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, September 14, 2010

The Unhappy Ministerial Career of the Rev. John Carnes

John Carnes was born in Boston in 1723. His father was a pewterer who improved his social position through militia service. During the Big Dig, archeologists explored his land in the North End and discovered wine bottles personalized with the man’s name in the wax seals. Carnes had many children, but only young John was apparently interested in becoming a minister, so his father sent him off to Harvard, paying the tuition in pewter tableware.

While John was at college in 1740, the Rev. George Whitefield (shown here) made his first visit to Cambridge, reportedly preaching under an elm on the common. John felt inspired by this “New Light” religious revival, though the professors and tutors were more suspicious.

John Carnes graduated in 1742, earned his master’s degree, and was ordained as the new minister at Stoneham in December 1746. The following July, he married Mary Lewis of Lynn, three years his senior and from a comfortably wealthy family. John and Mary Carnes looked like they were in for a typical rural Massachusetts minister’s career: many uneventful years in the pulpit, children every two or three years, &c.

But the Stoneham congregation came to dislike and disrespect Carnes. They never raised his salary, and didn’t pay what they promised in a timely way, and finally drove him to resign in July 1757. He published his side of the dispute in the Boston Gazette the next month.

Carnes and his family moved back to his wife’s home town of Lynn. After preaching in various meetings, he accepted the job of minister at Rehoboth’s Seekonk parish in April 1759. Almost immediately some congregants started to complain. Their objections may not have been about Carnes so much as how people were taxed for his salary. The grousers appear to have been a minority of the congregation, but a loud one.

In 1763 a council of men from eight other churches met to arbitrate the dispute. They questioned Carnes and his opponents and concluded:

nothing has appeared inconsistent with either his christian or ministerial character. We have reason to conclude that he hath been uncommonly supported under his continued trials and temptations, discovered a serious spirit, and endeavoured in the midst of numberless discouragements, to carry on the great design of his ministry.
But his opponents still weren’t satisfied, and asked the Massachusetts General Court to intervene. A committee of the legislature investigated the situation in Reheboth and decided once again that Carnes had done nothing wrong. But they found “an unhappy alienation of affection in his people to him, and incurable.”

In December 1764, at the Rev. John Carnes’s request, the Seekonk congregation dismissed him from their pulpit. He was forty-one years old, had a wife and five children to maintain, and had failed twice at the only profession he was trained for.

TOMORROW: John Carnes comes home to Boston.


Anonymous said...

Just a point of clarification: The Rev. John Carnes served the FIRST Church in Seekonk. Today that church is known as the Newman Congregational Church. The building in which he preached is still there, and services are held there every Sunday, but it is no longer in Seekonk. The state boundaries changed around 1863, and now the building is in East Providence (Rumford) Rhode Island. There is a Seekonk Congregational Church in Massachusetts; it is a daughter of the Newman Church, as is the Rehoboth Congregational Church. The original settlement of Rehoboth encompassed what is today Rehoboth, Seekonk, much of East Providence, and part of Pawtucket RI.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that information! For some reason my research is ending up in a lot of borderlands these days: Seekonk, Suffield, Dunstable. Hard to keep straight.

I went looking for a picture of the Newman Congregational Church, and found that Wikipedia says the current building dates to 1810. Is the building Carnes knew also around, or was that the predecessor to the current church?

Anonymous said...

I stand corrected . Our currrent building dates from 1810; I was confused by the 200th year celebration we're having, and just added an extra 100 years... mea culpa!

The previous building that Carnes knew is not there anymore. I've seen maps that show that all the Newman buildings (there have been 4) were within 100 feet of each other on the same corner since 1643, but there's only one building on the corner now.