Excerpted from a talk given by the author last week on the 375th anniversary of the Federated Church in Edgartown.

Twelve years ago, for a story I was writing for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, I began to research the history of my family home, which stands on South Summer street in Edgartown. That winter I made the first of many visits to the library of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, where Dana Costanza Street, librarian at the time, showed me a map of early Edgartown.

The map was generally recognizable to me, but some of the street names were unfamiliar – in particular Cooke street, a narrow little lane, sentried with family homes running from Collins Beach out to the cemetery and offering no obvious evidence that a business had ever been run on it or anywhere near it. Yet it was called Commercial street.

As I worked on my story, I could not get the improbability of Commercial Street out of my head. The whole business of how a shaded, quiet village road could gain, lose and then all but forget such an ambitious and yet oxymoronic name in just a few centuries irritated the ganglia in a rear corner of my brain until just a few months back.

That’s when I returned to the subject and in my research began to perceive how the crisscrossing waves of Island history had produced at one point a Commercial street, and at another the largest and most attractive building the Vineyard had seen up to that time — what today we know as the Federated Church. And most important: why in 1828, a pivotal moment in Island history, had the builders of this new religious meeting house taken a hard look at the future of both the church and the town and decided to build it facing what would eventually become Main street.


To find out, we must back up to our colonial beginnings.

At the heart of the original English settlement, laid down in the middle 1640s, was the homestead of Thomas Mayhew Sr., the founding proprietor of the Island. In 1768, the Mayhew family deeded a lane, one rod wide, from the harbor inland to the new Congregational meeting house built in what is now the town cemetery. It was the fourth in town history, and this lane, the present-day Cooke street, was first called Meeting House Way.

Mark Lovewell

The faith that the Mayhews and the settlers brought with them, first from England to the colonies, then from the mainland to the Vineyard, was the Congregational or Calvinist or Puritan faith. For the English settlers here on the Island, there was no rival church, and since taxes paid for the minister and the meeting house, there was no separation of church and town. Which meant that if any attacks came against the founding, official Congregational faith, it would necessarily also attack the social and civic cohesion of the village as a whole.

Well, those attacks came.

To comprehend what happened to this established Vineyard church in the early 1800s (and to the town with which it was so closely linked), it’s necessary to look first of all to a teaching that flowed from the theology of John Calvin — the emphatically discouraging idea of “double predestination.”

Before Calvin, Martin Luther had offered up the idea that our original sin was so depraved, the descendants of Adam and Eve could do nothing to earn their way into heaven. We could only enter it through a decision by God to let us in. Calvin went further. Some people, he said — the elect — were predestined for salvation before birth, and the rest were predestined for hell.

It would be upon this Calvinist idea that the roistering, evangelizing, circuit-riding Baptist and Methodist preachers would concentrate their attack when they blazed their way onto Island soil during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. These itinerant bible-thumpers declared that the principle of double predestination was all wrong. That only through acceptance of Christ as savior could man gain entrance into heaven, that man could therefore choose what his fate would be. Indeed he would have to choose – and damnation awaited if he chose too late.


In the face of this ecclesiastical challenge to the old way of thinking in the early 1800s, things might have gone better for the hometown church had it not already been badly weakened by an internal dispute, with its pastor standing on one side of a vital theological question and most of his congregants standing immovably on the other.

It must be said here that the Rev. Joseph Thaxter — pastor of the church at the time — was a deeply loved man on Martha’s Vineyard. In addition to his ministry, the longest in Island history, he worked as a surveyor and bone-setter, and he advocated tirelessly for the politically and culturally beleaguered Wampanoags of Martha’s Vineyard, especially those on Chappaquiddick.

But he was also the first Congregational pastor to embrace Unitarian beliefs, which meant that though he saw Christ as a prophet and even as a savior, he did not believe in him as the actual son of God and divine in his own right. Unitarianism went against several orthodox doctrines of Calvin and the old Congregational faith, especially the concept of God in three persons — the trinity of father, son and holy spirit. As a result, many Vineyard parishioners fell away from Squire Thaxter’s teachings and his church.

It is ironic that at this very moment of spiritual upheaval, those charismatic preachers should suddenly appear, bringing with them with a type of faith that once again embraced the primacy of scripture as well as the divinity of Jesus Christ. These newcomers were circuit-riding evangelists of the Baptist and Methodist faiths, who warned Islanders that “Your church is built upon sand! Don’t you know that God wants you to get religion?” But these ministers also reaffirmed the old idea that Christ was indeed divine, that scripture was infallible after all, and that salvation was something you chose for yourself by calling God into your life and living by his commandments until the day you died.

Mark Lovewell

For Vineyard Congregationalists, this message was both doctrinaire and revolutionary. It reconfirmed the reassuring old Calvinist ideas about a Trinitarian God and the irrefutability of the bible. But it also emphatically denied the concept of predestination: Salvation was a choice, a matter of surrendering oneself to God’s love and direction and securing forgiveness for any and all manner of sins.

For the Reverend Thaxter and those who were not yet converted, it was as though a plague of cults had invaded the old shire town, sucking in tradesmen and captains, farmers and businessmen, housewives and even children. To defend what was left of the old order — both religious and civic — the unconverted went to war against the evangelists and those Island neighbors who had decided to follow them into glory.

Meetings were raided and broken up, and mud and dead cats were thrown into parlors where conversions were going on. But soon the converted outnumbered the unconverted, and the Baptists and Methodists were able to build their own churches, among them what is now town hall (the Methodists), as well as the deconsecrated Greek Revival building on School Street (the Baptists), and most majestically among them, what is now called the Old Whaling Church (the Methodists again) — all designed and built in a fervid 20-year period by Frederick Baylies, an architect of the town.


By the time Joseph Thaxter’s ministry ended in June 1827, his Congregational congregation, which had included more than 250 families and individuals at its start nearly 50 years before, officially now numbered 22 — among them 17 women, 11 of them widows. It looked like the end for the old Calvinist faith on Martha’s Vineyard. But at that do-or-die moment, a small collection of officers and parishioners got together and decided that the founding Christian church on the Island, the church of the Mayhews and of their own ancestors, was yet worth saving.

A vital first step would be to hire a Trinitarian of the old school to succeed Squire Thaxter. And with Thaxter’s death on July 18, 1827 — a week ago last Wednesday — the Rev. Job H. Martyn, and those who were trying to salvage this first church on the Vineyard, saw that the only way to expunge the last traces of Unitarianism would be to abandon Thaxter’s fourth meeting house at the cemetery and build a fifth one somewhere else along the busy lane that would still lead from the commerce of the harbor to the sanctuary of a church.

A lot belonging to Capt. Obed Fisher was found and purchased for $100 at what is now known as the corner of South Summer and Cooke streets. By this point in history, two different Main streets effectively ran inland from the harbor in Edgartown — Meeting House Way or Cooke street serving in effect as the central nervous system, but Main street the strengthening spine.

Which street would the new church face?

Mark Lovewell

Knowing what we know now, a good bet might actually have been placed on it facing Cooke. From 1799 to 1830 the custom house could be found on the second floor of the Thomas Cooke house, which can be found on the campus of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. To accommodate whaling vessels and commercial schooners, Grafton Norton would soon build the imposing stone wharf where the Reading Room stands today. Whole cargos of whale oil often passed up Cooke street to the storehouse that Dr. Daniel Fisher had built on Upper Main. Businesses arose and flourished all along way.

But with the old church now fated to be dismantled at the far end of the lane, the name Meeting House Way no longer made much sense. The new name, Commercial street, certainly did. Yet the builders of this new church could see in 1828 that most of the economic and social signs were already pointing to a rival Main street, which was beginning to take that name.

For instance, the courthouse had long since moved to Main. Great wharves were being built all along the waterfront. Rigging shops and barrel makers, blacksmiths and tailors, grocers and the hardtack bakers, tavern keepers and pool hall owners were setting up shop along the harbor to serve them. From Main street, all the significant intersecting streets gradually spread north and south, rounding out the map of Edgartown as we know it today.

But one feature beyond any other probably proved decisive. As Summer street crept south toward the new meeting house from Main street in the late 1820s, several houses rose on the opposite side of the roadway. But on the church side no building stood. What a prospect parishioners must have seen as they threw open the front doors after the dedication ceremony of this new meeting house on Christmas Eve, 1828 — a front lawn that reached from here, almost endlessly, up to Main street.


It is possible to argue why this little section of Cooke street, measuring just 875 feet between the sites of the old fourth meeting house and the new fifth one, might just take the prize for the most historically significant road, at least within this founding settlement. But it would be a mistake to think that this was only a story about the past.

For me, it’s the tale that this quiet, residential old lane still tells us today — a tale that reaches from settlement to commerce, from orthodoxy to schism, from one church to many, from a Calvinist village to the Methodist camp meeting, from faith to tourism, from industry to resorthood. In short, this little length of Cooke Street leads from what we once were to what we are now.