PLANTER TIMES: A CHURCH CONTROVERSY (August 10/10)

In the autobiography of Robie Lewis Reid, a prominent British Columbia Lawyer who was born in Steam Mill in 1866, mention is made of a controversy involving a church minister, Rev. Benaiah Phelps. The farm of Reid’s father was once part of a 666 acre grant Phelps received in 1765 or 1766; hence, I suppose, Reid’s interest in the land’s history.

Reid writes that Phelps was given the grant as the “first Minister of Cornwallis (township).” Once he established the credentials of Rev. Phelps, Reid writes that he eventually departed Cornwallis under circumstances that left a bad taste in the mouths of the recently settled Planters. Looking at it a couple of centuries removed, the controversy Phelps stirred up in the 1760s appears to be a tempest in a teapot. Yet historians such as Arthur W. H. Eaton, the compiler of the Kings County history, and more recently Julian Gwyn, write about Phelps and the outrage his parishioners felt towards him.

Gwyn, in his recently published book on Cornwallis Township, mentions Phelps, noting only that he left “in a cloud of controversy.” Eaton, the other hand, goes into detail about Phelps and you can sense he didn’t approve of the good Minister’s actions when he sold his land and returned to New England.

Reid, Eaton and Gwyn write that when Phelps departed Cornwallis, he sold the land he had been granted and appropriated the money. The parishioners of Cornwallis were certain the grant to Phelps had been intended for “the continual benefit of the church” (Eaton) and it was morally wrong to keep the proceeds of the sale or sell the land.

Perhaps it was, but we learn from Eaton Phelps had legal right to the land since it had been granted in his name by the highest authority. However, there’s more to the tale. From the beginning of his ministry, Phelps apparently was disliked by Handley Chipman and Samuel Starr, two of the most prominent and influential men in Cornwallis township. Both men questioned his dedication to his calling and Chipman undoubtedly was instrumental in having Phelps put on probation his first year in Cornwallis.

“How soon after Mr. Phelps formal settlement as pastor of the church (that) strong opposition to him began to manifest itself we do not know,” writes Eaton. “Nor are we informed precisely what the grounds of the people’s dislike of him were.” After making this statement, Eaton notes that part of the problem with Phelps may have been his openly supporting the American Revolution. To quote Eaton again, “it is said that Mr. Phelps added somewhat to his unpopularity in Cornwallis by showing decided sympathy with the revolt against England on the part of his New England friend.”

Phelps ministered in Cornwallis about a decade, a long time to serve for an unpopular minister who was disliked immediately by the shakers and movers of Cornwallis Township. At the least, the Phelps controversy, minor as it may seem today, sheds some interesting light on religion at a time when the Planters were adjusting to life in Kings County. In that period it undoubtedly was a major disruption in the fledgling settlement.

(On his return to New England, Phelps assumed the pastorate of a church at Manchester where he served for some 15 years. His former congregation in Cornwallis appealed to church authorities in New England to have the money Phelps received for the land returned. Eaton writes that this appeal was disregarded.)

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