Jesse Bradley, of Lee, Massachusetts

The Bradleys were among the first settlers of Lee, Massachusetts. Settlement began in the Berkshires in the 1760s after the French & Indian Wars when the Massachusetts Bay Colony offered land grants west of the mountains to those willing to open these undeveloped lands for farming. Capt. Jesse Bradley (1736-1812) of New Haven purchased land in the section of Hartwood later in Lee in December 1773. He soon relocated his family, and appears as a captain on the local militia list by 1775. He was already an influential member of the community by November 1777 when Lee was incorporated and the earliest Town Meetings were held. He was one of the first Selectmen, and appointed to represent the Town to outside authorities repeatedly. He appears in the Minutes of the Town Meetings routinely in the earliest years as the Moderator.

Jesse Bradley was also integrally involved in the establishment and early history of the Congregational Church in Lee. When the Town Meeting voted in November 1778 to build a Meeting House, Capt. Jesse Bradley was one of five men appointed to a "Commity" to "Carry on the Building of the Meeting house." In April 1780, once the Meeting House was completed, he was one of the men appointed to let Mr. Fowler, who had been "settled" as the first Minister, know the terms of his position. He was made a Deacon of the church in September 1783.

The first record of discord between the church and Jesse Bradley is a minute in the church records from late April 1786 referring to "many meetings before" and reporting on a council called in Lee during April which was attended by pastors and delegates from other churches in the area. These outside men were asked to attend to "all matters of difaculty and disagreement between the Church and Deacon Bradley and give their advice on the matter."

The record of this council immediately follows the report of a request from Maria Porter in September 1785. She asked that a council, such as would be called for Jesse Bradley, be held to "attend to a difaculty Subsisting between the church and the Sd. Maria Porter." The church did not even respond to her request, perhaps because the issue, and Maria, were deemed so unimportant. Maria Porter had been tried and convicted by the church of  "a breach of Covenant by uniteing in marriage to a person of an openly wicked & immoral character" in January 1784. Perhaps she was attempting to find a way to heal her relationship with the church in Lee by bringing this petition.

The details of the trial recorded in the Church records reflects poorly on life in a small, almost frontier, town settled by decendents of the Pilgrims, with their stern Congretational religion. These records include pages of testimony that Mr. Porter swore and drank and was sometimes quarrelsome, particularly when he drank. Some of the most serious infractions don't seem very terrible to modern ears. For example, Mr. Porter was "tending the Small Pox" at Mr. Dimmicks, helping his neighbor with his chores while there was illness in the family, and hurt his finger carrying a large log into the house. When this happened he said "God damn it, to hell," witnessed by both Mr. Dimmick and Doctor Thomson. Evidence was also recorded that Maria's good neighbors tried repeatedly to talk her out of the marriage, visiting her with the authority of the church. The congregation, at this time without a pastor, determined that Maria Porter, formerly the widow Backus, knew about her Mr. Porter's wickedness before she married, and convicted her.  Is it a coincidence that 6 months after her request, Jesse Bradley was at loggerheads with the church on some unspecified matter?

Two years later on 1 May 1788 Deacon Bradley was accused of embracing heresy. He admitted holding that "all mankind will be finally Savd and happy." He was held guilty of "denying the Eternity of the punishment of any of the human race." Although the word was never used, his heresy boiled down to not believing in Hell. This led to his excommunication on June 26, 1788. In July 1790 three members were appointed by the church to visit Mrs. Bradley and inquire why she was not attending Meeting; and also to talk with Mr. Penoyer respecting his "Ideas of all mankinds being finaly happy."

In April 1792 James Penoyer was excommunicated for these opinions. Probably as a result of how ineffective simple excommunication had been in Jesse Bradley's case, the church clarified that all church members should "refuse to eat or shake hands with excommunicated persons, or keep unnecessary company with them." This shunning seems to have been effective, since both Jesse Bradley and James Penoyer confessed their error and were restored to the church 3 months later. However, in the meantime the church finally settled on a new pastor, Rev. Alvan Hyde, and this new leadership may also have had some influence on their decision. Certainly the actions minuted by the church seem a little more moderate from this time on.

Jesse Bradley was not mentioned in the Town Meeting minutes at all during this period, although he had regularly been appointed to various offices up to this time. It is not until the middle of the next year that he begins to appear again.

In 1793 Trinity Episcopal Church was formed in Lenox, just north of Lee. Despite his restored membership in the Congregational Church in Lee, Jesse and his oldest son Jared Bradley (1760-1814), were among those who established this church. The Church's first baptisms were of Jared's children. Jesse Bradley was one of the first Wardens.

In June 1794 the church in Lee met yet again to discuss the case of Jesse Bradley. He had previously requested to be dismissed from the church and asked for a recommendation to the Episcopal Church in Lenox, the standard procedure for members wanting to transfer their membership. When the church in Lee hadn't acted on his request he had gone ahead and united with the Episcopal Church without leave.  Again the Congregational church in Lee called a council from surrounding churches, which voted that a church could not grant a "dismission & recommendation" to someone wishing to join a church not in "fellowship" with Congregationalists; and furthermore, that someone in this situation was "walking irregularly" and "giving real occasion of offense." These results were accepted by the church.

This was not the end of the matter. Within months the church appointed a member to visit Capt. Jesse Bradley to investigate another charge of heresy, this time whether he denied "that important doctrine" of regeneration.  In November 1795, Josiah Yale returned two complaints to the church against Jesse Bradley. The first complaint was that he was in "breach of his covenant-engagements" by leaving the church. The second complaint, about his opinions on regeneration and baptism, was held over until he could attend and answer questions, since there were different opinions on what he really thought.

In early December, Jesse Bradley did come to explain his opinions. At the next meeting of the church 2 weeks later they held that "a change of heart, by the special and supernatural operations of the Holy Spirit" (regeneration) is necessary, and to hold otherwise is heresy. The group was split fairly evenly on whether Jesse held this heretical belief, however, 14 saying yes, 12 no. Because of "great embarassment in the minds of many brethren" the meeting was adjourned for 2 more weeks. At the next meeting on Dec. 24 Jesse Bradley asked for, and the church agreed to, calling for another council. One detects a growing reluctance to continue these actions against this leading citizen and neighbor, who had served the community in so many ways.

This council was never held. In July 1796 the church decided it was "not expedient" to call for a council. The long delay suggests the other local churches may have been uncooperative to being called to Lee yet again over Jesse's beliefs. The church combined the 2 charges brought in December into one very general complaint. This complaint was whether Capt. Josiah Yale's observations were supported enough that the church had a duty to reject Jesse Bradley? The answer was yes. It seems the voice of reason had prevailed and that the congregation was willing to simply eject Jesse Bradley from the church and drop the matter.

The change of heart, called 'regeneration,' is similar to conversion and was a central belief of the early Puritans and later Congregationalists, and is still a part of the foundation of some Congregational Churches.  A person may be baptised at birth, but without testifying to his regeneration, and evidencing this regeneration in his life,  he or she would never be accepted as a full member of the church. In the earliest days the children  of such an un-regenerated person could not be baptized. Changes in requirements for participation in the life of the church starting as early as 1662, over 100 years before this time, with the Halfway Covenant which allows for some level of membership for those who would accept a preformulated statement of beliefs, but had not been regenerated. It seems that the Church at Lee was very conservative, and held to the more extreme early ideals of purity in the Church.

There are no records of baptism of any of Jared Bradley's children in the church in Lee. Nor was there any record of any action against Jared himself by the church during this period, although he along with his father had moved his family to the Episcopal Church in Lenox. So it appears that he was not in Communion with the Church in Lee and that they would not baptize his children. This may have led to his father Jesse expressing opinions on regeneration and baptism that the church could not tolerate.

After being rejected by the church in Lee, Jesse Bradley and his son Jared both continued as full members of the community, if not the church. Jesse was Lee's representative to the Massachusetts Gonstitutional Convention in 1788 (they approved the Constitution, although he voted against it). Jared was a state representative on and off from 1805 to his death in 1814.


© 2010 Footie Lund