The libel of PT Barnum (II)

What caused P.T. Barnum to take up the pen, publicly, for the first time in his life and to found, at the age of 21 a newspaper, the Herald of Freedom, was the need to publicly, violently and irrevocably break with the Presbyterian Church, the church of his mother, the church he attended his whole life. [Part I of this story is found here.]

The church had long been odious to him:

“I was educated in the strictest so-called ‘orthodox faith.’ When I was from ten to fourteen years of age, I attended prayer meetings where I could almost feel the burning waves and smell of the sulphurous fumes. I remember the shrieks and groans of suffering children and parents and even aged grand-parents. I would return to my home and with the utmost sincerity ask God to take me out of the world if He would only save me from Hell. I professed to love God, said I hoped I loved Him as I heard my elders do. Necessarily before this seething sulphurous sea of flame my love must have been similar to the love a woman would feel to a tyrant who with a loaded pistol pointed at her heart bade her love him or die. I grew to know that true love cannot be forced. We cannot love the unlovely. ‘We love Him because He first loved us.'” (Barnum, Why I am a Universalist [Universalist Series No. 1] (Boston: n.d.) reprint Kessinger Publishing (2006), p1.)

It perhaps would have been enough to simply quit now that he was married and not under the thumb of his pietistic mother. His grandfather, after all, was something of a Universalist, and his grandfather seemed to have provided him more emotional support than anyone else in his childhood and youth. But the Presbyterian Church had recently installed as minister (in September 1830) the grim and somewhat dim Rev. Erastus Cole (History of Danbury, Conn. 1684-18 from Notes and Manuscript Left by James Montgomery Bailey compiled with additions by Susan Benedict Hill (NY: 1896), p530). And under Cole in September-October 1831 the Church took up the revivalist paroxysms that were convulsing most of the country, but particularly New-England. This was evidently too much for Barnum, especially after the Danbury Recorder refused to publish his opinions on the subject, and the Herald of Freedom published its first issue on October 19, 1831.

It wasn’t the first time this sort of thing happened in New England. Jonathan Edwards started seeing great waves of revivals at his church in Northampton, Massachusetts nearly a century before. By 1735 it had become so remarkable, and widely known and commented on, that Edwards wrote a letter to Rev. Dr. Benjamin Colman on May  30 to explain it. The letter would become the basis of A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton …, first published in London in 1737 and later revised by Edwards and published in 1738 in Boston. The book contained Edwards’ clinical observations on the psychology of conversions (Edwards after all had read John Locke):

“Persons are first awakened with a sense of their miserable condition by nature, the danger they are in of perishing eternally, and that it is of great importance to them that they speedily escape and get into a better state. Those who before were secure and senseless, are made sensible how much they were in the way to ruin, in their former courses. Some are more suddenly seized with convictions–it may be, by the news of others’ conversion, or some thing they hear in public, or in private conference–their consciences are smitten, as if their hearts were pierced through with a dart. Others are awakened more gradually, they begin at first to be something more thoughtful and considerate, so as to come to a conclusion in their minds, that it is their best and wisest way to delay no longer, but to improve the present opportunity. …

“These awakenings when they have first seized on persons, have had two effects; one was, that they have brought them immediately to quit their sinful practices; and the looser sort have been brought to forsake and dread their former vices and extravagances. … The other effect was, that it put them on earnest application to the means of salvation, reading, prayer, meditation, the ordinances of God’s house, and private conference; their cry was, What shall we do to be saved? The place of resort was now altered, it was no longer the tavern, but the minister’s house that was thronged far more than ever the tavern had been wont to be.” (See Edwards on Revivals (NY: Dunning & Spaulding: 1832), pp49-50. This edition of the two major works by Edwards on the Eighteenth Century revivals in New England was brought out in the middle the Nineteenth Century revivals that so bothered Barnum.)

But Edwards also saw a more sinister aspect to these conversions, which he also described clinically:

“Many times persons under great awakenings were concerned, because they thought they were not awakened, but miserable, hard-hearted, senseless, sottish creatures still, and sleeping upon the brink of hell. … There have been some instances of persons who have had as great a sense of their danger and misery as their natures could well subsist under, so that a little more would probably have destroyed them; and yet they have expressed themselves much amazed at their own insensibility and sottishness at such an extraordinary time.

“Persons are sometimes brought to the borders of despair, and it looks as black as midnight to them a little before the day dawns in their souls. Some few instances there have been, of persons who have had such a sense of God’s wrath for sin, that they have been overborne; and made to cry out under an astonishing sense of their guilt, wondering that God suffers such guilty wretches to live upon earth, and that he doth not immediately send them to hell. …

“As they are gradually more and more convinced of the corruption and wickedness of their hearts, they seem to themselves to grow worse and worse, harder and blinder, and more desperately wicked, instead of growing better. They are ready to be discouraged by it, and oftentimes never think themselves so far off from good as when they are nearest. Under the sense which the Spirit of God gives them of their sinfulness, they often think that they differ from all others; their hearts are ready to sink with the thought that they are the worst of all, and that none ever obtained mercy who were so wicked as they.” (Edwards on Revivals, pp51-53.)

Even before Edwards finished his letter to Dr. Colman, there was evidence that this was not simply a psychological catharsis, however. On May 25 Thomas Stebbins attempted suicide. On June 2, 1735 Edwards’ uncle Joseph Hawley, a Northampton merchant, sliced his throat and bled to death. Edwards opened the letter to Colman to add:

“Since I wrote the foregoing letter, there has happened a thing of a very awful nature in the town. My Uncle Hawley, the last Sabbath-day morning, laid violent hands on himself, and put end to his life, by cutting his own throat. He had been for a considerable time greatly concerned about the condition of his soul; till by the ordering of a sovereign providence he was suffered to fall into deep melancholy, a distemper that the family are very prone to; he was much overpowered by it; the devil took the advantage and drove him into despairing thoughts. He was kept very much awake anights, so that he had but very little sleep for two months, till he seemed not to have his faculties in his own power. He was in a great measure past a capacity of receiving advice, or being reasoned with. The coroner’s inquest judged him delirious. Satan seems to be in a great rage, at this extraordinary breaking forth of the work of God. I hope it is because he knows that he has but a short time.” (C.C. Goen ed. of Edwards, The Great Awakening (New Haven: 1972), at 109-110).

But it was not an isolated case of melancholy, and it was spreading. Stephen Williams of Longmeadow noted in his diary on Sunday, July 13, 1735: “a most awful providence happened this day in the time of the afternoon exercises—N. Burt 2d cut his own throat. (See C.C. Goen ed. at 46 n7.) In his revised version of the letter for publication, Edwards described the “Decline and Defects of the Work”:

“The news of [Hawley’s suicide] extraordinarily affected the minds of the people here, and struck them as it were with astonishment. After this, multitudes in this and other towns seemed to have it strongly suggested to them, and pressed upon them, to do as this person had done. And many that seemed to be under no melancholy, some pious persons, that had no special darkness, or doubts about the goodness of their state, nor were under any special trouble or concern of mind about any thing spiritual or temporal, yet had it urged upon them, as if somebody had spoken to them, Cut your men throat, now is a good opportunity. Now, now! So that they were obliged to fight with all their might to resist it, and yet no reason suggested to them why they should do it.” (Edwards on Revivals, at 106.)

The suicide urge was effective in quelling the revivalist spirit, although Edwards viewed the lessening fervor in a different light — as a sign that “the Spirit of God was gradually withdrawing from us, and … Satan seemed more let loose …” (id. at 105.) Edwards’ fame had nonetheless been spread to the mother country. When Whitefield came, riding down and up the colonies leaving a foam of salvation in his wake, he made it a point to visit Edwards. Thus met the two great spokesmen for the grim Calvinist doctrine that the elect had been immutably determined an eternity before the creation of the Earth. And they discussed what effort was needful to have others join this group. Whitefield preached in Edwards’ church and reminded the faithful of the great upwelling not long before. And a tearful Edwards determined to have the Spirit descend once more — without regard to the obvious dangers that came in its wake. Whitefield travelled down the Connecticut Valley and relit the fires that Edwards had burning five years before. He would go to New Jersey to get the Presbyterian evangelist George Tenant to come to Boston to increase the conflagration. Edwards would minister far from his church as well. In July 1741 he preached his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in Enfield, Connecticut. By the end of summer the emotional outbursts were beginning again:

“The months of August and September were the most remarkable of any this year, for appearances of conviction and conversion of sinners, and great revivings, quickenings, and comforts of professors, and for extraordinary external effects of these things. It was a very frequent thing to see an house full of outcries, faintings, convulsions and such like, both with distress, and also with admiration and joy.” (Letter, Northampton, December 12, 1743 to Rev. Thomas Prince of Boston, in C.C. Goen ed. at 547.)

Tenant having enflamed  Boston also swept through Connecticut. At East Lime, after his visit, sermons would have to be stopped because “‘weeping, sighs and sobs’ mingled with cries of distress: ‘Alas! I’m undone; I’m undone! O, my sins! How they prey upon my vitals! What will become of me? How shall I escape the damnation of hell, who have spent away a golden opportunity under Gospel light, in vanity?'” (C.C. Goen ed. at 51, quoting letter of Jonathan Parsons, April 14, 1744, in 2 The Christian History 135.)

But this second great revival in New England confirmed Marx’s revising of Hegel that when a great historical tragedy is repeated, its second performance is a farce.  James Davenport, a minister in Southold, Long Island (Yale graduate 1738) met Whitefield and Tenant and heard the call. He assembled his congregation for a 24-hour sermon and then collapsed. He then made a tour through Connecticut. His style became increasingly theatrical and he became more megalomaniacal. He began denouncing other ministers as false prophets. This was enough to have him hauled before the Connecticut authorities in June 1742, but the Colonial Assembly in Hartford found him “disturbed in the rational faculties of his mind” and returned him to Southold. He was not yet done. In March 1743 he arrived in New London, Connecticut to perform a Bonfire of the Vanities much like Girolamo Savonarola performed a quarter of a millennium before. The event was reported in the Boston Evening Post, April 11, 1743. On Christopher’s wharf Davenport and followers brought a veritable library of Puritan classics including Increase Mather, Benjamin Colman, Matthew Henry and Richard Sibbes, piled them up and then singing “Hallelujahs” and “Gloria patria,” set them on fire! And Davenport claimed that the smoke from the authors of these books, now in Hell, was rising in similar manner. If this wasn’t enough, he invited the gathering crowd to throw into the fire their jewelry and fancy clothes. This orgy of enthused emotion lasted till the next day when Davenport threw his own pants into the fire!

This whole movement had long ago gone beyond the tolerance of the powers that be. Charles Chauncy, minister at First Church in Boston wrote Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England(Boston: 1743) to put an end to these misguided enthusiams. Davenport’s preaching provided many prominent and persuasive exhibits for Chauncy. The Standing Order clergy in Connecticut passed the law against itinerant preachers, and Congregational New England firmly clamped down on this sort of thing.

New England would not experience this brand of revivalism through the many years before and after the Revolution, during the controversy of the constitutional convention, or even during the Federalist rear-guard actions against the immoral Jeffersonianism that had swept the country.  Methodists and other enthusiasts were not welcome, particularly in Connecticut, where the status quo was strictly maintained. In fact, revivalism became something of a “democratic” taste, bubbling up in the frontiers where politically the precepts of the deistic Jeffersonians otherwise held sway. In 1800 and 1801 readers in the East heard of great rivals in Kentucky held under tents where people came from miles around to wait for the Spirit to descend. One revival in August 1801 lasted for one week and supposedly 23,000 people attended. (This seems an incredible number given that the population of New York City, by census, was only slightly more than 60,000 in 1800; the supposed number was more than six and a half times the number of residents of Hartford.) Revivalists “slain in the spirit” would shake, dance and sing uncontrollably. Yale itself would experience a revival at the same time under President Timothy Dwight, but it was not of the enthusiastic sort.

Connecticut would, however, contribute to the art of promoting revivals through Charles G. Finney. Finney left Connecticut in 1814 and took a while before being “baptized in the Holy Spirit” in Northwestern New York in 1821. Soon afterwards, however, he became an ordained Presbyterian minister and began evangelizing. He set up revivals and refined them by demanding that his listeners accept the invitation to come forward to be saved. A mourners bench was provided for conversions. This promotional device was instrumental in the awakening that would take place in the late 1820s.

As is almost always the case, the great religious promoters of the 1820s were aligned with the conservatives and the anti-intellectuals. It spread through New England and rural New York and was experienced as far as the country spread. In South Carolina the 60 year old Thomas Cooper, old friend of English non-conformists, French revolutionaries and (when he emigrated to the US) Jeffersonian democrats, was finishing a distinguished career as President of the University of South Carolina (and renowned professor of chemistry). Long before then, he himself had been sentenced to prison in 1800 for seditious libel under the Alien and Sedition Acts for his attacks on John Adams. He found favor with Jefferson, but his materialist world view kept plaguing him. He even lost a professorship at the school that Jefferson himself founded, the University of Virginia, owing to clerical objections. But the anti-intellectual attacks in the late 1820s by the clergy were so unparalleled that he felt he had to remark on them. So to his translation of a highly technical monograph, On Irritation and Insanity by François-Joseph Victor Broussais (Columbia, SC: 1831), he added two appendices. One was to prove the compatibility of scriptures with materialist inquiry. The other was a description of the intolerant activities of the clergy:

“[T]he clergy of this countrv, I hope not of all sects, the Calvinistic clergy chiefly, are united in persecuting every man who calls in question any of their metaphysical opinions, or who hints at their views of ambition and aggrandizement. They dare not actually stab him or burn him: but they raise the out-cry of mad dog; they villify him ; they give him nick names; they hoot at him as infidel, deist, atheist; they set the ignorant upon him to abuse his person, character,and conduct; they treat him with open revilings; they urge him with clandestine falsehoods, and they interdict him as far as possible from all intercourse with society.” (p324.)

It was not just the slander and the anti-intellectualism, it was that the doctrine they were professing was incompatible with a free society, inconsistent with societal welfare, and not rooted in Christian scripture:

“What earthly reason can a man have to dread discussion, but that his opinion will not bear it. What makes men cruel, but their cowardice? Calvin procured Servetus to be burnt to death. Whom did Jesus Christ burn? Yet has that gloomy murderer of Geneva more zealots devoted to his intolerant creed in the United States, than in any other part of the globe. Why? because it is a fit instrument in the hands of the clergy, in proportion as it is intolerant and unintelligible.” (p324.)

It was clear to Cooper what they were after: a Church Establishment. And the clergy who had preached against each other as apostates lo these many years were now uniting in common cause. The Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, the Seceders (!), “and in some places the Baptists, dragging after them the timid Episcopalians” who were aiming thus “with a perseverance and devotedness worthy of a better cause” (p324). What were they after? Tythes, of course. “This will render them not only wealthy, but independent of their congregations, whom they consider as by right dependent upon them; assuming openly the character of God’s vicegerents, and branding all opposition to their ambitious designs as blasphemy” (p325). They were also seeking control over every seminary in the country. This would attach the minds of the pious young to the existing priesthood. Their incessant clamor and hounding of persons who disagreed with them already was striking a deadly blow at science in America:

“They look with a jealous eye at every scientific discussion; prohibiting, so far as they dare, all investigations that do not harmonise with their own theological creed. Their interference has been recent and violent, with respect to physiological, zoological, and geological discussions. No printer, no editor of a scientific journal, dare insert an article in favor of any opinion which the clergy have pronounced heterodox. Fanaticism has completely clipped the wings of science in this country.” (p325.)

Cooper warned that it was time to awake to the danger. Missionary societies, prayer meeting societies, female benevolent societies, juvenile societies, even the Bible society all play a role in collecting money for this assault by the clergy. No possible way of scraping together the smallest amount of money is omitted: “Missionary fields of corn, wheat and potatoes; missionary hog societies ; missionary rag-bag societies, and missionary scrap societies. All means of scraping together money, the most trifling and contemptible, are employed by these men: not individually, but corporately, and en masse.” (p326.) And lest anyone thought he was exaggerating, Cooper reminds everyone that in 1822 the church persuaded the sovereign of Austria (with 40 million subjects) to permit only the science and education that the priests provided. And the priesthood in France, Italy, Spain, Mexico and even England were not any different (p326).

That was precisely the conclusion that was dawning on a small minority in Connecticut. A Church-State Establishment designed to shackle the people was not out of the question. In fact, it was only a little over a decade that Connecticut had such an establishment, which in fact shackled the people.  One of the alarming developments in this direction was that David Daggett (of  Federalist fame) was now a justice on the Supreme Court of Errors, and in that position, notwithstanding the religious freedom provisions of the 1818 Constitution wrote the majority opinion in Atwood v. Welton, 7 Conn. 66 (1828), which held that unless a person swore an oath declaring the belief in an afterlife with punishment for sinners he was incompetent to testify at a trial. With respect to the freedom of religion claim, Daggett wrote: “But cannot a person be free in his profession and worship, who is excluded from giving testimony, on the ground of his denial of all liability to further punishment? How does his exclusion affect his belief, profession or mode of worship? It has no possible bearing on either.” Its enough to be able to freely believe as you please; subjecting you to civil disabilities has nothing to do with freedom of religion. It was the kind of nonsensical reasoning that only a self-righteous conservative subscribes to — thinking done by one who reads Edmund Burke while nursing port before a fireplace.

A very narrow orthodox ascendency was once again arising, notwithstanding the immense labor it took to obtain a written constitution. There were practical political issues at stake too, for 1832 was a national election year — one in which the anti-Bank Andrew Jackson was running for re-election and one in which the National Bank’s charter was to expire. To save the bank and banking interests a reliable Congress and President was necessary. And of course orthodoxy aligned itself with the monied interests. And it was now using “democratic” revival meetings to recruit.

Barnum harnessed all his energies to confront the threat. Without any apprenticeship he had the press printing immediately. Barnum later wrote “I entered upon the editorship of this journal with all the vigor and vehemence of youth. The boldness with which the paper was conducted soon excited widespread attention and commanded a circulation which extended beyond the immediate locality into nearly every State in the Union.” (Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs (originally: 1869; ed Carl Bode; Classics, NY: 1987), p73.) Within four months he had sales agents as far away as Poughkeepsie, New York City and New Haven. In one year he had agents in Utica, Princeton, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and various places in Massachusetts, Vermont, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana, Tennesee and Florida. He developed a style of writing, much like the best of the partisan editors, writing which combined withering personal attacks with argumentation that clearly laid out the weaknesses of the Church and State Federalists (as he called them) and showed how their position could be reduced to absurdity. He attacked their theology, their politics and their manners.

He quickly cultivated local correspondents who forwarded their complaints to him. They sent in stories about town officers in Southington laying wait for Sabbath-breakers to pocket the fine (HoF, 2/23/32, p2), of plans for more revivals in Bethel (HoF, 3/1/32, p3), of a “whispering judge” (who used back door methods to influence results) (HoF, 9/19/32, p1), and especially about the comings and goings of Erastus Cole, who sits up “with his hired girl, three or four nights in a week, two or three hours after his wife has gone to bed,” or taking his “female converts a fishing, one at a time, through a piece of woods one or two miles in length on an unfrequented road,” or attaching the meeting house for his unpaid wages (HoF, 9/12/32, p3). He corresponded with other editors of democratic papers, who sent up reports on revivals and their effects: how at a “four days” meeting in Rindge, N.H. the minister secretly planted a trumpeter in the rafters so that when he mentioned final judgement a blast would come from heaven, “the women and children being nearly frightened into fits” (HoF, 3/1/32, p1 [from Vermont Enquirer]); how the 28 year old wife of a mechanic in Milbury, Maine, committed suicide by hanging herself from grief, having been “frightened into a beief that she had committed the unpardonable sin and she would sit for hours and wring her hands, and cry in the greatest agony” (HoF, 3/1/32, p3 [from The Trumpet]); how Ebenezer Lund hanged himself after attending a “three days” meeting in Hollis then another in Concord, NH, fearing that he should be cast off” (HoF, 3/1/32, p3 [from the New Hampshire Patriot]); how in Broome, NY, a Presbyterian minister and proprietor of a girls’ academy was arrested for having repeatedly tried to rape his 14 year old step daughter, and how he confessed after the arrest (HoF, 9/12/34, p2 [from Utica Magazine] & 9/26/32, p2 [from Broome County Courier]).

But what must have stung the Presbyterian Party of Danbury most painfully was the original editorial content written by Barnum himself. He simply and skillfully flayed Cole and his supporters. He wrote pieces on theology in which he would juxtapose scripture with quotations from Cole and then ask: “How much longer will an enlightened people sit quietly and hear such declarations as the above made by bigoted enthusiasts?” (HoF, 3/1/32, p3.) He reminded readers of the Presbyterian minister of Reading who attempted to rape two 12 year olds, and after confessing it to his congregation was allowed to continue preaching (HoF, 6/6/32, pp2-3). He discussed at great length the renunciation of the creed by an ordained minister in Newtown (HoF, 9/19/32, p3). He described how the local church was losing members since their revivals and explained why: “The reasons for this are very obvious; six months ago their ‘anxious’ meetings and their ‘four days’ meetings were a new thing, but it is like attending a ‘cattle show’ for instance it soon gets to be an old story.” (HoF, 3/1/32, p3.) When he abused local personalities, he did so pointedly and would not back down:

“We understand that [certain churchmen] wish to have Mr Rory Starr prosecute us for a libel. As we should be very sorry to be caught in the law, for the purpose of evading it, we make this public RECANTATION:–

Whereas, we have publicly called Mr. Rory Starr an ‘honest priest,’ we now as publicly retract the charge, and ask his pardon for it, and we solemnly pledge ourselves never to charge him with any thing of the kind again, until he refunds the money which he took from the treasurer of this state, which did not belong to him, and we also sincerely and solemnly promise never to lay any such charge to the ‘wheat bread and butter’ man until we see more cause for it than we ever have done.” (HoF, 2/23/32, p3.)

The timid Danbury Recorder was utterly incapable of responding to such attacks. So an ingenious idea was struck on — a new editor. And the man selected was none other than Alanson Taylor, Barnum’s uncle, one-time guardian, and failed partner. He changed the name to Connecticut Repository (Connecticut Courant, 3/20/32, p3), and began attacking the non-conformists. But the attacks were heavy-handed. He called his oppenents drunkards and worse. But even more sinister he started naming residents for supposed sins. Once he named a young unmarried worman member of the Presbyterians for having taken a walk on a Saturday night (which they considered Sabbath) with a young man who was not a member of the church!

The pure nastiness of this kind of phony Puritanical outrage thoroughly outraged Barnum. Since the article was signed with a pseudonym, no one knew for certain who wrote it. One of Barnum’s correspondents thought it was from Rev. Cole himself (Senex, HoF, 9/12/32, p3). Barnum saw the heavy hand of his uncle holding the pen, and he blasted the diabolical hypocrisy of the whole thing: “Does he follow the directions of Christ – ‘Go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone,’ &c.? So far from it, he at once gives publicity to the most trivial of his sister’s actions, not even hesitating to add to his meanness, in a indirect manner, falsehood … ”

So, their champion could not silence Barnum. They decided now to use the law, which, after all, was peculiarly within the pocket of the Church-State alliance in Connecticut. So libel suits began. Barnum, years later, no longer a small town opinion-maker and long since uninterested in petty theological squabbles with a narrow-minded small town sect, put almost all the blame on his youthfulness: “[L]acking that experience which induces caution, and  without the dread of consequences, I frequently laid myself open to the charge of libel and three times in three years I was prosecuted.” (Struggle and Triumphs, Bode ed. at 73.) The first proceeding had no particularly dire consequences. “A Danbury butcher, a zealous politician, brought a civil suit against me for accusing him of being a spy in a Democratic caucus. On the first trial the jury did not agree, but after a second trial I was fined several hundred dollars.” (id.)

The other two were quite serious, however. One was brought by “Seth Seelye, a Presbyterian fanatic in Bethel; in which he was charged with inhumanly cheating a poor lame and destitute orphan boy out of $17, by taking advantage of his necessity and buying from him a good note, worth $42, for only the sum of $25, and also with taking usury, or in other words, for shaving notes at an unlawful interest in several instances.” (HoF, 10/10/32, p2.) The other was by Barnum’s own uncle, Connecticut Repository editor Alanson Taylor. The rumor was that the Presbyterians “managed” these suits with the judicial authorities. But things were much worse than that. This was to be a criminal proceeding under the common law of libel, and the judge riding circuit for the term in Danbury was none other than Judge David Daggett, the narrow-minded, self-righteous ancient Federalist, and supporter of religious establishment. The old Congregationalist had been a pew-owning member and supporter (in his role as lawyer, politician and judge) of the Established Religion since before there was an independent Connecticut. But he had pretended before; just this year he underwent a real “conversion,” at one of those several-day long revivals. The sentimental version, pronounced by the minister at his funeral, went like this:

“The various and severe discipline of bereavement with which it pleased God to visit Mr. Daggett, had the effect to bring him near to the kingdom of Christ, especially the death of his son David … and the death of a beloved daughter, his youngest child. Soon after the death of the latter, which was in 1815, he felt constrained to commence family worship, which he continued from that time through life. … His wife was a woman of decided piety, eminent in faith and prayer. She was in the habit, not only of praying herself for him at all times, but also of making appointment with those of her children who were Christians, at specified hours in the day, to plead in concert at the throne of grace for the conversion of the husband and the father. She always cherished strong confidence that he would be brought into the fold of Christ; and she was not disappointed.

“It was not, however, till the year 1832, that Judge Daggett, in his own view and that of his friends, began a really religious life. In April of that year, during one of those ‘times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord,’ of which the Holy Scriptures speak, and which the church, in her glad experience, has so often realized, there were in this city continuous religious services for a few days. The power of the Holy Ghost was upon the community; and Judge Daggett, and many others among our elder men of distinction, were seriously moved. On one afternoon, when there was to be religious service in the evening, his wife and children observed that he walked his hall for hours, evidently in deep thought and mental conflict. In the evening, after an earnest and thorough presentation of the gospel, those who were disposed to take a position expressive of their desire to become the friends and servants of Christ, were invited to remain in their seats, while the other portion of the audience should retire. Judge Daggett remained. After a few words of explanation, direction and exhortation from a minister of Christ, those who were resolved, by the divine help, to serve and love and trust the Saviour of sinners, were invited to rise. Judge Daggett rose. And the decision, which he then, in that signal manner, expressed, he adhered to and cherished through life.

“That was a period of rich grace and abounding joy in the house of our friend: for not only he, but his youngest son, then in the profession of the law, consecrated himself to Christ; and the father has often, in subsequent years, had the pleasure of listening to the gospel from the lips of that son.

“Four months after the event just related, Judge Daggett, at the age of sixty eight, stood up in this aisle, near where his body now lies, and publicly expressed his repentance towards God and his faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ; avowing the ever-living and true God to be his God, and covenanting, by the help of divine grace, to give himself up through life to the Lord Jesus Christ, to be taught and governed by him, and to walk with this church in the divine ordinances.” (Sketch of the Life and Character of the Hon. David Daggett, taken, with permission, from the Address of the Rev. Samuel W. S. Dutton, pronounced at his funeral, 20 Conn. 7 (1850).)

A fresh new convert to the revival movement — and not any fresh convert, the implacable, anti-democratic, self-assured, David Daggett — was coming to try Barnum with the ancient hammer of Connecticut tyranny, the common law libel prosecution. And the revivalists who set up the trial were rumored to have “managed” the case.

The trial and result will be in the next part of this story.

  1. August 19th, 2010
  2. September 14th, 2010

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