A Tory Parson
MATHER BYLES, of “ fame facete,” was born in the town of Boston, on the 26th of March, 1706, the place and year which gave the child Franklin also to the world. There had been a Henry Byles, a native of Sarum, England, settled in Salisbury, Massachusetts, as early as
1640; but of him no traces remained. His young namesake was the son of an English emigrant, who died early; descended, through his American mother, from those two godly colonial bigwigs, John Cotton and Richard Mather. He seems to have been a clever boy, with a taste for literature, graduating at Harvard College in the class of 1725. As a matter of heredity and precedent, his thoughts turned to the ministry. He was ordained on the last day of December (N. S.), 1732, and the following year we find him, young, robust, and individual, installed as first pastor of the Hollis Street Church. From Aberdeen, in 1765, he got his degree, — an honor obtainable, at that time, without much striving. He made an imperious and impressive figure in the pulpit; his voice was sonorous and well modulated, and the scholarly quality of his sermons won him an early reputation. He had a very nice discriminating sense that what was befitting to Mather Byles at large was not always opportune to Mather Byles, D. D. Politics he never preached ; his quadruple disclaimer of such topics is as well known as any saying of his life. No puns edged themselves into his moral discourses. Records show that on one occasion, however, he was sorely tempted, and fell. Thomas Prince (peace to the ashes of that good Bostonian!) had promised to preach for him on a certain Sunday afternoon, and when the hour came failed to put in an appearance. The congregation waited long and patiently, and services were delayed, till the pastor, in a sort of weary indignation, mounted the stair, and delivered an earnest harangue on the whimsically chosen text from the one hundred and forty-sixth Psalm : “ Put not your trust in Princes.”
Many of his sermons were set forth in print, under titles of portentous length. Most valuable, perhaps, for its good heart is The Prayer and Plea of David to be Delivered from Blood-Guiltiness, Improved in a Sermon at the Ancient Thursday Lecture in Boston, May 10, 1751, before the Execution of a Young Negro Servant for Poisoning an Infant. Byles employs some happy phrases ; “ Saint Paul’s harmonious and gallant periods of inspiration ” being one of them. “ Critics,” he says, in the sermon on the Character and End of the Perfect Man, “ are men who have a wonderful knack to illustrate away the meaning of the clearest texts, and explain them into nonsense.” Before the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, June 2, 1740, he gave a fine address on the Glories of the Lord of Hosts, and the Fortitude of the Religious Hero. In it he calls young David, about to face the giant, the “ Rosey Warriour,” and quotes “the correct, the delicate, the sublime Addison.” A plump list of errata follows the published pamphlet, the author announcing himself as one who has “ neither leisure nor inclination to transcribe his notes for the press.” In this same sermon occurs a memorable passage, when referred to the antagonistic political beliefs of Mather Byles, later in life. “We are certainly a most exposed people, and in our unfortified posture ” (nunc et semper !) “seem to be an easy prey to the first invader. ’T is not for me to charge the fault of this anywhere, but only to pray God that some happy method may open for the redress of this grievance.
. . . But you, gentlemen, will do what in you lies to diffuse skill and valor through your several regiments and companies, that at least we may keep our country, should we be obliged to give up our frontiers on the seas ! ”
Mather Byles wrote for the New England Weekly Journal, and tradition affirms most of its poetical contributions to be his. His essays were signed, after the manner of Addison’s “Clio ” in the Spectator, with some one letter of the word Celoiza; his prose being brief, sensible, and direct. But that on which he prided himself was a small volume, entitled Poems on Several Occasions, by Mr. Byles : “ Nunc itaque et versus et cœtera ludierna pono : ” Boston : Printed and sold by S. Kneeland and T. Green (the publishers of the Boston Gazette and Weekly Journal) in Queen Street, 1744. The author’s preface announces most of the verses as college productions ; he thus rescues them from miscellanies, and officially takes leave of his “airy Muse.” The divinity last named falls neatly, under an invective of old Robert Burton’s : “ a giganticall Anakim, a heavie, vast, barbarous lubber.” But the reader shall judge. The book opens with hymns, somewhat after the manner of Watts, but rhapsodical to the verge of suspicion. Presently Mr. Byles returns to the subject of the fighting pagan gentleman from Gath, whose exploits seem to have dwelt much in his mind. This dramatic bit is from Goliath’s Defeat, in the Manner of Lucan. David has just spoken.
It flew impetuous, and triumphant sung;
On his broad front it struck the warrior full,
And death drove furious through his crashing skull.”
But for all that, Mr. Byles’s Goliath, ready, as Shelley said of Leigh Hunt, “ to take a great deal of killing,” survives for a stanza, and rolls about “ in dust and blood,” to the edification of both armies.
There is an Elegy on a Young Commander slain in Battle with the Indians, in 1724 : —
Alpeus, who, with the thirst of glory fired,
Courageous in his country’s cause expired ! ”
some congratulatory twaddle to Governor Burnet, whose career was consistently worthless, with lines in it that bring one back impetuously from its stilted
to Emerson’s terse, glad-hearted rendering of the same conceit: —
Looks eastward from the farms ;
And twice each day the flowing sea
Takes Boston in its arms ! ”
How that clears the air for thee, “ thou darling town of ours ” !
Mr. Byles had an innocent veneration for the reigning House of Hanover. He wept for the first George, his apocryphal
and shouted welcomes to the second, in a breath. Neither of these royal stolidities ever had a more impassioned adherent. He writes approbation in a copy of Paradise Lost: —
and is quite as generous to a contemporary master : —
Far as the waves can flow, far as the winds
And if I shine, ’t is his reflected light! ” The following lines are inscribed To an Ingenious Young Gentleman, on his Dedicating a Poem to the Author : —
And great Apollo speaks his darling son.” But the youth and his genius are unaccountably dead, despite his ceded immortality ; the Mr. Mather Byles who made ill verses survives as a curiosity; and Apollo, meanwhile ?
The good parson corresponded with Lansdowne, Pope, and Watts. Many of his quasi-chronielers — for no one complete, authentic record of Mather Byles exists — adduce that fact as an instance of the esteem in which he was held by men of intellect abroad. But a letter to Alexander Pope, dated New England, Boston, October 7, 1727, while the writer had, indeed, “ the dew of his youth ” and the assurance thereof, shall be transcribed in part, to suggest that if the “ airy Muse ” in the colonies was not known in England it was not due to her bashful disposition, and to serve as a glorious early American specimen of that art of addressing great ones which has now degenerated into a blunter request for autographs : —
Sir,—You are doubtless wondering at the novelty of an epistle from the remote shores where this dates its origin, as well as from so obscure a hand as that which subscribes it. But what corner of the earth so secret as not to have heard the fame of Mr. Pope ? Or who so retired as not to be acquainted with his admirable compositions, or so stupid as not to be ravished with them ? . . . To let you see a little of the reputation which you bear in these unknown climates, and the improvements we are making, under your auspicious influences, in the polite studies of the Muses, I transmit to you the enclosed poems, assuring myself, though not of the approbation of your judgment, yet of the excuse and lenity of that candor which is forever inseparable from a great genius. ... I find it very difficult to suppress the struggle of passion which swells my breast while I am writing a letter to so great a man. . . . How often have I been soothed and charmed with the everblooming landscapes of your Windsor Forest! And how does my very soul melt away at the soft complaint of the languishing Eloisa ! How frequently has the Rape of the Lock commanded the various passions of my mind, provoked laughter, breathed a tranquillity, or inspired a transport! And how often have I been raised and borne away by the resistless fire of the Iliad, as it glows in your immortal translation! Permit me, sir, to conclude my letter with asking the favor of a few lines from the hand which has blest the world with such divine productions. If you thus honor me, assure yourself the joys you will produce in me will be inferior to none but the poetic rapture of your own breast. Perhaps you will be disposed to write, when I confess that I have a more superstitious ardor to see a word written by your pen than ever Tom Folio, in the Tatler, to see a simile of Virgil with that advantage.
I am, sir, your great admirer and most obedient humble servant,
In return, Mr. Pope sent, later, a quarto presentation copy of his version of the Odyssey, treasured faithfully by its recipient. To the letter Pope answered, says Buckingham, “ in terms of extravagant compliment, which Byles was fond of exhibiting on every practicable occasion. Among other ironical expressions, Pope said it had been long supposed that the Muses had deserted the British Empire, but the reception of this book of poems had relieved him of his sorrow, for it was evident they had only emigrated to the colonies.” Here a little confusion is evident. Byles must have sent his poems to Pope either in manuscript or in pamphlet; for his book itself was only published the year of Pope’s death. At any rate, the correspondence,” deduced from its beginnings, must have been delicious. Byles’s ritual of literary admiration seems to have consisted in re-making himself on an elected idol, and then calling the attention of the idol to his honest but hyperbolic facsimile.
He married the niece of Governor Jonathan Belcher, who had given the land for the erection of Hollis Street Church, to which, a year or two after its opening, Thomas Hollis, of London, gave the great bell. The second wife of Mather Byles was the daughter of Lieutenant-Governor Tailer.
Peace and prosperity attended him until the outbreak of the Revolution. He had followed his wise rule of preaching no politics, but his barbed sarcasms, in secular life, struck right and left at the rising spirit of resistance. Private enmities and public scandals began, and the same Mather Byles who had warned the militia to stand fast and repel an invader slipped suddenly into collision with his church and his associates, and came forth, misguided but still sincere, a vehement and uncompromising Tory. The people to whom he had ministered in concord for forty-three years were swift to discover sudden flaws in his action and conversation, and dissolved their connection with him in 1776 ; " he having by his conduct:,” so they voted, " put an end to his usefulness as a preacher.” Angered at his political attitude, his flock burst upon him like Actæon’s hounds, urging charges unjust and bitter. The church had been used as a barrack by the British, while they held possession of the town ; so soon as they had evacuated, and while yet the straw and the broken wood of the pews were strewn about, a committee of avenging parishioners gathered in the gallery to confront their pastor. He, in flowing gown and bands and full-powdered wig, his great three-cornered hat hung over the edge of the pulpit, stood, erect and solemn, listening to the little weak-voiced clerk reading accusations from the gallery. At last, he thundered back in his large voice, “ ‘T is false! and the church of Christ in Hollis Street knows that it is false ! ” and descended, majestic and wrathful, never to enter the doors again. Neither did he ever undertake any other pastoral charge. In May of 1777, he was arrested, and denounced as an enemy to his country. The charges brought against him in special court were that he prayed for the king, and “ prayed in publick that America might submitt to Grate Brittain, or wordes to the same purpose; ” that he had remained in town during the siege, and had received visits from the British officers ; and that — oh, most unkindest cut! — “ he had lent them his glasses for the purpose of seeing the works erected out of town for our defence.”Byles’s own neighbor, Colonel John Crane, a tea-party man, a carpenter and a patriot (whose picturesque tumble-down establishment was swept from Tremont Street, opposite Hollis, but a few years ago), had succeeded Knox in command of these Neck fortifications. Nothing so much delighted him as to annoy the royalist house from his post with little stray missiles and delicate punctures in its roof and walls. They were his ultima ratio, in return for many an old gibe unrepaid.
Mather Byles was tried, convicted, and sentenced to confinement on a guardship, to be transported to England, with his family, inside a period of forty days. But the sentence was soon commuted — by what influence is hard to discover — to confinement on his own premises. He was not at all abashed, and joked recklessly on his altered fortunes. “ That’s an observe-a-tory! ” he liked to say to any casual visitor who glanced wonderingly on the ever-pacing sentinel. After two supplanting, the guard was finally withdrawn ; and the irrepressible prisoner made a new pun the moment he heard the cheering news, and announced himself as one who had been guarded, regarded, and disregarded ! One of these simple-hearted jailers, on the doctor’s representation that he, of course, would not he allowed to absent himself from the house, trotted down street, with a milk-pitcher, on the family errand ; while the portly clergyman magnanimously shouldered the musket, and marched to and fro in the interval, savagely eying his own door, to the mirth of the neighbors.
Inconvenience and suffering he took jocosely, but a Tory he remained. In his latter days he saw the church which had rejected him burn to the ground, and the eager flame come licking and hissing so near his home that “ his books, instruments, papers, and plantings,” as his nephew, Jeremy Belknap, records, “ were dislodged in an hour from fifty years’ quietness to a helterskelter heap in an adjoining pasture.” But the conflagration was beaten down, and he was spared a houseless last year of life. “ He naturally found his social attractions more and more among the Episcopalians,” writes George L. Chaney, “ who were generally of the royalist persuasion.” The members of Trinity Church, especially, were kind to him in his declining fortunes; and it is pleasant to remember that his old congregation of Hollis Street, after his dismissal, voted money for his necessities. Mather Byles was seized with paralysis in 1783, and died in Boston, aged eighty-two, July 5, 1788, with the anniversary joybells of the young republic yet ringing in his dissentient ears. Just before he went, the rectors of Christ Church and of Trinity bent over him, and asked him how he felt. “ I feel.” he said, turning to his friend Bishop Parker, who put his ear toward the pillow, — “I feel as if I had about got to that land where there are no more bishops ! ” And so, with a parting fling at the rival sect and the old half-sportive, half-biting banter, our inquisitor on the king’s English ceased to speak, and gave up his pious, arrogant, rhyming Tory ghost.
But pray to God that he forgive us all.”
His only son and namesake — ” my Mather,” he tenderly scores him in the official church entry of baptism, January 12, 1734 — graduated from Harvard in 1751, and, dismissed from the pastorate of the Congregational church in New London, on account of his change of faith, strayed from Boston to Portsmouth, and thence, by sentence of banishment at the Revolution, to St. John’s, New Brunswick, where he died in 1814, leaving three children, all married. Doctor Byles’s daughters, Katy and Polly, survived many years, beaming, reminiscent, garrulous old maids, carrying their pathetic loyalty into a day so late as the accession of William IV., over seas, when one of them wrote magnificently to the new Guelph that “ the family of Byles never had and never would renounce their allegiance to the British crown ! ” Their tales were all of the hallowed war-time, when they paced the paths of the Common arm-inarm with General Howe and handsome Percy; and when his lordship’s band played evening after evening, by orders, under their discreet windows. Their treasures were Tory relics and memorials, inheritances from their father, the Pope quarto, rare china, nooks filled with curious and storied souvenirs. The elder sister was literally shocked out of life in 1835, when the town authorities cut off the southeast corner of the family mansion, in the extension of Tremont Street. Throughout her life she had forbidden improvements and alterations, and with the passion of conservatism refused to sell at any price ; and now that the sacrilege was accomplished despite her, she groaned in vehement remonstrance, and vowed, even while the work of removal was going on, that no creature in these accursed States should be any the richer for what she left behind. Then she died of her indignation ; and her sister, laid two years later by her side in the vaults of old Trinity, where they worshiped, willed every farthing of their possessions to relatives in the colonies. Their dearly loved mansion was a wooden, two-storied, gambrel-roofed house, opposite the up - town side of Hollis Street, on Tremont, not dissimilar to the neighboring gambrel - roof which yet stands in the near neighborhood ; it had nothing on the south but pasture and garden land. For we bear in mind that Tremont and Common streets were one, in those days, and that the Nassau Street which they formed ran curvingly from Orange (now Washington) to Boylston Street; so that when our modern Tremont was pushed on through the fields at an angle to Common Street, it involved the sacrifice of the Byles estate.
It remains for us to recall that on which the doctor’s reputation rests. His pompous oratorical periods, with his political failings, have been forgiven him. Little is heard now of the approbation of townsfolk for his forgotten virtues or for his moral fibre, staunch and noble as oak. But his “ wanton wiles ” are extant, and rumor foists forever on his venerable shade some play-upon-words of which he was wholly guiltless. He made a number of the worst puns — that is, as Charles Lamb contends, the best — upon record. This evil propensity he shared with his uncle, the sly and solemn author of our epic Magnalia Christi. Let us subjoin a few of the hundreds not unfamiliar.
Thomas Hill had a distillery at the corner of Essex and South streets. Doctor Byles, passing his door, beckons him out. “ Do you still ? ” “ That is my business, sir.” “ Then come with me, and still my wife. ‘ A quagmire formed in front of his residence, of which he complained several times, to no avail. The city fathers, going by, sink wheeldeep in their chaise. The doctor appears on his threshold, in congratulation. “ Ah, gentlemen ! I am delighted to see you stirring in the matter at last.” He paid his addresses unsuccessfully to a lady who afterwards married Mr. Quincy. Her late suitor meets her subsequently, with one of Polonius’s “ vile phrases : ” “ So, madam, you prefer a Quincy to Byles.” He rids himself of a troublesome gossip of a visitor, remembering that a ship has just arrived in port with three hundred street lamps, and asking briskly, “Have you heard the news, madam, — have you heard the news ? Why, three hundred new lights have come over this morning from London, and the selectmen have wisely ordered them to be put in irons immediately ! ” And she hurries away to verify the exciting report, on the strength of a double-entendre worthy of Swift. On the memorable dark day in May, 1780, a friend sends her little boy to the Nassau Street door, with her compliments, and the written message, “ Dear doctor, how do you account for this strange darkness ? ” To which he replies forthwith, “ Dear madam, I am as much in the dark as you are.” He shares the popular prejudice against Episcopalians, their ritual and their style of building. He looks askance at King’s Chapel and its lower tier of windows, which are much smaller than the upper. There they blink yet, reminiscent of that sharp, hostile tongue. “ H’m ! I have heard of the canons of your English Church, but I never before saw its port-holes ! ” He vents his scorn political in the same fashion. “ Our grievances redressed ” was a catch-phrase of the times, the crystallization into three words of growing uneasiness and impending rebellion, words which he himself had employed more than once in public speeches. One fine morning a crowd on the Common are watching the soldiery parading in their new scarlet coats. “ Who says our grievances are not red-dressed ? ” cries Doctor Byles. But a captious by-stander trips him by the heel. “ That won’t do, doctor ! You have two d’s ! ” he cries back. “ Ay, ay ! ” the ready wit answers, I have a right to ’em; I got ’em from Aberdeen in 1765.” He had known General Knox as a book-seller, before the war. Knox had grown very corpulent in the interval, and was sensitive concerning it. While he takes possession of the town, after the enemy’s evacuation, at the head of his artillery, Byles lifts his voice from the throng, in the admiring and audible comment, “ I never saw a Knox fatter, in my life ! ” The sturdy soldier takes it as a mortal affront; though he could have borne it from any but a Tory, he says.
Doctor Byles had shining domestic qualities, but he must have been, to his own circle, in his capacity as court-jester, nothing short of an incubus and a terror. The beleaguered women all thought his pranks exceedingly humorous, even when he would call them from their beds of a freezing winter’s night. to ask whether they lay snug and warm. Mrs. Byles, caught at her ironing-board, in shabby attire, hot, flushed, and tired, starts when she hears visitors, and, running to the doctor’s study, bids him lock her in the closet. The company is asked in, and stays an hour, the host showing, from time to time, some of his curiosities ; and, prefacing that the last oddity is the best, turns the key, and exhibits Mrs. Byles.
The household had at one time a servant of a literal turn of mind, whom the doctor delighted in horrifying. “ Go say to your mistress,” he announces to her in an awe-struck tone, “ that by the time you will reach her up-stairs Doctor Byles will have put an end to himself.” Imagine the gaping girl screaming on her way to Mrs. Byles, and that incomprehensible family, as ready to be gulled anew as young perch, trooping down wildly to the long, sunny room, where the pastor of Hollis Street Church parades up and down, with a cow’s tail, which he had picked up in the road, fastened to his cassock! Best of all his practical jokes was his sending a swollen-faced sufferer to the astonished Copley, with a tearful request to have his tooth drawn!
Byles had a potent rival in Mr. Joseph Green, a wag who lived on School Street, between Court Square and the Cromwell’s Head, an inn on the site of what is now No. 19. Green was likewise a Harvard man, of the class of 1726, and of Byles’s own age. Like him, he was proscribed and banished as a loyalist (though he had been Samuel Adams’s former friend and associate), and died in St. Andrew’s Parish, Holborn, London, in 1780. Green was a vivacious gentleman of excellent parts,
as an ante-mortem epitaph once characterized him. He reveled in burlesques and ironies; and he and Doctor Byles parodied each other until their swords were worn thin with crossing. In 1733, Green came out as the panegyrist of Doctor Byles’s cat, and enlivened the town with the meek reference (in the second line) to the mythological lady whom the churchly poet invoked unctuously and long. He starts on a mournful interrogation, and proceeds with candor : —
For in my favorite cat I ‘ve lost my Muse !
She in the study was my constant mate ;
There we together many evenings sate ;
Whene’er I felt my towering fancy fail,
I stroked her head, her ears, her back and
And as I stroked improved my dying song
From the sweet notes of her melodious
Her paws and mews so evenly kept time,
She purred in metre, and she mew’d in
But when my dullness has too stubborn
Nor could by Pussy’s music be renewed,
Oft to the well-worn volumes have I gone,
And stol’n a line from Pope or Addison.
Ofttimes when lost amidst poetic heat,
She leaping on my knee has took her seat,
There saw the throes that rack’d my labor-
And lick’d and claw’d me to myself again !
Then, friend, indulge my grief, and let me
My cat is gone, oh ! never to return.
Now in my study all the tedious night,
Alone I sit, and, unassisted, write ;
Look often round (O greatest cause of pain !)
And view the num’rous labors of my brain.
Those quires of words arranged in pompous
Which braved the jaws of all-devouring time
Now undefended and unwatch’d by cats,
Are doomed a victim to the teeth of rats! ”
Despite the grammatical confusion at the close of this elegy, it is a deft takeoff, and hits Byles’s adjectived and labored style to a nicety.
It is strange, all in all, that faithful stewardship itself and the example of an upright life, during “ the length and quietness of his pastorate,” could have saved Mather Byles, D. D., from the vengeance of an outraged and inoffensive public. His witticisms were excruciating ; lawless enough for capital punishment. He formulated them in the pauses of argument and in the gaps of social confidences. No man could go unbitten through an hour’s talk with him. “A most troublesome puppy in Company! ” his friend Lloyd said of him long after, in a burst of melancholy enthusiasm. Stranger yet that no society was organized for his suppression, when Mr. Joseph Green held up a distorting-mirror, and made that reverend and intolerable oddity more grotesque than ever ! How, in the name of charity, did one small preoccupied town keep steady under their bewildering quips and sallies ? We can only suppose that she was brooding on mighty problems, and watching the stars so intently that the gambols of Harlequin and his shadow went unheeded. Poor, fond, earnest, aspiring, hard-beset, invincible little Boston ! Be it to her credit that she bore with these two “ pestiferous perturbations,” apart from the pang of their civic unfaithfulness, at a time and in a state of mind when one jest too much threatened to drive her distraught, and when, like Atalanta foregoing her race to lift the golden pippin, she might have lost us freedom had she paused even for a protest or a laugh !
Louise Imogen Guiney.