Early Priests & Preachers in Lowell
By JIM PETERS
Few of us notice the fantastic Eliot Church. I have enclosed a picture of it with this blog. It is dedicated to the Preacher who convinced a Native American god, Passaconaway, to convert to Episcopalianism, if there is such a word. He became an Episcopalian. Now, in fairness to history, it must be said that it was believed by the Pawtuckets that the Chief could turn himself, when alone in his home, into a flame. He could harness fire. With a reputation like that, there would not be much impetus to convert, and there were language barriers. The Native Americans believed that the Merrimack was “the strong place.” Merrimack means just that; the “Strong Place.” John Eliot had difficulty speaking with Passaconaway, and he might have carried his tale of his greatest feat too far. While it is true that Passaconaway was baptized, it is also true that he gave up his new religion later in his life, and became the god that he had been.
John Eliot was determined to convert the Native Americans. He did, for awhile, convert Passaconaway. It just did not stick. But he tried and his success was the stuff of legends. Two hundred years, give or take a few, later, he was held up as the man who converted the Native Americans. He has quite a write-up in the “History of Lowell, Massachusetts” book that dates back to 1893. It says of him that he sat on a rock in the river which was not in the water, and feasted with his Native American Chief. There, Passaconaway told him that the river was named “the Strong Place,” or “Merrimack.”
You cannot write a History of the Early Priests and Preachers without giving Reverend Eliot some credit and writing a bit about him. I have a number of books on the Native Americans, and they all corroborate the story told in the “History of Lowell, Massachusetts,” book. John Eliot did convert the Chief, but his conversion was, according to John Pendergast, the brilliant writer who wrote “The Bend in the River,” Anglicanized. It was made to be a bigger thing than it actually was, and, as stated, Passaconaway did not give to much credit to his “Saviour.” He went back to the main wigwam or home in the village and did pretty much what he had always done. He still knew that, in his own turf, he was a god. According to Pendergast, he could turn into an animal, a tongue of fire, or a variety of other animals.
So, we have a temporary problem. Who was John Eliot and what did he actually do? According to Pendergast, he settled among the “peaceful and relatively highly developed communities constantly oppressed by these invaders (the Tarantine or Abnaki) from Maine. “They worshipped the Sun, and the Moon, the Pleiades, Orion, Arcturus, and Sirius,” which they could see in sky. They believed in reincarnation of all animals. Theirs was not a Christian religion. How did their Chief become a convert. It can probably be said that he did not understand the rabid thoughts of those Caucasians who put more emphasis on the act than the Native Americans did. In Eliot, they had “One of the earliest names given to the European translates as “Knife Man.” Not exactly a peaceful translation.
“On Eliot’s third visit to the Lowell area, Passaconaway not only invited him…but also embraced Christianity.” (Pendergast, 1991, 1992, 1926). The author wonders whether this was caused by “religious feeling,” or something more political. “All reports of the event were recorded by English onlookers and are apparently highly biased (ibid.)” Passaconaway’s acceptance speech is very eloquently phrased…and are obviously the creation of the Europeans.”
Now, Eliot did seem to care for the Native Americans. He even sued for lands to be used by them. He published the first Bible in the Western Hemisphere in his own interpretation of their Native Tongue. He did a great deal for them. He was tutored in Chelmsford in England and brought the name back with him on one of his voyages. Unlike countryman John Smith, he did not doctor his notes. They are as real as his vision and effort would permit.
One hundred eighty years later, Theodore Edson arrived in Lowell. Like Eliot, he was an Anglican priest. As such, he saw the King or Queen as the Head of the Church. He affected far more people, but had a smaller profile. But, he was completely taken by his new town, that he made Lowell home. He was originally hired by the Mill Owners. Kirk Boott, who showed a bit of an inability to judge a man, personally picked him. The other owners did too, but he led the charge. It was something he would regret until his dying day.
Thomas Edson was given St. Anne’s Parish to administer. He was born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts in 1793, on August 24. He attended Harvard University and graduated in 1818. He was determined to enter the ministry and he did, becoming the Assistant Pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Boston. At a young age he was offered the post in Lowell. He saw the unfair labor practices of the greedy owners of many of the mills, and started speaking about them to the churchgoers on Sundays. This was not just a passing whim, he offended so many of the men who owned the mills, that many ceased to belong to the parish. The most vocal of all of them was Kirk Boott of Boott Mills.
According to “The Illustrated History of Lowell, Mass.” he was written up as follows:
“Reverend Mr. Edson was deeply interested in all that concerned the welfare of his adopted town.” (Pg. 702)
He almost single-handedly built the school system, and was responsible for it to the point that he was named Head of the School Committee for most of his life. “Strong in conciousness , of right and justice, he triumphed,” states the book. He was acknowledged to be the “Father of our School System.” He did some remarkable things, causing such harm to his former benefactor, Kirk Boott, that Boott’s last act was to sit in his chaisse, stand up near the church, raise his arm in a derogatory manner, and fall to his death during or immediately after the act with the arm. After years as School Committee Chairman, and I have written much about the schools in past articles, he died on June 25, 1883. In addition to building a public school system he created and supervised an orphanage.
While no one would match his inimitable style Lowell was not left in the lurch by his death. A number of churches, from Protestant to Catholic, were raised in the time he lived. They included St. Anne’s, St. John’s, St. Patrick’s, Pawtucket Church, 1st. Unitarian Church, Lowell Baptist Union, and the many Methodist Churches designed to cater to Lowell’s large Methodist Community.
Next time, we will discuss the plight of Irish education in Lowell. We hope to have a presentation by the late State Senator Paul Sheehy.