Found: Letters regarding William Claggett and the Looking-Glass dispute

August 9, 2018

Guest Post by Margaret Hanson, 2018 Fellow in the Newport Historical Society’s Buchanan Burnham Summer Scholars in Public History Program

This December, the Newport Historical Society will open a new exhibit examining the life and work of William Claggett, a highly skilled clockmaker who lived in Newport from 1716 until his death in 1748. The exhibit will include a book written by William Claggett in 1721 titled A Looking-Glass for Elder Clarke and Elder Wightman And the Church under their Care. In A Looking-Glass, Claggett describes a dispute which eventually resulted in his permanent separation from the Second Baptist Church. The trouble began when the church Elders, Daniel Wightman and James Clarke suspended church member John Rhodes from communion following a complaint regarding his business practices. Claggett felt that Rhodes’s dismissal was unfair. In response, he and another congregant, Captain John Rogers withdrew from communion. This led to further disagreements: while Claggett and Rogers protested the church Elders’ decision to suspend Rhodes, others defended them, and reprimanded Claggett and Rogers for withdrawing from the communion. The dispute continued over the next 21 months, as Claggett, Rogers, Rhodes, the church elders, and various other congregants argued during church meetings, in private conversations, in publications, and through written correspondence.

Recently, we discovered a folder among Second Baptist Church records in the NHS archives containing exciting materials related to the Looking-Glass dispute. The newly discovered materials include letters (both originals and manuscript copies) exchanged among the disputants in 1720 and 1721, several of which are reproduced in A Looking-Glass. The folder also contains a booklet titled A Just Vindication (1721) which outlines the church’s defense of the elders and complaints regarding Claggett. While Claggett’s Looking-Glass does not include a full reproduction of A Just Vindication, this document was important in motivating him to write and publish his own version of the dispute. Furthermore, the final section of Claggett’s book, titled A Reply to Your Un-just Vindication, is dedicated to refuting the church’s arguments and narrative. The folder also contains several letters written between 1723 and 1725, after the publication of Claggett’s Looking-Glass which comment on its contents, as well as its author.