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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Friday, June 29, 2007

Peterborough Accuses Rev. Morrison

As early as July 1770, when there was some sort of embarrassing incident at John Taggart’s house (perhaps the incident recalled in yesterday’s post), the Peterborough Presbyterian church started to think they’d chosen the wrong minister in the Rev. John Morrison. On 18 June 1771 a Presbytery met in Peterborough to consider the congregation’s complaints. Extracts from the minutes of that meeting survive, which provide glimpses—but only glimpses—of the problem.

There were seven charges. Two involved intemperance, or sloppy drunkenness, at the homes of Taggart and Col. Stephen Holland. The committee of judges found Morrison guilty on both counts, though the first was “not so highly aggravated” as the second.

The next two charges involved “Profane swearing.” The committee felt Morrison was guilty in the first incident. As for the second, “a Single evidence [i.e., witness] appeard and for the Reasons offered the committee saw fit to indulge the evidence not to swear.” Perhaps the first charge was so clear that the committee didn’t need to consider the second. Perhaps they knew one witness wasn’t enough.

Another charge was “Buying a poor mans vote.” The committee decided, “Tho there was some inexpediency yet nothing unlawful and consequently nothing censurable.” This may have been a vote within the church rather than a civil vote.

Skipping ahead, the seventh charge was “Baptizing a Child contrary to our Constitution,” and the committee declared “there is nothing to support the sd. Charge.”

Now for the real controversy: the sixth charge was “Immodest conversation and Deportment” on fifteen separate occasions:

  • Agnes Mitchel described one incident—the committee ruled it “not proved.”
  • Whatever happened at Taggart’s house in 1770 made the charge “evident by his [Morrison’s] own confession.”
  • Elisabeth Miller described behavior on two occasions that the committee agreed would warrant the charge, but there was no second witness to support her testimony.
  • Witnesses ”Stone & Wilson” described another incident, but the committee decided it was “nothing that amounted to the shadow of a proof.”
  • Another person described Morrison telling some story which the committee agreed “was unbecoming ministerial gravity,” but again that was the only witness.
  • William Gilchrest testified, but his “Character” and “his Evidence being wholly unsupported by any corroborating Circumstances” meant the committee gave him little weight.
  • Another witness “the Committee thought proper to sett aside” for unspecified reasons.
  • John Mitchel and his wife testified about yet another event, but the committee felt they “declared nothing to support the Charge.”
  • For the ninth incident, “Unanimously agreed that this Article if made evident is an instance of immodesty but is not judicially proved.”
  • Articles 10 through 14 “supported by no Evidence,” in part because a witness named John Dicks did not appear.
  • On the last charge “respecting immodest Conversation & Deportment the Committee unanimously find him guilty.”
So of fifteen incidents the committee basically delivered judgments of guilty in three, the Scottish verdict of “not proven” in three more, and acquittals in the rest. It also appears that the committee chose to keep some witnesses’ names off its record.

The judges concluded:
that in a Number of Articles tho not supported by such Proof as the Gospel requires yet some of them are attended with such Circumstances as to render the facts very suspicious—they would therefore in the bowels of Christ earnestly intreat the Revd. Mr. Morrison by every consideration that is weighty with impartial strictness to animadvert his Conduct...[and] to endeavour to humble himself in the dust before a Heart searching & holy God & to fly speedily to the Blood & righteousness of Jesus Christ for pardon & cleansing.

And with respect to the agrieved the Committee would be free to advise them with like earnestness as it is a very critical Time in Peterburgh to take heed to their spirits & while they are justly offended at their Ministers Crimes to beware of a spirit of Bitterness or personal hatred
The Presbytery then suspended Morrison for ten weeks. At another meeting on 29 August 1771, those elders restored Morrison to his pulpit.

But that didn’t satisfy the congregation. They retained attorney John Sullivan (shown above) and on 27 Nov 1771 petitioned the New Hampshire legislature to release them from their contract with Morrison. That petition accused him of “profane swearing, Drunkenness, Immodest Actions & conversation & other Lew’d wicked & Disorderly behaviour Quite unbecoming the christian character.” Thirty-four men signed this petition, including some named Mitchel, Miller, and Willson.

On 14 Dec the New Hampshire Council received the petition and sent it to the lower house, the Assembly. Those legislators voted to summon Morrison to a hearing on 15 Jan 1772. But four days later the Council disagreed. Sullivan understood they thought “it was a matter more proper for the Spiritual Courts.”

Sullivan then supplied a new document to clarify that the Presbytery had already met, and reviewing its findings, throwing in all the charges that committee had dismissed for lack of multiple witnesses. He wrote:
Though a Presbytery may Restore a Minister To his Standing yet they can by no means Reconcile the minds of a people to a profane Drunken & Debauched Minister nor Can they look upon themselves as Injoying their Religious Liberties while they are Compellable To Support Such a person.
On 20 Dec the Council decided that “the Selectmen of Peterborough” should be brought in. The Assembly disagreed, and finally voted to dismiss the petition—apparently to let the parties work it out among themselves.

Sullivan submitted another long document on 30 Dec (which I haven’t seen). Morrison finally resolved the dispute in March 1772 by resigning from the pulpit.

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