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The Parson And The Bluestocking
The spinster thought she’d been proposed to; the young minister thought not. Their courtship and quarrel rocked devout New Haven
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
When we scan the newspapers of New England for the year 1847 we are inclined to marvel at what failed to constitute a scandal in those pre-atomic times. Inserted among notices of mortgage sales and advertisements for elixirs guaranteed to cure everything from the croup to a dropped womb, we come upon such stirring accounts as that of Eliza McCormick, a servant girl who masqueraded as a bank clerk on her Sundays off and attempted the seduction of several other servant girls. “She is thought to be,” remarked the journalist who covered the story, “the same person who figured at Galt a short time since under the disguise of a sick sailor.” Eliza figured no further in the public press that spring, although a number of eccentric cases succeeded her. Two fine baby boys in an expensive lying-in establishment were mixed up—so hopelessly that their distracted mothers were urged simply to pick a child and go home, since there was no possible way of deciding which infant was whose. A man in Florida paid out a grudge by capturing the object of his ill will, tying him to an alligator, and then setting fire to the alligator, with the unhappiest consequences for both man and beast. Princess Demidoff, dressed in a man’s clothes, horsewhipped her husband’s mistress. And a member of a highly respected New England family joined an Arab tribe and became notable for his war chant, “Old Hundred,” which he rendered with an invincible Yankee twang as he galloped with his Bedouins into battle.
Not one of these items, newsworthy as they may now seem to us, merited more than two inches of space in any Connecticut paper. The scandal of the year was the affair of Miss Delia Bacon and the Reverend Alexander MacWhorter.
At the time of this tribulation Delia Bacon had not yet become famous as one of the chief supporters of the theory that William Shakespeare was merely a pseudonym for Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others. A highbred bluestocking of thirty-five, in 1845 she had met Alexander MacWhorter, a twenty-three-year-old clergyman, in the New Haven boardinghouse where they were both living; and in spite of the unfavorable disparity in their ages they fell in love, or so Miss Bacon ultimately asserted. MacWhorter for his part swore to the contrary. The consequences of their encounter turned out to be something that was bigger than both of them. Their lovers’ quarrel was absorbed into a wrangle for authority, intemperate and unseemly, between the parochial clergy of the city of New Haven and the faculty of the Yale Divinity School. The Congregational Church was touched on the quick; for MacWhorter was the protégé of Nathaniel William Taylor, professor of didactic theology at Yale and one of the most powerful men in Connecticut. Delia, on the other hand, was not only a celebrated femme savante but the sister of Taylor’s close friend, Leonard Bacon, pastor of the First Church of Christ (or Center Church), the fountainhead of Connecticut Calvinism and chief shrine of the Establishment in the commonwealth.
New Haven in the forties was a gay city and at that time one of the handsomest towns in New England. In defiance perhaps of its Cromwellian beginnings (it had been a refuge for regicides during the Restoration) and the monastic pattern of its university, it was proud of its newly formed Beethoven Society, its good taverns, and the beauty and wit of its women. Its chief commodity, however, was the Congregational clergy. Ministers served as the backbone of its society, its principal export and finest ornament.
In addition to its ghostly powers the priest caste of New Haven exercised considerable temporal ones, inasmuch as the clergy owned a large proportion of the land of the commonwealth. Churchmen were thus able to perform with scarifying audacity the roles of both yogi and commissar, governing a demesne whose limits stretched from the cradle to well beyond the grave. Of this the elders whose duty it was to license young divines were keenly aware. The church required that the character of any minister be unimpeachable. His scholarship, his morals, and his orthodoxy underwent the severest scrutiny before the Congregational hobbledehoy ascended the pulpit. Here and there a misfit occurred, such as the Reverend Azel Backus, who “could not keep his drolleries out of the pulpit” and “lived a life of questionable propriety” while the souls under his care tittered their way to perdition; but he seems to have been as odd as an owl trooping among chickens. Clergymen in general avoided levity, lived by the book, mastered the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew tongues, married blameless behavior to a set of stern beliefs, and graced it all with the uses and accomplishments of a gentleman. Such a man was Nathaniel Taylor, the Rhadamanthus of Delia Bacon’s ordeal, and such a man was his antagonist, Leonard Bacon.
A hundred years earlier New Haven had had no God but Yahweh, and Jonathan Edwards was his prophet. The brimstone perorations that sizzled from New England pulpits had caused women to faint and strong men to shudder in their beds at the mere recollection. But by 1845 a younger and more impressionable generation was bringing a Byronic sensibility to the exacerbated conscience of Calvinism. (Byron seems to have had great charm for the adherents of this savage creed: there was an unmistakable allure in one so militantly, not to say joyously, damned.)