In 1835, the Baptists in Nashua, New Hampshire were growing in numbers so fast they began planning a second church in the city. The pastor was overjoyed that his flock had multiplied so, and Calvin Cutter, a young doctor, was an enthusiastic supporter. Before all was said and done, however, the new building would generate such hostility and acrimony that Cutter grew convinced the Baptist Church had killed his wife.
1835 was a booming time for Nashua, then called Dunstable. The Middlesex Canal, opened in 1803, opened up the city to trade with the cities and ports of Massachusetts, especially as northern access to the canal was expanded in the 1820s. New Hampshire raw materials could easily and affordably be exported. But more importantly, to a group of forward-thinking residents, the time was right to create a manufacturing center along the lines of the prosperous new city to the south, Lowell, Massachusetts.
Powered by the Mine Falls on the Nashua River, Nashua Village was created and a wide variety of industries sprang up almost overnight. The activity brought a great influx of people to the area and, powered by America's Second Great Awakening, there was more demand than ever for new churches, built upon the Baptist and Methodist traditions.
Prior to 1819, establishing a new church was difficult. The laws in New Hampshire allowed the dominant church in a town to tax residents for the construction and maintenance of a church, as well as to pay the salary of a preacher. The result was, for many of the smaller sects, members were paying for a church they neither wanted to attend nor support. The 1819 Toleration Act passed by the New Hampshire legislature put an end to this practice. Churches were all to be treated equally and supported through voluntary contributions.
In 1822, a group of industrious men that included the father of the first mayor of Nashua, formed a Baptist society. Over the next 10 years, meeting in private homes and other temporary spaces, their numbers grew until they finally opened the doors of their new church, the First Baptist, in 1833. Membership would quickly swell to more than 500 members.
With the rapid growth, talk turned to the idea of a Second Baptist church, more conveniently located for some parishioners. Dr. Calvin Cutter was an enthusiastic proponent, and he readily put up funds for the church.
The Second Baptist Church was erected in 1836 on Chestnut Street at a cost, some said, of $30,000. A congregation of 30 members left the First Baptist Church to launch the new church. The Rev. Dura Pratt of the First Baptist preached the inaugural sermon.
The booming economy of 1836 quickly shriveled, however, with the financial panic of 1837 and 1838. At the startup of the second church, several members did not buy the stock that was used to raise funds for the building. Dr. Cutter said that Pratt and others asked him to borrow money to pay their shares, with the promise that they would pay him in a year's time.
By the time a year passed, the men refuse to pay. They said they never promised the funds in the first place. For Cutter, the loss was steep. His property was seized to pay the loans for the project and he and his wife were excommunicated from the church. The Second Baptist Church was sold to a Methodist congregation for less than half what it cost to build.
The First Baptist Church, which had taken in those members who had left for the Second, declared that both the Cutters had threatened that if they were not made whole, they would destroy the church. Further, they charged that Caroline Cutter had lied in church when she read out the charges against the men she said owed the money for the outstanding shares.
The Cutters also brought forth a somewhat more serious charge, as well. Pratt, they said, had bought shares in the church at a discount for himself and resold them at full price to mill girls.
The stress was too much for Caroline Cutter to handle, according to Dr. Cutter, and she died in 1841, only 33 years of age and leaving one young daughter behind.
The Milford Baptists were disinclined to intervene in a dispute with another church and they grew tired of Cutter pestering them and badmouthing the church. One church deacon declared, “they’ve got Cutter down. Best to keep him down.”
Dr. Cutter was not inclined to turn the other cheek, however. He published all the allegations in a pamphlet, Murder of Caroline H. Cutter by the Baptist Ministers and Baptist Churches:
In the case of Mrs. Cutter, Pratt and the church intentionally and maliciously destroyed her character and standing in the church and society — they with malicious intent destroyed her peace of mind, her happiness. They thus impaired her health, caused suffering and sickness, and destroyed her life. As their acts were deliberate and malicious, pursued without mitigation or relaxation while she lived, it is as clearly a case of murder as if they had given arsenic to effect their purposes.
He took his allegations public further by giving speeches condemning the church, expanding his charges to touch on sexual and political misconduct.
One flyer advertising a speech read:
Baptist Controversy! Progress Reported: This Evening, at the [blank] Hall, There Will be an Exposure of the Cheating, Lying, Condemning Persons Unheard, and Fornication and Adultery Countenanced by the Members of the Nashua Baptist Church ... The Secret Doings of D.D. Pratt, in 1837--38, to Break Down the Democratic Party in Nashua, and Charles G. Atherton, Will be Exposed.
Truth! truth!! "Tell the truth and shame the devil." At the town hall in [blank] [blank] evening. Dr. Cutter will give his annual exposition of the pious doings of the religious Baptists.
After several years, Cutter did move on with his life. Dedicating only a small part of his time to attacking the church and Pratt, who would remain the pastor at the First Baptist Church for 22 years.
In the years after he left Nashua, Cutter would write a textbook, Cutter's Physiology, used to train students of medicine. It would sell several hundred thousand copies, and Cutter travelled the country lecturing on new techniques in medicine.
Cutter also became an active and outspoken abolitionist who served as a battlefield surgeon during the Civil War. During the battle of Bull Run, his belt buckle was nicked by a shot, and he was briefly taken prisoner.
Throughout his diverse life, however, he never dropped his dispute with the Nashua Baptists, and he made sure no one would ever forget it, for he had it chiseled onto his wife's tombstone:
Caroline H. wife of Calvin Cutter, M.D. Murdered by the Baptist Ministry of the Baptist Church as follows…