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Bancroft, Aaron (1755-1839)

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Aaron Bancroft Courtesy of HDS

Aaron Bancroft. Courtesy of Harvard Divinity School.

Aaron Bancroft was born at Reading, Massachusetts, November 10, 1755. His father, Samuel Bancroft, was a highly respected citizen, and a deacon of the church to which he belonged. He was a member of the council that dismissed the Rev. Jonathan Edwards from Northampton, and protested against the decision of the majority. His mother, according to his own testimony, was “a pious and affectionate woman, who did everything for him by her care, precept, and example that a tender mother in her situation could do for a child.” That his parents were thoroughly Puritan in their religious views, and that he was himself early inclined to dissent from them, is sufficiently manifest from the following extract from one of his private papers:

The Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism was early taught me. While young, I was, by my father, appointed reader to the family on Saturday evenings, and Willard’s ‘Body of Divinity,’ a large folio, was selected as my book. The Catechism I never understood or loved, my mind revolted against Willard. I could not assent to the popular creed; and I well remember the throes of my youthful mind when dwelling upon religious subjects.

His early years were spent upon a farm; and, as his father was an extensive landholder, it was his desire that the son should become a farmer likewise. He, however, yielded to his son’s wish for a liberal education, and allowed him to prepare for college. He entered at Harvard, at the age of nineteen, in the year 1774; and, though his college course was not a little embarrassed and interrupted by the storm of the Revolution, he made the best use of the advantages afforded him, and graduated with honor in 1778.

On leaving college, he was engaged for a short time in teaching in the public school in Cambridge. His theological course must have been very brief, as he began preaching in the autumn of the year 1779. Early in the spring of 1780, when he had preached but a few times, an application was made to him to go on a mission to Nova Scotia; and, though many of his friends advised him strongly against it, he obtained permission of the Executive Council of Massachusetts (for the Revolutionary War was then at its height), went to Nova Scotia, and remained there three years, passing his time principally at Yarmouth, Annapolis, and Horton.

Mr. Bancroft returned to New England in July, 1783, and immediately received an invitation to preach as a candidate in Worcester, Massachusetts, the Rev. Mr. Maccarty, the pastor of the church there, being prevented by illness from performing his accustomed duties. As the church was generally Calvinistic, and he was already in revolt against the theology in which he had been bred, he was not acceptable as a preacher to the majority; and yet a considerable number of the most prominent members of the congregation were greatly pleased with his ministrations. When Mr. Maccarty died in July, 1784, Mr. Bancroft preached again in Worcester, but the town refused to settle him as their minister. In consequence of this a Second Congregational Church was formed, consisting of those who were friendly to Mr. Bancroft’s views, and he accepted an invitation to become their pastor. He was ordained and installed on the 1st of February, 1786, the sermon on the occasion being preached by the Rev. Thomas Barnard, of Salem. The church thus established was one of the first in New England organized upon a basis of complete religious liberty. It would have been natural and in accordance with the common practice of the times for the church to adopt some articles of theological belief. Such a course was, however, foreign to Mr. Bancroft’s temperament. He believed it impossible for one generation to prescribe opinions for another, and he felt that all written creeds and confessions are hindrances to spiritual freedom. He believed them to be inconsistent with the spirit of Protestantism and a source of endless discord. The new church, therefore, made no confession of faith, save that the Bible contains “the sufficient rule of faith and practice.”

Aaron BancroftIn the early part of his ministry Mr. Bancroft had many obstacles to contend with. His doctrinal beliefs were a bar to ministerial exchanges, and for the first seven years of his ministry he preached nearly the whole time to his own people. In the neighboring churches he was regarded with coldness and suspicion. He was talked against, preached against, denounced and shunned. His pecuniary circumstances were also considerably straitened; but notwithstanding this, when the society voted in 1789 to build a new house for public worship, he voluntarily relinquished one-third of his salary from a desire to bear his full proportion of the common burdens. In order to eke out sufficient means of support for his family, he gave instruction to young men and to the daughters of some of his parishioners, and received boarders into his house. His moral courage and purity of character carried him triumphantly through difficulties before which a less earnest and intrepid spirit would have quailed. Gradually he won the respect, if not the assent, of his opponents. He had no love for controversy, though he was obliged by the comparative isolation of his position to take much time in defending and explaining his views. He never hid his opinions, but he was always a fair and manly fighter.

The prejudices of his neighbors never embittered him. Superior to the frowns of his foes and the fears of timid supporters, he followed the path of his own reverent convictions firmly and calmly.

In 1807 Mr. Bancroft published the Life of General Washington—a work on which he had bestowed great labor, and for which he received high and deserved praise. In 1810 he was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Harvard College.

In 1821 Dr. Bancroft preached a series of sermons on Christian Doctrines. They excited great interest among his people, and were published by their request in an octavo volume the next year. The elder President Adams, in acknowledging the receipt of a copy of the work which had been sent him by the author, wrote as follows under date of January 24, 1823:

I thank you for your kind letter of December 30, and above all for the gift of a precious volume. It is a chain of diamonds set in links of gold. I have never read, nor heard read, a volume of sermons better calculated and adapted to the age and country in which it was written. I have conversed freely with most of the sects in America, and have not been inattentive to the writings and reasonings of all denominations of Christians and philosophers; but, after all, I declare to you that your twenty-nine sermons have expressed the result of all my reading, experience, and reflections in a manner more satisfactory to me than I could have done in the best days of my strength.

As a champion of Christian freedom and of a rational interpretation of religion in New England, Dr. Bancroft had few equals. He had an abhorrence for anything like mental slavery. He believed that Christianity is a proclamation of spiritual liberty, and that it ought to free men not only from sin and error, but from bigotry and prejudice and all narrowness. He passionately desired for every man the right to choose and follow his own convictions of truth and duty, and he felt that the vexations and penalties visited by the dogmatic Calvinists about him upon honest seekers after truth were abominable wrongs. In defense and advocacy of his principles he was ardent and untiring. As he grew older, he became the center of a notable group of liberal ministers in Worcester County, and his church became the inspiration of many churches established upon an undogmatic basis. No man carried more influence than Dr. Bancroft into the sometimes turbulent councils and conventions that marked the early years of the Unitarian controversy. He it was who counseled and supported James Freeman and many another young lover of the truth in their Unitarian heresies, and he it was, though then a veteran of seventy, who took part with the younger men in the organization in 1825 of the American Unitarian Association, and who acted as the first president of that body.

Dr. Bancroft continued alone in his pastoral charge till March, 1827, when he was relieved by the accession of a colleague, the Rev. Alonzo Hill. Subsequent to this, however, he was active in the duties of his profession, preaching or performing more or less of private service, as occasion might require. On the 31st of January, 1836, he preached a sermon, on the termination of fifty years of his ministry, which was afterwards printed, with valuable historical notes. In this sermon he says:

They who with me began their course of Christian improvement are removed from life. But one man remains of those who invited me to settle with them as their minister, and but two women now live who at that time were heads of families. I am the oldest man in the parish with one exception, and his connection with us was but of yesterday. I have been longer in a married state with one wife than any other living member of our community. I have outlived my generation, and in the midst of society may be considered a solitary man.

Dr. Bancroft died on the 19th of August, 1839, and his funeral sermon was preached by his colleague.

Dr. Bancroft was married in October, 1786, to Lucretia, daughter of the Hon. John Chandler, of Worcester, and they had thirteen children, six only of whom survived them. One of the sons was the Hon. George Bancroft, the historian, and one of the daughters was married to the late Hon. John Davis, Governor of Massachusetts and a member of the United States Senate.

Dr. Bancroft received many tokens of public favor. He was the first president of the American Unitarian Association from its organization in 1825 to 1836; a member of the board of trustees of Leicester Academy for thirty years and long its president; president of the Worcester County Bible Society; president of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Piety, and Charity; vice-president of the Worcester and Middlesex Missionary Society, afterwards merged in the Evangelical Missionary Society; vice-president of the American Antiquarian Society from 1816 to 1832; Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and member of various other societies.

First-Person Accounts of Aaron Bancroft

The following account of Dr. Bancroft was written by his son, the Hon. George Bancroft:

My earliest recollections of him are of a bright and cheerful man; fulfilling the duties of life with courage and hearty good will; naturally given to hospitality, and delighting in the society of intelligent friends, who were attracted by the ready sympathy of his nature, his lively and varied conversation, and the quickness and clearness of his perceptions. His mind was calm and logical, discriminating and accurate, possessing the reflective powers in an eminent degree. He loved literature and its pursuits; and though, in his youth, the opportunities of becoming learned were interrupted by the war, his natural inclinations and activity made amends for the deficiency, so that in general he stood among the foremost of his day, and, far more than any man in his neighborhood, preserved through life the tastes of a scholar. Of a delicate physical organization, he used to speak of himself as having been irascible in his boyhood; but this tendency he brought under subjection, without impairing his vivacity, and he obtained and preserved to the last a complete mastery over himself.

It was never his way to make a show of his virtues or his emotions. With him private devotion was strictly private. His affections were strong, but not demonstrative. One of his sons was lost at sea. Though suffering most keenly from sorrow, he maintained his fortitude as an example to his family; but, long after every one else had given up hope, he was always seen, with the arrival of the mail, walking in front of the post-office until the letters were distributed, and, when day after day brought none to him, he would return to his study with undisturbed serenity, unquestioning and unquestioned. In all this prolonged period of sorrow and hope he was never found in tears but once, when his door was suddenly and unexpectedly opened. His love for his wife, or rather their mutual affection, was singularly great. She was remarkable for benevolence, very uncommon gifts of mind, and playful cheerfulness. In April, 1839, when they had been married more than fifty-two years, she died after a very short illness. My father, then past eighty-three years of age, attended her to the grave with no unusual display of grief; but, after returning from the funeral, he never left his homestead again, and died in less than four months.

Throughout all his life my father’s means were limited, and during a large part of it were very scanty; but he was never embarrassed, for he had made it a fixed rule not to incur debt. Small as was his income, he took it upon himself to support his widowed mother in comfort, and under his care she lived to be ninety-eight.

His knowledge of human nature and the springs of human action made him sought for by those who needed consolation and advice, and he was frequently appealed to as an arbiter. His exactness and method made him a good man of business, and once, when circumstances compelled him to act as the administrator of a very complicated estate, he did it so well that he won the gratitude of all persons concerned. In politics he was a Federalist of the old school, from which he never deviated a hand’s breadth; and, had he lived a hundred years, he would have been a Federalist to the last. But what he was most remarkable for was that, while his own opinions were held with tenacity, and while he was often unavoidably engaged in theological polemics, he maintained a steady, consistent attachment to freedom of conscience and of thought, the right of free inquiry, and the right of private judgment. In this I think nobody ever excelled him. It seemed to form an elemental part of him. Whenever members of his family consulted him on a question of belief, he never taught them by his own authority, but would set before them arguments on each side, and recommend to them the best writers on the subject. He really wished them to arrive at their conclusions by their own unbiased reflection. This respect for private judgment he carried into all departments; and I cannot recall a single Instance in which he attempted to mould or sway my opinions on religious dogmas or politics. The candid and impartial exercise of the faculties of the mind, a teachable temper, and honest zeal for truth formed his rule for himself and for all others.

His father, who was a leading man in his village, and remarkable for his gifts as a speaker, was known as a strict Calvinist and a thorough supporter of Jonathan Edwards. So my father was trained in his boyhood in the strictest school of orthodoxy; but “the throes of his own youthful mind,” as he used to say, revolted against the dogmas of predestination and election. His position in the theological world was further affected by his encountering early in life, in a distant region, ignorant and presumptuous religious enthusiasts. These circumstances and his characteristic antipathy to all exaggeration and his distrust of the effects of excitements set him against fanaticism and excess in all their forms.

My father’s theology was of New England origin, and, like that of so many others, was a logical consequence of the reaction against the severities of our Puritan fathers. He was thoroughly a Protestant and a Congregationalist. He considered reason as a primary and universal revelation of God to men of all nations and of all ages. He was sure of the necessary harmony between reason and true religion, and he did not scruple to reject whatever seemed to him plainly in contradiction with it.

Age may have impaired his vivacity, but his last years were serene; and, whenever it was discussed whether a man would like to live his life over again, my father always expressed himself so well satisfied with his career that he would willingly run it once more.”He took little heed of what men said of him, whether in blame or in praise, but steadily went on his way with undeviating constancy, firmness, and good temper. His theological opponents, as well as his nearer friends, bore testimony to his uprightness; and his character gained for him among all classes of the community in which he lived a solid influence and respect such as I have never known exceeded—indeed, I think I may say that it has not been equalled.

The Hon. Levi Lincoln, Governor of Massachusetts and United States senator, wrote of Dr. Bancroft :

He was of small stature, of spare and slight habit, but of elastic and firm step; his manners and personal address courteous and affable, his conversation earnest and impressive, and his general appearance and bearing that of the accomplished gentleman of the old school. The prominent traits of his intellectual and moral character were, I think, careful observation, deep reflection, and great decision. He had the clearest perception of the character of others, and indeed was rarely deceived in a first estimate of their worth. His own standard of merit was of the highest order, and he made no compromises with, and had no apologies for, selfishness or meanness or vice. As a scholar, he had rich and varied attainments, and was a ready and vigorous writer. In connection with his pastoral duties he devoted much time and attention to the cause of general education, and during his long ministry, and, I believe, to the very end, was associated with the management of the public schools of the town, and one of the most persevering and efficient advocates of their constantly progressive improvement.

In the pulpit the manner of Dr. Bancroft was neither graceful nor impressive. His voice was not strong or musical, but there was often, especially in prayer, an earnestness and a fervency which gave it deep pathos and effect. His printed works—his sermons and his Life of Washington particularly—will testify to his fidelity of research and his powers of ratiocination and expression. In the social relations of life no man was more interesting. His society was everywhere sought and greatly cherished. He attracted the young, instructed the active and the busy, sympathized with the aged and the afflicted, and was at once the beloved and the venerated of his parish and the family circle.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing’s Platform

“Lecture I: 1825,” by Virgil E. Murdock