The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2004

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Authorizing Mothers

A Study of the First Maternal Association of
Utica, New York, 1824 - 1833


Elizabeth Shanklin

Index to Authorizing Mothers

Part III: The First Presbyterian Church in Utica

The economic and political power which members' husbands held in Utica was accompanied by cultural hegemony. The members were married to the founders and leaders of the First Presbyterian Church, the single most powerful religious institution in Utica during the period studied. In 1805 when the First Utica Presbyterian Society was formed, among the first nine Trustees were the husbands of Sophia Clark, Sarah Hoyt, as well as the father of Eunice Camp Potter and Harriet Camp Merrell. The Presbyterians, direct descendants of the Puritans, were distinguished from other Protestant denominations by their strict adherence to a form of church government designed by John Calvin in the sixteenth century. In brief, each congregation was composed of members of the Society and members of the Church. To become a member of the Church, an individual must provide public relation of personal conversion to submission to the sovereign will of God; thus entering into a covenanted relation with God. The prospective member must also agree to submit to rule by the elders and the minister, who would both advise, admonish, suspend and excommunicate those whom they deemed to treat their covenant with the Lord and His church with contempt. The court of the congregation was termed the session. In turn, the session was under the authority of the Presbytery, which oversaw a group of congregations. The Presbytery was a subdivision under the General Synod which initiated, planned, organized and administered programs for the advancement of Presbyterianism. During the period of the Maternal Association, the minister of First Presbyterian was Rev. Samuel Aikin. His wife, Delia Aikin, was a member of the Maternal Association. Of thirty-one elders elected from the founding of the church in 1813 until 1850, eight were married to members of the Maternal Association. Deacons were also elected, but entrusted with more perfunctory managerial power. Of the four Deacons elected during the period, two were married to members and one was the father of a member's husband. The presence of members' husbands in the center of power within the church was evenly distributed throughout the period studied. In addition to their hierarchy of governance, Presbyterians followed specified doctrines. P. H. Fowler, minister of First Presbyterian at the end of the century, provided a history of Presbyterianism in the synod of central New York. He explained that among other tenets, prospective members of the Presbytery of Oneida from 1805 onward were required to answer the following questions in the affirmative:

Do you believe that God at first made man in his own image, after his own likeness, and entered into a covenant of life with him upon the condition of perfect obedience; that our first parents broke that covenant, and by their apostasy brought sin and ruin upon themselves and all their posterity?

Do you believe that mankind are totally depraved, and wholly indisposed to embrace the gospel salvation until their hearts are renewed by the sovereign and almighty influence of the Holy Spirit?

Prospective members were required to covenant "to give up your children to God in baptism." Fowler writes that:

Great effort was made to keep up and promote intelligence and orthodoxy in the churches. In their early days, the Presbyteries busied themselves in circulating the standards of the church and religious books generally, and their records abound in accounts of this work…Especial attention was given to the instruction of children and youth.

To further attest to their acceptance of the doctrine of original sin, members of the Oneida Presbytery confessed to the following belief:

We believe that in consequence of the apostasy, the heart of man, in his natural state, is destitute of holiness, and in a state of positive disaffection with the law, character and government of God; and that all men previous to regeneration are dead in trespass and sin.

The City Directory of 1828 lists thirteen "religious charitable institutions" open to men. Of these, seven were led by husbands of members of the Maternal Association. Erastus Clark helped draft the constitution of The Oneida Bible Society formed in 1810 to distribute Bibles throughout the county; Alexander Seymour and Samuel Aikin were directors with Thomas Hastings the Recording Secretary. Walter King and Alexander Seymour were officers of the Western Education Society organized in 1817 to educate indigent men for the ministry. Jesse W. Doolittle and Charles Hastings were officers of the Western Domestic Missionary Society, organized in 1826 to preach to the destitute in western New York. Briggs W. Thomas and Asahel Seward were officers of the Oneida Evangelical Association organized "to assist resident ministers during the pressure of revivals." Rev. Aikin was president of the Missionary Association of Utica and J. E. Warner, Secretary. The Bible classes in the First Utica Presbyterian Society organized in 1825 were run by Reverend Aikin and eight teachers. Five of the eight teachers were husbands of members of the Maternal Association. Three were husbands of founders of the Maternal Association. Of the fifteen members for life of the American Branch Tract Society of Utica by virtue of their contribution of ten dollars, identified in 1829, four were husbands of members of the Maternal Association. The one director for life from Utica was Samuel Aikin.

The husbands of members of the Maternal Association created an interlocking directorate throughout the community, exercising their power as they established more secular voluntary institutions. Theodore Pomeroy was an officer in the Medical Society of the County of Oneida. William Williams and Comfort Butler were among the twelve directors of the Utica Library formed in 1825 to issue books. Thomas Hastings was given the title Leader of the Utica Musical Association formed in 1827 to promote the cultivation of sacred music; Alfred Wells was the secretary of the Builders Society organized in 1828. Asahel Seward, Walter King, Jesse W. Doolittle and Reverend Aikin were trustees of the Oneida Institute of Science and Industry, an organization to enable young men to work while preparing for the ministry.

The economic, political and cultural dominance exercised by members' husbands was both cause and result of the cultural preeminence of First Presbyterian Church. That preeminence accrued as well from the superior education of its ministers and the cultural authority deriving from the direct Puritan ancestry of prominent members. Typically, Presbyterian ministers were college graduates and had satisfied a board of examiners as to their proficiency in Greek, Latin, English grammar, mathematics, logic, rhetoric, geography and natural philosophy.

Yet a scholastic clergy would have a difficult time in the area that Whitney Cross termed "the burned over district" because of the uncontrolled spread of revivals or enthusiastic religion through the area.

The first minister, James Carnahan, was a graduate, class of 1800, of the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton. Licensed to the ministry in 1804, Rev. Carnahan dispensed conservative Calvinism to his Utica congregation from 1805 until 1811. Carnahan provided scholastic sermons that emphasized the depravity of man and the sovereignty of God. Highly incensed when an itinerant preacher, a Baptist woman, Martha Howell, became a leading spokesperson in opposition to infant baptism, a necessary means of perpetuating the patriarchal covenant, Rev. Carnahan published a learned refutation of her and those who encouraged her. Not only did Howell attract a following of those opposing infant baptism, she was also granted church pulpits. In his sermon "Christianity Defended, against the Cavils of Infidels, and Weakness of Enthusiasts," Carnahan attempted through a display of erudition to defend orthodoxy. He was profoundly aggrieved that churches were enabling a woman to appear in sanctuaries and to teach, and took as his text, "because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess to teach, and to seduce my servants."

The issue of infant baptism had been a divisive one from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. If Protestantism was to rely upon regeneration, a second birth in submission to the patriarchal divinity, rather than upon ritual, then some said that infant baptism was improper for an infant could not be said to be born again in the spirit. This was no insignificant difference, for a challenge to infant baptism was a challenge to the Abrahamic Covenant; it was a challenge to patriarchal control of the next generation. Covenant theology was most successful during the early settlement of New England when clergy functioned within a theocratic colony. The ministers and many members of First Presbyterian Church seem to have cherished some hope of establishing in the frontier area of Utica a new theocratic experiment.

According to historian Whitney Cross, the pages of Western Recorder sought to reestablish clerical influence in politics. Western Recorder was edited, published and printed by Charles and Thomas Hastings, both married to members of the Maternal Association.

Martha Howell who brought an apoplectic response from Reverend Carnahan, was one among many in Utica and its environs in the 1800s, who were attacking the foundation of Calvinist doctrine. In 1812, Rev. Carnahan lost his voice and was forced to resign his pastorate. In 1823, he was elected to the presidency of Princeton College, a position he held until his death in 1859. This position represented a retreat from theology, for the College representing secular studies had been separated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1811.

His successor, Reverend Henry Dwight ordained over the First Presbyterian Church and Society in 1813, was a graduate of Yale where he had studied with a leading theologian and President of the College, the Reverend Timothy Dwight who was his relative. He finished his studies at Princeton. According to Whitney Cross, the Edwardean traditions of New England Congregationalism which had given birth to Yale University were "even in 1800 more liberal and flexible than those of the Princetonian Presbyterians of Scotch antecedents." Timothy Dwight, Nathaniel Taylor, and later Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney "warped the New England theology in the Arminian direction, away from the notion of predestination and toward free will."

Whitney Cross emphasizes the constant recurrence of Arminian revivals throughout the area from the Great Revival of 1799 to the ministry of Charles Grandison Finney in the 1820s. Cross writes that "all the major denominations (the Episcopal Church was relatively weak in this area) and most of the smaller ones were strongly revivalistic. Congregationalists, soon Presbyterian under the Plan of Union, (1801) were accustomed to social dominance just as they had been in New England. They consequently initiated revival campaigns in which other sects followed, as they had in the home region. Methodists and Baptists, more literal, more emotional, and better understood by common folk, increasingly 'strung Presbyterian fish' and gained adherents more rapidly, just as they had at the expense of the established New England church."

Yet revivals implicitly challenged the validity of the training and orientation of scholastic clergy. Typically, revivalists were comparatively uneducated; emphasizing human depravity so as to goad listeners into the conviction that they were sinners and must renounce their own wills in favor of divine will.

They generated enthusiasm and offered individuals impassioned oratory and vibrant experience in contrast to scholastic disputation. Regardless of Rev. Dwight's probable conflicts regarding revivalism, under his ministry in 1815, "the Presbyterians of Utica made nearly as many converts as with Finney a decade later, and added large numbers again in 1819 and 1821." In 1817, however, like his predecessor, Reverend Dwight lost his voice and resigned his ministry. He seems to have determined that the future was not promising for a scholastic clergyman. A rich man, he moved to Geneva, New York, where he established the Bank of Geneva, becoming its president. His banking operations at one time extended to Michigan and Ohio, where his brothers were also the owners of banks.

The Reverend Samuel C. Aikin was installed in 1818, and remained the pastor until 1835. In 1824, the year the Maternal Association was founded, the church acquired an organ, and decided to erect a new and larger building. In 1826, the foundations were laid; and in 1827 at the pinnacle of the church's preeminence in Utica, the building was dedicated.

Married to Maternal Association member Delia Aikin, Rev. Aikin was said by a local historian to have been "a man of intellect and a powerful preacher, locally perhaps the ablest writer of his time." On the occasion of the fifty-first anniversary of American independence, Reverend Aikin delivered an address before the Sunday School Societies which was subsequently published. Perhaps he captured the exuberance of Utica's elite in 1827:

Here also is a spirit of enterprise unequaled in any other portion of the globe. What is not this spirit doing? You see the wilderness falling before it, and becoming a fruitful field. You see villages and cities rising as if by enchantment. You see our canvas spread on every ocean, and our produce exported to every clime. You see canals opening in every direction, and these, and our rivers and coasts, covered with boats and steam-boats. What an influx of population from other countries, and what a tide of emigration is rolling westward.

Yet Reverend Aikin was most fearful of these same developments, and responded to the democratizing process by proposing religious instruction in Sunday schools as a means of controlling "the lower orders of the community." The Presbyterian cleric revealed his anxiety regarding "the unborn millions which are to people this great and growing Republic." If religious instruction did not keep pace with the enterprise of the nation then "our prosperity must prove our ruin." "Unless directed by morality and religion, and under their control, they [enterprise and prosperity] will be employed in inventing pleasures and luxuries" which will lead to ignorance, vice, civil wars, anarchy, ruin. If Sunday schools were not supported, then the reins of government would fall to "an unprincipled mob, who care neither for law nor religion."

© 2003, Elizabeth Shanklin
Index to Authorizing Mothers
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