Revd John White: Dorchester's link with the founding of the USA
John White was Rector of Holy Trinity and St Peter's churches from 1606 to 1648. He was at the centre of the group that took control of the town after the great fire of 1613 and ran it with a vision of a godly community in which power was to be exercised according to religious commitment rather than wealth or rank. Dorchester became briefly a place which could boast a system of education and assistance to the sick and needy nearly three hundred years ahead of its time. White and his parishoners
established the Napper's Mite almshouses and a brewery to help maintain them. Work was found for all the fit poor of the parish, and the profits of the brewery looked after the poor and disabled.
He sympathised with the struggles of the Puritans for freedom of worship and was involved with the group that sailed on the Mayflower. In 1623 he personally organised a group that established a small trading post at Cape Anne.
He worked hard, making many trips to London, not easy in those days, to get a charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company, and to create an alliance between wealthy London merchants and West Country seamen. This enabled a fleet of ships to sail in march 1630 with the first large party of English people to settle in New England. The first ship to sail was the Mary and John, which carried people from Dorset, Somerset and Devon personally recruited by White. On June 1630 they landed and founded the
settlement of Dorchester Massachusetts.
White's reforms and his opposition to the High Church policies of Archbishop Laud brought him, and the town, into conflict with the King. But while Dorchester declared itself on the side of Parliament in the Civil War, it surrendered to the Royalists
without a fight in 1643. John White had fled to London, and though he returned after Cromwell's victory in 1646, he had lost some of his influence and died in 1648.
The First Parish Church of Dorchester, Mass.
The church was established by the emigrants from Dorchester and the south west who founded the town of Dorchester on 30 March 1630. As well as the church they founded the first elementary school supported by public money in the new world and so laid
the foundation for the American public school system. They also held the first town meeting which determined policy through open and frequent discussion, a forerunner of the American democratic way of life. In all of this they were inspired by the ideal of
the Kingdom of God on earth and the attempt to realise this in Dorchester, Dorset in the time of the Revd John White. The current guide to the First Parish Church says 'Theirs was the ideal and we inherited from them the task. We must never give it up.'
For a hundred and seventy-six years there was no other church in Dorchester, so for historic reasons the First Parish Church belongs to all the people, and retains a commitment to the life of the community. The leaflet goes on:
Our traditions are Christian; our rootage is Puritan, our government is congregational; our theology is Unitarian; our achievements and loyalties are American; our concerns are humanitarian; and our commitments are independent.
Among the charter members of the colony of Dorchester was Roger Ludlow, who moved to Windsor Connecticut in 1636. He wrote a book on the democratic procedures of Connecticut which furnished the outline of the Constitution of the United States. Besides Windsor, people from the colony founded Dorchester, South Carolina, and from there established Midway Georgia.
The First Parish Church is referred to as a Foundation Stone of the Nation, and we back in Dorchester, Dorset may feel some pride in our ancestors' part in laying it.
John White in Dorchester today
White is buried in the porch of St Peter's Church, where there is a plaque to that effect. His Rectory still stands in Colliton Street, behind St Peter's. Only the wall is visible from the street. A better view can be had from the inner courtyard of the Dorset County Museum, who use the building as a store. The doorway of his house is now bizarrely inside Superdrug's store in South Street. You can still see the almshouses started during White's time: Napper's Mite in South Street and Chubb's Almshouses in North Square
Further Reading: Fire from Heaven by David Underdown