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, November 18, 2013

“Our excellent and venerable Father John Wise”

Yesterday I quoted a 1745 item from the Boston Evening-Post that appears to be a satirical commentary on the enthusiastic reception the Rev. George Whitefield was getting in Boston.

That item suggested Whitefield’s fans might “cordially approve of the well-known Churches Quarrel espoused, wrote by our excellent and venerable Father John Wise, Anno 1715.” Which sounds like an allusion every reader should recognize, and I didn’t.

So I Googled and Wikipedia’ed and otherwise caught up a bit to 250 years ago. I learned that the Rev. John Wise (1652-1725) was a minister in the part of Ipswich, Massachusetts, now called Essex. He gained a reputation for never shying away from controversy.

Wise first became prominent when he went to jail for leading protests against Gov. Edmund Andros in 1688. That act would have been widely respected in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, but the newspaper specifically referred to his activity in 1715.

In 1710 Wise published a pamphlet called The Churches’ Quarrel Espoused. It was a reply to proposals from the Rev. Cotton Mather and other big-congregation clergymen for stronger “associations” among New England’s Congregationalist meetings, presumably to hold off the growing influence of Anglicanism.

Wise answered by declaring that it was important for congregations to maintain their independence not just from the Church of England but from any higher authority. His pamphlet suggested that Mather and his “association” proponents were “gentlemen inclined to presbyterian principles.” Though the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland was just as Calvinist as the Congregationalists, Wise distrusted its hierarchical structure.

I suspect the style Wise chose for his argument made him appear more radical. The Churches’ Quarrel Espoused was “A Reply in Satire,” and it got biting at times. In addition, Wise came from a working-class background while Mather and most of the other ministers recommending an “association” grew up in the elite. Mather wrote in his diary:
A furious Man, called John Wise, of whom, I could wish he had, Cor bonum [a good heart], while we are all sensible, he wants, Caput bene regulatum [a well-ordered mind], has lately published a foolish Libel, against some of us, for presbyterianizing too much in our Care to repair some Deficiencies in our Churches. And some of our People, who are not only tenacious of their Liberties, but also more suspicious than they have cause to be of a Design in their pastors to make abridgments of them; they are too much led into Temptation, by such Invectives. But the Impression is not so great as our grand Adversary doubtless hoped for.
That was in 1715, when Wise’s pamphlet was reprinted. I bet that whoever wrote the newspaper item was looking at that edition rather than the original from five years before.

In 1717 Wise published a more sober argument for the same position titled Vindication of the Government of New England Churches. One of his intellectual innovations was to base ecclesiastical independence on English liberties as well as scriptural precedents.

William Allen’s American Biographical and Historical Dictionary (1809) said about Wise:
In the beginning of his last sickness he observed to a brother in the gospel, that he had been a man of contention, but, as the state of the church made it necessary, he could say upon the most serious review of his conduct, that he had fought a good fight.
In 1745 the Evening-Post writer appears to have remembered Wise mainly as an anti-authoritarian, thus an inspiration for Whitefield’s “New Light” followers. Decades later, in 1772, Wise’s two anti-association pamphlets were reprinted, which might have reflected more interest in his ideas of liberty. And after the U.S. of A. was established, some authors have looked back at Wise as a forerunner of the country’s fight for independence.

[The image above shows the John Wise House in Ipswich, photographed by Elizabeth Thomsen and available through Flickr under a Creative Commons license. The house is apparently now for sale.]


Charles Bahne said...

Ipswich today claims to be "the Birthplace of American Independence", because of the protests -- led by Rev. Wise in 1687 -- against taxes levied by Governor Andros, without elected representation. (Of course, Watertown makes a similar claim for its protests against taxes without representation back in 1632.) I'm struck by the consistency of that position with Rev. Wise's protests, some 23 years later, against religious "associations".

Chris said...

I have read that Rev John Wise has been credited with coining the phrase "No Taxation without Representation".

Rev. John Wise was the Great Uncle of President John Adams. Rev Wise had already passed away by the time the future President was born, but you do have to wonder if family stories or some traditions had an impact on his views.

J. L. Bell said...

Here's my investigation of the origin and first appearance of the phrase "No Taxation without Representation.”

People have tried to claim that iconic phrase for a lot of forebears, but no one's been able to produce an actual quotation before 1767. Some people did express the concept earlier, but I'm not sure Wise was among them since his fights weren't with bodies that claimed to offer representation. Rather, he consistently argued for local autonomy and control of resources.

Last week I ran across a passage of John Adams writing about his great aunts and uncles. He had a lot of them. It would be interesting to find if he ever mentioned “Uncle Wise’ in his diaries since he never knew the man.