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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Showing posts with label Ebenezer Pemberton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ebenezer Pemberton. Show all posts

Monday, July 29, 2013

Dr. Eliot’s Gossip about Boston’s Ministers

Yesterday I started quoting from Dr. Ephraim Eliot’s notes inside a copy of an 1821 pamphlet in the Harvard library. That pamphlet is a sermon about the split of the New North Meeting-House’s congregation in 1719, a major event in Boston.

Eliot was the youngest son of the Rev. Andrew Eliot (1718-1778), a later minister of the New North Meeting. And the family clearly put some of the blame for the split on one of the ministers at the Old North Meeting:
The difficulties at the new north [meeting-house] were more owing to Cotton Mather & his influence than to any others. Increase [Mather] was in his dotage. He [Cotton] was afraid of [Rev. Peter] Thachers popular talents, joined & directed the opposition & thought to get them into his parish. if he had thought of their building another meeting house, he would have been quiet.
Instead, the group that split off from the New North formed a new congregation and built the New Brick Meeting-House, attracting some members from the Mathers’ church.

Eliot had other critical things to say about Cotton Mather in his marginal notes. On page 18 he wrote:
No greater enemy to the quakers existed. In his account of the witchcraft of John Goodman’s children, He says, that shewing them a bible or carrying them into his study, would instantly bring them out of their fits, the sight of a book of quakerism or the [Anglican] book of common prayer would throw them into horrid convulsions.
An Irish woman was hanged in Boston in 1688 on the testimony of the Goodman children.

Eliot recorded even juicier gossip about some of Boston’s other pre-Revolutionary ministers which I don’t recall seeing elsewhere. On page 23 and then page 41 he wrote about what the Rev. Samuel Checkley (1695-1769) of the New South Meeting was known for:
for eating; he was the largest man in Boston, & his mouth was always full, & his jaw going when not preaching. My father used to say, he hated to preach after Checkley, on acct of the cracking of raisin seeds under his feet with which the floor of the pulpit was always covered. While the people were singing, he was chomping plumbs. . . .

Checkley lost his popularity more from his gourmandising disposition than any other way. he laid out all his money in tidbits, cakes, Raisins, oysters, &c. & ran in debt for other things. To such a degree that his parish chose a committee to get from him a schedule of his debts, which they paid. But he was ashamed to note the debt he owed in small shops for gingerbread &c. Those creditors became noisy, & another committee was chosen to receive & pay all such claims.
Checkley’s daughter Elizabeth became the first wife of Samuel Adams.

And about the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton (1705-1777), minister of the New Brick Church starting in 1754:
So high did his vanity carry him that when asked by Mr. Eliot to exchange, he observed that his people would consent to hear no other parson. His popularity burned out. But the parish dwindled more from his being a violent Tory, & the Bosom friend of Gov [Thomas] Hutchinson, who was one of his parish. Many people would not worship at the New Brick because of that circumstance.
Thus, in 1777 the shrinking New Brick Meeting had a building but no pastor while the Old North Meeting had no building but a popular pastor—the Rev. John Lathrop (1740-1816). They worked out the obvious solution, thus starting to reverse the splits of the early decades.

TOMORROW: A few more tidbits from Dr. Eliot’s notes.

[The photograph above, courtesy of the Boston Public Library’s Flickr stream, shows the house in the North End where Dr. Ephraim Eliot grew up. It was originally built by the Rev. Increase Mather after the fire mentioned yesterday.]

Monday, October 24, 2011

Phillis Wheatley’s Early Published Work

When Ezekiel Russell invited readers of the Boston Censor to order a collection of poems by Phillis Wheatley in early 1772, she was already known in town as a poet.

Wheatley’s verses circulated in manuscript, and some had been printed. Her first published work was a 1766 poem on two sailors who had nearly been lost at sea, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin”; it appeared in the Newport Mercury on 21 Dec 1767. A note in that Rhode Island newspaper described her as “a Negro Girl (belonging to one Mr. Wheatley of Boston).” When Hussey and Coffin dined at John Wheatley’s house and “told of their narrow Escape, this Negro Girl at the same Time ’tending Table, heard the Relation, from which she composed the following Verses.”

In 1770, Wheatley wrote her poem on the death of the immensely popular Rev. George Whitefield. Russell and John Boyle published that on 11 October in two different forms in Boston—broadside and pamphlet. Those editions stated that the author was “PHILLIS, a Servant Girl of 17 Years of Age, belonging to Mr. J. WHEATLEY, of Boston.—And has been but 9 Years in this Country from Africa.” The printers went to the expense of advertising one form (which cost “7 Coppers”) in the Boston News-Letter.

Boosted by Whitefield’s popularity, that poem was reissued by other Boston printers, and by printers in Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and London. It was appended to the back of the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton’s sermon on Whitefield’s death, published in both Boston and London, with the name of “PHIILIS, a Negro Girl, of Seventeen Years of Age,” on the title page (as shown above).

The following year, a Boston woman named Jane Dunlap published a pamphlet titled Poems Upon Several Sermons Preached by the Rev’d and Renowned George Whitefield While in Boston, She alluded to Wheatley’s reputation with these lines:
Shall his due praises be so loudly sung
By a young Afric damsels virgin tongue?
And I be silent!
In 1771, a broadside titled “To Mrs. Leonard, on the Death of her HUSBAND” was published with the credit “Phillis Wheatley” at the bottom. (This is a rare example of her being identified with a surname before she became free.) Her “On the Death of Doctor Samuel Marshall” appeared anonymously in the Boston Evening-Post on 7 October. Some scholars suggests other poems in Boston newspapers, including one on the Boston Massacre, were also Phillis Wheatley’s work.

Obviously, all those printers accepted that those poems were worthy of publication. Almost all gave Wheatley credit for them, highlighting rather than hiding her status as a young slave from Africa. Jane Dunlap acknowledged her as a poetic forerunner.

Furthermore, in nearly two centuries of research about Wheatley, no one has yet found any Bostonian expressing doubt that she composed her own verses. No one wrote to those newspapers pooh-poohing their credits—and Bostonians weren’t shy about arguing in the newspapers. No letters survive voicing skepticism about the Wheatley family’s outlandish claims about their slave girl.

I’m sure that some Bostonians were surprised at the notion of an enslaved teenager who had arrived in America only in 1761 being able to write poetry in the high style. It was a remarkable achievement. But the only person we know put that surprise into writing was Thomas Wooldridge, visiting from New York, and he was quickly convinced.

So where’s the evidence that Bostonians were “piqued” about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry?

TOMORROW: Two readings of one letter.