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, December 30, 2008

Shippie Townsend, Author

In the spring of 1768, a pamphlet was published in Boston with the title A Modest Account concerning the Salutations and Kissings in ancient Times: In a Letter to a Friend, Requesting the same: Wherein Mr. Sandeman’s Attempt, to revive the holy and charitable kiss, and the Love Feasts, is considered. The title page gave the name of the author as “Constant Rockman, M.A.”

In fact, that essay had been written by the Rev. Samuel Mather of the North Bennet Street meeting-house (shown here, courtesy of Reformation Art). On 17 May, he sent the pamphlet to Thomas Hollis, a British philosopher and Harvard benefactor, with a cover letter that said:

I beg leave now to put into your Hands...a Letter obtained from me thro’ Importunity from Dr. [Charles] Chauncey, my Friend and Neighbour, and some others: which I have publish’d under a fictitious Name, lest some Offence might be given by my writing on such a Subject; tho’, I think, there is not any Thing justly exceptionable in it.
Mather had chosen the pseudonym “Rockman” as a contrast to the leader of the sect he was opposing, Scottish preacher Robert Sandeman. As I described yesterday, Sandeman had established a small church in Boston following his father-in-law’s unusual view of Christianity, and then moved on to Danbury, Connecticut.

On 25 July, the Boston Gazette carried the first advertisement for a response:
And to be Sold by NICHOLAS BOWES, opposite the Old
Brick Meeting-House in Cornhill.
[Price 6d.]
Whether the Scriptures enjoin the Kiss of Charity, as
the Duty of the Disciples of Christ, in their Church
Fellowship in all Ages.——Or, only allowed it to the
First Disciples, in Consequence of the Customs that
then prevailed.
Occasioned by a LETTER lately Published by CON-
Intitled “a Modest Account concerning the Salutati-
ons and Kissings in ancient Times,” &c.
Containing some Remarks thereupon.
Bowes added helpfully that customers could also buy the “Rockman” letter at his shop. Which was, incidentally, right across the street from where the Rev. Dr. Chauncy preached. It was a small town. (I haven’t even mentioned that young Henry Knox was working as an apprentice at Bowes’s shop.)

The Inquiry essay was written by Shippie Townsend, a leading member of the Sandemanian meeting. He was a successful blockmaker—the period equivalent, perhaps, of the owner-manager of a tool and die shop. He hadn’t been to Latin School or college, and he was taking on the latest in Boston’s most learned line of ministers, the Mathers. So Townsend started his “letter” this way:
Apprehending something in Mr. Rockman’s Letter, about which we were lately conversing, contrary to what the Apostle glories in, in 2 Corinth. iv. 2. And fearing lest some who are exercised about the will of God in this matter, may receive a wrong bias, from the slight and craftiness wherewith the scripture texts seem to be mentioned.

Having no acquaintance with Hebrew or Greek, and scarce any with the ancient Fathers, and no common place-books, I set down, having only the Bible before me, to see if by a plain literal reading the divine will, may not been seen with controversy.
In other words, Townsend presented his lack of higher learning a virtue. He might not know about ancient languages (or complete sentences), but he could read the plain words of the Bible.

The next year, a committee from the Old South Meeting-House visited Townsend and another lapsed congregant, Col. Richard Gridley, and asked them to return to that fold. Both men convinced their visitors that their new theological views were sincere and firm, as described back here.

In fact, Townsend had discovered that he liked writing about religious questions. Four years later, in 1773, he published another tract titled An Attempt to Illustrate the Great Subject of the Psalms. This time he didn’t need an earlier essay to prompt him; he just had some theological ideas to share. The war interrupted Townsend’s publishing career, but he would resume it in the 1780s.

TOMORROW: Townsend and Gridley end up in the same faith again.

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