Ezekiel Cheever taught Latin, writing and arithmetic to the children of New England’s first Puritans for 70 years. He taught in New Haven, Boston, Charlestown and Ipswich, Mass., earning distinction as the ‘father of New England schoolmasters.’
When he arrived in the New World in 1637, New England was an isolated wilderness separated from the mother country by a vast ocean. For the Saints, or Puritans, to establish “Zion,” pious, educated men were needed, wrote Charles W. Allen. Ezekiel Cheever took his mission to heart, and taught many of the great men of their generation. His pupils included Judge Samuel Sewall, poet Michael Wigglesworth and Gov. Jonathan Belcher.
One pupil, Cotton Mather, delivered his funeral sermon, in which he called him “Master Socrates.”
“New England has never known a better,” Mather said.
Born Jan. 25, 1614 in London, he came to Massachusetts toward the end of the great Puritan migration.
Soon after he arrived he went to New Haven Colony and taught for 12 years. He then moved to Ipswich, Mass., in 1650, where he taught for 11 years. Then on to Charlestown for nine years. He ended his career as the first master of the Boston Latin School, where he taught for 37 years.
He married twice, first to Mary Culverwell for 11 years and then to Ellen Lathrop for 54. From 1639 to 1664, he had 12 children, but only nine survived to adulthood.
He taught in his home for most of 70 years. In the early years, he had a young and growing family. Historian Charles W. Allen concludes ‘the youngsters must have been confined to a small upper or adjacent chamber and kept entertained for the six to seven hours the house was used as a school.”
He never made much money, and more than once he had to beg local officials for back pay.
Ezekiel Cheever died Aug. 21, 1708 at the age of 93. Here are six fun facts about the old Puritan schoolmaster.
1. His Teaching Style—Not Progressive
He did not spare the rod. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in Grandfather’s Chair, wrote,
It would require a pretty good scholar in arithmetic to tell how many stripes he had inflicted, and how many birch rods he had worn out, during all that time, in his fatherly tenderness for his pupils.
He also wrote a textbook, probably the first in America. Called Accidence: A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue, American schools used it for at least a century. Hawthorne commented,
…the good old man, even in his grave, was still the cause of trouble and stripes to idle schoolboys.”
2. He Hated Periwigs
The controversy over periwigs raged throughout New England during the 17th century. The periwig was a highly styled wig, a fashion imported from Europe.
Wig opponents called it wasteful and extravagant. It also made men look as if they had more interest in ‘courting a maid’ than to ponder God’s will, they said.
The early Puritans hated them, but they eventually won acceptance. Cotton Mather, for example, wore a long brown periwig.
Samuel Sewall, like Cheever, wore a black skullcap. He wrote a eulogy for Ezekiel Cheever that ended with the sentence, “He abominated periwigs.”
3. He Helped the Puritan Project Succeed
During Cheever’s lifetime, colonial settlements grew into thriving towns along New England’s coast. Cheever gave hundreds of New England boys the tools to build those Puritan cities on hills. His best students entered Harvard and were ordained as ministers.
Even those who didn’t do so well at Latin contributed to the success of the Puritan project.
Hawthorne described, as only Hawthorne could, what would happen to Ezekiel Cheever’s math students.
These boys are to be the merchants, shopkeepers, and mechanics of a future period. Hitherto they have traded only in marbles and apples. Hereafter some will send vessels to England for broadcloths and all sorts of manufactured wares, and to the West Indies for sugar, and rum, and coffee. Others will stand behind counters, and measure tape, and ribbon, and cambric by the yard. Others will upheave the blacksmith’s hammer, or drive the plane over the carpenter’s bench, or take the lapstone and the awl and learn the trade of shoemaking. Many will follow the sea, and become bold, rough sea-captains.
Sixty years after Ezekiel Cheever set foot in primitive Boston, the town contained 1,000 houses and 7,000 people dedicated to building schools and churches, wrote Henry Crocker in his A History of New England.
Toward the end of his career, Cheever earned 60 pounds a year at the Latin School, a handsome salary (when the town managed to pay it). He taught in a new schoolhouse, rather than his own house, and he even had an assistant – his grandson, Ezekiel Lewes.
4. He Was Extremely Pious
His pupil Cotton Mather described his ‘untiring abjuration of the Devil.’
Ezekiel Cheever believed the Puritans could grow spiritually and achieve perfection on earth in their new home. Mather struggled with that concept. He didn’t understand how saints could live among sinners on earth. When he brought the question to Cheever, the old schoolmaster replied,
What! The Spouse of CHRIST have the Foul Disease! Never tell me That!
5. His Beard Revealed His Mood
No images of Ezekiel Cheever exist, but an acquaintance, Samuel Maxwell, offered a description:
“He wore a long white beard terminating in a point; that when he stroked his beard to the point, it was a sign for the boys to stand clear.”
6. John Cheever Claimed Him as an Ancestor (But He Wasn’t)
The novelist John Cheever boasted of Ezekiel Cheever as his ancestor, but Ezekiel was just a cousin of his ancestor, Daniel Cheever. Nevertheless, John Cheever had a bit of obsession with Ezekiel. He wrote that he had nothing in his veins but ‘the blood of shipmasters and schoolteachers.’
Cheever talked about Ezekiel a lot in interviews, and named two main fictional characters after him: Ezekiel Farragut in Falconer and Ezekiel Cheever in his Wapshot books. He also named his Labrador retriever Ezekiel, and urged his son Ben (unsuccessfully) to give his son the name.
With thanks to Journey of Promise: West From Sempringham by Charles W. Allen.
Images: Boston Latin School plaque by By User:Swampyank / Swampyank at en.wikipedia – User:Swampyank, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17345900.
This story was updated in 2021.