Sometimes even a single manuscript I stumbled across while researching Darkness Falls on the Land of Light overturned everything I thought I knew about New England’s era of great awakenings. Consider the stunning letter (below) by Joseph Higgins, a coastal trader and merchant from Old Lyme, Connecticut.
In 1743, Higgins dispatched this strident missive to an unnamed clergyman. The recipient was likely Charles Chauncy, Boston’s vociferous opponent of the Whitefieldian revivals. Higgins was aiming to blow the whistle on his own minister, Jonathan Parsons. The letter contains a petition in which several parishioners in the Lyme Congregational church accused Parsons of nearly three dozen theological and ecclesiastical errors.
Here’s the unusual part: Parsons ranked among the most successful and respected ministers in eighteenth-century New England. Historians frequently point to his published account of the religious stir in Lyme—which was serialized in an evangelical magazine called the Christian History—as the paradigmatic revival narrative of the colonial era. In later years, Parsons presided over one of the largest congregations in New England: Newburyport’s Old South Presbyterian Church, the final resting place of George Whitefield himself.
But the figure in Higgins’s letter is nothing like the temperate clergyman of revival literature. Parsons abandoned all decorum in his church services and opened his pulpit to an array of gifted lay people. He brazenly declared that whores, witches, rakes, and hell hounds would find their way to heaven long before the “old Gray hedded” communicants his church. One of the aggrieved brethren even recalled hearing Parsons gloat that he would stand as a witness against unconverted sinners on the Day of Judgment; and he prayed aloud that hellfire might blaze out of their mouths. Most ominously, the Lyme minister zealously endorsed the “Enthusiastick Doctrines & Practices” of the most incendiary New Light itinerant of the era, James Davenport.
After discovering Higgins’s extraordinary letter, it took me several years to piece together the entire controversy. The search lead me first to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston; then to the Connecticut Conference Archives of the United Church of Christ in Hartford, the Library of Congress in Washington, and the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan; and finally to a unique cache of church papers at the Florence Griswold Art Museum in Old Lyme.
The Lyme controversy is one of my favorite sections of Darkness Falls. It’s a powerful example of the social and ecclesiastical costs of the Great Awakening—something scholars have been slow to acknowledge. Even still, the story of Lyme’s checkered religious history was quickly forgotten. Early in the twentieth century, artists and literary recast Lyme as the quintessential New England village. Immortalized in the vibrant colors and bold brushwork of American impressionist Childe Hassam, the Congregational meetinghouse emerged as an icon of simpler times, a pre-industrial community bound together by town and church.
Joseph Higgins knew better.
Higgins’s 1743 letter to an unidentified clergyman is part of the collections of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston (Mss. C 1345). For a detailed analysis of the Lyme controversy, see Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2017), 333–352. Jonathan Parsons published his “Account of the Revival at Lyme West Parish. . .” in Thomas Prince, Jr., ed., The Christian History, Containing Accounts of the Revival and Propagation of Religion in Great Britain & America (Boston, 1744), 118–162 (for excerpts, see Alan Heimert and Perry Miller, eds., The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequence [Indianapolis, Ind., 1967], 35–40, 187–191, 196–200). Additional documents relating to the Lyme revival appear in Richard L. Bushman, ed., The Great Awakening: Documents on the Revival of Religion, 1740–1745 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969), 40–42, 53–54. See also the Records of the New London Association, 1708–1788 (available online at the Congregational Library’s New England’s Hidden Histories: Colonial-Era Church Records New England's Hidden Histories digital archive).