Old Light on George Whitefield (Middletown, Connecticut, 1740)

Nathan Cole’s wild ride to Middletown, Connecticut, is one of the best-known narratives in early American religious history. A late addition to his “Spiritual Travels” autobiography, Cole’s account of the “angelical” George Whitefield—“Cloathed with authority from the Great God” and preaching from a makeshift stage amid a throng of nearly 4,000—easily ranks among the most detailed descriptions of the celebrated Anglican evangelist’s first American tour. Whitefield’s revolutionary transatlantic ministry later incited bitter controversies, but in 1740 Cole and nearly everyone else in New England portrayed the traveling itinerant in glowing terms—everyone, that is, except John Osborn. His November 17, 1740, letter to his father, Samuel, a former Congregational clergyman, provides a fascinating counterpoint to Cole’s euphoria.

Osborn opened the letter with epistolary banter typical of a figure of his social rank: reports of the comings and goings of prominent local residents and merchants, requests for news of family members, and lamentations about money. Hidden within these seemingly mundane details, however, are important clues that reveal the aspiring physician and recent Harvard graduate’s evolving theological sensibilities. Osborn’s literary recommendations reflected his concern for religious moderation; references to Charles Chauncy, William Hooper, and Benjamin Kent place him among New England’s emerging liberal, or “Arminian” faction of clergymen. In the wake of his father’s dismissal from the Congregational church in Eastham, Massachusetts, in 1738, Osborn shared news of employment opportunities within New England’s rapidly proliferating Anglican churches. Within a year of Whitefield’s visit, Osborn had emerged as a “favourer of the principles of the church of England.” Ezra Stiles later described him as a “learned man” and “Deist.”

Osborn greeted Whitefield with contempt. He believed that Whitefield’s sermon on the dangerous of hell had infected his neighbors with a “contagious” passion. “When one was frighted,” the Middletown physician observed, “another catch’d the fright from his very looks, and others from these till the disease had Spread thro’out; and yet no one knew how he was frightened.” Whitefield’s vaunted oratorical skills amounted to little more than a “heap of confusion Railing, Bombast, Fawning, and Nonsense.” Even the noted early eighteenth-century Quaker preacher, Lydia Norton spoke in public with greater skill and power. Osborn’s caustic letter is an early indicator of the changing tenor of religious discourse in New England, which quickly rose to a boil during the months following the Grant Itinerant’s 1740 preaching tour.

John Osborn’s November 17, 1740, letter to Samuel Osborn may be found among the collections of the Boston Public Library (Ch.A.4.6). The illustrations below appear by permission. Nathan Cole’s account of Whitefield’s preaching in Middletown has been published in numerous early American history anthologies; for the definitive scholarly edition, see Michael J. Crawford, ed., “The Spiritual Travels of Nathan Cole,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 33 (1976): 89–126. I discuss both texts in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 137–138. For biographical information on John Osborn, see John Langdon Sibley et al., Sibley’s Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College, with Bibliographical and Other Notes, 18 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1873–1999), 9:551–554. The Stiles quotations appears in Franklin Bowditch Dexter, ed., Extracts from the Itineraries and Other Miscellanies of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D., 1755–1794 (New Haven, Conn., 1916), 395. J. M. Bumsted sketches Samuel Osborn’s troubled ministerial career in “A Caution to Erring Christians: Ecclesiastical Disorder on Cape Cod, 1717 to 1738,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 28 (1971): 413–438. On Lydia Norton, see Rebecca Larson, Daughters of the Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700–1775 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000), 278.

Middleton November 17th 1740

Honour’d Sir,

I, about fourteen days Since, received yours of October 20th; by which we heard of your health and arrival at Boston. Mr. Doane got home last Saturday leaving his Sloop at Seabrook, the River being froze up. We are, and have been, generally in good health, Since I was at Boston. You desired me in your letter, to explain myself about wishing you to come to Connecticut this Fall; We Shou’d have been glad to See you, but besides Doctor Morison told me he thought he could get a place very easily in one of the inland towns where you might predicare and have a very good opertunity besides, to practice physic; and that he Should be glad to See and talk with you. My hint to John Avery arose from this, a little before he was here, a certain Clergyman of the established Sort told me that if I would go and assist him he would warrant me 40 or 50 pound per annum York money and a pretty good birth for a physician besides, only in assisting him I must precare & predicare, more Anglorum; he lives in a town which borders on the Salt water in York government; and I tho’t that if you liked you might have the Same offer; but I have not Seen the man Since nor heard from him tho’ I expect to every day.

The Famous Enthusiast Mr. Whitefield was along here making a great Stir and noise, tother day; tis a pretty amusement to observe how contagious that passion is, Just as their fear was in the meeting house in Boston when So much mischief was done with rushing out; when one was frighted, another catch’d the fright from his very looks, and others from these till the disease had Spread thro’out; and yet no one knew how he was frightened, nor what he was afraid of. I having Seen Several of his printed Sermons before, his discourse came out exactly according to my expectation, a heap of confusion Railing, Bombast, Fawning, and Nonsense. But expecting to See & hear good Oratory, I was basely cheated unless distorted motions, Grimaces, and Squeaking voices be good Oratory. For my part I Esteem Lidia Norton both an abler Orator & Sermonizer than him, and I have Seen her put as great a proportion of her audience in tears; though her pains are taken for far less profit than his. I want to know how Mr. Chauncy, Mather, Hooper, and Condy, affect him; but I believe tis hard to know, the Opinion of the Mob, and the danger of Loss of bread interposing.

I wish you had opertunity this winter to read Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks. Mr. Avery or Mr. Kent will help you to them; he was a man less afraid of Speaking truth than allmost any I have been aquainted with.

About Money, I want it very much myself Just now, and find it very difficult getting it where tis due to me; but I will do the best I can to pay my debts. I want to Know where Samuel and Joseph are; And whither Mr. Lord at Chatham loves me any better than he used to.

Our duty to Mother, and love to all friends.

I hope you will be So good as to write very Soon to us, at the Sine of the Lamb or White Horse you may find Connecticut people. Your book of Sermons I have Sent, and Shall be glad of the Greek lexicon if you can Spare it, & Tully’s Orations.

I wish you would read the [36th] book of Justins Hystory.

Your gratefull Son

J. O.




 Image courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston.

Image courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston.

It took nearly two decades of patient archival research to assemble the sources for Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. Thankfully, many of the most significant manuscript texts in the book have appeared online in recent years. More turn up every month. Here’s a wonderful example: the commonplace book of Joshua Bowles (1722–1794). Owned by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, the Bowles manuscript is included in a recently published collection of fascinating eighteenth-century commonplace books.

The aspiring Boston furniture carver was only fifteen when he began inscribing family prayers in"Joshua Bowles his Book Anno 1737." Shortly after Gilbert Tennent arrived in Boston in three years later, Bowles transformed his record of private devotions into a makeshift sermon notebook. Throughout the peak months of the Whitefieldian revivals, Bowles crammed sermon notes onto nearly every open space in the manuscript. He recorded preaching performances by local ministers as well as touring evangelists such as Daniel Rogers, who delivered a powerful sermon on the “sandy foundations” of faith in Boston on July 10, 1741 (see below). Bowles's commonplace book is one of the most important surviving revival chronicles written by a layperson in colonial British North America. And the shift from his carefully ruled and beautifully written family prayers to hastily scribbled sermon notes stands as a powerful visual reminder of the abrupt changes the Great Awakening brought to countless people in eighteenth-century New England.

 Image courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston.

Image courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston.

Other notable documents in the New England Historic Genealogical Society's new online collection include the commonplace books of puritan immigrant John Dane, Hampton, New Hampshire, minister Seaborn Cotton, and Baptist clergyman Samuel Maxwell. Published in John Demos's Remarkable Providences, 1600–1760: Readings on Early American History, rev. ed. (Boston, 1991), 60–69, Dane’s autobiographical "Declaration of Remarkabell Prouendenses in the Corse of My Lyfe" is an outstanding teaching text. For an excellent analysis of this narrative, see Michael P. Winship's "Encountering Providence in the Seventeenth Century: The Experiences of a Yeoman and a Minister," Essex Institute Historical Collections 126 (1990): 27–36. Cotton filled his commonplace book with poetry, theological notes, genealogical information, and church records (including the relation of John Clifford, Jr., on page 37). The Maxwell manuscript includes an unusual reference to a prayer bill written on behalf of the unconverted during the Whitefieldian revivals (see my "Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax" essay, pages 72–73). I discuss the Bowles manuscript in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 153–154.

In the months to come, I’ll be working to keep readers of The People Called New Lights Blog updated on exciting new collections like this one. And I’d love to hear from you. If you discover any Digital New Lights who have made their way online, contact me at dwiniars@richmond.edu!

Out of the Fold (Westborough, Massachusetts, 1743)

Stephen Fay (1715–1781) is hands down my favorite character in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. Eclectic and pugnacious, he’s a paradigmatic representative of the people called new lights. The Westborough, Massachusetts, layman—along with his extended family—promoted the most radical innovations of the Whitefieldian revivals in New England. After passing through a wrenching conversion experience during the fall of 1742, Stephen starting railing against what he believed were the unedifying sermons of Congregational minister Ebenezer Parkman. His nephew, Isaiah Pratt, experienced visions of the Book of Life; his father welcomed the controversial itinerant preacher James Davenport into his home; his wife and sister-in-law exhorted among mixed audiences of men and women outside the Westborough meetinghouse; and other family members began attending religious meetings in the neighboring town of Grafton. Then, during the spring of 1743, the Fays appealed to Elisha Paine, arguably the most incendiary lay preacher of the era, to visit Westborough.

Parkman was an energetic supporter the revivals and an unusually tolerant clergyman. For months he had labored quietly to resolve his differences with the Fays. But he wasn’t about to take this latest threat to his ministerial authority lying down. In the two stern letters presented below, Parkman warned Paine to stay away from his parish and exhorted John Fay, Stephen’s father and a deacon in the Westborough church, not be “led astray” by the interloping itinerant. Indeed, Parkman’s missives are especially valuable for the powerful equestrian metaphors that anchor his arguments. Like many of his colleagues, the Westborough minister envisioned the Congregational gospel land of light as a series of bounded ecclesiastical enclosures. Itinerant preachers such as Paine threatened to break down these spatial boundaries by enticing lay men and women to “jump over the Sacred Fence” and “Leap over Christs Wall wherewith he has encompassed this holy Enclosure.” Hankering after “other pastures,” the free ranging Fays heralded the emergence of a new breed of religious seekers who would come to dominate the American religious scene by the turn of the nineteenth century.

 Catamount Tavern (late nineteenth century), Bennington Vermont

Catamount Tavern (late nineteenth century), Bennington Vermont

As I argue in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, the Fays “refused to be bridled” (376). Several family members departed Westborough and migrated first to Hardwick, Massachusetts, and later to Bennington, Vermont, where they helped to organize Separate, or Strict Congregational churches. Stephen, who emerged as the proprietor of the famed Catamount Tavern, eventually abandoned the Congregational establishment altogether.

Written on both sides of a small sheet of paper, draft copies of Ebenezer Parkman's 1743 letters to Elisha Paine and John Fay may be found among the Parkman Family
Papers, 1707–1879, box 3
, at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. The illustrations below appear by permission. For the complete story of Stephen Fay’s fascinating journey from Congregational insider to spiritual seeker, see Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 374–379, 386, 394–395, 403–404.  On the career of Elisha Paine, see C. C. Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740–1800: Strict Congregationalists and Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening, second ed. (Middletown, Conn., 1987), 115–123. For two excellent discussions of the challenges posed by itinerant preaching, see Timothy D. Hall, Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World (Durham, N.C., 1994); and T. H. Breen and Timothy Hall, “Structuring the Provincial Imagination: The Rhetoric and Experience of Social Change in Eighteenth-Century New England,” American Historical Review 103 (1998): 1411–1439. Genealogical information on Stephen Fay and related family documents may be found by searching the online collections at the Bennington Museum.

Westboro May 19, 1743.

Mr. Pain,


     I am none of those who lord it over Gods Heritage (as I humbly hope) but have been Gentle and obliging towards my Brethren and therefore have been ready to Countenance & encourage preaching in all their Houses as often as they have desird it both by myself and Others whensoever it could be Agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ or advance & promote his Cause; but have entreated that they would duely observe that necessary Rule & Order which the Great Lord & Head of the Church has requird all his to Submitt to, for their Edification as well as Preservation; But my Brother Stephen Fay has So far broke over these as to apply to you without Saying anything to [me] of it tho he knows I would heartily encourage & promote whatever might tend by the Blessing of God to the reviving and Carrying on His Glory work & Kingdom in this Place, to come into this Place & preach at His House tomorrow notwithstanding that you are such a Stranger to me as that I know not that ever I saw you & therefore cannot know what you are nor what you may be about to deliver to his Dear Flock of the Lord which I have (tho’ most unworthy) the Care & Charge of. I doubt not but that if you are truely one of Christs you will Consider the present State of this Case, & I have many more Things to offer which if known to you would utterly prevent your coming to preach in Westboro at this Juncture. I pray you in the Gentleness of Christ, and beseech you as you Love the Interest of his Kingdom, Suspend at the least your preaching here just now. Begging of God to give a Blessing to this, & Succeed it, I rest your Brother in Christ Jesus

Ebenzer Parkman

 Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

To Deacon Fay

Dear Brother Fay,

     I am grievd to See you under Such Infirmitys, and especially that you do not come to me to take Counsel before you rush on upon So great Things as you are doing. Has not the Great Lord and Head of the Church instituted the Ministry and Authority with which I am vested, and have you not bound yourself voluntarily in an holy Covenant with me, to own and submitt to my Teaching and Instruction & to my watch and Government while I teach and Guide agreeable to the will of the Lord Jesus Christ? Compare Ezekiel 33:7 with Chronicles 3:8, 1 Samuel 4:13 middle Clause, Romans 11:13 last Clause, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Timothy 4:11, Titus 2:15, 2 Corinthians 10:7 to 14, John 10:1, 2; Jeremiah 2:25, Canticles 2:15, 1 John 4:7. Am I, Dear Brother, Lording it over you; or have I not rather abounded in Love & Gentleness towards you? But have I been so unfaithfull to our great & glorious Lord & to you and your Souls Interest as to cause you to forsake me and go away from my Pastoral and Affectionate Care over you? If So why have you not been so faithfull to me at least as to lay before me Conviction of it? Galatians 5:22Ephesians 4:3Canticles 1:7, 8. Out of tender Pitty I have Sent these Lines to you, that you may not be led astray. Do not run out of the Fold of Jesus Christ; This is his Pasture; you may be sure of it; don’t hanker so after other pastures as to take off your Heart from this; tho it be mean compard with other[s] yet if we are willing to be where Jesus has allotted us, he will give his Blessing; we shall not want. Psalm 23:1. Don’t be so impatient as to jump over the Sacred Fence, but wait upon him in his own way; And pray let me beseech you for your own sake & for mine and the Sake of the souls about you, but most of all for our Dear & Blessed Lords Sake & his precious Cause & Interest, dont be instrumental to help any Stranger either to break down or Leap over Christs Wall wherewith he has encompassed this holy Enclosure: Nay if there be ever so Seemingly the signs of an Eminent Servant of Christ, yet you may not venture to let him in as a Teacher, & preacher among us but by that Door of which I am tho most unworthy the Guardian. Brother Fay, Christ has Set me upon these walls to look out. If you are asleep, wake up.

 Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.


Darkness Falls on the Land of Light recently was named co-winner of the Book of the Year award by the Jonathan Edward Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I'm deeply grateful to the editors of Edwardseana for this wonderful accolade! For a review of the book and an interview in which I share some thoughts on the current state of scholarship on Jonathan Edwards and the Whitefieldian revivals, click the button below.

Exercised Bodies (Concord, Mass., 1742)


I recently discussed this intriguing manuscript (see transcription at end of post) during a public talk at the Congregational Library in Boston. Written by an unknown layman to an unspecified minister, the short missive provides a detailed description of religious events in the town of Concord, Massachusetts, in March 1742. The letter is noteworthy for its commentary on the somatic manifestations that attended the Whitefieldian revivals in New England.

Students of American religious history have long been familiar with the so-called “bodily exercises” of the Second Great Awakening—the fits of falling, laughing, barking, and jerking that dominated accounts of frontier camp meetings and sacramental festivals during the first decade of the nineteenth century. I’ve been tracking the most notorious of these innovative practices—the jerks—in my current research. But what about the Whitefieldian revivals of the mid-eighteenth century? What role did exercised bodies play during this earlier period?

The Congregational Library letter provides crucial evidence. According to the author, more than 300 people “were suddenly struck, & drop’d down like persons in fits” during a series of protracted revival meetings led by itinerant preacher Samuel Buell and town minister Daniel Bliss. Lasting deep into the night, these gatherings featured a welter of noise and unseemly actions. Buell and Bliss welcomed the chaos. “They esteem’d those truly converted, who had these Joys,” the anonymous author noted with scorn. Many lay men and women agreed, for “those Under concern, imagined that the louder they screem’d the sooner they should be converted.”

Samuel Buell (1716–1798), the central figure in the letter, is one of the least understood, but perhaps most influential figures of New England’s era of great awakenings. Born in Coventry, Connecticut, he graduated from Yale College and was licensed to preach by the East Fairfield ministerial association in 1741. Never as popular as George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards, Buell was neither as controversial as Gilbert Tennent or James Davenport nor as skilled in polemics as Andrew Croswell. And unlike other prominent Whitefieldarians, including Daniel Rogers and Eleazar Wheelock, Buell did not chronicle his extensive itinerant labors in a journal.

But during the peak months of the New England revivals, the “famous Mr. Buell” ranked among the foremost evangelists of his generation. The meetings in Concord were part of a nine-month itinerant tour that carried the young firebrand more than 300 miles from Connecticut to Maine. Buell’s barnstorming circuit began in Northampton, Massachusetts, in March 1742, where his potent sermons famously propelled Sarah Edwards to heights of mystical ecstasy. From there, he set off through the sparsely settled villages of central Massachusetts, preaching daily with “great power.” After pausing for a fortnight in Concord, he journeyed to Charlestown and Boston, where he teamed up with fellow itinerants Andrew Croswell and Daniel Rogers. By mid-summer, he had reached Falmouth, Maine.

Inciting bodily exercises appears to have been a planned strategy. Everywhere he went, Buell attempted to raise the passions of his audience “to the highest pitch.” Yale classmate Samuel Hopkins, who accompanied Buell through central Massachusetts, described whole congregations “struck” and “bowed down” by the evangelist’s sermons. To him, somatic fits of falling, shaking, and crying signaled the descent of God’s Holy Spirit. But to others, including the anonymous Concord correspondent and diarist Nathan Bowen, such unseemly displays were a “Disgrace to the Christian Scheme!”

 Abraham G. D. Tuthill,  Reverend Samuel Buell , 1798, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Historical Society, New York.

Abraham G. D. Tuthill, Reverend Samuel Buell, 1798, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Historical Society, New York.

Following his return to Connecticut during the fall of 1742, Buell was ordained as an itinerant preacher with no settled pastorate—the second such figure in the history of New England Congregationalism. While traveling to preach in Virginia several years later, he was called to the pulpit of Easthampton, New York. Buell remained on Long Island for the next three decades. He achieved enduring fame during a powerful revival that struck the region in 1764 and emerged as a stalwart supporter of the Mohegan Indian minister, Samson Occom.

The anonymous letter reproduced below may be found in Jonas Bowen Clarke’s Collection of Papers, 1742, at the Congregational Library in Boston and is reproduced by permission. For a brief biography of Samuel Buell, see Franklin Bowditch Dexter, Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College: With Annals of the College History, 6 vols. (New York, 1885–1912), 1:664–669. Additional accounts of Buell’s 1742 itinerant tour of New England include Sue Lane McCulley and Dorothy Z. Baker, ed., The Silent and Soft Communion: The Spiritual Narratives of Sarah Pierpont Edwards and Sarah Prince Gill (Knoxville, Tenn., 2005), 4–8, 11, 14–15; Samuel Hopkins, journal, 1741–1744, 27–34, box 322, Simon Gratz Autograph Collections, 1518–1925, Collection 250B, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield (1842; Edinburgh, 1976), 206; Boston Weekly Post-Boy, April 5, 1742; “Extracts from the Interleaved Almanacs of Nathan Bowen, 1742–1799,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 91 (1955): 167–171; Daniel Rogers, diary, 1740–175[3], April 1–April 29, 1742, Rogers Family Papers, 1614–1950, Ser. II, box 5B, New-York Historical Society; William Kidder, [ed.], “The Diary of Nicholas Gilman” (M.A. thesis, University of New Hampshire, 1972), 279–281; and William Willis, Journals of the Rev. Thomas Smith, and the Rev. Samuel Deane (Portland, Maine, 1849), 103. I discuss the Buell’s itinerant career in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 220–230; see also Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (New Haven, Conn., 2007), 134–137, 267–287. On the bodily exercises of the Great Revival during the early nineteenth century, see, especially, Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001), xi–xxviii.

Reverend Sir,

Mr. Beuel came to Concord March the 20. They had a publick exercise every day, & for nine nights Successively (which was the time, he continued, there). Great numbers, of the people, tarried the greatest part of the night, in the Meeting-house, & Mr. Beuel with them, sometimes, til two a-clock in the Morning.

The effects, Upon the Minds, or rather, bodies of the people, Were, sighing, groaning, crying out, fainting, falling down, praying, exhorting, singing, laughing, congratulation, (or wishing each other Joy as they expres’d it) by shaking hands together, & by imbraceing each other, which was practic’d by different sexes, as well as others; & these all at the same time. And by the fifth day of his being there, about 300 were thus visibly affected, so that the noise, & confusion in the meeting-house was inexpressibly great, And Amidst such disorder, & a vast croud of people, it was impossible to make a just observation upon all that hap’ned. But yet I evidently found:

1. That all these disorders were encouraged by Mr. Beuel, & the Reverend Pastor of the town, for they endeavoured to raise these different passions, to the highest pitch.

2. That they esteem’d those truly converted, who had these Joys, & that the others were in a damnable state. This appear’d by all their addresses to them.

3. That the greatest part, could give No rational Account, of their distresses, or Joys.

4. That many were suddenly struck, & drop’d down like persons in fits.

5. That those Under concern, imagined that the louder they screem’d the sooner they should be converted, and that these expressions of sorrow & Joy were generally affected, or voluntary. This appear’d by several instances, where there was the greatest probability of the contrary; for the persons were immediately silent, Upon Mr. Beuels speaking to them for that perpose, As he was several times forc’d to do, that he Might be heard himself.

6. That ye persons were generally Women, & children.

7. That they were indifferently affected, whatever their past conduct had been.

8. That ye continuance of their distress, was various, some remain’d under it for days, others only a few hours, or minutes.

9. That these effects Never happen’d, to any considerable degree, til the darkness of the night came on.

These are the principle facts that, fell within My observation, & I think you May depend Upon the certainty of every one of them, & in Making what Use of them, you see fit, you will not disoblige

Your very humble servant

[Mss torn]

[Mss torn] 1, 1742

Fayerweather Family Prayer Bills (Boston, 1770s)

I discovered this interesting group eighteenth-century religious manuscripts shortly after Darkness Falls on the Land of Light went to press. They are excellent examples of what New England Congregationalists called prayer bills or prayer notes—small slips of paper bearing prayers to be read by ministers during Sabbath worship exercises. Unlike the few surviving prayer bills, nearly all of which are scattered among the papers of prominent clergymen such as Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards, this collection remained in the family of the prosperous Boston and Cambridge merchant, Thomas Fayerweather, and were passed down to his posterity along with his voluminous business correspondence and account books.

As with most prayer bills, the Fayerweather notes fall into one of two major classes. The Boston merchant composed petitionary prayers beseeching God for protection and healing in the face of impending life crises, such as his wife’s pregnancies or the illnesses of family members. During the ensuing weeks, Fayerweather penned prayers of thanksgiving or sanctification in which he sought to demonstrate his family’s resignation to the will of God. The form of each prayer request, moreover, closely followed the standard conventions of the genre, which remained relatively unchanged from the late seventeenth century through the early 1800s. That Fayerweather preserved these ephemeral manuscripts suggests that he may have envisioned the notes as a record of God’s dealings with his family in much the same way that puritan diarists often used their devotional journals to mark remarkable or providential events in their lives.

 Robert Feke,  Thomas Fayerweather (1724–1805),  ca. 1740–1760, Accession Number 1993.141.1, Historic New England. Bequest of Miss Eleanor Fayerweather.

Robert Feke, Thomas Fayerweather (1724–1805), ca. 1740–1760, Accession Number 1993.141.1, Historic New England. Bequest of Miss Eleanor Fayerweather.

Baptized as an infant in Boston’s Old South Church, Thomas Fayerweather (1724–1805) was raised in one of New England's wealthiest families. At a young age, he learned the merchant’s trade from his father and spent several years with relatives in Philadelphia and Maryland. Returning to Boston, Thomas married Sarah Hubbard (1730–1804), daughter of the treasurer of Harvard College, in 1754; they had four children between 1757 and 1769. Over time, Fayerweather expanded his business enterprises, trading a wide range of foodstuffs, commodities, and enslaved Africans from Maritime Canada to the West Indies, New York to London, and in ports in Central America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. It is not clear whether Thomas or Sarah ever affiliated with the Old South Church, although they presented their children for baptism in a regular order at the venerable Boston meetinghouse. (His older brother Samuel, by contrast, joined in full communion at the peak of the Whitefieldian revivals in 1741, after he experienced a wrenching conversion and was beset by dramatic visions of Satan.) In later years, Fayerweather moved his family to an impressive mansion on “Tory Row” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As with many of the “Genteel Folks” of the Revolutionary era, as the future president John Adams described Fayerweather’s elite social circle, he purchased pews in both the local Congregational meetinghouse and the Episcopal church. At the time of his death in 1805, Fayerweather’s estate was valued at more than 64,000 dollars.

 Robert Feke,  Sarah Hubbard Fayerweather (1730–1804),  ca. 1740–1760, Accession Number 1993.141.2, Historic New England. Estate of Eleanor Fayerweather.

Robert Feke, Sarah Hubbard Fayerweather (1730–1804), ca. 1740–1760, Accession Number 1993.141.2, Historic New England. Estate of Eleanor Fayerweather.

The seven prayer bill manuscripts presented below are part of the Thomas Fayerweather Papers, 1737–1818 (Mss 80) at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston and are reproduced here by permission. I have organized them in chronological order based on the birth and baptismal dates of Fayerweather’s children and the deaths of Sarah Fayerweather’s sister, Thankful, wife of Boston physician Thomas Leonard (d. December 2, 1772), her father, Thomas Hubbard (d. July 14, 1773), and her mother, Mary Jackson Hubbard (d. February 15, 1774). Written on the back of a list financial transactions with business contacts in central Massachusetts, the sixth document includes copies of prayer requests that Fayerweather submitted to the ministers of the Old South Church.

I discuss prayer bills at greater length in “The Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax: Devotion & Deception in New England’s Era of Great Awakenings.” Massachusetts Historical Review 14 (2012): 53–86; and Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 67–69 (see also 204–205, 452–454, and 563–565 for the spiritual odyssey of Fayerweather’s radical New Light brother). For edited transcriptions of the largest surviving collection of eighteenth-century prayer notes, see Stephen J. Stein, “‘For Their Spiritual Good’: The Northampton, Massachusetts, Prayer Bids of the 1730s and 1740s,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 37 (1980): 261–285. On the broader religious culture of Boston’s eighteenth-century merchant community, see Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America (Princeton, N.J., 2010). For genealogical information on the Fayerweather family, see John B. Carney, “In Search of Fayerweather: The Fayerweather Family of Boston,” New England Historic Genealogical Register 145 (1991): 57–66; and Harlan Page Hubbard, One Thousand Years of Hubbard History, 866–1895 (New York, 1895), 92–94. A number of Fayerweather family artifacts, including the portraits by Robert Feke displayed below, may be viewed in the online collections of Historic New England.

[ca. 1757–1769]

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife returns thanks to God for his great goodness in granting her a safe deliverance in Child birth & ask’g your prayers that begun Mercy may be perfected,

for perfecting mercy,

 Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. 1757–1769]

Thomas Fayerweather & wife returns thanks to God for his great goodness in raising her from the perils of child birth & giving her an opportunity to wait on him in his house Again.

 Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. December 1772]

Thomas Fayerweather & wife desires prayers, that the dispensation of Gods Providence, in the Death of her Only Sister, may be sanctified to them.

 Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. 1773]

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife, desires prayers for her Father, very week & low, that God would be pleas’d to Bless the means, us’d for his Recovery, or fit & prepair him, & all concern’d, for his Will & pleasure.

 Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. July 1773]

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife desires prayers that the Dispensation of Gods Providence in the Death of her Father may be sanctified to them & to their Children.

 Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. 1774]

First note.

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife desires your prayers for her Mother; very week & low that God would be pleased to Bless the means us’d for her Recovery or fit & prepair her & all concerned for his Will & pleasure.


2d. note second Sabbath morning

Mary Hubbard with her Children desires the continuance of your prayers for her; remaining very week & low, that God would be pleased to support & prepare her, & all concerned for his holy will & pleasure


2 Note if T Fayerweather & Wife had have put up one was as follows, (not sent)

Thomas Fayerweather & wife desires the continuance of your prayers for her Mother Apprehended drawing near her great change that God would be pleased to fit & prepair her & all concern’d for his Soveraign Will.


NB. The note wrote by Madm. G. as follows not sent.

Mary Hubbard remaining very week and low desires Continuance of your Prayers for her, that God would support her and prepare for his Holy Will and pleasure.

(pray’d to God to support them, & comfort them in their afflictions.

 Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.


[ca. February 1774]

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife desires prayers, that the Dispensation of God’s Providence, in the Death of her mother may be sanctified to them, & to their Children.

 Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Jailing the Jerkers (Rockbridge County, Va., 1805)

Through the generous support of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Richmond, I spent the spring 2017 semester as a residential fellow at the Library of Virginia. Here's a sneak peak at what I discovered in my new research: a court case from Rockbridge County, Virginia, involving the jerks, a controversial new bodily practice that developed among Scots-Irish Presbyterian new lights during the frontier revivals of the Second Great Awakening. Many thanks to John Deal for inviting me to contribute to the Library's "Out of the Box" blog!

Review of Tomlin's Divinity for All Persuasions

A Divinity for All Persuasions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), by University of Northern Colorado historian T.J. Tomlin, provides a powerful new analysis of early American religious culture through the understudied but ubiquitous genre of almanacs. I recently was invited to review this important book for the William & Mary Quarterly.

New Light Love Letter (Tyringham, Mass., 1742)

One of the most intriguing manuscripts I discovered while working on Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is the text that appears below: a courtship letter sent by Isaac Garfield (1717–1792), an early settler of Tyringham, Massachusetts, to his future wife, Mary Brewer (1722–1799). Written in a shaky and unschooled hand during the peak months of the Whitefieldian revivals and suffused with biblical allusions, Garfield’s missive included no professions of affection or amorous allusions. Unlike many young men in eighteenth-century New England, he made no effort to impress his beloved with his reading knowledge or literary wit. Instead, Garfield sternly exhorted Brewer to search her soul for evidence of conversion. It’s a compelling example of the many small ways in which the revivals transformed the writing practices of eighteenth-century New Englanders. Garfield and Brewer married several months later and soon emerged as leading townspeople and prominent members of the Tyringham Congregational church. They had eleven children between 1743 and 1765. Both spouses are buried Woods Cemetery in Monterey, Massachusetts.

Garfield’s courtship letter is part of the Blandina Diedrich Collection, volume 1, in the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. My transcription follows the expanded method described in Mary-Jo Kline in A Guide to Documentary Editing, 2d ed. (Baltimore, 1998), 157–158, 161–164. I have enclosed conjectural readings of the damaged portions of the manuscript and glosses of grossly misspelled within square brackets. For genealogical information on Garfield and Brewer, see Henry Bond, Genealogies of the Families and Descendants of the Early Settlers of Watertown, Massachusetts, including Waltham and Weston (Boston, 1860), 230; Town of Weston: Births, Deaths and Marriages, 1707–1856. 1703—Gravestones—1900. Church Records, 1709–1825 (Boston, 1901), 15; Vital Records of Tyringham, Massachusetts to the Year 1850 (Boston, 1903), 30, 96; History of the Congregational Society in Monterey, Mass., 1750–1900 (Monterey, Mass., 1900), 54; and Eloise Myers, A Hinterland Settlement: Tyringham, Massachusetts, and Bordering Lands (Pittsfield, Mass., n.d.), 6, 21, 24–25, 36, 40. I discuss the Garfield letter in Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 193.

[September] the 27/1742

Madam I take this opertunit[ie to write] to you hopeing you are as wall as I am att prasent for [which I] have grate caise of thankfullness and now I would call a upon [you to re]pant and Seek an Entrist in Christ before it be to late. Before I wass Concerned for my Soul I was not conscarned for your soul. But now when I consider my wicked life: O how many air [are] my Sins. They mak me to Cry out O lord my flesh trambles and I am afraid of thy Judgments. I have Case to feair Continually least the lord Should Say of me as of the barron fig tree Cut it down why Cumbereth it the grown. O let me coll upon you to Seek an Entris in Christ. Seek now in a finding time. Now the Spirit of god Seems to be Striving with yong people. Wee have ben asleep but our damnation Slumbreth not. O let us awake out of a ded Sleep of sin. O Let us Return as the poor prodigall did for we have bin Sarving a hard master. We have bin feeding on husks and are rady [to] perrish. O fearfull Estate for us to live only to heep up fuel for our own Everlasting burning even treasuring of wrath for the last day. Shall this be our cais and we not tremble. O that my Eyes wair water and my hed a founting of tears, that I migt weep day and night for my sins. Seek ye the Lord whil he may be found and call upon him while he is near. Begin now to do what in you lies to Regain the tim by double diligence in the matter of your grate Concarn: Least the voice of the archangel Should finish your time of triel and Call you to Judgment before you air prepaired. What time lies before you for this dubel improvement god only knows. The number of your days air with him and every evening the num[ber] is deminished. Let not the rising Sun upbrade with Continued neglience. Remember your former abouce [abundance] of ours and days munths and years in foly and [sin]. Let these of your past Conduct lie with an afectual wate on your hart and mind So as to keep you Ever vigerous in the present duties Sence you have bin so long and loitering in the mater of your Salvation in time past. Take large staps daly. Stracth [Stretch] all the powers of your soul to hasen towards the Crown and the prise. Harken to the voice of god in his word with Strong atinshon [attention] and pray to a long sufering god with dubel fervency. Cry aloude and give him no rest till your Sinfull Soul is Changed into penitence and renued to holiness and till you have Som good Evidence of your Sencear love to god and unfaned faith in his Sun Jesus Christ never to be Satisfied till you air Come to a wall grounded hope through grace that god is frind and reconsiled father that when days and muths and years Shall be no mor you may Enter into Everlasting Light and pece with god of his infinit marcy grant throw Jesus Christ our Lord [amen].

So I Remain

Isaac Gearfield

Defining the People Called New Lights

A thoughtful commentary on my book and recent scholarly debates over the definition of evangelicalism by George Mason University scholar John Turner. For an excellent related discussion published shortly after Darkness Falls on the Land of Light went to press, see Linford D. Fisher, “Evangelicals and Unevangelicals: The Contested History of a Word, 1500–1950,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 26 (2016): 184–226.