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History: Antrim’s first minister

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A Look Back
Published: 10/18/2019 3:08:21 PM
Modified: 10/18/2019 3:08:07 PM

“He had no salient points. He had no extreme endowments. There was nothing that could be called brilliant about him.”

Not brilliant, perhaps, but quite notable and well loved. Rev. John Milton Whiton, as described in Antrim’s 1880 town history, certainly left his mark. “Yet he was so finished and capable in every respect, that he left good impressions of himself everywhere, and the public generally both admired and loved him,” the history continues. “Splendid things cannot be written of him; noble and blessed things without number can be. If he was great, it was the greatness of symmetry. People felt that he was a safe man. He commanded their respect. There was a peculiar grace about him everywhere, which attracted regard and reverence, and seemed as winning by the wayside as in the pulpit.”

Whiton was born in Winchendon, Mass. in 1785; he attended Dartmouth College and graduated from Yale. Originally, he intended to become a medical doctor, feeling that his oratory skills were lacking. But, after some of what we would call soul-searching and the 119-year-old town history calls “struggle of mind,” he took up the study of theology instead, earning a doctor of divinity degree.

In 1808, he came with his wife, Abby Morris Whiton, to Antrim to serve as the town’s pastor. He held the post for 45 years, and during that time was steadfastly admired by townspeople for his modesty, temperance in all things, kindness and honesty.

Whiton was also a scholar and writer: He published a history of New Hampshire, an account of ministers in Hillsborough County, and an early history of Antrim. He was at work on a history of Presbyterianism in New Hampshire when he died. Whiton also wrote musical compositions.

W.R. Cochrane, the writer of the town’s 1880 history, who spends several pages on Whiton, was himself a minister in town. He obviously admired his predecessor greatly both as a pastor and a man.

He also includes a couple of anecdotes about Whiton, including one in which the minister, who apparently grew a bit absent minded as he aged, searched in vain for a missing sock, and then found he’d put two socks on one foot.

Whiton was known to appreciate a good joke, even one at his own expense. “He had one parishioner that always paid his minister tax with a skim-milk cheese,” Cochrane writes. “On one occasion of receiving it the doctor blandly told the man about the solid and lasting qualities of the preceding cheese, and added: ‘I trust this one will be good.’ -- ‘I guess it’s as good as the preaching,’ said the man, as he drove away master of the situation!”

Another time, he caught a man in the act of stealing from his pork barrel: “Once, in the later years of his ministry, one of his neighbors thought he would try the good doctor’s pork-barrel. He took a hand with him, one passing the port out the cellar-window, the other putting it in a basket outside. The doctor heard the noise, and slipped out-doors and round the house, when the man outside ran off without speaking! Silently the doctor took his place and piled the port into the basket for him. ‘Would you take it all?’ asked the man in the cellar. -- “Perhaps you’d better leave a little for them,’ quietly replied the doctor, in his well-known and pleasant voice!”

The neighbor promised never to steal again, and Whiton agreed not to expose him so long as he kept that promise.

At the age of 68, in 1852, Whiton stepped down from his post. The demands of a large congregation were beginning to wear on him. Even so, he did not want to give up his work, and he soon accepted the pastorate in neighboring Bennington. He remained at that post until his death in 1856.

Cochrane comments on the amount of space he dedicates in his history to the early minister: “This notice of one man had so much to do with shaping the character of this town; coming here at the age of twenty-three, growing up with this people, having so wide an influence over their social, educational, and religious affairs, being a marked man for counsel in all this part of the State, being favorable known in New England, and leaving impressions that are good and strong to this hour, -- it is proper that he have unusual space and notice.”

Whiton’s wife also earned a place in Cochrane’s history. It is noted that as a child, she was cured of having fits by being infected with a vaccine of small pox. She wrote, in her reminiscences, “Accordingly, when I was thirteen and a half years old, I was inoculated for it; … was carried to a log house, father having secured the attendance of a physician who took his family in; also Mrs. Chace, the minister’s wife, who took her children; also an excellent nurse, who was pious, as the physician said the small-pox would kill or cure.”

She also wrote about her experiences in the early days of her husband’s ministry: “I was a minister’s wife, the first that had ever resided in the town. Of course I was a mark to be shot at. Every minute action was noticed and remarked upon. Some thought I was too dressy. I wore white and prints, while the dress of my neighbors was of home manufacture. One remarked I was a mighty lady but she would not knuckle to me!”

Cochrane fills out that story. “Mrs. Whiton was a most excellent woman,” his history reports, “and was greatly loved by the people, and, indeed, by all that knew her; yet she was generally understood to stand a little on her dignity, when she first came to this town. This arose from the fact that she was diffident, and was and was unacquainted with the ways and manners of a country place. In the firs year of Mr. Whiton’s ministry they were invited to a remote part of the town to marry a couple. They found a large company of guests, and, all being in readiness, the ceremony was soon over. Mrs. Whiton happened, just then, to notice one woman who seemed to be quite alone, so she went and sat down by her, and commenced conversation; spoke of the pleasant occasion, the large company, the pleasant looks of the bride, etc. The woman, not knowing to whom she was speaking, responded very freely, and then added: ‘They say Mr. Whiton has just brought his wife to town. I’ve never seen her, but they say she is a mighty lady; why, she wouldn’t speak to common folks like you and me!’”

Mrs. Whiton died nine years after her husband’s death, in 1865, at the age of 81.


A Look Back originally appeared in the Monadnock Ledger. 

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