Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Brothers-in-Law, Part II

In the May 5 installment of this blog, I started telling the story of James Coulter and Thomas Miller, brothers-in-law tied up in a squabble over their late father-in-law's estate.  Coulter sued Miller and got into trouble with the Bovina U.P. Church session for not coming to them to resolve the issue.  Coulter was asked to withdraw the suit, but he and his wife Nancy refused to do so.  In March 1867, they were suspended from membership in the church. 

On the third of June, the Session met and discussed the case of Mr. and Mrs. Coulter.  The Moderator reported that his meeting with Mr. Coulter to discuss the suspension was not successful.  Coulter would not withdraw his suit and refused to attend church.   “Mr. Coulter only manifested a spirit of bitterness against Session and charged them with doing him great injustice in a former difficulty with Mr. Edward O’Connor, and using his son John very badly.”  Coulter asked the Session to stop bothering him.  The Session adopted a resolution continuing the suspension of Mr. and Mrs. Coulter.

The case was further complicated by the fact that not only was Miller an elder, but so was Miller's and Coulter's mutual brother-in-law, William Thomson.  Miller had not been active as an elder because of the case. There had been a resolution in May asking Thomas Miller to resume his active duties as an Elder.  On June 15, the Session met where the resolution was discussed.  The invitation was opposed by some who felt it “would be offensive to Wm Thomson and others.”   Others said they had no personal disagreement with Mr. Miller but thought the invitation to resume his duties was premature.  Yet others felt that “Mr. Miller was an Elder in good standing with no charge, or scandal against his character, which this Session could entertain.”  It was further argued that Miller had obtained a leave of absence from Session meetings while Coulter’s case was being heard, but as far as the session was concerned now, the case was ended.  “Mr. Miller had rights and privileges which Session could not justly ignore.” 

In September 1867, Elder Thomson was granted his request of several months duration to resign as Elder.  The Session agreed “on the grounds of a felt personal inability to discharge his duties.”  In January 1868, Thomas Miller was invited once again to resume his duties as Elder. 

While the issue of Elders Miller and Thomson was being resolved, little had been heard from the Coulters.  But at a meeting of the Presbytery held on April 28 and 29, 1868 at the Bovina U.P. Church, James and Nancy took this opportunity to circulate a letter of complaint against the Bovina session.  The session was not pleased and requested James to appear before their next meeting on May 12.  James did appear and said that after circulating the letter they had withdrawn it.  He requested to have his church privileges restored.  The Moderator read the rules explaining that “the practice of Christian brethren going to law one with another is not only contrary to the spirit, but to the letter of the Holy Bible.”   Coulter explained that he agreed but two days later, a letter was received from James and Nancy Coulter:

We the undersigned ask of the Session of the U.P. Church of Bovina to remove the act of suspension dated March 5, 1867 depriving us of church privileges. For the following reasons:
1st We have not committed any crime against the church to our knowledge;
2nd We have reason to believe there was not a full meeting of Session at the time of suspension;
3rd And we cannot see that we have committed a crime in leaving a church where we could not enjoy ourselves and be benefited, and go to another;
4th We were not cited to the Session at the time of suspension and was attending church two weeks before the suspension.  Signed Jas and N.D. Coulter.
With regard to the paper presented to Presbytery I have not got that in possession as I expected and it is not necessary in the action of Session in this matter as the Session will see after due consideration.
You the Session of Bovina please give us certificates and restore to us the blessings of church privileges if you cannot do this act of kindness to us I give you notice that we must lay the matter before the Presbytery which we do not wish to do.  Bovina, May 13, 1868, Jas and N.D. Coulter.
The session met again on Saturday May 16 to discuss the case of James Coulter.  The moderator explained that Mr. Coulter had promised but failed to produce the paper passed around at the Presbytery and yet had now “presented to this Session another paper signed by himself and wife asking Session to restore them to privilege for reasons which appear to us untrue [and] unwanted.  It was pointed out that Coulter admitted that what he was doing was contrary to the rules of the church, that he had disobeyed several citations to appear before the session, and that when Coulter and his wife were suspended, all but two members of the Session were present and that the vote was unanimous.  The Session resolved, however, that Mr. and Mrs. Coulter be granted a new trial and be allowed 20 days to notify the Clerk of the Session as to their response. The session also stated that it “is perfectly willing to have the whole matter brought before Presbytery in a proper and orderly way.”  

Unfortunately, here the story abruptly stops because the next volume of session minutes that would continue the narrative has not been found.  The ultimate resolution of the case cannot be determined.  Did James and Nancy get what they felt they deserved from her father’s estate?  Were they restored to church privileges? 

We do know that Thomas Miller continued as an elder until his death, having been one of the longest serving elders ever in the church.  Thomas’s wife did not long survive the case, dying in 1870. Miller married twice more before his death in 1911.  Nancy Thomson Coulter also predeceased her husband, dying in 1891.  James died seven years later.  William, the brother who was caught up in the squabble, died in 1884. 

And I have had no luck locating any civil court records of this case - so whether or not they really went to court has not been established.  But I keep my eyes open for any new sources that might help us find the final resolution of this family squabble that spilled over into the Bovina UP Church.


  1. Jeanne Raitt FlyeMay 18, 2011 at 4:56 PM

    According to the "Manual of the U.P. Church of
    Bovina, N.Y. May, 1876", neither James nor Nancy D. Coulter were listed as "present members" but were listed as "former members". Both a William Thomson and a William D. Thomson were listed as "present members". It is also noted that William Thomson, who was ordained as elder on May 8, 1857, resigned.

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  3. Thanks Jeanne. I should have looked at the 1876 manual, which I have, to verify this. I also went to the 1886 manual and they are still listed as past members, so it seems they never did resolve their differences with the UP Church.