Massachusetts

Boston’s John Allen: The Uncool Revolutionary

John Allen was one of the first American churchmen to declare that King George III was so badly managing colonial affairs that he had abdicated his right to govern the American colonies. Not only that, he hinted that if George wasn’t careful, he might wind up like King Charles I – beheaded for treason.

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King George III

Allen’s ideas would eventually turn into conventional thought, and propagandists such as Thomas Paine would expound on them. But in 1772, Allen had crawled out on a limb with his ideas, and as it turned out the limb couldn’t hold him.

He was an obscure minister in a non-mainstream religion who had financial trouble in England and few friends among Boston’s elite. He made John Adams uneasy. But for one shining moment — the aftermath of the Gaspee Affair — he found his audience.

A passionate and controversial Baptist, Allen delivered his fieriest speech at a Thanksgiving celebration in December of 1772. He turned the speech into a pamphlet: Oration Upon the Beauties of Liberty, or the Essential Rights of Americans. It became one of the best-selling political pamphlets in America before publication of the Declaration of Independence. It passed through seven printings in four cities.

John Allen, Baptist Minister

The Baptist pulpit was an odd place for such radical thinking to spring up. Baptist leaders of the day focused on obtaining parity and equal treatment with other religions in New England. They rarely ventured into the squabbles between the colonies and the mother country. But Allen’ had a much bigger vision. He railed against taxation, parliamentary shenanigans and even took shots directly at the king. He even criticized Britain for allowing slavery in its colonies, though his publisher couldn’t include that issue in the first editions of the Oration. It made it only into later printings.

Allen was born in England and had been driven from the pulpit there because of his radical thinking. Among other issues, he refused to condemn the Sandemanians, a religious sect that preached the Bible gave no basis for granting authority to a central church.

By the time he left England, Allen had also been tarred with allegations that he tried to pass a bogus check. He cleared his name, but the incident called into question his fitness as a minister.

John Davis, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Boston, learned that Allen had departed England and arrived in Boston. In 1772, Davis was dying. He requested that the congregation invite Allen to preach at the church and potentially take over the pulpit.

John Allen

An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty, Or the Essential Rights of the Americans by John Allen

Bad Reports

The congregation disagreed about letting Allen should speak. Churchman Isaac Backus noted in his journal: “Met with Mr. John Allen a noted writer from England, who has been preaching in Boston lately, but we have some very bad reports about him; how they’ll turn out I know not.”

Meanwhile, Allen had friends among the Sons of Liberty and among American sympathizers in England. With a little back room pressure, he got his chance in the pulpit.

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Sons of Liberty pouring hot tea down the throat of the customs commissioner after tarring and feathering him.

Allen chose the 1772 Thanksgiving address – guaranteed to be widely attended and noted – to deliver his Oration. The colonies were in an uproar over the king’s appointment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the burning of the British ship Gaspee in Rhode Island. The commission planned to send the Rhode Islanders who burned the ship to England for trial, and Allen used that as the springboard for his rant against the English government.

Allen, like all speakers of the day, never declared his disloyalty to the monarchy. But he made his opinion clear. “An arbitrary despotic power in a prince, is the ruin of a nation, of the King, of the crown, and of the subjects; therefore it is to be feared, abhorred, detested and destroyed. . .  The King of England has no power to enact, or put in force any law that may oppress (the Americans); his very attempting to do it, at once destroys is right to reign over them.”

Too Radical?

He went on to call for a sort of American parliament to make rules to govern the colonies. He also declared that if the king persisted “in being influenced and dictated by his Ministry,” he might well risk the same fate of his predecessor Charles I, overthrown by revolutionaries.

James Otis by Henry Blackburn

Many people read Allen’s pamphlet, though not everyone found his hostility to their liking.  John Adams, in his diary, noted James Otis “reads to large Circles of the common People, Allen’s Oration on the Beauties of Liberty and recommends it as an excellent Production.”

Adams felt such radical ideas as giving voting rights to un-landed citizens took democracy too far. Still, he noted, Otis’ devotion to the rights of Americans was unquestioned.

Allen published his pamphlets under the nom de guerre British Bostonian. He proposed one last pamphlet in 1774, The Patriotic Whisper in the Ears of the King; or the Grand Request of the People of America Made Manifest. Intended as a Chariot of Liberty for the Sons of America. But if it was ever published, it was lost. Allen slipped into obscurity – his position as radical pamphleteer filled by thinkers such as Thomas Paine.

This story was updated in 2021.

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