Yesterday I posted one of Rev. Dr. Samuel West’s sermons on this blog. Since long 18th C. colonial sermons aren’t to everyone’s taste, today I figured I’d post a shorter and more entertaining biographical sketch of West. Brilliant but eccentric, West was a classic example of an absent-minded country parson. Enjoy….
This biographical sketch comes from Heralds of a Liberal Faith, vol. 1, The Prophets, by Samuel Atkins Eliot (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1910), pp. 49-59.
Samuel West (of New Bedford)
Samuel West, the fourth minister of that part of Dartmouth which now makes the city of New Bedford and town of Fair Haven, was born at Yarmouth, Cape Cod, March 3, 1730 (O.S.); was graduated at Harvard College in 1754; was ordained June 3, 1761; was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity from his Alma Mater in 1793; withdrew from his ministerial labors in June, 1803, and died at the house of his son in Tiverton, R.I., September 24, 1807.
His father, Sackfield West, who was a physician, removed, soon after Samuel was born, to Barnstable. Here the son labored as a farmer till he had reached his twentieth year. He was fitted for college in six months under the care of the Rev. Mr. Green of Barnstable. He went to college in 1750, bare-footed, carrying his shoes and stockings in his hand, and at the examination had a dispute with one of the examiners as to a Greek reading, in which he is said to have carried his point.
After leaving college, he devoted himself to almost every branch of science, though theology was his principal study. History and politics, the physical sciences and metaphysics, medicine and law, were all subjects on which he was glad to improve every opportunity of gaining information; and the consequence was that, though living in an obscure place, with few appliances of learning within his reach and none to sympathize with him in his pursuits, he proved himself, in vigor and exactness of thought and in the variety and extent of the subjects which he mastered, inferior to very few men of his time.
He was settled in 1761, on a salary of sixty-six pounds, thirteen shillings, and sixpence [roughly equivalent to $18,000 in today’s currency]. Besides this seventeen members of the precinct bound themselves to provide “the keeping one horse and two cows, winters and summers, as they ought to be kept.” But the salary was not paid. In 1779 his circumstances were “so deplorable as to demand immediate relief,” and a committee was appointed by the precinct to procure firewood and corn for his family. In 1788 he represents the society as owing him seven hundred and sixty-nine pounds, twelve shillings, and eleven pence, and urges the payment of it. “My reasons for this request,” he says, “are, first, I owe money upon interest which I cannot pay until the money due to me be collected in. Secondly, I have suffered greatly for the necessaries of life, especially in the article of clothing, for which I have been beholden to money obtained from another quarter.” These embarrassments were somewhat relieved by a small patrimony and by the kindness of his friends abroad. Among his own society he found little intellectual sympathy. They were a plain, industrious, uneducated people. A good woman, who lived to be nearly a hundred years old, told how he visited at the house where she was when she was quite young. For tea baked apples and bread were crumbled into a large pan of milk at the centre of the table, and Dr. West and the grown-up members of the household all ate together from the same bowl, the doctor exhibiting no squeamishness at the mode of procedure, but, as a faithful pastor should, setting an edifying example of active diligence.
Dr. West was twice married: first, on the 7th of March, 1768, to Experience, daughter of Consider Howland, who became the mother of six children, and died March 6, 1789; and again, on the 20th of January, 1790, to Louisa, widow of Benjamin Jenne, and daughter of Jacob Hathaway, of Dartmouth, who died March 18, 1797. There were no children by the second marriage. Both Dr. West’s wives were women of uncommon excellence; and, if they knew little of the subjects that most engaged his thoughts, they knew better than he how to lengthen out the shortcomings of his income into the means of a comfortable support. His first wife was a tall woman, and in reference to that and in connection with her Christian name he used to say that he had “learned from long Experience that it was a good thing to be married.”
Dr. West was an ardent patriot. He could keep no terms with those who were hesitating or lukewarm, but blazed out against them. After the battle at Bunker Hill he set out to join the American Army, and do what he might as a minister of God to keep up their courage. It was while in the army, serving as a chaplain, that he gained great notoriety by deciphering for General Washington a treasonable letter from Dr. Church to an officer in the British army, of which a full account may be found in the third volume of Sparks’s Writings of Washington, pp. 502-506. In 1776 he delivered a discourse (afterwards printed) before the Provincial Convention at Watertown, and in December, 1777, he delivered the anniversary sermon at Plymouth.
All his learning, which was great, and his religious enthusiasm, were employed in behalf of his country. In times of the greatest darkness he roused the spirits of the people by showing that in the very events which threw such a gloom over the country was the beginning of the fulfilment of ancient prophecies, which must eventually lead on to their deliverance. Before the war began, he, from the Scriptures, predicted these more trying times, and from the faithful accomplishment of those predictions in the darkest hour he looked forward almost with exultation to the glorious fulfilment of what yet remained, when this country, then so harassed by war, should, to use his own words, “be the place to which the persecuted in other nations shall flee from the tyranny of their oppressors, and our Zion shall become the delight and praise of the whole earth.”
Father West, as he was always called at that time, was an influential member of the Convention that formed the Constitution of the State of Massachusetts, and also of the Convention for the adoption of the Constitution of the United States; and in this latter Convention it was in no small measure through his personal influence with Governor Hancock that that distinguished man was persuaded to give his assent to the adoption of the Federal Constitution. An interesting account of this matter is contained in a letter from the Hon. Francis Baylies, the historian of the Plymouth Colony, to the Hon. John H. Clifford, of New Bedford, from which the following account, slightly condensed, is taken:–
“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.
“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.”
“I well remember,” continues Mr. Baylies, “the effect which the oddity of his manners produced; but I was too young to appreciate the force and originality of his conversation. Separate from metaphysics and theology, he was a great man, and his great and universal knowledge, notwithstanding his eccentricity and roughness, rendered his conversation always agreeable, and sometimes delightful.”
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  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 the society should pass without break or discussion into the liberal ranks.
The great work of Jonathan Edwards on the Freedom of the Will had been published some years when Dr. West was ordained, and had an influence on the theology of New England such as can be attributed to no other work of the time. To the doctrines of this work Dr. West never could assent. He believed that there was a self-determining power in man. In opposition to Edwards he wrote two remarkable pamphlets, in which he argues the character of God from the Scriptures, from reason itself and the moral accountability of man. The first pamphlet was published in 1793, the substance of the first part of it having been “penned about twenty years.” This being soon out of print, he republished it in 1795, together with a second part containing four additional essays.
These studies must have had great influence on Dr. West’s preaching. His 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.”
Many anecdotes of Dr. West have come down to us. His friends would often meet him on his horse which had stopped to feed by the roadside, the doctor with his hands folded on his breast, and taking no notice of them. He would sometimes follow the young men who were studying theology with him to their bedchamber, and remain discoursing to them nearly the whole night. He once met a friend, and told him that he and his wife were on their way to pay him a visit. “Your wife,” said his friend, “Where is she?” “Why,” replied the doctor, “I thought she was on the pillion behind me.” She had got ready to accompany him, but was left behind. He would sometimes, at the meeting-house, stop at the horse-block for his wife to dismount, when she had been forgotten and was still at home. Once he went to mill, leading his horse, and carrying the grist on his own shoulder. On being asked by a friend in Boston if this were true, he said with a laugh that it was too good a story to be spoiled, and so he should not contradict it.
One Sunday there had been difficulty with the singers, and they had given out that they should not sing on the next Sunday. This was told to Dr. West. “Well, well, we will see,” he said, and on Sunday morning gave out his hymn. After reading it, he said very emphatically, “You will begin with the second verse, —
‘Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God.’ “
Dr. Charles Lowell narrates these anecdotes of Dr. West: “In those days it was the custom for ministers, when travelling, to refresh themselves and their beasts at the residences of such of their brethren as lived on their route. One day, while I was living with Dr. Sanger, a horse, saddled and bridled, came running into the yard, and one of the family exclaimed: ‘That is Dr. West’s horse. The doctor must be on the road, and we must go back, and look for him.’ One or two of the boys, accordingly, mounted the horse, and rode towards New Bedford. After a while they saw a dark object in the middle of the sandy road, at some distance beyond them. On arriving at the spot, they found it was Dr. West, sitting in the middle of the road, apparently in deep thought, and taking no notice of anything about him. ‘Why, Dr. West, is this you?’ was the inquiry. ‘How came you here in the road ?’ ‘Yes, I suppose it is I, and I believe the beast has thrown me,’ was the reply. He was assisted on to the horse, and conveyed to Dr. Sanger’s, where he stayed, as was his wont on his calls, a good many days, exhibiting every now and then his fits of absence of mind, to the no small amusement of us lads, and indeed of all who witnessed them.
“It might have been on this visit to Boston that a circumstance occurred that was related to me by Dr. Porter, of Roxbury. On a very rainy day one of Dr. Porter’s parishioners came in, and told him that there was an elderly gentleman, apparently a clergyman, sitting on the steps of the meeting-house; and he thought it was proper for him to inform the doctor of it, that, if he saw fit, he might ascertain who he was. Dr. Porter, on arriving at the meeting-house, recognized Dr. West as the minister who had seated himself there, and expressed no small surprise at finding him in such circumstances. ‘Why,’ said Dr. West, ‘I have a controversy, as I suppose you know, with another man of my name in Stockbridge, who has lately sent out a new pamphlet, and I have come down here to consult some books; and, having got as far as here, I remembered that my people had not had any preaching for three weeks, and I sat down here to think the matter over, whether I had better go on to consult the library at Cambridge or go home to New Bedford.’ ‘You can just as well think about that by my fireside,’ said Dr. Porter, ‘and had better go into my house and determine it there.’ ‘Well, well, so I had, I believe.’ So in he went, stayed there some days, determined to go to Cambridge, notwithstanding his people had been without preaching for three Sabbaths; and when he got back to resume his labors among them I never learned.”
In his old age reverses fell heavily on Dr. West. He was a man of uncommon physical powers, six feet high, and weighing two hundred pounds, but he had absolutely neglected all concern for his bodily health. He suffered nothing from this neglect until about his seventieth year, when both mind and body fell into quick decay. In 1787 he had lost a daughter, and the impression made upon him by her death was never effaced. He had buried two wives, and in the bereavement of his home had not near him the society of men who could understand or sympathize with him in the subjects that most engaged his thoughts. He was imposed upon by a worthless man who contrived, by actual experiment, to make him believe that he had succeeded in turning salt water into fresh. He took great pains to interest his friends in Boston in this matter, and it was a heavy blow to his spirits when he found that he had been deceived. He tried to pass it off with a joke. “It requires,” he said, “a great mind to make a great mistake.” A parishioner, taking advantage of his absence of mind, imposed upon him still more seriously. He had nearly prepared for the press a rejoinder to the work which President Edwards had written in reply to his own, but the public interest was gone, and his friends gave him no encouragement. “These things,” he said, “have disheartened and destroyed me. I am now to be laid aside as useless. My faculties will go.” And it was so. He was more than ever absent-minded. His memory failed, though his intellect, when excited, retained much of its vigor. He had preached the same sermon to his own people three Sabbaths in succession, but no member of his family was willing to distress him by telling him what he had done. The fourth Sabbath his daughter saw, with a heavy heart, that he had his Bible open at the same place, — the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Fortunately, he left the room for a minute. She opened the Bible at another place, and put it back. When he took up the book on his return, he seemed for a moment lost, then fixed himself upon the passage to which she had opened, and from that preached a discourse which, to some of his people, seemed the ablest that he had given for years.
But the time had come when he was to be released from his parish labors. The terms of a friendly separation were agreed upon, and he withdrew from his labors in June, 1803. His last days were spent with his son in Tiverton, and there on September 24, 1807, the aged servant of God breathed his last.
The following is the list of Dr. West’s publications:
- A Sermon preached at the Ordination of Samuel West at Needham, 1764
- A Sermon preached before the Provincial Convention at Watertown,1776
- A Sermon preached on the Day of the General Election, 1776
- A Sermon preached on the Anniversary of the Landing of the Fathers at Plymouth, 1777
- A Sermon at the Ordination of John Allyn at Duxbury, 1788
- Essays on Liberty and Necessity, in which the True Nature of Liberty is stated and defended, and the Principal Arguments used by Mr. Edwards and Others for Necessity are considered, in Two Parts, the first printed in 1793, the second in 1795
- A Tract on Infant Baptism
For Dr. West’s career consult:
- D. Ricketson’s History of New Bedford, pp. 275, 276, and 318-320
- William J. Potter’s The First Congregational Society in New Bedford, Mass. 
- L. B. Ellis’s History of New Bedford and its Vicinity, 1602-1892, various allusions in index
- Cooke’s Unitarianism in America, pp. 69, 70
The foregoing sketch is condensed from a letter written to Dr. Sprague by the Rev. John H. Morison [co-minister with Ephraim Peabody of the New Bedford church, 1838-1844].
This sketch fills in gaps in the entry on West which appears on the UU Historical Society Biographical Dictionary Web site. Especially useful is the bibliography of West’s published writings. Note, however, that the above bibliography misses at least one of West’s published works, an essay printed in The Boston Gazette and Country Journal, November 27, 1780, under the pen-name “Irenaeus.”