Project Canterbury

Early Attempts to Organize Religious Communities
By Duncan Convers

American Church Monthly volume 17, 1925.
pp 218-227

WHEN one plans to make a necklace, he prepares both the perforated beads and a thread on which to string them. My thread to give unity to the story of how after efforts and failures Brotherhoods and Sisterhoods have become a part of our working forces, is the life and early career of Oliver Sherman Prescott. The beads, which curiously multiply themselves, begin with Nashotah, Wisconsin, Valle Crucis in North Carolina, encouragements from our House of Bishops, examples from Trappists and other Roman Catholics from Ireland, as well as Pietists from Germany, and Swedish Devotionalists, not to mention our native Unitarians and Universalists; include the Shakers, on the background of "Know Nothing" politics, with the mystery hanging over the death of the "Angel Gabriel," the adventures of the Massachusetts "Smelling Committee," each of whom had "seen Sam"; and end with St. Botolph's, Boston and Fire Island. Few, perhaps no reader will be familiar with each of these. Many facts come from newspapers seventy or seventy-five years old; some out of pamphlets now hard to get; but most are taken from letters and papers worn and discolored by age, lent or given me. So while telling the story I must quote as largely as possible to give the authorities as well as the events.

In 1840 Dr. Whittingham, then Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the General Theological Seminary and Bishop-elect of Maryland, writes in his Diary: "Adams communicated to me the fact that six besides himself in the Middle Class, are seriously thinking of forming a Society of Protestant monks for a mission in the West, i. e., going in company under implicit obedience to their Bishop, in celibacy, and throwing all their earnings into a common stock, to officiate statedly and itinerate in a given district, teach school, and found a library, and perhaps hospitals. For this GOD'S holy name be praised." With numbers lessened some went to Wisconsin, and the three who so far persevered founded Nashotah. Like the Roman Catholic Oratorians and the Anglican Community of the Resurrection they took no community vows.

James Lloyd Breck, the Head, wrote letters to induce some who had talked of joining them, to come later; but was disappointed. The three dwindled to two, then one. Dr. Breck organized a "lay-brotherhood," to continue something approximating monasticism. This second form grew weaker, and in 1850 Dr. Breck left Nashotah.

Nevertheless the example and influence of Nashotah apparently made the Society of the Holy Cross, whose seat was at Valle Crucis in the mountains of North Carolina. Dr. John Henry Hobart, Jr. was the brother-in-law of Bishop Ives, the founder of S. S. C. (to use the contraction I find in its library books); it seems likely that what he could report of the tone and temper of his fellow-students suggested such a means to strengthen that weak diocese, but I have seen no documentary evidence. He also was the link to bring the Rev. W. G. French, first Superior at Valle Crucis, into touch with Dr. Ives. As Hobart went to Nashotah he spent a night and day with Dr. William Croswell at Auburn, N. Y., to visit the room in which his father, once Bishop of New York, died. What did Croswell and Hobart talk about? You do not know. Do I? No, but even without a contemporary letter to prove it you and I are morally certain that the plans and hopes for Nashotah would come up, and Dr. Croswell's interest in it would begin then. Certain it is that on a visit to his father, the Rev. Dr. Harry Croswell, he won the Seabury Association to give their money to provide "Daily Bread" for Nashotah. Again he preached when O. S. Prescott was made a deacon. Probably he had suggested to his father's candidate for Orders the example of Nashotah, as to the ladies of Trinity, New Haven, and while the latter gave money, one man was moved to give himself to a like organization, going to North Carolina along with an acquaintance and neighbor, under whom as Superior he worked over a year. As I have inserted the letters of Dr. Breck to the authorities of Valle Crucis in an article read before the Church Historical Society in Philadelphia, there is no need to repeat them here; but certainly they encouraged the younger effort by sympathy, even if Nashotah was deemed to be more flourishing than it was in fact. No one is known to have gone from Nashotah to Valle Crucis: but William Dafter passed from North Carolina to Nashotah. Dr. Breck's last letter, dated August 31, 1849, mentions that Bishop Kemper had defended a Sisterhood to his clergy, the earliest endorsement, I think, given publicly by any of our American Bishops. The third effort for a Brotherhood was connected with St. Botolph's, Boston, Massachusetts. The founder, at least the iniiid that planned it, was Oliver Sherman Prescott, being his first initiative attempt. He tried to gather some he had known in North Carolina, with his Boston friends and allies. Born in New Haven on March 24, 1824, the son of Enos Allen Prescott and his wife, Mary Carrington, the ninth child of their fourteen, being the eighth son; he saw the light first in a building on the corner of Water and Meadow Street, where today are the offices of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. His parents, as parishioners of Trinity Church on "the Green," took him to be there baptized by the Rector, Dr. Harry Croswell, in the same church where he was ordained deacon and priest. The parochial register has no entry of confirmations, as was then customary, trusting that the Bishop kept a list; but no diocesan officer nor library has any such list now from Bishop Brownell. Episcopal lawlessness? Or someone's carelessness? Perhaps. From the French Correspondence I copy the letter in which Prescott asks the first Superior at Valle Crucis, Rev. W. G. French, to join him:

April 14, 1851.

My dear Brother:

I have for some days been purposing to write you, and I have now-only a few moments to spare. I intended to see you in Milford, but was prevented. I must state some of the circumstances, that you may see clearly your duty in regard to the course I am about to propose. I returned to B(oston) two weeks ago, and took possession of St. Botolph's. The Bishop pounced upon me without so much as asking my leave, or begging my pardon; served on me a second presentment, and without assigning any reason caused me to desist from officiating at St. Botolph's, a requisition which I very respectfully declined yielding to, so long as he refused to give the grounds on which he bases his authority to make it. And so St. Botolph's is in full operation; and the beginning of that great plan, which, as you know, has been the subject of dreams by day and visions by night, is on foot. May its end not be till the consummation of all things.

In about six weeks I shall have my trial, when if we make no provision for such an emergency this work will be embarrassed. Next Monday is the day of our Easter meeting, and a man must be found before that time who will be associated with me in my labors. Harrison has accepted a rectorship at the South, and cannot come now; though we expect to have him very soon. You are well aware that your name has been associated with the original plan; and it has never been given up, either by myself or the association. There is work to be done, and it can only be done by men of your sympathies.

May I nominate you (and for me to nominate is to have the corporation appoint you) next Monday as Minister or Assistant? For in a college of clergy these terms are synonymous. Will you run a little risk of Episcopal disapproval and accept the appointment? Will you come on and try the post for a couple of months, if you cannot accept it now; and leave your final decision till then? We can promise you a good support and it would be a great blessing to me to have you here during my trial, which comes on in Whitsunday. How can you stand all day idle in the vineyard of the Lord, now that you have not the excuse, "No man hath hired me?" Here yourself and your labors will be appreciated. I think Christ calls you to take pan in this, the greatest attempt to establish His true Kingdom. Come, my brother, and we will labor together as Christ would have His priests; and will dare and do great things. A few months will decide for us personally whether Massachusetts will have the Catholic system; and if it will not, we can comfort ourselves with these words: We have worked the work of the Lord in obedience to His call and our vows; we have borne the burden and heat of the day, and now the night cometh; arise, let us go hence, where He calls us; we have labored for Him a blessed labor, we can rest for Him, a blessed rest. What say you, my brother, to this? The plan is feasible, the men are faithful, the opportunity is propitious. Shall we take advantage of these circumstances? Or let fall from us, or put aside the advantages it affords? There will be difficulties, but He leads us to victory who leads us to battle.

Write me immediately whether you will accept the post at once; or whether you will come on for two or three months and then decide. The plan has lost none of its fine proportions since I talked with you of it. It will suit you, and you have been made fit for it. Is there no guiding hand in this? Is there no question of duty? Has not God prepared you for the work He has prepared for you?

Yours very faithfully,


Clearly the plan was to carry on St. Botolph's by a religious community whose details are in some respects hinted at in this letter. He very naturally uses few technical terms. At the moment no Brotherhoods or Sisterhoods actually existed in our communion in this country. Few thought of or prayed for them. Dr. Breck's letters to the Valle Crucis authorities use more such terms than any of a like date that I have seen. Today we have quite a list of monastic organizations; hundreds of the clergy have to do with them; and thousands of the laity know of them and pray for a blessing on them and their work; consequently we use technical terms much oftener.

Harrison visited Prescott in Boston during 1850; defective dating of his letter prevents my saying how long before the letter to French; the reference to him may sum up long conversations. References to past conversations between French and Prescott, "our vows," link the plans for St. Botolph with the Valle Crucis experience, common to both, as well as Prescott's enthusiasm.

Re-read that letter in connection with this affidavit as being the two contemporary papers casting light on St. Botolph from Oliver Sherman Prescott.

The next paper is interesting, especially if I am right in connecting Dr. William Croswell with Fr. Prescott's vocation, his going to Valle Crucis, and later giving him a refuge at the Advent when the outcry against the members of that community made hard the lot of each of them. It came to me in a brownish envelope, addressed Dr. F. E. Oliver, in a bold, heavy hand, as yet unidentified, endorsed, as Mrs. Oliver tells me, by herself as "Statement of Oliver S. Prescott" and while signed in Fr. Prescott's unmistakable handwriting the body is in that of her husband, Dr. Fitch E. Oliver. Here it is:

I called on Dr. Croswell at his study, on the evening of Wednesday or Thursday next preceding Christmas Day, 1850, to ask his consent to the organization of a new parish at the South End of the city of Boston. After stating fully the plan upon which the enterprise was to be undertaken, to which he gave his unqualified consent, I said, "I was decided to have nothing to do with it, if you made objection to it." He replied, "So far from objecting, I tell you I would do the same thing if I were in your position. Have long thought Boston the best field for such an undertaking." He expressed pleasure at the idea, saying, "Although it may, and probably will, take some from the Church of the Advent, it will not weaken but strengthen us. I shall cultivate the most friendly relations with regard to it. We shall then, if Mr. Greenleaf obtains Christ Church, possess the four corners of the city, Mr. Well in the East, Greenleaf in the North, you in the South, and the Advent in the West." He congratulated me on the prospect of an independent position, to which I answered, "I have no intention of taking the Rectorship and wish for no other than a subordinate post." He advised me, "Be very cautious, and do quickly what you intend, for I tell you in confidence that Mr. Greenleaf has thought of establishing a parish in that neighborhood, and has already mentioned the subject to some of the clergy. But I do not see that you will interfere with him, as there is room for both, so that I make no objection on that account."

I passed over an hour with him, we discussed fully the plan, and he made no objection; but in every way encouraged me to pursue it. I have quoted as nearly as possible his words, and I give them with no fear of contradiction.


Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Suffolk SS. July 5, 1851: There personally appeared the above named Oliver S. Prescott and made oath to the truth of the above affidavit by him subscribed. Before me, A. Jackson, Jr., Justice of the Peace.

This was sworn to on July 5th 1851, being the same day on which Bishop Eastburn pronounced sentence of suspension for six months, after the hearing which was called Prescott's second trial.

Prescott's letter to the Rev. W. G. French illustrates what was in his mind when he said that he should take a subordinate post; evidently he had hoped that a priest older in years, more experienced in every way, would lead them at St. Botolph's, even as he had been the head at Valle Crucis. But French did not come although no copy of his letter declining is among the Prescott correspondence, its natural place, nor have I found it elsewhere after a careful search.

Just what underlies Dr. Croswell's "Have long thought Boston the best field for such an undertaking" is uncertain, as two lines of thought suggest themselves, abstract and concrete. He may have thought, as others have said, that Boston welcomes every novel cult, and as an educational center has many young men by whom such plans are most likely to be embraced. Or his memory might recall the considerable number of similar organizations in the neighborhood.

Volume III, of the Life of William Lloyd Garrison, by his sons, notes Emerson's letter to Carlyle of October 30, 1840, "We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform. Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket" (p. 25). They suggest that Massachusetts is reaching for Fourier's economic schemes; but the two priests talking at Christmas, 1850, would smile at one another and say, "These New Englanders, without knowing exactly what they are about, are groping ignorantly and blindly for the old principles of monastic communities." The younger Garrisons go on, "Ripley is actually going to commence the New State and the New Church at Ellis' farm in the spring. Massachusetts prepares herself in her three avenues of approach, Unitarianism (Brook Farm); Universalism (Hopedale); Nothingarianism (Northampton)." But these attempts translate themselves into Dr. Croswell's "Have long thought Boston the best field for such an undertaking." Towards the north of Worcester County, at Harvard and Shirley, were the Shakers, close to Fruitlands, of which Miss Alcott's Transcendental Wild Oats gives an amusing account. In the wake of the Millerite excitement came the Second Advent experiments at Petersham, Adonai Sho 'mo, or at Groton. These and more might have been in the Doctor's memory as he encouraged Prescott to try to realize what he had hoped to see in Nashotah or Valle Crucis, wherein he had been disappointed.

The intensity of the feeling among Bishop Eastburn's friends against Prescott, some idea of his difficulties, as well as hints as to who were his friends, can be seen in another letter, from Charles Parkman, Esq. to Peter Oliver Esq., at 16 Court Street.

New York, Feb. 10, '51

Dear Sir:

I have been considering the circumstances of our parish since I saw you on Friday; and have come to the following conclusions. That Prescott had better resign his post as corporator. His even nominal connection with it for the first year would infallibly destroy it. If some clergyman cannot be obtained to officiate at present, I should in the second place advise the closing of the Chapel temporarily, still retaining it, however. I am sure the rent can be forthcoming. Let the papers of the parish be exhibited to the Bishop. That is the best way to convince him that the parish is lawfully organized. On conversation with several persons I found that It certain that P(rescott) had nothing to do with it, the parochial clerics of Boston would not object to it in any way. If the worst then comes to the worst the present corporation may be dissolved, and a new one formed by the issue of a new warrant. The parish may then go into operation with a fairer start; the shortest way to come at it, would be however, to substitute, say R. H. Dana Senior, in place of Father P(rescott). All I have to say is,--don't give in. I regret extremely that Pater Tremlett should have given in; because even the second Sunday, he might have officiated on the strength of the signatures he obtained. I have consulted persons here, and they say that a parish organized has a right to ask anyone to officiate for them. Undoubtedly the parish will succeed on the mere impulse given to it by opposition. The whole point is to show its lawful organization--that done, the rest is plain sailing. When I spoke of the dissolution of the present corporation above, I did not mean that I saw any necessity for it in this case, but to allude to it as a mode of proceeding, a sort of shift not unusual. By a mere change such as the addition of St. Mary (St. Mary and St. Botolph) the thing is done. Had I been in orders I should not have hesitated to officiate in any like Chapel, and so would any clergyman in B(oston) if P(rescott) is not intend as Rector. To recapitulate, 1st. let P(rescott), resign. 2nd. Shut up the Chapel for the time being, if necessary. 3d. Prove to the clergy its lawful organization and then call whom you like. Please address me at Philadelphia if you write at once; if not before Wednesday afternoon, to Baltimore. My kind regards to all the other members; and believe me, very faithfully yours,


To complete the story of St. Botolph's as told from the manuscripts in my collection, let me give the diary of the Rev. Charles McDonough Parkman, who as a friend and ally of Prescott, would naturally find difficulty in being given Holy Orders by Bishop Eastburn in Massachusetts; and as naturally turn to Bishop Ives of North Carolina, who made him a deacon on St. Mark's Day, 1851, and a Priest in the following year. His diary of work for St. Botolph, may also be the notes for the Minute Book of St. Botolph's Corporation and give us some, perhaps all, of the encorporators, even if not expressly so named The paper as a whole dated in lead pencil apparently:

Friday, 10 (January) 1851. C. assented P. (probably Parkman, but it may stand for Pearson or Parks. See below). General Secretary.

Dec. 23, 1850, Monday.--Met Austin Parks, Dr. Oliver, Dr. Salter, Mr. Pearson, Mr. Peter Oliver, and Mr. P.(?) L. Oliver at Mr. Oliver's office, 16 Court Street; in pursuance of a warrant from Peter Oliver, J.P. to form a new parish in the City of Boston. The warrant was issued to Parks and served upon me at the meeting. Mr. Peter Oliver was chosen Moderator, and Mr. Pearson, Clerk. A committee of two, C. M. Parkman and Dr. Oliver, were appointed to draft a Constitution- A committee of two, Dr. Oliver and Mr. Pearson, to draw plans and estimates of what would be required at the hall and to form estimates of the amount of expenses to see what certainty there is of obtaining the rent of the hall.

Dec. 24: Drew up the Constitution.

Dec. 25: All day at the Church of the Advent. Psalter chanted. Dr. C(roswell) preached.

At half past eight, evening: the committee met at No. 93 Mount Vernon Street. My draft accepted with one or two alterations. The committee were all of the opinion that a Rector was necessary; as also that there should be but one body, i. e., that the Clergy, Wardens, and Vestrymen should constitute the Corporation.

Dec. 26: Present at meeting of the new Parish: presented the draft of the Constitution. First four Articles adopted. Name chosen: St. Botolph.

Local interest in this title can be estimated from the fact that in 1853 enough money was sent from Boston, Massachusetts, to Boston, Lincolnshire, in old England to restore a Chapel in St. Botolph's Church, to be known as the Cotton Chapel as a memorial of Rev. John Cotton, sometime Vicar of St. Botolph's from 1612 until his Puritan leanings got him into trouble, when he landed in America in 1633; being one of those who brought about the change of name here from Trimountaine to Boston. Those of us who knew Fr. Prescott can easily imagine his smile when saying, "Next summer when Boston, or at least Charlestown, thinks it is celebrating the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17th; how they will stare when we tell them they are keeping our patronal festival." Although Scotland kept a different day. That he would enjoy. He would go on to tell of the two brothers, Adulph and Botolph, sent to Germany for instruction, who both become Benedictine monks; the former said to have become Bishop of Utrecht, the latter returning to England, founding the monastery at a place called Icanhoe. Remember, that nearly every word of this traditional account is disputed, and may be wrong. Prescott would point out that he came from the regular life in North Carolina and expected others to follow him and elect the Abbott for Boston, Massachusetts, besides finding other parallels between the monastic house of the Lincolnshire Boston and the one he was planning for Massachusetts. He would hope to have in future a church as fine as that which boasted of the well-known "Boston Stump," although the lantern of his should never be used as a Lighthouse.

Dec. 27: Present as before.

Minutes of last meeting read. The other articles of the Constitution adopted. Voted that the same committee which drafted the Constitution do also draft by-laws. That we adjourn sine die. Mr. Pearson, the Clerk, resigned and Mr. Parks was chosen in his place. Personally notified to appear at the same place at quarter past four, Dec. 30, to present draft of by-laws, accept and adopt the Constitution and to elect a Rector.

Dec. 28: Holy Inncents Day. SS. Communion. Mr. Tremlett preached and consecrated.

Dined with George L. Parkham. Blanche Shimmin baptized in private by Bishop Eastburn. Present C. T. S. Mrs. M. S. P., Mr. and Mrs. John Shimmin, the nurse and myself. My article on the Prescott trial signed Jus et Lex, appeared in the Churchman for today.

Bishop Eastburn had spent or caused others to spend considerable money on the expenses of the four trials Prescott endured in the Vestry Room of old Trinity Church on Summer Street, of which the Bishop was then Rector. With what result? Prescott, acting on the advice of Dr. Berrian, then Rector of Trinity Church, New York City, and Bishop Whittingham, had signed the pledge concerning hearing individual, detailed confessions and granting individual absolutions; at once securing letters dimissory from Massachusetts to the Diocese of Maryland, where he was soon regularly the Rector of Ascension Parish, Westminster, Carroll County; before long receiving this letter from his new diocesan:

Baltimore, Dec. 16, 1853.

Do not think me captious when I own that there were two expressions (both perfectly innocent) in the letter to Mr. R. which I would wish a great deal rather not have seen there, because I fear their misinterpretation. I shall some time or other, I hope, have an opportunity to tell you what they are and why I would rather not have had them there.

I waited only for this last step on your part to be voluntarily taken by you to perform on mine what I had from the beginning resolved, but resolved also that it should be in no way influential on your decision whether to throw yourself upon me on my own terms or not. You have done so; now I have just sent to your late Bishop my usual certificate of the acceptance of his letters dimissory in your behalf, with the following appendage:

Inasmuch as the said testimonial while certifying to the regular standing of its subject contains a statement of a sentence of an ecclesiastical court and a rehearsal of a certificate thereby exacted, it is proper to add that I regard said sentence and certificate as irregular, unlawful and of no force or account beyond the diocese in which the said court had jurisdiction.

You will remember that I have fully and authoritatively declared my opinion that the certificate binds you until (if ever) you in some sufficient way obtain release from it. At the same time I can see no objection to your taking proper and regular measure for obtaining such release; and as you are now my presbyter and I have a right to espouse your cause, shall esteem it not only a pleasure but a duty to render you all the aid I can give, by advice and otherwise, in furtherance of such measures.

Faithfully and Affectionately, Your friend and brother,


Prescott's removal from Massachusetts naturally ended his plans for St. Botolph's.

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