The Rev. Samuel Buell never made clear exactly what kind of sin he was talking about in his account of an outpouring of Christian faith he observed in East Hampton in the winter of 1764.
My attention was drawn this week to this period after a small and tattered book written by Buell and printed in Sag Harbor in 1808 emerged from a chest in my mother’s music room. It is a well-worn volume, having been roughly recovered at some point in its long existence with thin pieces of straight-grained wood just a little heavier than oak veneer. These, in turn, fell apart themselves over the years.
Buell was East Hampton’s third settled minister, following the Rev. Thomas James, for whom James Lane alongside the South End Burying Ground is named, and the Rev. Nathaniel Huntting, who got his own lane as well. So did Buell, for that matter. I can see his intersection with Main Street from my office window; the frequent minor car accidents there and near-misses are an interesting diversion from the work I do.
Up until 1764, Buell wrote, he had had a “small harvest of souls” each year. Something broke loose that March, however. In an outpouring that he saw as from divine influence, the number of townspeople attending his sermons grew large and more solemnly attentive. “I now heard many sinners making the most mournful declarations of their exceeding sinfulness before God, and their infinite danger of eternal damnation,” he wrote.
The account that followed described how the 30 or 40 people who had been at the service that day returned home to declare that they feared the worst. This stirred others to similar concern, and the word spread a shock like sevenfold thunder through the town, as Buell put it. The next worship was filled, with many staying until 9 at night. The next day more people showed up, expecting a service, though none had been planned.
Newspaperman that I was, I wanted to know what the sinners had been up to. Buell did not let on.
As I was talking about Buell’s book in the office this week, a member of the staff joked that the townspeople might have been trying to put one over on the good reverend. Bonac humor being of the wry variety, I could see the possibility, if slim. Buell reported fewer people in the pews in the weeks that followed.