A New Relation (Boston, 1757)

Church admission testimonies, or “relations” as they were called, form the bedrock of my argument in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. They afford one the best means of gauging broad changes in the religious experiences of eighteenth-century New Englanders. I’m always on the lookout for new examples of this distinctive genre of puritan devotional literature. Recently discovered by Linda Gard, a researcher at the Congregational Library, the 1757 relation of Lydia Bourk of Boston’s First Church presents an intriguing research opportunity.

On one level, Bourk’s narrative signals the persistence of many of the tropes I associate with the “godly walker” paradigm of the early eighteenth century. She refers to New England as the “land of gospel light,” cites the formative role of her family upbringing, and notes the impact of providential loud “Cals” on her decision to affiliate. Like many scrupulous church admission candidates, she employs “encouraging” texts of scripture to surmount her fears of participating unworthily in the Lord’s Supper. Although little is known about Bourk, it’s clear that her decision to join the church was partly motivated by a desire to secure the privilege of baptism for her two sons—a classic family strategy. And it’s noteworthy that Bourk composed this rather conventional narrative one year after the members of the First Church voted to allow candidates who had a “Scruple upon their Minds about making a Relation as usual” to submit a profession of theological beliefs in place of a narrative of their religious experiences. Even as other First Church candidates began taking advantage of this new style of church admission testimony, Bourk retained the older conventions of the genre.

Nathaniel Smibert,  Portrait of a Cleric (Charles Chauncy? ), ca. 1755–1756. Oil on canvas. Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Pres. Quincy, F. C. Lowell, R. G. Shaw, and sundry members of the Board to Harvard College, 1847.

Nathaniel Smibert, Portrait of a Cleric (Charles Chauncy?), ca. 1755–1756. Oil on canvas. Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Pres. Quincy, F. C. Lowell, R. G. Shaw, and sundry members of the Board to Harvard College, 1847.

But there’s a more complicated story at work in Bourk’s relation than its conservatism. And here it’s important to note that she submitted her relation to First Church ministers Thomas Foxcroft and Charles Chauncy.  By the mid-1750s, the two clergymen had arrived at radically different conclusions regarding the significance and impact of the Whitefieldian revivals of the 1740s. Chauncy ranked among the most vociferous revival opposers in all of British North America. At the time Bourk drafted her relation, he had already embarked on a three-decade theological project that would culminate in the publication of his controversial treatise on universal salvation, The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations (1783). Foxcroft, by contrast, remained one of Whitefield’s most stalwart supporters; he directed dozens of pro-revival publications through the Boston press, including Jonathan Edwards’s Humble Enquiry, in which the Northampton, Massachusetts, clergyman advocated more restrictive procedures for admitting lay men and women to the church.

Scholars have yet to explore what must have been a tense professional relationship between the two colleagues. Lydia Bourk’s relation—along with other surviving testimonies from the First Church—affords a rare opportunity to reassess the impact of New England’s era of great awakening among the parishioners of two of Boston’s most important eighteenth-century clergymen.

Foxcroft’s handwriting appears in several places on Boark’s relation, emending and condensing her brief narrative. I have incorporated his corrections into the transcription that follows. Readers should examine the accompanying images to identify subtle changes in tone and meaning. A careful search of genealogical and vital records yielded no clues regarding the identity or family background of Lydia Bourk. She joined Boston’s First Church on October 30, 1757, and presented two sons, Josiah and William, for baptism one week later. See Richard D. Pierce, ed., The Records of the First Church in Boston, 1630–1868, Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Publications, vols. 39–41 (Boston, 1961), 39:116, 41:419 (available online). During the 1790s, Samuel Foxcroft, son of the First Church clergyman and minister of the Congregational church in New Gloucester, Maine, scavenged Bourke’s relation from his father’s papers and stitched the manuscript into a sermon notebook. The notebook is located in box 3, folder 4 of Samuel Foxcroft’s sermons, 1730–1801, at the Congregational Library in Boston (MSS5244). The images below appear by permission.

For an overview of the relation of faith genre, see my “Religious Experiences in New England” essay in A People’s History of Christianity, vol. 6, Modern Christianity to 1900, ed. Amanda Porterfield (Philadelphia, 2007), 209–232. Darkness Falls on the Land of Light includes a list of all known relations from Boston’s First Church (page 540), and I examine some of these texts in “New Perspectives on the Northampton Communion Controversy II: Professions, Relations & Experiences, 1748–1760,” Jonathan Edwards Studies 4 (2014): 110–145. The extensive body of scholarship on Chauncy includes Edward M. Griffin, Old Brick: Charles Chauncy of Boston, 1705–1787 (Minneapolis, Minn., 1980); and Colin Wells, The Devil and Doctor Dwight: Satire & Theology in the Early America Republic (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2002). On Foxcroft, see John Corrigan, The Prism of Piety: Catholick Congregational Clergy at the Beginning of the Enlightenment, Religion in America (New York, 1991). For a recent discussion of the revivals in Boston’s First Church, see George W. Harper, A People So Favored of God: Boston’s Congregational Churches and Their Pastors, 1710–1760 (Lanham, Md., 2004). On the process of editing relations of faith, see Erik R. Seeman, “Lay Conversion Narratives: Investigating Ministerial Intervention,” New England Quarterly 71 (1998): 629–634.

I Desier to Bless God that I was born in a land of Gospel Light and under the means of Grace, where I have been instructed in the Christen Relegin; but notwithstanding all the Cals of Gods word and Provedence, I have been puting off my Repetence to a more Convent [convenient] Seson, but I have been brot to see my sin and folly in so doing. I hope I Can Say that Sine is now become the matter of my Sorrow and hatefull to me, and that I am Senceble of my lost pershing [perishing] State by Nator [nature]; but God in His Infinet Marcy hese Reveled [has revealed] in His word the way of Salvation by Jesus Christ and that thare is no other Name where aney Can be Saved but by Him; therefore I desire to Come to X [Christ], believing on his Name, and trusting in the Marcy of God through a Redemer, for the Remishen of all my sins, and relying on Christ Righteousness for Justificacion before God, and in his Grace to sanctify, & keep me to Salvation. I am ashamed that I have Neglected Comeing to the Holy Super of my Lord and Saver, So long; but fers of my unworthyness hes keapt me back; but maney pleaces of Criptuers have been quickining & encouraging to me; So I deare note Stay away aney Longer but [illeg.] come to the ordinance in obedience to Christ Command, Do this in Remembrence of me and I do resolve by the helpe of Devine Grace to live in Obedence To all Gods Commandments macking the Word of God the Rull of my faith and Life; I ask your acceptence of me into your holy Commuien [communion], and your Prayers To God for me that I may walk worthy of the Profishen [profession] I now mack.

Lydia Bourk

Images courtesy of the Congregational Library, Boston.

Images courtesy of the Congregational Library, Boston.