The 26th week’s theme was “Black Sheep.” Jonathan Ellis did not start out as a black sheep, but then he left his family and disappeared.
I have been gathering family stories since a young age and very few have been what you might call scandalous. A few NPEs (Non-Paternal Events) here and there, maybe a youthful indiscretion. The story of Jonathan Ellis was the closest I could come to finding a “black sheep” at this point, though there are probably others I have not found yet.
Jonathan Ellis was born in Norwich Township, Connecticut in 1762. His parents were Reverend John Ellis and Bethiah Palmer. Like his father, Jonathan attended Yale College and became an ordained minister. After graduating Yale in 1786, he spent several years “devoting the requisite period to a theological course of reading” and then was ordained pastor at the The Church of Christ, Congregational of Topsham, Maine in 1789. While in Topsham he met and married his wife Mary Fulton in 1790. They had a total of ten children together.
Reverend Ellis’s position at the church in Topsham was controversial from the start. After his ordination, one-third of the congregation voted to withdraw. The dwindling congregation resulted in Rev. Ellis’s salary dwindling as well and he took school teaching assignments to supplement it. In 1799, he was informally dismissed from the church, but he stayed in Topsham for a while afterwards with his family. He was listed on the original Board of Overseers for Bowdoin College and, being a gifted linguist and Latin scholar, a candidate for Professorship of Languages at Bowdoin in 1802. He lost it to a recent Harvard graduate.
He was also known as a respected poet and presented poems at several memorial occasions, including the death of George Washington.
The Franklin CT 150th Anniversary publication listed below stated that he was dismissed from the ministry in 1811 “on account of charges against his moral character.” What those charges were are not specified and no other publication I’ve found refers to them. That same year, he left his family in Maine and travelled by himself. He did some teaching in Pennsylvania and sent letters home for several years. The last one was sent from Delaware in April 1827. There is no record of when or where he died. His wife Mary lived to the age of 91.
What happened in 1811? Wheeler’s history does not say and does not even mention he left the family. Rev. Ellis’s son Dr. Asher Ellis was still alive when the book was written and he lent the authors one of his father’s manuscripts. It would not be surprising if the authors did not want to dishonor his father’s memory. They also reference a diary that must have been left in Maine. I hope that Rev. Ellis’s diary is still available and that I can find it. Until then, I am hesitant to speculate.
Franklin Bowditch Dexter, Biographical sketches of the graduates of Yale College : with annals of the college history, Vol IV (New York: Holt, 1907), 467; digital images, Internet Archive, Archive.org (https://archive.org : accessed 8 July 2018).
Franklin Conn. Congregational Church and Society, Ashbel Woodward, and Franklin Chappell Jones, Celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the primitive organization of the Congregational church and society, in Franklin, Connecticut, October 14th, 1868 (New Haven, CT: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, 1869), 67-68; digital images, Internet Archive, Internet Archive (http://archive.org : accessed 8 July 2018).
George Augustus Wheeler, Henry Warren Wheeler, History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell: Maine (Boston: Alfred Mudge and Son, 1878) 409-.