Revd James MacSparran’s America dissected (1753)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Volume 11

Revd James MacSparran

Revd James MacSparran

In the 1700s Irish emigrants to America were remarkably diverse, especially in comparison with the apparent homogeneity of the Famine and post-Famine migrants. Although a majority were Presbyterians from Ulster, a third or more were Anglicans (members of the established Church of Ireland), Quakers, Methodists and other Protestant dissenters, as well as Catholics, from all parts of Ireland. Even individual emigrants, such as James MacSparran, could reflect the variety and ambiguity of contemporary ‘Irishness’. Yet in his America dissected (1753), the first Irish emigrant’s guidebook, MacSparran synthesised a broad if vague concept of ‘Irish’ identity that may have prefigured the inclusive nationalism of the 1790s.

MacSparran’s background

MacSparran was born in 1693 in County Londonderry’s Dungiven parish, over half of whose inhabitants were Irish-speaking Catholics, and was raised by his uncle, Dungiven’s Presbyterian minister. However, James MacSparran was not a typical ‘Ulster Scot’ of lowland Presbyterian ancestry. Traditionally, the MacSparrans were Scottish Catholics and closely allied with the MacDonnells of the Isles, Gaelic-speaking Highlanders (often called ‘Irish’ by Protestant lowlanders) who in the 1640s were driven out of Scotland to Ulster. James MacSparran’s own ancestors apparently avoided expulsion by conforming to Presbyterianism, but in the 1670s or 1680s they migrated to Dungiven from the Mull of Kintyre in Argyll, where Scots Gaelic (then interchangeable with Ulster Irish) was still the dominant language. Almost certainly MacSparran learned Scots Gaelic at home in Dungiven, thus explaining his later boast that he could read, write and preach in Irish. MacSparran attended Dr Blackhall’s academy in Derry city and then the University of Glasgow, where in 1709 he received his MA degree. Subsequently, he studied for the Presbyterian ministry and spent several years as a clergyman in Derry city.
Why MacSparran emigrated is unknown, but there is a suggestion that doctrinal or personal irregularities ruptured his association with Derry’s Presbyterian ministers. He landed in Boston in June 1718 and soon became minister of the Congregational church in nearby Bristol, at an annual salary of £100. However, MacSparran aroused the enmity of Revd Cotton Mather (1663–1728), Boston’s most eminent Puritan clergyman. Mather had Irish relations and at first had welcomed Ulster Presbyterian immigrants, but he soon condemned most of their clergy as clannish, contentious and ‘profane’. MacSparran soon faced charges of drunkenness and sexual immorality, as well as accusations that his clerical credentials were fraudulent. In October 1719 he sailed to Ireland to secure their confirmation, promising that he would return the following June.

However, either because his credentials were indeed suspect or from anger at his treatment by Derry’s and New England’s dissenting clergy, MacSparran never returned as a Presbyterian divine. Instead, after securing testimonials from the archbishop of Dublin and other Church of Ireland clergymen, he travelled to England and requested ordination in the Episcopalian faith, in what he called ‘the most excellent of all churches’. In 1720 MacSparran was ordained a deacon by the bishop of London and as a priest by the archbishop of Canterbury, and was licensed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) as missionary to the parish of St Paul in the Narragansett country of Rhode Island. In April 1721, ‘after a very dangerous tedious and expensive passage’, MacSparran arrived in the parish he would serve as rector for 37 years.

Church of England proselytising crusade

MacSparran was one of several Irish-born representatives of an American proselytising crusade that the Church of England had launched in the late 1600s. Between 1680 and 1720 Anglican reformers built over 100 new churches overseas; by the latter date the SPG (est. 1701) had sent abroad more than 60 missionaries, while its sister organisation, the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (est. 1699), furnished them with books, tracts and pamphlets. Ostensibly, the SPG’s primary mission was the conversion of slaves and Indians, but critics charged that the church’s real goals were to impose its bishops, ecclesiastical courts and tithes on the colonies, to overthrow the Congregational establishments in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and to subvert the colonists’ religious and political liberties.
Rhode Island, unlike New England’s other provinces, was neither a Puritan nor a royal colony. Its charter granted religious toleration and civil rights to all but Catholics and Jews, and most of its inhabitants were Quakers, Baptists and other dissenters who felt threatened by the ‘invasion’ of a church that proved very attractive to the colony’s economic and political élites. Thus, whereas in 1700 the Church of England had scarcely existed in Rhode Island, by 1721 another SPG missionary had transformed Newport’s Trinity Church into the province’s most fashionable congregation. Likewise, although most of MacSparran’s own parishioners were ordinary farmers, his ‘elegant’, ‘commodious’ and well-furnished church of St Paul’s was dominated by men who were ‘exceptionally cultured, well-to-do . . . and secure in the conviction that to be a Narragansett Planter, with large estates and troops of slaves, was a sufficient patent of aristocracy’.
In outward respects MacSparran’s pastorate was very successful. Although his first year in Rhode Island was marred by fresh charges of intemperance and sexual impropriety, MacSparran quickly married Hannah Gardiner, daughter of his wealthiest parishioner, and won his flock’s esteem for his erudition and diligence. Within two years St Paul’s congregation had doubled in size, and he also helped establish Anglican churches at Bristol, New London and elsewhere in New England. MacSparran’s biographer describes him as one of the SPG’s ablest missionaries; at least three of his sermons merited publication, and in 1737 Oxford University awarded him a doctorate in sacred theology for his ‘talents, learning, good deportment, judgment and gravity’. MacSparran moved comfortably in the colony’s highest circles and hosted the celebrated Anglo-Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley (1685–1753) during his 1729 sojourn in America. He was solicitous also for the spiritual welfare of the local Indians and slaves—ten of whom MacSparran owned himself.
Yet MacSparran was never reconciled to remaining in America. He hated the harsh extremes of New England weather; the care of his parish—covering 500 square miles and including three other churches—was extremely arduous for a ‘portly’ man; and his £70 salary was barely sufficient to maintain a lifestyle befitting his social pretensions. While congenial with his flock, he was also pedantic, pompous, egotistical and intolerant—characteristics that embroiled him in continual controversies with New England’s dissenters, who condemned him as a ‘hireling priest’ and an Irish ‘teague’. MacSparran’s vigorous advocacy of an American episcopacy infuriated Congregationalists, and at least one of his sermons incited a bitter pamphlet war. Plagued by nightmares of permanent separation from his Irish friends, from the mid-1740s MacSparran was soliciting influential patronage to gain a position as a clergyman in Ireland. In 1751 news of the death of his only brother exacerbated MacSparran’s dissatisfaction and homesickness: ‘O [that] I were well settled in my own Country’, he confided to his diary. This was MacSparran’s frame of mind when, a year later, he penned to his former Derry schoolmates three letters which in 1753 were published in Dublin and sold for 6d as America dissected, being a full and true account of all the American colonies.

First Irish emigrant’s guidebook

America dissected is considered the first Irish emigrant’s guidebook, yet MacSparran wrote it not to encourage or facilitate departures but as ‘a caution to unsteady people who may be tempted to leave their native country’. On his title page he promised to expose the ‘intemperance of the climates . . . destructive to human bodies’, the ‘badness of money; [the] danger from enemies; but, above all, the danger to the souls of the poor people that remove thither, from the multifarious wicked and pestilent heresies that prevail in those parts’.
America dissected was not entirely subjective, and MacSparran provided much information, fairly accurate, about the population, economy and government of each of England’s mainland colonies and West Indian possessions—detailing especially where large numbers of emigrants from Ireland had settled. Yet his Tory prejudices were obvious, particularly concerning society, religion and ‘manners’.

Within a year of his arrival in Rhode Island, MacSparran married Hannah Gardiner (1705-54), daughter of his wealthiest parishioner. From the painting of John Smibert. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Within a year of his arrival in Rhode Island, MacSparran married Hannah Gardiner (1705-54), daughter of his wealthiest parishioner. From the painting of John Smibert. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

His praise was generally reserved only for royal colonies, like New York and South Carolina, where the Anglican church was legally established, or for the efforts of SPG missionaries, like himself, to combat ‘schism and heresy’, ‘immoralities and disorders’, in other colonies, such as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, where dissenters ruled. In MacSparran’s view, royal authority and Anglicanism were mutually supportive and essential to ensure orderly, hierarchical social relationships. By contrast, MacSparran claimed, the influence of Presbyterians, Quakers and other dissenters inevitably produced ‘ignorance’, ‘levelism’, ‘confusions’ and ‘anarchy’.
Yet despite his dislike of dissenters, whether from Ireland or elsewhere, his treatment of all those who had ‘winged their way westward out of the Hibernian hive’ was sympathetic, notwithstanding that most of the immigrants he described were ‘Irish Presbyterians . . . from the North’. For example, MacSparran praised their ‘industry’ in Londonderry, New Hampshire, as elsewhere in the colonial backcountry, comparing it favorably with the ‘destructive indulgencies’ of Southern planters. He also lamented that the ‘Irish’ were ‘less esteemed than they ought to be’, although their frontier settlements provided Anglo-Americans with a western ‘barrier in time of war’ with the French and Indians. As he knew from personal experience, prejudice against all the ‘Irish’, whatever their religion, was especially strong in New England: ‘As the Jews had their Nazareth’, MacSparran lamented, ‘the New-Englanders have their Ireland’, noting with satisfaction, however, that the latter were ‘as much despised in the other English plantations, as any teague is by them’. Interestingly, America dissected cast no aspersions on Irish Catholics. MacSparran praised (and exaggerated) their influence in Maryland, and he commented approvingly on Philadelphia’s ‘public and open mass-house’—the only one in the colonies. ‘Papists are Christians’, he wrote, and ‘to be preferred to many Protestant heretics I could name.’
A year after publishing America dissected, MacSparran visited Ireland and England, hoping either to find ‘a provision on that shore for the rest of his days’ or to be consecrated as the Church of England’s first American bishop. However, MacSparran’s wife died in London, and he returned to Rhode Island empty-handed, purportedly declaring that ‘he would rather dwell in the hearts of his parishioners, than wear all the bishop’s gowns in the world’. Two years later, on 1 December 1757, MacSparran, aged 64, died at his house in South Kingstown and was buried under the communion table of St Paul’s.
One hundred years later, New England’s Episcopalians still memorialised Revd James MacSparran as the ‘Apostle of Narragansett’. His legacy in Ireland, however, and even his motives for publishing his letters there remain ambiguous. Whether America dissected dissuaded many potential emigrants is improbable, for the very conditions that MacSparran condemned in the colonies—their social fluidity and the weakness of royal and ecclesiastical authority—were more likely to attract than to repel the dissenters who comprised the great majority of contemporary migrants.
America dissected must be interpreted in the context of MacSparran’s many efforts to solicit Irish patronage—to ‘raise me up friends, and restore me to my native land’.

The parish church of St Paul, Narragansett, Rhode Island, where MacSparran served as rector for 37 years after his return to America in April 1721. Built in 1707 and originally located in North Kingstown, RI, in 1800 it was relocated to Wickford, RI, where this photograph was taken in 1907.

The parish church of St Paul, Narragansett, Rhode Island, where MacSparran served as rector for 37 years after his return to America in April 1721. Built in 1707 and originally located in North Kingstown, RI, in 1800 it was relocated to Wickford, RI, where this photograph was taken in 1907.

Certainly, MacSparran’s attempt to discourage emigration was calculated to please Anglo-Irish bishops and Ulster landlords who feared further losses of Protestant parishioners and tenants. Yet MacSparran’s strictures on America were no doubt sincere, reflecting his instinctive distaste for the crudity, heterodoxy and lack of deference that characterised colonial society. Thus America dissected was designed particularly to discourage emigration by others such as himself: genteel, conservative and pious but ‘unsteady’ young Anglicans, who lacked ‘connections’ sufficient to sustain or improve in the colonies the privileged positions they had enjoyed in Ireland.

Varieties of Irishness

More broadly, both the vagaries of MacSparran’s career and the tone of America dissected may reflect attempts to resolve issues of ‘identity’ that were intensely personal as well as inevitably political and inextricably linked to his social aspirations. It is intriguing, for example, that all of MacSparran’s writings, private and published, displayed a strong sense of ‘Irish’ identity that transcended ethno-religious distinctions and included, in his applications of the term ‘Irish’, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics alike. In America dissected varieties of ‘Irishness’ were distinguished, if at all, only by religion, and earlier or subsequently common ‘racial’ or ‘national’ designations—such as ‘the English in Ireland’, ‘Ulster Scots’, ‘Scotch-Irish’, ‘British’, and ‘Irish’ as synonymous with Catholics only—were strikingly absent. Indeed, because of his varied ancestral and cultural background, MacSparran must have appeared, in the eyes of most Ulster Presbyterians and American dissenters, more suspiciously ‘Irish’ than conventionally ‘Ulster Scottish’. To be sure, in 1716 Ulster’s General Synod had designated MacSparran’s Dungiven parish as a centre for clerical training in the Irish language, yet Presbyterian missionary efforts were paltry, as most ministers disdained a language they identified with ‘popery’ and ‘barbarism’. Of course, conversions to the established church by affluent or ambitious Ulster Presbyterians were not uncommon in the early 1700s. However, it may be that MacSparran’s apostasy was in part a defensive or even a defiant response to suspicions and prejudices to which he, because of his personal background, was unusually vulnerable.
In addition, joining a church commonly associated with high Tory principles may have come naturally to a man whose religious and political origins were so at variance with most Ulster Presbyterians’ historical experience and mythology. Whereas the latter gloried in their ancestors’ persecutions at Stuart hands and their defence of Derry’s walls for William of Orange, MacSparran’s kin had fought for Charles I against both Scots Covenanters and Cromwell’s Puritans, while he himself was sceptical about the results of the Glorious Revolution. Perhaps even more importantly, MacSparran’s conversion to Ireland’s official religion enabled him to submerge and employ his rich but dangerously confusing cultural legacy in ways that were assertively ‘Irish’ and yet also politically and socially advantageous. For the Church of Ireland, although ‘English’ in its origin and subordination to Westminster and Canterbury, nonetheless claimed the mantle of St Patrick, and as Ireland’s ‘national’ church it proclaimed—and sporadically pursued—the quixotic goal of obliterating the island’s most profound religious and civil distinctions by converting not only Protestant dissenters but also the ‘native’ Catholics—and through the medium of their own language, which MacSparran knew intimately. Ironically, by embracing the Church of Ireland, MacSparran could both be ‘Irish’ and achieve a social and political status denied by law to Irish dissenters and Catholics alike.
Despite his rather unusual background, MacSparran reflected a general trend: the early eighteenth-century transformation among many of Ireland’s wealthy Anglicans from a ‘settler’ mentality to what some historians have called ‘colonial nationalism’—an increasing emotional and political identification with Ireland and Irish interests, coupled with a growing estrangement from the English (British after 1707) government and its legal and economic restrictions on Irish Protestant aspirations. The herald of attitudinal change was William Molyneux’s The case of Ireland . . . stated (Dublin, 1698), but after 1714—when the Hanoverian succession entrenched a hostile Whig oligarchy in power at Westminster—Ireland’s Protestant gentry and Church of Ireland clergy became more vocal in their ‘national’ or ‘patriotic’ objections to British policies and patronage in Ireland.

MacSparran hosted the celebrated Anglo-Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley (1685–1753) during his 1729 sojourn in America. (National Gallery of Ireland)

MacSparran hosted the celebrated Anglo-Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley (1685–1753) during his 1729 sojourn in America. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Thus MacSparran resembled his friend Bishop Berkeley and Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), dean of Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, in both his high Tory principles and his bitter resentment against London’s appointments of Englishmen to the most lucrative posts in the Irish church and civil administrations. MacSparran equally resented British Whigs’ insistence that the Dublin legislature repeal the Penal Laws against the Irish Protestant dissenters whom he—like Swift—now despised.
Thus, America dissected may be viewed in the broad context of political conflict between the Irish and British oligarchies, and perhaps it represents a minor contribution to the Irish pamphlet war occasioned by the Money Dispute of 1752–3. MacSparran’s opposition to a rumoured legislative union between Ireland and Britain clearly expressed his alienation from the British administration and his support for the ‘patriot’ or ‘country’ party, which voiced (however cynically) the opinions of most Irish landlords and members of the Irish House of Commons. ‘I pray God [such a union] may never take effect’, he wrote, or ‘farewell Liberty. You are greater slaves already than our Negroes; and an Union . . . would make you more underlings than you are now . . . [I]f ever you come into a closer connection with the more eastern island’, he warned, ‘corruption will increase, peddlers be promoted to power, [and] the clergy and landed interest will sink into disesteem, [for] those that are sent to rule you, like those who sometimes are sent here, imagine fleecing to be a better business than feeding the flock.’
To be sure, MacSparran was angling for Irish patronage. Also, among Irish Protestants, generally, this early growth of Irish ‘national’ sentiment should not be exaggerated. Although they sought validation of their status by reference to Hiberno-Norman or even Gaelic precedents, the members of Ireland’s Anglican ascendancy defined Irish interests in their own, narrow terms, and in the 1780s–90s their interests would make most of them fervent loyalists to Britain in opposition to new, more democratic expressions of Irish nationalism made by Presbyterian and Catholic reformers and radicals. Moreover, even in the mid-eighteenth century, ecumenical interpretations of Irishness could flourish better in the New World than in Ireland, with its deep ethno-religious divisions and large Catholic majority. Hence it is possible that MacSparran discovered his own Irishness overseas—and that residence in America (particularly in New England), where colonists of English descent often ignorantly or wilfully conflated Irish Protestant and Catholic immigrants, encouraged his adoption of the one ‘Irish’ identity that enabled him to claim superiority over local dissenters, despite their numerical and political dominance. Yet just as MacSparran’s beliefs alienated him from the heterodoxy and liberalism of American society, so also his heightened identification with Ireland accentuated his homesickness for his native land. Thus, less instinctively but perhaps no less sincerely than later, Catholic composers of Irish exile ballads, MacSparran expressed in America dissected a cultural or even a ‘national’ aversion to emigration that contrasted markedly with contemporary Irish dissenters’ millennial vision of a new Canaan across the Atlantic.

The granite MacSparran monument in St Paul's graveyard.

The granite MacSparran monument in St Paul’s graveyard.

Kerby Miller is Professor of History at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Further reading:
Revd D. Goodwin (ed.), History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island, by Wilkins Updike (1847; Boston, 1907).
Revd D. Goodwin (ed.), Letter Book and Abstract of Out Services . . . by the Rev. James MacSparran (Boston, 1899).
K.A. Miller, A. Schrier, B.D. Boling and D.N. Doyle (eds), Irish immigrants in the land of Canaan (Oxford and New York, 2003).


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