Bidwell Lore – Old Light New Light

Welcome to the fourth week of Bidwell Lore! Last week we introduced you to a few of Adonijah Bidwell’s ancestors and took look at a poignant letter written by Adonijah’s father, to his mother, shortly before he died. For the next few weeks we will jump around Adonijah’s life a bit, starting today with an article about religious thought when Adonijah was a minister.

Before moving onto the story, we wanted to say thank you for all the wonderful feedback we have received about this new email newsletter.  We are so glad you are enjoying it!  Please also consider supporting the Museum with a donation or by purchasing a membership.  We so appreciate your support!!

Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, an Old Light?

Bidwell House Museum Board Member and Bidwell descendant Rick Wilcox wrote this article.  Thank you, Rick!

The terms Old Light and New Light were initially used during the First Great Awakening, which spread through the British North American colonies in the middle of the 18th century.  In A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), Jonathan Edwards, a leader in the Awakening, describes his congregants’ vivid experiences with grace as causing a “new light” in their perspective on sin and atonement. Old Lights and New Lights generally referred to Congregationalists and Baptists in New England who took different positions on the Awakening than the traditional branches of their denominations. New Lights, like Edwards, embraced the revivals that spread through the colonies, while Old Lights were suspicious of the revivals and their seeming threat to authority.  

Jemima Devotion Bidwell, Adonijah’s 2nd wife and the mother of his children, was the daughter of the Rev. Ebenezer Devotion, the first man to preach in what is now Berkshire County, at Sheffield in 1734.  During the First Great Awaking, Rev. Devotion became an Old Light proponent adhering to traditional Puritan dogma. That at least suggests that Rev. Adonijah Bidwell was cut from the same cloth or he likely would not have been allowed to seek Jemima’s hand in marriage. Jemima’s Grandfather was the Rev. Edward Taylor, called the Puritan Poet, and the roommate at Harvard and life-long friend of Samuel Sewall, the Salem Witch trial judge. 

Portrait of Ebenezer Devotion (1714-1771) painted by Winthrop Chandler in 1770. Owned by the Brookline Historical Society and on long-term loan to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Jemima’s cousin, Ezra Stiles, a president of Yale College, was conflicted in his efforts to find comfort in either the New Light and Old Light camps. Stiles knew that to be appointed as president of Yale he would need the support of the Old Light ministers, which forced him off the fence and into espousing the Old Light theology.
Surrounded by that theological family it would hardly be surprising that Rev. Bidwell left no evidence of any contact between himself and Rev. Jonathan Edwards even though Edwards was probably the closest neighboring minister as the crow flies.
The Rev. Jonathan Hubbard, the first settled minister in Sheffield, by town meeting vote was given “the sum of One Hundred Pounds Settlement and also to Build him a Good Barn all excepting the Nails.” Hubbard was ordained at Sheffield on October 22, 1735, in the presence of some neighboring church clergymen. Jonathan Edwards of Northampton and Samuel Hopkins of Springfield attended. Hopkins was married to Edwards’ sister. Ironically, Hubbard was orthodox in his faith and a nephew of Rev. Devotion.
Adonijah Bidwell left a thin paper trail of both his personal and professional life. Even his sermons, which might give some indication of his religious politics, were written in a shorthand that even now has not been successfully decoded. A number of Rev. Bidwell’s grandchildren were caught up in the Second Great Awakening, which is a story for another newsletter.