Cape Cod – Theology And Whaling – Pt. 1

DURING the political upheaval of the eighteenth century, interest in theology was by no means quiescent, and in the seventeen-forties the colonies were roused by the religious agitation known as the Great Awakening. Puritans had fought with equal rancor any dissenter from their doctrine, were he Antinomian or Anabaptist, Anglican, Papist, Gortonist, or Quaker; the Pilgrim Independents had soon lost something of their liberalism; but whatever the particular slant of opinion, men of the later generations in the vigorous young country were bound to think for themselves. Jonathan Edwards crystallized the tenets of the old faith into a flawless theology; Chauncy led the liberals from doctrines dealing with eternal damnation to something like Universalism; but George Whitefield, brushing aside contentions involving the supremacy of the intellect, made that direct appeal to the heart for which men hungered. He infused fresh warmth into Calvinism and his adherents were known as the “New Lights,” his opponents the “Old Lights.” Pulpit, press, and people were stirred to frenzied interest. Whitefield, preaching up and down the country with a flame of eloquence and a sympathetic understanding of the poor and distressed that drew men to him by the thousand, was denounced as an “itinerant scourge.” As early as 1745, ten of the Cape clergy arraigned the new method of salvation in terms that be-tray some anxiety. “It tends to destroy the usefulness of ministers among their people, in places where the gospel is settled and faithfully preached in its purity,” they complain. “That it promotes strife and contention, a censorious and uncharitable spirit and those numerous schisms and separations which have al-ready destroyed the peace and unity, and at this time threaten the subversion of many churches.”

But it was not until 1794 that the first Methodist meeting-house on the Cape, and the second in the country, was built at Truro. Provincetown had made the first move toward building, perhaps roused thereto by the eloquence of one Captain William Humbert, who, “while lying windbound in Provincetown Harbor,” had improved the occasion to exhort the townspeople for the good of their souls. But at Provincetown there was much opposition to the New Lights, and when the faithful, under cover of night, had landed timber for the proposed edifice, their enemies promptly reduced it to kindling wood, and tarred and feathered the minister in effigy. Jesse Lee, a visiting elder, writes temperately enough of the scene: “I felt astonished at the conduct of the people, considering that we live in a free country. However, I expect this will be for the good of the little society.” A prophecy to be justified: nothing daunted, the New Lights, in 1795, built their church. “Keeping guard at night and keeping their weapons by them while at work, in about four months they erected a chapel with songs of praise.” And in their songs of praise it is remembered that John Mayo, the Truro man of hairbreadth escapes in the Peninsula War, once joined to his advantage. With a companion he had gone to Provincetown with a cargo of clam-bait; and night-bound there, they were unable to find lodging among the villagers. To occupy the evening hours before camping out in their boat, they went to prayer-meeting where they stimulated the singing with their full rich voices to the great pleasure of the worshippers. With the result, Rich tells us, that in-stead of sleeping in the open, they were “abundantly lodged and breakfasted, and in the morning sold the balance of their clams to a good market.”

In the meantime Truro, with the cooperation of Wellfleet, Provincetown, and Eastham, and a money outlay of only eight dollars for nails, had built the first church. On a Sunday people from twelve miles north or south flocked to meeting, and those more favorably situated were happy in being able to attend three services a day. The Reverend Mr. Snelling, who fostered the faith there for twenty years, avers that “the congregations were large and the Word ran and was glorified.” And Rich has preserved for us a picture or two of the local exhorters. Dodge, who “could make more noise in the pulpit with less religion, and spoil more Bibles than any man I ever saw”; another, of gentler spirit, “in a tender, trembling, but earnest voice, loved to tell what religion had done for him and persuade others to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour.” And another would “force home his rugged reasoning, and vivid personal experience, with an energy and eloquence that swept like a torrent. Sometimes when wrought upon with his theme, his heart on fire, his face aglow, his tall form bent, his long arm outstretched, his impetuous utterance fairly breaking through his pent-up prison-house, the Spirit rested like cloven tongues upon the audience.” And there was fine old Stephen Collins whose “soul basked in the sunshine of all the privileges of God’s people. He loved the songs of Zion, Lenox was his favorite: he was the author of Give Lenox a pull. His exhortations were full of fire, his pungent logic carried conviction to the mind.”

In 1808 Barnstable, as had Provincetown, threatened a Methodist minister with mob violence. The old Pilgrim faith had tolerated Quakers; Baptists were established at Harwich in 1756 and at Barnstable in 1771; but Methodists were held as the great seceders, and it took them fifty years to soften the asperity of the prejudice against them. The new century was to end the old homogeneous theocracy and with it the paramount influence of the clergy. Quaker, Congregationalist, Baptist, and Methodist worshipped according to individual temperament, and participated in all civil rights; “Come-outers” practised ritual despised of aristocrats; camp-meeting grounds, where the Methodists improved a summer vacation for the soul’s profit, were established in the groves of Eastham and then at Yarmouth, when “men of power and deep religious experience,” says Mr. Rich, “made these green arches tremble with their eloquence.” A local bard sings, with some particularity:

“We saw great gatherings in a grove, A grove near Pamet Bay, Where thousands heard the preached word, And dozens knelt to pray.”

In 1821, “a Pentecostal year,” during the Great Revival in Wellfleet and Truro, over four hundred “professed religion,” and two hundred and thirty-six joined the Methodist church.

As early as 1813 began the Unitarian schism in the orthodox Congregational churches. A split in the First Parish of Sandwich served as a test case in the division of “temporalities,” when the schismatics, being in the majority, were awarded the church estate and the Old Lights, with the parson, withdrew to form a new parish. No doubt the people entered upon these new discussions with something of the gusto they had displayed in past controversies.

And in the meantime the nation was laying the solid foundations of its future prosperity; the Cape, with its shipping, its fisheries, and the indomitable spirit of its people, was to recover early in the struggle to right the chaos that war had induced and that might have ruined a young state less vigorous in its vitality. And on the Cape, at least, there was one industry that had been fostered by embargo and blockade. Settlers there, from the first, by one device or another had extracted salt from the sea for their use. Cudworth, friend of the Quakers, was called a “salter” and had set up works at Scituate which he visited frequently after he removed to Barnstable; and whether owned by Cudworth or not, Barnstable also had an early “saltern.” As early as 1624 a man was sent to Plymouth to manufacture salt by the evaporation of sea-water in these artificial salt-ponds, a process not favored by Bradford, and though tedious and not too successful seems to have been followed for more than a century. During the Revolution, when no salt could be imported, and the country must rely upon the domestic produce, salt became so scarce that a bushel sold for eight dollars, and a state bounty of three shillings a bushel was offered for salt “manufactured within the State and produced from sea salt.”

Here was a fine promise of reward for ingenuity, and the low dunes of the north shore of the Cape offered ground made for the enterprise. Men there “tinkered” and “contrived” and improved one upon the work of another, until in 1799 Captain John Sears, of Dennis, who had been early in the field with a device known as “Sears’s Folly,” patented the perfected machine to obtain pure salt by means of sun evaporation which was to bring wealth to many of his neighbors. The industry ran well into the next century when importation became the cheaper method, and at its height companies from Billingsgate to Yarmouth employed some two millions of capital in the business. Many an old sea-dog, also, ran “salt-works” for his private profit, and the dunes of the inner bay were dotted with groups of the surprising peaked-roof structures on stilts that had the look of Polynesian villages. These roofs capped shallow vats into which the water was pumped by tiny windmills. A simple mechanism borrowed from shiplore that could be worked by the turn of a hand swung a roof back to expose the vat to the sun, and into place again to protect it from rain and dew. Provincetown made the salt for its fish-curing, and it is said that the crescent shore of the harbor was lined for miles with the whirring windmills. Not many years ago a few of the picturesque little buildings and their mills could still be seen on the dunes; but before the mid-eighteen hundreds, the business, as such, was at an end.