Your criticism requested…

I’m writing a revisionist essay about the Rev. Dr. Samuel West, one of the early liberal ministers in Massachusetts whom later Unitarians claimed as a sort of proto-Unitarian. I feel West has been slighted to by the standard Unitarian biographies (including the bio on the UU Historical Society Web site), in the sense that his intellectual accomplishments have been overshadowed by exaggerated claims of eccentric behavior. Now I know some of my readers are interested in this kind of thing, and you are good at picking holes in my arguments, so I’m hoping at least some of you will be willing to read and comment on the rather long essay below….

Samuel West was born on 3 March 1730 (Old Style), to Dr. Sackfield West and Ruth Jenkins in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He was apparently something of a prodigy as a child. He went off to Harvard College, and was graduated in 1754, one of the top students in his class. He decided to enter the ministry, and was ordained and installed on 3 June 1761 in the established church in what was then Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Beginning in the 1760s, West became active in politics, affiliating himself with the Whigs, and he remained involved with the Revolutionary cause through the Massachusetts convention which ratified the United States constitution. West married twice: first, on 7 March 1768 to Experience Howland, who died 6 March 1789, and with whom he had six children; second, on 20 January 1790 to the widow Louisa Jenne, née Hathway, who died 18 March 1779. Due to loss of memory (and possibly what we would now term senile dementia) West “relinquished his pastoral charge” in June, 1803. He went to live with his son, Samuel West, M.D., in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and died there 24 September 1807. (1)

These are the bare facts of Samuel West’s life. Behind those bare facts was a man of good character and superior intellect, who participated in two revolutionary ventures: the political revolution which was the separation of most of British North America from the British Empire during the War for American Independence, commonly called the American Revolution; and in the quiet and slow theological revolution that eventually led to an open breach between the liberal and conservative factions in the established Massachusetts churches. However, because West’s accomplishments are often obscured by his reputation for eccentricity, I will deal with the allegations of eccentricity first, and then give an account of his revolutionary accomplishments.

West’s biographers have often made a great deal of his eccentricity. This goes back to West’s first biographer, the Rev. John H. Morison, who wrote a biographical letter in 1849. In that letter, Morison repeats a number of anecdotes about West as proof of West’s eccentricity. (2) I feel there is good reason to question at least some of these anecdotes. Morison did not know West personally; his sources were West’s papers and documents provided by West’s family, church records, and reminiscences of people who had known West. But Morison wrote forty-six years after West died; I question whether we can trust the accuracy of reminiscences that may have gone back as much as three-quarters of a century. Furthermore, West may well have been suffering from growing senile dementia for the last few years of his life; and since many of the anecdotes cannot be dated, I wonder how many of them are really anecdotes about a man with senile dementia. Finally, Morison acknowledges that at least one of the anecdotes had been told about many ministers; it’s worth quoting this anecdote in full:

This is perhaps as good a place as any to tell an anecdote which has often been applied to other persons, but which the late Judge Davis of Boston, an admirable authority in such matters, says was true in the case of Dr. West. 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.”

The hymn was sung. (3)

This sounds like a folk tale, not good historical evidence. But why would Morison include an anecdote of such questionable veracity? Why do Morison’s biographers tend to reduce West to a stock absent-minded cleric?

In order to answer this question, I began looking for alternative explanations for alleged eccentric behavior. In the case of some allegedly eccentric behavior, Take, for example, the following anecdote that Morison records about West:

The following story was told me by his daughter, and is unquestionably true. He had gone to Boston, and, a violent shower coming up on Saturday afternoon, he did not get home that evening, as was expected. The next morning his family were very anxious, and waited till, just at the last moment, he was seen hurrying his horse on with muddy ruffles dangling about his hands, and another large ruffle hanging out upon his bosom, through the open vest which he usually had buttoned close to his chin. He never had worn such embellishments before, and never afterwards could tell how he came by them then. It was too late to change — the congregation were waiting. His daughter buttoned up his vest, so as to hide the bosom ornaments entirely, and carefully tucked the ruffles in about the wrists. During the opening services all went very well. But probably feeling uneasy about the wrists, he twitched at them till the ruffles were flourishing about, and then, growing warm as he advanced, he opened his vest, and made such an exhibition of muddy finery as probably tended very little to the religious edification of the younger portion of his audience. “That,” said his daughter, in telling the story, “was the only time that I was ever ashamed of my father.” (4)

I suspect this anecdote instead dates from a time when West was beginning to display signs of senile dementia. His daughter specifically states that this is the only time she was ashamed of her father, indicating that this was not usual (albeit eccentric) behavior.

Morison begins with the assumption that West was an eccentric, and interprets the historical evidence in that light. But if we begin with the assumption that Samuel West was a complex and interesting intellectual, we might reach different conclusions. Therefore, I’d like to turn away from Morison’s biography, and look at the evidence of people who (unlike Morison) actually met or knew West.

Ezra Stiles, who was president of Yale College from 1778 to 1795, was a friend of West. One of West’s letters to Stiles is worth quoting in full here:

“Lett, from Revd Mr. West of Dartmouth.
“Dartmouth Jany the 7th 1778.

“I this day rec’d your favor of the 2d Inst, as to your accepting the Presid’y of Y[ale] Coll[ege]. Honor & Interest being out of the Question, there are only to be considered your temporal Happiness & your Usefulness; as to the first, I am clearly of the Opinion that you would enjoy Life much better in the condition of the Pastor of a Chh of Christ, than in that of the Presid’t of a College; provided that you were beloved by your people, & treated with that Respect that ought to be shown to every worthy Minister of the Gospel; and it is my present Opinion that you may return with Safety to Newport before the Expiration of the present year: but this by the bye. I consider no Life so happy as that of a Gospel Minister who lives in Harmony with his People; Nor am I satisfied that you would be more useful in the College than in the Chh of God. Your Usefulness in either Station I doubt not may be very great: but this is too difficult a point for me to determine; there are many Circumstances to be taken into Consider’a, whether it is a difficult Thing to supply that Seminary with a suitable President? How your dispersed Chh & People stand affected to the Proposal? or if you give up Newport, How the Chh of Portsmo. stands affected towards you? etc. But above all, dear Sir, pray to the Father of Lights for Direction in this difficult affair, and in an humble Dependence on divine Assistance study to do that which will bring the greatest Glory to God, and good to the Souls of men, and you will undoubtedly be led into a right & just Determination of the matter. I am Rev’d & Dear sir
“Your affectionate Friend & Brother in X Jesus
“Samuel West” (5)

This letter reveals a thoughtful, caring man offering good, solid advice to a friend and colleague. West and Stiles also corresponded on the related subjects of alchemy and “hermetic science.” (6) In the eighteenth century, alchemy was not discredited as it is today, and in this correspondence Stiles and West undoubtedly understood themselves to be men of science.

The young John Quincy Adams met West, and wrote of him in complimentary terms. When he was a twenty-one year old law student in the office Theophilus Parsons of Newburyport, Massachusetts, Adams made the following entry in his diary:

[July] 14th [1788]. …When I came in from shooting, which still continues to be my sport and my occupation, I found a Parson West here, an old gentleman, who was three years in college with my father [i.e., with John Adams], and at that time very intimate with him. He is very sociable and very sensible. He spent the day here, and passes the night likewise. He keeps late hours and entertained me with conversation upon language till between twelve and one o’clock…. (7)

Adams understood West’s propensity of staying up late as acceptable behavior; by contrast, Morison finds the same behavior to be evidence of eccentricity. It may be that some of Morison’s local informants did not see the value in staying up late talking, and thought that represented eccentric behavior. While Morison blindly accepts the judgments of these local informants, we don’t have to do so.

In fact, Daniel Ricketson, a local historian of New Bedford, interpreted the local traditions of New Bedford differently than did Morison. Ricketson, writing six years later than Morison, concluded a short portrait of West by saying, “Dr. West was a man of considerable erudition, and in his personal appearance, as well as his remarkable eccentricities of character, is thought to have resembled the great Dr. Johnson.” (8) It is worth remembering that Dr. Johnson deliberately escaped his rural home town to go and live the great intellectual center of London, where his intellect could be appreciated. West lived in a place where few could appreciate his intellect, and so all that stood out were his eccentricities.

Morison claims that, having worked as a farm boy until he was twenty years old, when West left Cape Cod to go “to College in 1750, bare-footed, carrying his shoes and stockings in his hand.” (9) Because he did not live in the intellectual center of Boston and Cambridge, West’s manners may have struck the elite persons in those towns as crude and provincial. The image of the bare-footed boy going to Harvard is doubtless supposed to show us that West was a hick. Because, as an adult, West lived in the then-rural town of Dartmouth, he may well have been perceived as a hick for most of his life.

Sidney Willard, the son of Joseph Willard who was president of Harvard College from 1781 to 1804, recounted the following anecdote of Samuel West; this anecdote could be interpreted as a member of the elite making condescending remarks of someone whom he perceives as provincial:

Sometimes an eccentric visitor appeared. Master Moody I have mentioned; Pater West, as he was often called,– Samuel West, rightfully,– of Dartmouth, a minister of the gospel, was another. How he came by the first grave prænomen, Pater, I am not able to say with certainty; but I believe it was given to him by his classmates at college in honor of his age and his sway. He was a very thinking man; but his thoughts were not always uppermost about the things of immediate moment. He was in Cambridge in 1798, and made my father’s house his headquarters. He preached in the church of the first parish, having exchanged, I believe, with Dr. Holmes. My father was very anxious, lest the singularities for which he was very remarkable in the pulpit, and everywhere else, should disturb the gravity of the students, whose seats were in the front-gallery; and his anxiety was not without reason. Dr. West had, I suppose, been informed of the order of services in the church, or read them in the blank leaf of the hymn-book, and began accordingly with a short prayer, and read a portion of Scripture, and then a hymn, which was sung. But next he was in fault. He rose, and began to name the text of his sermon; and Mr. John Foxcroft (who was wont to utter little Latin scraps in secular intercourse), now, without due reverence for Priscian’s head, or for the pulpit, rose and addressed the preacher in bad Latin, namely, ‘Oblivisti preces, domine.’ The preacher heard a voice, and it may be an audible smile, so to speak, in the auditory; but whether his monitor was not sufficiently clear in his enunciation, or the preacher, whose wig was seldom rightly adjusted, had suffered it to cover his right ear, the words were to him a dead letter. His monitor did not rise to correct his Latin; and the preacher proceeded unembarrassed. After returning to the president’s house, unconscious, I have no doubt, of any omission in the public service, and prompted by a little vanity, of which he was not destitute, he asked, ‘Well, Mr. President, how did I make out?’ — ‘Very well,’ said the president, ‘except the omission of the long prayer.’ — ‘Well, I don’t care,’ said the doctor, ‘they have no business to have such a complicated service. I have only one prayer at home.’” (10)

Willard calls West eccentric, but another point of view might find Willard to be an affected and condescending elitist. Such judgments can depend greatly on the social location of the person making the judgment; they need not be considered to be accurate portrayals of the person being judged.

It’s important to remember that West was also divided from the elite, not just by his provincialism, but also by his relative poverty. When he arrived in Dartmouth 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, which we would consider to be a low salary for someone who had a degree from Harvard College (West did receive payment in kind, effectively making his salary somewhat higher). Yet West never received the whole of his salary. Local historian Franklyn Howland studied church records and discovered that on 9 September 1788, “West’s personal account with the church shows the Precinct was indebted to him 769 pounds… and he threatens to present the matter to the civil court if not paid soon” (11); this would be nearly two hundred thousand dollars in today’s money. West had to support six children and maintain a horse on this inadequate income. It would be safe to say that compared to someone like Sidney Willard, West was poor.

William Bentley, minister of East Church in Salem, Massachusetts, from 1783 to 1819, a liberal minister (he lived long enough to be called a Unitarian) with equally liberal political views, seemingly should have felt sympathetic to West. But Bentley lived in a prosperous, more cosmopolitan city, and had a larger income and no family to support. In his diary, Bentley had this to say upon hearing of West’s death:

We have an account in the last papers of the death of Samuel West, D.D., formerly of Dartmouth, who has died at Tiverton. Nothing has been said of his age or situation which probably is kindly dropped into obscurity. Yet he is not a man that has lived in Obscurity or a man who has not possessed extraordinary powers of mind & as extraordinary singularities as ever are known. He graduated at Cambridge in 1754 & was of the same class with Gov. Hancock who took particular notice of him as did Dr. Payson of Chelsea. He had his Doctor’s degree in the same college & was a member of the American Academy, but I recollect no communication he ever made to that body. He was a large, well proportioned man, much beyond common size. Of great strength & capable of great labours without fatigue. He applied late to his studies & had a characteristic awkwardness which excited ridicule upon every thing he did. All the history of his life was known by anecdotes of singular oddity. His visit to Colleges, his Courtship, his parish duty, his attitudes, his dress, his voice, his gestures, his method of preaching, all have furnished amusement without any refusal to acknowledge the strength of his mind. I first saw him at Brooklyn. He preached with & without notes in the two services. It was odd enough…. I saw him at the Gov. with the Gov’s gift of a new wig & Coat upon his wretched cloaths. I saw & heard him at the Dudleian lecture when his appearance & manner gave high divertion to the Students. I saw him in private circles. (12)

Given West’s relative poverty, Bentley’s criticism of his “wretched cloaths” seems cruel. But Bentley also felt that West’s manners “excited ridicule” and “furnished amusement” through their “oddity.” Bentley’s account of West is similar to Sidney Willard’s account.

I think it could be argued that West was caught between two cultures: the elite New England intellectual culture of Harvard and wealthy cities like Boston and Salem, places to which he gained admittance due to his superior intellect; and the rural non-elite culture of southeastern Massachusetts, to which he belonged by birth and by virtue of living there as an adult. An analogous case from a later generation might be the case of Henry David Thoreau, who was seen as uncouth by some of the elite intellectuals whom he came to know, and who was seen as eccentric by his fellow townspeople.

We can pursue this analogy further: Like Thoreau, West did liberal theology outside the intellectual centers of Boston and Harvard. This challenges our notion that liberal theology came primarily out of urban intellectual centers, and so we too might be willing to give credibility to accusations of eccentricity against both these intellectuals, simply because they do not fit into our preconceptions of what an intellectual should look like. The anecdotes about West’s alleged eccentricity probably have some truth to them, but they also probably represent prejudices based on regional and economic differences, prejudices of the elite against the non-elite.

The main conclusion that I draw from all this is that Samuel West was an intellectual who should be taken seriously for the products of his intellect. As an intellectual, Samuel West was revolutionary in two senses of the word.

First, West contributed to the emergence of liberal religion in southeastern Massachusetts. It is West more than any other minister, more than any other single person, who put his mark on the congregation which eventually become First Unitarian Church of New Bedford. West led the congregation away from its original Calvinist and deterministic theology, into a more liberal “Arminian” theology in which human beings were presumed to have free will to make good moral choices. West may be considered the first preacher of liberal religion in southeastern Massachusetts.

Second, Samuel West contributed to the cause of the American Revolution. During the Revolutionary era, there were many thinkers in British North America who were trying to prove that, on the one hand, they must break away from the British Empire, but that, on the other hand, breaking away from the British Empire did not mean doing away with all government and descending into anarchy. West, as a learned minister of his day, could take on the role of a public intellectual, and in his most famous published sermon, the Election Day Sermon of May 20, 1776, he spoke at length about steering a course between separation from the Empire and anarchy. There were other public intellectuals who were more influential than West, — he was not as great as Thomas Jefferson, or Thomas Paine, or his Harvard classmate John Adams — but he did contribute in a small but significant way to the intellectual foundations of the American Revolution.

From here the essay will go on to consider West’s intellectual accomplishments. But what I’d really like to hear is your criticisms of the argument so far….


(1) These facts are taken from “Samuel West, D.D. (of New Bedford), 1761-1807,” a biographical letter by the Rev. John H. Morison, in Annals of the American Unitarian Pulpit: Commemorative Notices of Distinguished American Clergymen of the Unitarian Denomination in the United States, by William B. Sprague (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1865), p. 37. Morison’s letter is dated 29 January 1849.

(2) Morison’s letter, dated 29 January 1849, is the earliest published biography of West. Most of the later biographical writing on West that I have read are based primarily on Morison’s work, e.g.: “Dr. West’s Pastorate and Arminianism,” in The First Congregational Society in New Bedford, Massachusetts: Its History as Illustrative of Ecclesiastical Evolution, by William James Potter (New Bedford: First Congregational Society, 1889), pp. 33 ff. which directly quotes substantial segments of Morison’s biography (without acknowledging Morison) as part of a theological argument; “Samuel West (of New Bedford),” in Heralds of a Liberal Faith: vol. 1, The Prophets, ed. Samuel Atkins Eliot, Boston: Beacon, 1910, pp. 50 ff., which reprints most of Morison’s biography verbatim (acknowledging Morison).

(3) Morison, p.

(4) Morison, p. 46.

(5) The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, ed. Franklin Bowditch Dexter, New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1901, p. 252.

(6) The marriage of heaven and earth: alchemical regeneration in the works of Taylor, Poe, Hawthorne, and Fuller, by Randall A. Clack, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000, p. 43. Morison did not mention the correspondence with Stiles, but did note that “Alchemy was another subject that greatly interested Dr. West. He had particularly a taste for the Natural Sciences, and Alchemy was to him only the last analysis in Chemistry.” (p. 44)

(7) Life in a New England Town, 1787, 1788: Diary of John Quincy Adams While a Student in the Office of Theophilus Parsons at Newburyport, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston: Little, Brown, 1903, pp. 152-153.

(8) The History of New Bedford, Bristol County, Massachusetts: Including a History of the Old Township of Dartmouth and the Present Townships of Westport, Dartmouth, and Fairhaven, from Their Settlement to the Present Time, by Daniel Ricketson, New Bedford: Published by the author, 1858, p. 275

(9) Morison, p. 38.

(10) Excerpt from Sidney Willard’s Memories of Youth and Manhood, reprinted in Men and Manners in America One Hundred Years Ago, ed. Horace Elisha Scudder, New York: Scribner, Armstrong, 1876, pp. 50-51.

(11) A History of the Town of Acushnet, Bristol County, State of Massachusetts, by Franklyn Howland, New Bedford: published by the author, 1907, p. 210.

(12) The Diary of William Bentley D.D., Pastor of the East Church, Salem, Massachusetts, vol. 3 (January, 1803 to December, 1810), Salem, Mass.: The Essex Institute, 1911, pp. 323-324 (Oct., 1807).

8 thoughts on “Your criticism requested…

  1. Jim Nugent

    Your arguments make sense. Truly original thinkers are often remembered by latter generations for their eccentricities instead of for their groundbreaking work. Institutionalization of a movement provides guidelines for acceptable thought and expression. Pre-institutional thinkers work with out limits and tend to stray outside of acceptable boundaries.

    Early adopters and visionaries like West, Priestley, Bentley, Richard Price and Paine often seem to have been marginalized or written out of the official organizational history by a following generation of institution builders. Organized American Unitarians submerged British unitarian origins. They probably did something similar to West and other variant strains of home grown unitarianism.

    As I was reading your post William Bentley came to mind. J. Rixey Ruffin’s recent book on Bentley, “A Paradise of Reason” explores the class bias faced by Bentley with his working class background and congregation of waterfront workers.

    Steven Johnson’s recent book on Priestley, “The Invention of Air,” explores how important Priestley’s work was to Jefferson, Adams, and other Americans and how that importance was minimalized in the years that followed.

  2. Dan

    Ted — Thanks!

    Jim — Thanks for the comment — very helpful. And thanks for the reference to the book on William Bentley — that’s one I’m going to have to look up.

  3. Martin Voelker

    The descriptions of ‘eccentricity’ mostly reveal how rigid and stratified life in the colonies was where conformity was expected – and how impractical the clothing. The last time I’ve worn ruffles (but let’s not go there).
    On the whole it sounds Dr West would have been shown more appreciation in our Universalist tradition where he also might not have received his full salary but instead more loving in-kind contributions.

  4. Dan

    Martin @ 4 — You write: “The descriptions of ‘eccentricity’ mostly reveal how rigid and stratified life in the colonies was where conformity was expected”

    I agree — but do you know of any scholarly studies that have demonstrated that point? I would love to be able to cite such a study….

  5. Martin Voelker

    Now comes the moment of truth before the thesis committee: my prime source is James A. Mitchener’s “Hawaii” and his description of how the missionaries from New England stuck to their customs as their bible forbade them to learn from the heathens. But I’ll ask a friend of mine, Jack Trumbour a historian at Harvard, to point you to some real sources. He wrote “How Harvard Rules” and was never interested in sugar coating history.

  6. J. Rixey Ruffin

    Dan (and Jim)–
    As the author of the Bentley book that Jim referred to, I am pleased to see that the good Reverend Bentley is getting some overdue attention here on the web! Jim, I hope you enjoyed reading my book, and Dan, I hope you do. I’d be happy to talk with you about it, and in the meantime, Dan, I am glad I came across your blog; I have learned something new about Samuel West, and I appreciate it.

  7. Harold Knight

    I’d simply like to say that, in my university first-year writing classes, my students deal with the background of the Declaration of Independence. They are mostly baffled by ideas such as “natural rights” until I assign them West’s Election Sermon. If Rev. West can make all of those “Enlightenment” ideas come alive for my students in 2009, he must have been positively electrifying to his hearers.

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