Under a hill in Bournedale a plaque commemorates the burying ground of a Praying Indian village where the first meeting house for Native converts was once located in 1637. Two individuals from Sandwich are named as the principal missionaries – Richard Bourne and Thomas Tupper. Though the plaque merely mentions the name of Bourne I would like to share at least a part of “the rest of the story.”
There are some individuals who came as missionaries to New England that we should honor as true heroes of the faith. Richard Bourne is one of them. Born in 1610 in Devonshire, England, he was only 24 when he ended up settling in Saugus, later to be named Lynn. Being a close friend of Pastor William Leveridge, he joined him and a group of 50 families coming to settle Sandwich in 1637. He soon married Bathsheba Hallett and became an influential believer in both church and civic affairs.
Pastor Leveridge was a lover of Jesus as well as a lover of people. He was a student of the Native tongue and soon mastered it that he might share the gospel with them. He also had the reputation of solving disputes between people bringing peace. Both traits of loving people in order to share the gospel and resolving disputes, would be passed to his disciple, Richard Bourne. Bourne’s next door neighbor was also one of the ten landowners of Sandwich, missionary Thomas Tupper. In 1637, Tupper was 59 and Bourne was 27. When Leveridge left Sandwich for Long Island in 1654, Thomas Tupper and Richard Bourne continued preaching in the Sandwich Meetinghouse as lay ministers.
Richard wasted no time in reaching out to the Natives, and his work around Herring Pond brought immediate fruit so that later in the same year he was able to birth a church among them and erect a Meetinghouse. In the year 1646 Bourne was walking the missionary trail and came upon some Natives of dancing and offering sacrifices on a large boulder in Bournedale. In this case, legend has it that the victim was human. Bourne threw up his arms declaring “if you do not stop your horrible work I will call upon my God to visit his wrath upon you!” Being ignored, he continued to warn them, and then directly called upon Jehovah. A vivid flash of lightning, out of a clear blue sky, split the rock in numerous pieces! Needless to say this “Praying Indian village” increased with new converts so that it soon numbered 180! Over a hundred years later objective scientists with no knowledge of the incident were asked how the rock split. Their conclusion? It had to be split by lightning! One can still view this rock, and every part of the story can be imagined in viewing the large pieces.
Richard soon turned his attention toward Mashpee where he established another church in 1658. The Meetinghouse they eventually completed in 1684 still stands today. In 1670 Bourne was ordained with John Eliot (missionary to the Natives all over New England) and John Cotton (Puritan theologian) attending the service on the 17th of August. In mid August Richard Bourne day is still celebrated! By 1674 Richard Bourne officially reported 22 places where he was ministering to Natives with an attendance of 500! He stated that 142 could read Indian (and thus read the 1663 Indian Bible translated by John Eliot into their language), 72 could write and 9 could read English! What is most important is that Richard Bourne did not just preach the gospel and plant churches. He wanted Native pastors to shepherd the congregations with their original fishing, hunting and property rights protected so self-rule and Native sovereignty would last for years to come!
Richard’s service to Sandwich, Mashpee and Cape Cod was extensive. He was deputy to the Plymouth Court, a surveyor of highways and a receiver of oil for Sandwich. He had four sons by his wife Bathsheba. Shearjashub, the youngest, assisted his father in the ministry. It was reported in 1649 that he ministered among the Natives during a great sickness but did not contract anything to which many remarked was an amazing Providence of God. After the death of his first wife, in 1677 he married Ruth Winslow. He continued his work among the Mashpee Natives until his death in 1682 at 72 years old. No one knows where he is buried. Through his influence, the ruling elders endeavored to have the rights of the Natives protected. Unfortunately subsequent generations ignored these protected fishing, hunting and land rights, and greed replaced the love of Christ. Native preacher “Blind Joe” Amos would restore the work of Bourne in both Martha’s Vineyard and Mashpee in the 1830’s and beyond, seeking to restore the self-government of the Native American. Amos, along with William Apess, did so by quoting the founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence!
So strong was the heritage of Christianity in Mashpee, as an example, on September 2, 1934, a special service was held at the historic Meethouse. The Bourne Historical Society presented a plaque in honor of Richard Bourne who had established the church in 1658. A large delegation of Natives were there to honor the one they called “The White Sachem.” One of the Native leaders declared: “’Of all ministers who have served during the nearly 300 years of the history of Christianity in Mashpee, none made so great a contribution as Richard Bourne. He was not only the Spiritual leader but was a political champion as well, obtaining fair treatment and legislation for the Mashpees. He unselfishly gave of his time and means to help these people. It is fitting at this time to memorialize the name of the one who has had such an influence upon the history of Mashpee. We welcome this opportunity of sharing the name and memory of Richard Bourne – first Missionary to the Mashpees.’
The revival that resulted from Bourne and Tupper’s preaching and the peaceful relations with the Natives made Sandwich the “barrier to the lower Cape towns” during King Philip’s War in 1675. Sandwich, the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard were protected by believing Natives. May our legacy as believers be so strong that we will be known as those who bring peace and stand for the equal rights of all against the love of money and control!
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