When the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew died in Boston on July 9, 1766 his moral, religious, and political legacy was far from accomplished. Indeed years and decades would unfold before the depth of his influence became apparent in a new nation and in a new faith. Mayhew, then only 46 years old, was the minister of Old West Church, and much beloved by his congregation and admired by the hot heads and radicals being rallied by Samuel Adams who would soon become the Sons of Liberty. He was decidedly unpopular among the majority of his ministerial peers, conservative civic leaders, and with the Royal Governor of Massachusetts and his Council.
Mayhew was born on Martha’s Vineyard on October 8, 1720, a fifth generation descendent of Thomas Mayhew, the Elder who first arrived in the New World with the Great Migration fleet of Puritan settlers in 1631. Ten years later the original Mayhew secured a proprietary colony grant for Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, the Elizabeth Islands, and other small islands. Installing himself as governor he began populating his grant with new immigrants and also established his own farm and whaling operations. Thomas, his son, and grandson also were missionaries among the local Wampanoag and established such fair and friendly relations with the natives. They made clear that religion and governance were separate. The tribe was welcome to embrace Christianity, but Mayhew was at pains to assure them that their governance and lands were secure on their own. Relations were so good that despite vastly outnumbering the settlers the local Wampanoag did not join the general uprising known as King Philips War that almost wiped out the Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1675-76.
Although the small proprietary colony was absorbed by Massachusetts after 1688, the family, or much of it, remained on the island in relative isolation from the mainstream of Puritan society. Devoutly religious, their local version of the Congregationalist New England Standing Order drifted from the harsh and rigid Calvinism of the main land.
Young Jonathan, noted for his scholarly bent, left the island to pursue the Lord’s work as a student of the factory of divines, Harvard College. Upon graduation Mayhew he found New England in a religious upheaval. The Connecticut minister and Theologian Jonathan Edwards had helped inaugurate the first round of revival meetings in the 1730’s. In 1841 he scared the hell out New England with his fiery sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God which quickly became the first big best seller in the Colonies in pamphlet form. Mayhew rejected Edwards view declaring that “total depravity both dishonourable to the character of God and a libel on human nature.” He likewise rejected the five points of Calvinism including the doctrine of irresistible grace and the doctrine of the Trinity as taught by the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds.
At the same time Mayhew also rejected the Great Awakening—the first of a series of huge revival movements that have periodically swept Americans up into a religious frenzy. Mayhew had seen the principle mover of the Awakening, the English preacher and revivalist George Whitefield, an Anglican preacher who became a founding figure in Methodism, at camp meetings in what is now Maine. He was repulsed by the mindless emotionalism he witnessed which he suspected would burn brightly but soon extinguish itself. He found Whitefield’s followers, ‘of the more illiterate sort,” and the preaching “confused, conceited and enthusiastic.” He was repelled by the “extravagance and fanaticism, and violent gestures and shrieks” of people in the throes of religious ecstasy.
Mayhew made his views publicly know. He proposed a third path based on religious rationalism and a view of a loving, but firm God as father as revealed in a careful reading and analysis of the Bible. These view made it difficult for the young minister to find a parish. But in 1747 West Church in Boston, one of the city’s nine Congregational Churches—and the least prosperous—called him to be their minister. Only two of the other ministers in the city would even agree, as was customary, to be at the service of installation and ordination for the customary laying on of hands, symbolizing a welcome into the ministerial community. One prominent minister is known to have scolded his barber when the man expressed interest in hearing Mayhew warning him not to go hear “that heretic.”
Shortly after assuming the pulpit Mayhew crossed the ocean to pursue his doctorate of divinity at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, an intellectual hot bed of the Scottish Enlightenment. Although the liberal ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were taking hold among a young and rising generation of Virginia Tidewater aristocrats, they were a novelty in New England where most ministers who pursued advanced degrees in the mother country did so at firmly Puritan institutions.
Despite the cold shoulder of his colleagues, Mayhew perused a ministry that presaged Unitarianism—a theological position that did not even yet have a name—by more than two decades. His belief in a firm, fair, and loving God/king led him to believe that even the worst sinners, after a period of punishment and reflection, could be reconciled and dwell thereafter in Heaven with the saints and the angels. This was a kind of universalism, making Mayhew probably the first North American preacher to combine the two ideas which became the two streams of modern Unitarian Universalism.
But Mayhew, however far seeing and a religious pioneer, is best remembered for the political sermons that helped stir rebellion.
His most famous and influential sermon was preached on the centennial of the execution of King Charles I, January 30, 1750. Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers refuted the growing opinion that the king was a martyr. It was a long, scholarly history of the monarchy and the development of the English constitution and built a Biblical argument against the Devine Right of Kings and in favor of popular resistance to unjust government in answer to a higher law. He concluded that the execution of Charles was justified when he when he “too greatly infringed upon British liberties. It was also a lesson for any future monarch with inclinations to despotism.
The sermon was widely printed and circulated as a pamphlet, for a while supplanting Jonathan Edwards old screed in popularity. It was also reprinted in London in 1752 and again in 1767 as relations between the Mother Country and the Colonies were reaching crisis. Mayhew became an international celebrity, albeit a highly controversial one. His radicalism was denounced from other pulpits, and, of course, condemned by authorities.
But Sam Adams and his boys and a rising generation of patriots did listen. Years later Sam’s cousin John Adams would recall, that Mayhew’s sermon “was read by everybody.” Some would call it the intellectual opening salvo in the run-up the American Revolution.
Mayhew continued to preach influential, widely circulated sermons including two election day charges in 1750 and 1754 election sermons espousing colonial rights and the civic duty to resist tyranny. He became particularly aroused with the imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765. The essence of slavery, he argued in a new sermon, consists in subjection to others—“whether many, few, or but one, it matters not.” The day after his sermon, a Boston mob attacked and destroyed Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson’s house. Mayhew and his sermon were held responsible by the “respectable citizens of Boston.”
In 1763 Mayhew rebuked the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for its plans to dispatch missionaries, priests, and teachers to the Colonies as well as the eminent appointment of an Anglican Bishop. He regarded all of this as a camel’s nose under the tent meant to bring the colonies back into conformity with the Crown and its institutions.
In 1765 Mayhew was invited by Harvard to deliver the annual Dudlean Lecture on religion. This was a rare show of approval from the New England establishment and an acknowledgement of his popular leadership against the Crown.
The Snare Broken was a thanksgiving discourse preached by Mayhew on May 23, 1766 occasioned by Parliament’s repeal of the Stamp Act. It was a warning to William Pitt and others in England who he knew would read it that taking self-government into private hands in some circumstances must surely proceed from “self-preservation, being a great and primary law of nature.”
Weeks after delivering this last famous salvo, Mayhew died. Most of the Boston clergy still avoided his funeral as did virtually all officeholders.
In addition to his influence on the Sons of Liberty and the American Revolution, Mayhew’s religious ideas, except for his proto-universalism, were quietly adopted by a new generation of Harvard graduates and ministers. In the years following the revolution all most all Boston churches affiliated with the Standing Order were quietly but unofficially unitarian. An open break with the Congregationalists however would not come until William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore sermon in 1819. Ironically Mayhew’s old congregation Old West would be one of only two Boston churches to remain with the orthodox Congregationalists.