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, November 28, 2017

The Proclamation “read in our churches last Sunday”?

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper no doubt had an inside view of the Boston Whigs’ efforts to organize political resistance to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and his 1771 Thanksgiving proclamation.

Indeed, Cooper was probably one of the Boston ministers who came out early to promise he wouldn’t read the proclamation to his congregation. In his 14 November letter to London, he described the controversy:
The Governor’s Proclamation for an Annual Thanksg., was to have been read in our churches last Sunday, in w’ch among other things, we are call’d upon to give thanks to Heav’n for the Continuance of our Privileges. This was deem'd by the People an open Insult upon them, and a prophane Mockery of Heav’n. The general cry was, we have lost our Most essential Rights, and shall be commanded to give Thanks for what does not exist.

Our congregations applied to the several Ministers in Town praying it might not be read as usual, and declaring if we offer’d to do it, they w’d rise up and leave the Ch[urc]h. And tho no little Pains was taken by the Governor’s Friends to get over this Difficulty and to explain away the sense of the clause by saying all were agreed we had some Privileges left, and that no more was meant by the Public Act than such Privileges as we in Fact enjoy’d, all w’d not avail.

Had the Ministers inclined it was not in their Pow’r to read it, a circumstance w’ch never before [took] Place among us. It was read only in Dr [Ebenezer] Pemberton’s Church, of which the Governor is a Member. He did it with confusion, and Numbers turn’d their Backs upon him and left the Chh in great indignation.
The 11 November Boston Gazette’s version of that event was:
We hear the Proclamation which has given so much Offence to the good People of this Province, was read in no other Congregational Church in this Town than the American Manufactor’d Doctors, which gave so much Uneasiness to his Hearers, that many of them took their Hatts and walk’d out while he was reading it.
Pemberton’s honorary doctorate in divinity had come from Princeton College rather than one of the prestigious universities in Britain.

The rural meetinghouses were a bigger challenge for the Boston Whigs, however. Cooper wrote:
It was I believe thro want of attention, and an opportunity of consulting one another, read by a Majority of Ministers in the Country Parishes. One Association of the Clergy happening however to meet at the Time, agreed to reject it: and it has been read by few Ministers, if any who have not declar’d either their Sorrow for so doing, or that they read it as a public Act, without adopting the Sentiments: and that it is their intention on the appointed day, w’ch is next Thursday, to give Thanks for the Privileges we enjoy, and implore of the Almighty God the restoration of w’ch we have lost.
The 18 November Boston Post-Boy reported, “the Ministers in general in the several Towns in the Country have read to their respective Congregations the Proclamantion for a Thanksgiving, as usual.”

Whig printers tried to highlight exceptional cases. The 12 November Essex Gazette of Salem stated:
One of the Reverend Ministers in this Town in reading the Proclamation for a Thanksgiving, last Sunday, omitted the Clauses which recommend the offering up Thanks for a Continuance of our civil and religious Privileges, and an enlarged Commerce.
The 22 November Massachusetts Spy quoted a clergyman from an unspecified place outside Boston as saying:
I am well informed that there is a proclamation issued forth by authority, appointing the next Thursday to be a day of public Thanksgiving. I would therefore earnestly request that the inhabitants of this place would assemble on said day, to render the utmost tribute of praise to our Divine Benefactor, for the mercies which we REALLY enjoy, through the unmerited bounty of his providence. Not forgeting, at the same time to bewail the loss of those Previledges of which we are deprived by our fellow men, through his permission; upon which it will manifestly appear that our rejoicing ought to be with trembling.
That last line was a reference to Psalms 2:11.

The Rev. Joseph Sumner of Shrewsbury added the words “some of” before “our rights and privileges.” The copy of the proclamation photographed for the Early American Imprints microfiche includes that insertion (as shown above), so it might be the Shrewsbury copy, or someone else may have made the same change.

Boston also had three congregations in the Church of England, and their ministers usually supported the royal government. But they didn’t read the governor’s words. As Samuel Adams wrote, “it has not been customary ever to read” Thanksgiving proclamations in Anglican churches. That was a Puritan holiday, and Anglicans reserved their celebrating for Christmas.

TOMORROW: The controversy at Old South.


Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

This thread reminded me of something I saw in the Sibley sketch of Lexington Minister Jonas Clarke concerning a Fast proclamation in 1766. Here it is.
...but in his correspondence and conversation, he allowed his emotions to carry him into groundless fears and absurd accusations and prophecies of evil. Sending Thomas Jones (A.B. 1741) one of Governor Bernard's innocuous Fast proclamations he wrote on the back of it: "Rev. Sir, As you look upon these Proclamations to be extraordinary and remarkable, I hope you will not take it amiss, that I beg the Favor of you to read this to my People, Tomorrow, in doing which you will at least free Me from a Piece of Disagreeable Servitude."14
14 Fast Proclamation of 1766. This copy is in the Harvard College Library.
---------------------end of snippet------------------------------
I take the last bit as Clarke leavening distaste of the proclamation with a bit of humor. I'd like to see how, if at all, the written version emphasizes the 'Me'.

There is a text of that proclamation in MHS in Dorr's newspapers.
Harbottle Dorr, Jr. Vol1: Newspapers, 7 January 1765 to 26 December 1767 page 376
The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 7 April 1766, p3 left column

J. L. Bell said...

That was the special Thanksgiving for the repeal of the Stamp Act. I suspect Clarke felt Gov. Bernard’s celebration of that repeal was hypocritical since he had urged people to accept the law the year before. Was the governor’s proclamation “innocuous” within that context? This looks like an example of how Shipton (the 20th-century editor of Sibley’s Biographies) showed distaste for the Revolutionary era’s mass protests.