Rev. Robert W. Shields
originally published in the Communicator, March 2009
Deerfield has had some interesting pastors ministering to the flocks in years past, starting with Rev. Timothy Upham, who came to Deerfield in 1772, and including Rev. Christina MacKenzie, the first female Baptist minister ordained in New Hampshire. But among the most dynamic and unusual individuals to preach in Deerfield was Robert W. Shields.
Rev. Shields arrived in December of 1945 at a difficult time. There were two church buildings, both in terrible shape. Shields writes in his “Memoirs of My Ministry”: “The Congregational Church’s furnace had rusted to pieces and the building was leaking, the foundation was heaved, and the steeple sagging.” The Baptist church wasn’t much better. Church funds had dwindled along with membership in the small federated congregation made up of faithful from both churches. But the minister was determined to raise the money for repairs. He contributed the first $1000 himself; he had to sell his car to do it.
Shields knew that the key to getting the community involved was to raise awareness. He began sending to every home in Deerfield a weekly Church Bulletin which he compiled, typed and mimeographed, a practice he continued throughout his ministry in Deerfield. (The Historical Society has a complete collection of these fascinating documents, which are full of community news and photographs.) It worked. In previous years Easter services had drawn maybe 65 parishioners, if that. Rev. Shield’s first Easter service drew a whopping 316 attendees.
Charismatic figures are often controversial, and Shields was no exception. In his first year there an attempt was made to oust him. His supporters on the church Executive Committee won the vote not only to keep him, but to grant him life tenure in office, should he so desire. According to Shields, “This state of affairs infuriated the Baptists so greatly that their dissenting Deacon attempted to knock me down right in the Church meeting. The Sheriff, a Congregational member, had to evict him.”
Shields went on to see the repairs made to the churches and the Congregational parsonage rebuilt, which had burned in the 20s. He persuaded the NH governor, then Charles Dale, to establish a tradition of coming to Deerfield to deliver the Thanksgiving proclamation from the pulpit. And he organized the Church to produce “The Deerfield Bible Pageant”, some 500 slides, all taken in Deerfield, and an accompanying taped narrative, depicting the story of the Bible, with characters in costume performed by Deerfield townspeople. (Thanks to the efforts of Joanne Wasson and Jack Hutchinson, this treasure has been preserved, and was shown at a recent meeting of the Historical Society. Contact them for more information about future showings.)
Robert Shields moved to Dayton, Washington, where he continued a colorful life as a writer, teacher and artist. He, by the way, also holds the distinction of having kept the world’s longest diary. When he died in 2007, aged 89, he left a 37.5 million-word document that fills 91 boxes.