West, Samuel

Samuel West (March 3, 1730-September 24, 1807), a liberal minister of the Massachusetts Standing Order, was a theological opponent of the doctrines of Jonathan Edwards and an 18th Century forerunner of New England Unitarianism. An ardent patriot during the American Revolution, he played a small but crucial role in the ratification of the United States Constitution.

Born in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, Samuel was the son of Ruth Jenkins and Sackfield West, a physician who also preached New Light theological ideas to the nearby Mashpee Indians. While living in nearby Barnstable, Massachusetts, Samuel attracted the attention of the minister, Joseph Green. Samuel mastered the historical parts of the Bible by the time he was seven and soon argued against Green’s predestinarianism. While he worked as a farm hand, Green prepared him to enter Harvard College. It is reported that, during the entrance interview in 1750, he got into a dispute about a Greek text with one of the examiners and carried his point. The college awarded him the Fitch and Hollis scholarships. He waited on the Fellow’s table to help pay his way. He graduated first in his class in 1754. John Hancock was a classmate, and he was well known to John Adams, class of 1755.

After graduation, West worked as a schoolmaster in Falmouth Massachusetts. In 1757 he began preaching at Tisbury, Massachusetts (on Martha’s Vineyard). When that church offered him permanent settlement he rejected the offer, because he felt the salary was not enough to live on. Because the town refused to increase it, he withdrew. In 1759 he went to preach at the First Church in Plymouth, the church of the Pilgrim Fathers. In 1760 he was called to what became the First Congregational Society in Dartmouth (later New Bedford). He was ordained in 1761. He remained there until his retirement in 1803. Although the salary was only 66 pounds, members fed and housed his horse and two cows, no small compensation. For most of the years of his ministry, his scattered congregation, consisting mostly of poor farmers, paid him a pittance, when they paid him at all. Eventually he went to court to compel the congregation to pay his salary, then several years in arrears. In the meantime he survived on a modest inheritance, and on charity from wealthy Boston merchants, notably Samuel Eliot.

Physically imposing, over six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds, West cared little for his appearance. His clothes were often dilapidated and dirty. Only in 1768 had he enough income to marry. He chose Experience Howland, whom he had met in Plymouth. Because they had six children, their lack of income forced them to live frugally. The parsonage was plain and the food simple.

The town of Dartmouth had been largely settled by Quakers and Baptists, who had long successfully resisted taxation for the support of the Standing Order church. West was a firm believer in religious tolerance—he said, “many differences in explaining particular articles of faith are only mere verbal differences”—and he spoke against the ecclesiastical tax, suggesting that people should be free to make contributions to the church of their choice. He was wise enough, also, to realize that, no matter what the Massachusetts law, the chances of actually collecting the church tax were remote. He urged his parishioners to contribute through the collection boxes in the church; they were never full.

West had a positive view of human nature, and asserted that humans were possessed of free will. He expressed these Arminian and other liberal theological views frequently and eloquently. He disliked the Calvinist notion that good Christians ought to be willing to be damned and go to Hell. Although not a full Unitarian, he doubted the Athanasian view of the Trinity, believing that Jesus and God were not one and inseparable. He insisted that the Bible was the only necessary creed. Much of his objection to the writings of Jonathan Edwards—and most other theologians—was that their arguments were too complex and obscure.

West feared not to enter into dispute with Jonathan Edwards, Jr., a vigorous exponent of his father’s Calvinist theology. In a 1793 pamphlet, Essays on Liberty and Necessity, he argued the character of God from Scripture, reason, and human moral accountability. Two years later the pamphlet was reprinted with four additional essays. These so provoked Edwards, Jr. that in 1797 he responded with A Dissertation concerning Liberty and Necessity: containing remarks on the essays of Dr. Samuel West. While acknowledging that West was his most able adversary, Edwards complained that West relied too much on history and not enough on argument. When West attempted a rebuttal, he discovered that the public had lost interest in the dispute. He could not find a publisher.

In addition to theology, West was interested in history, the law, medicine, politics, the physical sciences, and even alchemy. He was reputed to have read every available book on these subjects. A founding member of Boston’s American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780, he contributed papers on the making of porcelain, and on the geology of Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard. He was given honorary membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. In 1793 Harvard awarded him a Doctor of Scientific Theology. Science was part of his preaching: “A revelation pretending to be from God, that contradicts any part of natural laws ought to be immediately rejected as imposture; for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself, a thing.”

A formidable preacher, West made no formal preparation before speaking. He rejected the emotional appeals of the New Lights, preferring to make his points simply and rationally. An ardent patriot, he was invited to give the prestigious Election Day sermon in Boston in 1776. In that sermon he proclaimed that the colonies were already independent and constituted a new nation. He offered an extensive and detailed Biblical theological justification for the rebellion, and a learned and vigorous argument for democracy and independence. “Any people, when cruelly oppressed,” West proclaimed, “has the right to throw the yoke, and be free.”

After the battle of Bunker Hill, West volunteered as a chaplain. During his several months service he helped decipher a treasonous letter from a military physician, Dr. Benjamin Church, to a British admiral in Newport. This letter revealed American casualties, troop strength, and shipments of gun powder. Legend has it that when the British Army invaded Dartmouth, they burned down West’s parsonage in retaliation.

In 1777 West delivered the Anniversary sermon in Plymouth at an occasion which commemorated the landing of the Pilgrims. Fascinated by Biblical prophesies, he spoke of the events of 1776 as the beginning of a new millenium. He said that although the situation was dark, prophecy foretold that the conflict would lead to deliverance. “America shall be the place to which the persecuted in other nations shall flee from the tyranny of their oppressors, where they shall find a safe retreat, and shall be cherished by her like children by a tender mother.”

West’s greatest service to the nation came as a delegate to the 1788 Massachusetts convention to ratify the new federal Constitution. Governor John Hancock was in the chair. Much of the debate revolved around the draft Constitution’s failure to provide sufficient protection for the rights of the states, deal adequately with questions of congressional representation and taxation, and make explicit provision for individual liberties. West rebutted those who worried about possible abuses of federal power. He doubted that the good men who had created the constitution would use it to do evil. He lectured them on the necessity of acting on principle by reason, judgment, and conscience. He advised any who had promised to vote against the constitution to instead vote according to their judgment. Vigorous debate continued, as the convention was nearly evenly divided.

At the height of discussion, Governor Hancock withdrew, claiming to be suffering from an attack of gout. Without Hancock’s support there would be no ratification. West and his compatriots drafted a series of amendments meant to address the concerns of the opponents. Because he and Hancock had been Harvard classmates, West was selected to visit the governor in order to persuade him to return and to present the amendments. According to Plymouth county historian Francis Baylies, “[West] enlarged upon [Hancock’s] vast influence, his many acts of patriotism, his coming forth in former days, at critical periods, to give to give new energy to the slumbering patriotism of his countrymen, and on the prodigious effect of his name. Heaven, he said, had given him another glorious opportunity by saving his country to win imperishable honor to him self. The whole people would follow his footsteps with blessings.”

Having listened to his friend West, Hancock had himself carried by servants, “wrapped in his flannels,” to the chair of the convention. In his speech he did recommend the conciliatory amendments (some of which later became the basis for the Bill of Rights) and declared, “I give my assent to the Constitution, in full confidence that the amendments proposed will soon become a part of the system.” A week later the Constitution was narrowly ratified. The Massachusetts example ensured that the Constitution would be speedily adopted by most of the states that had not already done so.

The parish duties of Pater West (as he was known) were never overwhelming. He had time for study, correspondence, tutoring young ministers, and travel. In Newport, Rhode Island he worked closely with his friend Ezra Stiles, the librarian, to further the Redwood Library. Founded in 1747, it was the oldest lending library in the nation. Stiles was also pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport and theologian Samuel Hopkins, a disciple of Edwards, was minister at First Congregational. While rarely in agreement with them, West regularly engaged them in warm conversation and debate. When Stiles was offered the presidency of Yale, West urged him to not accept, assuring him that he would be much happier as a parish minister.

West was sometimes mocked for his absent-minded ways. He often forgot where he was going or why. He could be oblivious to what was happening around him. While he was a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, other residents in his boarding house would slip items of clothing into his pockets, knowing that he would wonder how they had got there and whether he had misappropriated them. Nevertheless his fame as a brilliant and fascinating conversationalist, filled with knowledge, always eager to grow, earned him a host of learned and thoughtful friends. He could carry a theological conversation for many hours, unmindful of place or circumstance. And many were eager to join him.

In 1790 a second meeting house was erected in the burgeoning port of Bedford Village, several miles from the original one. He agreed to preach in both on alternate Sundays. Yet, while he was elsewhere preaching or studying, weeks might go by without his appearing in either of the two pulpits. People came from miles around to hear him, often filling the meeting houses to overflowing. However, the congregations were often left waiting.

West married twice and was widowed twice; there were no children from the second marriage to widow Lovice Hathaway Jenne. Increasingly absent-minded, he was forced to retire from the church in 1803. Soon thereafter he went to live with a son in Tiverton, Rhode Island, where he died in 1807.

There are materials on West in the Harvard University Archives and at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Biographical material on West is found in Joel Tyler Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution (1864); William A. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, Vol. 8: Unitarian (1865); William J. Potter, The First Congregational Society in New Bedford, Massachusetts: Its History as Illustrative of Ecclesiastical Evolution (1889); Samuel A. Eliot, Heralds of A Liberal Faith: The Prophets (1910); Clifford H. Shipton, ed., Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, Vol. 13: 1751 – 1755 (1965); and Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (1955). There are entries on West in the Dictionary of American Biography (1936) and American National Biography (1999). See also Harlow Giles Unger, John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot (2000).

Article by Richard Kellaway
Posted November 8, 2006