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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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Rev. Samuel West: “remarkable for absence of mind”

When Gen. George Washington wanted to decipher the mysterious letter from Dr. Benjamin Church (transcription posted yesterday), he asked provincial officials for advice about who was good at such things.

The locals recommended the Rev. Samuel West (1731-1807), the Congregationalist minister of Dartmouth (now New Bedford), then attached to the army as a chaplain. In 1865, Harper’s published this profile of West in an article titled “Anecdotes of Unitarian Divines”:
He worked upon a farm until his twentieth year, when he spent six months in preparing for college, and in 1750 started for Harvard College barefooted, carrying his shoes and stockings under his arm. On being examined for admission, he had a dispute with the Professor in regard to a Greek reading, in which he is said to have carried his point.

He was settled in 1761 on a salary of £66.13s.6d., which, small as it was, was not paid. He was twice married. His first wife was very tall, and her Christian name was Experience [Howland], a common one at that time. After her death he said he had “learned from long experience that it was a good thing to be married,” and so he took another wife.

He was an ardent patriot from the beginning of the difficulties with England, and was unsparing in his denunciations of those who were unwilling to come out on the side of their country. Immediately after the battle of Bunker Hill he joined the army to do what he could as a minister to keep up the courage of the soldiers, and to promote their welfare. . . . He was an influential member of the Convention that adopted the Constitution, and it was through his influence that Governor [John] Hancock was induced to give his assent to the adoption of the Federal Constitution.

Dr. West was remarkable for absence of mind. During the sessions of the Convention to adopt the Constitution of the United States he spent many of his evenings abroad, and generally returned with his pockets filled with handkerchiefs, silk gloves, silk stockings, and other small articles, and was greatly distressed on finding them there, thinking that he bad taken them up and slipped them into his pockets. In fact they had been placed there by friends who took this method of making him presents, well knowing that he was too much engaged in conversation to take any notice of it.

While he was a pastor his friends would sometimes find him on his horse, which had stopped to graze by the wayside, the bridle loose, the Doctor’s hands folded on his breast, and himself wholly absorbed in his own thoughts. Once he went out to drive a cow from his yard, and striking at her with a long board missed the cow, and was himself brought to the ground, and split his small-clothes nearly the whole length of the leg. He knew nothing of this latter accident; but gathering himself up, and forgetting entirely where he was, he went on without a hat three miles, entered a friend’s house, and passed the night talking with him to the consternation of his wife, who, on his return, saw in what a plight he was for a visit to one of the most genteel families of the parish.

He once met a friend, and told him that he and his wife were on their way to make him a visit. “Your wife?” said his friend. “Where is she?” “Why,” replied the Doctor, “I thought she was on the pillion behind me.” She had got ready to accompany him, and the absent-minded Doctor had gone off without her. He would sometimes at the church stop at the horse-block for his wife to dismount, when she had been forgotten and was still at home.

Once he went to mill, leading his horse and carrying the grist on his own shoulder. One who saw him on his way, states that when before his second marriage he went to ask the town-clerk to publish the bans, he walked the whole distance leading his horse, and passed directly by the house of the town-clerk, and did not halt until he was brought up by a log at the end of a wharf.

Once, upon a Saturday afternoon, when on his way home from Boston, he was overtaken by a violent shower as he was riding on horseback. His family at home were anxiously expecting his return, but he did not make his appearance until the last moment on Sunday morning, when he was seen hurrying his horse onward, with muddy ruffles dangling about his hands, and another large ruffle hanging out of his bosom through the open vest, which he usually kept buttoned close to his chin. He never had worn such embellishments before, and never afterward could tell how he came by them then.

It was too late to make a change, the congregation were waiting. His daughter buttoned up his vest so as to hide the ruffles of the bosom, and carefully tucked the ruffles in about the wrists. During the opening services all went very well, but probably feeling uneasy about the wrists, he twitched at them until the ruffles were flourishing about, and then growing warm as he advanced, he opened his vest and made such an exhibition of muddy finery as tended very little to the religious edification of the younger portion of his audience. . . .

His absence of mind increased upon him as he became advanced in years, and at length his memory failed, although his intellect, when excited, retained much of its vigor. He had preached the same sermon to his congregation three Sabbaths in succession, but no member of his family was willing to distress him by informing him of what he had done.

The fourth Sabbath his daughter saw with a heavy heart that he had his Bible open at the same place, the Parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Fortunately be left the room for a minute; she opened the Bible at another place, and put it back with the leaf turned down just as he had left it in his own place. When he took up the book on his return he seemed for a moment lost, then fixed his attention upon the passage to which she had opened, and from that preached a discourse which to some of his people seemed the ablest that he had given for years.
This article was created by pulling fun bits from William B. Sprague’s Annals of the American Unitarian Pulpit, leaving out the theology and religious disputes. The Unitarian-Universalist Historical Society offers a biography of West that focuses on his liberal religious views rather than his eccentricities. The Harvard Square Library has another, from Heralds of a Liberal Faith.

After reading these tales, I wondered if later generations might have exaggerated West’s absent-mindedness. Perhaps these stories came mostly from late in his life, when his memory was failing, rather than from his prime. Or perhaps folks hung jokes about absent-mindedness on West’s name in the same way that Benjamin Franklin got credited with all witty remarks, and the Rev. Mather Byles, Sr., got blamed for all bad puns.

TOMORROW: Then I looked into West’s visit to Gen. Washington’s headquarters.

(The picture above shows Harvard College in 1767, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

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