Bishop Jonathan Shipley: A Voice of Justice and Reason in Troubled Times

This post was written by intern John McDonald.

In 1773, the relationship between Great Britain and her American colonies was being sorely tried by political conflict. This was upsetting to many Englishmen, who wished for their country to maintain its dominance, not least among them merchants who profited from the outrageous tariffs, taxes and other mercantile laws imposed upon the colonists. Another faction of shipley sermon title page (wmcarey.edu)Englishmen wished for harmony between the mother country and her unruly children, and these were the men of God, in particular Bishop Jonathan Shipley, who believed that the Christian bond between Britain and the colonists was, by duty, meant to be a sharing of “religion, culture, peace, and happiness” (Carey, 1). In his famous sermon delivered before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts on February 19, 1773 at St. Mary-le-Bow in London, Shipley spoke out against the exploitation of the colonies, whom he fondly admired, and stressed the need to maintain peaceable relations. Shipley was something of an optimist, as, during a time of heightened animosity, he believed that “a time… will come… when the checks and restraints we lay on the industry of our fellow-subjects… will be considered as the effects of a mistaken policy, prejudicial to all parties, but chiefly to ourselves” (xxii). A little more than two years later, the Bishop’s hopes were dashed, as the tensions between Britain and the colonies erupted in open warfare.

The copy of this sermon kept at John Bale Book Company is badly tattered and missing pages, but it occupies a unique place in the bookstore collection. According to co-owner Donato Gaeta, this booklet represents the earliest printed mention of Waterbury that he has encountered in his long career as a bookseller. The mention is brief, “The Rev. Mr. Scovil, Missionary at Waterbury, &c. in the former of his two letters, writes, that in Waterbury and Westbury there are 120 familes [sic], and 165 communicants” (Shipley, 24). Westbury and Northbury referred to the region now known as Watertown, which at the time was still part of Waterbury proper, but would split with the larger community in 1780. The Rev. Mr. Scovil referred to James Scovil, grandfather of the pioneer industrialist James Mitchell Lamson Scovill, whose legacy was one of the “Big Three” brass firms, the Scovill Manufacturing Company. The Rev. James Scovil “graduated from Yale College [in 1757] and two years afterward… became the rector of the Episcopal Church in the mission field of Waterbury, Northbury and what is now Bristol, Connecticut, becoming the first resident rector in Waterbury” (Pape, 5). This was a position that James Scovil would hold during the Revolutionary War, after which he moved to New Brunswick, Canada, indicating that he may have been a Loyalist.

Waterbury’s part in Britain’s colonial enterprise was small, as industry had yet to take hold in the steep-sided river valleys of the Naugatuck watershed, and the economy of the community was largely controlled by wealthy landowners. These influential citizens, who were related to the original proprietors, and whose taverns and general stores provided the growing town with merchandise and victuals, no doubt felt the pinch of Britain’s draconian attempts to maintain a stranglehold on commerce in the colonies. The British feared that greater economic freedom for America was but the first step to an independent government, and they wanted the wealth of raw materials that the colonies provided to continue to flow into British factories, and a guaranteed market for their finished products. Whether Waterbury’s most illustrious families gained the bulk of their wealth through the sale of British goods or local wares, they were the preservers of British law, religion, and culture in the wilderness, and recognized their debt to the mother country.

It was trying, then, to endure Britain’s severe and heavy-handed attempts at control, and outright exploitation. Bishop Shipley realizes these strategies as those of desperation in the face of the colonies growing power and restlessness. Britain was, NPG D4977; Jonathan Shipley by Thomas Trotter, published by  Thomas Cadell the Elder, after  Sir Joshua Reynoldsindeed, spread thin. Shipley addresses this matter when he asks “by what bond of union shall we hold together the members of this great empire, dispersed and scattered as they lie over the face of the earth” (xx). Shipley understands that strict exercise of commercial and military authority will only anger the colonists and hasten their separation from the kingdom, a situation which he feared would be detrimental for both parties. Shipley offers a solution when he speaks of how “art must be employed… in the preservation of the whole… which can only be effected by serving, obliging, and protecting [the colonies]” (xx). Ultimately, the colonists decided that it was their destiny to be self-governed, and social and political ties notwithstanding, when war was declared, Waterbury’s citizens answered the call and sent “nearly 700 soldiers to fight against the British”  (Mattatuck Historical Society, 1). Bishop Jonathan Shipley would have sent them along with his blessing, as he was, to the end, a voice for just and reasonable treatment of the American colonies, and a stalwart opponent of British colonial oppression among the English social elite.

Works Cited

Carey Center. “Jonathan Shipley, A Sermon before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1773.” Jonathan Shipley, A Sermon before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 17736 June 2006. Web. 25 Nov. 2014. <http://www.wmcarey.edu/carey/shipley/&gt;.

Mattatuck Historical Society.Fortune’s Story: Waterbury in the 18th Century.” Mattatuck Museum. 2004. Web. 25 Nov. 2014. <http://www.fortunestory.org/waterburyinthe18th century>.

Shipley, Jonathan. A Sermon Preached before the Incorporated Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts at Their Anniversary Meeting in the Parish Church of St. Mary-le-Bow, on Friday February 19, 1773. By … Jonathan Lord Bishop of St. Asaph. London: Printed by T. Harrison and S. Brooke, 1773. Print.

Bibliography

Town of Watertown, Connecticut. “Watertown, CT – Brief History.” 2014. Web. 25 Nov. 2014. <http://www.watertownct.org/content/10339/6913/7102/default.aspx&gt;

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