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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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Miscellaneous Observations from Dr. Ephraim Eliot

Toward the end of the 1821 Two Discourses pamphlet I’ve been quoting, the Rev. Henry Ware (shown here) started to add miscellaneous notes. Dr. Ephraim Eliot’s marginal notes in the copy at Harvard University therefore also got a bit miscellaneous, but the result is some more intriguing clues about life in eighteenth-century Boston.

On page 58 the pamphlet says:
The British troops, during the blockade of Boston, treated the churches with particular disrespect. The steeple of the West Church they destroyed, because they supposed it had been used as a signal staff…
Eliot, whose father had stayed in Boston through the siege, commented: “direction for bombardment” and “Christ church was frequently used for signals”. That suggests that locals did indeed use the West Meeting-House steeple and possibly that of Christ Church (now Old North Church) to signal Continental artillerists outside the town where their mortars were landing.

The West Meeting-House had the spire closest to the British army positions on the Common and the Continental Army positions in Cambridge. By the time Ware wrote, the use of the North Church spire by Paul Revere’s confederates on 18 Apr 1775 had already been revealed, but Eliot didn’t mention it in his note.

On the same page the pamphlet reprints an item from the church records:
“October 7, 1762. Voted, that the singers sound the base at the end of the lines, whenever they think proper.” I copy this vote simply because I do not know what it means.
Eliot added this explanation:
The meaning is, that the singers paused a few beats between every line, the bass in the most solemn tones [?] used to continue the sound of the last note in the three first lines of a verse, till the tenor sounded the first note of the next line. There was always a complete pause between the verses, bass & all.
Clearly there had been such a big change in church singing between 1762 and 1821 that even the Rev. Mr. Ware, first president of the Harvard Musical Association, didn’t know the old style.

Finally, on page 59:
In 1781 I find record of a baptism by immersion of a child about ten years old, at the particular request of his mother, “a bathing tub being prepared for that purpose in the meeting-house.“
Eliot added:
It was the tub of the old North [fire] engine then the largest in Boston.
This information was eventually repeated in A History of the Second Church, or Old North [Meeting], in Boston, by Chandler Robbins, published in 1852. However, I’ve been unable to identify the family involved.

Baptism by immersion wasn’t just fashion; it was a theological dividing-line between Boston’s Congregationalists and Baptists. In 1780 and 1781 ministers from Wells and Ipswich advertised pamphlets about the validity of sprinkling water on babies rather than fully immersing older people. But apparently the Rev. John Lathrop, though a Congregationalist, was willing to provide immersion at a mother’s insistence.

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