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.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Mysterious Minister, Mr. Martin

As I described yesterday, the widow Wilmot Marsden based her plea for a federal pension on her memory of having married her husband George in Medford on 25 Nov 1775, when he was an officer in the Continental Army. She recalled the minister who officiated at their wedding as “a professor in the Harvard University” named Martin. Alas, the college had no record of such a man.

But there was a clergyman in the area who seems a likely candidate for marrying the Marsdens: the Rev. John Martin, born (as he told the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles) in the west of Ireland in 1750 and coming to Nova Scotia in 1772.

The earliest sign of Martin in North America that I’ve found is an advertisement in the 21 Oct 1774 New-Hampshire Gazette stating that “JOHN MARTIN, Minister of the Gospel,” had lost a silver watch somewhere between the meetinghouse of Rochester, New Hampshire, and Berwick, Maine.

Shortly afterward this notice appeared in the 7 November Boston Gazette and 16 and 23 November Essex Journal of Newburyport:
L O S T.
An old Sea-Chest, (supposed to be taken out of Captain [Jonathan] Mason’s Store on the Long Wharf in Salem,) broad at the Bottom, painted blue but much wore off. If it has any Mark, it’s J. M. Should it be opened, it contains Weston’s Stenography, some Books of Physick, and some of Divinity, and considerable Writings, and both Men and Womens Cloths. Whoever shall give Information of the said Chest to the Rev. Dr. [Nathaniel] Whittaker in Salem, or the Rev. Samuel Stillman in Boston, so that the Subscriber may have it, they shall be well rewarded, and all reasonable Charges paid by
Martin appears to have been a very unlucky traveler indeed. On the other hand, these ads might have been a way to announce to the region that one is the sort of learned gentleman to travel with a silver watch and a trunk full of books even if one doesn’t actually have those goods with one. Another notable point: The ministers Martin designated as his local contacts weren’t the orthodox Congregationalists but a Presbyterian and a Baptist.

Martin preached in place of the Rev. Dr. Stiles in Newport on 16 Apr 1775. Stiles went to see him speak again on 19 April and quizzed him about his background. Martin described religious peregrination from a Catholic school through the Episcopal Church and Deism to some form of Calvinist Protestantism that Stiles found acceptable. But the Rhode Island minister was suspicious of Martin’s tale of having been a chaplain to the Pretender in Ireland in 1771. Stiles was a sucker for stories he wanted to believe, and he didn’t want to believe Bonnie Prince Charlie was genuinely Protestant.

Meanwhile, the war was starting. Martin evidently went to the siege lines. He returned to Rhode Island after the Battle of Bunker Hill, reporting that he’d served as a chaplain on the battlefield and had taken part not only in the fighting but also in overseeing the redoubt, deploying troops, and more. Fanfiction critics would recognize the story Martin told as a “self-insert,” in which he was the bravest, most perceptive, and indispensable man on the American side of the battle lines.

As outlandish as Martin’s story was, this time people wanted to believe him. On 28 June, the Rhode Island Assembly appointed “John Martin” surgeon of its army brigade at a salary of £9 per month. There were other, better established men named John Martin in that colony, but I suspect this new surgeon was the young minister because he’d claimed to own “some Books of Physick” and because of a newspaper statement the next month that he’d been “appointed to a post in the Rhode Island regiment.”

On 30 June, Martin returned to Stiles’s doorstep in Newport, telling his story of the battle, and the minister wrote it all down. That evening he listened as Martin preached “a high Liberty Sermon.” On 18 July, the New-Hampshire Gazette reported briefly how Martin had “fought gallantly at Bunker-Hill.” Presumably he headed back to the war zone.

On 28 September and 28 December 1775, the New-England Chronicle newspaper reported that letters for John Martin were waiting in the Cambridge post office. Again, this may be another man of the same name (he’s not identified as a minister or a surgeon). But it’s quite clear who Sgt. Henry Bedinger of the Virginia riflemen heard preach in Roxbury on 3 Oct 1775:
We had also a Very Good Sermon preached to us by the Reverend Mr. Martin, Who Took part of the Command on Bunker’s Hill In that Battle.
This is clearly the same Martin who visited Stiles, and he was once again acting as a clergyman in the fall of 1775.

Thus, the Rev. John Martin seems like an excellent candidate to be the minister who married George Marsden and Wilmot Lee in Medford in November. He would have no qualms about breaking the Massachusetts law against traveling clergy performing marriages. And, just as he left the riflemen and others with the idea that he’d been a commander at Bunker Hill, he could easily have left Wilmot Marsden convinced he was a “professor at Harvard University.”

COMING UP: What happened to the Rev. John Martin?


Chaucerian said...

"What happened to the Rev. John Martin?" you ask -- how can we possibly know?

Karen A. Chase said...

I am fascinated by your blog posts. They're so well written and contain such gems of history. This one is no exception. As a fiction writer, I would encourage any writer without a new story line to follow your blog. Within posts like this are these curiosities–missing watches, and trunks full of "considerable Writings"–that could spark a great and wonderful story. Dozens of questions left to answer. Thank you for all your great work in discovering historical facts like these.

J. L. Bell said...

Personally, I wonder why the young minister was traveling with “both Men and Womens Cloths.”