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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Monday, April 11, 2016

A New Biography of the Rev. Jonas Clarke

This season has brought a new biography of the Rev. Jonas Clarke, the Lexington minister who was hosting John Hancock and Samuel Adams on 19 Apr 1775 as British regulars marched toward that town.

Clarke wielded a lot of influence in Lexington. People recalled that he drafted many of the town’s resolutions objecting to new Crown measures in the 1760s and 1770s. His published sermon on the first anniversary of the outbreak of war is not only a significant historical source on the event but also helped to shape its meaning for the people of Massachusetts.

The Patriot Parson of Lexington, Massachusetts: Reverend Jonas Clarke and the American Revolution is the latest book by Richard P. Kollen, a history teacher who has served as the historian for the Lexington Historical Society. The work was supported by that society, custodian of the Clarke-Hancock House where the minister lived and of his papers, and by the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.

Kollen’s research seems very thorough, running from Clarke’s birth in Newton in 1730 to his death in 1805. As an educated man, the minister documented his life in sermons, letters, and three surviving volumes of journals. His family and community ensured the preservation of those sources, and Kollen—already author of several other books on Lexington history—has mined them for all they’re worth. It’s hard to imagine a more detailed picture of Jonas Clarke.

The Patriot Parson is thus reminiscent of early-19th-century clerical biographies, which likewise extolled their subjects’ values and long careers in detail. I’m sure Kollen didn’t set out to write a Congregationalist hagiography like so many of those volumes. It’s just that Clarke doesn’t seem to have had notable faults or been involved in many juicy controversies (aside from, you know, the split with Britain). Lexington didn’t go through the theological or political arguments of other, larger communities nearby.

Kollen doesn’t shy from noting difficult parts of Clarke’s life. For example, the minister’s older brother, Thomas Clarke, suffered from some sort of mental illness. Kollen quotes from a letter that Jonas wrote in 1753 about Thomas’s “roving mind” and tracks Thomas from the house of the family’s one surviving sister back to Jonas’s household after the war. But the sources simply don’t provide Kollen with grounds for much more than speculation about this aspect of family life.

Another potential area of controversy is slavery. It was common for New England ministers to have an enslaved household servant or two. Clarke’s predecessor, the Rev. John Hancock, owned a man named Jack, and his Concord contemporary, the Rev. William Emerson, owned a man named Frank. Indeed, in smaller New England towns the only slaveholder might be the town minister. On the other side of the issue, such ministers as the Rev. Samuel Cooke of Menotomy, who was stepfather to Clarke’s wife, preached in 1770 that slavery “degraded human nature nearly to the level of the beasts” and urged the Massachusetts General Court to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade.

There’s no evidence that Clarke ever owned anyone. Kollen quotes records of the minister hiring day laborers before his sons grew old enough to work the fields. The book suggests that it is “not unlikely” that Clarke agreed with Cooke. However, Kollen has to acknowledge, Clarke left no statement about slavery, making his personal choice opaque. (The topic of slavery, a focus of so many historians these days, doesn’t even appear in the book’s index.)

The Patriot Parson will be the authoritative book on Clarke for a long time to come. People writing about him or eighteenth-century Lexington in the future will have to consult this book as a source. At the same time, the lack of evident internal and community conflict in Clarke’s life limits the book’s wider appeal. But history doesn’t guarantee that being near the center of a dramatic event means that one leaves behind a dramatic life story.

The Patriot Parson comes from the History Press, so it follows that publisher’s standard design: a paperback of slightly more than 200 packed pages. There are many black and white photographs throughout the book, good notes, and a basic index.

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