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Jonathan Mayhew was a son of the Rev. Experience Mayhew, of Martha’s Vineyard, where he was born, October 8, 1720. He was a descendant, in the fourth generation, from Thomas Mayhew, the first English settler and proprietor of that island. In early life he gave indications of great vigor of mind and an unyielding firmness of purpose, and under the influence of a Christian education imbibed a deep reverence for religion, without, however, as it would seem, at any time receiving the doctrines of the accredited orthodox creed. Of the particulars of his childhood and early youth no record now remains; but it seems probable that he fitted for college under the instruction of his father. While young Mayhew was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he made a visit to York, in Maine, at the time of a great revival in that place; and it would seem that the observations which he made then had much to do in giving direction to his feeling and speech about the irrational extravagance in religion ever afterwards. He graduated with honor in 1744, being then twenty-four years of age.
During the three years immediately subsequent to his leaving college, he seems to have been engaged part of the time in teaching, part of the time in the study of theology at Cambridge, and it is thought that he spent a short time also in the family of Dr. Gay, of Hingham.
His earliest efforts in the pulpit excited no inconsiderable attention. The church in Cohasset soon gave him a call to settle among them, but he declined it. On the 6th of March, 1747, the West Church in Boston invited him to become their pastor. From its origin in 1737 the West Church had been suspected of liberal tendencies by the stricter Puritans of the neighboring churches. Its first minister, William Hooper, for whom or by whom the church was gathered, was certainly not a Calvinist in his theology. In one of his Thursday Lectures he gave great offence to his brother ministers, who subjected him to intolerant criticism on account of what they deemed his heresies concerning the divine nature. Stung by their arbitrary indictment, he withdrew to the fellowship of the Church of England, and was afterwards the rector of Trinity Church in Boston. His son, a Harvard graduate, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Hooper had not failed to communicate his own instinctive independence of mind and breadth of vision to his people of the West Church; and, in their choice of Mayhew to be his successor, they virtually challenged the stricter churches with the controversy which soon ensued.
On the day first appointed for the ordination only two of the clergymen invited were in attendance, owing, as it was understood, to rumors about the theological unsoundness of the candidate. Those two did not think proper to proceed, but advised the calling of another and a larger council. This advice was complied with. A council consisting of fourteen ministers, not one of whom, however, was from Boston, was convoked; and ten of these assembled on the 17th of June, and harmoniously inducted the candidate into office. Most of the members of the council who were present were reckoned among the “liberal” men of that day, though there must have been considerable difference in their religious views; and Dr. Appleton (of Cambridge) at least was understood to sympathize doctrinally with the stricter school. The sermon on the occasion was preached by Dr. Gay, of Hingham, and the charge was given by the father of Mr. Mayhew.
That Mayhew’s liberal opinions were already considered heretical may be inferred not only from the fact that no Boston minister took part in his ordination, but from another equally significant circumstance; namely, that he never became a member of the Boston Association of Congregational Ministers. It was customary to apply for admission; but it is presumed that he never applied, as no record of any such application appears in the minutes. In consequence of this he did not join with the other ministers of Boston in maintaining the Thursday Lecture, though he soon set up a Weekly Lecture in his own church which excited great attention, and attracted many people from other churches in the town. Most of the discourses which were preached on these occasions were subsequently published. In a letter which he wrote to his father, not long after his settlement, he says, “The clergy of the town stand aloof from me, and I have to study hard, so that I cannot soon visit you as I intended and desired.” This practical exclusion from orthodox fellowship was not without justification, for Mayhew’s opinions were certainly alien to the prevailing theology of New England. He was a thorough radical, a redoubtable pioneer. From his pulpit, two years after his settlement, his friend, young Lemuel Briant, of Braintree (Quincy), preached the sermon that John Adams called the first gun of the Unitarian controversy. If that sermon was the signal gun, Mayhew’s discourses in the succeeding years were a whole battery of heavy artillery. He did not practice the reticence which marked so many of his contemporaries who really shared many of his convictions. He spoke out with fearless candor and tremendous force. He was, as described by one of his successors, the “first preacher in Boston of an un-trinitarian God, most potent clerical asserter in America of civil and religious freedom … a master-workman, Christ-like, who broke down the partition wall between secular and religious affairs, peerless in intellect … a communicant who, fresh from the table of the Lord’s Supper, wrote to James Otis: “Communion of churches! Why not communion of the colonies?”
If Dr. Gay diffused liberal sentiments by personal intercourse and Dr. Chauncy by his voluminous publications, Dr. Mayhew was the orator of the movement towards the reaffirmation of pure Christianity. When Dr. John G. Palfrey, the historian of New England, was asked to name the representative American orator whose statue should stand with those of Demosthenes, Cicero, and Chatham in the decoration of a public building, he answered, “Jonathan Mayhew.” Robert Treat Paine declared him the father of civil and religious liberty in America. Dr. Bartol called him “the great American divine,” saying,
Others have doubtless excelled him in particular areas, as Edwards in metaphysical talent and Hopkins in application to theological studies, Channing in extent of moral reflection, Buckminster in peculiar charms of speech; but, in broad relation to the public welfare, in power to unseal the fountains of influence into rivers which, like mountain streams, determine the very shape and fashion of a country, he conspicuously transcended them all…. For grandeur of aim and mighty will to bring to pass his purposes put him in the first rank of human spirits.
But, while Mayhew by temperament and by opportunity was chiefly influential as an orator, yet he was also a reformer, a scholar, and a trenchant writer on themes both theological and political. It is by his books and his controversial pamphlets that the generations that know not the charm of his personality and the power of his speech must chiefly discover his quality. His writings clearly indicate the extent of his departure from the prevalent theology of his time.
In 1755 he published a volume of sermons on the “Doctrines of Grace.” At the end of the volume is a sermon on the shortness of life, in which there is a note on the doctrine of the Trinity, which betrayed the fact that he had become a Unitarian. Dr. Mayhew was, at this time, scribe of the Massachusetts Convention of Congregational Ministers. When the scribe was to be appointed the next year, some member of the body rose, and objected to the re-election of Dr. Mayhew. Said another member, “There is no danger of his getting any Arianism into the minutes of the convention.” “Not into the text, but he will foist it into some note,” was the reply.
In 1762 Dr. Mayhew published two sermons delivered on the day of public Thanksgiving, on “The Extent of the Divine Goodness,” in which he put forth views startlingly modern in scope and tone. The Rev. John Cleaveland, of Ipswich, the next year published “Strictures” on these discourses, which Mayhew and his friends pronounced to be destitute alike of truth and candor. Mayhew wrote a pamphlet of considerable length in reply, in which he pours upon his unfortunate adversary such a torrent of invective as is rarely to be met with in the records of theological controversy.
The next year the Rev. East Apthorp published a pamphlet entitled “Considerations on the Institution and Conduct of the Society for Propagating the Gospel,” which occasioned a violent controversy, in which Mayhew bore a prominent part. He wrote a pamphlet entitled “Observations on the Character and Conduct of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts,” etc. This was answered by several members of the society in America and by Dr. Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury. Mayhew replied to a pamphlet entitled “A Candid Examination of Observations,” etc. This was again answered in an anonymous tract, and this again drew from Mayhew a second defence of his “Observations,” which, though sufficiently pungent, was less scathing than the preceding one.
In these writings are to be discovered almost all the fundamental principles of modern liberalism, an ardent passion for liberty of conscience and of speech, a vindication of the right of private judgment, an affirmation of character as the only test of faith. Of Calvinism there is practically none, but in its place a free, generous treatment of Scripture, a reaffirmation of the teaching of Jesus, an almost transcendental idea of God, which is a constant surprise to readers who belong to a generation prone to believe that its cherished liberalism is of modern origin. Dr. James Freeman, thirty years afterwards the minister of the first avowedly Unitarian church in Boston, stated that Mayhew had anticipated him in all his theological conclusions. His daughter testified that “there is no doubt … of his having asserted the Unity of God, in the most unequivocal manner, as early as the year 1753”; and she quotes passages from unpublished sermons which declare this belief explicitly.
But Jonathan Mayhew was not only the foremost pulpit orator of New England and a pioneer of religious freedom; he was also the fervent patriot, the torchbearer who lighted the fires of his country’s liberties. He was not only the associate, but the inspirer of the leaders of the patriot cause in the days before the Revolution. James Otis, John and Samuel Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine were among his intimate friends. He was also the best known of the American Whigs in England, and through an extensive correspondence did much to influence the opinions and actions of the enlightened Englishmen who opposed the arbitrary course of the British government.
In June, 1766, Dr. Mayhew addressed a letter to James Otis, showing the deep interest which he took in the political state of the country, and how important he considered it that a good understanding should be maintained among the different colonies. In this letter he states incidentally his intention to set out for Rutland the next morning, to assist at an ecclesiastical council. The meeting of the council was on the 10th of June, and he attended and officiated as scribe. The matters referred to the adjudication of the council were of a perplexing nature, tasking in a high degree the feelings as well as the wisdom of its members. Dr. Mayhew returned home in wet weather and on horseback, fatigued in body and mind, and was almost immediately seized with a violent fever. He died on the 9th of July, in the forty-sixth year of his age. Dr. Lowell states the following circumstance:
When all hope of his recovery was gone, Dr. Cooper, an orthodox neighbor, said to him, “Tell me, dear sir, if you retain the sentiments which you have taught, and what are your views?” With firmness, though with difficulty, he said, taking him affectionately by the hand, “I hold fast mine integrity, and it shall not depart from me.”
Dr. Chauncy prayed at his funeral, and it is said to have been the first prayer ever offered at a funeral in Boston, so scrupulous were our fathers to avoid what might seem the least approach to the practice of praying for the dead. Dr. Chauncy preached a funeral sermon on the following Sabbath, and in a fortnight from that time another was preached by the Rev. Dr. Gay.
In 1756 Dr. Mayhew, at the age of thirty-five, was married to Elizabeth, daughter of John Clark, Esq., of Boston, a lady remarkable for her beauty and accomplishments. After he paid his addresses to her, an attempt was made to prevent the wedding by means of representations to her parents of his being unsound in the faith, but the marriage proved an exceedingly happy one. Dr. Mayhew left two children. His widow was afterwards married to his successor, the Rev. Dr. Howard.