Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

troops, and used by them as a riding-school, applied to the few proprietors of King's Chapel who were left in Boston, for permission to worship in their church. The permission was obtained, and the Old South congregation had the Chapel to their sole use for a few months; after which, as the proprietors of the church had resumed their services, the two societies worshipped together, the one employing its own forms of worship in the morning, and the other doing the same in the afternoon. Among those who officiated at this season for the episcopal society was Mr. Sargeant, previously of the episcopal church in Cambridge.

In September, 1782, the attention of some members of the church was turned towards Mr. Freeman, who was then a candidate for the ministry, and he was invited by a letter from the wardens to officiate as reader, for a term of six months. The invitation was accepted by Mr. Freeman, and he entered on his duties on the 18th of the following October.* In the month of February, 1783, the Old South congregation left the Chapel, and returned to their own house. On the 21st of April, that same year, Mr. Freeman was chosen pastor of the Chapel church, at the age of twentyfour.

When Mr. Freeman consented to act as reader at the Chapel, he stipulated only for liberty to omit the reading of the Athanasian Creed. Leave to do this seems to have been yielded without difficulty; at which we need not wonder; for although the members of the church were orthodox, and attached to episcopacy, the Athanasian Creed was probably no favorite with any one, and was therefore easily if not cheerfully resigned. That the general sentiment was against that strange compound of unintelligible definitions and unchristian anathemas, is to be inferred from the fact, that on the regular formation and establishment of the American Episcopal Church, it was not admitted into her Liturgy.

* It is probable that from the very first, Mr. Freeman preached his own sermons, at least a part of the time. This fact is to be inferred from a passage in a letter from him to his sister Lois, afterwards Mrs. Davis, dated December 27th, 1782. This passage I have been kindly permitted by her daughter, Mrs. Minot, to copy. It is as follows:

"While I was upon the Cape, I endeavored to visit all my friends ; for being now engaged in the church, I expect not to go there again for many years. The first time I preached at the Chapel, the church was opened with some degree of splendor. There was an anthem and other pieces of music exceedingly beautiful. The audience was immense, and of such a kind as to overpower all confidence. I felt the weight of it most sensibly. On Christmas day I had another trial of the same kind to pass through. The exertions I am obliged to make on such occasions, keep my mind in a continual agitation. There is a pain attending it, but there is also a pleasure."

Mr. Freeman at this time lived in the family of his friend Mr. Minot, where he remained till he was himself married, which was in the year 178SS, to Mrs. Martha Clarke, daughter of Obadiah Curtis, of Newton, and widow of Samuel Clarke, of Boston. There were no children by this marriage, but he always treated with paternal affection and care the son and grandchildren of his wife.

The mind of Mr. Freeman was at first satisfied with being allowed to omit the reading of the obnoxious creed. The prayers for those in authority were of course altered, to suit the altered political state of the country. In other respects the service which he read, as well as the service of all other episcopal churches, was precisely that of the Church of England; the Liturgy of the American Episcopal Church not being adopted till the year 1785. But it was not long before he began to feel scruples concerning other parts of the service, especially those which expressed or implied a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity. As he thought, and read, and studied, and conversed on the subject of this doctrine, he became more and more convinced that it was unscriptural and untrue, and more and more uneasy in reading passages of solemn devotion, in which it was assumed as a Christian truth. It was a season of great mental trial. On the one side were ancient custom, and venerable authority, and the opinions and feelings of respected and beloved friends, urging him to remain in the former ways; while on the other were a careful conscience and deepening convictions of truth, commanding him to depart from them. He communicated his difficulties to those of his friends with whom he was most intimate. He would come into their houses, and say, "I must leave you. Much as I love you, I must leave you. I cannot conscientiously perform the service of the church any longer, as it now stands." But since he had been among this small remnant of episcopalians as their minister, he had endeared himself to them by his engaging manners and his pastoral services, and it was by no means easy for his friends to part with him. At length a suggestion was made, which terminated in happy and important results. It was said, "Why not state your difficulties, and the grounds of them, publicly to your whole people, that they may be able to judge of the case, and determine whether it is such as to require a separation between you and them, or not?" The suggestion was adopted. He preached a series of sermons, in which he plainly stated his dissatisfaction with the trinitarian portions of the Liturgy, went fully into an examination of the trinitarian doctrine, and gave his reasons for rejecting it. He has himself assured me that when he delivered those sermons, he was under a strong impression that they would be the last he should ever pronounce from this pulpit. He supposed that some of his hearers might be favorably affected by his arguments, but he could scarcely hope that they would meet with general approbation. He had unburthened his mind; he had justified his course; and he made himself ready to resign his ministerial connexion. But such, as is well known, was not the event. He was heard patiently, attentively, kindly. The greater part of his hearers responded to his sentiments, and resolved to alter their Liturgy and retain their pastor. The first vote favoring this conclusion was passed on the 20th of February, 1785; by which vote a committee was appointed to report such alterations in the Liturgy as were deemed necessary. Alterations were reported, in general conformity with those made in the amended Liturgy of Dr. Samuel Clarke; and on the 19th of June, the proprietors voted, by a majority of about three fourths, to adopt those alterations. •

Thus did Mr. Freeman, by following the dictates of his reason and conscience, become the first preacher in this country of what he held to be a purified Christian faith; and thus, through the means of his mental integrity and powers of exposition, did the First Episcopal Church in New England, become the First Unitarian Church in the New World.

I mention this not as a matter of boasting, but as an historical fact. He, our departed father, never boasted of it, or indeed of any thing which he ever did or helped to do; and at that time the change in doctrine and service which was effected, was not certainly regarded by pastor or people as a subject of triumph, but of serious and arduous duty. No motive of future fame or reputation could have been before them; but only a sense of the great opposition and odium which would press upon them from without, together with a deep resolve to bear up against it.

It may be said that the relation in which Dr. Freeman stands to the Unitarian Christianity of this country, is the fruit of circumstances alone; that it was because he happened to be placed in a peculiar situation, at the commencement of our independent national existence, that he was led to be the first open propounder and defender of that form of faith. I should be at a loss to say what events and what relations are not in some measure the fruit of circumstances. In circumstances I behold the hand of an omnipresent and overruling Providence; but in the use, the neglect or the abuse of those circumstances, I perceive the proofs and marks of human ability, liberty and character. The young reader at King's Chapel was surely placed in peculiar circumstances. It is his praise that he made a right and manly use of them; that he did not smother his convictions, and hush down his conscience, and endeavor to explain away to himself, for the sake of a little false and outward peace, the obvious sense of the prayers which he uttered before God and his people, but took that other and far better course of explicitness and honesty. By this proper use of circumstances, he placed himself where he now stands in our religious history.

While I say that Mr. Freeman was the first preacher of Unitarian Christianity in our country, I am not ignorant that he has himself said, in a note to his sermon on the death of Dr. Howard, " that Dr. Mayhew may with justice be denominated the first preacher of Unitarianism in Boston, and his religious society the first Unitarian Society." There is no doubt that Dr. Mayhew, and some of his cotemporaries beside, held opinions which were antitrinitarian, and did not conceal them. Passages are quoted, in the note abovementioned, from Dr. Mayhew's sermons, which prove that he did not believe in the equality of Christ with the Father; but they are passages which would not have aroused general attention, or disturbed general prejudices. To such preaching can hardly be awarded the character of an avowal of Unitarianism; and no such avowal was at the time understood to have been made. Dr. Freeman was not the first clergyman in the country who entertained opinions at variance with the received doctrine of the Trinity; but it is now conceded by all, that he was the first who openly and explicitly avowed and maintained proper Unitarian Christianity.

His calm confidence in the merits of his cause, the suavity and kindness of his deportment, the guard which he kept over his zeal, and the regard which he manifested for the good and wise of all denominations, appeared in advantageous contrast with the noise and heat and uncharitableness with which he was at first and by some assailed. His own conviction that the open avowal of his religious tenets would be likely to deprive him of his situation at the Chapel, and the probability that this would be the case, prevented the remotest suspicion that he was actuated by any but the most disinterested motives; and the purity and probity of his life and conduct, in like manner forbade the supposition that his change of faith could be connected with any principles or feelings but those which were virtuous and upright. Good and fairminded men, whether ministers or laymen, were his friends. Among the latter were Richard Cranch, George Richards Minot, Christopher Gore, Dr. Dexter, and indeed most of the distinguished men of the time. Among the former were Chauucy and Howard and Eckley, Belknap and Clarke, Eliot and Lathrop. With these men and such as these, whose names are canonized among us, and whose society he has now gone to rejoin—how short, after all, is the separation which years and the grave interpose between friends!—with these men he lived, on terms of intimacy and confidence; and by the indirect influence alone which he thus exerted on the hearts, if not on the minds of his associates and others, he must have recommended his views in the most unexceptionable manner.

But the avowal of obnoxious opinions, and the alterations of the received Liturgy of his church, were not the only difficulties which presented themselves in Mr. Freeman's path, and which he was called upon to surmount. Another difficulty, consequent upon these, was to be engaged and disposed of as it best might be. The church was still episcopal in its forms and usages and predilections, and were desirous of obtaining episcopal ordination for their pastor. But how was this to be effected? Was it probable that any bishop, knowing his sentiments, would be willing to ordain him? At least the attempt could be made. A letter was accordingly addressed by the wardens to Bishop Provost, dated July 29, 1737, in which they earnestly requested him to bestow ordination on Mr. Freeman, but at the same time expressed their determination to adhere to their altered Liturgy, a copy of which they sent to the Bishop with the letter. Bishop Provost refused, and very properly, to take the responsibility of the ordination upon himself, under the existing circumstances, and stated that the case would be reserved for the considera

« ZurückWeiter »