Mayhew, Jonathan (1720-1766)
Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766)
Early Training. Jonathan Mayhew was born on the small island of Martha’s Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast, on 8 October 1720. His father, Experience Mayhew, was the missionary to the Indians there, a post the Mayhew family had filled since 1641. The Vineyard mission was one of the few successful English ventures to Christianize Native Americans, and during Jonathan’s youth the Chilmark congregation, as it was called, was a peaceful church, although its numbers were declining as the Indian population decreased. Experience nurtured his converts faithfully, defending them against spurious land claims and the rigors of orthodox Calvinism, which he came to see as too harsh a system of religion for Indians and whites alike. He struggled to obtain adequate funds to support his work. Jonathan’s elder brother Nathan was marked to attend college and follow in his father’s footsteps as a missionary, but his early death left Jonathan to assume this family duty.
Reason. Mayhew kept his father’s liberal religious ideas with him as he attended Harvard College, graduating in 1744. There he embraced the rationalist Congregationalism that was a hallmark of the training Harvard offered at that time. Particularly important was the teaching of Professor Edward Wigglesworth, a leading spokesman for rational religion and against the emotionalism of the revivals of the 1730s and 1740s. In 1742 Mayhew briefly turned to revivalism after hearing the great evangelical preacher George Whitefield, but he soon rejected that kind of religion as “low, confused, puerile, conceited, ill-natur’d, [and] enthusiastik,” as he wrote to his father. In 1747 Mayhew became the minister of Boston’s West Congregational Church, where he worked for the rest of his life. From this pulpit Mayhew preached a rational religion that evolved into something quite different from its Puritan roots. Mayhew became an outspoken advocate of free rational inquiry into religious truth and argued that humans had the natural ability to come closer to God through that inquiry. He was a true Enlightenment figure, thinking of the practice of Christianity as a kind of science and even reading the radical French philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Mayhew ended by rejecting the orthodox beliefs in the three persons of God and in the predestination of a select few for salvation in favor of a faith in a universally benevolent God who loved all humans.
Controversies. Mayhew frequently came into conflict with others over religion, politics, and even social matters. An early sign was his lateness in marrying, unusual for a young minister with a good position. Instead of settling down, Mayhew enjoyed an active social life of dining out, hunting, and fishing, although he did not attend theatrical performances, which he considered immoral. His congregation’s criticism of this lifestyle ended when he married nine years after assuming his pulpit, but more serious opposition came from theological and political figures. Mayhew’s rational religion took him into public debates with John Cleaveland, a leading revivalist, and Samuel Hopkins, one of Jonathan Edwards’s students and a major figure in the New Divinity movement. Mayhew’s temper often got the better of him in these controversies, which fostered more bad feeling than mutual understanding. As early as 1754 Mayhew began another long conflict. This time his opponent was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the leading sponsor of Indian missions in colonial America. He criticized the society for using its resources in parts of New England that needed no missionaries and so failing to bring Native Americans to Christ, reflecting on the difficulties of his own family’s experiences with that task.
Politics. Criticism of Anglican missions brought Mayhew to a deeper skepticism about relations between England and America, coincided with the first political tensions between the two. Mayhew spoke out against rumors that the Anglican Church was preparing to send a bishop to America to better support its efforts there. Mayhew saw this effort as a significant threat to American religious liberty as it had existed in New England since the days of the Puritan founders. He recalled for his listeners and readers the sacrifices of English Puritans during their own revolution of the 1640s, as they opposed the tyranny of King Charles I and his bishops and struggled to worship God in accordance with their consciences. He argued that the English Puritans were right to oppose their king because he was unjust. This was a much more positive view of the English revolution than Americans had heard up to this period. Over time Mayhew expanded his thoughts to criticize the current English monarchy and its representatives in New England. Mayhew was never fully allied with American political leaders such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and he opposed the mobs who demonstrated against the Stamp Act. Yet Mayhew’s thoughts about religious freedom supported their emerging notions of political liberty. He preached his most famous sermon, “The Snare Broken,” in celebration of the repeal of the Stamp Act. In it he criticized mob violence but also spoke against England’s exploitation of America, setting the tone for the revolutionary era. He failed to see that emerge, however, having a stroke soon after this success and dying on 9 July 1766.
Charles W. Akers, Called Unto Liberty: A Life of Jonathan Mayhew, 1720–1766 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964);
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