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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Sunday, December 28, 2008

“Withdrawn Irregularly from the Communion”

The records of the Old South Meeting-House (shown at the right, courtesy of the Freedom Trail Foundation) contain this note of a discussion on 9 May 1769:

Richard Gridley, Shippey Townsend having withdrawn irregularly from the Communion of the Church, and the Church having appointed a Committee consisting of their Pastors and Deacons to converse with them on said conduct, and to endeavour to convince them of their error, so that they might be induced to return to that Christian Fellowship, in which they had covenanted to walk, which Committee had reported that their conference had not had the desired success, said Brethren declaring that they acted on the principles of Conscience, and that they could not see their way clear to return, The Church upon mature consideration voted, to forbear any further Judicial attention to said Conduct of said Brethren and to leave them to God and their own consciences.
Both Gridley and Townsend had risen from the mechanical class into that of gentlemen, and were the sort of men whom the Old South congregation would have liked to keep. But both were exploring new religious ideas.

Richard Gridley (1711-1796) had commanded the New England artillery during the first successful siege of Fort Louisbourg in 1745. In the years before the Revolution he became, according to his enthusiastic late-nineteenth-century biographer Daniel V. T. Huntoon, “an admirer of [Jonathan] Mayhew and [Charles] Chauncy.” Those admired Boston ministers both combined support for Whig politics with private doubts about the orthodox Congregationalist theology. I have no clue about what church services Gridley might have been attending in 1769, but clearly he was no longer showing up at Old South.

The religious journey of Shippie Townsend (1722-1798) is easier to track because he was more public in his ideas. He had been admitted to full communion at the First (Congregationalist) Meeting in Charlestown in 1740, still in his teens. He married Mehetabel Whittemore at the same church, then moved the family to Boston and joined Old South. Townsend was a blockmaker; his workshop supplied the blocks-and-tackle and other equipment ships needed. John Hancock’s brother Ebenezer bought tackle from Townsend in 1767, and Dr. Joseph Warren treated his child in 1765. He was able to send his son David to Harvard (class of 1770).

In the early 1760s Townsend donated “two quintals of cod and a barrel of rice” to the Rev. Eleazer Wheelock’s school, which later became Dartmouth College. But soon he became interested in a new, unorthodox religious group: the Sandemanians.

TOMORROW: The Boston Sandemanians, and why they seemed so dangerous.

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