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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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Capt. William Palfrey: “What think you of my turning parson?”

On 2 Jan 1776, Capt. William Palfrey, an aide-de-camp to Gen. Charles Lee, wrote to his wife about an unusual ceremony:
What think you of my turning parson? I yesterday, at the request of Mrs. [Martha] Washington [shown here], performed divine service at the church at Cambridge. There was present the General and lady, Mrs. [Elizabeth] Gates, Mrs. [Eleanor] Custis, and a number of others, and they were pleased to compliment me on my performance. I made a form of prayer, instead of the prayer for the King, which was much approved. I gave it to Mrs. Washington, at her desire, and did not keep a copy, but will get one and send it you.
The reference to the “church at Cambridge” instead of a meetinghouse, and to a proscribed prayer for the king mean that Palfrey had presided over a service in Christ Church. As an Anglican, Martha Washington probably felt more at home in that house of worship than in Cambridge’s Congregationalist meeting.

A mid-1800s minister and chronicler of Christ Church, the Rev. Nicholas Hoppin, examined this document and concluded:
The letter is dated Tuesday evening, 11 o’clock, 2d January, which would make the service to have been held the day before, i.e. Monday, New Year’s Day; but it bears some marks of having been written or sketched on Monday, and copied on Tuesday. The word “Last” stands erased before the portion quoted above: so that the service was probably on Sunday, the last day of the year 1775.
Palfrey’s new “form of prayer” offered a transition from the Book of Common Prayer’s standard plea for the king’s welfare to one that asked God to “Open his eyes and enlighten his understanding, that he may pursue the true interest of the people over whom thou, in thy providence, hast placed him.”

Palfrey also added a prayer “to bless the Continental Congress,” and to
Be with thy servant, the Commander-in-chief of the American forces. Afford him thy presence in all his undertakings; strengthen him, that he may vanquish and overcome all his enemies; and grant that we may, in thy due time, be restored to the enjoyment of those inestimable blessings we have been deprived of by the devices of cruel and bloodthirsty men, for the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
This prayer reflected how American feelings of allegiance to the British king were waning, while still stopping short of a total break from royal authority.

TOMORROW: Was there music at that ceremony?

3 comments:

Ben Edwards said...

Wondered if this might be the same William Palfrey who was a member of the Sons of Liberty in Boston? He was John Hancock's clerk. His name appears on a list of 355 members who Dined at Liberty Tree (Robinson's Tavern) in Dorchester on Aug 14, 1769. That list was donated by his grandson John G. Palfrey to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1869.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, it’s the same William Palfrey. He started in business as a protégé of Nathaniel Wheelwright, the subject of my “A Bankruptcy in Boston” article. Hancock rescued Palfrey from that debacle by hiring him as head clerk, and in the process got a talented administrator for his business. (Hancock’s real passions and talents lay in politics, I believe.)

As Hancock’s right-hand man, Palfrey also helped to organize the Boston Whigs’ outreach to political activists elsewhere, including John Wilkes in London. He shows up on a lot of Whig documents from the late 1760s and early 1770s, though always in a somewhat subordinate role. By the time of the war, Palfrey had an independent business, as I recall.

During the first months of the war Gen. Charles Lee took Palfrey on as an aide-de-camp. Washington borrowed him to administer the unloading of the British ordnance ship Nancy in Beverly, and then as a permanent aide-de-camp. In April 1776 Palfrey replaced James Warren as paymaster-general for the Continental Army, and worked capably in that role.

In November 1780, the Congress made Palfrey its consul-general in Paris. But his ship to France went down at sea. Thus, Palfrey never attained a top-level position in the Revolution or a role in the U.S. government as we know it today, so he’s not widely remembered.

However, Palfrey did have the luck of leaving successful descendants, who preserved many of his papers and kept his name moderately well known. There are Palfrey Streets and buildings scattered around greater Boston because of that family.

Ben Edwards said...

Thanks! I enjoyed reading all the detailed information you provided on William Palfrey.