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Jeremy Belknap, the eldest child of Joseph and Sarah (Byles) Belknap, was born in Boston, June 4, 1744. His mother was a niece of the celebrated Dr. Mather Byles. His father was a leather-dresser and dealer in furs and skins. Both his parents were members of the Old South Church. After having been for some time under the instruction of that celebrated teacher, Master Lovell, young Belknap entered Harvard College at the close of 1758, when he was in his fifteenth year. He graduated in July, 1762, and immediately after took charge of the grammar school at Milton. Here he continued, with the exception of a brief interval during the next winter, until March, 1764. One of his pupils was Peter Thacher, afterward the Rev. Dr. Thacher of Brattle Street Church, Boston; and there grew up between them an affectionate and enduring intimacy.
About the close of the year 1764 he took charge of a school at Portsmouth, N.H., and became a boarder in the family of the Rev. (afterward Dr.) Samuel Haven. The next summer he accepted an invitation to take charge of a school at Greenfield, a few miles from Portsmouth; and here he continued till he entered on the work of the ministry.
His first sermon was preached at Portsmouth in the pulpit of his friend Mr. Haven; and for several succeeding months he was engaged in preaching in different parishes in that neighborhood. His services met with uncommon acceptance; and in July, 1766, he was invited to preach at Dover, as an assistant of the Rev. Mr. Cushing, who was disabled by bodily infirmity. He accepted the invitation, and before the close of the following winter received a formal call to settle as Mr. Cushing’s colleague, which he accepted. There was, however, one difficulty in the way of his acceptance of the call, which, but for the strong attachment to him, would probably have been insurmountable. The church had been accustomed to receive members on the plan of the Half-way Covenant, which he was fully persuaded was unscriptural and of evil tendency. He announced that he could never recognize that principle. The church yielded to his wishes, and from that time the Half-way Covenant had no existence among them. His ordination took place on the 18th of February, 1767, and the sermon was preached by the Rev. Mr. Haven, of Portsmouth. In June succeeding his ordination he was married to Ruth, daughter of Samuel Eliot, of Boston.
Mr. Belknap had the spirit of an earnest patriot, and was awake to every movement that betokened good or ill to his country. Both voice and pen were put in requisition in the cause of freedom. During the excitement and distress occasioned by the Boston Port Act, he made a most impressive appeal to the sympathies of the people of New Hampshire, in aid of their afflicted friends; and about the same time he wrote a scathing address “To the Gentlemen of the Army, now encamped on Boston Common.” While Boston was occupied by the British troops, he went thither in great haste to effect the removal of his parents; and, after a detention of some time in the neighborhood, he finally succeeded in accomplishing his object. They both subsequently lived with him at Dover. His mother died in 1784, aged sixty-nine; his father, in 1797, aged eighty-one.
In July, 1775, he was chosen by the New Hampshire Committee of Safety to be chaplain to their troops at Cambridge; but, owing to his precarious health, he felt constrained to decline. In October following he visited the camp at Cambridge, where he became acquainted with several of the most distinguished officers of the army, and had the honor of dining with Dr. Franklin, who was there on public business as one of a Committee from the Continental Congress.
In July, 1784, he made a tour to the White Mountains, in company with six other gentlemen. A record of this journey, in considerable detail, is preserved in the third volume of his History of New Hampshire, though he makes no allusion to his having himself been one of the party. In June, 1785, he preached the Annual Election Sermon before the General Court of New Hampshire, on “The True Interest of the State, and the Best Means of Promoting its Prosperity.” This patriotic and well-reasoned production was published and widely read.
From the beginning of his ministry at Dover he had been subjected to no little embarrassment by reason of the failure of his congregation to fulfil their financial engagements with him. At length the evil became so great that both his duty and his interest forbade farther endurance of it. Accordingly, in September, 1786, he resigned, although he had at the time no other place of settlement in view, and a family dependent upon him.
In 1784 his first volume of the History of New Hampshire was published by the aid of his friend, Ebenezer Hazard, of Philadelphia. The second and third volumes were published at Boston in 1791 and 1792. The idea of such a work seems to have occurred to him as early as 1772; and it occupied his attention, in a greater or less degree, from that time till its completion. The project at an early period found favor with his friend Governor Wentworth, who cheerfully gave him access to his papers, and lent him whatever aid was in his power. It is unnecessary to add anything in commendation of a work that at once took its place among the standard histories.
After resigning his charge at Dover, he preached successively, for some time, at Exeter, Concord, Beverly, and some other places. While he was at Exeter, an insurrection occurred there, which is somewhat memorable in the annals of New Hampshire, and of which his History of the State contains a minute and interesting account. The church in Long Lane (now Federal Street), Boston, having exchanged the Presbyterian for the Congregational form of government, and being at that time vacant, in consequence of the resignation of the Rev. Robert Annan, Mr. Belknap was called in January, 1787, to take the pastoral charge of it. The engagement of the society was as follows:
We promise to pay him for his support, from the time he commences his charge, the sum of two pounds, eight shillings, lawful money, per week, or quarterly, if he chooses it, during the whole time of his ministry among us; and, in case our society shall increase, and the pews be all occupied, the salary shall then be increased to a comfortable support.
Mr. Belknap had for many years been deeply interested in the freedom of African Americans. The subject had occupied both his mind and his pen during the Revolutionary War; but in the year 1788 he drew up a petition to the General Court for the abolition of the slave trade, which, being seconded by his brethren in the ministry of various denominations, as well as by a large number of other citizens, actually prevailed to the passage of the desired act. He afterward corresponded on this subject with Moses Brown, the well-known philanthropist of Providence, and was elected a member of the Society for Abolishing the Slave Trade in Rhode Island.
In 1792 he was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Harvard College.
Dr. Belknap’s taste for historical research gave rise to that noble institution—the Massachusetts Historical Society. He formed the plan of it as early as 1790, and in 1791 it was actually organized. It was incorporated in 1794, with the Hon. James Sullivan president, the Rev. James Freeman recording secretary, and Dr. Belknap corresponding secretary. In 1792 he delivered, by request of this society, a discourse to commemorate the discovery of America by Columbus. In 1794 he published the first volume of American biography, entitled “An Historical Account of those Persons who have been distinguished in America as Adventurers, Statesmen, Philosophers, Divines, Warriors, Authors, and Other Remarkable Characters.” He lived to complete the second volume, but not to see it from the press, as the printing was in progress at the time of his death. He seems to have planned this work at least as early as 1779, and he must have been carrying forward this and his History at the same time, in an address in 1854, before the New York Historical Society, William Cullen Bryant said that Jeremy Belknap had the “high merit of being the first to make American history attractive.” It may be added that he was also the first to bring to the search for the materials of history a thoroughly historical taste and an impartial judgment. He was not only the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, but its most efficient member and the master spirit in its counsels and works. This society, as part of the celebration of its one hundredth anniversary, published three handsome and well-edited volumes of the “Belknap Papers.” The first two volumes contained the correspondence between Dr. Belknap and Ebenezer Hazard, Postmaster-General of the United States; and these letters are a mine of curious and valuable information concerning the struggles and aspirations of American authors and about the quickened intellectual activities of the times. The last volume contains the letters of many distinguished Americans addressed to Dr. Belknap. Among the writers are: John and Abigail Adams; Noah Webster; Morse, the geographer; Rush, the philanthropist; Walton, the naturalist; Ramsay and Gordon, the historians; General Lincoln; Rev. Joseph Buckminster; Sir John Wentworth; and, most frequently, Dr. John Eliot.
In 1795 he published Dissertations on the Character, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Evidence of his Gospel; and in the same year his famous Hymn-book, concerning which he says in his preface:
In this selection those Christians, who do not scruple to sing praises to their Redeemer and Sanctifier, will find materials for such a sublime employment; whilst others, whose tenderness of conscience may oblige them to confine their addresses to the Father only, will find no deficiency of matter suited to their idea of the chaste and awful spirit of devotion.
For many years this collection was extensively used in the New England churches.
In 1796 he preached the Annual Convention Sermon before the Congregational clergy of Massachusetts. In it he illustrates with great felicity the peculiar trials of ministers, and shows that, with all the prudence that marked his character, he was far from lacking in independence.
In the same year he went, in company with Dr. Morse, in behalf of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, to visit the Indians at Oneida and Stockbridge in the State of New York. Notwithstanding his journey was a very pleasant one, the result of his visit to the Indians was a conviction that little was to be hoped for in respect to civilizing or Christianizing them. He withdrew from the society shortly afterward.
On the 20th of June, 1798, at four o’clock in the morning, Dr. Belknap died suddenly of apoplexy. His funeral was attended on the 22d, and the sermon on the occasion was preached by the Rev. Dr. Kirkland. He left a widow and five children. Mrs. Belknap, a lady of high intellectual and moral qualities, and loved by a large circle of friends, died January 20, 1809.
Dr. Belknap was an overseer of Harvard College, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary member of the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia, a member of the Humane Society, etc. It was matter of conscience with him to discharge the duties belonging to these various relations with the utmost punctuality and fidelity.
First Person Accounts of Jeremy Belknap
The following estimate of Dr. Belknap’s character as a minister is from Dr. Kirkland’s sermon at his funeral:
If a judicious and seasonable choice of subjects, pertinency of thoughts, clearness of method, and warmth of application; if language plain and perspicuous, polished and nervous; if striking illustrations; if evangelical doctrines and motives; if a seriousness and fervor evincing that the preacher’s own mind was affected; if a pronunciation free and natural, distinct and emphatical, be excellences in public teaching—you, my brethren of this society, have possessed them in your deceased pastor. Your attention was never drawn from the great practical views of the gospel by the needless introduction of controversial subjects, and your minds perplexed, nor your devotional feelings damped by the cold subtleties of metaphysic. His preaching was designed to make you good and happy, and not to gain your applause; whilst the manner, as well as matter, was suited to affect the heart, no attempt was made to overbear your imaginations, and excite your passions by clamorous and affected tones.
You are witnesses to what is lost no less in private conduct and example than in public ministrations, how well his life became his doctrine; how the divine, moral, and social virtues appeared in him in the various scenes of life, in the hours of adversity, and in his intercourse with his people. You are witnesses how kind and inoffensive, yet plain and sincere, was his demeanor towards you; how tender and sympathetic were his feelings; for he could say, ‘Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is offended and I burn not? Have I not wept with him who was in trouble?’ You are witnesses how useful was his conversation, how simple and unaffected were his manners. The sick are witnesses of his attention, his fidelity, and tenderness, in comforting the believing, in warning the sinner, and confirming the doubtful. The unreasonable and censorious are witnesses of his patience and indulgence; the unbelieving of his desire to convince them; the afflicted and despondent of the sweetness of his consolations and his gentle encouragement; the poor of his ready advice and assistance, and, to the extent of his abilities, his alms; the rich of his Christian independence united with a becoming complaisance; and the profligate of his grief for their depravity, of his utter disapprobation of their characters.
The Hon. Josiah Quincy, president of Harvard College, wrote of Dr. Belknap:
The habit of his body was plethoric, and indicated a tendency to apoplexy, of which he died. His general aspect was heavy, and of that mixed impression conveyed by an acquaintance with mankind, superinduced on a studious and retired life. There was a suavity in his manner, which won an interest for what he said, combined with a simplicity both of language and bearing, the effect of which I cannot better express than by calling it taking.
In conversation he was unobtrusive, never assuming to lead; and his partaking in it seemed rather a deference to the apparent expectation, or expressed wish, of others than any particular desire of his own. When he did speak, he never failed to satisfy, for it was always to the point, often pithy; and, if the subject admitted, a flash of wit would enliven his thought, and show that an electric power resided under that heavy and clouded brow. Kindness and good humor predominated both in his look and address. He possessed a natural vein of humor, of which something is shown in his tale of “The Foresters,” and which, when touched by the occasion, gave a quiet, yet stimulating, raciness to his remarks.
Undoubtedly, he was a man greatly respected and beloved by his contemporaries. He filled a wide space in the history of his own time, which the events of the future, however crowded may be the canvas with distinguished men, cannot wholly obliterate from memory.
The Rev. John Pierce, D.D., wrote:
His features were small, and his face much pitted with the small-pox. His talents and acquirements were universally acknowledged to be of a high order, and few of his contemporaries in the ministry shared more largely than he in public favor. His prayers in public were but little varied, and he was almost motionless in the pulpit. Scarcely did he appear even to move his lips. Still he was always listened to with attention, on account of the vigorous tone of thought and perspicuity of expression which pervaded all his public performances. As a striking instance of both his reserve in speaking and his facility in writing, Dr. Freeman, who knew him intimately, told me that in ‘society meetings’ he would often choose to express what he had to say to a neighbor by writing rather than by speaking.
One of Dr. Belknap’s most intimate friends was Dr. Clarke, whom he survived only about twelve weeks. Never shall I lose the impression of the touching and beautiful tribute which Dr. Belknap paid to the memory of his friend at the next Thursday lecture after their separation took place, when he took for his text that tender and beautiful expression of our Saviour concerning Lazarus— “Our friend sleepeth.” His whole heart was in his utterances, and the whole audience seemed moved by a common sympathy.