shipton, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, v. 14 (Boston, 1968) 528-32.


(3) The building they use was the structure built in 1879 by Shirley’s Universalist Church. While intermittent Universalist preaching had occurred in Shirley as early as 1806 it was not until1812 that a society was formed and 1817 that a building was erected. The first settled minister was Jacob Wood (1818-23) and the next Russell Streeter (1830-34). From this time until it federated with the Congregational church in 1923 the Universalists struggled with finances, few members, and irregular worship services. In 1929 the two organizations were incorporated as the United Church of Shirley [Non-denominational]. One wonders today why the Universalists and the Unitariansd id not in the end join together as one society. With Chandler’s early involvement within the Universalism movement it would seem, decades later, that such a development might have been fruitful to the members of both groups.


(4) Not everyone praised Chandler’s ministry. Percy MacKaye, dramatist and poet, who knew him portrayed him as the foolish Rev. Jonas Boutwell in his play “The Antick.”


(5) For example, the Unitarian minister Charles Brooks wrote History of the Town of Medford (1855); the Universalist minister Lucius R. Paige wrote History of Cambridge, Massachusetts (1877) and History of Hardwick, Massachusetts (1883); and the Universalist minister Adin Ballou wrote History of the Town of Milford, Worcester County, Massachusetts (1882).


(6) See his entry in Samuel Atkins Eliot, Ed, Biographical History of Massachusetts, 6 (Boston, 1916), which says that “He was the author of Walker and Egerton Genealogy, first published in Chandler’s History of Shirley.“ Garfield was a Unitarian and a life member of the New England Historic and Genealogical Society.


(7) See Alan Seaburg, “Richard Eddy,” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography,” an on-line publication of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society.


(8) I asked my friend Harley Holden if Mr. and Mrs. Edward Holden could have been related to him.  He replied: “Yes, they were relatives. Edward, son of Seth and Esther A. (Jenkins) Holden, was my father’s first cousin. And, according to the Holden Genealogy by Eban Putnam, there was a particular reason for them to take care of Seth Chandler. Edward was born in Shirley in 1856, ‘married 31 March, 1883, at Shirley, Minnie E. Chandler, born at New Ipswich, N.H., daughter of George W. and H.C. Chandler.’ Seth Holden and Seth Chandler lived only a few houses apart and it seems like the newly married couple may have needed a place to live at the time when Seth needed care. Minnie probably was a grand-niece of Seth. Edward may have lived in Shirley. I have heard that Seth had a brother who lived in Shirley. In 1884 Minnie gave birth to a son they named Seth Chandler Holden, perhaps after his grandfather and the Reverend Seth. Channie died at age thirteen in 1897, a tragedy, according to my father, that Minnie never recovered from. It appears more than coincidence that the Seth Holden lot is next to the Seth Chandler lot.”         


(9) Google Books also scanned the Widener copy.




Chandler’s American Unitarian Association ministerial file, as well as ten of his letters to the Secretary of the American Unitarian Association (see their Letter Books), are at the Andover Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School; additional collections on Chandler including nineteen of his sermons as well as material on the Shirley Unitarian Church are at the Shirley Historical Society; his hand written listing of funerals, October 1829 through March 12, 1877, additional manuscript sermons 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: Memorial Biographies of The New England Historic Genealogical Society, 8, 1880-1889 (Boston, 1907) 409-10;Adin Ballou, Autobiography of Adin Ballou, 1803-1890, completed and edited by Williams S. Heywood (Lowell, 1896); Inventory of Universalist Archives in Massachusetts (Boston, 1942); Ethel Stanwood Bolton, Shirley Uplands and Intervales; Annals of a Border Town of Middlesex (Boston, 1914);Forrest Bond Wing, The Shirley Story ((Shirley, 1981); Mary D. Whitney, The Faithful Pastor (Broadside, 1874); Percy MacKaye, Yankee Fantasies: Five One-Act Plays (New York, 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 (Cambridge, 1970) 574.


For information on his Restorationist beliefs see Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope The First Century of the Universalist Church in America 1770-1870 (Boston, 1979) 119-21.


His writings include History of the Town of Shirley, Massachusetts: From its Early Settlement to A.D. 1882 (Shirley, MA, 1883) and (General Book’s Photocopy Edition, 2009); “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, 2 (Boston, 1880)297-309; Discourse, Shirley, February 1, 1841, Interment of Stillman S. H. Parker (Fitchburg, MA, 1841); An Historical Discourse Delivered Before the First Congregational Society in Harvard, Massachusetts, October 22, 1882 with an Appendix by Samuel A. Green (Boston, 1884).


For reviews of his Shirley history see Universalist Quarterly and General Reviewn.s. 21 (October, 1884) 500-01; and Anson Titus, “History of the Town of Shirley, Massachusetts by Seth Chandler,” The New England Historical And Genealogical Register 37 (1883) 422-3.


There is a brief obituary in the Boston Transcript, October 8, 1889 and more extensive ones in The Christian Register, October 24, 1889; The Universalist Register (1889) 95;and The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 47 (July, 1893) 369-70.





Acknowledgements: I would like to thank these individuals for their assistance in preparing this essay on Seth Chandler: Leslie Perrin Wilson, Curator, William Munroe Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library, and her staff; Frances E. O’Donnell, Curator of Manuscripts and Archives, and Gloria Korsman, Research Librarian, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School; Harley P. Holden; Meredith Marcinkewicz, Curator, Shirley Historical Society and her two staff volunteers Dawn McCall and Linda Dressler; the friendly and helpful staff of the Hazen Memorial Library; Nathaniel and Sylvia Shipton, the present owners of the house where the Chandlers lived for so many years, who so kindly showed me throughout the house  including the room where Emerson stayed overnight in 1850;the Rev. Dr. Eugene R. Widrick and Thomas Dahill.


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