The Protestant Interest New England after Puritanism
By Thomas S. Kidd
Yale University Press Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-300-10421-9
Chapter One "Fidelity to Christ and to the Protestant Succession"
Benjamin Colman and the Protestant Interest
As new converts flocked to the Brattle Street Church in October 1740, Benjamin Colman knew that something significant in redemptive history was happening through the ministry of the "singular servent and holy Youth," George Whitefield. For the evening lecture on October 21, Colman chose as his text the millennial passage Isaiah 60:8, telling the overflow audience that the nations would come to the Messiah in great numbers at the end of the age. Was this the promised time? He thought perhaps so, but he equivocated: "The Prophecy is daily fulfilling, and at Times in more remarkable Measure; but more especially it will be so in the latter and more happy Days of the Church when the Calling of the Jews and the Fulness of the Gentiles shall come on-The Lord hasten the promis'd Day."
Here at the crowning moment of his career was the key leader of the Protestant interest in New England before 1740, Benjamin Colman. Colman was distinguished by his extensive British network of correspondents and friends, orthodox Calvinism, and latitudinarian ethos. Throughhis publications, leadership, and connections he helped take New England's leadership in a direction friendly to Britain and the Protestant succession, and in the late 1730s he helped prime the cosmopolitan churches of New England for the arrival of Whitefield. He also helped win support for missions among the Native American societies of North America as a means to counter the threat from French Jesuits, a threat that would become even more manifest in the 1720s with the coming of Father Rale's War. A consideration of Colman's work and thought will help demonstrate the means by which New England's cosmopolitan leaders became much more concerned for the world Protestant interest after 1689.
Colman's leadership in Boston was hotly contested at the outset, as he and his patrons established the Brattle church only after much controversy with Cotton Mather and his colleagues, who were suspicious that Colman was a theological innovator. Leading Boston merchant Thomas Brattle and a number of his business associates had become frustrated with what they saw as the provincialism of a Mather-dominated church establishment in eastern Massachusetts, and by 1698, Brattle and others began the process of building a new church in Boston. He sold a tract of land to the new church corporation, and by January 1699 twenty-two "undertakers" had agreed to help build the new church. Among the most prominent leaders of the founding group were the merchants John Mico, Thomas Cooper, and John Colman.
These wealthy supporters, with the encouragement of Harvard tutors John Leverett and Thomas's brother William Brattle, took the necessary steps to plan and build the church. Actual construction began in April 1699, at which point the founders needed to find a pastor, one with appropriate education and previous pastoral work. The new pastor also had to support the church practices toward which the founders inclined, and had to accept the responsibility of standing up to the criticism that would inevitably come against the church from Boston's pastoral establishment. The Brattle group needed to secure a pastor that had orthodox beliefs and high social standing, but whose authority and ordination came from somewhere outside the spheres of New England clerical power. Naturally, they preferred someone with the stamp of metropolitan authority, bypassing the sanction of the Boston authorities with an appeal to the cultivation and power of London. Fortunately, John Colman knew someone who fit the requirements: his younger brother, Benjamin.
Benjamin Colman's father was a wealthy shopkeeper who had come to Boston from London in 1671, two years before Benjamin's birth. Choosing the ministry over shopkeeping or trading, Benjamin graduated from Harvard College in 1692. At Harvard, Colman and his classmates studied under the Anglophilic and latitudinarian tutors John Leverett and William Brattle, and Colman apparently became Leverett's favorite student. Colman polished his pastoral qualifications by establishing connections in England, learning about the Presbyterian polity, and imbibing the latitudinarian ethos of toleration, love, and gospel essentialism. Upon finishing his master's degree at Harvard in 1695, he left New England for London.
After a tangle with French privateers in his Atlantic crossing, Colman arrived in London. Colman's experience in England further molded his intellectual and religious commitments toward a more English style. However, the experience (as recorded by his son-in-law) reads like a post-college fling in Europe as well, with much time devoted to romantic flirtations and partaking of his British friends' wine and food. Nevertheless, Colman eventually found pastoral work from the Presbyterian board in London, working in Cambridge, Ipswich, and eventually Bath. The pastors told Colman that the post at Bath represented "the best Stirrup in England, whereby to mount the best Pulpits that might be vacant." Apparently his colleagues assumed that Colman would eventually take a prominent pastoral position in London, perhaps never to return to New England.
Two years after accepting the position at Bath, however, Colman received the offer that would lead him back across the Atlantic. In July 1699, he got a letter from the "undertakers" of the Brattle church asking him to be their minister. The proposal to Colman made explicit two of the policies which the founders wanted to initiate: public reading of Scripture without comment during the services and not requiring a conversion experience for admission to the Lord's Supper. He received encouraging notes from Leverett, William Brattle, and Ebenezer Pemberton (soon an assistant pastor at the Old South Church, which along with the Brattle Street Church became the most cosmopolitan of Boston's congregations). Pemberton's words suggested that Colman could count on a secure living in Boston: "The Gentlemen who sollicit your Return are mostly known to you-Men of Repute and Figure, from whom you may expect generous Treatment." Upon Colman's arrival in Boston, John Colman would see to it that Benjamin received a good salary and free lodging.
The letters also asked Colman to seek Presbyterian ordination before he left London. This request reflected the need to circumvent the clerical establishment by an appeal to an alternative and higher polity. The church knew that Boston's ministers would not ordain him, they liked his endorsement from reputable English Presbyterians, and they believed that pastors could receive ordination outside the endorsement of a particular church body. All this prompted the Brattle group's controversial request. Some historians have suggested that the merchants wanted the Brattle church to be an Anglican congregation, but the evidence does not support this idea because the founders encouraged Colman to receive Presbyterian ordination and because they placed so much control of their church polity in the Presbyterian pastor's hands. As Colman later wrote to Robert Wodrow of Glasgow, "we are entirely upon the Presbyterian foot so far as our Lott among Congregational Churches will admit of it." Colman received his ordination in early August 1699, and then sailed for Boston, arriving November 1.
Before the church began holding services, the founders and Colman thought it best publicly to declare their intentions, which they did in A Manifesto, published November 19. While this brief document spelled out the new church's principles, it functioned mostly as a preemptive strike against the church's opponents. "We think it convenient," the Manifesto read, "for preventing all Misapprehensions and Jealousies, to publish our Aims and Designs herein." From the beginning, the Brattle church took the rhetorical position that opposition could come only from misunderstandings or jealousies: certainly no one could object to their church polity in good faith.
A Manifesto then laid out the sixteen basic principles of the church, beginning with the declaration that the founders "Approve and Subscribe" to the Westminster Confession, a broadly acceptable definition of reformed doctrine in the English Atlantic world. This statement sought to defuse the arguments crying heterodoxy, but it also expressed their honest intention to remain orthodox in the sense established by the Westminster divines. While the Brattle church changed the status quo in Boston, one can see from their commitment to Westminster that the new church was in no useful sense "liberal." They also declared their intention to worship according to the practice of the "UNITED BRETHREN in London, and throughout all England." Here one can see at least two purposes: first, the church's continuing desire to associate itself with English practices, and second, a further undermining of the arguments they knew might come from the Mathers. The Mathers had been promoting ecumenical unity with Presbyterians in London for ten years, especially since the English Toleration Act of 1689. While Increase Mather was in London in 1691, Congregationalist and Presbyterian leaders produced the Heads of Agreement, an ecumenical document establishing their basic articles of faith and ostensibly abolishing the two groups' disagreements. As late as 1700, Cotton Mather still promoted the idea of Presbyterian/Congregationalist unity, writing that English nonconformists "have needlessly been sometimes Distinguished into Presbyterian and Congregational," but he hoped they would unite in essentials under "that more Christian Name of United Brethren." The Mathers and others would hold no such warm feelings for the new Presbyterian church in their own backyard, for they realized the threat this represented to their local authority. Cotton Mather in particular had been dabbling for years in transatlantic literary and reformed circles, but up until this point his feelings concerning the transatlantic ethos were conflicted at best, and when the cosmopolitans rose to question his power, Mather again became decidedly localist and precisionist.
The new church admitted that it would make some changes from the usual policies of New England's Congregationalists, most notably by reading Scripture without pastoral exposition, admitting people to communion by the pastor's assent without a public profession of conversion, giving every baptized adult a vote in choosing a minister, and abandoning an explicit church covenant. However, the group argued that these minor changes did not make their church drastically dierent from the usual practices of the "Churches of christ here in New-England." The Brattle church wanted to "hold Communion with the other Churches here, as true Churches; and we openly protest against all Suspicion and Jealousie to the contrary, as most Injurious to us." The Brattle group had made their preemptive strike, but the Manifesto's clever maneuvers did not prevent a harsh response from New England's pastoral leadership, or panic on the part of Cotton Mather.
The founding of the Brattle Street Church unleashed an exceedingly nasty pamphlet war. By early 1701, however, it became evident that Colman and the Brattle Street Church were in Boston to stay: the Brattle church survived its factional challenge to the Matherian hegemony, and Colman would eventually emerge as the leader among Boston's pastors in the Protestant interest. Colman's cosmopolitan style and British connections helped turn the clerical establishment of Boston and Cambridge toward the ethos of the Protestant interest: outwardly focused, British, internationalist, and latitudinarian.
Colman and the Brattle church also eventually got along with the Mathers. The Mathers grudgingly accepted the new arrangements; they seemed to have no other options if they wanted to maintain their now-divided authority. By 1705 Colman and Cotton Mather even worked together on proposals to implement a more Presbyterian form for New England's clerical synods. Though the 1705 Proposals failed to unify Massachusetts' churches, Colman's British and interdenominational sensibilities continued to flourish among the friends of the Protestant interest in New England. This was perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in Connecticut in 1708, where the adoption of the Saybrook Platform formally committed the province's churches to the Savoy Confession of Faith (1658) and the Heads of Agreement. This act was a clear step away from New England particularity and toward common cause with British dissenters. Even Cotton Mather had to accept the implications of British interdenominationalism in Boston, and his once-conflicted approach to transatlantic concerns now flowered into a full-fledged sympathy. Mather expanded his correspondence with such figures as Scotland's Robert Wodrow, England's John Edwards, Danish missionary Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, the Halle Pietist agent Anthony Boehm, and other key figures in the international Protestant interest. Colman, backed by such figures as Ebenezer Pemberton, Joseph Sewall, and Thomas Prince Sr. of the Old South Church, articulated a new vision for Boston and New England's churches to become ardent defenders of the Protestant succession in Britain and the cause of Protestants everywhere. Colman eventually became the key spokesman for Boston's churches on matters related to Massachusetts' place within the British empire, and also its role in the ongoing wars between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Eight years after the founding of the Brattle church, for instance, on the occasion of the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland, Colman preached a celebratory sermon before Governor Joseph Dudley, arming as never before Massachusetts' allegiance to Britain and the Protestant succession. This sermon would help cement Colman's place as the leading promoter of the Protestant succession among New Englanders. Colman was both explicitly nationalist and also broadly internationalist in his vision of a worldwide Protestant interest led by a unified, transatlantic British cohort. He reminded pious New Englanders to pray for the world church and for its leader, Britain: "we ought aectionately to Pray for & Rejoice in the Prosperity of the CHURCH OF CHRIST in the World, & especially in the Peace & Flourishing thereof in that particular nation or kingdom whereof we are." Colman's vision was broadly ecumenical, at least compared to the old Puritan vision, but there was no doubt in his mind who stood in the vanguard of the Protestant cause. "We must needs consider GREAT BRITAIN as the Illustrious Head among the Protestant Nations & Churches. The Religion of Christ is no where more purely Professed, and (alas! for the Reformed World) no where more of it in its Power.... Therefore as Members of the Catholick Church ... we must needs Pray for its Prosperity, Temporal and Spiritual."
Excerpted from The Protestant Interest by Thomas S. Kidd Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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