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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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Rev. Dr. Stiles Ponders When “Dr. Church was wavering”

On 16 Mar 1773, the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport put some Massachusetts news into his diary:
At Boston the Sons of Liberty celebrated or commemorating the Anniversary of the Massacre 5th. Inst. [i.e., of this month] when Dr [Benjamin] Church delivered an Oration in the Old South Church or Meetinghouse. Gov. [Thomas] Hutchinson had sent for Dr. Church and endeavored to dissuade him, but without Success.
Church had been born in Newport, and Stiles, a fan of Boston’s Whigs, knew members of his family.

In the fall of 1775, a ciphered letter sent through Newport revealed that Dr. Church was in secret correspondence with people in Boston. This was a bombshell for Patriot leaders. (Some of their wives, knowing that Church was flagrantly cheating on his own wife, were less surprised by this betrayal.)

Patriot men reluctantly concluded that Church had been a paid informant for Gen. Thomas Gage for months. They still lacked definite proof (which didn’t become public until the twentieth century), so they still didn’t know when Church started to cooperate with the royal authorities or what information he had shared.

On 28 Jan 1777, Stiles was back at his diary, pondering the mysteries of Dr. Church. He started by recalling the moment he had recorded almost four years before, but in a different light:
Dr. Church was wavering when he delivered his Oration in 17—. He was a firm Patriot at penning the Suffolk Resolves Sept. 1774—he was already corrupted at the Battle of Lexington Apr. 1775. It is matter of Inquiry, the time of corruption?

I tho’t his conduct odd, and Bravado like, in going into Bo[ston]. after Lexington, carrying in Letters, being taken up, carried before Gen. Gage, in being suffered to talk so laconicly as it was said he did to Gage.

In the Summer of 1775 he was up at Newp[or]t., but little seen by Friends of Liberty, & his Cousin Ch[urch]. then said he was not good. Col. Ezra R[ichmond (1721-1800)] tells me Dr. Ch[urc]h. was at Newp[or]t. between 5th. March & Lexington, he spent Eveng. with the Dr. at Dighton & found him unaccountable & shrewd & sagacious.

The Col. asked, wh[at] would the End of these things be? His Answer vague, yet implying that after fightg. awhile the affairs would be compromised, yet so that America would be conquered & G[reat]. B[ritain]. carry her point.

Also said, he & [John] Hancock &c had been invited to dine with Gen. Gage who treated them with great Politeness & Affability, & beg’d them to use their Influenee to prevent the Oration 5 March—that a week after Gage sent for him—& says Chh., what would you think of £30000.—

The Colonel thinks he reallized 25 Thousd. So his Conversion in March 1775; He is now in Bo[ston]. Goal [jail].
In researching The Road to Concord, I concluded that Dr. Church started to feed Gage serious information on 25 Feb 1775, immediately after the doctor had attended three days of meetings with the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s committee of safety and supplies.

What then should we make of this story of Gage traducing Church with thousands of pounds a couple of weeks later? Why would the governor make such an offer to a man already working for him? Why, for that matter, would Church report such an offer to anyone else? (Assuming, of course, that Stiles correctly recorded what Richmond had told him, and that Richmond accurately remembered what he had heard.)

I conclude that when Dr. Church talked about Gage’s money, he was boasting to Richmond about an offer he had ostensibly turned down as a way to burnish his Patriot credentials. Perhaps that story was fueled by a guilty conscience or simple wishfulness—we know Church was eager for money, a running theme in his surviving reports to his handlers during the siege of Boston. But the doctor surely wasn’t trying to raise suspicions about his loyalty that summer.

A couple of years later Richmond, feeling certain of Church’s treachery but baffled by the motive behind it, looked back on that conversation and saw it as a confession. He could then express his belief that the doctor “reallized 25 Thousd.” When, of course, he and Stiles had no better information on that point than before.

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