By Cindy Ryherd

Reverend Daniel Emerson: Emerson Chapel’s Namesake

This is the first of a multi-part series about Reverend Daniel Emerson, first pastor of the what is now the Congregational Church of Hollis. Emerson Chapel, part of the current church building, is named in honor and memory of him. The chapel was built and dedicated in 1925 as part of the construction of the current Meetinghouse (the previous one burning down in 1923). Pictured below are Emerson Chapel in 1925 and what it looks like today.

Inside of Emerson Chapel in 1925
Outside of Emerson Chapel in 1925 (on west side of Meetinghouse)
Inside of Emerson Chapel in 2021
Inside of Emerson Chapel in 2021

April is a fitting month to begin this series, as it was on April 20, 1743 (278 years ago) that Rev. Daniel Emerson was ordained in the one-room Meetinghouse that existed at the time. Born on May 20, 1716 in Reading, MA, he was just 26 years old (turning 27 a month later) when he was ordained, and he remained the sole pastor for 50 years. At 77 years old, he gave up half of his salary to make way for a co-pastor, Reverend Eli Smith (Rev. Emerson’s grand-daughter, Ama Emerson’s husband). He continued to serve as co-pastor until his death on September 30, 1801 at 85 years old, fulfilling the language he added to the 1743 contract with the town: “I as freely and willingly accept of the call and freely subscribe myself yours to serve in the work of the Gospel Ministry During Life.” (in other words, he considered himself bound to the contract for life). 

Let’s start by setting the scene of what life was like back in colonial New England because it is in this context that one can more fully appreciate the true significance of Rev. Daniel Emerson:

  • what having a settled pastor meant to the town
  • what his decision to come might have entailed

Colonial New England: Town and Church are the Same

In 1743, it had been only 13 years since Peter Powers ventured into what was then the West Dunstable Territory of Massachusetts. In 1741, West Dunstable Territory of MA was divided into West Dunstable, MA and West Dunstable, NH when King George settled a border dispute between MA and NH resulting in the border moving south to where it is today. Side note: Unlike today where NH residents have been known to scorn those from MA, the townspeople at that time were not thrilled at being told they were now part of NH. They considered themselves people of MA, but they moved forward because what choice did they have? The King had spoken! The area that was West Dunstable, NH, over time, was divided into several current cities and towns, including all of Hollis and parts of Brookline, Milford, Amherst, Merrimack and Nashua. On April 3, 1746 about one-half of West Dunstable, NH was incorporated and named Holles (later changed to Hollis). All of this is to say that pretty much everything was in a state of flux and changing rapidly!

Map of Dunstable

Click on image below to see original map of Dunstable and changes resulting from border dispute decision and dividing into Dunstable and West Dunstable.

  • Red box shows roughly original area of Dunstable with the northern line presumed to be the border between New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
  • Blue line shows where state line was moved to by King George II decision.
  • Green dashed line shows roughly where Dunstable was divided into Dunstable and West Dunstable.

Also, in 1743, we were colonies of England under the rule of King George II, still 3+ decades until the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, 4+ decades until the ratification of the United States Constitution, and 5 decades until the ratification of the Bill of Rights with the 1st amendment guaranteeing, among other things “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. The key takeaway here is that in 1743, there was NO separation of Church and State and the West Dunstable Congregational Church, like all churches at that time, was supported by town taxes.

So intertwined were religion and government in colonial New England that in order to petition for a town charter, it was required to have a church (aka Meetinghouse), and having a settled pastor was also an important consideration. Being chartered was important as it established the town as a real entity with privileges, and it was much more likely that their concerns, disputes, and legal issues would be heard and resolved (with all the change, disputes were very common at that time). For that reason alone, it would have been VERY important to the early settlers of West Dunstable, NH to hire a settled pastor to ensure approval of a request for charter. Plus, this was the time of The Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept the English colonies during the 1730s and 1740s resulting in a renewed dedication toward religion. Settlers of West Dunstable would have been well-aware of and caught up in the movement. NOT having a settled pastor would be unacceptable.

The Offer, Counter-Offer, Acceptance

By 1741 West Dunstable, NH had its 1-room Meetinghouse and in January 1742, 43 townsmen unanimously voted to extend Rev. Emerson an offer to become the settled pastor. The offer included a settlement fee in local currency, his salary a fixed amount of Bills of Credit equivalent to local currency, and 30 cords of wood delivered yearly. Emerson took over a year pondering his decision before he responded and in March 1743, they received and considered his response. 

Being of good, shrewd Yankee blood, Emerson counter-offered asking for his settlement fee to include Forty Acres of Good Land, near and convenient to the Meetinghouse, having his salary paid in Bills of Credit equal to 150 ounces of coined Silver (a much more reliable currency than local currencies at the time), 30 cords of wood delivered yearly, and a stipulation for salary increases as the number of families reached 100, and again when they reached 150. (NOTE: By 1760, the number of families had risen to over 105 so he was wise to incorporate the “growth raise” into his contract!).

The townsmen accepted Rev. Emerson’s counter-offer and on April 20, 1743, he was ordained as the first pastor of the West Parish of Dunstable. The pewter communion platter from his ordination ceremony (pictured left) hangs on display at the church today, presented to the church by Mrs. Lulu Bancroft of Pepperrell in 1970, tracing back to Jonathan Lovejoy (buried in the church cemetery) who came to Hollis on April 20, 1743, the day of Rev. Emerson’s ordination. Click HERE to read the newspaper article about the presentation of the platter to the church in 1970.

Why did it take a year for Daniel Emerson to accept the offer?

Daniel Emerson’s grandfather, Rev. Joseph Emerson, was a preacher (York, ME), so it seems this would be an easy decision. However, his FATHER, Peter Emerson, was a wealthy farmer (wealth acquired through marriage to Anna Brown), allowing Daniel the privilege of attending Harvard. At Harvard, he was not considered an exemplary student. He liked to dance (wicked!) and he was not inclined to choose the most serious-minded students as companions. Study of divinity was not on his mind. My interpretation of that information: He had been a bit of a carefree “bad boy” with no real purpose or direction. During his time at Harvard, he would visit his cousin Rev. Joseph Emerson in Malden, whose daughter, Hannah (Daniel’s 2nd cousin), he eventually married. Chances are pretty good that an interest may have sparked during those visits! 

George Whitefield preaching an open-air sermon.

After graduation in 1739, he stayed in Cambridge as graduate student and butler. A year after his graduation, he saw the English evangelist George Whitefield speak in Cambridge. Whitefield was a prominent preacher of The Great Awakening previously aforementioned and in Emerson’s words he “Heard the call of the Lord to be henceforth his minister”. He followed Whitefield from town-to-town, profoundly changing his life and giving it purpose. If that sounds crazy, he was not alone. Whitefield would have audiences of up to 25,000 people during his open-air sermons. With his marvelous voice, his sweeping emotion, and his picturesque delivery, he thrilled and moved his audience when he spoke. 

Still, when Daniel received his offer in 1742, despite his relatively new-found religious fervor, there would have been MUCH to consider before deciding to become the pastor (for LIFE) of West Dunstable, NH, which was so isolated compared to the likes of Cambridge, Malden, or even Reading, MA where he was born and raised! Perhaps he was also trying to get offers from other towns; towns closer to “civilization”? West Dunstable was a HUGE area (remember all the towns it was ultimately divided into) with only 30 families in residence – we’re talking REMOTE! Another important consideration was likely Hannah, who lived in Malden. Would she be willing to move so far away if they were to marry? Their love for one another was very real; definitely NOT a relationship of convenience (more about them in a future edition)! It may have taken a year to solidify their relationship enough where he felt sure she would go with him!

At last, Reverend Daniel Emerson Arrives and is Ordained

Alas, it was clearly meant to be. After a year of consideration, Daniel Emerson accepted the position (under conditions of his counter-offer) and arrived in West Dunstable in April 1743. Once ordained, he wasted no time building a cabin on the 40 acres of land he was given as part of his contract. It promptly burned down! In 1744 he rebuilt what is now referred to as the Emerson House overlooking the town common of Monument Square located on the east side of Main Street across Cleasby Lane from Hollis Town Hall. Only the oldest portion of the house that faces Cleasby Lane was built in 1744 (in preparation for the arrival of his bride). Reverend Daniel Emerson and Hannah Emerson married in the one-room Meetinghouse of West Dunstable, NH on November 11, 1744, a year and a half after his ordination. As Emerson’s family grew (13 children total), the house was expanded. It is one of the oldest surviving houses in Hollis and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Emerson House c1744 on Monument Square
Emerson House c1744. The side facing Cleasby Lane and the Town Hall is the original section of the house.

To read more detail about the settling of Reverend Daniel Emerson and the official offer, counter-offer, and acceptance language, click HERE (pages 50-56 of History of the town of Hollis, New Hampshire, from its first settlement to the year 1879 by Samuel Worcester.


Learn more about the 58 years of impact Reverend Daniel Emerson had on Hollis: teacher, soldier, an original “friends of the library”, adoring husband… it goes well beyond his role as town religious leader! 

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” Mahatma Gandhi

© 2023 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC