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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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dr. Joseph Warren’s Psalm Book?

Tonight I’ll be discussing the Battle of Bunker Hill with author Nathaniel Philbrick at Cambridge Forum, and the name of Dr. Joseph Warren is sure to come up. Relics of Dr. Warren have been one of the recurring themes of Boston 1775, and here’s yet another example.

In the 1852 edition of his book The Hundred Boston Orators (and perhaps in other editions), James S. Loring wrote:
A British soldier, on his return to London, exhibited a Psalm-book to Rev. Dr. Samuel Wilton, of that city, stating that he took the volume from the pocket of Gen. Warren, after the battle of Bunker Hill.

The clergyman, knowing that it would be a treasure to the Warren family, purchased the book of the soldier, and transmitted it to the Rev. Dr. William Gordon, of Roxbury, the historian, with a request that it might be given to the nearest relative of the general. It was, therefore, given to his youngest brother, Dr. John Warren, of Boston, March 15, 1778.

The title of the volume, which the editor has examined, is as follows: “The Boke of Psalmes, wherein are contained praires, meditations and thanksgivings to God, for his benefits toward his Church, translated faithfully according to the Hebrew. With brief and apt annotations in the margin. Printed at Geneva, by Rowland Hall. 1559.” It is less than the 32mo. size. On the inside cover of this book is inscribed,—“Taken at ye Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, out of Dr. Warren’s pocket.” On the inside cover, at the end of the book, is written, “Thomas Knight,”—probably the regular who secured the book.

Warren’s signature was on a blank leaf, but it has been abstracted.
In other words, the page with the signature had been sliced out.

Benjamin Silliman described seeing this book in 1835. The Warren family wrote about it in a biography of Dr. John C. Warren and eventually donated the book to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Dr. Sam Forman’s recent biography of Joseph Warren describes the book and shows a photo of its title page and the notes about its provenance opposite.

The Rev. Samuel Wilton (his D.D. was an honorary one from Princeton) was indeed a friend and correspondent of the Rev. William Gordon of Roxbury. Wilton’s father was a church deacon in the East London parish of Wapping, and he became a dissenting minister in the South London parish of Tooting. He was still in his early thirties when he died in the spring of 1778, soon after sending that psalm book across the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, we have only the Warren family’s memory about the page signed with Joseph Warren’s name. That would be the crucial link in the chain of evidence connecting the book back to the doctor. Without it, we have to consider the possibility that a British army veteran might have taken advantage of a minister with some ties to New England and sold him an old psalm book and a story.


Anonymous said...

Rev Dr Samuel Wilton was my great-great-grandfather's uncle. Thank you so much for making the memoir of this good man avaiable to me. They were a remarkable bunch

Anonymous said...

PS you can find me at thenorthernreader.wordpress.com

Unknown said...

Signatures of Joseph Warren are rare and have been valued highly by collectors. The provenance story, taken at face value, suggests that someone ripped out a signature page from the 1559 psalm book for a collection. I have been on the look-out for such, as the size and antique type of paper would be sufficiently distinctive as to match it to psalm book from which it was said to have been taken.