Memoir of Robert Earle Moody

When Robert Earle Moody died on 4 April 1983, he had just completed fifty years as a member of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Though failing health prevented him from attending his fiftieth consecutive annual meeting of the Society in November of the previous year, his record remains impressive in terms of length of service. Yet it is not the length but rather the quality of that service that will keep his memory green among all who knew him at the Colonial Society. For twenty-five years, starting in 1947, he served as the Society’s Recording Secretary, regularly producing minutes that were models of secretarial skill. Since 1980 he had been the Senior Vice President of the Society and had, on several occasions, when the President was away, chaired meetings with simplicity and grace. Length of membership, quality of service—these were certainly distinguishing features of his relationship to the Society. Yet behind this outward and visible record lay an almost passionate commitment to the purposes of the Society that gave his contributions a third dimension. As a colonial historian he believed firmly in what the Society was about, and though this commitment was invisible most of the time, occasionally it would reveal itself, almost like a flash of lightning, to show how deeply held were these basic beliefs.

At the time that Bob Moody became a member of the Society, one of the requirements for membership was the presentation of a fully documented statement proving that the applicant had had one or more ancestors living in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. Bob would have had no trouble with that, for in 1633 the original John Moody, who had lived in Bury Saint Edmunds in England, arrived in Ipswich. He and his wife soon moved to Roxbury, where they joined John Eliot’s church and supported the budding Roxbury Latin School. A few years later they followed the Reverend Thomas Hooker to Connecticut, where John Moody became a leading citizen of Hartford, serving as selectman and as deacon of the First Church there. Descendants of John moved up to Connecticut River to Hadley and other valley towns, one pair going as far as Vershire, Vermont. This branch of Moodys eventually produced Dwight, founder of the Northfield Schools and, with his associate Ira Sankey, producer of the many hymns that bear their names. A more distant relative along the way was the redoubtable Samuel Moody, first master of Governor Dummer Academy, probably the most influential schoolman of his time. In short, Bob Moody’s forebears, like him, were solid New England stock.

The late Richard Pierce, formerly dean of Emerson College and a member of this Society, said of his teacher and friend Bob Moody, “He was truly a son of the Manse.” And that he certainly was. His father, George R. Moody, had been born in Methuen and grew up in the Greater Lawrence area. His schooling was interrupted while he went to work to help support the family, but he eventually went back to school, graduated from high school, and then attended Phillips Academy, Andover, for a year, where his sponsors were Principal Cecil Franklin Patch Bancroft and Latin Professor David Comstock, one of the most powerful teachers at the institution. After that came a variety of jobs—as Y.M.C.A. secretary in Lawrence, as night agent of the Boston and Lowell railroad, and as an employee of the New Home Sewing Machine Company in Orange, Massachusetts. But it soon became clear that George Moody’s real interest was in Christian education and the ministry, and he began studying theology on the side while holding these jobs. As his studies progressed, he became affiliated with the Methodist Conference and by 1886 had reached a point where he could be certified as a lay preacher by Conference Secretary John Fallows. Apparently George wanted more from the Fallowses than mere certification; two years later he married Sarah Fallows, who had already been active as a Methodist speaker and lecturer. There followed a number of years as supply in the East Maine Conference, during the course of which George was ordained a deacon at Houlton, Maine, in 1894 and an elder at Bangor in 1898. In 1899 he was appointed to supply at South Worthington, Massachusetts, a tiny village in the Berkshires, well off the beaten track. George and Sarah Moody and their four children would spend the next seven years in South Worthington, and it was here that their youngest child, Robert Earle Moody, was born on 30 March 1901.

One gets a clear picture of Moody family life in their new town from a book that George wrote entitled A History of South & West Worthington (Belchertown, Massachusetts, n.d.). One of the most dramatic stories in this volume is the account of how the newly arrived minister prevailed upon the people to build a parsonage and vestry cooperatively. At first the townspeople demurred, saying they were too poor, but George inspired all by his leadership and eventually the lumber was cut, sawed, and put into place so as to provide, for the first time in the town’s history, a proper house for the minister. George was a stickler for keeping exact accounts of all that transpired, including his own pay. For the fiscal year 1901–1902 he received $6 in May, $8 in June, $86 in July, $10 in August, $18 in September, $47 in October, $0 in November, $13 in December, $12 in January, $26 in February, $30 in March, and $44 in April, for a total of $300 for the year. And there was an equally detailed list of where the money came from, the largest single contribution being $25, the second largest $15. Though the financial remuneration would always be small, George must have felt more than repaid for his hard work by the improved morale of the community as a whole under his leadership.

The Moodys left South Worthington in 1905 and from then until World War I held positions in various Massachusetts communities, one of the most important of which was Belchertown. Bob Moody has himself left a charming account of what a Sunday in Belchertown was like:

My father preached at 10:30, taught a Sunday School class at 11:30, went home at 12:30, ate a piece of pie and had coffee, hitched up the horse—Belchertown was the last place where we had a horse, one “Ned” by name—and drove to the church at Dwight Station, where he had a sermon at 2:00, and Sunday School at 3:00. He also carried a small folding organ which most often [my sister] Helen played, there being none at Dwight Station. Then back home for a light supper, then Epworth League at 6:00 pm. and evening service at church at 7:00. My mother always sang in the choir and taught Sunday School classes; she also usually put on children’s programs of spoken pieces and songs. I remember particularly a song “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb,” which I sang as a solo. About the age of 10 or 12 I rebelled at speaking pieces—and spoke no more.”

Conventional wisdom has it that the sons of ministers almost always rebel at the strictness of their parents’ lives and go off the deep end, winding up either in the gutter or in jail. Bob Moody successfully defied this bit of conventional wisdom and did so without going to the other extreme. He certainly accepted and sought to emulate the sterling qualities of character of his parents, but he did so without becoming overtly pious or unctuous; he always wore his integrity lightly. But he was, nonetheless, a child of the manse. Little is known of his schooling. At one point during the family’s migrations from town to town a situation developed where a District School was one pupil short of the number necessary to open legally. Bob was pressed into service, even though younger than normal school age, and always claimed that he benefited a great deal from having gone to school with his “elders.” When Bob was about ready for high school, the family moved to the Ballardvale section of Andover, where they were to remain for the rest of George Moody’s life. Bob apparently went to the Andover public schools, including a stretch at Punchard, the town high school, but like his father, he completed his secondary education at Phillips Academy, attending as a day student. Then as now the Academy’s program for day students left much to be desired; in many ways they were second-class citizens. On the other hand Bob speaks of himself as a “somewhat shy, and undoubtedly too serious, seeker after learning,” and the chances are that in the one year that he attended, even if he had been a boarding student, he would not have distinguished himself outside the classroom. In any event, in the school yearbook there are no outside activities listed under his name. It seems clear that studies were the end-all and be-all for a boy at Andover in Bob’s view.

Even though Bob’s undergraduate career at Andover was an undistinguished one, he always retained a great deal of affection for the school. Writing some forty years later for a collection of alumni reminiscences edited by former Headmaster Claude M. Fuess, Bob remembered with astonishment “my almost completely detached acceptance of nearly everyone and everything there. That which I liked I accepted, I fear, without much appreciation; that which I disliked (and there were such things as R.O.T.C. drill and sham combat) I accepted without real rebellion.” And he closed his piece:

It seems to me now that what I might remember in detail is not so important. It is rather that all these years I have been trying, often without realizing it, to get for myself and to set before my students the satisfactions both personal and academic then freely offered but so casually accepted. The extent to which I have succeeded is closely related to the standards which I found all about me on Andover Hill.

Bob later served on the Andover Alumni Council and was for a number of years the Chairman of the Friends of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library at the school. Finally, just before he died, he was corresponding with various classmates planning their 65th reunion in June, 1983.

In the fall of 1918 Bob entered Boston University and began a relationship that would last for sixty-five years—to the end of his life. He chose mathematics as his major and pursued that field through graduation. Toward the end of his college career, however, he got corrupted by Professor Ralph V. Harlow, a specialist in American colonial history at B.U., and after graduation Bob abandoned mathematics to pursue graduate work in history. He stayed on at the university to get an M.A. in history the following year (1923) and then won a Jacob Sleeper Fellowship to study for his doctorate at Yale. He had originally chosen Yale so as to be able to work with Allen Johnson, but just as he started, Johnson was made editor of the Dictionary of American Biography and so Bob transferred to Charles McLean Andrews, then one of the outstanding colonialists in the field. It is not clear whether or not Bob had an interest in colonial Maine before he went to Yale; in any event his choice of dissertation subject was prophetic. Entitled “The Maine Frontier, 1607–1763,” his dissertation was simply the first of many distinguished writings on colonial Maine that he would produce throughout the rest of his life. Bob spent two years at Yale, satisfying his residency requirement and presumably passing his orals. He then followed a practice common with doctoral candidates in those days and started his teaching career while completing his dissertation. Thus it was that he did not receive his doctorate until 1933.

Though Bob did teach for the year 1925–1926 at the University of Michigan, his academic career really started when he was called to B.U. the following year. His longtime friend and colleague Professor Warren O. Ault describes Bob’s appointment to the B.U. faculty as follows:

Professor Harlow had been called to Yale. We made a thorough search, Dean Warren and I, for a successor and we turned up a number of suitable prospects, but there was never any real doubt about the man we wanted. I have always thought, and often said, that my part in bringing Bob Moody back to Boston was the best day’s work I ever did for Boston University.

Bob more than fulfilled Professor Ault’s hopes and expectations. Starting as an Instructor in 1926, he became an Assistant Professor in 1930, a full professor in 1935, and wound up Chairman of the Department of History and the holder of the William Edwards Huntington Professorship, one of the most prestigious at the university.

Bob was primarily a teacher who enjoyed working with young people and who knew how to get the most out of them. From the start he was popular with his students, which resulted, in his early bachelor years, in a rather bizarre assignment. The B.U. football team, it was thought, was a pretty uncultivated lot who needed guidance in matters non-athletic. Bob was prevailed to become their “moral tutor” and to live with them in their special house at Riverside. Though hardly a football type himself, Bob was able to work very effectively with these behemoths, as was attested to by the large number of former team members who used to pay him visits after they had graduated. Professor Ault has a good story about Bob’s teaching. Annoyed at the way his class slammed their books shut at the sound of the bell, Bob said, “Just a minute while I cast a few more pearls.” Then, characteristically, he worried for fear he had hurt the feelings of some innocent students, and so the next day he apologized for the remark. His colleague Professor William Newman remembers first seeing Bob in his study sitting at a large round dining-room table, piled high with books, papers, notes, and journals. It was, said Professor Newman, “confusion incarnate.” And yet he got the strong impression of a man surrounded by his work in the physical sense, of a true scholar completely committed to the job at hand. Bob was a very human person. When, on the advice of his doctor, he lost 60 pounds and looked so haggard that friends did not recognize him, he asked Warren Ault, “Did you ever know what it is to feel hungry?” And at a reunion in his later years he apologized for not having any jokes, explaining that he had lost his copy of Modern Maturity.

Bob Moody arrived at B.U. as a bachelor and remained in that state for nine years. Toward the end of that period a very determined young lady named Eleanor Wragg decided to put an end to this waste of good marriageable material. She was majoring in history and first had a class with Bob at the tender age of sixteen. As Eleanor Moody frankly admits, she thought Bob was wonderful. She took every course Bob offered over a three-year period, she saw him when each was working at the Library of Congress, and finally what had been simply a teacher-pupil relationship blossomed into a true romance, and the couple were married in 1935. The pair had two fine sons, one of whom presently flies his own plane. Some may find it hard to believe that Bob produced an aviator, but he did. Eleanor Moody is high in her praises of Bob as a “good father,” though she admits that she was the disciplinarian while the boys were growing up. Certainly the marriage of almost fifty years was an extremely happy one. No wonder that all members of the family miss Bob so much.

During his long career at B.U. Bob Moody did an extraordinary number of things for the university and did them all well. Apparently he soon acquired the reputation of the man to see if you wanted something done effectively and promptly without having to worry about the amour propre of the man in charge. Whether it was editing the university magazine Bostonia, securing and decorating with portraits the American History room for his department, providing the imagination, drive, and plain hard work to make the Boston University Press a reality, chairing the History Department from 1960–1966, or seeing to it that alumni dinners went well, Bob could always be counted upon to bring a project to a successful conclusion. What an asset he must have been to B.U. administrators. Professor Warren Ault says, “Without doubt the most valuable work that Professor Moody did for the University was when he was Director of Libraries.” Perhaps—possibly because it is easier to measure a magnificent new building with expanding collections than the effect of a gifted teacher on thousands of undergraduate and graduate students. And it is interesting to note in this connection that Bob accepted the position of Director of Libraries only on condition that he could continue to teach, do departmental chores, and direct doctoral dissertations. One gets the feeling that while Bob realized that the new library was a vital job that had to be done, his first love was his teaching and scholarly work. None of this is meant to take away any of the credit that Bob deserved for working on the new central library for almost ten years. It will stand as one of many monuments to Bob that are extant at Boston University.

Considering the number of chores that Bob Moody did for B.U. during his long career there, he wrote a surprising number of scholarly books and articles in the course of his lifetime. Space does not allow an extended discussion of his writings, but mention must be made of some of the more important. Bob’s first important article—one that was not mentioned in any of his obituary notices—was entitled “Samuel Ely: Forerunner of Shays,” which appeared in the New England Quarterly in 1932, a fascinating account of a colorful New England rabble-rouser. It is interesting to note that in the many works on the Shays Rebellion that have been produced recently, the article is frequently cited as the definitive work on Ely. Bob’s thesis subject at Yale had been on the Maine frontier in colonial times, and he continued to work in this field off and on for the rest of his life. In 1947 he produced Volume III of The Province and Court Records of Maine, the first two volumes of which had been edited by C. T. Libby, and he also wrote the introduction to Volume VI in that series. Perhaps the most important contribution that he made to Maine history was the work he did on Thomas Gorges, a task made the more difficult because most of the papers were in the Exeter City Library in Devon, England, and because, as Bob wrote, “of the condition of the papers and the miniscule handwriting, which made necessary many hours of close study both in England and from photographs here at home.” But the results were worth it. In 1963 Bob was appointed University Lecturer at B.U.—a signal honor—and delivered an address entitled “A Proprietary Experiment in Early New England History: Thomas Gorges and the Province of Maine.” This lecture, which was later published by the university, was a smash hit and received rave reviews from all who heard it; the late Lyman Butterfield, for example, said it was one of the finest pieces of historical scholarship that he had ever heard delivered. Fifteen years later the final fruits of his research on Gorges appeared when the Maine Historical Society published The Letters of Thomas Gorges, Deputy Governor of the Province of Maine, 1642–1645, which Bob had edited.

After his retirement from B.U. Bob was selected to edit the papers of the Saltonstall family of Ipswich, Haverhill, and Salem, and he spent a major part of his time in his last years working with Malcolm Freiberg, Editor of Publications at the Massachusetts Historical Society on this project. Of their relationship Malcolm has written of working together “closely and always amicably. . . . There were of course differences between us on approach and interpretation, but they were not disagreements and never became disagreeable. Over the many years of working in harness together, he never once lost his temper with me.” The first two volumes of Saltonstall Papers, 1607–1815, were published in 1972 and 1974, while two more volumes of the papers of Leverett Saltonstall, 1816–1845, came out in 1978 and 1981. Volume III in that series appeared in 1984, and two more that Bob was working on when he died will appear later. When completed, these seven volumes will stand as perhaps the most enduring monument to Bob as a scholar.

And there were countless shorter pieces. Bob wrote about forty biographies for the Dictionary of American Biography, and about twenty articles for J. T. Adams’s Dictionary of American History, he also prepared three maps for Adams’s Atlas of American History. He was also responsible for a number of Old South Leaflets, all impeccably edited. And of course reviews, introductions to books by others, and short fugitive pieces. When this is all totted up, it comes to an impressively substantial corpus of written work.

Bob Moody was an active and contributing member of a number of learned societies; indeed most of his important work was published by either the Massachusetts Historical Society or the Maine Historical Society, of which he was an honorary member. In addition he belonged to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the American Antiquarian Society and was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At the Massachusetts Historical Society he served as Chairman of its Committee of Publication for twenty years. Malcolm Freiberg writes sensitively of his chairmanship:

As its chairman, he was ideal; he never interfered, always listened, and performed with dignity the difficult chores that occasionally surfaced. He . . . [retired] in 1978 with characteristic self-effacement, saying only that he thought it time a younger person take over but saying nothing about wanting to shed an obligation.

It is not surprising that after his death the Society planted a tree in his memory alongside one in memory of Lyman Butterfield. In like manner the Maine Historical Society, wishing to honor the editor of the Court Records and the Gorges Letters, which the Society had published, established the Robert E. Moody Memorial Fund. At the start of this memoir a tribute was paid to Bob’s contribution to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Though he never published anything through our Society, it was his qualities as a person that made him such a valuable and beloved member.

In any attempt to capture Bob’s qualities as a person, the most valuable sources are the recollections of those who knew him best. One of these was Malcolm Freiberg, Editor of Publications at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In his Foreword to the third volume of the papers of Leverett Saltonstall, published after Bob’s death, he writes the following charming, yet insightful, account of his first contact with Bob:

The locale was the search room of the Massachusetts Archives, then under the eaves of the State House in Boston. My lonely note-taking that day was enlivened by the appearance in the room of a heavy-set, pleasant-faced individual who had come to consult with Senior Archives Assistant Leo Flaherty on a minor research matter. An answer obtained—one always got answers from Leo Flaherty—the visitor left. Delighted to be treated as an equal by his teacher (Leo had just finished taking Bob’s course in American colonial history), the Senior Archives Assistant turned to me, his only reader that day, and said, “That was Professor Moody!” The awe and admiration in his voice were obvious. ’Twas ever thus; then and later, Bob Moody inspired affection and respect. . .

I cannot close without a personal tribute to Bob, something I must say. Without question Bob Moody did more for me as a would-be historian than any other individual. His first contribution came when I was working on my William Bingham’s Maine Lands, which the Colonial Society later published. Samuel Eliot Morison had arranged for me to do this project; Walter M. Whitehill was my strategist; while Bob was my man for tactics. I thought an introductory chapter on the Maine frontier in 1790 would be appropriate and, accordingly, dashed off an account of the area and gave it to Bob. When I next saw him, he said to me very pleasantly, “Fritz, this won’t do.” He made no attempt to sugar the pill; rather he outlined what I would have to do to make the chapter an acceptable one. And this, with Bob’s encouragement, I finally succeeded in doing.

His second contribution came when the Bingham Lands book was already in galley. One of the high points of my story was the sale to the House of Baring in England of a portion of the Maine lands. The Barings had sent young Alexander, later Lord Ashburton, to the United States to look the field over. I had full documentation of the attempts of the American land speculators to pull off the sale. There were letters from Bingham himself, from General Henry Knox, and from General David Cobb, Bingham’s agent in Maine. As I read these accounts of their attempts to interest Baring favorably in the lands, I kept wondering what Baring himself thought of all their machinations. Was he taken in? Almost too late, Bob Moody sent me a small notice in a Library of Congress bulletin announcing that the Library had received a microfilm of letters written by Alexander Baring while in America in the 1790’s. It is utterly inconceivable that I would have found this announcement by myself. When I got a copy of the microfilm, it was all I could have hoped for. The letters indicated that Baring was not taken in one whit by the American promoters. Fortunately, it was not too late to insert many of these letters in the volume, and they remain some of the most important material presented.

After the Bingham volumes had been published, the Maine Historical Society invited me to speak there. Bob called me up shortly before the date and suggested that we drive to Portland together, for he planned to attend the meeting as an honorary member of the Society. We had a delightful drive up together, had a pleasant lunch, and then I did my stuff. It was not until later—just by chance—that I learned that Bob seldom went to the Maine Historical Society meetings and that he had gone on this occasion just to give me support, which he certainly did.

Finally, after I had completed my bicentennial history of Phillips Academy, Andover, I suggested to Ralph Crandall at the New England Historic Genealogical Society that he get Bob to review the book in its Register. What resulted was the dream of every author. To be sure Bob had a long-standing interest in Andover; to be sure we were old friends. Still I knew Bob well enough to know that he would not say things that he did not believe, and this made his review all the more of a treasure to me. One example of this approach: a reviewer had said that my book was too long. Bob said that the volume had been written in a “leisurely” fashion. From these examples it should be clear why I almost worshipped the man.

Finally, one cannot do better than to quote Malcolm Freiberg’s summary of Bob as a person:

To sift through memories of an association with Bob Moody extending over a generation is to come away convinced that he never knew of the affection and respect others held for him and that he would have been puzzled had he known. A modest, devoted, and productive worker in the vineyard of history, he did his duty as he saw it to his university and to those other organizations fortunate enough to benefit from his fealty. . . . There was always work to be done, and he always did it. The quality of effort and of result was praise enough and sustained him quite nicely. He had no need for external praise.

Frederick S. Allis, Jr.

87 Mount Vernon Street

Boston, Massachusetts

July, 1988