Founders of the Massachusetts Bible Society - 1809

The Massachusetts Bible Society began on July 6, 1809 and is an ecumenical, Christian organization dedicated to promoting Biblical literacy, understanding, and dialogue. This blog lists brief biographies of our founders who gathered in the Massachusetts State House Senate Chamber on that historic day to sign the Charter founding MBS. Please visit our website:

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rev. Abiel Holmes, DD

Abiel Holmes is another of our founders whose original roots were in Connecticut. He was born in Woodstock, CT on December 24, 1763 to a family that had come nearly a century before. His father was a surgeon in the Revolutionary Army. Rev. Holmes graduated from Yale in 1783 and became a tutor there while he studied theology.

His first pastoral charge was in Midway, Georgia but after six years he resigned that post and came to Cambridge where he accepted the pastorate of the First Parish there in 1792. It was just a little over a month after our founding that Rev. and Mrs. Holmes had their third child, Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Rev. Holmes had a special love for history, delivering a series of lectures on ecclesiastical history and in 1805 publishing the two-volume work Annals of America, which was and is a standard authority.

The common practice of doing pulpit exchanges with other area ministers that caused a stir for Rev. Codman, also caught Rev. Holmes for the same reason. In 1828, after ministering as a Unitarian for more than thirty years at First Parish, Abiel Holmes became more of a strict Calvinist. At that juncture he, like Rev. Codman, stopped inviting exchanges with his more liberal colleagues and his church complained. When he also began preaching five-point Calvinism, Trinitarian doctrine, and starting a series of evening lectures focused on the same, a formal complaint was filed and his removal requested. His response from the pulpit was, “If I seem to disregard the wishes or the taste of my hearers, it is because I am more desirous to save than to please them.”

In 1829 an Ecclesiastical Council was called to resolve the conflict, consisting of area colleagues, including fellow MBS founder Eliphalet Porter. Rev. Holmes declined to recognize the jurisdiction of the Council. They convened and voted anyway that the church did have a right to dismiss Rev. Holmes for his change in theology. In a letter dated June 12, 1829, Rev. Holmes was informed that his services would no longer be required at First Parish.

There were, of course, supporters of Rev. Holmes, and MBS founder William Hilliard was among them, leading the charge to challenge the legality of the proceedings. Later in 1829 the parish committee of the church published a tract of over 100 pages describing the process, objections, and controversy in detail. When Abiel Holmes left First Parish, he took William Hilliard and 59 other parishioners with him. They met for services in the old courthouse on the square. Rev. Holmes died in Cambridge, June 4, 1837.

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