Beacon Street Diary blog

NEHH Highlight: John Cleaveland Papers

by Jules Thomson, Assistant Archivist / NEHH Publication

I would be hard pressed to think of a more comprehensive Hidden Histories collection than that relating to Congregational and Separatist minister John Cleaveland (1722-1799). The digitized versions of his papers and sermons are provided in partnership with the Philips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, who hold the orginal documents.

Rev. Cleaveland's biography is fascinating in its own right. He chafed against religious orthodoxy and typified the revivalist spirit of the Great Awakening, earning him an expulsion from Yale and ultimately a successful career in the Chebacco parish of Ipswich (now Essex, Mass.), serving as pastor to both Separatist and orthodox congregations there. In addition to his regular ministerial career, Rev. Cleaveland lived through both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. He served as an army chaplain during both conflicts, first with British colonial forces, and later as an American revolutionary; Cleaveland was a notable patriot and exhorter of revolution from the pulpit, and father to four sons who served against the British. His story is both an intimate and universal example of shifting loyalties and identities during the formation of the United States.

In addition to these broad strokes, Rev. Cleaveland's papers reveal diverse aspects of 18th-century life in thrilling detail. These include an extensive array of correspondence, religious papers, biographical material, church administration, handwritten sermons, and relations of faith from local parishioners. Also included is a short diary by Rev. Cleaveland's first wife, Mary Cleaveland, in which she details the births of her children. Among the most notable historical records are documents related to Rev. Cleaveland's expulsion from Yale, a letter in which he urges the conversion of Native American peoples, and a sermon against British tyranny. Additionally there are a large number of financial and administrative records, offering glimpses into agricultural life and everyday provisions and payments in the 1700s. There are more personal, idiosyncratic records too; the most amusing to me personally is a loose collection of notes which include the "weight of the family of Rev. Cleaveland".

A substantial amount of records consist of correspondence between Rev. Cleaveland and his first wife, Mary (nee Dodge). A number of the letters between them predate the marriage, and comprise a somewhat fraught series of attempts by Rev. Cleaveland to convince Miss Dodge to marry him. Later, he wrote to her regularly while stationed with regiments at Lake George and Louisburg, Cape Breton during the French and Indian War.

Other records in the collection offer insights into local tensions in Cleaveland's eventual home parish of Chebacco (Essex). After the midcentury revivals of the Great Awakening, the Second Parish Church of Ipswich, under the pastorate of orthodox Congregationalist Rev. Theophilus Pickering, began losing members at an alarming rate. Rev. Cleaveland arrived in Chebacco in 1747 to minister to these evangelical defectors. Tensions between Rev. Pickering and Rev. Cleaveland escalated quickly. The resident minister wrote a scolding letter to "the gentleman stranger that is a minster at the house of Mr. James Eveleth". After this, the two became engaged in the 18th-century equivalent of a Twitter war, each writing letters of complaint and publishing pamphlets against the other. Rev. Cleaveland had the last laugh, as he went on to become minister of the Second Church in Ipswich in 1774, thus reuniting the two congregations.

The John Cleaveland Papers collection can be viewed in the New England's Hidden Histories portal, in additional to a collection of John Cleaveland Sermons.

Further Reading: 

Jedrey, Christopher M. The World of John Cleaveland: Family and Community in Eighteenth-Century New England. Norton, 1979.