Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Huntting, Samuel Buell, Thomas James

John T. Ames | March 5, 1998

Excerpted from the Rev. John T. Ames's 350th anniversary lecture Saturday at Guild Hall.

East Hampton's first four ministers were brilliant. All four were eccentric; all four were men of tireless energy.

East Hampton was served in the first century and a half of its existence by a remarkable trio of ministers - Thomas James, the feisty Puritan pioneer; Nathaniel Huntting, the scholarly frontier pastor, and Samuel Buell, the revivalist, the educator, the political conciliator who would have been on the winning side whoever won the Revolutionary War . . . .

Thomas James . . . came here in 1651 at a salary of 45 pounds a year, plus a house . . . . [He] immediately became an indispensable member of the tiny village of East Hampton. It was normal for the minister, as one of the few educated members of the community, to be the teacher, to be everybody's secretary, to witness wills and arbitrate minor disputes. James repeatedly served as a Trustee of the town, and often as secretary of the board. He also watched over and defended their political rights. He learned the Algonquian language of the Montauketts and was frequently called upon to be an interpreter between the settlers and the indigenous inhabitants of this peninsula.

For the first several years the villagers had no sort of written laws; they simply lived together under the tacit and implied common law with which they were familiar. In 1654 however, Thomas James wrote Governor Winthrop and secured a copy of the Connecticut Combination - or Charter - and in October of that year they adopted a version of that document as the charter of the town. It was their minister, Thomas James, who wrote the copy which the 30 male freeholders in East Hampton signed. The manuscript of this document, in James's handwriting, is one of the treasures of the town's archives.

[In 1686] . . . 11 prominent citizens of East Hampton were ordered arrested on the grounds that a petition they had presented to the governor was libelous. The next Sunday, Oct. 17, 1686, Thomas James preached a fiery sermon supporting his parishioners . . . .

Josiah Hubbert, the Sheriff of Suffolk, described the sermon in a letter to the Royal Council: " . . . . the whole subject of his sermon was to show the evill and pronounce the Curses against those who removed their Neighbor's Land Markers . . . He said that this order for it was noe excuse through it were an Edict from the King himself."

The next morning a warrant for James's arrest was issued on the charge of sedition, and he was taken to jail, where he spent the next three weeks until he petitioned the Governor to release him . . . .

James's final, and well-known, eccentricity was to instruct in his will that he be buried not alongside the other graves in the churchyard, but facing east. Local tradition assumes that the reason for this request is so that at the last trumpet he will rise facing his congregation, in place to preach to them.

James died June 6, 1696. In his last years he was quite infirm, and ministers were engaged on a temporary basis to relieve him, but he preached, at least occasionally, until the year of his death. As Henry Hedges, the first historian of East Hampton, wrote in 1849: "East Hampton was happy in its choice of minister . . . ."

One of the interim [ministers] engaged during James's infirmity was Nathaniel Huntting [who] came to East Hampton with his bride, Mary, and occupied the house which the town "by unanimous vote: Doe freely give and grant unto him . . . and his heirs . . . forever."

This house, as you know, was operated after his death by the Huntting family as "a common publick house," as it was derisively called, until quite recent times.

East Hampton genealogists and historians can be eternally grateful to Nathaniel Huntting for his meticulous habits of record-keeping. His book of baptisms, marriages, and deaths is an invaluable source, and the oldest such record in the town . . . and there are hundreds and hundreds of his sermon manuscripts in the East Hampton Library. Anyone who reads these - and I have, at least, glanced at a few of them - would be impressed with the accuracy of Huntting's reputation as a man of profound scholarship . . . .

The local historians record that there was a great religious revival in the winter of 1740-41 and mention that, owing to Huntting's advanced age and infirmity, "the controversial [John] Davenport" was the preacher. What undoubtedly happened was that the itinerant revivalist came to town and the minister was torn between a wish to prevent the unseemly excesses which had accompanied Davenport's preaching elsewhere and the fact that the fiery young preacher was both very popular and very effective.

My guess is that Huntting would have tried, unsuccessfully, it turned out, to prevent Davenport from preaching in the East Hampton Church. It is apparent that at least some of the congregation liked the radicalism of the itinerant revivalist and began to attend the services he conducted rather than those conducted by Mr. Huntting . . . it must certainly have caused grief for the elderly and somewhat old-fashioned minister. This kind of thing, especially as it was apparently supported by at least some of the congregation, must have torn the church apart.

In 1745, with the congregation seriously divided, some in East Hampton began to look around for another minister to assist Mr. Huntting and to succeed him after his death . . . . Just at that time, as the Town Council was lamenting the cost of searching for another minister, Samuel Buell appeared in East Hampton. All the available local records indicate that Mr. Huntting retired voluntarily, owing to his advanced age and infirmity. But I cannot help but wonder if the old gentleman was perhaps eased into retirement by the controversy in the church stirred up by John Davenport and by the availability of a much younger and more dynamic successor. In any case, he did retire in 1746, at the age of 71, after serving as the minister in East Hampton for 49 years. He lived in retirement for seven years and died in 1753.

Samuel Buell was, in fact, an excellent choice as the third minister in East Hampton, a worthy advocate of the revival who exhibited none of the excessive emotionalism which had characterized the extremists such as Davenport . . . it is evident that the church did experience a renewal and revitalization in his early ministry.

Buell was ordained in East Hampton on Sept. 19, 1746. His ordination sermon was preached by the greatest and most renowned minister in America, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards, like Buell, is typical of the best of the revival ministers. These were not ranting TV preachers or sawdust hucksters who in this century have demeaned the name revivalist; these were fervent, effective, and scholarly evangelical ministers who were always dignified and sober in demeanor.

Like both his predecessors, Buell was actively involved in the public affairs of this community. In May 1756 a large contingent of Suffolk County men assembled in East Hampton before leaving for Lake George, N.Y., to fight in the French and Indian Wars. The day before they left, the church service was devoted to their sendoff:

". . . . 'Tis so notorious a cause that we wage in war at this time, none need scruple the lawfulness of it - 'tis in defence of our own people, and the cities of our God - 'tis for a land that is ours by the first discovery and priority of possession . . . . We learn by experience 'tis impossible to live by such blood thirsty neighbors as the French and their allies in America. They have broken the most solemn treaties, made most injust encroachments, and committed the most horrid barbarities in a time of professed peace . . . .

During the war and the British occupation of eastern Long Island, Buell conducted a regular correspondence with leaders of both sides, especially the Patriot Governor Trumbull of Connecticut and the Royal Governor, Lord Tryon, who for at least part of the war maintained his headquarters in Southampton . . . . Though he protested to each his loyalty to their cause, he also fearlessly condemned soldiers of both sides who came here to steal cattle - as evidently both sides did.

There is no doubt that under a military occupation, Buell, as a faithful pastor, did the best he could to preserve as much of normal life as was possible under extremely difficult circumstances. There is also no doubt that no matter who won the war, the minister would have been on the winning side. Perhaps those of us who have never lived under military occupation should refrain from criticizing the conduct of those who do.

In 1783, with the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, the British evacuated New York City and Long Island . . . . Almost immediately Buell turned his attention to the establishment of a school in East Hampton, and on Dec. 28, 1784, the "East Hampton Academy" was incorporated. Five days later the school opened in the Presbyterian Church, where it met until the building now known as Clinton Academy was constructed, at a cost of $5,000. Buell died on July 19, 1798.

For the third time in a row East Hampton called a very young minister, straight from the university, to succeed its elderly, venerable, but perhaps tired and feeble pastor. This time they may well have gotten more than they bargained for, for although the people must by now have become tolerant of ministerial eccentricities, peculiarities, and outspoken involvement in public affairs, they were probably not prepared for Lyman Beecher, the only East Hampton minister who ever had a national reputation.

Beecher . . . blamed two faculty members at Clinton Academy for introducing "infidelity and French rationalism" into East Hampton . . . .

In his own words: "I always preached right to the conscience. Every sermon with my eye on the gun to hit somebody. Went through the doctrines; showed what they didn't mean; what they did. At first there was winking and blinking from below to gallery, forty or fifty exchanging glances, smiling and watching. But when it was over, infidelity was ended."

It is obvious that Beecher appealed to at least some of the younger, more zealous members of the congregation. Equally obvious, he was an embarrassment to the older, more established, perhaps more dignified - shall we say stuffy? - parishioners . . .

In the midst of the intense national uproar [over the duel between two of the most famous statesmen in America, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, in which . . . . Hamilton lost his life, and Burr his reputation . . . Beecher preached a sermon which, because of its wide circulation, became sensational:

"There is no way to deal with these men . . . but to take the punishment of their crimes into our own hands. Our conscience must be the judge, and we must ourselves convict, and fine, and disgrace them at the polls."

The anti-dueling movement became a national crusade, with Beecher as one of its main leaders. .

These four ministers were a truly remarkable quartet; the first three by virtue of their long tenure, and all four by the fervor and vigor of their ministry here. All four were brilliant, all four were eccentric, all four were men of tireless energy. All four engaged the issues of the day and thus stand in the best and most noble tradition of the Reformed branch of Christianity.


The Rev. John T. Ames, the 19th minister of the East Hampton Presbyterian Church, is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and the Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. in American Church History from Duke University.


The full text of Mr. Ames's lecture (underwritten by Amagansett Building Material) may be found online at http://www.350theasthampton.org .