Samuel West, Eccentric Revolutionary

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is taken from a sermon preached on May 29, 1776, by Samuel West, who was the minister of this church from 1761 to 1803. The sermon from which this reading is taken gives a moral and religious justification for the North American colonies to rebel against Great Britain. It was preached by Samuel West to the House of Representatives and Council of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. West said:

“Thus we see that both reason and revelation perfectly agree in pointing out the nature, end, and design of government, viz., that it is to promote the welfare and happiness of the community; and that subjects have a right to do everything that is good, praiseworthy, and consistent with the good of the community, and are only to be restrained when they do evil and are injurious either to individuals or the whole community; and that they ought to submit to every law that is beneficial to the community for conscience’ sake, although it may in some measure interfere with their private interest; for every good man will be ready to forego his private interest for the sake of being beneficial to the public. Reason and revelation, we see, do both teach us that our obedience to rulers is not unlimited, but that resistance is not only allowable, but an indispensable duty in the case of intolerable tyranny and oppression. From both reason and revelation we learn that, as the public safety is the supreme law of the state, — being the true standard and measure by which we are to judge whether any law or body of laws are just or not, — so legislators have aright to make, and require subjection to, any set of laws that have a tendency to promote the good of the community.”

[The complete sermon is online here.]

The second reading comes from a short biography of Dr. Samuel West, written by John Morison, who was co-minister of our church from 1838-1844. This short biography was later edited by Samuel Atkins Eliot in 1910 when he was president of the American Unitarian Association; Eliot, as it happened, was the grandson of Ephraim Peabody, who was co-minister of our church from 1838-1844; and Samuel Eliot preached from this very pulpit more than once. In any case, here is how John Morison described Samuel West’s theology:

“Dr. West’s sympathies with humanity were too quick to make him a good Calvinist. His sermons were largely of the old Biblical and textual type, but theologically they were Unitarian in thought and temper. He asserted free will for man in opposition to the Calvinistic doctrine of preordination and election, and he believed in man’s ability of moral choice in opposition to the doctrine of total depravity. In his election sermon of 1776 he said, ‘A revelation pretending to be from God that contradicts any part of natural laws ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture, for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself.’ In his Forefathers’ Day sermon [of 1777] he said: ‘Love and unity are the essential marks of a true Christian. Were we possessed of true Christian candor, by a fair and impartial comparison we should find that many differences in explaining matters of faith are only mere verbal differences, and entirely vanish when we come to define our terms.’ It was natural that under such a minister, broad and tolerant in spirit, robust in thought, fervid in patriotism, incisive in logic, inclusive in fellowship, that [West’s church] should pass without break or discussion into the liberal ranks.”

[Samuel Atkins Eliot, ed., Heralds of a Liberal Faith: Vol. 1, The Prophets (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1914).]


This is the three hundredth anniversary of the establishment of our church, and with that in mind, this fall I am going to continue a series of sermons begun last fall in which I talk about exceptional people from our church’s past. I suppose you could call this the “Three Hundredth Anniversary Sermon Series.” But in my own mind, I have come to call this series “Inspired and Inspiring Lives.” We Unitarian Universalists don’t have saints, but we do have people to whom we look when we need inspiration as we live out our own lives. We don’t have saints, but yet we do seek out moral exemplars, individuals who lived worthy lives, and whom we might emulate to good purpose. And it is good for us to talk about people from whom we can draw inspiration — being fully aware of their flaws and quirks of personality, but also being fully aware of what makes them good or even great human beings, and how we might emulate their goodness or greatness.

Last fall, I gave you sermons on three inspiring and inspired lives: — I spoke about Maja Capek, minister of North Unitarian Church, who escaped Czechoslovakia ahead of the Nazis, and wholed a church of immigrants here in New Bedford ; and I spoke about John Murray Spear, the first Universalist minister in New Bedford, who fought for abolition of slavery and who built a racially integrated church here in this city in the 1830s and 1840s. And beginning this morning, I’m returning to this topic.

This morning I would like to talk with you about a person from our past whom I have come to greatly admire: Rev. Dr. Samuel West, minister of this church from 1761 to 1803. In the readings this morning, I have tried to give you a sense of how Rev. Dr. Samuel West contributed to the American Revolution. In the first reading, we heard an excerpt from West’s Election Sermon of May 29, 1776, and how West helped the political leaders of his time to understand how to steer a carefully plotted course between submission to the tyrannies of the British government on the one hand, and anarchy on the other hand. In 1776, there were many great thinkers here in the British colonies who were trying to prove that, on the one hand, they must rebel against Britain, but that, on the other hand, rebelling against Britain did not mean doing away with all government altogether. And we all know that West was not the greatest of these thinkers, — he was not as great as Thomas Jefferson, or Thomas Paine, or John Adams. Yet his Election Day Sermon of 1776, which was widely distributed here in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is noteworthy for its clarity; it is still readable today, and abridged versions of it are still widely available on the Internet.

Indeed, I think you could argue that West could have made a much bigger contribution to the American Revolution, except for the fact that he lived down here on the south coast of Massachusetts. Remember that in those days, this region was dominated by the Quakers, who were pacifists, and who therefore were unlikely to declare themselves as passionate revolutionaries. If Samuel West had gotten a church in Boston, it seems likely to me that he would have been right in the thick of the planning of the American Revolution; but in those days, New Bedford was a long way from Boston, a long ride on horseback over rough roads.

Selfishly, I am glad that West remained here in New Bedford. It is West more than any other minister, more than any other single person, who put his mark on this church; it is West who led this church away from its Calvinist beginnings into liberal religion; and there we have stayed ever since. That West served here has been the best possible thing for our church (in my selfish view); but I feel that West paid the price for our good fortune, for he was unable to participate in the Revolutionary cause as fully as he might have otherwise done.

West paid another price for living down here in old Dartmouth, and later in the brand new city of New Bedford. West was a gifted scholar and, by all accounts, a brilliant man. John Morison, in his short biography of West, tells us that: “Among his own society [West] found little intellectual sympathy. [The people of his church] were a plain, industrious, uneducated people.” On top of that, West was very poorly paid. When he arrived at this church in 1761, he was promised a salary of sixty-six pounds, thirteen shillings, and sixpence per year; in terms of today’s dollars, that would be roughly $20,000, a low salary for someone who had a degree from Harvard College. It is true that West also received additional compensation in the form of two cows and a horse that were to be maintained by the congregation for his use. But what it also true is that West never received the whole of his salary:– by 1788, 27 years after he started, the congregation owed him a total of 769 pounds, twelve shillings, and eleven pence; this was nearly two hundred thousand dollars in today’s money. Or put it this way: over a 27 year period, the congregation paid him less than half of what wasn’t a very good salary to begin with. Nor was there much that the congregation could do about the situation: this whole region was sparsely populated and predominantly Quaker, so there just weren’t that many people from whom to get the money to pay Dr. West.

Thus we can see that circumstances were against Samuel West being able to play any role in the great events of the American Revolution: — he was both poor, and he lived in a provincial backwater of Massachusetts. Yet West rose above these circumstances, and was an active participant in the Revolutionary cause.

The most prominent of West’s revolutionary activities have been recorded for history. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, West joined the American army as a chaplain. While in the army, he assisted General George Washington by deciphering a treasonous letter written in code by an American officer to a British officer. He was at the Provincial Convention in Watertown, after that revolutionary body had to evacuate Boston, and her preached a sermon for them which was later reprinted. He preached the Election Day sermon in May, 1776, before the House of Representatives. In December, 1777, he delivered a patriotic message for the anniversary sermon at Plymouth, to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrims.

In the winter and spring of 1779-1780, West was a member of the General Court which met together to prepare a constitution for what became known as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; this document was finally ratified in June of 1780, and remains the oldest written constitution in effect today. In the winter of 1787-1788, West was part of the convention by means of which Massachusetts approved the United States constitution. There was real doubt as to whether Massachusetts would adopt the United States constitution, and it was Samuel West who played a key behind-the-scenes role. According to historian Francis Baylies, in a letter he wrote to John Clifford of New Bedford, this is what happened:

“The fate of the Constitution in the convention was doubtful, when Governor Hancock, without whose aid it certainly could not be adopted, was seized with his constitutional disorder, the gout, and, withdrawing from the chair, took to his bed. The friends of the Constitution were convinced of the necessity of getting him out. Dr. West (who was Hancock’s classmate at Harvard) was selected as the person most likely to influence him. He repaired to his house, and after a long condolence on the subject of his bodily complaints he expressed his deep regrets that this affliction should have come upon him at a moment when his presence in the Convention seemed almost indispensable. He enlarged upon his vast influence, his many acts of patriotism, his coming forth in former days, at critical periods, to give new energy to the slumbering patriotism of his countrymen, and on the prodigious effect of his name. Heaven, he said, had given him another glorious opportunity, by saving his country, to win imperishable honor to himself. The whole people would follow his footsteps with blessings. The governor, who knew that Dr. West had always been his sincere and disinterested friend, listened to his suggestions, and made up his mind to appear again in the Convention. Wrapped in his flannels, he took the chair, addressed the Convention, proposed the conciliatory plan suggested by his friend, and the result is known. There is little doubt that Hancock turned the scale in this State in favor of the Constitution, and in my mind there is little doubt that Dr. West induced him to do it.”

So you see, while Samuel West may have had to play a minor role in the American Revolution and the formation of the new United States of America, it was nevertheless a crucial role.

Now this is all very interesting, but I am more interested in learning about West as a human being. What comes down to us about Dr. West, above all other aspects of his personality, is that he was somewhat eccentric. The historian Francis Baylies has recorded how absent-minded Dr. West was, saying:

“During the session of the Convention Dr. West spent many of his evenings abroad. He generally returned with his pockets filled with fine handkerchiefs, silk stockings, silk gloves, small pieces of cambric, and many other articles which could, without attracting attention, be slipped into his pocket. His distress, on discovering them, was ludicrous; for, aware of his absence of mind, he supposed that he might have taken these articles unconsciously and without the consent of the owners, but his fellow-boarders generally contrived to convince him that they were designed as presents, — which was the truth.”

Many other examples of Dr. West’s absent-mindedness have been recorded. He was known to arrive at the church on horseback, and stop at the horse-block so that his wife could get down from the pillion behind him, only to find that his wife wasn’t there; he had forgotten to wait for her, and had left her at home.

On another occasion, Dr. West’s horse came running up to the house of another minister, one Dr. Sanger, in another town; the horse had on a saddle, but Dr. West was not on the horse. So Dr. Sanger and some boys living in his house went back to look for Dr. West, figuring that the horse must have thrown him. They found him sitting in the middle of the road, in deep thought, and asked him, “Is it you, Dr. West? How come you’re sitting in the middle of the road?” To which he is said to have replied, “Yes, I suppose it is I, and I suppose the beast has thrown me.” This particular anecdote was recorded by one Charles Lowell, who was one of the boys living with Dr. Sanger at the time.

People who met him remembered Dr. West’s “eccentricity and roughness,” and his “oddity of manners.” It is easy to remember such personal quirks, but I want to know more about who Dr. West was as a human being. And the historical record does give us a more rounded view of who he was as a human being. The following anecdote was recorded by John Morison:

“[Dr. West’s] metaphysical investigations must have colored all his thoughts. He usually preached without notes, and was always prepared. Once, when in Boston, during the latter part of his life, he was invited by Dr. Clarke, of the First Church, to preach for him. About an hour before the services were to commence, Father West requested his friend to give him a text. At this Dr. Clarke was alarmed, and asked if it were possible that he was going to preach without notes, and with no other preparation. ‘Come, come,’ said Father West, ‘it is my way, give me a text.’ Dr. Clarke selected Romans ix. 22: ‘What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.’ Dr. West looked over the Bible a few minutes, turning down leaves here and there, and then went into the church, where he preached a cogent, logical discourse, an hour and twenty minutes long, on that perplexing subject. The strong men of the congregation were intensely interested, and Dr. Clarke, on coming from the pulpit, exclaimed, ‘Why, Father West, it would have taken me three months to prepare such a discourse.’ ‘Ha, ha,’ was the reply, ‘and I have been studying it twenty years.’  ”

And here is another, very brief, anecdote recorded by John Morison. Dr. West “would sometimes follow the young men who were studying theology with him to their bedchamber, and remain discoursing to them nearly the whole night.”

These last two anecdotes imply that Dr. West must have been a man of uncommon intellect and ability. Perhaps he wished that he lived in a city where he would have had more intellectual stimulation; surely he must have wished that his church had paid him regularly and in full. Rather than bemoan the lack of intellectual stimulation, Dr. West had a rich life of the mind — rich enough that others thought he was absent-minded. And he found ways to remain in conversation with other intellects: — he traveled regularly to Boston, then the intellectual capital of New England if not of the United States, he trained theological students, presumably in his home.

We can piece together more of Dr. West’s personality from the historical record. We know he married and raised a family, and when his first wife died, he married again. We know that he was a trusting man — he was perhaps too trusting of others, being sometimes unable to know when he was being deceived. We have already learned that he gave much time and energy to public service, at the state and indeed at the national level. And it is also clear that he helped his little church grow and thrive, for in 1795 he moved the church from its old location up in what is now Acushnet down to the corner of Purchase and William Streets in the new and bustling city of New Bedford, so that it could grow and thrive even more — he may not have gotten his full salary, but he was able to convince the church to pay for a new building!

There is one last little tidbit that I find very interesting: the people of this church called Dr. West “Father West.” I am sure they meant this as a compliment, and as a testament to his character. I imagine the people of this church saw Dr. West as a kind of friendly father-figure: — a good man, an intelligent man, a leader who put his church’s welfare above his own.

It seems to me that, of all the ministers who have served this church, Dr. Samuel West stands out as the most impressive human being of any of them. Perhaps some of our other ministers surpassed his intellectual capacities, but Dr. West’s intellect was only a small part of who he was. Perhaps he was eccentric and absent-minded; but that appears to have come part-and-parcel with his great intellect, and his general lack of intellectual companionship close to home, and his eccentricities never descended into bizarreness. Perhaps he had odd and even rough manners; but he more than made up for that by his essential goodness and his deep and abiding faith in human nature. Perhaps he never had much money throughout his life here; but he proved that one does not need to be wealthy to be a useful member of society.

Dr. West combined a great intellect, an essential goodness and decency, and the energy and ability to serve the world around him in spite of adverse circumstances. He had a vision of how this might be a better world, and he worked towards that vision in spite of the obstacles in his way.

Dr. Samuel West was one person whom we might consider emulating. Not that we should emulate his eccentricity; not that we should try to emulate his poverty. Nor should we try to slavishly emulate every detail of his life. We should consider emulating the core of his life: — He lived in times that called for energetic service to a greater cause, and he served; this we can emulate. He pushed himself to use his intellect beyond what those around him could appreciate; this we can emulate. he lived a good and decent life; this we can emulate. He offered leadership to his church, based on thoughtful consideration of what would best serve the greater good of humanity. He was also able to be agood follower — he was not one of the primary leaders in the American Revolution, but he trhrew his best energies behind the efforts of those leaders — and so we can say that he offered good “followership” as well as good leadership.

It is in his religious views that we can especially emulate Dr. West. He transcended the narrow Calvinism in which he was brought up; he knew that human beings can and often will make sound moral choices, and so he refused to believe the utter depravity of humanity which many around him preached. And his religious convictions informed his political convictions : he knew that, on the whole, people do make good moral choices, and that, on the whole, individual people will transcend their narrow private interests for the greater good of human society; at the same time, he knew that our highest allegiance must be to our consciences, and from thence to that which is highest and best in humanity, which he called God.

We Unitarian Universalists don’t have saints, but we do have moral exemplars, people to whom we look when we need inspiration as we live out our own lives. Dr. West is one of the great, if not the greatest, moral exemplars in our church’s long history; may we draw inspiration from his life.