Thomas Lechford.

Note-book kept by Thomas Lechford, Esq., lawyer, in Boston, Massachusetts Bay, from June 27, 1638, to July 29, 1641 (Volume 7) online

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from the received belief of the Massachusetts churches. He
was not long in giving to these points of difference more than

1 Winthrop, ii. 36. " No judge can arid of necessity, as it were, undertak-

be wise enough to decide always with ing the cause of one, before issuing

satisfaction to both parties," observes process."

Mr. Savage, " after privately hearing, 2 Ibid.



xvi A SKETCH OF THOMAS LECH FORD.

a sufficient prominence-. On his passage hitlier, he had dis
cussed them with his fellow-passengers ; and before, or soon
after, his arrival, lie made a written statement of his opinions
and the arguments by which he sustained them, and placed
the paper in the hands of Mr. Downing. 1 These opinions,
which he tells us he k *did not lightly or hastily take up, hut
upon good grounds and mature deliberation, long before he
ventured to betake himself into these parts of the world," 2
involved what magistrates and elders held to be fundamental
errors, and such as prevented his reception to church fel
lowship. These errors, as stated by Mr. Cotton, were :
" 1. That the Antichrist described in the Revelation was not
yet come, nor any part of that Prophecy yet fulfilled from
the 4th chapter to the end. 2. That the Apostolick func
tion was not yet ceased ; but that there still ought to be
such, who should by their transcendent Authority govern all
churches." 3

Lechford himself conceived that his opinions on these con
troverted points " might be held, or not held, salva fide " and
without impediment to church fellowship with those of oppo
site belief. Indeed modern orthodoxy, even of the most rigid
type, would hardly insist on the identification of the pope of
Rome with the prophetical antichrist, and a denial of the per
manency of the apostolic function, as essential prerequisites
to church communion, or for the elective franchise. But to
the elders of the Bay, in 1638, when the churches had not
yet escaped the dangers of Antinomianism nor been thoroughly
purged of all the eighty -two errors condemned by the synod of
the year previous, every deviation from the established creed
was matter of grave importance. Moreover, although Lechford
professed a disinclination to controversy, he certainly took no
great pains to avoid it ; so that before he had been many
weeks in the Colony his peculiar views were somewhat widely
made known, not only through oral discussions, but by means
of two or three manuscript volumes of his composition, which

1 Letter to Eilmnnd Browne. See post, p. 28.

2 Letter to Hugh Peters. See post, p. 30.

9 Way of Contjr. Churches cleared, pt. i. p. 71.



A SKETCH OF THOMAS LECIIFOHD.

lie had tendered for the perusal of some of the jealous guar
dians of orthodoxy in the churches.

Tn the letter to Hugh Peters, before quoted, Lechford writes :
" I showed you my books : you had not leisure to peruse them.
1 likewise, long before, showed my main book to Mr. Cotton.
lie had not leisure to read it; and the first draught of that
Of Prophetic, it lay in his house at least live weeks." Peters
had too much work before him, in Ne\v England and Old, for
wasting his time over the crude speculations of an honest but
narrow-minded enthusiast ; and Mr. Cotton was perhaps less
zealous in heresy-hunting, if not more tolerant of error, than
before his own narrow escape from the censure of the synod
of 1037 for an imputed taint of Ilutchinsonianism. If Lech-
ford had gone no farther to look for readers and provoke
criticism, he might have fared better, might have found a
way at last to the fellowship of the churches and the favor
of magistrates, and have lived and died in Massachusetts, in
comfortable circumstances and with a more favorable opinion
of " rigid separations " and u clectorie ways " than he has
expressed in Plain Dealing. But, in an evil hour, he sought
counsel of the deputy-governor, Thomas Dudley, a man whose
conscientiousness was as morbid, his vision as narrow, and
his prejudices as strong as Lechford s own; who wns so
zealous for the purity of the faith that he magnified to a
mountain every mole-hill of error, and saw in the toleration of
new opinions a " cockatrice s egg,"

" To poison all with heresy and vice."

"After the court here ended," wrote Lechford to Hugh Peters,
in January, 1639, "I delivered [my book] Of Prophesie to Mr.
Deputy, to advise thereof ns a private friend, as a godly man and
a member of the Church, whether it were fit to be published.
The next news I hud was, that at first dash he accused me of
heresy, and wrote to Mr. Governor that my book was fitter to be
burned. . . ."

The Court to which Lechford refers was probably the Quarter
Court held at Boston, Dec. 4, 1638. On the eleventh of the
same month Dudley wrote from Roxbury to Winthrop :

b



xviii A SKETCH OF THOMAS LECHFORD.

" SIR. Since my cominge home, I have read over Mr. Lecli-
ford s booke, and fimle the scope thereof to be erroneous and dan
gerous, if not heretical!, according to my conception His tenet
beinge that the office of apostleship doth still continew and ought
soe to doe till Cri.st s coining, and that a Church hath now power
to make apostles as our {Saviour Crist had when hee was hoerc.
Other things there are, but 1 pray you consider of this, and the
inseparable consequences of it : I heare that Mr. Cotton and Mr.
Rogers know somethinge of the matter, or man, with whome you
may if you please conferre : I heare also that hee favoureth Mr.
Lentall l and hath so exprest himselfe since Mr. Lentall was ques-
tyoned by the ministers: It is easyer stoppinge a breach when it
begins, then afterwards : wee sawe our error in sufferinge Mrs.
Huchinson too longe. I have sent you the booke herewith that in
stead of puttinge it to the presse as hee desireth it may rather be
putt into the tire as I desire: But I pray you lett him know that
I have sent the booke to you, that after you have read it (which I
think you said you had not yet done) it may be restored to him.
. . . I suppose the booke to be rather coppyed out then con-
tryved by Mr. Lechford, hee beinge I thinck, not soe good a
grecyan and hebritian as the author undertakes to be." 2

Either Winthrop s zeal was less lively, or he saw less danger
in the new heresy and its " inseparable consequences " than
his colleague. Before the end of the month Dudley wrote



"For Mr. Lechford and his booke, you say nothing, and I have
since heard that the worst opynion in his book (which I thinck I
shall proove to be heresy) is taken upp by others. Nowe seeing
that this is the way Sathan invades us by (viz. new opynions and
heresyes) it behooves us to be the more vigilant, and. to stirr upp
our zeale and stop]) breaches at the beginninge, least forbearance
hurt us as it did before." 3

Lech ford s character appears in a very favorable light in
his comment on the course pursued by Mr. Dudley. After

1 Sec Plain Dealing, pp. 22, 41, and taken by Kobert Keayne, have been

notes 78, 144. Mr. Lentluill was " quea- preserved.

tioned by the ministers," Dec. 11, 1638, 2 Proceed. Mass. Hist. Soe., 1855-

at a conference (held at the house of 1858, pp. 311, 312.

Captain Israel Stoughton, in Dorches- 3 Dudley to "\Vinthrop, Dec. 29,

ter), of which some manuscript notes, 1638, in 4 Mass. Hist. CulL, vii. 111.



A SKETCH OF THOMAS LECHF011D. xix

disavowing the chief heresy imputed to him, " though indeed
my words might have been so strained," he adds :

"I speak according to my light, and dare do no otherwise. If
hotly [pressed by V] Mr. Deputy, I impute it to his zeal against
errors: I am not angry with him for it. But when I saw seven
shepherds and eight principal men called out against me, t f is if I
were an Assyrian [the allusion is to Micah v. 5], I thought there
might be something in me to be reproved, and that it concerned
me to look about me. I dealt plainly. . . . Thereupon my book
was referred to the consideration of the Elders."

This reference to the elders was the occasion of his address
ing to Hugh Peters, Jan. 3, 1638-1039, the letter from which
several extracts have been introduced. In an interview with
some of the magistrates he had " intimated a word of [his]
other main book," treating of Antichrist and of the millennial
kingdom of Christ. " They all now press me to produce that.
I told thorn it was not ready for their view : 1 must fair write
it, and alter some things : yet at length, upon promise that I
should have it again (for if it be no error, I will not part with
it for 100) I promised to let them see it. I have accord
ingly left itv.to Mr. Deputy and the Governor (who also
desired to see it)." This book, with the one Of Prophesie,
was to be submitted to an assembly of the Elders ; and Lech-
ford writes to request Mr. Peters that he would himself be
one of the council, " Mr. Ward another, and Mr. Parker of
Newbury ; and that Mr. Norton and Mr. Phillips may likewise
be called ; " who should " soundly and maturely advise and
consult of the matter," with "all lawfull favour" to the
writer.

I find no subsequent mention of this council, unless it be
referred to by Mr. Cotton, in the passage already cited (from
the Way of the Congregational Churches cleared, pt. i. p. 71),
where Lechford is said to have been " dealt withall both in
conference and (according to his desire) in writing." Neither
mode of dealing was effectual to convince him of error, nor
would the elders admit that his opinions might be held u salva
fide" So he was compelled to remain without the church ;



XX A SKETCH OF THOMAS LECH FORD.

and exclusion from church fellowship carried with it exclu
sion from the privileges of a freeman and disqualification for
civil office.

His professional ability was not inconsiderable ; but the
field for its exercise was restricted. " Kept from all place of
preferment in the Commonwealth," he was u forced to get his
living by writing petty things, which scarce found him bread,"
as he complained to his friends in England, after two years
residence here. 1 Though his imputed heterodoxy did not pre
vent his occasional employment, by those of sounder faith,
as a conveyancer, scrivener, or draughtsman, his receipts for
such professional services were pitifully small. His Note-look
contains not only the record of every instrument drawn by
him while he was in this country, but an account of the com
pensation he received ; from which it appears that his profes
sional income, for the two years after his arrival, was a little
more than 41 ; about 9 of which was in debts remaining
unpaid in July, 1640.

In June, 1639, when he had been nearly a year in Boston,
he presented to the General Court certain propositions 2 for
the regulation of civil actions and for the recording of judi
cial proceedings. He had perhaps been encouraged to hope
for he states that his propositions were " made upon re
quest " that the Court, notwithstanding his ineligibility to
public office, would employ his services in the humbler capa
city of clerk or public notary, and provide for his support by
giving him work to do for which his studies and experience
peculiarly qualified him. His application was not successful.
" The Court was willing to bestow employment upon me," he
writes, " hut they said to me that they could not do it for fear
of offending the churches, because of my opinions" Where
upon he thought good to propose to them certain propositions,
which the reader will find set down at large in the Note-look,
p. 58.

It was in response to this application, probably, that he was
"dealt withal, according to his desire, in writing," as Mr.
Cotton has mentioned. Whether or not the Court gave favor-

1 riuin Dculi,i j, i . GO. 2 Printed in Plain Dealing, pp. 29, 30.



A SKETCH OF THOMAS LEG II FORD. xxi

able consideration to the proposition by which Lech ford en
gaged himself to refrain from controversy for twelve months,
on consideration of receiving employment, does not appear.
But whatever good intentions in his behalf the magistrates, or
some of them, may have had, were counteracted by his own
imprudence.

In the summer of 1639 he was employed by William Cole
and his wife Elizabeth, for the prosecution of an action against
her brother, Francis Doughty, of Tauntoii, whom she charged
with having defrauded her of her marriage-portion and her
share in their fathers estate. To the preparation of this case
the Note-look shows that Lcehford gave much attention. 1 On
the trial before a jury, at the Quarter Court in September, his
zeal for his clients betrayed him into an indiscretion (to use
no harsher term) which subjected him to the deserved censure
of the court, and gave occasion not wholly displeasing to the
magistrates, perhaps to prohibit him from the exercise of the
profession of an advocate, to which, as has already been inti
mated, he does not appear to have had any legitimate title.
The order of the Court is in these words :

"Mr. Thomas Lcehford, forgoing to the Jewry & pleading w th
them out of Court, is debarred from pleading any man s causo
hereafter, unlesse his o \vne, and admonished not to p r sume to med
dle beyond what hee slmlbee called to by the Courte." 2

Lcehford submitted in a good spirit to this censure. A fow
days after receiving it, he presented to the General Court a
petition for pardon, with a frank confession of his fault. Of
this petition he has preserved a copy in his Note-look (p. 117),
which is well worth reading, as characteristic of the man.
His submission was probably accepted by the Court, and he
was suffered to return to the practice of his profession as an
attorney, which, under the restrictions imposed upon it, prom
ised little improvement of his " low and poor estate."

In the autumn and winter of 1G89 he received some slight
assistance, in the way of employment, from the magistrates.

1 See post, p. 171. ~ Mass. Col. Records, i. 270.



A SKETCH OF THOMAS LECHFORD.

For Mr. Endicott, he had written " The Court booke l at 16 d a
sheete, 102 sheetes," and received 6 16s. some time in June
or July. In November, after the surrender to Massachusetts
of the Dover patent, he wrote " For the Country: The writing
of receipt of the Inhabitants of Dover arid Kittery and Oyster
River into the Protection of this Jurisdiction : The Commis
sion to Mr. Bradstreete for those places : The institution and
limitation of the Councell of this Jurisdiction : Another of
the same : Charta libertatis : The Act of the publique and
private tenure of land : The division of the Plantation into
shires : " for all which he received the sum of eleven shillings. 2
Not long afterwards he was employed in the more important
task of transcribing the " brcviat of laws," subsequently
adopted, with some amendments, as the Body of Liberties. 3
While engaged in this work, which in his hands we may
be sure was something more than that of mere* transcription,
he could not resist the temptation, or, as he chose to express
it, " he conceived it his duty, in discharge of his conscience,"
and " as Amicus curiae, with all faithfulness to present " to
the Governor and magistrates his objections to certain laws
proposed to be embodied in the code.

In May, 1640, in " a paper intended for the honored John
Winthrop," he expressed his convictions of the advantages and
the necessity of submission to the King, and acknowledgment
of the authority of the Church of England, " if it be but by way
of advice ; " frankly confessing that for himself he " disclaimed
Parker" and "inclined to Hooker and Jewel as to govern
ment." 4 After this paper was drawn, Dudley was elected

1 I cannot learn that this copy of the at Chavlestown, Aug. 23, 1630, to the

* Court Book " has been preserved. It end of the Quarter Court at Boston,

was undoubtedly a transcript of the June 4, 1639, making 202 pages (55-256

Colony Records, rnadt for Mr. Endicott s of the first volume of the Manuscript

own use or for that of the Salem Quarter Records of the Governor and Company ;

Court. A. C. Ooodell, Esq., of Salem, pp. 73-268 of the printed Records), or

to whom I applied in the hope of dis- 101 folios,

covering some trace of this volume, calls 2 See post, p. 139.

my attention to the agreement of the 8 See Plain Scaling, pp. 27 and 31.

number of "sheets" with the folios of * Plain Dealing, pp. 34-37.
the Colony Records, from the first court



A SKETCH OF THOMAS LEG II FORD. xxiii

governor ; and it is not likely that Lechford transferred to
him the good advice prepared for Governor Winthrop.

The year during which he had conditionally promised to
keep silence, u saving to the Elders, on matters of difference
between himself and the churches, had now expired. lie had
been " seriously dealt withal," and had been indulged in his
desire for " reasons in writing." l But his hope that u in some
good time the reverend Elders and himself might come to a
perfect, or at least a fair understanding," was less and less
likely to be realized. lie was becoming more dissatisfied with
the condition of affairs in New England, both in church and
commonwealth. In July, 1640, he wrote to England: "I
know my friends desire to know whether ] am yet of any
better mind than some of my actions about the time of my
coming away did show me to be. I do profess that I am of
this mind and judgment, I thank God : that Christians cannot
live hapily without Bishops, as in England, nor Englishmen
without a king. Popular elections indanger people with war
and a multitude of other inconveniences." 2 Of the people of
Massachusetts he says, "I am not of them, in church or com
monweal. Some bid me be gone : others labor with me to stay
fearing my return will do their cause wrong ; and loth am I
to heare of stay, but am plucking up stakes with as much speed
as I may, if so be T may be so happy as to arrive in Ireland,
there at least to follow my old profession," etc. " Some silence
my letters and will not dispute with me, I think either out of
distrust of me, or else despaire of their cause ; some cry out of
nothing but Antichrist and the Man of Sin. . . . But few know
my full mind in some things of weight whereof I do professe I
was ignorant and misled in England. You may wonder how
I am now reformed," etc.

" I never intended," he writes, " openly to oppose the godly
here in anything I thought they mistookc." 3 If he maintained
some reserve in the expression of his "full mind in some
things," he certainly made no secret of his dislike of " electory

1 Sec ante, p. xx; an J Plain Dealing, 2 Scenes/, p. 159, and cf. Plain Deal
p. 77. ing, pp. 68, G9.

3 See Plain Dealing, p. 77.



xxiv A SKETCH OF THOMAS LECHFORD.

ways " and of Congregationalism, as is evident from the advice
which he proffered to the Governor and magistrates, and from
his queries propounded to the Elders of Boston, which chal
lenged a discussion of the nature and constitution of a church
and tho validity of congregational ordination.

That his opinions, and his zeal in advocating them, made
him obnoxious to the magistrates as well as to the Elders is
no matter of surprise. When the course which had been
taken with others who had similarly offended is considered,
when it is remembered that not only had teachers of doubtful
orthodoxy, like Roger Williams and Wheelwright and Mrs.
Hutchinson, been banished from the jurisdiction, but laymen
of influence and position, like Stoughton and Aspinwall and
Coggeshall, when suspected of a taint of heresy or " sedition,"
had been as summarily and as severely dealt with, the leni
ency shown to Lechford is remarkable. It could hardly have
been from motives of policy only his own vanity could have
suggested that it was from " fear his return would do their
cause wrong" that he was suffered to remain so long un
molested. It must rather have been owing to a conviction of
his honesty, his conscientiousness, and possibly to his lack of
influence and the slight danger of infection by his teachings.
It would not be easy to find in the first fifty years of the his
tory of Massachusetts another instance of so great tolerance
of opinions so radically opposed as were Lcchford s to the
views of the founders of the colony, and so subversive of the
constitution of civil government and of the church polity they
sought to establish in New England. He was neither a free
man nor a church member, not even a householder ; in the
eye of the law he was merely a " transient person," who
might be driven away with slight ceremony. His calling made
him unwelcome; his creed, in the judgment of others besides
Thomas Dudley, was " erroneous and dangerous, if not hereti
cal." Ue questioned the validity of any non-episcopal ordina
tion, and saw, in the exercise by the people of the right to
elect their own rulers, the root of all evil. He would not
acknowledge " a church without a bishop," and did not hesi
tate to express his belief that all was going wrong, and must



A SKETCH OF THOMAS LEC11FORD. xxv

go worse in " a state without a king." In the complacent con
sciousness of his own clearer light and well-grounded con
victions, he felt it to be his duty to point out to Governor
Winthrop, to Mr. Wilson, and to Mr. Cotton the errors
wherein through ignorance they had gone astray, and were
misleading others. 1 That he should have been permitted for
two years nnd a half to hold his course unchecked, and that his
unconcealed and somewhat aggressive dissent should have so
long escaped censure, proves that the founders of Massachu
setts were not incapable of the exercise of toleration, even
though they might not give it a place among the virtues.

At length, however, their patience was exhausted. In Sep
tember, 1640, for a new offence, with which his questioning of
the Boston Elders may have had something to do, he was pre
sented by the grand jury and summoned before the Court of
Magistrates in December. When the General Court was in
session (Oct. 7) they were " pleased to say something to him,
as for good counsel about some tenets and disputations which
he had held ; advising him to bear himself in silence and as
became him." A few weeks afterwards he writes in his Note
book : " I am summoned to appear in Court to-morrow, being
the first of 10th, 1640. The Lord God direct me," etc. In a
letter to England, dated December 19, he mentions having been
" lately taken at advantage and brought before the magistrates,
before whom, giving a quiet and peaceable answer [he] was
dismissed with favour," etc. 2 Of this answer he preserved a
copy, or perhaps the original draft, in shorthand, in his Note
book. Confessing that he had " too far meddled in some matters
of church government and the like, which [he was] not suffi
cient to understand or declare," he threw himself on the mercy

* "O mercy, mercy, from all the 2 "Our cliiefc difference was about
powers of mercy in heaven and earth "- the foundation of the Church and Min-
he wrote in 1640 "to such as sin of istery, and what rigid separations may
ignorance ! " And against this he mod- tend unto, what is to be feared, in case
estly noted in the margin: "In the the most of the people here should re
number of the ignorant I hold myself, main unbaptized ; etc." (Plain Dealing,
and Mr. Barton, Mr. Prynne, and Dr. p, 77).
Bastwick, and a multitude more " (post,
p. 159).



xx vi A SKETCH OF THOMAS LECHFORD.

of the Court. His submission was accepted, and the record
shows that

"Mr. Thomas Lechford, acknowledging hee had overshot him-
eelfe, and is sorry for it, promising to attend his calling, and not to
meddle w th controversies, was dismissed." 1

Mr. Savage, in a note toWinthrop (vol. ii. p. 36), cites this
as a " curiosity in legislative and judicial economy." He was
under the impression that the engagement " not to meddle
with controversies " was inconsistent with the promise " to
attend his calling," since " the very calling by which he sought
to earn his bread was that of an attorney." The inconsist
ency disappears on learning from Lechford himself that he
was brought before the Quarter Court on the presentment of a
grand jury, and that the controversies in which he had " too
far meddled " concerned " matters of church government and
the like," "the foundation of the church and the ministry,
and what rigid separations may tend unto." He acknowl
edged his fault, promised amendment, and the Court dismissed
the complaint. Lechford certainly did not feel that he had
been hardly dealt by. He avers that he was " dismissed with
favour, and respect promised him by some of the chief e, for
the future." 2

Some time in 1640 he was enrolled in- the "Military
Company of Massachusetts," afterwards the " Ancient and



Online LibraryThomas LechfordNote-book kept by Thomas Lechford, Esq., lawyer, in Boston, Massachusetts Bay, from June 27, 1638, to July 29, 1641 (Volume 7) → online text (page 2 of 47)