Project Canterbury

Memoir of Bishop Seabury

By William Jones Seabury, D.D.

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1908.
London: Rivingtons, 1908.

Chapter V. Residence in Jamaica. 1757-1766.

THE Rector of Grace Church would appear to have entered upon his pastoral work in Jamaica under circumstances very favourable to his successful prosecution of it, and very conducive to his own personal happiness. Being twenty-eight years of age and of a good constitution, he rejoiced in youth, strength and health. He possessed a devout and earnest spirit, and an excellent mental capacity and equipment for the duties of his calling. He had overcome many and serious obstacles in the attainment of a position which, by comparison with other positions of the same kind at that period, appears to have had a recognized eminence. He had a home of his own, situated upon a good farm, of a sufficient but not burdensome extent, and within easy reach of his Church. He had the incomparable satisfaction of having a congenial wife who graciously presided over the conduct and hospitalities of his home. He lived within a short distance from his father and other relatives and friends at Hempstead, and within about equal distance from almost equally agreeable associations in New York. He had also reasonable expectations of the moral support of the people over whom he was appointed, and of such cordial appreciation of him on their part as would tend to make his labours among them agreeable and edifying.

For all these elements of happiness he was no doubt duly grateful. There was, however, another side to the picture; and the contemplation of it may well have afforded some grounds of apprehension to his prudent foresight; as in the retrospect it appears to us to have been overcast with the shadows of trouble to come. He found in fact as time went on that his worldly prosperity was more apparent than real; and that in his spiritual work in the parish he was sore let and hindered by the apathy and indifference of some, and the jealousies and discontents of others. On the whole it would seem that, with all its compensations, which were many and blessed, his incumbency at Jamaica was not upon a bed of roses. Yet adversities are not always wholly adverse; and trials and troubles have, when rightly used, their resultant benefit in the development of strength and prudence, and a serenity of mind not inconsistent with an industrious energy. The whole life at Jamaica may be well regarded as a severe training manfully endured, and profitably completed.

The references which have been made to Mr. Seabury's unfortunate differences with his father-in-law would seem to indicate that he entered upon the purchase of his farm under expectations which he had been justified in entertaining, but his disappointment in which had involved him in embarrassments which he had not anticipated. And while the farm might to some extent have afforded him a means of support in his otherwise not very lucrative position, yet it is probable that he was from the start hampered by debts which he had in good faith contracted in its purchase. The income from his parish might, if it had been duly paid, have been sufficient for the modest support which was all that could be expected in even the better parishes of the period; but it would appear to have been greater in right than in fact: and, on the other hand, as many a righteous man has doubtless realized, it is not for nothing that one experiences the Psalmist's promised semblance of the fruitful vine upon the walls of his house. Of the seven children of his marriage five were born within the nine years of his residence at Jamaica. It is perhaps not remarkable that he should sometimes have alluded feelingly to the expenses of a large and growing family.

From the best estimate which I am able to make, the income to which the Incumbent of Jamaica, with its " adjacent towns and farms," was entitled must have been equal to about four hundred dollars per annum of our money. This is counting the stipend from the Venerable Society at £50 sterling, equal to about $250, and the salary from the parish at £60 currency, equal perhaps to $150. It will be remembered that, under the act of 1693, the amount to be paid to the support of ministers in Queens County was £120, of which £60 fell to the share of Hempstead, and £60 to Jamaica. But whether this sum would be paid by the town vestry under that law after the Church people had been evicted from the old Church building, and had erected the new Church by voluntary subscription is doubtful to say the least, and much more than doubtful after the incorporation of Grace Church with a Vestry of its own, distinct from the town Vestry. It may well have been, however, that the salary of the Rector of Grace Church would be understood to be at the figure fixed by the Act, and that this amount would be apportioned between Jamaica, New-town and Flushing. My father's notes state that the sum of £20 was paid by Flushing, but give no information as to the payments of Jamaica and Newtown. Supposing the same undertaking from each of these, the Incumbent would have the right to about $150 from the Parish: that he always got it is more than I am able to affirm.

Several years ago, in a discussion as to the extent of farm land which could be worked with profit (or without loss) to the farmer, a publication appeared which attracted some attention, entitled "Ten acres enough;" which was shortly followed by a counterview of the situation, entitled "Five acres too much." What the Rector's experience would have enabled him to contribute to the solution of the problem involved, I have no means of knowing. Whether he found his farm in itself unprofitable, or was merely hindered by other obligations from realizing any benefit from it; or whether again he began to think it unlikely that he should continue to make his home in Jamaica, and that it was wiser to be free from cares of permanent ownership there; or by whatever considerations influenced, he seems not to have held the property longer than four or five years. The absence of any traditions in regard to this land holding experience, would lead one to think that it was not among the pleasant memories which in later life he was wont to recall in converse with his children. Bishop Perry, somewhere in his extraordinarily voluminous historical and biographical contributions, alludes in his graceful way to this farm as the home centre of the hospitable and useful life of the Rector of Jamaica; and a few years ago there was still pointed out to the curious observer a venerable barn standing a little way east of the railway station, marking the site of the farm and said to have been used by him, although the house which he had occupied as a dwelling had given place to another building erected by a subsequent owner. [So stated by the late Rev. Beverley Robinson Betts, sometime Librarian of Columbia College, and a most learned and careful Antiquary; New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, April, 1889.] The advertisement for sale of this property, reprinted by Mr. Henry Onderdonk, Jr., gives a good idea of its nature and extent.

"February 1, 1762. To be sold and entered on when the purchaser pleases, a small plantation half a mile east of Jamaica Village, on which Mr. Seabury, Rector of the Church, now lives. It contains twenty-eight acres of good land, a good dwelling house (one end new) a genteel building, a dry cellar under the whole house, a well of good water, new barn, hovel and smoke house. There is a fine orchard that makes fifty barrels of cider; also a screw-press and cider mill of a new invention that grinds fifty bushels of apples in an hour. Also fourteen acres of woodland two miles from the farm and eight acres of salt meadow that cuts twenty loads of salt hay. Apply to the above said Samuel Seabury, Jr., who will give a good title." [Onderdonk's Antiquities Parish of Jamaica, p. 64. Mr. Onderdonk notes that "Mr. Seabury's mark for his creatures is recorded in the town book, 1758, as 'a crop of each ear.'"]

As already mentioned the Incumbent of Grace Church was both Rector of the parish and Missionary of the Society for Propagating the Gospel. In the latter capacity he reported about twice a year to the Secretary, giving some account of his work and of the parish interests. Several of these reports are contained in the Documentary History of New York. [Vol. III, pp. 321-330.] There are nine of these letters thus printed, ranging in date from October 10, 1759 to April 17, 1766. No allusion is made in them to the disputes referred to in the last chapter, nor to the Governor's rejection of Mr. Horton's presentation. Keeping to the matter of the Missionary's work among the people they report Baptisms, and the number of Communicants, and give general information in regard to the condition of the Church in Jamaica and also in Flushing and New-town, neighbouring places which were under the writer's jurisdiction as Rector and Missionary. They seem to indicate a good deal of discouragement in regard to the interest of the people in the Church in all three of these places, and constantly refer to the influence of Quakerism as the chief cause of that want of interest. In five of the nine letters this allusion is made with earnest conviction. In the first he writes, "Flushing in the last generation the ground seat of Quakerism is in this the seat of infidelity; a transition how natural." In the second he writes, "Such is the effect of the Deism and Infidelity (for the spreading of which Quakerism has paved the way) which have here been propagated with the greatest zeal and the most astonishing success that a great indifference toward all religion has taken place and the too common opinion seems to be that they shall be saved without the mediation of Christ as well as with." In the third he is somewhat encouraged by the attendance at Flushing" (which has ever been the seat of Quakerism and Infidelity)" "of many young people of both sexes . . . whose parents are either Quakers or Deists," and whom he allows to have "behaved with great decency." In the sixth he remarks, "The cause of Infidelity in this Country seems to have had some early and zealous advocates and the conduct of the Quakers has very much favoured its increase . . . hence it comes to pass that in those villages where the Quakers were formerly most numerous, there is now the least appearance of any religion at all." And in the eighth the same inference is drawn, with a particular application to the people of Hempstead who notwithstanding their ability had shown great backwardness in the support of their Minister; they having " learned from the Quakers to consider it as a mark of an avaricious and venal spirit for a minister to receive anything of his people by way of support."

In the seventh of these letters, of October 6, 1764, the writer alludes to a long visit of Mr. Whitfield in the Colony; to his preaching frequently in the City and on the Island; to his having had more influence than formerly, and his having done, as he fears, a great deal of mischief. The letter concludes thus: "his tenets and method of preaching have been adopted by many of the Dissenting Teachers, and this Town in particular has a continual I had almost said a daily success of strolling Preachers and Exhorters, the poor Church of England is on every occasion misrepresented as Popish and as teaching her members to expect salvation on account of their works and deservings. I have in the most moderate manner endeavoured to set these things in their true light and I think not without success, none of my own people have been led away by them, tho' I have not been without apprehensions on their account, and I hope that friendly disposition and mutual intercourse of good offices which have always subsisted between the Church people and Dissenters since I have been settled here and which I have constantly endeavoured to promote will meet but with little interruption."

The last letter of this series, or rather the extract printed from it in the Documentary History is, in view of its bearing upon succeeding developments, worthy of being reproduced in full.

"Jamaica, April 17, 1766.

Revd. Sir:

We have lately had a most affecting acct. of the loss of Messrs. Giles and Wilson the Society's Missionaries; the ship they were in being wrecked near the entrance of Delaware Bay and only 4 persons saved out of 28, their death is a great loss in the present want of Clergymen in these Colonies, and indeed I believe one great reason why so few from this Continent offer themselves for Holy Orders, is because it is evident from experience that not more than 4 out of 5 who have gone from the Northern Colonies have returned; this is an unanswerable argument for the absolute necessity of Bishops in the Colonies. The poor Church of England in America is the only instance that ever happened of an Episcopal Church without a Bishop and in which no Orders could be obtained without crossing an Ocean of 3,000 miles in extent, without Bishops the Church cannot flourish in America and unless the Church be well supported and prevail, this whole Continent will be overrun with Infidelity and Deism, Methodism and New Light with every species and every degree of Scepticism and enthusiasm, and without a Bishop upon the spot I fear it will be impossible to keep the Church herself pure and undefiled. And that it is of the last consequence to the State to support the Church here, the present times afford an alarming proof. . . ."

What particulars may have been adduced by the writer in the part imprinted I have no means of knowing; but certainly what has been quoted shows the convictions which led not long after to his strenuous advocacy of the need of the Episcopate as a means of safeguarding the interests of religion, and of perpetuating the influence of the Church in the effort to protect the State against the attacks which were then gradually maturing, and which finally culminated in the Revolution.

The troubles of the Rector, however, were not merely the fruit of mental anxieties in regard to the tendencies of thought and action which seemed to menace the continued peace and welfare of both Church and State, but were sometimes of a more personal character, involving in one instance an intrusion upon his parochial jurisdiction, and leading to a controversy of considerable acrimony between himself and one of his Flushing parishioners who had as he thought abetted that intrusion, and resented the Rector's natural and proper objection to it.

It will be better to defer the account of this controversy to the next chapter, and to conclude the present chapter with a reference to the fact that during the time covered by the letters to the Society, application was made to the Civil authority in the Colony for a Charter incorporating the parish Church. The application is addressed to the Honourable Cadwallader Colden, President of his Majesty's Council and Commander in chief of the Province of New York and the Territories depending thereon in America; is dated April 8th 1761, and is signed by Samuel Seabury, Jr., Minister, and by twenty men who are described as "Sundry of the Inhabitants of the Town of Jamaica on Nassau Island Communicants and professors of the Church of England as by Law established;" recites the erection of the Church by voluntary contributions, the present need of repairs thereto, and the danger that moneys contributed for that and other Church purposes may be improperly applied for want of persons appointed with legal authority to superintend its affairs, and therefore prays for the Charter. [New York Documentary History, III, 324.]

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