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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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Boston Discovers Universal Salvation

I’ve been following the religious evolution of two men who left the Old South Meeting-House congregation in the late 1760s: retired artillerist Richard Gridley (1711-1796) and blockmaker Shippie Townsend (1722-1798).

As soon as the Revolutionary War began in April 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress sent for Col. Gridley. He had proven himself as an artillery commander and engineer in the attack on Fort Louisbourg in 1745. Even the British army had recognized his ability, giving him a rank and a pension. Would he take command of the Massachusetts artillery regiment?

Gridley agreed to that post, on the condition that the congress would take over the payments on his pension. He thus laid out the first siege lines around Boston, fought and suffered a wound in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and became the first artillery commander of the Continental Army. In late 1775, Gen. George Washington arranged for Gridley to be made Chief Engineer but relieved of battlefield command. Henry Knox replaced him.

Townsend, in contrast, had become a Sandemanian, and therefore felt religiously obligated to obey the government in power—i.e., the king and his ministers in London. Many of his fellow congregants sailed away with the British military in 1776 and resettled in Canada. But Townsend stayed behind. In August, the Boston Committee of Correspondence complained that he wasn’t fulfilling his militia requirement. Eventually he and the few remaining Sandemanians convinced the authorities that they weren’t threats, that they could be as loyal to the new government as the old. The fact that Townsend’s son David was serving as a Continental Army physician probably helped.

Meanwhile, Gridley had been given responsibility for strengthening the defenses of Massachusetts’s ports. According to his biographer, “when engaged on the fortifications on Cape Ann,” the colonel heard the Rev. John Murray (1741-1815) preach in Gloucester.

Murray (shown above, courtesy of Wikipedia) was an English minister who had moved from the Anglican church through Methodism to an early form of Universalism—he believed in universal salvation, though he also believed in the Trinity and many other Christian traditions. Murray had settled in Gloucester in 1774, prompting some locals to suspect him of being a British spy. Gen. Nathanael Greene and Col. James Varnum of Rhode Island insisted on employing him as a chaplain during the siege of Boston, but he then returned to Gloucester.

Gridley became one of Murray’s supporters and friends. In 1790, after the colonel’s wife died, Murray and his second wife, the feminist author Judith Sargent Murray, visited the Gridley house in Stoughton. According to Gridley’s biographer, Murray later preached at the colonel’s funeral.

As for Shippie Townsend, he also became a Universalist—in fact, a leader of the Boston society. An 1890 history of the Old South Meeting-House, where I found the quotation started this series of postings, reported:

In 1785 its members purchased and enlarged the meeting-house in Hanover street, in which the Rev. Samuel Mather had preached for forty years. Shippie Townsend’s name headed the list of contributors, and he was chosen deacon.
Townsend thus helped take over the church of the minister whom he had debated back in 1768. Even more ironically, the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy, who had encouraged Mather to attack the Sandemanian faith back then, had finally published his own Universalist writings in 1784; he had been sitting on them for years, worried that such unorthodoxy would rile his congregation.

In 1793 the Boston Universalists invited Murray to become their minister, getting Judith Sargent Murray in the bargain. Among their acolytes was Townsend’s former apprentice and journeyman Jonathan Balch, who in 1798 interrupted a visiting minister at Mrs. Murray’s behest. The blockmaker’s son Dr. David Townsend also became an ardent Universalist, writing Gospel News in 1794.

Meanwhile, Townsend continued to publish his own pamphlets on religious and other topics:
  • Repentance and Remission of Sins Considered (1784)
  • The Master and Scholar Attending Catechising: or, An attempt to imitate Timothy’s catechism (1787)
  • Peace and Joy: being a Brief Attempt to Consider the Blessings of the Peace between Great-Britain and America, &c. (1788)
  • A View of a Most Magnificent Singing-Choir (1793)
  • The History of the Mother and Child: A new primer, attempting an easy, entertaining, and effectual method of teaching young children the alphabet (1794?)
  • An Attention to the Scriptures: for an answer to the important inquiry, whether unbelievers are under the law and under the curse? (1795)
  • Observations on the Religious Education of Children (1797)
Townsend’s name doesn’t appear in most of those publications, but his authorship seems to have been an open secret. The Universalist minister Nathaniel Stacy later credited “some of the writings of Shippy Townsend” for contributing to his own conversion. Not bad for a self-educated blockmaker.

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