“A curious font of porphyry”

Screen Shot 2018-07-12 at 3.29.59 AMWorking on material culture, my research has taken me to some interesting, if unexpected places. Last summer, it involved waiting outside Saint John’s Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, founded in 1732 as the Anglican Queen’s Chapel. I quickly ran inside to snap some pictures of a baptismal font between back-to-back Sunday services. The Saint John’s font is an impressive fixture, carved from marble in a Continental European baroque style. As a ritual object used in the sacrament of baptism, the font is hardly unusual, but its story is.

A colorful body of apocryphal literature can be found that gives various explanations of the font’s earliest origins and even its material, with one author mistakenly describing it as “a curious font of porphyry” in the 1890s.[1] Yet, the font’s brass cover offers a rather straightforward account. Dated 1761 and composed by churchwarden Wiseman Clagget, the Latin inscription on the lid reads “Sarah Catherine and Anna Elizabeth, accomplished daughters of Captain John Tufton Mason, generously gave this Baptisterium, acquired from the French at Senegal, under the auspices of the above-mentioned John, to the Anglican Church at Portsmouth.”

Who were the Masons, and how does West Africa figure into their story? Educated in London, the Mason girls were the daughters of John Tufton Mason, a descendant of the original New Hampshire proprietor. Although he spent much of his life in England and died there in 1787, he was born in Boston in 1713 and well known in Portsmouth. An officer in the Royal Marines, Mason served in West Africa during the Seven Years’ War. Although it is unclear when and where exactly he found the font, Mason is known to have participated in the capture of two major French slave ports in Senegal, Saint-Louis and Gorée Island, in 1758.

Even if the font’s whereabouts between the 1758 Siege of Senegal and 1761 are not known, its dramatic journey— from a French foothold in West Africa to an Anglican congregation in New England named in honor of a German-born British queen consort— is extraordinary in its own right. This complex geographic trajectory has made the Saint John’s font so interesting for me to study, especially after it came to New Hampshire. The New Hampshire colony existed on the edge of an especially contentious imperial borderland between New England and New France. In this religiously charged atmosphere pitting French colonial Catholics against New England Protestants, baptism took on dogmatic, cultural, and political significance in the struggle for imperial power and ideological hegemony.

This struggle included the taking of captives and their conversion to Catholicism, sealed with the waters of baptism. Franco-Amerindian raids were a cause of great anxiety in New England as many taken captive were pressured to convert in New France. Especially in the case of young children, not all were willing to return to New England, even if the opportunity presented itself. New Hampshire Governor and Portsmouth merchant Benning Wentworth voiced his concern at a council meeting in 1754, stating

“The young people are exposed to the craft of the Romish clergy, and are in great danger of being corrupted with the pernicious principles of the Church of Rome, principles destructive of all societies but their own, and to be abhorred by every true Protestant […] rescue them from the hands of the Romish clergy, who are more assiduous in proselyting them to their religion.”[2]

For New Englanders, the baptism of captive loved ones by wily Jesuits and others was both a local and imperial issue. This “rebaptism” conferred a new Catholic identity, complete with new names and integration into new French or indigenous family networks. It initiated a cycle whereby acculturated New Englanders might marry and beget Catholic children and new French subjects.

The significance of the Saint John’s font, then, rests on its repurposing, if not its outright redemption as a religious fixture by Portsmouth’s Anglicans. I’ve come to approach this object as a sort of redeemed captive, one with a powerful message and function. It arrived at a crucial moment in New England’s history and assumed a different vocation and sacred mission there: the baptism of new Anglo-American Protestants, specifically members of the Church of England. These very children were heirs to the generation of New Englanders— Anglican and Puritan— who saw themselves victorious in the expulsion of French absolutism and Roman Catholic heresy from North America in 1763. This discussion becomes all the more interesting when we consider the stakes of material culture and various phenomena whereby devotional objects more in tune with the Counter-Reformation were destroyed by colonial New Englanders, or, alternately, repurposed by them in their own sacred spaces.

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Gruchy’s angels in the Old North Church

Take for example Sir William Phip’s 1690 attack on Port Royal, now Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia. His forces imprisoned the two French Jesuit missionaries, “cut down the Cross, rifled the Church, and Pull’d down the high Altar, breaking their Images.”[3] Phips, who would mount a failed invasion of Québec later that year, opted for a policy of destruction. Although this act of iconoclasm broke the terms of the settlement’s surrender, the Maine-born Phips made sure to explicitly record it in a journal published in Boston that same year. Boston privateer Thomas Gruchy took a different approach when he captured four trumpeting angel statues aboard a French ship, presumably bound for New France and sailing along the Maine coast in 1746. He donated the polychrome wooden angels and “Two Glass Branches,” probably sconces with cut glass drops, to the Anglican Christ Church, now known as the Old North Church, in Boston. The vestry voted that “the Branches be hung in ye body of the Church and ye Cherubims placed on the top of ye Organ.”[4] The Old North Church’s current organ dates to 1759 (with a few repairs and modifications) and replaced an earlier organ from 1736. The timing of this second organ coincided with the capitulation of Québec, the capital of France’s North American empire, to the British under James Wolfe. Ironic for sure, but the triumphant angels have yet to put down their trumpets as they continue to herald Protestant hymns rather than Catholic vespers.

Returning to Saint John’s in Portsmouth, the font is not the only object with a blurred confessional backstory. The church’s very bell is one of three sent by Louis XV to Louisbourg, a French colonial fortress on Cape Breton Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, in 1735. The fortress was taken by another Mainer, Sir William Pepperell, in 1745. Anglo-colonial forces occupied Louisbourg for three years before its return to France in 1748. Pepperell’s bell, which he presented to Queen’s Chapel himself, was the largest of those sent by Louis XV. It was taken from the tower of the king’s bastion, rebuilt in the 1960s during the reconstruction of the fortress by Parks Canada. An enormous brick structure set within a stone fortification, the king’s bastion dominated the built environment of Louisbourg. It contained a chapel as well as the governor’s apartments and barracks. Stripping the citadel of its bell was a symbolic coup for Louisbourg’s Protestant captors, who also re-outfitted the chapel as a properly Protestant place of worship, complete with new pews. A wrought iron cross from Louisbourg was also among the spoils of war; its use is unclear before it was acquired by Harvard, and it was possibly the gift of an alumnus who had helped capture the fortress in 1745.[5]

Vue_de_l'intérieur_de_l'église_des_Récollets

“A View of the Inside of the Recollect Friars Church, drawn on the Spot by Rich[ar]d Short,” engraved by Charles Grignion, 1761, Toronto Public Library

What are we to make of the Saint John’s font and similar religious trophies? To me, the font emerges as a powerful symbol of military might, spiritual supremacy, and the “Protestant interest” in colonial New England, all of which were reaffirmed by Britain’s victory over France in 1763.[6] I can’t help but think of Richard Short’s Twelve views of the principal buildings in Quebec, which captured the town’s devastation after the British bombardment of 1759.[7] First sold in London in 1761, these engravings offer visceral depictions of the ravaged interiors of Québec’s churches, with toppled sculpture, broken altars, and forlorn friars. In comparison, the Saint John’s font appears to have been more valuable intact than destroyed. Its potency was further enhanced by virtue of its intrinsic use within an actual sacrament, something that set it apart from statues and even plundered bells. Used for generations, the font survives as a hybridic site of fraught religious conflict, refashioned into an emblem of ideological legitimacy, identity politics, and imperial ambition in northern New England. It’s the very definition of #vastearlyamerica and a case study that I look forward to thinking about more.

Philippe Halbert can be found on Twitter at @plbhalbert.


[1] Thomas Bailey Aldrich, An Old Town By the Sea (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), 29.

[2] Journal of the House, cited in Provincial Papers, Documents and Records Relating to the Province of New-Hampshire from 1749 to 1763, vol. VI, ed. Nathaniel Bouton (Manchester: James M. Campbell, 1872), 327.

[3] Sir William Phips, A Journal of the Proceedings in the Late Expedition to Port-Royal (Boston, 1690), 6.

[4] Vestry records of the Old North Church, 16 June 1746.

[5] The cross is on exhibit at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, where it has been on permanent loan from Harvard since 1995.

[6] Thomas S. Kidd, The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). See also Owen Stanwood, The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

[7] See John E. Crowley, “A Visual Empire: Seeing the British Atlantic World from a Global British Perspective,” in The Creation of the British Atlantic World, eds. Elizabeth Mancke and Carole Shammas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 283-303.

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