Exeter was settled in 1638 by Rev. John Wheelright and his associates, who, on the 3d of April in that year, purchased the territory of the Indians claiming to be its proprietors.
Mr. Wheelright, the first minister of the town, came from Lincolnshire Eng. to Boston, where he arrived 26 May, 1636. He was a popular preacher, and would have been settled at Boston as colleague of the celebrated Mr. Cotton, had it not been for his connection with the Hutchinson controversy. Mrs. Hutchinson was his sister-in-law. He also was accused of Antinomianism and of exciting sedition in his public discourses. The founders of the Massachusetts colony fled from persecution in England, but brought with them too much of that spirit by which they had been driven from the home of their fathers. The persecuted became persecutors, and Mr. Wheelright was banished from their colony in November 1637. His enemies never accused him of immorality or doubted his piety. He was regularly dismissed from the church in Boston, with eight others, who formed a church and removed to this place, without the limits of Massachusetts. The names of his associates were Richard Morrys, Christopher Marshall, Richard Bulgar, George Baytes, Philemon Purmot, Thomas Wardell, Isaac Grosse, William Wardell, all of whom, excepting Marshall and Baytes, are found by the records of the town, to have been with its first settlers. This is believed to be the first regular church in New Hampshire. Portsmouth and Dover had been settled about 15 years; but the inhabitants of those towns were not of the Pilgrim family. They came hither to engage in trade with the natives and in the fisheries; and not particularly for the enjoyment of religious freedom. The first regular minister of Dover was Mr. Maud who was settled there in 1642 and Mr. Moody commenced preaching in Portsmouth in 1658 but was not ordained till 1671.
In 1642, upon the union with Massachusetts, Mr. Wheelright was obliged to remove from their jurisdiction, and went to Wells in Maine. Most of his church accompanied him. In 1647, having made his peace with the government, he was settled at Hampton, where he preached several years and went to England. After the restoration of Charles II. he returned to this country, and was settled in Salisbury Mass. where he died at an advanced age, 15th Nov. 1679. "He was a gentleman of learning, piety and zeal." "His son, grandson, and great grandson were of the council for the Province." His daughters married Edward Rishworth, Edward Lyde, Samuel Maverick, and ---------- Bradbury, (probably Thomas Bradbury of Salisbury.)
After Mr Wheelright departed from this town, an invitation was given to Rev. Stephen Batchelder, who was the first minister of Hampton, to settle here in the ministry, but the Government of Massachusetts interfered and prevented it.
Rev. Samuel Dudley, the second minister of Exeter, was a son of Gov. Thomas Dudley, and born about 1606. He was advanced in life before he entered upon the work of the ministry, having been a Lieutenant under Underhill, and two or three years the representative of Salisbury in the General Court. He received an invitation in May 1650, to become the minister of this town, and came here the same year. In 1656 he was invited to Portsmouth, with the offer of a much larger salary than he received in Exeter, but declined the invitation, and continued with this people till his death, in 1683. He was spoken of as a good man and minister. His first wife was Mary, a daughter of Gov. John Winthrop. She died at Salisbury, 12, April 1643. Many of their descendants are living in this town and vicinity. Mr. Dudley, however had two other wives and a numerous family of children. His daughters married Edward Hilton, Moses Leavitt, and Kinsley Hall of Exeter, and Samuel Hardy of Beverly.
The third minister of the town was Rev. John Clark, who was ordained 21 September 1698. The church was reorganized the Sabbath before the ordination, when a covenant and Orthodox confession of faith, which is preserved, was signed by the following members: John Clark, Pastor, Peter Coffin, John Gilman, William Moore, Thomas Wiggin, Kinsley Hall, Nicholas Gilman, Richard Glidden, Theophilus Dudley, Elizabeth Gilman, Samuel Leavitt, Elizabeth Clark, Biley Dudley, Judith Wilson, Moses Leavitt, Margaret Bean, John Folsom, Sarah Dudley, Henry Wadleigh, Deborah Sinkler, Jonathan Robinson, Deborah Coffin, Thomas Dudley, Sarah Sewell, John Scrivner, Mehetabel Smith.
Mr. Clark was son of Nathaniel and Elizabeth (Somersby) Clark, of Newbury, where he was born 24 January 1670, was graduated at Harvard College 1690-- married Elizabeth Woodbridge, a daughter of Rev. Benjamin W. and grand-daughter of Rev. John Woodbridge, first minister of Andover and also of Rev. John Ward, first minister of Haverhill, 19 June 1694, -- and died 25 July 1705, leaving four children, Benjamin, Nathaniel, Deborah, and Ward, the first minister of . Kingston. His estate was apprized at about 811 [pounds] including house and land at Charlestown, 175 [pounds] and his "Library of books," 20 [pounds]. His sister Sarah was the wife of Nicholas Gilman and great-grandmother of the late Governor Gilman. The epitaph on his monument, preserved only on the records of the town, is as follows,
A Prophet lies under this stone;
His words shall live tho' he be gone.
When Preachers die what rules the pulpit gave
Of living, are still preached from the grave,
The faith and life which your dear Pastor taught,
Now in the grave with him, Sirs, bury not.
Rev. John Oblin, the fourth minister of Exeter, was from Boston—graduated at Harvard College 1702 —ordained 12 November 1706—married Mrs. Clark, the widow of his predecessor, 21 Oct. 1709, and, after her death (6 Dec. 1729) he married (22 Sept. 1730) Elizabeth Briscoe, widow of Robert B. formerly wife of Lt. James Dudley, and daughter of Samuel Leavitt— and died 20 Nov. 1754, in the 72d year of his age. His children were John, Elisha, (minister of Amesbury) Dudley, (a physician) and Woodbridge, his colleague and successor.
Rev. Woodbridge Odlin, was born 28 April 1718— graduated at Harvard College 1738—ordained as colleague with his father 28 Sept. 1743—married Abigail Strong, widow of Rev. Job Strong of Portsmouth, and daughter of Col. Peter Gilman, 23 Oct. 1755, and died 10 March 1776—leaving children to wit, Dudley, Woodbridge, Peter, Elizabeth, Abigail, John, and Mary Ann. About the time of Mr. W. Odlin's settlement the new Paiish was formed in this town. During his ministry the number of admissions to the church was 36, and of baptisms, 1276.
The sixth minister of the Parish was Rev. Isaac Mansfield. He was graduated at Harvard College 1767—ordained 9 Oct. 1776—married Mary Clap, a daughter of Nathaniel Clap, of Scituate, 9 Nov. 1776— was dismissed, " according to his agreement with the Parish," 22 August 1787—returned to Marblehead, where he was a civil magistrate and spent the remainder of his days. He had two children, Theodore and Isaac, born in Exeter. During his ministry here there were 12 admissions to the Church and 245 baptisms.
Rev. William F. Rowlakd, the seventh minister of the first Parish, was a native of Windsor Con. and graduate of Dartmouth College in 17S4. He was ordained 2 June 1790, and dismissed, at his own request, 5 Dec, 1828, and is still living. During his ministry the number of admissions was 128, and of baptisms 295.
Rev. John Smith, the eighth and present minister of the Parish, was a native of Wethersfield Con. a graduate of Yale College 1821—ordained at Trenton N. J. 7 March 1826—dismissed August 1828, and installed at Exeter 12 March 1829. Since his settlement, the number of admissions has been 143, and of baptisms 110.
The records of the Church, under the ministry of Mr. Wheelright and Mr. Dudley, have not been preserved. Of Mr. Clark's records nothing remains but the account of the reorganization of the church and of the ordination of the Pastor. During Mr. J. Odlin's ministry previous to the settlement of his son, there are but two votes recorded, one relating to the "Accounts with the Deacons," and the other inviting Rev. W. Odlin to become their colleague pastor.
1. "Appendix. Some Historical Facts respecting the First Congregational Church in Exeter", The Confession of Faith and the Covenant of the First Congregational Church in Exeter, N. H., 1832, pages 9-13.
See AlsoExeter First Congregational Church 1832 Manual