Early American Faith: Reverend Jonathan Lee (Part One)

EarlyAmerFaithI came across Reverend Jonathan Lee’s tombstone recently  – the impressive epitaph definitely caught my eye:

In Memory of the Rev. Jonathan Lee, this Stone, the fruit of conjugal affection and filial gratitude, is erected.

He was born July 4 AD 1718; Graduated at Yale College, 1742;
was a settled minister in the Gofpel in this town 45 years; and died
Oct. 8 AD 1788, in the 71 year of his age.

To the faithful discharge of the paftoral office he united the private
virtues of the hufband, the parent and the friend, and expired in the
bleffed hope of that Gofpel to which he had freely devoted his life.

My flesh fhall flumber in the ground Till the laft Trumpet’s joyful found,
Then burft the chains in fweet furprife, And in my Savior’s image rise.

I had never heard of him, but with an epitaph like that I wanted to know more about Jonathan Lee.

Early Life

Jonathan Lee’s immigrant ancestor, grandfather John Lee of Essex, England, had come with a group called the Hooker Company, adherents to the ministry of Thomas Hooker, a prominent Puritan who later dissented and helped found the colony of Connecticut.  John, at the age of thirteen, had been sent by his father under the guardianship of William Westwood.  Although his father had planned to immigrate as well, he never made it to New England’s shores.

Jonathan Lee was born on July 4, 1718 in Coventry, Connecticut to parents David and Lydia Lee, the youngest of seven children.  His mother, however, died six days following his birth on July 10.  David had become a prominent member of the new settlement of Coventry, a weaver by trade, and within a year of Lydia’s death had married a woman named Elizabeth.

Lydia’s father, Elder Jedidah Strong, likely had a strong influence on his grandson.  According to Julia Pettee, author of The Reverend Jonathan Lee and His Eighteenth Century Salisbury Parish, “children were carefully instructed in theology during their tender years, and Jonathan Lee, the first of John Lee’s descendants to enter the ministry, undoubtedly owed much of his impulsion toward this career to the devout and intellectually gifted Strongs.”

Just before Jonathan’s eleventh birthday, in late June of 1729, David exchanged land in Coventry for land in Lebanon, Connecticut.  Until Jonathan entered Yale University, his education and religious training was conducted in Lebanon,  under the tutelage of Reverend Solomon Williams.  In August of 1737, David again exchanged land and moved back to Coventry.  Pettee surmises that David may moved to Lebanon intentionally, even for a short period of time, so that “his youngest son might avail himself of the superior education advantages of the town and its much respected minister.”

Jonathan had remained in Lebanon, continuing to be mentored by Williams, until matriculating to Yale in 1739.  There he also met his future wife, Elizabeth Metcalf, who had become a ward of Rector Thomas Clap after her parents died.  Jonathan was well-prepared for college – instead of needing the four required years to complete his program, he graduated after three years in 1742.  The “Great Awakening” had begun in 1731 and ministers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, so-called “New Light” revivalists were preaching to large crowds throughout the colonies.

“Old Lights” vs. “New Lights”

A contentious dispute had arisen between the “Old Lights” and the “New Lights”.  In general terms, the “Old Lights” were of the Congregationalist faith who depended on the authority of church government, and the “New Lights” of the Baptist or a more evangelical (Calvinist) faith.  New Light preachers believed that conversion was an absolute requirement for salvation.

These itinerant revivalists were drawing crowds and converting hundreds of people, engendering hostility from the “Old Lights”.  The era was a period of “great awakening”, yet it was a time of great division.  Jonathan Lee entered Yale as a “New Light” adherent.

George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards had both preached in New Haven, but Yale’s Rector Thomas Clap, was an “Old Light” and warned students against attending these “unauthorized meetings” lest they be expelled.  Pettee cited one instance of a deacon in the New Haven church refusing to attend his own son’s funeral because the son was a member of the “New Lights.”

Religion and one’s personal salvation was the topic of the day, however, frequently dominating the topic of conversation.  Students formed prayer circles and conversions were recorded, even though Yale students were all required to attend the First Church of New Haven pastored by Reverend Joseph Noyes, an “Old Light.”  Noyes, of course, would not allow a “New Light” to stand behind his pulpit and preach.

The Yale Years

According to Pettee, not much is written of Jonathan’s years at Yale, but presumably he was quite capable and intelligent, surmising that he dutifully followed the rules and attended Noyes’ church, although he himself was counted among the “New Lights”.  Pettee believed he, though conservative, believed in the necessity of a personal religious experience and had no sympathy for the intolerance of the “Old Lights”.

Elizabeth Metcalf had accompanied Rector Clap to New Haven, but following Clap’s marriage, returned to Lebanon.  Following his graduation in September of 1742, Jonathan returned to Lebanon, desiring to again be mentored by Reverend Williams in preparation for his own ordination.  As was the custom of the day for those desiring to pursue a career as either a lawyer or minister, Jonathan probably lived in Williams’ home.

The Call to Salisbury

In July of 1743, Jonathan received his license to preach and began filling vacancies where they were offered.  In the fall he was invited as the temporary minister of Salisbury, a new Connecticut settlement.  The first minister had not been committed to settling in Salisbury permanently, so Jonathan was given a chance to serve the town’s congregants.

By January of 1744 he was offered the full-time job as pastor of the Salisbury church.  He believed he was not only called by the church to serve, but by God Himself.  Jonathan accepted the terms of the salary offered, which included a base salary of forty pounds and incremental raises as his tenure continued through the years.  He pledged:

I therefore do hereby testify mine acceptance of the call, and your proposals, and hereby profess my willingness to labor for your good in the work of the gospel ministry, according as I may be assisted by the grace of Almighty God; and hoping and trusting in his goodness, and depending upon a continual remembrance in the fervent prayers of the faithful, I give and devote myself to Christ, and my services to you for his sake, who am your friend and servant.

Jonathan and Elizabeth had a decision to make, one they must have considered carefully, given the remoteness of the area they had been called to.  He submitted his letter of acceptance (in part, above) on August 19, 1744 and two weeks later, on September 3, Jonathan and Elizabeth were married.  Jonathan preached his own wedding sermon.

As Pettee wrote, they “turned aside from the comfortable living and refinements to which they were accustomed and decided for a remote parish in an almost unknown wilderness.”  What awaited them in Salisbury where Jonathan would serve faithfully until his death in 1788?  Tune in next week for the conclusion.  In case you missed my two-part article on George Whitefield (George, The Cross-Eyed Preacher) you can read them here and here.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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