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.

Follow by Email


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.]


Charles Bahne said...

The 1719 split of the New North Meeting, which yielded the New Brick Meeting, is one of my favorite incidents of colonial Boston. The distaste for Rev. Peter Thacher was obviously quite high. It yielded, among other colorful incidents, the golden rooster weathervane which is now atop First Church Congregational in Cambridge.

New Brick, incidentally, was the church that Paul Revere attended, but he was born 15 years after that contentious split.

EJWitek said...

I realize I may still be chuckling from the mental image of the Rev Checkley (Andy Devine)chomping on plums while his Congregation belted out something from the Psalm Book (not quite how I pictured a Sabbath day service in colonial Boston), but how does one spit out the seeds from raisins onto the floor of a church? Isn't it rather difficult to separate the seeds from the pulp? And didn't anyone sweep the floors of those churches?
I know that wild grapes were abundant in Massachusetts and that the early colonials were obsessed with trying to make wine from them, but I'm afraid I don't know much about the production of raisins. Just curious.

J. L. Bell said...

I read that when the seeds are removed from raisins today (unless they've been made from seedless grapes, when that step isn't necessary). That implies the seeds were still lurking inside grapes before that step, and presumably that's what the Rev. Mr. Checkley was finding in his teeth.