Shadrack Ireland and The “Immortals” of Colonial New England

    By Francis G. Walett

    THE Great Awakening and its aftermath in New England have been examined over the years in considerable detail by scholars. Religious, theological, intellectual, political, and social ramifications of this period have been studied extensively. To some it has appeared to have had essentially conservative or anachronistic aspects; to others it has appeared to have produced reactions which were progressive in nature; to still others the movement itself included forward-looking forces which exerted much influence on New England thought and society in the generation before the American Revolution.1

    Much attention has been paid to the democratizing influences of this religious movement, which included the itineracy of lay exhorters, greater lay participation in religious services generally, the questioning of authorities, numerous separations from older churches, and increasing freedom from payment of tax rates to support the older churches.2 This thesis has merit but it has to be viewed against the fact that liberalizing forces had begun to develop long before the Great Awakening, and also it must be seen in the light of the research of the last quarter century which has found that New England colonial society was not nearly so authoritarian and rigid as was once believed. At any rate, this thesis has been overstated at times. Responding to Emil Oberholzer’s study of church discipline in the early days of colonial Massachusetts,3 wherein it is maintained that heresy was intolerable and that it was risky to speak out against a minister, Clifford Shipton has suggested that “criticizing sermons, preferably in the minister’s face, as an indoor sport was far more popular than bundling.”4 A recent work emphasizing the democratizing effects of the Great Awakening has gone to the extreme of making George Whitefield an American nationalist and virtually a torchbearer of the Revolution.5 One wonders whether the great evangelist would have appreciated being cast in this role. There were certainly paradoxical results of the Great Awakening in New England as in other areas, and both the forces of conservatism and liberalism were considerable. The influence of the ministers, most of whom remained relatively conservative in their outlook, was by no means wholly destroyed by the Great Awakening, and the coming of the Revolution found many parsons and their parishioners cool if not hostile to the rupture with the mother country.

    Influences on social conditions, which are not easy to judge, have been gauged in general terms. Historians have seen the Great Awakening as the culmination of a number of forces which transformed the American scene and outlook, marking a break with the past and foreshadowing of a more individualistic and democratic society. Whether too much emphasis has been placed on the Great Awakening as a watershed remains to be seen. I would suggest that fuller examination of local town and church records (often difficult to locate), the “results” of councils, unpublished ministers’ sermons, diaries, and letters will add the most to our understanding of the New England social scene in the second half of the eighteenth century. Such studies may support, alter, or reject theses concerning the ramifications of the Great Awakening.6

    In the process of editing the full diary of the Reverend Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough and examining numerous local records, this author has uncovered information about unusual and sometimes amusing religious fanaticism and social experimentation. This paper, the result of this investigation, indicates among other things that authority when exercised in these matters was localized and that there was much diversity in religious and social affairs.

    Amidst the evangelical fervor and religious intoxication of the Great Awakening and during its aftermath, conservatives noted many “errors in doctrine” and “disorders in practice.” The Reverend David Hall, of Sutton, a supporter of the revival, admitted that “Some Irregularities (‘tis true) have sometimes attended the Subjects of this work; and some imprudences may also have attended the Promoters of it: But what is Man that he should be perfect?”7 The disgusted Charles Chauncy of Boston wrote of “bitter Shriekings and Screamings; Convulsion-like Tremblings and Agitations, Strugglings and Tumblings, which in some Instances have been attended with Indecencies I shan’t mention. . . .”8 A number of small fanatical groups, usually poorly organized and short-lived, constituted what would today be called the lunatic fringe. The “immortals,” who cropped up here and there, were interesting examples of religious radicals with unusual and disturbing social schemes.9

    In Windham County, Connecticut, there were some who believed that they had become immortal and perfect, and one fanatic there declared himself to be Christ.1 An unfriendly historian wrote that those involved were “soreheads” and “grumbletonians” drawn from “the lowest stratum of society.”2 Ministers at Norwich welcomed the revival of the 1740’s but reported “imprudent Things,” “censorious Judgings” and “wrong Notions and Principles in Religion.” Lyme in Connecticut witnessed “Trances, Visions, extraordinary Missions, and immediate Revelations.”3

    In Attleboro, Massachusetts, some advanced the notion that if a saint discovered that he was not married to the right person, he had the right to take another, a spiritual wife. One of this group abandoned his mate in the 1760’s, asserting that she “was not his wife and that he had no more right to lie with her than any other woman.” When this man took a new mate her husband sued for divorce and won a decree after it was discovered that his wife was pregnant. Despite this casualty, one of the deacons said that the “spiritual” mates “ment no harm in lodging together, for they lay with the Bible between them.”4 At Canterbury in Connecticut one who had taken a new “wife” was accused of poisoning his first wife and her two children but was found innocent of murder.5

    In southeastern Massachusetts there were other examples of extremism. Brother John Phinney of Norton “held that two unconverted persons coming together in the marriage relation were not man and Wife in the sight of God strictly speaking.”6 Isaac Backus noted among other things that some people in that area were afflicted by “an antinomian Spirit which they had been carried away with.”7 Backus, who minded everybody’s business, recorded that a minister of Rehoboth had “unsound” principles and “he took a whore instead of his wife, and went off with her.”8 Nearby in Easton, some of the members of a Baptist church went so far “as to forsake their lawful wives and husbands, and to take others; and they got so far as to declare themselves to be perfect and immortal, or that the resurrection was past already.”9 These people seem to have been connected when Solomon Prentice, lately dismissed by Grafton, who was installed to preach in Easton in November 1747.

    Solomon Prentice1 of Cambridge (Harvard, 1727) had been called to the pioneer plantation, Hassanamisco (later Grafton), in 1731. When the Great Awakening arrived Prentice supported it eagerly, noting that the young people of Grafton had been “very much adicted to frolicking and mirth.” He invited Whitefield, Tennent, and other evangelists to Grafton and did some barnstorming himself carrying the revival to other towns. Grafton was in a state of turmoil for several years in the early 1740’s and Prentice exulted “Never did I see so many Tears shed in an assembly before. . . .”2 Not all people in the town revelled in the excesses, however, and the parish divided against the minister. Neighboring parsons tried to save Prentice in several councils, but after many trials he was dismissed in 1747.3

    Not the least of Solomon Prentice’s troubles was his wife, Sarah, another interesting specimen among the immortals. Mrs. Prentice, the daughter of a wealthy Huguenot, had the unusual good fortune to be sent to England for formal education in a convent. She was very bright, strong willed, and much inclined to Bible study. Her husband had no control over her and his problems with his church were complicated by domestic difficulties and his wife’s ideas and actions. Mrs. Prentice took up with some Separatists and on one occasion, when Solomon was off on a preaching raid, she was baptized by an itinerant lay preacher. Local legend has it that when Prentice returned home and found out what had happened, he was so furious that he dashed a pailful of water over his wife exclaiming, “Ah, it’s water, it’s water is it that you want? Well, you shall have water.”4 The minister later said, “She is an Anabaptist. She was immersed by a most despicable layman. . . .”5

    Sarah Prentice had visions and revelations and she finally decided that she was immortal, and it was said “She used to lie with Ireland as her spiritual Husband.”6 She continued in her delusions despite her husband’s entreaties. Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough sorrowfully noted “the Storys confirmed of Mr. Prentice beating his Wife again,” and a bit later on one Lord’s Day eve in July 1747, he “Tore her Gown, Struck them that resisted him, etc.”7 Parkman at one time endeavored to warn Mrs. Prentice “against Defect in Relative Dutys in the House; and giving occasion to others to suspect criminal Freedoms with the other sex, under the splendid Guise of Spiritual Love and Friendship.”8 But Mrs. Prentice was in her own world and reported that at one separatist meeting in Grafton, they “had enjoyed the glorious presence of God among them this Day.”9

    Mrs. Prentice was also associated with a strange group that followed Nat Smith of Hopkinton, who not only considered himself immortal but also declared himself God. There were five brothers in this Smith tribe who were opposed to existing churches and had their own forms and ceremonies. Nat was called “God Smith”: he had a hat with the sign “I am God,” and a great chair called “God’s Chair.” Parkman said that the Smiths had “fallen into very gross familistical Errors” and nothing he said had any effect on them.1 These wild enthusiasts marched around the Hopkinton meetinghouse on several Lord’s Days interrupting the service of the Reverend Samuel Barrett, “sounding with Ramshorns and denouncing its Downfall.” But the walls did not come tumbling down. Ezra Stiles identified Nat Smith as “one of old Ireland’s Men.”2

    Years later, in 1773, Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough visited the Prentices (now returned to Grafton) and wrote “She gave me Some account of the wonderful Change in her Body—her Sanctification—that God had shewn her this mind and Will—She was taught henceforth to know no man after the Flesh—that She had not for above 20 Years—not so much as Shook Hands with any Mann. . . .”3 Parkman found that Solomon Prentice (now close to death), had come to believe he too was immortal. Mrs. Prentice outlived her husband by almost twenty years, perhaps convincing some that she really was immortal.

    The town of Harvard had been beset with religious difficulties and irregularities before the arrival of Shadrack Ireland and these may have paved the way for him. The Reverend John Seccomb,4 the humorous versifier, accepted a call to be Harvard’s first minister in 1733, and before long his troubles began. First of all his wife accused him of improper relations with a servant. When Seccomb offered “Christian satisfaction” most parishioners accepted this, but a minority sought in vain the minister’s dismissal. The neighboring parsons supported Seccomb, and he survived the crisis. At a meeting of the Marlborough Association in April 1739, however, Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough delivered a “Concio,” noting “The Occasion of this Discourse was the ill Conduct of divers Ministers, but particularly of Mr. Seccomb of Harvard.”

    When the Great Awakening struck Harvard, Seccomb welcomed it as did most of his church. The minister denied charges of excessive emotionalism, but the town was much agitated with revivalism, beginning in 1739. In Seccomb’s own words, the converts in Harvard were “as newborn babes desiring the sincere Milk of the Word,” and “Some while under the SPIRIT of Bondage were so sensibly affected with their Danger that they dare not close their Eyes to sleep lest they should awake in Hell.” Alarmed with fears, these terrified persons awaited “CHRIST’S sudden Coming to Judgment.” The Harvard minister, pleased with the religious awakening in the town, exulted “I think I may say there has been a great shaking among the dry Bones.”5 Once when Seccomb preached a sermon to his colleagues at an association meeting Parkman disdainfully referred to it as a New-Light discourse.

    By 1751, separate meetings were being held in Harvard and a number of townspeople were accused of “encouraging Lay-preachers and Exhorters to preach and exhort in their Houses, whome we are satisfied are not called nor sent of God to such a Business.”6 Parson Seccomb held on to his pulpit until his dismission in 1757, by which time some of the separatists of the town were probably associated with Shadrack Ireland.

    It was in 1753 or very soon thereafter that Shadrack Ireland7 left his wife and at least four children in Charlestown and came to the frontier village of Harvard. Ireland was a pipe maker by trade but became a follower of Whitefield and a New-Light itinerant preacher. He denounced the churches as “stagnant in dead formality,” and cried out against the Congregational clergy “as sunk in sloth and selfish indulgence.”8 Even before leaving Charlestown he “professed to have experienced such a change, both in body and mind, that he was become perfect and immortal.” Isaac Backus wrote that Shadrack “set himself up as the head of the church, and assumed God’s prerogatives in such a blasphemous manner, that he was in danger of being punished by authority; upon which he absconded, and his followers said he was gone out of this wicked country.”9

    Ireland was welcomed by some people in Harvard, and he was concealed in the house of one Samuel Cooper.1 One of Shadrack’s disciples in Harvard was Abijah Worster, who was reputed to have miraculous healing power and to have frequently cured invalids of long standing.2

    In the northeast corner of Harvard, Ireland’s followers built a large square house where he lived in seclusion for many years.3 On the roof was a cupola from which Shadrack could look out, probably to spot hostile townfolk and any approaching stranger, perhaps even the sheriff. The house was outfitted with a secret stairway leading from a trapdoor in the cupola to the cellar.

    Shadrack Ireland advocated among other things perfectionism, celibacy, and the millennium. He forbade his followers to marry, or to live as man and wife if they were married. Celibacy was to be maintained until perfection was attained; thereafter children, too, would be perfect when born in the “new creation.” Shadrack himself, having already achieved perfection, felt no celibate obligations; although he had left behind a wife and family, he brought with him a “spiritual bride,” one Abigail Lougee, who lived with him throughout his stay in Harvard. The second Messiah, as he termed himself, had a small but devoted band of followers who listened to his teachings and maintained him in his quiet retreat. Ireland was known outside Harvard, for visitors came for his blessing, as Backus put it, “from various and distant parts of the country.”4

    Ireland’s boast of his own physical immortality was the most unusual part of his beliefs. He told his followers that if he should appear to die, this would be but a temporary condition and shortly his body would be revived. One night in 1780 Shadrack paced the floor “in great distress of mind and groaning with deep groans.” He told Abigail, his “soul mate,” “I feel the wrath of God,” and soon after he expired. His followers waited in vain for him to arise, and only after a number of days put him in a coffin which was kept in the cellar of the square house for several months. At last a few of Ireland’s followers decided to bury him, and one night “They took up some hills of corn, dug a grave and buried him, then set out the corn again so as not to have it discovered where the grave was.”5

    The shock of Shadrack Ireland’s death was followed by the disillusionment of the faithful. David Hoar seems to have tried to assume leadership of the group, but without much success.6 Shortly, most of Ireland’s followers in Harvard were absorbed by the Shakers, some of whose ideas were similar to those of the fallen Messiah. Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, and the advocate of celibacy, perfectionism, and millennium, shrewdly selected Harvard as a base of operations, and actually took up residence in Ireland’s large square house, in that part of Harvard ever since known as Shaker Village.7

    Ezra Stiles noted in his diary, 26 September 1781, that he had visited Harvard “where lives the Elect Lady who made about 20 converts of the Relics of old Mr. Ireland’s Immortalists.”8 That Mother Lee was not pleased with the continuing influence of Ireland’s teachings is shown by this Shaker comment: “One time in Mother Ann’s days she had the people get up in the night and go into the labors or dance in meeting, because Shadrack Ireland’s spirit was there and brought such darkness. It brought such distress upon Mother, that she felt as though she must have the people assembled and go into the works of God.”9 Although the Shaker leader rejected the concept of her own physical immortality, some of her followers believed in this and were severely shocked when she died.1

    It is impossible to determine with certitude how numerous the immortals of colonial New England were, or how much influence they had. This author’s research leads to the conclusion, however, that these fanatics were not numerous. Even if more intensive research in local records is undertaken, it seems unlikely that many more will be uncovered, because only infrequent and brief references to the immortals can be found in the published and unpublished writings of contemporaries who were most concerned with the religious currents of the time. This fact also tends to support the conclusion that Shadrack Ireland and his cohorts did not exert wide influence. Certainly they did not establish a lasting church, nor was the concept of physical immortality adopted by many others. It may be true that the immortals made it easier for other extremists like the Shakers or eccentrics like Jemima Wilkinson to gain a measure of acceptance. At the same time it should be noted that these unusual religionists, as well as the immortals themselves, were encouraged by the relatively permissive and tolerant social scene which had developed in New England by the middle of the eighteenth century.