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, January 25, 2010

Dr. Amos Windship and the Christ Church Pew

Boston’s Anglican churches were rebuilding themselves in the 1780s. Not physically—they weren’t dismantled in whole or in part like some of the Congregationalist meeting-houses. But the war had made some of their richest members leave town, and they had to redefine their relationship with the king and Church of England.

That created openings for men like Dr. Amos Windship, who joined the congregation of Christ Church (now called Old North) in Boston’s North End. He was a warden starting on 28 May 1787, and a vestryman from 21 Dec 1789, deeply involved in church business.

Since 1777, William Montague had read in the Christ Church pulpit. Dr. Ephraim Eliot called him “a low bred man, of much cunning but mean literary abilities. He was a favorite among the lower class of the people.” Montague visited England in 1789, returning in August 1790 with the musket ball that supposedly killed Dr. Joseph Warren.

Some of the wealthier congregants took advantage of Montague’s absence to go to Halifax in 1790 and invite the Rev. Dr. William Walter (1737-1800) to become their minister. He had been rector at Trinity Church before the war, leaving Boston with the British military in 1776.

When Montague returned, he found himself in the position of assistant. He still preached a lot since Walter had also agreed to be minister at the Episcopal church in Cambridge. But there was soon conflict between the two men and their followers.

In March 1792 Montague asked to resign, citing “those who call themselves the Doctor’s [i.e., Walter’s] friends” and “the unchristian and abusive conduct of some towards me,—their constant endeavor to injure my Character and good name.” He went out to the Episcopal church in Dedham, where he spent a lot of his ministerial time on real-estate deals. Decades later, the congregation there asked him to step down.

During his trip to England, Montague had gotten into some sort of embarrassment. Eliot wrote that the man became

acquainted with some buckish English clergymen, who wishing to put a trick upon their raw Yankee brother, had introduced him into bad company.
And then the editor of Eliot’s manuscript for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts chose to omit a few lines. Just when it was getting good! Whatever happened, Dr. Windship had heard about it, and told other people in Boston.

By that time, Dr. Windship himself had been gotten in trouble with Christ Church. In 1791 he borrowed the Treasurer’s Ledger, and when he gave it back it now assigned pew number 30, in the back of the church, to him. Senior warden James Sherman wrote an angry note in the book:
this May Certifie all Whom it may Concern That the above Pew No. 30 was from the first settlement of Christ Church in Boston devoted wholy to the use of His Excelence the Governor and other Gentlemen and so continued untill August 1791 at which time this Ledger was in the Possession of Doctor Amos Windship who had borrowed it of James Sherman Senr Warden of said Church in order to settle his account with the Revd. Mr. Montague

he the sd. Windship kept it near a month and when returned “Governors Seat” as it stood above and as it was before was erased and “Dr. Amos Windship” as it now stands was wrote in its Stead with the account under it which account was brought from folio 91 which was erased about the middle of the lead, for which I the Subscriber as Warden and for the Honor of said Said was obliged to Lay the Same before the Attny. General and what followed may be seen by turning to a Meeting of the Proprietors of said Church Monday September 26th. 1791.
The two pages in question had apparently been treated with “some form of acid.” Attorney General James Sullivan advised the church to bring Windship to court, but in October the doctor admitted he had altered the ledger, saying it “was an error in judgement (and for which, I am very sorry).”

Dr. Windship started attending the Rev. Dr. John Lathrop’s New Brick Meeting. But he’d been involved with Christ Church long enough to move Maj. John Pitcairn’s body.

TOMORROW: At last! Mucking about with Maj. Pitcairn’s body!


Chaucerian said...

What is the matter with the man? At first I thought he might just be a hard-luck fellow ("everything happens to him"), but it is very difficult to accept the occurrence of an "error in judgment" which involves treating vellum with acid. I think his important error was imagining that no one would notice when he tried to reshape the world to agree with his grandiose fantasy.

J. L. Bell said...

Well, pew number 30 was reserved for the royal governor, and there was no royal governor anymore, so should Christ Church let that real estate go to waste?

(And in saying “real estate,” I should note that church pews were paid for, passed down in families, and sometimes taxed like other property.)