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, September 16, 2023

“A Sett of Controversial Discourses agreed upon by the Society”

In October 1722, almost a year after being inoculated against smallpox, Ebenezer Turell found a new use for his notebook.

He wrote out what he called “An account of a Society in Har: Colledge.” This was a more serious endeavor than the Telltale essay exchange the previous year.

Ten young men from the Harvard College class of 1721 plus four from nearby classes pledged to meet regularly for intellectual pursuits. One might share “a Discourse of about Twenty minuits,” or the group could engage in philosophical disputations, readings, and epistles.

They also promised “That if we see or hear of any Extraordinary Book, we will give ye best account we can of it to ye Society.”

As an example of what this society (formally) talked about, Turell’s two lectures were:
1 Upon Light, a Phisico-Theological Discourse
2 Upon Providence.
The group was still meeting in October 1723 when Turell took the lead in a new format, combining the discourse and the disputation into a single discussion:
E T read a Lecture to show that it is a point of Prudence To prove & Try all Doctrines in Religion, wch was to serve as an Introduction to a Sett of Controversial Discourses agreed upon by the Society to be successivly carried, one every week.
The last record is from January 1724 when the group agreed on topics for upcoming lectures and discussions. There’s no record of those meetings, however. It’s possible Turell switched to another notebook since he was coming close to the pages he’d already filled with the Telltale material, and that second document didn’t survive. It’s also possible this extracurricular activity just petered out in the winter of 1724 as members moved on.

In 1909 William C. Lane pointed out to the Colonial Society that nearly all the young men in that society went on to be ministers. Those included the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy and the Rev. Ebenezer Pemberton of Boston and the Rev. John Lowell (shown above) of Newburyport, ancestor of the celebrated Lowell family.

Ebenezer Turell himself started to train for the pulpit under the Rev. Benjamin Colman of the Brattle Street Meeting in Boston. He became the minister in Medford in 1724, and Colman’s son-in-law two years later. Jane (Colman) Turell shared Ebenezer’s love of writing, though she had a religiously anxious life until she died in 1735.

Turell remarried twice, each time to women in the upper class. As a minister he was a firm Old Light and later a supporter of the Whigs. The Medford congregation granted him a pension in 1773, the year before he preached his last sermon, and he died in 1778. In all, the current church says, Turell oversaw the construction of two church buildings, admitted 323 communicants, baptized 1,037 people, and married 220 couples.

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