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).
At your Request I have undertaken to Give you an Account of the Doctrine & Conduct of the Minister & People of this Place & I have Thought Best to Give you a Coppy of a Complaint Exhibited Against Mr. Parsons by Capt. Timothy Mather in the following things:
1. With Approving Attending & Encouraging Separate Meetings for Religious Worship.
2. With Allowing Approving & Encouraging Persons when moved with Imperssions (that are Common Among us) to Cry out with a loud voice in the Time of Divine Worship to the Disturbance of the Worshipping Assembly.
3. With Inviting & approving Unqualified Persons to preach & to Exhort the People such as Thacher Prince &c.
4. With Breaking Covenant with this people by Going to Long Island, to preach without any Necesary Call, when he knew the Church was in Great Danger of being led away from the Simplicity of the Gospel by the Enthusiastick Doctrines & Practices of Mr. Davenport.
5. With Recommending a Theif (Prosecuted found Guilty & [Recorded]) to the Charity of a Neighbouring Church without any Christian Satisfaction, tho he well knew the whole Matter.
6. With using his Endeavours to Admit a Baptist that had Apostatised from her Profession to Occational Communication with this Church.
7. With making an Unscriptural & unwarrantable Difference between Chirch Members of a Good standing in the Church by Giving the Appelation of Dear Brothers to Some & not to others (the new Lights are the Dear Brothers).
8. With Admitting Persons into the Communion of the Church that are Grossly Ignorant of the Principles of Religion &c.
9. With forbiding unconverted Persons to sing the 23 Psalm & such like Psalms.
10. With Publickly declaring Persons are converted Immediately upon their Experiences of these things, viz.: Distress & Terror of Conscience for Sin & their being afterwards filled with Joy, &c.
11. With Callumniating the Civill Authority (both in prayer & preaching) by Intimating that many of their Dictates are Unlawfull & unjust to be Imposed upon a Christian people terming of them Tyranny & a Bloody Inquisition &c. Praying that they people might not submit in Matters of the least Indifference.
Farther Capt. Mather laid these following Articles of false Doctrine, viz.:
1. That we have no Reason to think a man in a Goodd State let his life be never so Seemingly Religious, or Moral until he hath told his Experiences alledge its as a just Inference from our being, by Nature, Children of Wrath.
2. That an External Conformity to the Gospel is no Evidence that a person is a True Christian.
3. That multiplied acts of Gross Sins, yea sins of the Grossest kind is no Arguments or Evidence against a State of Grace.
4. That all Doubting in a Christian of his Good state was from the Devil.
5. That there is more hopes of a profane Swearer, Sabbath Breaker, Drunkard, whoremaster, going to heaven when he dies than that he will, that lives an honest Life & Strives to Serve God as well as he Can.
6. That he knows not but God might Save a Moral man but an hundred to one if he did for it was out of his usual way to save such.
7. He told us in a Sermon from Luke 14:13 that Christ Chose Sailors the worst of men to be his Companions, Highway & hedge Sinners a Company of Whores & Witches. That there was more hopes of a Rake Hell & hell hounds than Moral men & many things of the like Import &c.
8. That if he could get all the people to do nothing towards their Conversion he should not doubt but that they would all be converted in one Month.
9. That if God should Discover his glory to an unconverted person it would cause Hell in his soul & that hell flames would Blaze out of his mouth.
10. For a Person to Infer his Justification from his Sanctification was a Proof that Pharisees & Hypocrites have of their Justification.
11. That a Person Could draw no true Comfort to his own Soul when he does Justice, loves mercy, & walks humbly with God.
12. That he had often heard of a Humble Doubting Christian but never saw one that was a Humble Doubting Christian but was a Mear Chimera in Religion, an Imaginary Monster made up by Hypocrites & an Absolute Contradiction, a thing that never was nor can be & Such as Dream of Humble Christians Doubting were filled with pride & Opposition to God.
13. That Continued acts of Grose Sins of the Gosple Sort was no Evidence of a State of Nature or Sin & Death.
14. That St. Ambrose Says that to Call the Works of God the works of the Devil is the Sin against the holy Ghost though Ignorantly so Called.
15. That this is the Sin against the Holy Ghost (1) when Persons have Greived away the holy Spirit (2) turn again to Sin like a Dog to his vomit or the washed Sow &c. (3) Got to a heigher degree of Sin than before and then prayed oh that God would cause Some one now in this Assembly to Roar out to be a warning to others & that the Flames of hell might blaze out of all their mouths, for he knows of no Rule in the word of God to pray for Such.
16. That a Hypocrite may love God with a Sincere love.
17. That we had as much Reason to think Mr. Davenport was an holy Man as we have to think Peter James & John were.
18. In his Sermons he often tells us in an Angry manner I will Increase your Damnation in hell. I Expect to be a Witness against the Worst of you in the Day of Judgment, Though you have set under the Gospel 40, 50, 60 years the Bottom of hell I expect will be paved with the Soulls [Sculls?] of the most of you. You Cursed old Gray hedded Pharisees & Hypocrites &c. You Damn’d men & Damn’d Women &c.
19. You are Guilty of Adultery in the house of God. [You] Commit adultery in the Time of Divine Worship.
20. That in Conversion there is a Phisical Change that Conversion was one thing & Regeneration is Another.
21. The holy kiss Spoken of by the Apostle was meant in a Carnal Manner.
22. In opening them words, Judge not least ye be judged, he told us if he knew what the Rash Judging there meant was, it was Judging men converted before they had told their Experiences.
23. That the Apostle John had the Spirit on the Lords Day, but we read no more of it & we have Reason to think that the Spirit left him, without any more Returns.
24. It is no matter what Religion we are of if we beleive in Christ.
25. That if we have not Sensible Acts of Faith in Divine Worship we have not the Presence of God.
26. Forbids his hearers to read any of Dr. Tillitsons Works the whole Duty of man, & many others Authors & says that the Peice Entitled the French Prophets is the Cursedest piece of Stuf that ever was raked together on this hole Hell.
27. With speaking contemptuously of the Ministers of Former & Latter Days in saying these Churches have been Stuft with Damnable Stuff these 30, or 40 years & that the Substance of the Doctrines for 40 years past was such Cursed & Damnable Stuff.
28. That in Conversation a Man repents of all Sin both past & future & that Repentance is not necessary after Conversion.
29. That a person may Commit Gross acts of Sin such as fornication & Adultery having Grace in Exercise, yea that Grace in exercise sometimes prompts men to Sin.
30. When a Person was crying out in the meating house after service said Mr. Parsons you that are Dissatisfyed Go & take the words of the holy Ghost from that mans mouth.
31. That we have as much reason to beleive the Present work is the work of God as we have to beleive the Mission of Christ.
In the next place Capt. Mather Charges Mr. Parsons Prayers with being unwarrentable in these things:
1. Praying for the Miraculous Gift of Tongus (2) that Unconverted ministers may be converted or put out of the Ministry (3) that God would Appear in as Visable a manner as at that Memorable Sacrament when there was Crying laughing & talking even every thing [allmost] Imaginable.
These sir are the things Laid in against Mr. Parsons & there is no Doubt but they will be proved and many such more might be added. There are many meatings in this place where there is all these things acted in the mean time, Viz.: Singing Praying Groaning Exhorting laughing & Talking in the same Room & all manner of noises that may be Imagined &c. & one thing more I will mention that is, we may Command God the whole of his Kingdeom &c. & now Sir please to Send me your Opinion on these matters from your friend & Servant,
But Sir Mr. Parsons hath been well satisfy’d for 4 years. But this Day we had a Meeting & now he Demands £320—£350 in the Room of £240: though a very holy man & quite left of[f] Caring for this Worlds Goods.
P.S. I had the Request by my kinsman Mr. Israel Higgins known to yourself.
[Endorsed:] Charges Against Bishop Parsons