Whatever Happened to Brother Morgan?

by Charles E Wainwright

As a genealogist, I have often suffered the frustration of being unable to locate a record of an ancestor’s birth, marriage or death in the notoriously inconsistent records of early New England.  So it was with some sympathy that I read recently of a request from a genealogical researcher from Maine to find a record of the death of Robert Morgan, one of the founders of First Parish.  I spent several hours scrutinizing the first volume of our Parish Records for references to Robert Morgan and his family, and found some fascinating information that I thought I would share with other Parishioners.

The original record book, kept by Rev. John Hale, is under lock and key, but we have both a Xerox copy of it made in the 1970s and a printed transcription made by William B. Upham for the Essex Institute (now the Philips Library) in 1905.  Robert’s name appears frequently within its pages until December 1668, but no mention of him occurs after that. We know from Essex County Probate Court records that Robert died between 1672 and 1673, but there is no mention of his death in Parish records.  Why was it that a co-founder of the Church- one referred to by Rev. Hale as “Brother Morgan” was not officially mourned by his Congregation at his passing?  The answer reveals that the reality of everyday life in Puritan Beverly differed little from that we all experience today.

Robert Morgan and his wife Margaret (Norman) first appear in New England records on 23 June 1650 with the Baptism of their four children- Joseph, Benjamin, Luke and Samuel at the First Parish Church in Salem, suggesting that the family arrived in Salem shortly before this time.  On 15 December 1650 Robert Jr. was baptized, followed by Bethiah on 29 May 1653.  Robert Sr. owned about 20 acres of land with an orchard on the Cape Ann Side of Salem (now Beverly) next to Rev. Hale’s farm between what is now Hale Street and the ocean.

In 1667 Robert and several others petitioned the Church in Salem for permission to set up a new church at Cape Ann Side.  Robert’s name appears next to Rev. Hale’s on the list of original members of the First Parish Church in Beverly.  Robert recorded the description of the Ordination proceedings of Rev. Hale in 1667, and signed his name.  On 17 November 1667, his wife Margaret was admitted to the Covenant.  On 24 July 1668, his children- Joseph, Benjamin, Robert, Bethiah and Moses were admitted.  Clearly, Robert was regarded as an important personage at the Parish.

An entry dated simply [1668] describes an incident involving Robert Morgan’s son Benjamin.

“Benjamin Morgin, sonne of Bro. Morgin, a childe of ye covenant in this Church, having in partnership with another stole two horses and several oxen & added to his highhanded boldness ye hayness sin of lying to cover his sinne, was apprehended and convicted thereof in Cambridge Court and ye fact being so notorious and evident was sent for by this Church ye 16:10:68 [16 December 1668] by two of ye brethren to shew his repentance for this haynous and publickly scandalous sin but he not then appearing was sent to againe to appeare 27:10 Mo.  But then, he not only refused to come, but spake very reproachfully of ye Church and ye publick worship of God.  This answer being returned, it was propounded by ye Pastor & consented to by ye brethren that two other messengers should bee sent to him with this message:  that unless the next Lord’s Day he appeared before ye Church & manifested something of repentance not only for his former sins of theft and lying, but for his presumptuous contempt of ye worship of God & of this Church he would be proceeded with as a Scandalous and Impenitent sinner. 

“This was accordingly done, & ye next Sabath viz: ye 3:11:68 [3 January 1669] hee made his appearance.  But by his irreverend carriage and dumbe silence manifested himself to be A lamented spectacle of A stupefied sinner & forsaken of God & no signes of repentance manifested either for his former sins or late presumptuous behavior; hee was by ye Censure of Excommunication delivered to Satan for ye destruction of ye flesh yt ye soul might be saved in ye day of Christ.” 

My guess is that Robert was not happy with the actions the Church took against his son.  He may have been ostracized by the Congregation, or he might have decided not to be an active member of the Church afterwards.  Because his attendance at Church was mandatory and his family could not attend another Church without written recommendation of good moral character from Rev. Hale, he probably performed only minimum Church service until his death.  It is significant that Rev. Hale did not make note of Robert Morgan’s death in 1673, though he did recognize and mourn many other founding members when they died.

Members of the Morgan family remained in Beverly for generations. Many of Robert’s children and grandchildren are buried in the First Parish Cemetery. Robert’s wife Margaret married Samuel Fowler of Salisbury Massachusetts and moved there.  Benjamin survived 8 years after being passed into the hands of Satan by the Church:  He inherited the three acres of land nearest Rev. Hale’s farm from his father’s estate (One wonders whether this selection was intentional).  He was killed with his brother Moses during an Indian attack near Cape Porpoise Maine in 1677.

Benjamin was what we might today call a juvenile delinquent. The Church felt that the dishonor of excommunication was more of a deterrent than prosecution in the civil courts.  Benjamin apparently did not agree, and his dishonor was absorbed by his father.  I wonder how many of us have been in this situation with our children, absorbing the shame that they refuse to acknowledge?

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