Pale Blewish Lights: 20th Anniversary Edition

Frontispiece from Joseph Glanvill,  Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions  (London, 1682). Image courtesy of the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Frontispiece from Joseph Glanvill, Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (London, 1682). Image courtesy of the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

The Omohundro Institute recently reissued “‘Pale Blewish Lights’ and a Dead Man’s Groan: Tales of the Supernatural from Eighteenth-Century Plymouth, Massachusetts,” on their mobile app, the OI Reader. Originally published the William and Mary Quarterly in 1998, this essay has always been one of my favorites.

“Pale Blewish Lights” examines a richly detailed haunting incident. In 1733, tenants renting the Thompson Phillips mansion in Plymouth, Massachusetts, complained of strange lights and unusual noises, which they attributed to the specter of the recently deceased mariner. Phillips’s father-in-law, a civil magistrate and Indian missionary named Josiah Cotton, responded to the rumors by filing a slander suit against the loose-lipped tenants. The rich documentary record of the resulting lawsuits, which include trial depositions, Cotton’s memoirs and diary, and his unfinished essay, “Some Observations Concerning Witches, Spirits, & Apparitions,” provide a unparalleled opportunity to examine competing supernatural beliefs in eighteenth-century New England.

To access the article, install the free OI Reader from the App Store or Google Play and download the “Bancroft Prize 2018” file. In addition to “Pale Blewish Lights,” the download package also includes links to Part 3 of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light; my recent interview with Liz Covart, host of the Ben Franklin’s World podcast; and “Souls Filled with Ravishing Transport: Heavenly Visions and the Radical Awakening in New England,” which appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2004. Many thanks to Nadine Zimmerli, Kim Foley, and the rest of the OI team for creating this exciting digital platform for my research.

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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