In 1818 the First Church of Dedham, a village southwest of Boston, had divided over the calling of a new minister. The parish (i.e., the adult citizens of the town), having become sympathetic to Unitarianism, called a liberal, the Rev. Alvan Lamson. The church (i.e., those persons who attended regularly), 2 smaller, more tradition-minded group consisting largely of women, objected to the choice of Mr. Lamson by a vote of fourteen to eighteen. In spite of the church's opposition, the parish settled and ordained Mr. Lamson as its minister. Whereupon the majority of the members of the church, assuming themselves to be the true society, withdrew, claiming as their own the property, furnishings, and records they left behind. When this happened the people of the parish, plus the liberal minority of the church, replaced the former deacons with new deacons of their own number, and sued for the recovery of the church property.
The question for the court to decide was: Which group was the First Church in Dedham and entitled to the property?
The decision was critical for both wings of the Church in Massachusetts. At stake was the property not only of the Dedham church but of every church in the Commonwealth whose membership was divided between liberals and orthodox.
A jury trial was held in February 1820. The jury's decision, directed by Chief Justice Isaac Parker, was handed down the following October. It read: "When the majority of the members of a Congregational 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."
Following are excerpts from the seldom quoted "Opinion of the Court" in the Dedham case, on which its decision was based.
Hitherto we have gone upon the ground, that at the time when the earliest of these grants were made, there was a body of men in Dedham, known by the name of the Dedham Church; distinct from the society of Christians usually worshipping together in that town. …Probably there was no very familiar distinction at that time between the church and the whole assembly of Christians in the town. We have had no evidence that the inhabitants were divided into two bodies, of church and society or parish - keeping separate records, and having separate interests; but if the fact be otherwise than is supposed, there is no doubt that most of the inhabitants of the town were church members at that time. In the year 1631, ten years only before the earliest of these grants, it was provided by a colonial law, that no inhabitants should have the political rights of a free man, unless he were a member of some orthodox church. The presumption is violent then, that almost if not quite all of the adult inhabitants of Dedham and other towns were church members, and a grant to the church, under such circumstances, could mean nothing else than a grant to the town…-That this was the state of things, will not be doubted by those who look into the ancient tracts and writings, respecting the churches in New England…
Considering then that the land granted was for the beneficial use of the assembly of Christians in Dedham, which were no other than the inhabitants of that town who constituted the religious society, within which the church was established, these inhabitants were the cestui que trusts*~and the equitable title was vested in them, as long as they continued to constitute the assembly denominated the church in the grants
...No particular number is necessary to constitute a church, nor is there any established quorum, which would have a right to manage the concerns of the body. According to the Cambridge platform, ch. 3, ~ 4, the number is to be no larger than can conveniently meet together in one place, nor ordinarily fewer than may conveniently carry on church work. It would seem to follow from the very structure of such a body as this, which is a mere voluntary association, that a diminution of its numbers will not affect its identity. A church may exist, in an ecclesiastical sense, without any officers, as will be seen in the platform. . . . The only circumstance therefore, which gives a church any legal character, is its connexion with some regularly constituted society; and those who withdraw from the society cease to be members of that particular church, and the remaining members continue to be the identical church…
We consider then the non-concurrence of the church in the choice of the minister, and in the invitation to the ordaining council, as in no degree impairing the constitutional right of the parish.-That council might have refused to proceed, but the parish could not by that have been deprived of their minister. It was right and proper, as they could not proceed according to ancient usage, because of the dissent of the church, to approach as near to i~ as possible by calling a respectable council, and having their sanction in the ordination. And it was certainly wise in that council, finding that the points of disagreement were such as would be likely to cause a permanent separation, to yield to the wishes of the parish, and give their sanction to proceedings, which were justified by the constitution and laws of the land. They ordained him over the parish only: but by virtue of that act, founded upon the choice of the people, he became not only the minister of the parish, but of the church still remaining there, notwithstanding the secession of a majority of the members. Mr. Lamson thus became the lawful minister of the first parish in Dedham, and of the church subsisting therein; and he had a right to call church meetings, and do all other acts pertaining to a settled and ordained minister of the gospel. The church had a right to choose deacons, finding that the former deacons had abdicated their office; and thus no legal objection is found to exist against their right to maintain this action…
Having established the points necessary to settle this cause, viz. that the property sued for belongs to the first church in Dedham, sub modo; that is, to be managed by its deacons under the super-intendance of the church, for the general good of the inhabitants of the first parish, in the support of the publick worship of God -that the members of the church, now associated and worshipping with the first parish, constitute the first church -and that the plaintiffs are duly appointed deacons of that church; it follows that the verdict of the jury is right, and that judgment must be entered accordingly.
The Dedham case rocked Massachusetts Congregationalism to its foundation. Many ministers could not believe it. More were shocked and embittered. Some of the orthodox accused Judge Parker of bias because he was himself a Unitarian.
The withdrawal of Trinitarians from the Unitarian-dominated churches to form new societies, and vice versa to a much smaller extent, proceeded rapidly. Within twenty years one-quarter of the 544 Congregational churches in Massachusetts were Unitarian. With the Unitarians claiming most of the leading ministers and laity, one observer later said that the Massachusetts churches had "blown their brains out."