Stephen A. Mauarini
From a paper presented at the Bicentennial Conference on Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution, 1986, sponsored by Historic Deerfield, Inc.
What was the religious world of Daniel Shays and what role if any did it play in the insurrection of 1786–87? Clear answers to these questions are not easy to obtain. Writers on the rebellion from George Richards Minot to Marion Starkey neglected religion altogether. In 1969 William G. McLoughlin opened a new line of inquiry with the claim that “the Separate-Baptists in western Massachusetts were prominent among the supporters of Daniel Shays.”1 A decade later David P. Szatmary replied that McLoughlin’s opinion “may be overstated” and interpreted religion as a variable that identified the Regulators but did not distinguish them from other citizens. “The militants were homogeneous in religious affiliation,” he wrote. “While some Baptists undeniably fought against government, most militants probably were Congregationalists.”2
The careful subsequent research of John Brooke sustains Szatmary’s opinion; in fact, his evidence suggests that Separate Baptists may even have been proportionately underrepresented and that the sectarians’ motivations were primarily economic. Poor Baptist farmers rebelled, middling ones did not. Brooke’s most recent research on the Regulation makes a compelling case that the Regulators were not dissenters but rather Congregationalists and “men of local standing: selectmen, low-ranking militia officers, and deacons” from “those orthodox communities where the gentry class was absent and the minister isolated from his social class or missing altogether.”3 Brooke argues that a popular religious culture of orthodoxy disposed such men to act in restoration and defense of a collapsing socioeconomic order. In towns that enjoyed greater economic diversity and a more stable ministry, this same “deacon’s orthodoxy” aligned itself with the government against the Regulation.
All of these interpretive claims suffer from a common liability. There simply is no thorough description of religious development in Shaysite Massachusetts available upon which to ground interpretive generalization and theoretical insight. The most complete work on any one religious body is William McLoughlin’s many capable studies of the Separate Baptists, but surprisingly, the researcher today must still rely on unstudied manuscript sources and nineteenth-century town and church histories for information on Congregationalism and on fragmentary evidence and scholarship on other dissenting groups.4
Historians have long accepted the judgment of late eighteenth-century Congregationalist ministers that New England’s religious institutions and popular piety languished during and after the Revolution. No less an authority than Sydney Ahlstrom called the 1770s, 1780s, and 1790s an era of “religious depression,” during which the people of New England turned their attention away from questions of faith and toward issues of politics.5 Several scholars, most notably Nathan Hatch, have since drawn attention to the vibrant note of millennial expectation that suffused post-Revolutionary Congregationalist and Federalist utterance in New England, and William McLoughlin has argued that the religious dissent of Separate Baptists motivated their political transition to Antifederalism and Jeffersonianism.6 Neither interpretation, however, has challenged Ahlstrom’s basic notion that the Revolution left all religious groups in essentially the same situation, weakened and culturally subordinate to politics.
Therefore in this essay my first goal has been to establish a general description of religion in Shaysite Massachusetts. The results of that inquiry have not produced the sort of clear and distinct patterns that historians hope to uncover and use for new interpretations. To the contrary, the evidence suggests quite a different kind of religious situation from that described by Ahlstrom and Szatmary, one of disorder and breakdown, instability and change. The “depression” of which Ahlstrom wrote was actually a deep institutional and intellectual crisis in Congregationalism that crippled its cultural hegemony even as its political allies sought to preserve it in the state constitution of 1780. Yet Shays’s Rebellion also occurred in the midst of Massachusetts’s most powerful revival since the Great Awakening, led by dissenters who mounted fundamental challenges to Congregationalist polity, theology, and cultural influence, but who themselves were riven by theological and ecclesiological divisions.
All this created a moment of dramatic religious change that mirrored and, indeed, reinforced the Revolution’s own political and economic dislocations, of which Shays’s Rebellion was a principal manifestation. This time of religious change generated multiple sociocultural consequences relative to Shays’s Rebellion. The institutional weakness and intellectual division of Congregationalism seriously hindered its ability to perform its major cultural function, the sacred legitimation of the sociopolitical regime. Though it continued to provide legitimation through such traditional media as the annual election sermon at Boston, the Standing Order’s inclusive genius was severely tested, issuing in the paradoxical pattern Brooke describes and the grim reality of coreligionists making civil war against each other. In strictly religious terms Congregationalist hegemony also broke down under the pressures of heightened internal theological dispute and unprecedented external challenge by dissenters. Shays’s Rebellion, the first major episode of political dissent in post-Revolutionary New England, occurred at precisely the same moment that Congregationalism lost its religious hegemony in rural Massachusetts and a new world of religious pluralism commenced in the New England hinterland.
On june 28, 1786, the Great and General Court of Massachusetts assembled at Boston passed an act “incorporating the easterly part of Pelham and the southwest part of New Salem in the county of Hampshire, and the inhabitants thereon into a separate Parish by the name of the second parish in Pelham.”7 This apparently unexceptional event vested in the new East Pelham organization all the powers of religious taxation and responsibilities for church management permitted under the state constitution. “To promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government,” Article 3 of that document’s Declaration of Rights declared that the legislature shall “authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.”8
Parish incorporation allowed the citizens of the East Pelham district to organize “a body politic” possessing a glebe lot of land for the minister and a second lot for the parish meetinghouse, along with powers of municipal taxation to create revenues for “settlement” of administer in the community. Settlement usually entailed an elaborate contract between the parish and the candidate. In Shaysite country settlement typically included the parish’s provision of a lifetime salary—usually stipulated between £50 and £70 and then increased by increments of £5 for ten years to a permanent maximum. The terms also included a stipend to the candidate, typically two years’ salary payable after the second year of service, besides a parsonage or at least an arrangement for the construction of one on the parish glebe and a meetinghouse for worship or again a legal promise to construct one on the parish lot.
East Pelham’s decision to petition for incorporation, however, was not the immemorial Puritan act it had been before the Revolution, whereby Congregationalists routinely subdivided earlier towns or set up public worship in newly settled communities. The East Pelham petitioners were Presbyterians, dissenters from the Standing Order, non-Congregationalists who were nonetheless permitted under the state constitution to claim the entitlements and responsibilities of parish organization. Their Presbyterian religious identity was a product of their Scots and Scots-Irish ethnic heritage. The original settlers of Pelham were part of a modest but significant stream of Scottish immigrants that flowed into New England between 1710 and 1740.9
The incorporation of Pelham East Parish was the outcome of not only the steady growth of the town but also the more than forty years of unrest in the community’s First Parish. Pelham’s first minister was Robert Abercrombie (1711–1786), a member of the Secession church educated at the University of Edinburgh and ordained in 1744 in the Pelham church by the Presbytery of Londonderry, New Hampshire. Jonathan Edwards preached his ordination sermon. The Great Awakening was at its zenith, and Abercrombie, a strong supporter of the revival and its Evangelical Calvinist theology, attracted the support of a majority of Pelham Presbyterians.10 But as happened in so many towns, the Awakening had divided the Pelham parish into rival parties, and twenty-one church members, including one of the town’s original settlers and the two men who had built the town meetinghouse in 1743, protested Abercrombie’s call.11
Within a few years Abercrombie’s severe New Light ministry sparked open controversy similar to that which engulfed Edwards at Northampton at the same time. Abercrombie, like Edwards, demanded that the church be made up only of the regenerate, and sometime in 1747 he began to refuse communion and baptism to the unregenerate and their children. Outcry in the parish led to a protracted controversy between Abercrombie, the church, and the Presbytery of Boston. The presbytery dismissed Abercrombie in 1755; the minister denied its authority to do so, and a four-year pamphlet war ensued.12 Meanwhile Abercrombie sued the parish to recover his salary and won the case in 1759. Four years later when the town voted to settle his replacement Richard Crouch Graham, the pro-Abercrombie party refused to pay tax support for Graham and in 1764 sued for exemption on the ground that Abercrombie remained the legal minister of Pelham.13
Graham’s pastorate was short, lasting only until 1771. For four years Pelham’s pulpit was vacant, and Abercrombie occasionally supplied it. In 1775 the town called Nathaniel Merrill but proved unable to meet its contract with him. Wartime inflation wrought havoc with Merrill’s salary, which grew from £80 in 1775 to £2,500 by 1780.14 Pelham apparently defaulted in 1780, and the pulpit fell vacant until 1793. It was during this third vacancy, in 1784, that the famous episode of Stephen Burroughs, the impostor, occurred. Burroughs was the son of Eden Burroughs, prominent Presbyterian minister at Hanover, New Hampshire; young Burroughs under the assumed name of Davis succeeded in convincing the Pelhamites that he was a legitimate candidate by presenting to Pelham’s Deacon Daniel Gray a letter of recommendation from the Reverend Moses Baldwin of Palmer, reading some of his father’s old sermons, and doing some effective extempore preaching of his own. News of his true identity reached town, and Burroughs fled. He was pursued to a haymow in Rutland where, “after laying Dr. Nehemiah Hinds senseless with a stone,” he engaged his pursuers in a long parley and was eventually taken. Soon after he escaped Pelham altogether.15
This, then, was the immediate religious context out of which the East Pelham parish emerged, a context fraught with doctrinal controversy, fiscal difficulty, chronic pulpit vacancy, impostors, and even violence. It is not surprising that the settlers of East Pelham thought they could do a better job of “preserving the happiness and good order” of their neighborhood by forming a parish of their own. The East Parish covenant of 1786 enumerated five promises: to take the Scriptures as “the only rule of faith and manners,” to adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith, to observe “the Presbyterian government and discipline of the Church of Christ,” to maintain “the peace and unity of the church,” and to “engage as fellow citizens with the saints and household of God . . . for our mutual good.”16
Eleven men signed the covenant, but the earliest church membership record listed twelve married couples, two men whose wives did not join the church, seven women whose husbands did not join, and three widows—thirty-six adults in all. Students of Shays’s Rebellion will recognize a number of these East Pelham Presbyterians as leaders of the insurrection in Hampshire County, including Dr. Nehemiah Hinds, proprietor of the Horse and Groom Tavern where the Shaysites bivouacked before their retreat to Petersham on February 2, 1787; Deacon Daniel Gray, author of the people’s address at the Hatfield convention of August 22, 1786; and Abigail Shays, wife of the Rebellion’s eponym. Captain Daniel Shays himself is listed in the membership record as one of the “men whose wives have joined the church and they have not.”17
The parish records indicate that Nehemiah Hinds also served as first moderator and William Conkey, Jr.—kinsman of the proprietors of Conkey’s Tavern—acted as first assessor of the new parish. Even as the Rebellion swirled through their community, the parish continued to meet through 1786 and 1787, seeking to raise funds and find a suitable ministerial candidate for settlement. East Pelham made several offers, but the parish found it quite difficult to secure its pulpit. In the first five years of the parish, five different candidates served as supply; the first settled minister, Matthias Cozier, became embroiled in controversy with Hinds, Gray, and the Conkeys almost immediately, and he resigned in 1798 after four stormy years at East Pelham. It would not be until 1833 that an East Pelham minister served longer than Cozier.18 This account summarizes what little is known about the religious world of Daniel Shays in its most narrow definition. Yet even from these fragments a number of perhaps surprising facts can be established. The Shaysites, or at least these Shaysites, were religious people, actively seeking to improve the condition of the church in their community even while in the act of rebellion against civil government. East Pelham was responding to endemic doctrinal conflict and weak ecclesial institutions that produced outright religious disorder in the early 1780s. The East Pelham parish was not Congregational; rather it was made up of ethnic dissenters—Scots-Irish Presbyterians—who were able to take advantage of the religious settlement of 1780, which had largely been designed to maintain the Standing Order. Ironically, the Pelhamites sought religious order under the provisions—including religious taxation—of the very constitutional system whose courts and civil taxes they so vigorously opposed. What all this most clearly indicates is that the religious world of Daniel Shays was not one of good order and sacral stability. Rather it was a religious culture caught in the throes of change at many different levels, intellectual, institutional, and constitutional.
Pelham’s religious troubles might seem exceptional, especially since the town itself was a Scots-Irish immigrant island in an indigenous English cultural stream. But the same level of religious discord prevailed in different forms in other central Massachusetts towns. Petersham, the largest town in the area, deeply divided between local leaders who were Friends of Government and many Shaysite farmers, and the site of the Shaysites’ last major military action, experienced even more traumatic religious conflicts, some of them politically based. In 1738 the town called Aaron Whitney, Harvard class of 1736, to its Congregational pastorate. Whitney ministered to the parish nearly forty years before the Revolutionary crisis. In 1768 revival and itinerancy helped the Separate Baptists form a congregation in Petersham under the leadership of Elder Samuel Dennis. During the early 1770s political as well as religious differences emerged between the two spiritual leaders, with Whitney proclaiming his Toryism while Dennis emerged as a local Patriot leader.
When Whitney denounced Patriot resistance in the spring of 1775, the town almost immediately resolved that it “will not bargain with, hire, nor employ the Rev. Mr. Whitney to preach for them any longer.”19 Further resolutions labeled Whitney “an enemy to his country” and summarily banned him from the pulpit, ordering “that publick worship be not disturbed by any person or persons going into the desk but such persons as shall be put in by the Town’s Committee.” Meanwhile Baptist Samuel Dennis moved to the forefront of the Revolutionary movement in Petersham, writing the town’s replies to the Boston Committee of Correspondence and serving as its representative to the 1777 General Court. Aaron Whitney died in 1777 and three more years passed before the parish was able to settle Solomon Reed in 1780. Reed’s twenty-year ministry, however, was plagued by his recurrent intemperance.
Meanwhile revivals had again begun in Petersham, and in December 1781 Mother Ann Lee and the Shakers first visited the town, bringing their charismatic style of worship, apocalyptic spirituality, and controversial teachings of confession, communalism, and celibacy. The Testimonies of Mother Ann Lee, the classic Shaker account of Mother Ann’s ministry, reported that “the inhabitants generally manifested a desire to see and hear [the Shakers] for themselves.” According to the Shaker account, however, “a company of lewd fellows from the middle of town” broke up a public evening meeting, then later abducted Mother Ann and “dragged her, feet foremost, out of the house, and threw her into a sleigh.” They drove to Samuel Peckham’s tavern “to find out whether she was a woman or not,” but the Shakers secured her release after threatening to report them to the town authorities. After this incident “the most vile and vicious accusations . . . were uttered” against the Shakers. “Witchcraft and delusion was the general cry; even in their solemn assemblies of worship, the preachers would vent their malicious spleen, and mock and mimic the operations of the power of God, which they had seen or heard of among the people.”20
This ministerial opposition apparently was not entirely effective, for the Baptist congregation in Petersham suddenly collapsed. Elder Samuel Dennis died in 1783; the church relocated to Hardwick and reorganized under a new elder, John Sellon. Only eleven men, however, signed the new church covenant.21 Samuel Dennis’s flourishing Separate Baptist congregation had become a small refugee community under the unsettled circumstances of the early 1780s. Many of Petersham’s Separate Baptists likely were attracted by the new gospel of the Shakers, who returned to Petersham in July 1783 from Shirley “accompanied by a considerable number of Believers.”
On the third day of the visit, a crowd “returning from a funeral” gathered around the house where the Shakers were staying, exhibiting “riotous and persecuting spirit and conduct.” Shaker elder James Whittaker confronted the crowd by reading Article 3 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, claiming under it “equal rights and privileges in the exercise and enjoyment of their religious profession and worship.” Mother Ann “spake boldly of their brutal and ungodly behavior, and related what she and the Elders had suffered before in this place, by their wicked hands.” The Shakers moved through the crowd exhorting, reproving, and singing. At length one of the Believers, Aaron Wood, was knocked unconscious, and the mob quickly dispersed. The next evening the crowd returned, “mocking, hooting, and yelling like savages”; at one point a shot was fired in an attempt to disturb the singing and dancing of the Shakers at worship. The mobbings continued for ten more nights until Mother Ann left town for the last time.22
Not enough Shaker converts had been made to organize the movement at Petersham, and soon the continuing revivalism of the New Light Stir revitalized the Hardwick Separate Baptists. The congregation’s subscription list of November 3, 1786, named thirty-six members, a more than threefold increase over the church covenant of 1783.23 Hardwick’s Congregational church, meanwhile, suffered its first vacancy in nearly fifty years. David White, Yale class of 1730 and pastor at Hardwick since 1736, died in 1784, and the parish could not find a successor until 1789. Under White’s pastorate Hardwick had suffered and then survived a Separate schism from 1740 through 1765; two decades later the Separate Baptists organized in the town during the last year of his life and were able to exploit the resulting hiatus in the ministry to grow and prosper.
The religious situation in Petersham bore significant resemblance to Pelham’s. Both of these Quabbin towns were experiencing powerful episodes of religious disorder and change during the mid-1780s. But Petersham also differed from the Pelham Presbyterians in that they had been unable to contain the disruptive forces within the normative parish system. Local traditional institutions in Petersham were themselves divided or ineffective while new sectarian religious alternatives entered the scene and flourished at least for a season.
The problems that beset Pelham and Petersham prevailed widely throughout Shaysite Massachusetts. To better understand the magnitude and complexity of religious change in the region, however, it is necessary to expand these more detailed narratives into broader institutional and intellectual patterns. Any aggregate description of the Shaysites’ religious environment must begin with Congregationalism, the traditional and legally established religion in colonial Massachusetts. Upon first inspection, rural Massachusetts in the 1780s seems to have been, as Szatmary claimed, a “homogeneous” Congregational domain, and hardly a “depressed” one at that. “In 1789,” according to Szatmary, “over 77 percent of all Massachusetts churches and 80 percent of the population adhered to the Congregational faith.”24
Yet to leave the matter at this level of generalization represents a failure to inquire whether Congregationalism in specifically Shaysite areas was more heterogeneous and unstable than elsewhere in the Commonwealth and hence might have contributed to the insurrectionary environment. John Brooke has quite recently taken up this question for the three western counties of Worcester, Hampshire, and Berkshire. His investigation concludes that an exceptionally high rate of “vacancy,” the absence of a settled minister, and “destitution,” the absence of an organized parish, did play a significant role in the Regulation. In Brooke’s formulation, the lack of effective ministerial presence in Shaysite towns crystallized “a deacon’s orthodoxy,” a parochial, laicized religious persuasion dedicated to preserving traditional values and norms against what it perceived as a changing and unreliable public culture. When the policies of state government precipitated economic and political unrest in Shaysite towns, this “deacon’s orthodoxy” served to legitimate the Regulation.25
Brooke’s is a far more substantive interpretation of religion’s role in the events of 1786–87 than Szatmary’s, but if the latter proves too little, the former proves too much. If Szatmary wrongly dismisses religion altogether from the Shaysite movement, Brooke is tempted to find the key to the Regulation in a single religious variable of vacancy and destitution. Congregationalism in Shaysite country was anything but homogeneous and stable, but the causes and consequences of its difficulties were not as simple or as clear-cut as Brooke’s hypothesis implies. Congregationalism in rural Massachusetts suffered from a number of problems, some of them internal to it, some of them brought on by the challenge of religious dissent. Nor was the pattern of malaise the same from county to county, even in western Massachusetts. All this makes generalization about religion in the Regulation more difficult, but it is essential to reconstruct the situation in all its complexity before proceeding to historiographical judgments.
The effectiveness of Congregationalism depended fundamentally upon the geographical parish system and the ordained clergy it supported. In rural Massachusetts ministers comprised a critically important local elite, possessing a rare combination of university education, a parsonage, public land, and a lifetime contract, while they conducted their public ministrations in the meetinghouse, the most costly and elaborate building in town. As “fathers” of their communities—many of them only the first or second settled ministers in the history of their towns—they baptized, catechized, married, and buried not only Shaysites and Friends of Government but also their parents and children as well.
During the 1780s the recruitment of ministers became acutely difficult for rural Massachusetts towns. The Revolution had disrupted the sensitive balance between ministerial supply and demand. Through the war years theological education came to a virtual standstill. New England’s colleges barely functioned, and many pastors gave up their theological tutorials in order better to serve the war effort at home or in the field as chaplains and officers. In 1780 President Ezra Stiles of Yale counted 245 pulpits in New England either vacant or destitute. His finding meant that more than one-third of all New England towns, most of them in rural locations, lacked a settled minister. Even more distressing, Stiles knew of only 80 qualified candidates available to supply them. He listed 80 vacancies in Massachusetts alone; proration of the supply side of his finding shows 30 qualified candidates for these pulpits.26
Vacancy afflicted rural and frontier towns the most severely. In Shaysite country it was particularly acute. Twenty-one of forty-two parishes in Regulator towns, exactly half, experienced more than two years of vacancy between 1776 and 1786 (see Appendix). By contrast, John Brooke reports only a 16 percent vacancy rate in the Militia towns of western Massachusetts. But vacancy in Regulator towns varied significantly from county to county. In the older and more prosperous counties of Middlesex, Bristol, and Hampshire, vacancy in Shaysite parishes ran below 50 percent, while six of ten Shaysite towns in Worcester County and six of nine in Berkshire County had vacant pulpits during the Revolutionary years. This very high rate of vacancy supports Brooke’s “deacon’s orthodoxy” hypothesis; many Shaysite towns did indeed endure the trying times of war without the conservative cultural leadership of a minister. In these locations, vacancy could readily precipitate “a deacon’s orthodoxy” and its concomitant political effects. But there is some confusion about the precise significance of vacancy. If there was a “deacon’s orthodoxy” reaction in Shaysite towns, how long did it take to develop? Is the best measure an extended vacant period, such as the two years reckoned above, or vacancy at the moment of the Rebellion? By the latter standard only sixteen of the same forty-two parishes (38 percent) were without a stated minister.
Vacancy, moreover, was only part of the Shaysite religious context. In many Shaysite parishes, well-established ministers were not able to prevent their charges from resisting the state government. Another sixteen of the same forty-two parishes in 1786 (38 percent) were served by incumbents who had been settled ten years or more. The average term of incumbency for all twenty-seven parishes with a settled minister was 13.2 years. Sheer longevity, of course, was not necessarily a sign of powerful ministerial authority. Ten years of service during a revolution was plenty of time for a minister to make enemies or to fall into ineffective patterns of ministry. Indeed, such was the case in many of these towns. But the first point to be observed is that Brooke’s hypothesis is inadequate on its face because in 1786 just as many Shaysite towns had long-term incumbents, and presumably no “deacon’s orthodoxy,” as had vacancies.
Though vacancy was indisputably important in the religious world of Daniel Shays, Congregationalism was suffering from other deep-seated problems that also significantly impaired its cultural influence. Ironically, the very institutional arrangements that had made Congregationalism such an effective state religion before the Revolution suddenly became severe liabilities after it. Intellectually, long-smoldering theological conflict that had lain relatively quiet during the Revolution broke forth in renewed and acrimonious dispute.
In simplest terms, during the mid-1780s the parish system was too expensive for many rural Massachusetts towns to maintain. The parish system, like the rest of the rural economy, suffered from ruinous inflation. The Congregationalist parish carried many financial obligations for its community, of which ministerial salary was only one, and not necessarily the most costly. Parish costs comprised a major public expense and hence a potential tax grievance in Shaysite country. Town and parish records of rural Massachusetts during the 1780s are strewn with financial controversies regarding ministerial salaries and meetinghouse construction. Parish finances were perhaps the most debated local political or economic issue during the 1780s. In Amherst, for example, when David Parsons II accepted the call of First Church to succeed his father as pastor, he stipulated in his acceptance letter of August 12, 1782, that “the several sums which you offer me in settlement and salary I understand to be in silver money, Spanish milled Dollars at six shillings, or other silver or gold equivalent . . . and I understand it to be your intent that no advantage shall ever be taken of any paper currency Depreciated or of any act of government that may be passed, to avoid the fair, honest, and equitable intent of the contract.”27
Parsons’s hard bargaining certainly could be justified by the prevailing economic conditions, but a significant number of the parishioners found it offensive and the amounts promised exorbitant. Led by Captain Ebenezer Mattoon, this group withdrew from First Church and demanded an ecclesiastical council. The council found that Parsons’s demands were “unequal and unjust” and instructed the seceders “to organize and settle a minister” of their own.
One historian of the Parsons affair observed that “warm contentions and unfriendly dispositions, which were lasting, grew out of this division.”28 The implications of this remark are large when extended to the many Shaysite towns that faced growing mandatory religious expenses with diminishing resources. The colonial assumption that the civil and ecclesial arms of government would combine under the benign oversight of a homogeneous citizenry became at the first post-Revolutionary stroke an alliance between church and state against an economically distressed and politically divided people.
Financial instability was not the only problem facing Congregationalism in Shaysite Massachusetts during the 1770s and 1780s. Political, liturgical, and theological controversies plagued the Standing Order as well. In at least a few Shaysite towns incumbent ministers in 1775 were Loyalists. Four of them, Samuel Dana of Groton, Aaron Whitney of Petersham, Abraham Hill of Shutesbury, and Timothy Fuller of Princeton were dismissed immediately by their irate parishioners.29
Fuller’s case illustrates the volatility and occasional paradox of religiopolitical opinion in Shaysite country. When this successful pastor, settled more than nine years at Princeton, delivered a cautionary sermon to the town’s minutemen and refused to observe the General Court’s fast day after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, he was charged with Toryism and dismissed. After brief pastorates at Chilmark and Middleton, Massachusetts, however, he returned to Princeton as town teacher and “rendered good service” in a number of minor town offices during the mid-1780s. By 1788 “the ill feeling once so bitter against him appears to have given way to respect and warm feelings” to the degree that he was elected the town’s representative to the Massachusetts ratifying convention, where he cast his vote against the Federal Constitution “on the ground of its recognition of slavery.” Despite this ironic outcome, the Princeton parish remained vacant for ten years after Fuller’s dismissal.30 There as in other towns with Tory ministers, the political opposition between pastor and people severely weakened the corporate social bond which Congregationalism traditionally embodied and served. Similar weakening occurred widely in Shaysite areas where the clergy, if not outright Tory, were typically cautious about American independence, a view that reflected the opinion of New England’s educated elite and stood in tension with the growing radicalism of their country parishioners after 1774.
A more long-standing Congregationalist dispute involved ritual norms, specifically the introduction of new techniques and texts for singing in public worship. Controversy first broke out over the quality of Congregational church song during the 1720s, when several Boston-area ministers including Cotton Mather protested against the “usual” way of singing the Psalms. Complaining that in some churches the traditional method of unison singing from The Bay Psalm Book had degenerated into “tunes . . . miserably tortured and twisted and quavered . . . into a horrid medley of confused and disorderly noises,” the Boston reformers recommended “singing by rule” or “regular” singing according to the best available choral techniques. Their program included the elimination of “lining out”—the practice of precentors, who read or intoned each line of the psalm for the community to repeat—and the education of the laity to music literacy and choral techniques.31
During the Great Awakening a second dimension of the Singing Controversy erupted when New Light Congregationalists introduced the Evangelical poetics of Isaac Watts into their churches. Liturgically conservative older church members objected not only to Watts’s theology but also to the audacity of New Lights in introducing “human composures” into divine worship, while the New Lights and their younger and heavily female constituency countered that their religious experience of the Holy Spirit entitled them to make new praise to God just as it had David and the Apostles.32 The controversies over musical and textual innovation combined to produce complex and protracted argument throughout New England, a disagreement which easily spilled over into local membership, theological, gender, and generational disputes. Worcester County was the main battleground of the Singing Controversy in the 1780s, and parishes in at least two Shaysite towns—Princeton and Spencer—experienced major confrontations over the issue.
The most fundamental division within the house of Congregationalism, however, was theological. After the relative calm of the 1770s, the doctrinal controversies of the Great Awakening reappeared in a rapidly escalating debate between the New Divinity of Evangelical Calvinists in rural New England and the Arminianism of Boston-area Liberals. The New Divinity, now remembered, if at all, for extreme doctrinal claims, such as the damnation of infants and the demand that one “be willing to be damned for the glory of God,” was an imposing construction of Evangelical Calvinism, grounded in the teachings of Jonathan Edwards, which was characterized by rigorous propositional logic and demanding moral standards. The New Divinity envisioned a determinate and hierarchic universe presided over by a righteous yet arbitrary God, who held sinners responsible for their sin even though they were incapable of not sinning. And they demanded the abrogation of the Half-Way Covenant whereby the unregenerate could obtain a qualified membership in the church of Christ and baptism for their infant children.33
Samuel Hopkins (1721–1803), the leading writer and educator of the New Divinity party, served twenty-four years at Great Barring-ton in Berkshire County before moving to Newport in 1775. For another thirty years Hopkins produced a constant stream of students and publications culminating in his System of Doctrines (1792), an achievement that lent his name to the most extreme form of the New Divinity. By the time of Shays’s Rebellion, New Divinity ministers had created two major enclaves in rural Massachusetts, one in Berkshire County centered around Stephen West (1735–1819) of Stockbridge and one in western Suffolk County, led by David Sanford (1737–1810) of Medway and Nathaniel Emmons (1745–1840) of Franklin.34
On the other side of the debate, the Arminians countered that God presided benevolently over a sacred cosmos that was created good and intended for human happiness. Following their preeminent leader Charles Chauncy (1708–1787), senior minister of First Church, Boston, they advocated freedom of the will and tended strongly toward universal salvation. Accordingly they sustained the Half-Way Covenant as an appropriately inclusive ecclesiology that brought all citizens into the church to find their own eventual ways to salvation and morality. In Shaysite country Arminian pastors were settled almost exclusively in provincial centers that shared the cosmopolitan culture of the capital, including Robert Breck (1734–1784) and Bezaleel Howard (1784–1809) of Springfield, Aaron Bancroft of Worcester (1786–1839), and Ezra Ripley of Concord (1778–1841).35
Most ministers in rural Massachusetts were not members of either of these extreme parties. The great majority of them were more moderate Calvinists educated at Yale or, more rarely, at Harvard. Yet the extremes of New Divinity Evangelicalism and Arminian Liberalism did accurately define the theological spectrum, and the religious geography of Shaysite Massachusetts did correspond strikingly with political divisions between Regulators and Friends of Government. Arminians held forth in the very shire towns that were under political and military attack by Shaysites from smaller communities ministered to by various sorts of Calvinists, including New Divinity men. Indeed, the intellectual divisions between the two theological parties were at least as extreme, if not more so, than the political discontinuities between Shaysites and Friends of Government. By 1786 New Divinity advocates and Arminians taught what amounted to two different worldviews within the same ecclesiastical communion.
Under these circumstances the very idea of orthodoxy itself began to lose its hold. The Evangelical-Liberal tension had existed since the New Light-Old Light controversies of the Great Awakening, but for a generation the Standing Order had been able to contain the dispute in service of common cultural and political ties to the colonial regime and the Patriot cause. After the Revolution these ties were lost in a struggle for control of the new regime, and most Congregationalists in Shaysite country found themselves confusingly located between the two extremes. In rural Massachusetts towns of the 1780s, theology could not supply the personal assurance and collective security that was its traditional function to provide. The severe everyday problems of maintaining the parish system in fact demanded even more ideological reinforcement than normal. Instead it seemed that even the most basic ideas of God could be divisive.
Thus far we have concentrated on the internal institutional and intellectual problems of Congregationalism. All these difficulties, however, were compounded by the rise of religious dissent in rural Massachusetts. While Congregationalism languished, the dissenters enjoyed their most vigorous growth since the Great Awakening. The key to this expansion was a regional revival, called the New Light Stir by contemporaries, that in Massachusetts both benefited already established dissenting groups including Separate Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers and gave birth to new sects, particularly the Shakers and the Universalists.
Revivals were a constant religious factor in Massachusetts between the Great Awakening and the Revolution. On several occasions, notably during the early 1760s, the pace of revivalism rose to moderate peaks. These episodes helped maintain the momentum of Evangelical New Light parishes in western Massachusetts, but fewer and fewer Congregationalist revivals occurred in the years before and during the Revolution. Revivalism, however, remained a staple element in the religious appeal of the Separate Baptists, the chief rivals of the Congregationalist Standing Order.
Taking their origins from the combination of Calvinistic Particular Baptists from Rhode Island with schismatic New Light radicals—the Separate or Strict Congregationalists—after the Great Awakening, the Separate Baptists equated Christian evangelism with revivalism. Their evangelistic methods in the New Light Stir bore all the hallmarks of the Great Awakening—itinerancy, emotional preaching, charismatic gifts, dramatic conversions.36 And while Congregationalism struggled to consolidate its expensive and divided parish system, Separate Baptists operated virtually without such institutional constraints. They did not require university training for ordination, and they stood absolutely opposed to the “hireling ministry,” as they termed pastors of the Standing Order. They chose to support their elders by strictly voluntary contributions. In practice this meant that most Separate Baptist elders earned their living as farmers or artisans and received church contributions as income supplements. The farmer-preacher also enjoyed the advantage of mobility, able freely to relocate wherever a religious community could be gathered, ready to itinerate wherever a religious quickening seemed imminent.
In the five years before the Revolution, Baptist revivalism and church organization grew quickly, especially in Bristol and Berkshire counties. After the first shocks of the Revolution, Baptist revivals commenced first in Berkshire County, particularly in the northern part. The Separate Baptists founded churches at Cheshire in 1769 and Pittsfield in 1770, from which elders Peter Werden and Valentine Rathbun conducted extensive revivals in 1773 and again from 1779 to 1782. By the end of these revivals two more churches had been organized, and Separate Baptist strength in northwest Massachusetts had grown enough to help form the Shaftesbury, Vermont, Baptist Association in 1781. Another church was gathered in 1779 under Elder Joshua Morse at Sandisfield in southern Berkshire.37
The rest of Massachusetts Separate Baptists fell under the jurisdiction of the Warren, Rhode Island, Baptist Association, a zealous and politically active institution organized in 1767 and led by Elder Isaac Backus of Middleborough, Massachusetts. The revival spread eastward into Hampshire and Worcester counties, where again churches organized before the Revolution served as the base for renewed itinerant evangelism. By the first years of the 1780s, Separate Baptist revivalism was in full swing throughout Shaysite country, most heavily concentrated in Bristol, Middlesex, Worcester, and Hampshire counties. To place this first Baptist stage of the New Light Stir in perspective, the denomination in Massachusetts grew by nearly 60 percent between 1775 and 1782, adding twenty-two churches to the thirty-eight organized before the Revolution. Between 1780 and 1782 alone, Separate Baptists increased by nearly one-third. And each new congregation legally incorporated under the state constitution represented a commensurate loss to the Congregationalist parish tax base.38
The Baptist revival ceased abruptly during the next few years and growth remained weak during the period of Shays’s Rebellion. It was during this brief hiatus that Massachusetts Congregationalists were able to capitalize on the Stir, organizing seven churches in 1785, their largest annual total since the 1760s. But almost immediately after the insurrection Baptist growth returned, bringing another 60 percent increase between 1788 and 1795, most of it concentrated in Hampshire and Berkshire counties. Another measure suggests the magnitude of this growth relative to the Standing Order: it was during the 1780s that Separate Baptists first surpassed Congregationalists in absolute growth, thirty-three churches to twenty-five.39 Translating these aggregate patterns into specifically Shaysite terms, twelve of the forty-two principal Shaysite parishes (28.5 percent) had at least one organized Separate Baptist congregation. By 1790 the number had risen to fifteen—more than one-third of the total (35.7 percent).
The Separate Baptists, however, were themselves divided during the 1780s in ways not unlike the Congregationalists. In the first place, a cultural and political distinction subsisted between the more “cosmopolitan” denominational leadership around Boston and the rural majority. Samuel Stillman, minister of Boston’s First Baptist Church epitomized the tendency of Separate Baptists to absorb some of the metropolitan culture. Arrayed in wig and waistcoat, college-trained and intimate with the intellectual and political elite of Boston, Stillman was the symbol of accommodation. He was the first non-Congregationalist ever to deliver the annual election sermon at Boston—in 1777—and supported both the state constitution of 1780 and the Federal Constitution.40
The other major eastern denominational leader was Isaac Backus, staunch Calvinist and revival preacher, whose Old Colony background kept him within the pale of cosmopolitan culture. His opposition to the state constitution gained him fame and loyalty among the rural western majority, but that same constituency was outraged when he joined Stillman in backing the proposed Federal Constitution without a specific guarantee of religious liberty. The rural Separate Baptist majority was represented by figures as diverse as Noah Alden of Bellingham, outspoken advocate of religious liberty and opponent of Federalism, and Valentine Rathbun of Pittsfield, political colleague of Thomas Allen and effective revivalist. More typical of the rural constituency, however, were local farmer-preachers like Samuel Bigelow of New Salem or Chileab and Ebenezer Smith, father and son who ministered to rival Baptist congregations in Ashfield.41
During the New Light Stir the Warren Association encountered difficulty establishing its discipline over the burgeoning Separate Baptist constituency. In 1786, for example, it listed forty-five member congregations in forty-two towns, but its published Minutes indicated that nineteen of them “did not send a messenger or letter” to the association meeting of 1785.42 In addition, roughly a dozen independent churches existed in the Commonwealth unaffiliated with either the Warren or the Shaftesbury associations, and the former excluded Sutton in 1786 and Ashfield and Grafton in 1788. At the moment of Shays’s Rebellion roughly half of the Baptist congregations in Massachusetts were out of regular or recent contact with the associations. Despite their impressive growth, therefore, the Baptists possessed little capacity effectively to regulate local churches. Their institutional weaknesses, combined with the rampant vacancy and destitution among Congregationalists, permitted an intense parochialism to prevail among rural believers of both persuasions.
Doctrinal and ecclesiological disputes also disturbed the Separate Baptist communion. The Boston circle of clergy sought and found a more philosophical theology of Evangelical Calvinism to do intellectual battle with the Edwardseans. This they found in the thought of the London Particular Baptist John Gill. Gill’s systematic theology was as “hyper-Calvinist” as Samuel Hopkins’s and argued in the same philosophical language, that of the British Enlightenment.43
Gillite views had the same controversial effect on ecclesiology for the Separate Baptists as Edwardseanism did for New Light Congregationalists. The merger of Separates and Baptists had been unstable, and one of their ongoing disagreements was the debate over “open” and “closed” communion. The open communion party, located primarily among former Separates in southeastern New England, conceived of the Separate Baptists as a confederation of different denominations and therefore advocated co-communion with congregations who had not joined their union, specifically the remaining Separate Congregationalist churches. The dominant closed communion group, represented by the Warren Baptist Association, insisted that adult baptism was a distinguishing mark of the true church. They therefore refused to commune with the Separates, who persisted in baptizing infants.44
Yet another issue divided Separate Baptists as it did Congregationalists, namely the support of ministers. Virtually all Baptists, of course, opposed public taxation for ministerial salaries, but they disagreed among themselves on the degree to which financial aid was beneficial to the ministry and mandated upon the congregation. Congregations with more Separate Congregationalist origins—extreme New Light piety, open communion, anti-Gillite, independent—questioned the propriety of paying salaries to their elders, arguing that any form of hire polluted the apostolic purity of the ministry. Adherents of the Warren and Shaftesbury associations took a more professionalized position on the ministry that reflected their desire to develop a clerical elite to rival the Congregationalist pastorate.
The separate baptists were not the only dissenting communion well-represented in Shaysite territory. The Society of Friends organized a Quarterly Meeting in 1783 at Uxbridge which included Monthly Meetings from that town, Leicester, and Northbridge in Massachusetts and Richmond, New Hampshire.45 More directly related to the Shaysite constituency were the Presbyterians, who were present in surprising numbers and at key locations. Eighteenth-century Scots-Irish immigration to New England had created a number of rural cultural enclaves in Massachusetts sufficiently large to sustain a Presbyterian church and settle a minister. The list of Presbyterian communities in Shaysite country is short but impressive, including some of the most important rebel centers—Groton, Colrain, and Pelham.
It appears that Presbyterianism in rural Massachusetts reached a historic peak of vitality during the New Light Stir, but it is difficult to gain a clear picture of these congregations in the 1780s for several reasons. Most of them were somewhere in the process of transition from Presbyterian to Congregationalist polity. At the same time, New England Presbyterianism was itself divided into a number of distinct constituencies. The New Side Presbytery of Boston was aligned with Princeton and Edwardsean New Divinity. The Presbytery of Londonderry, New Hampshire, represented the conservative ethnic constituency of the Merrimack Valley under the leadership of David Annan, minister at Londonderry. The independent Grafton Presbytery, centered at Hanover, New Hampshire, and Dartmouth College, followed the theology and polity of its founder Eleazar Wheelock. All these groups vied with one another for leadership of New England Presbyterianism, and constant ecclesiastical reorganization was the norm of the 1780s. The only regional organization in Shaysite territory proper was a presbytery that briefly convened at Palmer from 1784 to 1786. Yet despite this diversity it is important to remember that Presbyterians shared a common Scottish heritage of revolutionary action in the name of a divinely covenanted people against what they took to be degenerate and profane royal leaders.46
Two other groups also played important roles in the religious culture of Shaysite Massachusetts, the Universalists and the Shakers. Unlike the denominations discussed earlier, these two religious communities were new sectarian movements produced by the New Light Stir. Two distinct varieties of Universalism existed in Massachusetts by 1786, one associated with John Murray in coastal cities, the other led by Caleb Rich in the Connecticut Valley. Murray arrived in America from England in 1770 already preaching the doctrine of universal salvation, combining the charismatic preaching style he learned as a disciple of George Whitefield with the theology of English Universalist James Relly. In 1779 Murray gathered a congregation in Gloucester, and after the war his ministry spread to Boston and Salem.47
The second variety of Universalism, however, was a product of the Shaysite environment. Its founder, Caleb Rich, was raised in the Worcester County town of Sutton, a community that during the 1770s had experienced a Congregationalist dispute over the Half-Way Covenant and a Baptist contest over open and closed communion. After returning from military service in the Revolution, Rich, member of an important extended family of Separate Baptists, experienced a series of charismatic visions that instructed him to preach a distinctive form of Universalism based on the finite nature of sin. Human sin was committed by finite creatures; therefore, he reasoned, it could not be reckoned as an infinite offense to God punishable by eternal damnation. Rather, sin was limited in its extent and would be punished in this finite and probationary life. After death, humans stand before God not as depraved sinners but in their original created state of innocence and will be exalted, not condemned. Rich took his new gospel to Separate Baptists in Worcester and Hampshire counties and gained a number of converts. He formed his own congregations at Warwick, Massachusetts, and Richmond and Jaffrey, New Hampshire. He was soon joined by Separate Baptist elders Adams Streeter of Oxford, Elkanah Ingalls of Grafton, and Ebenezer Lamson of Sutton. By 1786 significant Universalist enclaves existed in southwestern Worcester County and northern Hampshire County, and individual Universalists were scattered across the Shaysite religious landscape.48
The most spectacular sectarian movement of the Shaysite environment was Shakerism, the charismatic, communal, celibate community gathered by Mother Ann Lee (1736–1784). Lee, leader of the “Shaking Quakers” of Manchester, England, emigrated with seven followers to America in 1774 and settled in 1776 at Niskeyuna near Albany. In the spring of 1780, after being imprisoned several times on suspicion of espionage, she undertook a missionary journey to central and southern New England that would consume four years and repeatedly traverse all of Shaysite country. Mother Ann taught that the Second Coming of Christ was a spiritual event, not a physical or historical one, and that it had already begun in the souls of herself and her colleagues who thereby had “travelled” into spiritual perfection. Her commanding presence and extraordinary charismatic gifts—including speaking in tongues, charismatic dance and song, prophecy, and spiritual discernment—drew thousands of converts, especially among the more extreme and apocalyptic Separate Baptists.49
By 1790 the Shakers had organized formal societies in three principal Shaysite towns, Harvard, Shirley, and Tyringham, and another in the Berkshire County town of Hancock. The “lead ministry” and largest society was set up at New Lebanon, New York, just across the Massachusetts line from Pittsfield. Under Father James Whittaker, Mother Ann’s foster son, and Father Joseph Meacham, a Baptist lay exhorter and son of the Baptist elder at Enfield, Connecticut, the Shakers created a highly disciplined and hierarchic yet charismatically bonded community at New Lebanon during the very time that Shays’s Rebellion raged.50
The picture that emerges from this survey of religion in Shaysite country suggests not homogeneity and orthodox stability but precisely their opposite, heterogeneity and unstable dissent. Whether examined in the aggregate or in the context of particular towns, the evidence clearly points to a condition of sudden and complex religious change. Combining all the factors of change we have reviewed—vacancy and destitution, financial distress, doctrinal controversy, and dissenting presence—only four of the forty-two principal Shaysite parishes did not experience a significant episode of crisis and change between 1776 and 1786.
Within this overall pattern of disruption there were some significant variations. At the county level, Worcester County was distinguished for its lack of dissent. Only two of ten Shaysite parishes of Worcester County—Harvard and Templeton—harbored dissenting congregations in 1786, while everywhere else dissent occurred at much higher levels: two of four Shaysite parishes in Middlesex County, two of three in Bristol County, seven of sixteen in Hampshire County, and five of nine in Berkshire County.
At the local parish level, no two cases were precisely the same in their permutations of dissent, vacancy, financial crisis, and doctrinal controversy. Congregationalist fiscal troubles along with Baptist and Shaker agitation at Rehoboth and Ashfield; Presbyterian dissent and a Tory minister at Groton; Baptist dissent along with a meetinghouse controversy and schism in the Presbyterian parish at Colerain; vacancy and an anti-Shaysite, Deist minister at Ware; anti-Shaysite ministers and Baptist dissent at Alford and Egremont—these and virtually every other possible combination of disruptions afflicted the Shaysite parishes of rural Massachusetts in 1786. Only a complete listing of religious conditions in the forty-two principal Shaysite parishes, provided in the Appendix to this chapter, can fully indicate the dimensions of religious change in the insurrectionary environment.
Having established the nature and extent of religious change in Shaysite communities, the remaining question concerns how, if at all, such unrest related to the Regulation. Some connections are obvious. Certainly the increasing public cost of ministerial salaries and meetinghouses added to the tax burdens of rural towns and thereby contributed to the economic causes of the insurrection. The breakdown of clerical authority can also be inferred from the evidence, though perhaps not so clearly as John Brooke’s “deacon’s orthodoxy” hypothesis argues. Beyond question, however, the almost universal weakening of Congregationalist institutions and the simultaneous rise of dissent indicates a lessened ability of ministers to perform their traditional functions as enforcers and legitimators of the social and political order.
The problem of legitimation is fundamental to understanding the religious context of the Regulation, because it was through this symbolic linkage of divine authority with government that Congregational ministers had helped to maintain the remarkable stability of New England public culture since the seventeenth century. In election, thanksgiving, anniversary, and fast day sermons, pastors stood before their communities as religious interpreters of contemporary politics. The intellectual vehicle they employed for this purpose was the same covenant or “Federal” theology that informed their teaching on matters of salvation and church membership. Its master concept was the idea that all individuals and communities related to God and to each other through a series of covenants, contracts that stipulated certain conditions and standards that, if observed, bound both parties to perform certain acts.51
The Federal political theology adopted a complex stance toward the state. On the one hand it promulgated divine standards for government, which was defined according to the Calvinist tradition as custodian of the earthly kingdom of God. Furtherance of the kingdom by good rulers was just cause for praise and was presumed to bring forth God’s blessings; degeneracy in government, however, constituted violation of the divine covenant and would incur God’s wrath and punishment. Federal political theology carried a concomitant covenant for the people. It required obedience to all properly constituted political authority, invoking St. Paul’s doctrine of submission to higher powers in Romans 13. On the other hand, this Calvinist heritage also permitted resistance to the state, but only if it promoted a true tyranny whose evil acts explicitly violated the laws of God and persecuted the church.
During the Revolution, Congregationalist ministers claimed the divine right of revolution against British tyranny and corruption and invoked God’s endorsement of the American cause. “The Black Regiment” of New England ministers also preached jeremiads demanding spiritual and moral purity as the indispensable precondition for political union and military victory. Shays’s Rebellion, however, created a classic problem for Federal political theologians: how should they interpret internal conflict within the camp of the righteous victor? The iron logic of Federal theology could only interpret the rebellion as a symptom of spiritual declension somewhere in the body politic. The Congregationalist elite was faced with an obvious choice: either make that charge against the Regulators or implicate themselves in it.
The Great and General Court itself presented a classic Federal indictment of the Shaysites in its Address to the People of November 14, 1786:
We feel in common with our neighbors the scarcity of money, but is not this scarcity owing to our own folly? . . . [I]mmense sums have been spent for what is of no value, for the gewgaws imported from Europe and the more pernicious produce of the West Indies. . . . It is said that [paper] currency would give us present relief. But like the pleasure of sin, it would be but for a season, and like that too, it would be a reproach to the community and would produce calamities without end. Without a reformation of manners we can have little hope to prosper in our public or private concerns.52
For the first time an independent Massachusetts government faced the reality of substantial and violent political division. In keeping with its ancient tradition in such matters, the General Court identified the disease of sin as the cause of the trouble and prescribed a strong dose of virtue as the cure.
The provincial election sermons of the mid-1780s registered most clearly the impact of Shays’s Rebellion on Federal political theology. The prospect and eventual achievement of Revolutionary victory had suffused election sermons of the early 1780s with optimism and exaltation, whether delivered by Arminians Simeon Howard of Boston’s West Church (1780), Henry Cumings of Billerica (1783), and William Symmes of Andover (1785) or by Calvinists like Moses Hemmenway of York, Maine (1784). All these ministers could rest confident in the capacity of “rational beings” to overcome all political differences through the exercise of common reason and common piety.53
In the aftermath of the insurrection, however, the General Court pointedly chose Joseph Lyman of Hatfield to preach the 1787 election sermon. A conservative pastor since 1772 at one of the chief Shaysite assembly points, Lyman was thoroughly qualified to speak to the civil unrest that had afflicted the Commonwealth during the past year. He did not mince words. He drew his text from the classic Pauline reference, selecting Romans 13:4 for closer exegesis: “For [the ruler] is a minister of God unto thee for good.”
Grounding his teaching in the maxim “Order is Heaven’s first law,” Lyman outlined the Pauline argument for obedience to civil authority and offered a spirited apology for outgoing governor James Bowdoin’s military suppression of the insurrection. Lyman retailed the public virtues requisite in good rulers and pointedly instructed the General Court: “Do rulers wish to be public blessings? Then let them keep good the public faith, sustain the credit of the state, and pay punctually the public contracts.”54 Lyman exhorted the magistracy “to protect good citizens and punish the wicked” on pain of suffering divine wrath. But Lyman reserved his most severe strictures for “wicked and disobedient subjects” like the Shaysites: “They who despise government are presumptuous, self-willed, and are not afraid to speak evil of dignities, and speak evil things which they know not, have little sense of their duty to magistrates, are disturbers of the public peace, and shall utterly perish in their own corruption.”55
Lyman ably presented the Standing Order’s Federal argument against the Shaysites. Their ignorance and overweening self-confidence have literally removed their ability to understand and perform their covenant duty of obedience to the magistrate. These moral disorders could have only one cause, Satan, and only one remedy, true repentance: “Men who resist lawful authority and are engaged in tumults and confusion, may be fit for the realms of anarchy, darkness, and despotism, but without repentance they shall never behold the seats of the blessed, where every man is content in his station.”56 Lyman’s characterization of heaven as a place where “every man is content in his station,” and his application of it as the norm for political society perfectly illustrated the election sermon’s legitimating support of the Boston government.
Lyman’s election sermon was a distant thundering from the capital urging the citizenry to return to spiritual and political union under the terms of the old Federal theology. His pronouncement clearly represented the conservative consensus of Congregationalist ministers. While there were a number of outspoken clerical opponents of the Regulation even in Shaysite towns—including Benjamin Judd of Ware, Joseph Avery of Alford, and Eliphalet Steele of Egremont—there is no evidence of any settled ministers who urged or supported insurrection.
The effective monopoly of the Standing Order’s clergy over the Federal political theology made it difficult for the Regulators to appropriate that tradition in their cause. Although Shaysite addresses and petitions did contain strong notes of moral outrage and condemnation of government injustice, they did not invoke the revolutionary codicil of the divine covenant against the government at Boston. If the Shaysites were indeed motivated at least in part by “a deacon’s orthodoxy,” that theological persuasion was not overtly expressed in their petitions and addresses. Deacon Daniel Gray of Pelham, for example, presented a moral indictment of debt collection, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the “revenge, hatred, and envy” of local justices and sheriffs, but neither he nor the other Regulator spokesmen elevated their complaints into a formal political countertheology.
There is circumstantial evidence, however, that religious categories did operate in Shaysite agitation. One of the key figures in the Regulation was Samuel Ely, Yale class of 1765, the “industrious fomentor” and “inveterate demagogue” of Shaysite unrest and the leader of the Regulators’ April 1782 attack on the court at Northampton. Arrested and imprisoned at Springfield, he was released by mob action and fled to Vermont. There he was later convicted of “denying the authority of the state” and remanded to Massachusetts, where he finally served his prison term for insurrectionary activity.
Before his Shaysite career, however, Ely was a minister in Somers, Connecticut, a border town long claimed by Hampshire County. In 1767 the town voted to settle Ely by a narrow 58–42 vote, but soon after his opponents, citing “suspicions as to his character,” gained a majority to rescind the offer. Ely’s allies withdrew, formed a Separate church, and “set him aside” by lay ordination on June 13, 1770. Two of his sermons, preached on March 18, 1770, were published at Hartford in 1771. Even twelve years before his emergence as a Regulator leader, the sermons reveal the sort of religiopolitical sensibility that he successfully used later to provoke rebellion.57
“You may think it strange that I should appear in print,” the thirty-year-old Ely wrote in his preface, “being young, and so much dispised by the great, and by the fashionable world. But since there have been sundry reports spread abroad . . . about me much to the prejudice of truth, I have got so reproach harden’d, that I have nothing to fear from any quarter, nor to hope for applause, which I hope I crave not, overmuch.” By 1770 Ely was already alienated and “reproach harden’d” by his experience at Somers, and his sermons reflected an ability to manipulate religious rhetoric for his own advantage.
Somewhat disingenuously, Ely preached to the Somers Separates on the patience of Job. In the first sermon Ely taught the doctrine of submission to divine authority. Humans owe “a free and full obedience to all [God’s] commands,” he wrote, “and an entire, universal resignation to the orders of his providence.” In words that prefigured the decades of war and insurrection to come, Ely proclaimed that “in whatsoever instance God’s will is declared, either in misfortunes, in estate, pains in the body, or convictions in the mind; we must, with humility and meekness submit, as he has an equal empire in disposing of all things, whether mercies or afflictions which are equally his own.”58
In the second sermon, however, Ely drew upon Job’s example to justify an appeal to God against the injustices of men. Though ostensibly presenting a message of humility and peaceable obedience to circumstance, the last paragraph of Ely’s sermon bespoke the spirit of righteous resistance of the innocent against oppressive authority: “We may infer the great necessity of all saints maintaining their own innocency, and the rights of conscience, in opposition to all the hard speeches, cruel charges and forgerous accusations, that may be brought from every quarter. Indeed, a concienciousness of innocency, should cause God’s saints to withstand earth and hell, yea, they must not suffer the sincerity of their hearts to be baffled by the most bold accusations, nor must they give up the truth at the burning stake, but with Job they must protest and asseverate their integrity, whether they are credited or not, and even engage to vindicate and justify themselves.”59
Ely’s subsequent career demonstrated that he indeed did not possess the patience of Job, but from his earliest experiences in the pulpit he was manifestly equipped to use Scripture and religious rhetoric to justify his endemic hostility to traditional authority. Ely left Somers in 1773 for Vermont; he was arrested and eventually acquitted of looting after the Battle of Bennington, and a few years later he commenced his Regulator career. Literary evidence does not exist to confirm the sort of exhortations that Ely delivered to his Regulator comrades, but it seems safe to assume that his denunciation of state government was replete with biblical rhetoric and prophetic jeremiad, if not with a fully realized theology of revolution.
The only other publications ascribed to Ely certainly embodied this style. Ely eventually located in Lincolnville, Maine, and until 1797 he championed the cause of poor squatters there being driven off their farms by wealthy nonresident proprietors. Writing anonymously in 1797, for example, Ely compared the proprietors of the Waldo Patent, and specifically Henry Knox, to King Ahab, while he identified the squatters with the virtuous Naboth, whose vineyard Ahab usurped and for which usurpation Ahab was cursed by the prophet Elijah. Building upon this biblical reference, Ely urged the squatters to rise up against the government that protected the proprietors in words surely reminiscent of his Shaysite agitation:
Shall we call this a land of liberty? Did we fight for such liberty? How may the Tories laugh at us and call us fools for our pains. While other parts of the union enjoy the great blessings of liberty and a very happy constitution, we are tied up and bowed down under oppression, our just rights are threatened to be taken from us, and we have no liberty to help ourselves; we are loth to fight for liberty again, we do not delight in war; but if it must be we will try it once more; we had as good die by the sword as by oppression; I say, if we must be destroyed we will stand as long as we can, and who can blame us if we are driven off of our possessions?60
The Regulation brought forth a powerful reassertion of Federal political theology from Congregational ministers and the General Court and an ill-defined religious and moral protest from the Shaysite leaders. But political theology in 1786–87 was no longer limited to Congregationalism. Other religious voices—Baptist, Shaker, and New Light—also spoke to the reality of civil insurrection in Massachusetts. Scholars have concentrated on Isaac Backus’s 1787 pamphlet, An Address to the Inhabitants of New England concerning the Present Bloody Controversy Therein, as representative of Separate Baptist opinion on the Regulation. Szatmary called this short work “a vitriolic denunciation of the Regulators,” but McLoughlin described a more balanced position for Backus’s political theology. Surprisingly, neither have noted several fundamental differences between Backus and his Congregationalist clerical brethren.61
The starting point for Backus seems to have been his critical response to American consumer behavior after the Peace of Paris. In his diary for December 28, 1783, Backus made this apprehensive assessment of the months after peace was declared on September 3d: “The great men of earth crowded in their fine wares upon us, which all ranks of people in America were fond of buying, to our unspeakable damage, in the sinking of public credit, and the most extravagant gratification of pride, intemperance, fraud, and cruel oppression. Rev. 18.2.”62 Backus’s moral condemnation of conspicuous consumption preceded the General Court’s by nearly three years, but there were significant differences in their analyses. The Court in 1786 would lay complete blame on a degenerate public for their succumbing to “the gewgaws of Europe” and rum from the Indies. Backus in contrast condemned mercantile interests for the phenomenon of overconsumption.
A closer look at the Address suggests that it is the product of a very different theological world than that of the Congregationalist Federal political theology. Backus certainly cited with approval the General Court’s condemnation of the overconsuming public’s “folly” and responsibility for the crisis. But he also admitted the great disappointment of some citizens who after the insurrection declared “their sorrow that we ever revolted from Great Britain.” Anxious to prevent any such counterrevolutionary association with Separate Baptists, Backus hastened to condemn British paper currency, labeling it the vehicle whereby “the Court of England have been enabled to carry blood and slavery round the world and load the nation with debt.”63 Backus’s opposition to paper currency and its Shaysite advocates derived not from his support of Boston’s mercantile interests but from his conviction that it was the best way to fall into Britain’s continuing moral corruption.
Like Lyman, Backus argued for the Calvinist doctrine of submission, urging citizens to acknowledge that “God’s immutable plan of government determines the choice of the worst men without the least excuse for their wickedness.”64 There were, however, deeper and more fundamental differences between Backus and the Federal political theology. The clue to these lies in Backus’s repeated citations of Revelation 18:2: “For thy merchants were the great men of earth, for by their sorceries were all nations deceived.” From 1782 through 1787 Backus continued to use this passage as his master text for understanding the Commonwealth’s woes. This biblical focus yielded not a Federal theological analysis of the Regulation but an apocalyptic one. The mundane problems of economic crisis and civil insurrection paled before their status as signs of the approaching end of the world.
For Backus, human history had one purpose only, the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy and the divine will therein revealed. The fact that great merchants had deceived the virtuous infant commonwealth was, for him, de facto proof that the Revolution had itself been an eschatological event, an earnest of Christ’s imminent return. Now the corruption prophesied in the Book of Revelation was also coming to pass. Obedience to rulers remained a mandate for Christians, but now they should understand the corruption and violence of the revolutionary state as an instrument of God’s purpose soon to bring in the Kingdom.
Another major sign of the End was the appearance of false prophets; and in concluding the Address, Backus blamed the corruption of citizens and magistrates alike on the false prophecy of Arminian Liberals. “The way wherein teachers have kept up these evils so long in the world has been by insisting upon it that self-determination in the will of man is essential to moral agency. This doctrine . . . is now carried further in London and Boston than it is in Rome.”65 Why have the citizens run amok in an orgy of consumption? Why have rulers abandoned their duty to moderation and justice? Because they have been taught by Arminians to trust their own reason and will rather than God’s. Backus urged upon his Separate Baptist brothers and sisters a different kind of freedom, willful submission to God, “the only perfect law of liberty.”
The Address located Backus, and the Separate Baptists he represented, somewhere between the two extremes of Federal political theology and Shaysite extremism. But there were other varieties of sectarian apocalyptic political theology, best represented by the Shakers, who believed they were already living in the millennial kingdom. The Shaker leadership denounced Shays’s Rebellion on grounds of Christian pacificism. Perhaps more surprisingly, their tradition does indicate that some Massachusetts Believers “manifested some party spirit concerning that event.” Father James Whittaker, the sect’s leader in 1786, left no room for doubt where he stood on the matter: “Those who give way to a party spirit, and are influenced by the divisions and contentions of the world, so as to feel for one political party more than another, have no part with me. . . . The spirit of party is the spirit of the world, and whoever indulges it, and unites with one evil spirit against another, is off from Christian ground.”66 This is the only published reference to the Regulation in Shaker literature, but it is sufficient to show that the Shakers’ apolitical apocalypticism attracted and held at least some proportion of the citizenry in Shaysite Massachusetts.
The most intriguing voice, however, may have belonged to those rural religious folk who stood with neither government nor the Shaysites; with neither Backus nor the Shakers. These people, overwhelmingly New Light in sympathy whether Congregationalist or Separate Baptist, liable to conversion by Shakers or Universalists, found a spokesman in Christopher Babbitt of Lanesborough, who published a broadside in 1787 addressed to John Hancock. Babbitt described how he went to visit General Lincoln at Pittsfield and asked him about “the reason of his hope” for salvation, but Lincoln “answered not a word.” Turning to the Massachusetts governor, Babbitt asked point-blank: “How is it with you, Governor Hancock? Was you never born again?” Tracing the source of Shaysite unrest to the Revolution, Babbitt voiced the anti-Revolutionary sentiment that Backus had tried to shield the Separate Baptists against: “They say you and Mr. Adams, who first began the great difficulty, neglect[ed] the Scripture for your rule, so the Devil deceived you, and you the people.” Waxing prophetic, Babbitt delivered his summary judgment on the “rich men” governing at Boston:
Being faithful to my Heavenly Father, I declare it unto you rulers, ruling with tyrannical powers, oppressing the oppressed, refusing to hear their cries, slain a number of men, neglecting to take scripture for your rule. . . . Did you ever know God’s penetrating eye, that looks through the secrets of the children of men? Robbing men of their arms by violence, to maintain your bloody laws, condemning and hanging men, advising the same things yourselves, yet think to be excused. . . . I must declare unto you, what is proclaimed in the dark, shall be proclaimed upon the housetop. You will call to the rocks and the mountains to fall on you, to hide you from the wrath of the Lamb.67
Here is the sentiment of one who could not in conscience embrace either party. “As for Shays, I condemn them for taking up the gun. Was any of you born again? ‘except you be born again, you cannot see God in peace.’” Whatever Babbitt’s religious affiliation, he was committed, like the Shakers, to Christian pacifism. Yet he could not like them be called apolitical. Furiously engaged in the political issues at hand, Babbitt delivered a radical New Light jeremiad against the rulers, the diametrical opposite of Lyman’s establishmentarian jeremiad against the people: “My heart’s desire in praying to God for the rulers is, that they may be saved, and if you would your sins must be set in order before you, you must exercise repentance before God, and make restitution to your fellow creatures.” Christopher Babbitt represented yet another political theology, one embraced by dissenters more extreme than Isaac Backus and more political than the Shakers. To them Backus’s apocalyptic perspective on the Regulation made sense, but they hoped for a simpler and more hopeful resolution of the crisis—may God save the rulers as God has already saved the people.
Just as the Congregationalist religious establishment was experiencing rapid changes under the pressure of vacancy, financial crisis, theological dispute, and dissent, so the correlative Federal political theology had lost its immemorial consensus in New England by 1786. No longer could ministers of the Standing Order speak with unquestioned authority on God’s will for the people and their governors. From within Congregationalism itself, the Shaysites struggled unsuccessfully to articulate a theology of government corruption and godly justice to legitimate their cause. In response to the Regulation, Baptists, Shakers, and other dissenters developed their own political theologies that challenged the assumptions upon which settled ministers and the Friends of Government relied. Like the rebellion itself, these theological and ecclesiastical challenges failed to transform Massachusetts society in 1786–87; but in the process, the religious world of Daniel Shays had encountered a new reality of pluralism and dissent from which there was no turning back.