Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Rev. Alfred Bassett was the first pastor of the First Universalist Society of South Dedham which was organized on October 22, 1827 when a small group of parishioners chose to leave the South Church of Dedham (as the First Congregational Church was renamed in 1824) and form a Universalist congregation. Founded in 1793 in Oxford, Massachusetts, Universalism embraced the doctrine of universal salvation, that is, that no matter what the transgression, reconciliation with God was possible for all human beings. In addition, Universalism expanded the notion of individual faith to include social responsibility, and strongly advocated for social reforms such as temperance, women’s rights, prison reform, and the abolition of slavery.
Since its inception in 1736 the South Parish Church had remained steadfast in the tenets of Christ Church of Dedham, which held a more traditional viewpoint. Thus, in 1827, several South Dedham families, mostly younger and of a more liberal outlook, stated that they “perceived the falsity of the extreme Calvinist doctrine” of Christ Church and withdrew from the church. Shortly thereafter, they incorporated as the First Universalist Society of South Dedham.
They met for a time in the South Dedham Tavern then owned by Joseph Sumner, a member of the new society. The withdrawal of these members from the church caused quite an upheaval. The rift between the two denominations was deep, with bad feelings on both sides, and it took decades for long-standing associations to heal. In 1829, the group erected and dedicated a meeting house on Washington Street property now occupied by St. Catherine’s rectory. A second-floor suite of rooms at Sumner’s tavern remained for a time the living quarters of the Society’s pastor. Rev. Alfred Bassett, a theology student, was only 24 years old when he answered the call to become the first regular pastor for the newly formed Universalist Society.
On December 26, 1831, Rev. Mr. Bassett committed suicide in his rooms at the tavern by cutting his throat with a razor. The act shocked and saddened his congregation. Famed Universalist Thomas Whittemore delivered the sermon at Bassett’s funeral. He noted that Bassett had “for a long time been afflicted with a disease….and which, he informed me would probably bring him to his grave.” Whittemore described Bassett, who was extremely intelligent, as having mood swings from “the marvelous” with language that was “extravagant” to deep melancholy – likely a then undiagnosable manic-depression condition. Whittemore noted that Bassett “had everything earth could afford to render him happy.” He had no financial problems, and was regarded with the sincerest affection by his relatives, was well-respected by his parishioners, and was soon to be married. Again according to Whittemore, his ministering brethren “loved him” and “in addition to the respect which we felt for him as a young man of more than ordinary ability, his amiableness excited a tender regard that adds too greatly to the poignancy of our sorrows…” Whittemore assured the congregation that Bassett “was not possessed of reason when the fatal act was done.”
His stone reads:
REV. ALFRED V. BASSETT
Pastor of the
Died Dec. 26, 1831,
Aged 25 years:
He was deeply beloved by
the flock of which he was
pastor and died lamented
by all who knew him.
Enemies of the Universalists rather gloated and tried to exploit the tragedy – while recording Rev. Bassett’s death in the South Parish (Dedham) Church Records, the following notation was ungraciously added: “The [first] Universalist preacher of this Parish. Suicide by cutting his throat with a razor, probably under the convicting influences of the Holy Ghost!!!!”
Fifty years later, Rev. Edwin Thompson, who later ministered to the Universalist congregation, recounted the events he had witnessed when, as a young man teaching at the Old Brick School, he had been invited by Bassett to share his rooms at the tavern. He found Bassett amiable, exceedingly pleasant, and very talented. On the day prior to his death, Bassett complained of being cold and feverish but promised he would see a physician if he was not better by morning. Thompson was awakened by “the most unearthly groan” and found the body. As Thompson summarized it, “It of course caused much excitement at the time in his parish, town and the whole vicinity. It was a great public sensation and, as such, was soon over; but the private griefs, the disappointed hopes, the blighted affections of many individuals to whom he was very near and dear, were too deep for all these long years to erase.”
Despite this tragedy, the Universalist Society carried on and in the ensuing decades, gained stability and became a welcome addition to the community.