Rev. John Tompson (1740-1828) and the First Parish Parsonage

Parson John Tompson 1740-1828Parson John Tompson (1740-1828). Courtesy of Ralph N. Thompson

“On a cold January morning in 1791, Parson John Thompson of Berwick mounted his old white horse and set out for Boston,” writes historian Marie Donahue. “Packed in his saddlebag for presentation to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was a petition for permission to establish an Academy...‘for the purpose of promoting true Piety and Virtue and useful Knowledge among the rising generation.'”

Rev. Tompson (as his name was more commonly spelled in that day) would have been about 52 years old. Less than eight years before, on May 7, 1783, he had been installed as minister of First Parish Church of Berwick, in present-day South Berwick, Maine. The meeting house, erected in 1752, stood at the corner of today's Brattle Street and Old South Road. The “Old Fields” neighborhood, where the church burial ground remains, was then the center of the settlement, the crossroads of routes connecting forests in the interior to mills on the Great Works River and shipyards on the Salmon Falls River.

Throughout the 1700s, the meeting house stood at the corner of what was later named Old South Road and Brattle Street.

Tompson had been born on October 3, 1740 in Scarborough, Maine, where his father William was minister, and graduated from Harvard College in 1760. He was one of several educated descendants of an important Massachusetts Puritan minister, Rev. William Tompson, born about 1598 in Lancashire, England, who served briefly as minister in York, Maine, from 1637 to 1639 before becoming the first pastor of the first Congregational Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, then known as Braintree. In the 1640s William Tompson participated in a missionary expedition in Virginia in which he was said to have been an “instrument in the conversion” of Daniel Gookin, a scholar involved with Indian missionary work whose family later had connections in Berwick and southern Maine.

Rev. John Tompson, Rev. William Tompson's great-great grandson, took his South Berwick post just a few months before the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War in 1783. “Mr. Tompson evidently plucked up his courage in accepting the call to Berwick,” wrote author Sarah Orne Jewett in 1894. “It was not only that he succeeded his predecessor, but the call was given in the darkest days of the Revolution, by a poor and anxious parish, with whom he frankly condoles upon its divided and languishing state. Berwick, as neighbor to her parent town of Kittery, had shared in the glorious successes of Pepperell in the siege of Louisburg [Louisbourg]; and no doubt some of her men marched with the company, formed about Saco, that was present at the fight on Bunker Hill. There is a devout assurance of Mr. Tompson's ‘Requests at the throne of Grace, that the God of Peace may be with us and bless us,' as he ends his letter of acceptance.”

By the time Tompson reached Berwick at age 44, the Revolution had been hard on him personally, because of the poverty that visited northern New England in those days. He'd had another post, as first minister of Standish, Maine, but the parish couldn't afford to support him and his large family.

“He was ordained Oct. 1768,” records church historian Rev. E. W. Allen, a mid-19th century pastor of the South Berwick church. “His salary was paid by the Proprietors of the Township for Eight years. They, supposing that the inhabitants were now able to pay their minister, withheld their usual support in 1776. Mr. T. still continued his labors for five years without any compensation. At length, in 1781, he suspended his ministrations in Standish & sought other fields of labor. After two years, ye pastoral relations was [sic] dissolved and Mr. T. was installed here, on Wednesday, May 7, 1783.”

The old parsonage at 88 Old South Road, South Berwick, became after 2001 the home of Ray Amidon and Bette Freedson.

After his 13 years in Standish, Berwick offered Tompson not only compensation but housing for his family in the parsonage next door to the meeting house. The parsonage is now a private home. Though modified in the mid-1800s it retains interior features from Tompson's day. Old South Road once connected Pipe Stave Landing shipyards at the Hamilton House to the forests of Tatnic and, beyond them, the town of Wells and the coast. For 150 years, teams of oxen had hauled mast pines to the river along this important route. The forests were likely almost all cleared by Tompson's day, but the shipyards were still active. Jonathan Hamilton was building his great mansion on the river about 1785. Families in scattered farms would have ridden to church each Sunday.

The church at the corner of today's Brattle Street and Old South Road had been built in 1752 near the site of a 1702 meeting house, which in turn had replaced a crude structure dating to 1660. Tompson's church “measured 47 feet wide by 70 feet long, with a belfry and tall spire,” according to local historian Paul Colburn. “The sanctuary had high square pews and a raised pulpit with a sounding board. There were galleries on three sides; the rear balcony held rough benches for the Negro servants and people too poor to buy church pews as did other members of the congregation.” 

Slavery existed in New England at the time, and has been documented in several local families, including that of Rev. Jeremiah Wise (c. 1679-1756), who preceded Tompson in the parish from 1707 to 1756.  The nearby Pipe Stave Landing shipyard produced vessels that traded with slavery-based economies in the West Indies.

Drawing by Paul Colburn courtesy of First Parish Federated Church. 

There is evidence that the church of Berwick, like that of Standish and other northern New England towns, had also suffered financially during the Revolution. Church records show the pastor of 20 years, the Harvard-educated Rev. John Foster, left in 1777 when the congregation could no longer pay him, and became chaplain in the army. Foster had succeeded Rev. Jeremiah, who is known to have not lived in the parsonage, but at the corner of today's Vine and Brattle Streets. The date the parsonage was constructed is not known, but it seems likely the Foster family lived there before the Tompsons. After Foster's departure, temporary ministers seem to have been handling church duties for about five years, with Tompson performing a baptism in October 1782 before he was officially installed.

“These were days of discouragement,” writes Jewett. “The town's business was stopped; the country was making a bitter struggle, and drawing away the best energies of the men to the seat of war. It was manifestly a time when the pine forests were in process of growth, and there was no market for timber, even if it could yet be cut. Some of the richer families had become extinct or had gone away...The country was more and more impoverished, and we can hardly imagine the discouragement that met both minister and people at every hand.”

The new minister's family arriving in spring 1783 included seven children ranging in age from 1 ½ to 13 ½ years, and Tompson's wife, Sarah, was expecting another child. She had been born Sarah Small in Rollinsford , NH, (then called Somersworth) in 1748, and was thus 35 years old.  Their marriage indicates Tompson may have had prior connections to Berwick, and local records show a Tompson family, perhaps related, here in the 1600s.

Sarah Thompson headstone

Among Tompson's first recorded duties here were baptisms of children born to John and Lydia Haggens (sometimes spelled Higgens), who had recently built what was later known as the Sarah Orne Jewett House, and to John and Elizabeth Hill, who lived in the farm at what became Brattle Street and Route 236.

Just months after moving to their new home, Sarah Tompson gave birth to a son, John Storer, on August 5. His father baptized him the same day. However, three weeks later Sarah died, on August 30. She and Rev. Tompson and their family are buried in Old Fields Burying Ground.

In addition to the newborn, the Tompson children included William, 13 ½; Edward, 11 ½ ; Samuel, 9 ½ ; Sarah, 8; Anna, 6 ½ ; Joseph, 5; and Mary; 2. Five months later, Rev. Tompson married a widow named Sarah Morrill, about 41, in January 1784, to care for his motherless youngsters.  It is not known where she was from or whether she had previous children. On May 18, 1785, the Tompsons had a daughter, Betsey. Another son, William Allen, was born on April 18, 1787.

The historical notes of the later Congregational minister Rev. Allen indicate Rev. Tompson was interested in the ideas of his day, and was considered an Arminian, a follower of the theology of Jacobus Arminius, a Dutch pastor and theologian in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Tompson published “two sermons on the freedom of the will,” said Allen, and throughout his ministry “exchanged” with ministers in Berwick, Eliot, Kittery, York, Kennebunk, and Wells, Maine; and Somersworth, Dover, Newington, Durham, Rochester, Wakefield, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  

Tompson was a colleague of the theologian Rev. Moses Hemmenway (1735-1811), pastor of Wells and an 1855 Harvard classmate and friend of President John Adams, and who joined in founding Berwick Academy.

Inspired by his knowledge of the world, and with many children now growing up in the parsonage, Rev. Tompson may have had aspirations and concerns about their upbringing in this riverfront timbering community emerging from the American Revolution. During his first decade in Berwick he wrote a letter to a friend deploring “the melancholy state of the rising generation in this community... Ignorance and irreligion have gained alarming ground.”

Leading local citizens of means felt the same.  They included Judge Benjamin Chadbourne; merchants Jonathan Hamilton, Gen. John Lord and Dr. Ivory Hovey; and Rev. Hemmenway. With their affairs improving after the war, they now pooled their resources to found an academy, with Chadbourne giving a plot of hillside land about half a mile from the church.

On March 11, 1791, Governor John Hancock signed an act of incorporation establishing Berwick Academy's charter. Rev. Tompson is said to have made a second trip to Boston to return with it. Judge Chadbourne became the first academy president, followed by Gen. Lord. In 1803, Tompson assumed the presidency, retaining the post for 22 years.

1791 House, courtesy of Berwick Academy

The schoolhouse was the simple wood frame house known today as the 1791 House. It is still on the Berwick Academy campus, where it serves as an administration building.

In those times before the spread of universal public education, the academy was the only high school but served the elite. Females were not yet admitted, so the two Tompson girls did not attend.  Whether any of his sons became students is not known. Not long after the school was founded, the older boys were settling into adult lives. 

In 1793, William married Hannah Goodwin and they moved to Portland, where he died in 1859. One of his sons, John Goodwin Thompson, became an important South Berwick merchant (see below). Edward Tompson married Sarah Sewall of York in 1797, and they settled in Standish, where he died in 1836. Samuel married Mary Lancaster and settled in Portland, where he died in 1854.

Mary Tompson died in 1808 at 26. Other Tompson daughters married into important South Berwick families. In 1802, Anna Tompson married Ichabod Goodwin, and in 1814 Betsey Tompson married Andrew Goodwin. Both were sons of Gen. Ichabod Goodwin, whose home still stands at 1 Oldfields Road, South Berwick. Betsey died in 1817, leaving no children.

On August 20, 1809, Sarah Tompson married Edward Payne Hayman (1771-1831), a prosperous lawyer from Boston who had studied with lawyer Dudley Hubbard, and had been elected to the Massachusetts Senate in 1800. The Haymans lived near the home of Judge Chadbourne, who had died in 1799, at what was known as Liberty Square, an intersection of what was later called Vine Street and Liberty Street. The Hayman House was still standing on Vine Street in the early 21st century, though altered. The family had at least two children, Edward about 1813 and Charles about two years later.

Hayman served as clerk of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and the Essex County Circuit Court. In 1814, during his father-in-law's tenure as Berwick Academy president, Hayman was appointed its treasurer, and served for the rest of his life. He also succeeded Tompson for two years as president, and son Charles became a teacher. In 1823 Hayman was appointed cashier of the newly organized South Berwick Bank, located on the later site of the P. Gagnon and Son oil company. He died in 1831 and Sarah Tompson Hayman in 1836.

Rev. Tompson's son John, the baby born in the parsonage to his first wife Sarah before she died in 1783 became a sea captain.

Captain John Storer Tompson (1783-1863), courtesy of Ralph N. Thompson

Descendant Ralph N. Thompson fills in his history:  “This son went to sea when he was 14 and earned his masters license when he was 19.  He settled in York, Maine, where he married Susan Sewall.  He sailed ships for the Portsmouth merchants during his active career.  His oldest son, Augustus, was the 303rd student at Berwick Academy.  He settled in Boston.”

Rev. Tompson's youngest son, William Allen (c. 1786-1835), born in the Old South Road parsonage and like his eldest half brother named William after his famous Massachusetts Puritan ancestor, may have studied as a minister. He briefly became Berwick Academy's headmaster about 1813-17, when the school was going through hard economic times during America's trade embargo.  He and his new wife, Anna Maria Adams of Portsmouth, moved into the Tompson-Sanborn House that stood next to the later site of South Berwick Town Hall. They had at least eight children, according to church records, and seem to have remained in the area.

In 1817 Berwick Academy closed for financial reasons for two years, reopening just before Maine became a state. It is not known exactly how Rev. Tompson, then 77, managed to organize the funds to reopen the doors.

By 1820, though, the community was changing. South Berwick had become a separate town in 1814, and a new commercial center was developing along a central square at Main and Portland Streets, which formed part of a stagecoach route linking Boston and Portland.

“On April 10, 1824,” writes church historian Colburn, “it is recorded with a sense of dismay that ‘various other Societies have risen up among us which have greatly reduced our numbers and our resources, and so small is our number and so remote are most of us from the place of worship, that our average congregation does not usually exceed fifty individuals.'” Worship services began to be held at Berwick Academy, closer to the population center, where Tompson, now 84, had been president for 21 years. A “colleague Pastor,” Rev. George Washington Campbell, was ordained to help with church duties.

In March, 1826, the First Parish Church opened a new meeting house at the corner of Academy and Main Streets, the present First Parish Federated Church. Rev. Campbell seems to have carried out many of the duties of transition. Sarah Tompson had died the year before, on August 24, 1825, at 83. Tompson, the “senior pastor,” lived three more years, and on March 30, 1828, the church records note, he “preached all day in the absence of Mr. Campbell who preached in Durham.”

Nine months later the records state, “Reverend John Tompson our Senr Pastor died December 21 1828 at the age of eighty eight years and two months having been forty one years active pastor of this church and four with a colleague making 45 years & six months since he settled here.”

In the 1830s, the 1752 meeting house at Old Fields was taken over by the Methodist-Episcopal society that had recently formed, but then in 1837, this congregation built a church on Main at Park Street, and the old meeting house was abandoned for good. A later newspaper reported in a historical note that in 1844 the church was sold for about $2500 “to persons living near by who blew it up with gunpowder and used the lumber obtained for other building operations."

The parsonage, for a time owned by Isaiah Shorey, was acquired about 1840 along with 12 acres of land by a joiner named Capt. John Hanscom. He seems to have altered the building to its present appearance and built a barn. The attic of the house shows evidence that the roof was rebuilt with very old timbers that had been previously used. Thus, parts of the 1750 church may now be part of this house.

Early 19th century modifications to the Tompson parsonage include two copper basins in the kitchen and a small Wire and Noble cast iron door made at the Portland Foundry between 1822 and 1827. Most of the woodwork trim in the house was done in the 19th century, probably by Capt. Hanscom himself. A Black's patent latch on one door dates to about 1840.

Features in the cellar, including rose-headed nails, timbers, and recycled wood that may have been a pantry shelf, indicate the basic structure of the house is unchanged since the mid-1700s.

In the living room, a staircase door dates from 18th century, and the original hinges with leather washers are evidence it has never been removed since the Tompsons' time.

Excerpt of 1856 map of South Berwick Village

A son of Parson Tompson's eldest son William, John Goodwin Thompson, born in Standish on May 12, 1799, returned to South Berwick as a young man and became a leading citizen. The John G. Thompson house is still a private home at 229 Main Street in downtown South Berwick. His nearby bookstore opened in 1825 next door to the South Berwick Bank where Edward Hayman was employed.

John G. Thompson married Olive Elizabeth Goodwin (c. 1803-1864), daughter of Ichabod Goodwin and his aunt, Anna Tompson Goodwin, on February 20, 1827. Their children included Anna Sara (1828-1864), William (b. 1829), Mary Goodwin (1832-1902), Martha Fairfield (1833-1833), John Goodwin (b. 1834), Charles Hayman (b. 1836), and an infant (1839-1839).

The book and stationery store of John G. Tompson, Rev. Tompson's grandson, second from the left in this photo, stood until the 1960s near the later location of the P. Gagnon building and the Central School driveway on Main Street, South Berwick. In the early 1800s, Edward P. Hayman, Rev. Tompson's son-in-law, ran the old bank, far left.  The parson's son, William A. Tompson, lived in the second house from the right, near the later location of South Berwick Town Hall.  At the time of this photo, taken in the late 1800s probably just after John G. Tompson's death, his son William was running the bookstore, which he continued into the 20th century.

The Tompson book business, probably affiliated with Berwick Academy as the leading academic institution, seems to have operated continuously there until, in 1872, about the time of John G. Thompson's death, his son William took over and ran it into the 20th century. It was torn down in the 1960s. It probably had been one of the longest-running businesses in the history of the town.

(Summary by Wendy Pirsig from archives of the Counting House Museum, with architectural analysis by Thomas B. Johnson and research by Norma Keim. Sources include: Family records of Ralph Thompson; The Old Academy on the Hill, by Marie Donahue; Records of First and Second Churches of Berwick; Lives of Consequence by Patricia Q. Wall; John Frost's Cemetery Guide; “Celebrating Three Hundred Years: The First Parish Federated Church” by Paul F. Colburn; “The First Permanent Settlement in Maine” by Everett S. Stackpole, 1926; Vital Records of Berwick, South Berwick and North Berwick; and local maps from the Old Berwick Historical Society archives. Updated December 2020.)