CHURCH, BENJAMIN. (1734–1778?). Informer. Massachusetts. Born at Newport, Rhode Island, on 24 August 1734, Church graduated from Harvard College in 1754. After studying medicine under Dr. Joseph Pynchon, he went to the London Medical College, returning in 1759 with an English wife, Sarah Hill.
A talented man, Church quickly became one of Boston's leading doctors and was also well-known for his speaking and writing abilities as a member of the Patriots' Committee of Correspondence. On 6 March 1770 he accompanied those who officially protested the Boston Massacre, and the deposition he made after examining the body of Crispus Attucks was printed with other Patriot propaganda. In 1773 the town meeting selected Church to deliver the commemoration on the anniversary of the Massacre, in which he attacked British rule.
At the time of his election to the Provincial Congress in 1774, Paul Revere began to suspect Church of feeding information to Governor Thomas Hutchinson. On 22 April 1775, three days after the fighting at Lexington and Concord, he went to Boston on the pretext of getting medicines and claimed to have been captured and taken before General Gage. Most Patriot leaders accepted his story, and on 25 July 1775 Congress appointed Dr. Church chief physician to the Continental army at Cambridge. Meanwhile, Church had given Gage more than a month's advance notice that the Americans intended to fortify the Charlestown and Dorchester peninsulas, and he informed the British of business being conducted by the Provincial Congress.
Church proved a poor administrator. An investigation into his performance cleared him of misconduct, but he sought to resign on 20 September only to be dissuaded by Washington, who was desperate for capable doctors. The treason of Church came to light just a few days later, when Nathanael Greene brought Washington a coded letter that had been picked up in Newport when Church's mistress attempted to deliver it to a British officer there. Church was arrested on 29 September and his papers seized. Joseph Reed's search of his papers revealed nothing except that somebody—possibly Benjamin Thompson—had culled them just before Reed's arrival. The mysterious letter of 22 July was deciphered by two amateur cryptologists working independently, the Reverend West and Colonel Elisha Porter, and proved to be an intelligence report. In it Church told of his activities, described the strength and strategic plans of American forces, and mentioned the Patriot plan for commissioning privateers. After giving elaborate instructions for sending a reply, Church's letter ended: "Make use of every precaution or I perish."
Washington presided over a council of war on 3-4 October. Church insisted that he was just attempting to confuse the enemy, correctly stating that much of his information was false. The inquiry concluded that Church was guilty of communicating with the enemy, but Washington and his generals found that the articles of war did not provide for any sentence more severe than cashiering, forfeiture of two months' pay, or thirty-nine lashes. Church was confined at Cambridge while Washington awaited instructions from Congress. On 27 October the Massachusetts legislature heard his case, and on 2 November expelled him from that body. On congressional orders he was then transferred under guard to the jail in Norwich, Connecticut. Church petitioned Congress in January 1776 for mitigation of his close confinement, which had brought on severe asthma. The delegates directed Governor Trumbull to move the prisoner to a more healthful place, but on 13 May they received another petition from the Norwich jail that showed he was still there and, according to the certificate of three doctors, in dangerously bad health. Since the British had by then evacuated Boston, Congress gave him permission to return to his home, where he was to remain under house arrest. However, after a mob attacked his home, he was moved to the Boston jail. In June 1777, General William Howe attempted to arrange an exchange for Church, but Congress refused. On 9 January 1778, the Massachusetts legislature finally decided to allow Church to leave, ordering him placed aboard the sloop Welcome, which was bound for the island of Martinique. The ship vanished in a violent storm.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
[See also Philip.]
Thomas Church , Entertaining Passages Relating to King Philip's War, 1716.
H. M. Dexter, ed., The History of the Eastern Expeditions of 1689, 1692, 1696, and 1704, 1867.