Open Door Sunday: A Dramatic Reading
set during the Unitarian Controversy in Groton, MA.
by Melinda Green
On a hot afternoon in 1825, Groton’s aged minister, Rev. Chaplin, fainted in the pulpit. The
elderly minister requested an assistant be hired. A young seminarian, John Todd, arrived in
Groton and was invited to preach. Todd preached several Sundays, and the people of Groton
formed strong opinions about him. The church voted to call Todd to be Chaplin’s assistant, but
the liberals were determined to prevent his election. Much of the dialogue comes from the written
records of the period. Excerpts from Henry Ware Jr.’s address to the congregation are included.
Ideal Time for Presentation. The full reading takes 20 minutes, with perhaps an additional 10 minutes
for introduction, etc. However, the reading can be limited to a shorter time as necessary by reading
Ideal Room Arrangement. Chairs in rows, with 7 chairs up front for readers. No tables needed.
After fainting in the pulpit on a hot afternoon in July, 1825, Rev. Dr. Daniel Chaplin, who had served
Groton’s First Parish (Massachusetts) for almost 50 years,
asked that an assistant be hired to help with the duties he
could no longer perform. Mr. John Todd, 25, a seminary
student with a strong orthodox theology (and an aversion
to Unitarianism) was brought to Groton by one of Rev.
Chaplin’s sons. The members of First Parish quickly
formed opinions about Mr. Todd, and the majority of the
church members voted to hire him to assist Rev. Chaplin.
A smaller group of liberals, including lawyer and Town
Selectman, Caleb Butler, were opposed to hiring Mr.
In November, 1825, with opinions divided about calling
newcomer Mr. John Todd to become the Parish’s (Town’s)
assistant minister, a Town Meeting was called to vote on
Mister Todd. After long discussion the townspeople
passed two articles: first, they voted to pass over the
article to call Mister Todd (effectively not taking a vote on
him at all); second, they elected a committee to hire
temporary preaching until another candidate could be
Rev. Daniel Chaplin and the orthodox majority of the church believed it was Rev. Chaplin’s right to
hire his own assistant. The Town’s elected hiring committee (comprised mostly Unitarian-minded
men) believed they had legal authority to do so. In January 1826, each group hired a different
minister to preach on January 21st. The stakes were high for both parties when the people arrived for
Sunday services not knowing which party’s preacher would prevail. With differing descriptions of
what transpired that morning, the only thing we know for sure was that the Unitarian minister, Rev.
Charles Robinson, preached to Groton that day.
From that day forward, the two parties ceased meeting or worshipping together. The orthodox
majority party arranged to hold their services at a nearby school. The Unitarian-minded minority
continued to meet in the Meetinghouse. Both groups claimed to be the First Parish Church: the
Orthodox majority based their claim on being the majority opinion of the church membership,
retaining the church record book, and having the services of the Town minister. The liberals, while a
minority of the church, had the support of the majority of the Town, continued to occupy the
Meetinghouse, and had possession of the church communion pieces and the ministerial funds.
In July, 1826, the Unitarian-minded members of the church elected Rev. Charles Robinson, a
Unitarian educated at Harvard College, to be First Parish’s new full-time minister, and the Town
ratified that vote. But on August 31
, Rev. Dr. Daniel Chaplin requested that Caleb Butler open the
Meetinghouse so his church could take a vote on calling Rev. Robinson. Butler declined to open the
Meetinghouse, so Chaplin, Todd, and the Orthodox seceders held their meeting on the steps of the
locked meetinghouse, rejecting Robinson and voting for “severe discipline” that must have
reverberated through the community.
On November 1, 1826, Rev. Charles Robinson, a Unitarian educated at Harvard College, was
installed as minister of Groton’s First Parish Church. The Address to the Congregation was given by
Rev. Henry Ware, Jr.
Open Door Sunday was written for a special Sunday service that commemorated the 183
anniversary of the installation of the congregation’s first Unitarian minister. This dramatic reading
brings the Unitarian Controversy to life through the experience of a specific New England
congregation. Much of the dialogue in the reading comes directly from the written records of the
period. I have also taken creative license by imagining dialogue, in particular between the Walter
Dicksons Jr. and Sr., and have made small revisions to original language when necessary for length
and/or ease of understanding.
Note: Melinda W. Green
OPEN DOOR SUNDAY READERS’ SCRIPT
Written by Melinda W. Green
1 WALTER DICKINSON, SR
2 WALTER DICKINSON, JR
Scene One: July 25, 1825—November 25, 1825
CALEB BUTLER: November 1, 1841. Walking to the post office this morning I looked, as I always
do, up at the First Parish meeting house. Though the building was turned 2 years ago, the sight of the
front doors facing Main Street still stirs such memories in me, memories of when the people of
Groton worshipped together, as one, in the meetinghouse built to serve the Town. And memories of
Rev. Dr. Daniel Chaplin, who served this town for 50 years before that hot afternoon in July, 1825…
LUCINDA BENNETT: It was so hot, I could barely sit through the service! But oh my! Dr. Chaplin
finished the sermon but when he began to read the hymn, he sank back into his seat in the pulpit in a
faint! His daughter, Sarah, sprang up the pulpit stairs and tried to revive him by shaking him, calling
aloud to him “Father, Father!”
DANIEL CHAPLIN: My dear friends, two or three hours of preaching each Sunday is too much for
me. I can still lead prayers and serve communion, but I would like to hire an assistant to preach.
LUCINDA BENNETT: It’s been only a few weeks since Rev. Chaplin fainted in the pulpit. And
today Rev. Chaplin’s son, William, brought a Mister John Todd to Groton. No one knows him, but he
cuts an impressive figure!
JOHN TODD: William Chaplin and I rode to Groton. He immediately introduced me to his father, the
old Reverend Chaplin. Reverend Chaplin urged me to preach for him - he will not let a Unitarian go
into his pulpit. He is quite ill, and I suspect William has drawn me into a plan to save the church from
DANIEL CHAPLIN: This young man is just the man to be my assistant! If the souls of the people of
this town are to be saved, this man must take over my pulpit and preach to Groton.
CALEB BUTLER: Rev. Chaplin had always willingly exchanged pulpits with other ministers, as was
the custom. It came as a surprise when he moved to exclude Unitarian ministers from the Parish’s
JOHN TODD: I preached several more times in Groton. Whenever I went into the pulpit; the
congregation all stared. The Unitarians scowled. There are two things they fear prodigiously; first
that I produce a revival of religion, which they call 'a religious stir,' and abhor beyond all horrors;
and, second, that the people come to wish to settle an orthodox preacher like myself.
LUCINDA BENNETT: Not everyone in Town likes Mister Todd, and even within church families
there are some who like him and some who don’t.
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: My child, why are so many of you pushing to settle Mister Todd? Have
you been taken in by his emotional preaching? Where is your sense of reason?
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: Don’t you see? We must have a minister whose preaching will lift us to
salvation! No amount of reason or thinking can save us! As the majority of the church membership,
it’s our duty to save whom we can!
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: Todd’s kind of preaching may speak to you and your mates, but you are a
minority of this Parish. What about the rest of Groton? Who will serve our spiritual and religious
JOHN TODD: The town is rent in pieces and I am the cause. I have no expectation of bringing this
town over to our way of believing, but I do intend to split it, so that an orthodox society can grow out
of it. The result of my labors here will probably be a most severe struggle between orthodoxy and
Unitarianism. The moment Chaplin dies this town will call a Unitarian and for generations to come,
they will be led away by this bewitching delusion of Satan.
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: The majority of this church has voted to settle Mr. Todd. Now, will the
residents of Groton, even those who are not members of the church, vote with us?
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: The church voted to call Mr. Todd, but it’s up to the Town to approve.
Town Meeting will reveal if our neighbors and friends will vote for or against a minister who will
require that church members declare specific beliefs.
LUCINDA BENNETT: It’s sure to be one of THOSE Town Meetings! Who WON’T have something
CALEB BUTLER: At the Town Meeting, a large majority of Groton voters voted to pass over the
article on calling Mister Todd. Instead, the Townspeople appointed a committee to supply preaching
for the pulpit. Seven of us from the church were chosen to hire temporary preachers until a more
acceptable full-time candidate could be found.
Scene Two: November 28, 1825—January 21, 1826
CALEB BUTLER: As chair of the hiring committee, I asked Reverend Chaplin several times about
the possibility that he might return to the pulpit.
DANIEL CHAPLIN: I cannot preach, but before any other minister enters my pulpit, I want to see,
in writing, what religious beliefs will be taught! Without this, I will hire visiting preachers myself!
CALEB BUTLER: While we all respected Dr. Chaplin, the Town empowered us to supply preaching
for the Parish, and we would not ask for a declaration of specific beliefs. We sought a candidate for
whom there could be unanimity of opinion. It was our hope, that the church members and the
townspeople could agree upon a preacher who could unite as great a majority of us as possible in the
bonds of peace, love, and good fellowship.
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: For our souls, Dr. Chaplin must supply the pulpit as he sees fit, and Mr.
Todd is the man we want. We must help Rev. Chaplin keep control of his pulpit.
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: The vote at Town Meeting made it clear that the pulpit belongs to the
people and the Town of Groton, which is why the committee was elected to provide preachers.
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: While we are working to get Mr. Todd called, it’s Rev. Chaplin’s right to
engage another preacher. He has hired Reverend Fisher to preach on January 21.
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: The Town’s hiring committee has hired Rev. Robinson, a Unitarian
educated at Harvard College, to preach on January 21st.
LUCINDA BENNETT: The Town hiring committee received a letter from Rev. Chaplin.
DANIEL CHAPLIN: Gentleman, After mature reflection, I have thought it my duty to remonstrate
once more, against your thrusting a man into my pulpit against my wishes, and, as I believe, against
the wishes of a majority of this people.
LUCINDA BENNETT: The committee wrote right back…
CALEB BUTLER: Rev. Chaplin: We have been legally vested by the Town with power to perform an
important, a sacred duty. Unless you are able to preach, we shall endeavor to supply the pulpit. We
very respectfully request you not attempt to supply the pulpit at this time. The person you have
arranged to preach must distinctly understand that if he should attempt to enter the pulpit, he will be
responsible for any consequences which may follow, in the course of a just, legal, and firm
opposition to such an attempt.
LUCINDA BENNETT: This morning we arrived to find Deacon Sawtell standing guard in front of
the pulpit with a stout cane which he did not usually carry. Caleb Butler was walking back and forth
in the broad aisle; Squire Sheple guarded the “bell-door”; and David Childs, the constable, was
patrolling the grounds in front of the meetinghouse.
JOHN TODD: Chaplin’s man Fisher arrived to find that the Town’s Unitarian-controlled committee
had appointed constables to keep him out of the pulpit. His heart failed him; he dared not go into the
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: There was no parade surrounding the pulpit with arms or armed men,
except in imaginations. Reverend Robinson preached as the Town committee had hired him to do.
LUCINDA BENNETT: Just before the close of the services, “Old Joe Richardson” got up in disgust
and left the gallery, taking his dog with him. Afterward, “Uncle Joe” Blood marched to the door,
faced about, gave a parting salute, saying “Good bye to ye, I say!” Part of the singers declined to
perform, but I do not think it proper to refuse to sing the hymns we have always sung.
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: After that display of disrespect to Rev. Chaplin, we will hold our
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: My child, won’t you stay with us in the meetinghouse so we can find a
preacher for all of us?
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: While it pains me deeply to leave, I can’t stay and risk the salvation of
my very soul!
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: You don’t need Mister Todd to save your soul. Your own deeds and
attitudes are your salvation.
CALEB BUTLER: From that day on, Dr. Chaplin and Mister Todd, and the majority of the members
of the church, stopped attending public worship in the meetinghouse and met at Lawrence Academy.
We continued to attend the meetinghouse, heard Rev. Robinson preach and carried on the business of
Scene Three: February, 1826—July 23, 1826
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: Since our failure to recapture the pulpit, our Ecclesiastical Council has
advised us begin a severe course of discipline with the Unitarians.
JOHN TODD: Oh, how my heart sinks under the thought! It will set the whole town in an uproar, and
all the blame and cursing will continue to fall on my head. This quarrel is growing more and more
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: Since we have the majority of the church, the minister, and the church
record book, we should be considered the First Parish Church of Groton. We stand ready to serve
those who wish to worship with us according to our doctrine.
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: We have a small group of members, the meetinghouse, the communion
silver, the ministerial fund, and the voters of Groton behind us. We will continue to serve those
belonging to Groton’s First Parish who choose to worship with us.
CALEB BUTLER: We also had the Supreme Court of Massachusetts behind us, which had ruled in
the Dedham case that: "When the majority of the members of a church separate from the majority of
the parish, the members who remain, although a minority, constitute the church in such parish, and
retain the rights and property belonging thereto."
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: At a meeting in the meetinghouse we voted that communion should be
administered with Reverend Robinson at the usual time.
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: This is no time to hold communion together. We vote that the church will
postpone communion for now.
CALEB BUTLER: The sacrament was administered June 4
to those of us who continued to
worship in the meetinghouse, with a few members of other churches.
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: Our esteemed pastor sent us this letter:
DANIEL CHAPLIN: Dear Brethren, At the last meeting of the church you voted communion be
postponed. I am sorry to say that a part of your number have gone forward expressly against your
wishes as a church & have had the communion administered.
In these trying circumstances I ask that you act with great firmness. At the same time, cherish a spirit
of kindness, of compassion towards those who have thus grieved you. Let no root of bitterness grow
among you. My sun is setting fast, and I may not live to see you through your present troubles ; but
as long as I do live, I will not cease to pray for every member of this church
CALEB BUTLER: On July 23
, those of us who continued to worship in the meetinghouse
unanimously elected the Rev. Charles Robinson for our full-time pastor and adopted our new
24 CONGREGANTS, BUTLER AND DICKSON SR: We promise to watch over you for your good,
to counsel and assist you whenever there shall be occasion, and to regard you with all that tenderness
and affection which your relation to us now justifies. We will endeavor to be faithful to each other; to
be helpers of each others’ spiritual joy, promoters of each others’ spiritual welfare, striving together to
walk worthy of our high vocations.
Scene Four: August 4, 1826—August 31, 1826
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: At Town Meeting, the townspeople of Groton have also chosen Rev.
Robinson to be Groton’s pastor. We will install Rev. Robinson on November 1
DANIEL CHAPLIN: I am posting the following public notice at the meetinghouse: The church will
meet at the meetinghouse on Thursday, August 31
to take up the subject of giving the Rev. Charles
Robinson an invitation to become assistant minister to Rev. Chaplin, and to transact any other church
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: What can their purpose be? The church and the town have already voted
and approved Rev. Robinson as the Town’s full-time minister. They’ve had two chances to vote
DANIEL CHAPLIN: August 31
To Caleb Butler, Chairman of the Board Of Selectman of Groton
Sir - I have appointed a meeting of my church to be held at the meetinghouse this afternoon, at 3
o’clock. I would thank you, Sir, to direct the house to be opened at the hour.
CALEB BUTLER: I replied:
I do not think it sensible to assemble the board of selectmen to consider your note until I have
received answer to the following: Is it the intention of those you call your church, and other citizens
who have seceded with them, to return and attend public worship with us in the Meetinghouse under
such preaching as the Town or Parish may provide, particularly that of the Rev. Charles Robinson,
minister-elect of said Town?
Perhaps it would have been harmless, perhaps prudent, for me to have granted Dr. Chaplin’s request;
but I thought it equally harmless and prudent to learn of Chaplin’s intentions. He did not reply.
LUCINDA BENNETT: Three o’clock arrives and the Meetinghouse. Remains. Locked.
JOHN TODD: Since the meetinghouse has not been opened for us, we will hold our meeting here on
the steps, in the heat and beating-down sun.
CALEB BUTLER: Some 40 or 50 spectators, neither with noise nor with tumult, collected with
curiosity and wonder at the novelty of the spectacle. They stood at a respectful distance, hats
DANIEL CHAPLIN: Will this church invite the Rev. Charles Robinson to become their Pastor &
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: Nay!
LUCINDA BENNETT: Twenty nays against Reverend Robinson.
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: But Robinson has already been approved by the church and the town!
JOHN TODD: Further more: Brothers Walter Dickson Senior, Caleb Butler and others have been
charged with attending a separate communion of the church, expressly against the vote of the church
and the remonstrance of the Pastor.
2 WALTER DICKSON JR: Therefore, we vote Unanimously, That for this conduct, the relation
between Walter Dickson, Caleb Butler and the others is hereby dissolved. These men are no longer
members of the visible church of Christ.
1 WALTER DICKSON SR: My child, I am your own parent! How could you excommunicate me?
LUCINDA BENNETT: I wonder what Thanksgiving at the Dickson’s is going to be like this year…
CALEB BUTLER: Since they had seceded from First Parish Church of Groton, laid the foundation
for a new church building down the street, and called Mister Todd to serve as minister in their new
church, their votes had no bearing on us or on Reverend Robinson’s call.
Scene Five: November 1, 1826
CALEB BUTLER: On November 1, 1826, Rev. Charles Robinson was installed as minister to the
First Parish of Groton. It was a day of great mixed thoughts and feelings. It was a profound honor to
have been addressed by Rev. Henry Ware, Jr., one of the leading Unitarian ministers of the Unitarian
movement. I can still hear his address to us, the congregation:
HENRY WARE JR: You have come up to this day’s service through a separation from those with
whom you have been accustomed to worship. Painful recollections attend this occasion. Remember
that test of your strength of principle, your purity of motive, your fidelity to conscience, and your
devotion to the truth. But do not think yourselves at liberty to condemn others for difference of
opinions and diversity of faith; nor, which you are more tempted to do at the present day, to sneer at
them for being less enlightened and liberal than yourselves. No difference of faith or worship,
experience or knowledge; nor any circumstance of party excitement, and sectarian or local feeling,
gives anyone the right to lay aside charity.
You have connection not only with one another but with those of other churches. Fail not, then to
walk in love and forbearance toward one another. Keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
Provoke one another to love and good works. Help each others’ virtue, strengthen each others’ faith,
bear each others’ burdens, forbear with each others’ weakness, and show how good and pleasant it is
for all to dwell together in unity.
CALEB BUTLER: And now, years later, each party is contented and happy in the religious