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, September 18, 2017

“Mr. Cleaveland’s moral, Christian and ministerial character”

Yesterday we left the Rev. John Cleaveland, Jr., at odds with his Stoneham neighbors in 1794. The trouble was his second marriage to young Elizabeth Evans, until recently his housekeeper and apparently not even a dedicated member of the church.

As the Congregational Library says in its description of meetinghouse records from Stoneham: “While the church chose to support Cleaveland, the town did not, and both Cleaveland and the church building itself were targets of the town’s ire.” Not to mention the minister’s horse.

At the end of September 1794, after months of feuding, an ecclesiastical council of ministers from other towns came to work out the dispute. The congregation had to borrow money from two members to lodge and feed those ministers, one reason why they may have delayed that step for so long.

In his History of Stoneham William B. Stevens reported that council found:
1. That Mr. Cleaveland’s influence among this people is lost, and irrecoverably lost, and that it has become necessary that his ministerial connection with them be dissolved, and it is the advice of this council that he ask a dismission from his pastoral relations to them.

2. It appears from the fullest and they trust from the most impartial examination of the subject of which they are capable, that Mr. Cleaveland has given no just cause for that aversion and opposition to him which in so violent, and very unprecedented a manner they have displayed.

3. It appears to this council that Mr. Cleaveland’s moral, Christian and ministerial character stands fairly and firmly supported, and they cordially recommend him to the church and people of God wherever in the Providence of God he may be cast.

4. As Mr. Cleaveland has given to this people no just cause for that opposition to him which they discover, and which renders his removal from them necessary, and as his removal must be attended by great inconvenience and expense to him, it is the opinion of this council that he ought to receive a compensation, and they recommend it to the parties concerned to choose mutually three judicious, impartial characters from some of the neighboring towns to estimate the damage to which Mr. Cleaveland is subjected by his removal. . . .

Finally the council deeply impressed with the singular sacrifice which Mr. Cleaveland’s friends make in parting with their valuable and beloved pastor beg leave to exhort them to acknowledge the hand of God in this afflicting Providence as becomes Christians; to maintain the order of Christ’s house, and with unremitting ardor promote the interest of His kingdom.
In other words, no recriminations, please. I can’t tell if the Stoneham meeting gave Cleaveland a generous severance package as the council recommended. He preached his last sermon at the end of October—and then published the text. It included lines like, “people who have rejected a faithful watchman, will have a most dreadful account to give in the great day.” So there were some recriminations on his part.

Over the next few years Cleaveland worked a visiting minister at various meetinghouses. This had the advantage of letting him recycle his sermons for new audiences. Yale reports that one of his compositions “was first given at Newburyport on June 25, 1797, and then given twice more at Chebacco [another name for Essex, his home town] and Topsfield in 1797, at Medway in 1798, and at Medfield and Attleboro in 1799.”

In June 1798 the Rev. John Cleaveland finally secured a permanent pulpit at a new parish in Wrentham, which has since become Norfolk. Until the meetinghouse was finished he preached in the house shown above, photo courtesy of the town.

He became known for his very regular habits, devoting “two afternoons, weekly, to systematic visitation of his people.” In addition:
He was remarkably punctual; so much so, that when he found he was likely to arrive at the meeting-house five minutes too soon, he would walk his horse, so as invariably to reach the door within three minutes of the time.
Cleaveland preached in Wrentham until his death in 1815. The Rev. Nathaniel Emmons spoke at his funeral, a sign that Cleaveland was a traditionalist. His sermons now rest with his father’s in the Manuscripts and Archives Department of the library at Yale, the college he had never been able to attend. [I worked in that department as a student years ago.]

As for Elizabeth Cleaveland, she remained at the minister’s side until his death. They never had children (nor did he have any by his first wife). After being widowed, Elizabeth Cleaveland married another minister, the Rev. Walter Harris of Dunbarton, New Hampshire. Like her first husband, he was a Continental Army veteran, having served three years as a fifer from Connecticut. By the time Elizabeth Harris died in 1829, later authors agreed, she had become as pious as the people of Stoneham could have wished.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

I’m switching from documented facts to speculation here. I couldn’t find out when Elizabeth Cleaveland was born. I saw a hint that she was significantly younger than John Cleaveland, and she outlived him by fourteen years.

In eighteenth-century a swift marriage was often a sign that the bride was pregnant. Neighbors seeing the Cleaveland’s swift marriage, after she had already been keeping his house, might have assumed that was the case with them. Usually a community dealt with that situation by watching one of a couple become a church member while confessing to the sin of fornication, and then everyone ignored it. It was too common to get excited about. The criticism of Elizabeth for not being pious enough might have been based on her not going through that ritual as she formally joined the church.

The council explicitly and repeatedly said there was no basis for the criticism of the Rev. John Cleaveland. If Elizabeth had delivered a baby within eight months of the marriage, that conclusion could have been quite different. So does that mean that the Cleavelands had not started to have sex before marriage? Not necessarily because John Cleaveland never had children with either of his wives. He might have been infertile. And if so, that might have saved his reputation in front of the council.