J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ministers Telling Stories About Each Other

Boston 1775 promises gossip about the people of Revolutionary Boston, so for new material I’ve gone to a rather gossipy bunch: New England clergymen. Both of these tales involves descendants of the most imposing New England clergymen of all, Increase and Cotton Mather.

The Rev. Dr. James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888) passed on an anecdote from his namesake, step-grandparent, and guardian, the prominent early Unitarian minister James Freeman (1759-1835, shown here, courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association):

I was once walking with Dr. John Clarke, and we met Mather Byles. He took my arm and said,—“Now we have the whole Bible here. I am the Old Testament, you, Mr. Clarke, are the New Testament, and as for Mr. Freeman, he is the Apocrypha.”
The Rev. Dr. Byles’s inability to resist a witticism was one reason he dropped out of favor with his congregation during the Revolutionary War.

The Rev. Samuel Mather (1706-1785) was Cotton’s son and biographer, and thus at the very top of the region’s Congregationalist orthodoxy. In an 1847 letter printed in the Annals of the American Unitarian Pulpit, the Rev. Dr. Charles Lowell (1782-1861) passed on this picture of the man:
Dr. John Lathrop, of Boston, related to me the following anecdote of Dr. Samuel Mather, whom he knew well, being a member of the same Ministerial Association with him for many years:—At a certain meeting of the Association, Dr. Mather talked nearly the whole time; and, when the members were about to disperse, the Doctor said very emphatically,—“Well, Brethren, I don’t remember that I ever knew a pleasanter meeting of the Association than this.”

I understood the anecdote as pointing to the prominent infirmity in Dr. Mather’s character.
Mather also had difficulty with his congregants. He presided over the North Meeting-House for a decade until 1742, when the worshipers “New Light” leanings conflicted with his “Old Light” sensibility. Mather and a quarter of the congregation then formed a new meeting, Boston’s tenth, on North Bennet Street.

Mather and Byles were two of the three Congregationalist ministers who remained in Boston through the siege of 1775-76, the third being the Rev. Dr. Andrew Eliot (1718-1788). Only Byles was a political Loyalist, however, and even he refused to leave the country.

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