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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Friday, November 28, 2008

Not Everyone Observes Thanksgiving in 1774

Not everyone in Boston observed the Thanksgiving holiday on 15 Dec 1774, as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had asked people to do. This report appeared in the 19 December Boston Gazette:

On the late Thanksgiving-Day two or three weak and imbittered Persons, of the most insignificant and contemptible of all Sects, (who make Pretensions to Christianity) opened their Shops; five or six Soldiers passing one of them, made a full stop, and asked the deluded Owner whether he was not ashamed so to insult his Countrymen, and advised him to shut up his Shop and hide his Head, adding, that he was an Enemy to his Country.—

As this was said by a Soldier, they may perhaps spare the cry of Persecution on the Occasion.
I have no doubt that soldier was speaking sarcastically, parodying what he expected the local political leaders to say about those shopkeepers. And the fact that radical printers Edes and Gill were able to ascribe those words to a soldier doesn’t hide the fact that they obviously agreed with them.

What “Sect” were those shopkeepers from? We find the answer in the journal of the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles. Five days after describing how he had held a Thanksgiving service in his Rhode Island meeting-house, Stiles wrote:
The Sandimanians opened Shops in Boston on Thanksgiving day last & the Episcopa[ls]. at Cambridge refused to observe it: the young Dr. Biles Episco. Clergyman refused to open his Church in Boston to the great Offence of his little Flock, which are more for Liberty than any Episco. Congregation north of Maryland.
The Sandemanians were a small Christian sect following the ideas of a Scotsman named John Glas (shown above, courtesy of the University of Dundee) and his son-in-law Robert Sandeman, who had moved to New England to spread the word. Part of their doctrine was obedience to government authorities, so they firmly supported the royal governor. There was a small group of Sandemanians in Boston, a small group in southeastern Connecticut, and even smaller groups elsewhere.

The other people Stiles specified as not observing the Thanksgiving were Anglicans. Cambridge was one of the few Massachusetts towns—perhaps the only one not on the seacoast—with an Anglican church and congregation. The Rev. Mather Byles, Jr., was minister at Christ Church in Boston, now also called Old North. (He was the son of the more famous Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, who remained a Congregationalist minister even as he supported the royal governors.)

Stiles’s remark about the younger Byles’s North End congregation wishing to observe Thanksgiving in church might not have been accurate. He was often a little too eager to record news that confirmed his political sensibilities, and I’ve learned not to take the reports in his diary at face value. However, as the Gazette report shows, Stiles was correct about the Sandemanians’ choice to ignore the holiday.

TOMORROW: Criticism of the Sandemanians’ non-Thanksgiving becomes a political issue.

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