Letter of Phineas Fish to Josiah Quincy

Honoured Sir,

I received your favour of November 25. on the 28th of the same. As it required some time to reply as I wished, you will please to excuse the delay. I give an account of my mission with cheerfulness. Having no cause for concealment, I will endeavor to give as “precise and exact” a statement as I am able.

1. Number of Indians attending Public Worship.

The number at present, owing to the discontents, is from twelve to thirty as the weather may be. Through the larger portion of my ministry, I have had many more. Causes beyond my control, more especially intemperance, indisposes considerable numbers to attendance on the means of religion. The number of my audience on the Sabbath, composed mostly of Whites residing within or near the bounds of the Plantation, may average one hundred and fifty.

2. Of the Church.

At present seven Coloured members and twenty-one Whites. During my ministry have admitted to church membership twenty persons of Colour, and sixteen Whites. Found here at first five Indian communicants, and fourteen White. I have had but few cases of discipline; in twenty-three years, two cases of expulsion, and two others have withdrawn to other denominations. I might have had others but have not thought it desirable to increase the numerical strength of the Church to the hazard of its purity and moral power!

3. Schools.

Though at my settlement here, attention to them was not mentioned (as I can recollect) as being a part of my duty, and though I have never had any funds for the promotion of them, yet I have never been without a feeling of interest on the subject. During the earlier part of mission, the Overseers, on account of a heavy debt, could not do for schools what was desirable. I have always been urgent with them, and they certainly have been willing to do what they could. I have been in the habit of visiting the schools; have often procured school books from abroad, and have furnished them with considerable numbers of my own expense.

In 1831 with the aid of the Overseers, I was able to procure the building of two good schoolhouses, at the expense of the State, and as the Overseers, two or three years since paid off the public debt, they have appropriated more for the promotion of education, and in future (should no interference take place) will be able to support two good schools for at least nine months per annum. [The only returns we have had from the majority of the Indians is to be told that have done nothing for the improvement of the people and to have the pain of seeing these good houses used for the purpose of Baptist and Methodist meetings.] We have two or three young persons of Colour, who can keep a tolerable school for reading, writing and arithmetic; one of them, who attended the same school with my children,1 who taught one of the schools last summer, can teach the elements of grammar and geography. To find a child of proper age who cannot read is now a rare occurrence. To the charge of neglecting the improvement of the people, I think I may (on every consideration) plead not guilty!

I will now, Sir, make some statements in regard to something not named in your letter.

1. Preaching.

I have been at my post! I do not think I have been absent more than six Sabbaths for my own pleasure or business, for twenty years past.

The character of my preaching has been plainness and a steady aim at the promotion of moral virtue on Christian principles. My sermons have been practical, rather than controversial. Persons of the simplest mind have repeatedly assured me that they understand me without difficulty.

My weekly lectures have been numerous.  My minutes furnish the record of perhaps one hundred days and many more have not been recorded. Sometimes they were stated, weekly or two-weekly (as I have one now among the Indians and have had for a length of time) and sometimes occasional. Sometimes I have preached once in the week, and at others, many times. I have preached in cabins, where I could not stand erect, and in wigwams where I could scarcely discern my audience through the smoke. A person used to a splendid place of worship, refined society and all that is inviting in his circumstances, may stand afar off and by a dashing sentence pronounce my mission a sinecure; but were he to accompany me in my course of duties, his bones would hardly cry out of labour and self-denial.

2. Visits

Distributing books, etc., I have never refused visiting Indian families in sickness and at other times, whenever I could, and without discrimination, of sect or condition, where I had reason to think visits would be acceptable or useful.

I have many times obtained books for distribution, Bibles, school books, tracts of various descriptions, sometimes of my own expense presented at one time for the promotion of psalmody book to the amount of fourteen dollars.

There have been times, I have performed the pastoral duty of the whole Plantation, visiting families, the sick, etc., attending marriages, funerals, lectures, etc., for I have survived as many as seven different sectarian preachers, who have sought to make a stand here, but could not harmonize with the people.

3. Sabbath Schools.

As many as ten years ago, I devoted every Saturday afternoon to lessons from the Bible after the manner of Sabbath School instruction.  The plan was to meet the children in the different sections successively. For several seasons myself and wife2 have met these children through the heat of a summer’s sun, at the distance of sometimes seven or eight miles. This plan was not without its use, but I was not able to sustain the interest in these exercises with much uniformity, till I came to have the children assemble on the Sabbath in the interval of public service and procured some books, adapted to their years. The juvenile library contains more than three hundred and fifty volumes. To procure these, I have for five years devoted the small collection, received at the Sacrament, supplying the table myself; and I have to acknowledge with gratitude two donations of about thirteen dollars each from the “Society for Propagating the Gospel.” This school, though defective, owing to some impropitious circumstances, yet discovers its happy influence in the [ crossed out ] deportment, affections and understanding of the young beyond almost any other means. I have now a list before me of more than forty Coloured children, who are, or have been under this kind of instruction, on many of whom an intelligent observer would pronounce, that labour had not been bestowed in vain. At the commencement of the past season, our list shows about forty scholars, one half of whom are Coloured. We admit all children, who can be induced to come, but Indian children have the preference and are committed to the best instructors. Mrs. Fish, who is accustomed to the instruction of youth, has had under her care for five summers a class of ten Indian girls, some of these made fine progress, till our new “Liberator,” lectured the parents into the belief that weak instructions are worse than none, and now the class consists of two! Some of the children assure me they wish to come, but their parents will not let them. There this “Apostle of Reform” goes about doing his kind of good!!

I have also attempted Bible Class instructions with much success as to the Whites, but my Indian members drop off. It is too much work for them. An exercise of this kind, however, has been introduced into the common day-school, where both teacher and scholars have taken part with very good effect!

There are pleasant, but laborious, services. When I have composed my sermons for the Sabbath, preached twice on the day, superintended the Sabbath School, perhaps distributed the books and then attended a recitation of a Bible lesson in the evening in a meeting for youth and adults, and there remarked and explained to the extent of nearly of another sermon, at the close of such a day (and all are such in summer) though to others it may seem a trifle, I am obliged to confess my need of rest

4. Herring Pond.

At that place, fourteen miles hence within the bounds of Plymouth are from forty to fifty Indians. I was instructed by the Corporation, to preach there about one-seventh part of the time. I have complied with the order. When absent on such occasions the Sabbath School meets at Mashpee, as on other Sabbaths, I administer the Sacrament at Herring Pond through the summer to such communicants, as happen to the present, and those who wish to make a public profession of religion are received as members of the church of Mashpee. There is one Indian and one White member at present residing there. There is also a small Sabbath school under the direction of a worthy female and a few books. I cannot do very much for3 on account of the distance. The congregation at home probably experiences detriment from the necessary absences on this account!

5. Temperance Efforts.

Little has been done among the Indians, except by preaching and conversation. At a meeting, however, last February I proposed to them the formation of a Society. About twelve who could best be relied on pledged themselves to total abstinence.

They preferred, however, belonging to a neighbouring society at present, rather than form one among themselves. My most active exertions in this respect have been in surrounding towns, for the root of the evil is abroad, and as information advances in other places, it will benefit us, of course. I persuaded seven retailers in one season to renounce the sale of ardent spirits. I have assisted at the formation of two societies of about one hundred members each on two borders of the Plantation. I have done and shall do what I can in regard to this important object. I know it makes me unpopular both with rum-sellers and rum-drinkers, but unless much is done, this people cannot prosper, indeed cannot long subsist.

6. Discouragements.

Among these, I may mention the following: Intemperance, desultory habits of the Indians, their scattered location, readiness to listen to the bad advice of the designing, frequent absence from home, particularly on long voyages– necessity of going young into service in distant families, interference of intermeddlers, sectarian influence and the bigotry of ignorance, inclination to enthusiasm, backwardness to attend public worship except where noisy and passion-stirring addresses are to be heard, a tendency to Antinomianism.

I would now just glance at the causes and consequences of the present discontents.  From the days of my able predecessor, Reverend Gideon Hawley, a Baptist party among the Indians have been intent on attaining what they call liberty. They have repeatedly excited discontents and been the occasion of much expense and trouble. Some time last spring when there was considerable exasperation of feeling on account of some measures of the Guardians, either by accident or design, an emissary, who has been much about the country, lecturing on the “civil and religious rights of Indians” came to this place.4 He boasts of his abilities and his knowledge, his influence with the great and powerful. He flatters them that he can enlighten and enrich them, that he can break their chains and in a moment exalt them to happiness and distinction. He tells them, he has seen the Governor5 and he has no objection to his proceedings.  He teaches them to identify me with their immediate rulers.  He tells them he has seen the Corporation of Harvard College and apprised them that I was dismissed. He then takes the lead of affairs, summons the board of Overseers, publishes his Nullifying Acts,6 lays his rapacious hands on all property, arrests the course of business, threatens to punish all, who resist his will. He teaches his followers to molest men pursuing their honest occupation and even to gain unlawful entrance into the meeting house. He declares he will occupy it at a certain time, that he will exclude myself, church and congregation, and no White man shall have any connection with Indian affairs. He did not perform all his vaunting but what he has done? He has poisoned their minds, he has corrupted their morals, he has emboldened some of the people to acts, before unthought of, he has discouraged education, prevented the use of the school houses. He has seduced both the Baptist and Congregational deacons, ruining the moral character of the latter, he has divided the Baptist society and injured their Pastor, has made three parties where were only two and generated feelings of enmity where was more kind and Christian than had been for a long time before!

What then is the prospect? It is, in my opinion, still good! In some respects, it is better than formerly. Much more may be done for schools, much more may be done for the rising generation. The Temperance Reform will be brought to bear more and more upon all ranks and of course much more may be done in every respect.

If the Legislature do not give them up to the misrule, of which they have recently presented such a [ torn ] specimen,[7] the ferment will subside. The sectarian busy-bodies (who now feel quite sure of demolishing the remnant of Congregationalism in this place and who have not thought till lately of the plan of applying to the Corporation for my removal) will become discouraged and there will be an interval of peace, when some barrier perhaps may be raised against the recurrence of a similar crisis!

I have now made as faithful a statement respecting myself and labours, as I am able. I am confident many disinterested persons, who have an opportunity to know, will attest the truth of my representation, and I would here beg leave to inquire how far a missionary of tolerable diligence and faithfulness is to be held responsible for the degree of success? It certainly is cause of deep affliction to me that my services have not been more [ crossout ] abundantly blessed. It is more painful to me than all my labours. But it is my opinion that no man can insure success to himself. The Corporation at the time of my settlement here were apprized of the state of affairs. They did not expect that I should certainly unite the people, then much divided; nor even that I should improve their character in mass; for when does this often take place even in much more favorable circumstances? A passage contained in a letter to me from the venerable Dr. Lathrop[8] affords a conception of their views. Says he (1810) “You must not expect your people will be brought to the state in morals and religion, in which you wish to see them, without great labour and persevering attention; and after all, should many of them remain ignorant and stupid and vicious, it would not be wonderful. Should you be the happy instrument of restoring a few from vice and folly and thus preparing them for the happiness of heaven, you will have your reward”.

Permit me also, very respectfully to inquire whether in such a case, decided success or relinquishment of the plan, should be the only alternative? May not some different direction be given to the means? Is not such the course dictated by reason? If I have committed faults, let me be admonished. If another mode of operation is expedient, might I not prove successful at least in that? When the missionaries to the Society Islands7 labored twelve years before they gained a single convert, and the Moravians in Greenland, as many more, did the respective societies so much as mention relinquishment of the scheme? Have I been equally unsuccessful with them?

In especial manner, when it is recollected that I have been here so many years without supervision or advice or inquiry or even an encouraging word, what am I reasonably to expect but a degree of indulgence, when investigation begins to be made?  If I have proceeded silently in my course, it was because I believed my self to be moving right.  So long as nothing was said to me, I certainly had no peculiar reason for supposing I was going wrong. I may indeed have committed error, I may at times have given way too far to discouragements, but I trust I have never lived to myself or had any other than a fine desire to “make full proof of my ministry,” Permit me also to remind you that your missionary at the Vineyard,[10] though useful, has not been (as I can find) more acceptable as a preacher, than myself.   If he has been useful otherwise, might not some better method be pointed out to me?

Honored Sir, if your aid shall be withdrawn from here, what is to be the fate of those not few among the Indians who are the friends of order and on the whole of religion? They say they want their minister and their meeting. They dislike sectarian preachers8 and all their wild, fanatical customs. Among them are not wanting Indian families of pure blood and they beg not to be overlooked. They are grateful for past favours and, if required, they are ready to lift up their voice and make their desires known.

Withdraw your aid and will not such a measure be a virtual sanction of all the irregularities, that have lately taken place among us?  It will be the ruin of a Congregational Church and Society, the only barrier for a long time against sectarian fanaticism for many miles round, and the object of peculiar malevolence on this account. The ruin of this ancient church is a darling object with the enemy. They are at this moment exulting in the hope that we shall soon be deprived of your patronage. All the disorganizing people of this region despair of any other means of victory.  They build on this alone. Withdraw your aid, and you will fulfil their predictions.

They will triumph gloriously and the malice of their hearts will be gratified to the utmost.

What shall I say in regard to myself? If it does not appear that I have essentially failed in duty, shall past efforts be forgotten, and at the “suggestion” of any more informers is it right that I should be cast out as a worthless potsherd? Surely no one need envy me a residence in this “obscure sojourn.” Intercourse with the poor and with such only, may be depressing to the visits but cannot add to one’s wealth. Though I have been accused of enriching myself, I have not done so. Perhaps, Sir, you may not be aware that for seven years past, I have suffered a deduction from my salary of more than one hundred dollars per year. By rigid economy I can just bring the year round. To build here was matter of necessity. I venture to do so, because I was given to understand that my situation would be permanent. My house remains in part unpaid[ torn ] for to this moment. If I sell, it must in such a place, as this be at a large sacrifice.  Indeed it is nearly a certainly that I should not be able to sell it at any price. If I go from here, there I must go forth in indigence and in debt. I must leave a place where I have spent the best of my days; I must leave with impaired health and with habits, most probably disqualifying me for stated employment elsewhere.  Were I alone, I should not regard it;- but I have a family more expensive than even before and likely to be more so for some time to come.  And I cannot easily believe that gentlemen of sympathy and Christian feelings will, without weighty cause expose me and them to all the distresses of uncertainty and destitution.

At any rate, Sir, if this mission is to be abandoned, let it not be without9  investigation.  When reports, unfavorable to the usefulness of Mr. Baylies,[13] transpired a year or two since, some of the gentlemen repaired to the spot and ascertained the truth for himself. I entreat for a similar measure (if what I now write is not satisfactory).  The truth can [not?] be known at a distance.  It cannot be know[n] so near as Sandwich, or  Barnstable, or Falmouth

The whole truth (unless you accept of my own representations) cannot be known except on the spot.  I do not shun the light.  On the contrary, I challenge scrutiny. Let some gentleman of candid mind visit us.  Let him examine my sentiments, my sermons, my method of instructing, my intercourse with this people, my intercourse with all people.  Let him point out what is amiss, and I will correct it.  Let him mark out a place and I will pursue it.  If he see good cause, let him condemn me, and I will endeavor to say “The will of the Lord be done”  How? and, dear Sir, let me know; if you please, that you have received this.

Inform me, as soon as may be, of the result and oblige your most obedient and humble servant,

December 5, 1833

Address:

Honorable Josiah Quincy, L.L.D.  President of Harvard College, Cambridge­

Postage:

Cotuit, Massachusetts, December 5 / 30

Endorsement:

Received. Phineas Fish’s Letter (Postmark) December 5, 1833

Cataloguing:

11-15

  • 1. Fish had two sons, William Henry Fish (b. 1821) and George Gardner Fish (b. 1823), and a daughter, Sarah (b. 1829).
  • 2. Fish's wife was Phebe Gardner, the daughter of Gideon Gardner and Hepsabeth Joy of Nantucket, Massachusetts.
  • 3. Deleted text: them
  • 4. William Apes
  • 5. Levi Lincoln, Jr.
  • 6. Apes published his Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe Or, the Pretended Riot Explained in booklet form in 1835.
  • 7. The Society Islands, also known as the Windward and Leeward Islands, form a French Polynesian archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean.
  • 8. Deleted Text: preaching
  • 9. Deleted Text: severe