New Acquisition of Rev. John Allyn’s Sermons

Sermon of Rev. John Allyn, delivered April 1796 in Duxbury.

Sermon of Rev. John Allyn, delivered April 1796 in Duxbury.

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

In a town as old as Duxbury, there are many men and women who can claim a prominent place in its history.  Founders such as John and Priscilla Alden; shipbuilders Ezra “King Caesar” Weston I and II; master mariner and author Amasa Delano; and stage actress Fanny Davenport, are only a few names that come to mind.  However, all towns have their less heralded, though equally significant, citizens and Duxbury is no exception.  Rev. John Allyn (pronounced Alline) falls into this second category.  Rev. Allyn was the minister of the First Parish Church for 45 years, from 1788-1833.  While the majority of his tenure was peaceful, Allyn was part of a controversy at the end of his career that divided the town and had repercussions for decades after his death. Recently the Drew Archival Library received a gift of over fifty of the Rev. Allyn’s sermons from his descendants, Faith Stimson and Emily Sugg.  These sermons will help to illuminate the life of a man who was such an integral part of the community during the early 19th century.

Rev. Allyn was born in Barnstable, MA in 1767 and educated at Harvard College, earning his A.B. in 1785.  He received his A.M. in 1788, the same year he was ordained as Duxbury’s minister. Three years later he married Abigail Bradford.  The couple settled into a lovely home at 1043 Tremont Street, an easy stroll to the First Parish Church. The church to which Rev. Allyn would have walked was not the large Greek Revival structure we see today, but a smaller, squarer building painted a light yellow.  This meeting house, built in 1787, only a year before Allyn’s arrival, was more in keeping with the limited means of the post-Revolutionary Duxbury, a town that had yet to reach its shipbuilding zenith. In addition to his ministerial duties, Allyn ran a school from his home.

The contemporary accounts we have all indicate that Rev. Allyn was kind and a bit eccentric.  It is not hard to imagine him as the disheveled benevolent scholar.  According to his son-in-law, Rev. Convers Francis, Allyn possessed a peculiar imagination and often avoided the “beaten track of thought.” During conversation he loved to “throw his thoughts out in a desultory and startling manner.”[1]  Unfortunately, this often led to him being misconstrued.  He could also be rather unorthodox in his methods, once dressing as a ghost to scare a family, who had disavowed the existence God, back into believing.[2]   The pupils boarding at his school called him uncle and recalled many happy times in Duxbury under his tutelage. They received discipline only from his daughter, Abigail, never from Allyn himself. Perhaps the most famous of his students was a young Abigail May, the mother of Louisa May Alcott.[3]

Despite years of faithful service, Rev. Allyn’s tenure as minister in Duxbury had a final, dark chapter.  Allyn was afflicted with a premature ageing of both is his mind and body.  I am sure a modern-day physician could find a diagnosis based on contemporary evidence, but for the sake of this article, it is enough to say that he found himself incapacitated during much of his later years.  In 1825 Allyn asked that the congregation hire a co-minister to assist him in his duties.  This would allow him to live out his waning years in the community he loved and continue to preach to his flock at least part of the time.  However, it would also force the congregation to pay two salaries. Had his request come a decade earlier, perhaps there would have been no discussion on the matter but a number of changes had occurred that left the First Parish Church and the town divided over this request.

The Second Great Awakening that had been sweeping the country had caused some to leave the Unitarian pews of the First Parish Church for the newly formed Methodist and Universalist churches that had been built Washington Street. The number who left included some of wealthiest men in Duxbury at the time including Hon. Seth Sprague.  This exodus coincided with disestablishment of the Churches of the Standing Order.[4]  Prior to the disestablishment everyone had to pay a tax to support the sanctioned town church whether you were a member or not.  After the disestablishment, men like Sprague were no longer beholden to help fund the First Parish Church, resulting in a loss of revenue. With enough money to spare, a second minster may have incited little comment.  A tighter budget, however, caused many within the church, including a young fledgling politician named Gershom Bradford Weston, to demand the resignation of Allyn and the hiring of a new full-time minister.

Monument to Rev. John Allyn, Mayflower Cemetery, Duxbury, MA.

Monument erected in 1861 to the memory of Rev. John Allyn in Mayflower Cemetery, Duxbury, MA.

What came to pass is not a pretty commentary.  Because Allyn was still so beloved by many the congregation, a co-minister, Rev. Benjamin Kent, was hired to assist him.  Kent moved with his young family into a house built for them at 992 Tremont Street.  But, for the next seven years both Kent and Allyn constantly battled with the faction within the First Parish Church that disagreed with supporting two salaries.  Of the conflict, Sarah Bradford, who was related to Kent and therefore not unbiased, wrote to her daughter, “we are all in trouble, the Parish won’t pay two and we fear Mr. Kent will leave us, every one is for Mr. K but Dr. A won’t quit. I don’t know what we shall do…the Parish is in a sad state…”[5] The fight took a toll on both ministers. By 1833 Kent had been carted off to an insane asylum and Allyn was dead.[6]  Years later, during another controversy within the First Parish Church, Kent wrote a letter from his Roxbury home declaring that Gershom Bradford Weston was the cause of his temporary insanity and Allyn’s death.[7]

Rev. Allyn was buried in the tomb of another prominent Duxbury leader, Hon. George Partridge.  Hiswife and daughter were forced to sell their home and move from town.  In 1861 those who recalled him fondly raised a monument to their former minister and teacher in the Mayflower Cemetery which reads:

To the Memory of John Allyn, D.D.

Who was for 45 years the learned

able, and honored minister of the

Congregational Society in

Duxbury. Born at Barnstable Mass

March 21, 1767 Died at Duxbury

July 19, 1833

 In a succeeding generation some

of those who in early life shared

his kindness, profited by his

counsels and were impressed by

his truthfulness testify their

gratitude and reverence by this

Memorial stone.

 

 


[1] Convers Francis, Memoir of Rev. John Allyn of Duxbury.  See also, Justin Winsor, History of Duxbury (Crosby & Nichols: Boston, MA), 1849 p. 209

[2] “A Ghostly Visit” in Duxbury Budget (Duxbury Rural Society: Duxubry, MA), 1900, p. 20.

[3] Edmund Burke Willson, Memorial of John Clarke Lee (Salem Press; Salem, MA) 1879, p. 10 and Eve LaPlante, Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother (Free Press: New York), 2012, p. 26.

[4] Massachusetts broke the ties between church and state with the disestablishment of the Standing Order in 1833.  However, individual parishes ended the relationship earlier, Duxbury did so in 1828.

[5] Letter from Sarah Bradford to Maria W. Bradford, April 21 [1833], Bradford Family Collection, Drew Archival Library.  Maria W. Bradford’s husband, Claudius Bradford, was Benjamin Kent’s brother-in-law.

[6] Letter from Sarah Bradford to Lucia A. Bradford, May 5, 1833 in Bradford Family Collection, Drew Archival Library, “Mr. Kent has been in the insane hospital now nine days, his insanity came on by degrees until one day before he was carried to the hospital when he was perfectly crazy.”

[7] Letter from Benjamin Kent in Reply of a Committee of the First Parish in Duxbury, Massachusetts to the Public Answer of Hon. Gershom Weston, (Boston: C.C.P. Moody), 1851, p. 41.  Kent also contended that there was no shortage of funds during his ministry to pay two salaries.

Charlotte Bradford vs. Louisa May Alcott

Charlotte Bradford (1813-1890)

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

During the Civil War Charlotte Bradford of Duxbury traveled to the South to become a nurse.  She worked for a time aboard the Transport Ships (“Floating Hospitals”) organized by the United States Sanitary Commission and later worked in Washington, D.C. area hospitals under Dorothea Dix.  During her tenure as a nurse she kept a daily journal and wrote numerous letters home.

One of her most interesting letters is to the Editors of The Commonwealth (c. 1863), a Massachusetts newspaper.  In it she describes her feelings toward Louisa May Alcott’s recently published serial, “Hospital Sketches.”  Charlotte was none too pleased with Alcott’s description of life in a Union Hospital.

What is particularly interesting about this critique is the fact that Charlotte most probably knew Miss Alcott, or at least of her.  One of Charlotte’s cousins was the Transcendentalist, George Partridge Bradford, who was a great friend of Broson Alcott.  Her other cousin was Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, the owner of the Old Manse in Concord and Alcott neighbor.  Perhaps Charlotte did not know that Tribulation Periwinkle, Louisa’s pseudonym in Hospital Sketches, was actually Alcott.

The copy of the letter in the Drew Archival Library is incomplete.  There is at least one page missing.  I have not verified if the letter was actually sent or whether the Editor’s chose to publish it.  Charlotte’s description her hospital work, soldiers and diet is a bit different from what we read in her diary.  Although she claims to have a good appetite in her letter, it was, in fact, not very good.  She was a vegetarian and dispised the Army rations she was forced to eat.  She also came up against surgeons on more than one occassion and was dismissed from the Armory Square Hospital for insubordination.  Her time in Washington was difficult and often times far from the rosy description she gives to the Editors. Despite her own tribulations, however, Charlotte obviously did not like anyone anyone speaking ill of the conditions publicly.

The following is Charlotte’s copy or rough draft of her letter to The Commonwealth.

Mr. Editor,

Your paper of the 19th was handed me today and it is so seldom that I see one from Mass. that I greeted it as a friend from home.  “Hospital Sketches” on the first page caught my eye, but I read it with no little pain and was tempted to give you a sum of my own experiences, it has been so different from the feeling expressed there.  I have been a nurse in hospitals in and near Washington for nearly a year and have heard much said about self denial and sacrifice, but I have had no sympathy with that at all.  My motives for coming and here were not, I am sorry to say, of the self denying sort.  I had no great idea of the good that I could do for I have no doubt there is many a woman at the North who would be glad of the privildge of coming who could do more and better than I can.  I came simply from the love of taking care of the sick and my interest in the war and so perhaps was better prepared to offer [?].  I must say that I cannot recall a year of my life that I have passed more pleasantly.  It is not, I think, that I have ben favored in the choice of hospitals for I have served in six different ones, including some of the worst as well as the best.  I have eaten off tin plates nothing but army rations and sometimes without a knife or fork but what of that?  I fared the same as the soldier and preferred that to partaking of the nicer victuals from the surgeon’s and stewards tables.  But I am blessed with a good appetite and it was rather and amusement and difficult to realize that I was sitting in the cellar of the Capital eating off an unwashed table or eating in this primitive style in its magnificent rooms above stairs.  Let no one criticize even that hospital too severely.  It was a temporary one in a building entirely unsuited to the purpose excepting in its fine and spacious rooms for the beds, but when it comes to perparing food for 1000 men best no one find fault untill he has been behind the scenes and seen what it invovles.  A hospital is a vast machine that requires a great many springs to be put in motion before it works evenly and smoothly.  In Armory Square Hospital which Miss seems to consider a model I have not a year since had the better part of many a meal from not going a the first sound of the bugle. I have eaten after the surgeons as well as before an found how essential it was to my comfort that they should be punctual at their meals.  A word in regard to the bread.  I know that the aeratated bread is used somewhat and that, when a day or two old is certainly much like sawdust but the army bread that we get in Washington is certainly excellent and superior to most homemade bread.  But what are such petty annoyances to one who has the priviledge of going into a ward in the morning and meeting the smile of welcome that greets her.  I have always heard it said that men did not know how to be sick, had no patience, but I was soon convinced of the fallacy of that doctrine.  I never saw such patience and fortitude as shown by our soldiers indeed the cheerfulness and even fine spirits of the soldier is almost proverbial.  I have in my mind’s eye a young man who had lost altogether the use of his lower limbs, could not even sit up in bed, but as he lay on his back or leaned on his elbow, his face was radiant with smiles.  I at first thought he must have heard some pleasant news.  I shall never see him again but if ever I am sick and inclined to be impatient I believe that face will be a lesson to me.  Then how pleasant to go round with the dressing tray and as one after another receives the refreshment of clean water and bandage to watch from day to day the gradual healing of the wound and listen to their kindly, pleasant talk for they are all your friends.  The sorrow is  that of the hundreds that I have watched and tended I shall probably never see ten again but I have met some curious instances showing that the smallest act of kindess is appreciated.  A young man came one day and spoke to me whom I did not recognize “you may perhaps remember” said he “I am the one whom you gave 2 soda crackers one day ’cause I could not eat my dinner.”  And let me say that though I do not doubt there is a great profanity in the Army yet in hospital I have rarely, except in delirium, heard a soldier utter an oath and in these few instances it was always followed by “I beg your pardon I did not know you were there” showing the respect of our people for women.  I must not forget the pleasant though sadder task of administering to the wants of the sick.  To bathe the aching head and moisten the fevered lips or even to speak a kind word are trifles but they are a solace to the weary, worn out soldier.  I have seen the tears glisten in more than on manly eye…

Charlotte Bradford’s diaries and letters are part of the Bradford Family Collection.  She lived her entire life, other than her three years in Washington, DC, in her family’s home on Tremont Street (The Gershom Bradord House).