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.

 

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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