The Reverend's Great Privations
Conway's First Minister Met the Challenges of Early Pioneer Life
Above all else, he was a man who met challenges face to face, confident that the Almighty would guide his actions. Tough, even-tempered, compassionate, and honest, the Reverend Doctor Nathaniel Porter was a Yankee pioneer in the truest sense of the word. As the first settled minister in the Conways, he braved the hazards and trials of wilderness life while bringing the Word to Mount Washington's isolated settlers. Weaker men would have given up and returned to the city; Nathaniel Porter held his ground for 58 years despite enduring what Robert Lawrence described as "great privations."
In the end, his story is the story of all who ventured here more than two centuries ago, and what was said of him can be said of many others. "Hardship was his pathway," Benjamin Eastman wrote, "and his luxuries were the consciousness of doing his duty faithfully as a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ." His struggle wasn't easy.
From an early age, Nathaniel Porter grew accustomed to "great privations." The fourth of six children, Porter was born on the third of January, 1745, in Topsfield - a small hamlet 20 miles north of Boston. After his father died in an accident at a saw mill, young Nathaniel went to live with an uncle who looked after him and saw to his schooling. Nathaniel studied hard and in 1768, at the age of 23, he graduated from Harvard as a Doctor of Divinity; his diploma now hangs on the office wall of the First Congregational Church in North Conway.
Porter spent his first year after graduation as a teacher in Roxbury, and by 1773 was ordained as the pastor of the New Durham Church. The American Revolution temporarily interrupted his duties there. Feeling himself drawn to the Colonists' side, Porter volunteered as a chaplain in the Continental Army. "It is a duty I owe my country," he wrote, "and I hope to be able to serve Him in this capacity." After five months of service around Boston, Porter returned to his flock in New Durham. Whether he ministered to George Washington himself is not known, but Porter did deliver a moving eulogy when The Father of Out Country died in 1800.
Porter's five months as chaplain gave him more than fond memories. In this same year - 1775 - he married Sarah Stittson, the daughter of an officer and when he went back to New Durham, she was by his side. If nothing else, their union was timely, for two years later Porter - through no fault of his own - was without a job. Until the early part of the 19th century, towns paid for the services of clergymen in the same way they supported schools. "The clergymen, who were often secular as well as spiritual advisors, were settled by major vote of the town," Georgia Drew Morrill recalled in History of Carroll County, "and taxpayers were assessed for his salary according to their ability."
Evidently, the town of New Durham could no longer afford its own minister. For "want of support," Porter ended his tenure there in 1777. Luckily his wife was with him and he had another post waiting for him further to the north, though he might mot have been offered that position if Conway's geography had been different.
At the same time New Durham confronted a budget crunch, Conway was experiencing a crisis of its own. As a tiny village far from the urban centers of Boston and Concord, Conway was literally in the edge of the wilderness and securing a permanent minister was no easy tack. Although several itinerant clergymen had visited the area, none stayed longer than several months. What intermittent worship there was took place in the homes of the villagers.
Realizing that the Valley may have looked as inviting to prospective clergy as Siberia looks to a Russian soldier, the townspeople built a 35-by-45 foot wooden Meeting House in 1773 on a site near the old Covered Bridge in Redstone. Unfortunately, while this crude, uninsulated, and unfurnished structure stood close to the geographical center of the settlement, it was far from most villagers.
With the Meeting House in place, eight townspeople formed a committee to select a minister. In 1774 they thought they had their man in the person of Moses (or Nehemiah) Adams, a clergyman who had visited the area on several different trips. Adams declined, not finding the isolation of the Meeting House to his liking. "Winter was coming on," Christopher Horvath and Helen Nute wrote in The History of The Second Congregational Church of Conway, "and he refused to remain because of the inconvenient location of the Meeting House, which was situated a mile and a half from the nearest home and across a dangerous ford in the Saco River. For Rev. Adams, giving his life to Christ was one thing, but giving his life to the Saco River in winter was quite another."
Adams did offer one compromise. If they would move the building, he might stay. However, since they had just constructed the church the year before, there was little enthusiasm for the plan. Finally, two members of the committee - Timothy Walker and Abail Lovejoy - sent Adams a long, friendly letter asking that he reconsider, "for if you should see your way clear to accept our call, we desire you would come up as soon as you can." Adams wouldn't budge.
Adams' decision left the door open for Porter. Porter had met Dr. Fessenden of Fryeburg, a man who had also preached in the area. Perhaps - hearing that Porter was without a church, and Conway was searching for a minister - Dr. Fessenden served as a go-between and arranged the first meeting of these two sides. In any case, each side learned of the other. On January 12, 1778, a group of townspeople met in the home of Captain Joseph Heath and "voted to call Rev. Nathaniel Porter to settle in the work of the gospel ministry in the town of Conway." Selectmen Joseph Odel and Ebenezer Burbank send the invitation.
Being committed to his work, Porter was obviously very interested in this opportunity. The next month, in February, he traveled to Conway and spent 19 days in the home of Captain Heath, and - presumably - spoke with many of the townspeople. By May, he had made up his mind. "The Call appears to be unanimous," Porter wrote in a letter to the Selectmen, "the Settlement and Annual Salary sufficient to afford a comfortable maintenance with the Interest reserved in said town for the first settled minister, I therefore hereby testify my acceptance of said call . . ."
In exchange for his promise to serve as minister, the townspeople agreed to pay Porter a maximum of seven pounds a year, a sum he would attain beginning with a base rate of 55 pounds, with five pounds added for each year as minster. Even though this sum fell five pounds short of the 80 pounds offered to Reverend Adams, it included the construction of Porter's home. For a man who would eventually raise eight children (two others died in infancy), this was an important inducement. However, almost all of these promised wages were to be in the form of material, labor and food crops - Indian corn, peas, flax, wheat and rye - an arrangement which did not mean that Reverend Porter was suddenly a rich man. As "first settled minister" Porter was entitled to 500 acres of land in Conway (and 500 acres of New Durham property), land which eased his financial worries later in life. During these years, however, he was "land rich, cash poor" as were many of his neighbors.
This condition didn't bother Reverend Porter, for he was a man accustomed to hard work, and there was plenty to occupy his time. "Like other early pastors," Ruth Horne recalled in Conway Through the Year and Whither, "the Reverend Nathaniel Porter labored during the day on his farm, and at night by the light of pitch pine knots, wrote his sermons." Five years after accepting the call, he had completed work on his home - on the Old Goshen Road near David Hill in South Conway - and started the planting of his apple orchard. Busy as he was on the farm, it never interfered with his ministry.
Though Conway wasn't growing as fast then as it is today, the Valley was becoming more crowded, a situation which required even more work on Reverend porter's part. In 1793, a second Meeting House (known as the "North Church" or "North Meeting House") was erected in North Conway to meet the needs of that part of town, and the original Meeting House was dismantled and rebuilt on Mill Street in Center Conway. As the Conway Bicentennial Commemorative Booklet points out, Reverend Porter divided his time between the two branches of his church.
If nothing else, the ministry 200 years ago requited a certain physical toughness of its members. Preaching in winter, in particular, took a sturdy constitution as churches weren't well insulated. "In cold weather, the Congregation brought hot soap stones for their feet," according to the Commemorative Booklet, "and Dr. Porter is said to have preached standing on a short length of plank that had been heated."
Travel was another of the expected duties, and as Reverend Kimball reported in his Church Record of The First Congregational Church, "Reverend Porter rode on horseback through heat and cold to his two churches to visit his parishioners." Through weekly efforts like this, and a constant devotion to his work, he earned himself a strong following. "Albert Burns once said," Dr. Ellsworth Lancaster noted in The Reporter on August 23,1928, "that when Dr. Porter rose to preach, every man in town was before him." "He was known for his knowledge of the scriptures," Ruth Horne added, "and his skill in the use of them to illustrate a subject."
A firm believer in the value of education, both in the church and outside it, Reverend Porter also found the energy and time to assist in the founding of Fryeburg Academy in 1805. Eight years later, he helped to encourage church education for younger children. The Congregation voted "to choose a committee whose duty shall be to inquire into the instruction and education of baptized children of the church and see if they are taught the principles of religion and what progress they make. . . " On a more controversial note, that same year Reverend Porter started a practice of reading scripture as part of the church service on Sunday mornings. "Obviously," Christopher Horvath and Helen Nute wrote, "he felt that if Christians were to live by the Word, they should certainly hear the Word during worship."
Reverend Porter's tenure n Conway was not without its setbacks, both in a personal and spiritual way. On February 8th, 1810, Sarah, his wife of 35 years, passed away and was buried in the Center Conway Cemetery. Though he later remarried, the loss of Sarah must have taken its toll. At this same time. Porter found himself traveling more and more frequently to preach in Fryeburg and the surrounding communities in Maine. Since the custom of town-supported churches had been abandoned in 1803, several new parishes of different denominations had been started in the area, meaning that Porter was forced to minister wherever he could to make ends meet. "He preached there (in Conway) until about 1810 without any interruptions," Reverend Kimball reported, "and (then) only occasionally for the next 10 or 11 years, being abroad as a missionary in adjacent towns to obtain the means of supporting his family . . . other sects had come and drawn away his parishioners." In 1810 he was 65 years old, yet he still continued to carry the Word traveling on horseback.
For the next 18 years he rode the circuit through the towns beyond Fryeburg, cutting back on his ministry - apparently - in 1828 at the age of 83. During this time and after he maintained his connections with the parishes in North Conway and Conway, though he was assisted by Reverend Benjamin G. Willey who served at the North Conway church from 1824 until 1832. On November 11th, 1836, at the age of 91, Nathaniel Porter passed away, his body laid to rest in the Center Conway Cemetery.
Measuring Reverend Porter's impact is not an easy task; facts and figures tell little of what he accomplished or who he was. One hundred and six people joined the church during his ministry and 345 persons were baptized. One church was rebuilt and a second church begun. Still, the full impact of his legacy goes beyond mere numbers. What he did is better seen in how others speak of him.
"Dr. Porter was a man with such a well-balanced mind that religious controversies or discussions never disturbed the even tenor of his way or belief," Georgia Morrill remembered in History of Carroll County. "His knowledge of the Scriptures and his power of illustrating a subject from facts therein recorded was seldom equaled. He did not aim to excite the passions, but reach the heart and consciences of men by convincing the understanding."
Benjamin Eastman echoed similar ideas. "Dr. Porter was a profound scholar," he wrote. "He studied nature in the forests, in the grand old mountains surrounding him and his 'little flock.'" "Until his death," Christopher Horvath and Helen Nute added, "which ended a ministry of 58 years, he enabled these Christians to hold fast what is good and to be proud of their church heritage." Like other pioneers who came to settle in the northern mountains and forests of New Hampshire, Nathaniel Porter saw and found more than a rugged wilderness.
Editor's Note: The Mountain Ear wished to thank Reverend Stephen Russell, Bill Marvel, Helen Nute, Mrs. Robert von Bernuth, Mrs. Rooney, and the staff of the Conway Public Library. Any errors belong to the author.