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, November 17, 2013

The Mystery of the Meeting “at West-Corcus in Boston”

On Friday the Journal of the American Revolution at AllThingsLiberty.com featured my article on the word “caucus,” which surfaced in Boston in 1760, became increasingly accepted over the next decade and a half, and took final form in the history that the Rev. William Gordon published in London in 1788.

People have puzzled over the origin of that word since 1763, when it was still spelled “Corcas” or “corkus.” A lot of the theories about its derivation are based on the “caucus” spelling, and though that might well be how Bostonians pronounced the word, that’s not how they saw it. Instead, we have to look for roots of “Corcas.”

Around 1940, Craigie and Hulbert’s Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles reported that an article in the 19 Aug 1745 Boston Evening-Post referred to a neighborhood in Boston called “West-Corcus.” Other language reference books have repeated that fact as a possible clue, but I don’t see any sign that their authors went to look at that reference in context. I just did. Of course, the Early American Newspapers database makes that task a lot easier today.

The newspaper item does indeed call for a meeting “at West-Corcus in Boston.” However, the whole piece appears to be one of those sarcastic eighteenth-century essays pretending to be someone on the opposite side of a controversy in order to lampoon that side’s views. That makes it very hard to parse out what details, if any, readers were supposed to recognize as relating to real life and what were obviously satirical.

In this case, the controversy was prompted by the visit of the Rev. George Whitefield (shown above, courtesy of NNDB.com) to Boston in early 1745. His “New Light” style of open-air preaching had set off a split and long debate with the “Old Lights” of traditional Congregationalism. (A century later a religious historian would dub this period “the First Great Awakening,” but at the time it seems to have felt more like people who were already religious staying up late arguing fine points of theology when what really mattered was who was in charge.)

This Evening-Post item takes the form of “A Layman” asking the publisher to run a “NOTIFICATION” that says:
WHereas the Association of Lay-Brethren, lately convened at Boston, to take into their serious Consideration the Conduct of those Reverend Clergymen, who have encouraged the Iteration [i.e., departure] of Mr. George Whitefield, whereby the Liberties of the Laity have been invaded, Peace and good Order in many of their Families destroyed, and Reason given for the Report of an unhappy spread of dangerous Doctrines and Divisions, as well as Clerical Encroachments and Usurpations; judge is highly seasonable, that all the Laymen in the Country, who lament the said Disorders, dangerous Doctrines, Divisions and Clerical Usurpations, and cordially approve of the well-known Churches Quarrel espoused, wrote by our excellent and venerable Father John Wise, Anno 1715. should have a general Meeting in order to declare their united Approbation of and Adherence to the great Truths of the Gospel, as exhibited in said Book, and recommend the same, and to consult of proper Methods to maintain them, as an happy Band of Union and special Means to prevent those Disorders, Divisions and Encroachments, and recover and preserve the Gospel Order and vital Piety they lead to; as also to make Enquiry, and bring Accounts of the State of said Ministers in the several Churches, both as to their Doctrine and Behaviour, and to bear proper Testimony against such Errors and evil Practices of theirs as may appear to have any threatening Aspect on Religion and good Order among us.

It is accordingly proposed, that there be such a general Meeting, and that it be held on the last Wednesday of September next, at WEST-CORCUS in Boston aforesaid. Published at the Desire of the abovesaid Association, by
Z. T. Clerk to the Association.
The item closed with a couple of “important Questions” for that gathering to consider:
Whether Christ, after his Resurrection, promised his Presence and Blessing to any other but ITINERANT Preachers? And if not,

Whether the standing Ministry ought not to be dismissed to make way for those Apostolical Preachers? Which will save this Province at least 50,000 per Annum.
Read literally, this item suggested doing away with all the settled ministers and meeting-houses in Massachusetts in favor of traveling preachers like Whitefield. But I don’t think the author expected folks to read the piece literally.

Rather, it’s an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum of Whitefield’s popularity over the long-established ministers of Boston and surrounding towns. The writer was basically sneering, “If all you people want to stand outside and listen to some guy who just arrived in New England last year, then maybe you don’t want to have meeting-houses at all! Maybe you’ll listen to just anyone passing through town!”

What might the phrase “at WEST-CORCUS in Boston” mean in that context? It doesn’t appear to be the real name for a Boston neighborhood, as Craigie and Hulbert assumed; there’s no other reference to such a place in the newspapers of the day. But beyond that I’m not at all sure.
  • Was there already a political “Corcas” operating under that name, fifteen years before the next mention of it in the newspapers, and were its leaders known to be fans of Whitefield?
  • Was “Corcus” a glancing reference to the Scottish kirk, which in 1745 might imply that Whitefield and his followers were somehow less loyal than adherents of established meetings, as well as less respectable?
  • Was “West-Corcus” a reference to a tavern in the western part of town? Again, there’s no other reference to such an establishment in the newspapers.
  • Was “Corcus” just a nonsense word, suggesting that anyone who’d want to attend this meeting should go to the ends of the earth?

TOMORROW: And what’s all that about “our excellent and venerable Father John Wise, Anno 1715”?

2 comments:

Mr Punch said...

The first option seems by far the most plausible. The implication, I think, is that the "corcus" is a neighborhood meeting of some sort, which would mean that revivalist is being associated with a part of town rathan than a leadership group.

J. L. Bell said...

That's the reading that seems clearest. But there don't seem to be any other mentions at the time of "West-Corcus," nor of "East-Corcus" or the like.

Furthermore, West Boston was relatively uninhabited at the time, so was it really seen as a neighborhood? Whitefield's appeal also doesn't seem to have been confined to one area of town.

So while it's possible the ad alludes to a neighborhood, the lack of similar allusions and the overall satiric tone makes me suspect something else was going on.