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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Saturday, May 30, 2020

“On Election Day a Sermon will be preached”

Election Day was a holiday in colonial Massachusetts. Not the day that people voted for their General Court representatives—that happened in town meetings, and each town could choose its own date.

Rather, Election Day was when the new legislature assembled for the first time and elected the new Council, as well as the speaker and clerk of the lower house.

That day usually involved a banquet for the legislators and guests, a procession, and an “Election Sermon” by a prominent clergyman. Did New Englanders know how to party or what?

On 30 May 1770, 250 years ago today, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson convened the General Court across the Charles River in Cambridge. All the official events would be taking place there. What was Boston to do?

The Whigs decided to arrange their own unofficial observations instead. On 29 May, they paraded an ox through town, “to be roasted whole” the next day. That meat was designated “to be given to the Poor and Prisoners.”

The 28 May Boston Gazette announced:
A Number of Gentlemen, Friends to the Rights of America and Mankind, taking into Consideration the unprecedented Removal of the General Election of Counsellors for this Province from its Ancient Seat, and being desirous of celebrating the usual Festivity of said Election, request the Favour of the Company of the Gentlemen of the Clergy of all Denominations who may be in Town, to dine with them at FANEUIL HALL on Wednesday next, the 30th Instant, at Two o’Clock precisely.
According to young printer John Boyle, the ox was taken over to Faneuil Hall after roasting. Probably the gentlemen and clergy dined inside, the populace outside (and, we hope, some meat was sent to the jail).

Before that hour, Edes and Gill also promised, “On Election Day a Sermon will be preached at the Old Brick Meeting House, by the Rev. Dr. [Charles] CHAUNCY.” That was the church right beside the Town House, where the legislature usually met, and Chauncy was its highly respected minister.

Edward M. Griffin’s biography reports that Chauncy created a thirty-five-page sermon titled Trust in God, the Duty of a People in a Day of Trouble, based on a verse from the 22nd Psalm. He directly addressed the governor’s choice to move the legislature to Cambridge, but he wound up on the most anticipated event of the time, the upcoming trials for the Boston Massacre.

Chauncy preached:
If there should have been, in any measure, a failure in this respect, since the King’s troops were stationed in this town, from whatever cause, it is now hoped that “justice and judgment will run down our streets as a stream”: And I the rather mention this, because the opened earth in one of our streets, in the month of march last, received the streaming blood of many slaughtered, and wounded innocents. So shocking a tragady was never before acted in this part of the world; and GOD forbid it should ever be again!

Who the sheders of this blood were may possibly appear, upon the tryal of those who are under confinement, as being supposed to be the guilty persons. We wish them as fair and equal a tryal as they themselves can desire. And should they all, or any of them, be found guilty, though their sin be as “scarlet, and red like crimson”, we heartily wish their repentance, that, of the mercy of GOD in Jesus Christ, they may escape the second death; though our eye is restrained from pitying them so as to wish their deliverance from the first death. For the supreme legislator has said, “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed”—“life shall go for life”—“No satisfaction shall be taken for the life of a murderer—He shall surely be put to death.

SOME have whispered a suspicion, as though a reprieve from death would be granted, should the guilt of blood be fastned upon some who are supposed to have been actors in this horrid wickedness—But it is an high indignity offered to him, who has the power of giving a reprieve, so much as to suspect he would do it in the case of BLOOD GUILTINESS, clearly proved upon any, in consequence of a fair and impartial tryal.

Surely, he would not counter-act the operation of the law both of GOD and man. Surely, he would not suffer the Town and Land, to lie under the defilement of blood! Surely, he would not make himself a partaker in the guilt of murder, by putting a stop to the shedding of their blood, who have murderously spilt the blood of others! All such suspicions should be suppressed. They are virtually a scandalous reproach reflected on him, of whose integrity, and regard to public justice, we should entertain a more honorable opinion.
Justice of the peace James Murray referred to this sermon as “the pains taken by the Revd. Doctr. Chauncey and others to prejudice the People of Boston against Capt. [Thomas] Preston.” But it was equally a warning to Hutchinson not to pardon that officer.

TOMORROW: Meanwhile, over in Cambridge.

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