Newport, Nova Anglia
15 April 1761
The Reverend Ezra Stiles, pastor of Newport's Second Congregational Church, was delighted with the turn of events. He was always a very sociable man, maintaining friendships with people of all stations and creeds (even Samuel Hopkins, the dour pastor of Newport's First Congregational Church). The Reverend Samuel Mather of the First Congregational Church of Charlestown had finally accepted his invitation to visit Newport and preach a sermon at Stiles' church on the 19th of April.
Stiles was down at the Long Wharf on the morning of the 15th waiting for Mather's ship to dock. Not being a tall man, Stiles had some difficulty seeing past the other sightseers gathered there. That was all right. Stiles found the docks, with their constant activity and heterogeneous population, to be utterly fascinating. He often thought to himself that the docks were Newport, that everything that made the city so interesting and invigorating could be found in distilled form at the docks. Here were ships from all over the world, unloading cargoes from Europe, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Orient. And the men who sailed on the ships were as variegated as their cargoes: Frenchmen, Portuguese, Dutchmen, Moors, Negroes, Jews, and countless more.
Finally Stiles caught a glimpse of his man. Like his father (and like Stiles himself), Mather was a small man, scarcely more than Stiles's own five foot two. He had clear blue eyes set in a round, amiable face, a powdered wig, and a simple black cloak. Stiles managed to make his way through the crowd to meet Mather as he was shuffling up the wharf with a bag clutched in his hands.
"My dear Mr. Mather," Stiles greeted him among the shifting crowd, "it is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance!"
"Mr. Stiles? Thank you, the pleasure is entirely mine," Mather said, setting down his bag for a moment to shake hands.
"Come this way," said Stiles, "I have a coach waiting to take you to my house."
"You are too kind, sir," protested Mather.
"Not at all, sir, not at all."
As the coach made its slow way through the crowds on Queen Street, Mather expressed astonishment at its plush interior. He said, "I had no idea the church was doing so well here."
Stiles chuckled. "I fear that we're not doing so well that the church can afford to provide its pastor with such a fine conveyance. This coach actually belongs to Aaron Lopez, a leading citizen of our town, who insisted upon loaning it to me when he learned of my errand this morning."
"A Jew?" said Mather, faintly scandalized.
"And he isn't even charging me interest," Stiles chuckled again. "They're a fascinating people. You ought to visit their new synagogue on Griffin Street. A local Anglican named Peter Harrison designed it, and the result is quite splendid." Seeing disapproval on Mather's face, Stiles continued, "We may no longer be a separate colony, but the old traditions still run strong here, and the oldest of all is freedom of conscience."
"They still reject Christ. They are still infidels."
"Are they? They still keep a covenant with God that goes back thousands of years."
"Keeping the covenant is not enough, not since Christ died and was reborn."
"We look at things differently here in Newport. After all, how could a just God unilaterally change the terms of a contract? No respectable merchant would accept such a thing. Ergo, it must stand to reason that if the Jews still abide by their covenant, then God is obliged to honor its terms, notwithstanding any subsequent agreements he may have made with other peoples."
Stiles could tell by Mather's expression that he found the Newporter's logic unconvincing. Deftly changing the subject, Stiles said, "Speaking of infidels, what think you of the results of the recent elections to the Common Estate in France?"
"I found them to be rather predictable. The people have tired of Voltaire's reforms. They seek stability, and the Conservatives offer them stability. Of course, should they attempt to actually repeal his reforms, they will soon find themselves out of power again. France wants a breathing space, not a reaction."
"The question is whether the Conservatives themselves understand this."
"Quesnay might," Mather allowed. "He'll have the devil of a time trying to restrain some of his more extreme colleagues. They'll be champing at the bits, seeking to close down Philosophe newspapers and abolish the Popular Academies. However, I trust that..." Mather's voice trailed off as he caught sight of something outside the coach.
Stiles glanced out the window, then nodded to himself. The coach had crossed Thames Street and entered Ann Street, and Mather had just caught sight of the statue.
Standing on a plinth at the intersections of Ann, Queen and Thames was a statue, twice life size, of Mather's insurrectionist father. One hand was held up in greeting, the other held a Bible and a feathered Indian war bonnet. On the plinth was inscribed the words DR. COTTON MATHER 1663-1716 "Blood for Blood, Guilt for Innocence."
When they had finally left the statue behind, and Mather returned his attention to his host, he said, "What an astonishing thing."
"As I was saying," Stiles responded, "we look at things differently here in Newport. In fact, they used to call Rhode Island the place 'where people think otherwise'. I've mentioned in my letters how highly your father is regarded here."
"I thought you were simply trying to be kind. I had no idea."
"You must remember, we got off very lightly compared to Massachusetts after the war, due in no small measure to Governor Cranston's efforts in London. Consequently, the Commonwealth is remembered with a certain fondness here." Stiles cast a conspiratorial glance out into the street. "Truth be told, we still celebrate Independence Day every June 17th, but don't tell Governor-General Braddock.
"You may not know of it, but your father has become a legendary figure here in Newport. All sorts of tales are told concerning his abduction by the French, his missionary work among the Indians, even his escape from the Boston Fire. And every September 1st we hold memorial services in the churches, when we recite his last words on Gallows Hill. If we were Papists, we would probably consider your father the patron saint of New England."
Seeing Mather's slight start, Stiles said, "I know, we're only supposed to call it Nova Anglia now, but in the privacy of their homes, and their hearts, the people still say New England."
The coach turned off of Ann Street onto Clarke Street, and the Second Church came into view. Stiles continued to speak. "Your father's last wish was that God's grace might return to New England. It is a prayer that has been repeated every day since then. All of us here in Newport, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Jews, even the Anglicans, pray that his sacrifice, and those made by our people since then, will bring salvation to our country.
"I tell you all this so that you may know what to expect this coming Sunday when you preach at the Second Church. The congregation will expect your sermon to touch upon your father's final words, and upon the meaning they hold in the present day."
The Reverend Samuel Mather looked up into the looming face of the Second Church as the coach passed beneath its shadow.