52 Ancestors: Rev. John Ellis #42

Week 42’s theme is “conflict.” I started this post a couple of weeks ago and then had to redo it after finding and reviewing a key source.

A while back I wrote about my ancestor Reverend Jonathan Ellis. He followed in the pastoral footsteps of his father, Reverend John Ellis, though he went to Yale instead of Harvard as the senior Rev. Ellis did. Rev. John Ellis was no stranger to conflict, having survived conflicts not only in the churches he pastored, but also as a chaplain during the length of the American Revolution.

John Ellis was born 2 Mar 1726/7 in Boston, Massachusetts to John Ellis and Hannah Lillie. He attended Brown as an undergraduate, then married his wife Bethiah Palmer in 1749 and graduated from Harvard (then called Cambridge University) in 1750.

He was ordained in the Congregational Church in Franklin, Connecticut in 1753. Like many congregations after The Great Awakening, there was dissension in the church over doctrine, church government and especially how to pay clergy. Reverend Ellis was either underpaid or paid haphazardly during his appointment in Franklin. Beginning in July 1775, Rev. Ellis volunteered as a Chaplain in the Revolutionary War and continued to serve until the war’s end.  He was officially still pastor of the Franklin church until 1779 but all his time was spent in the war effort. He may have been the only chaplain who served over the entire war.

In May 1785, after the war was over, he was ordained in the Congregational Church of Rehoboth, Massachusetts. According to Leonard Bliss Jr. in his book The history of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts, a salary of 100 pounds was agreed upon and the precinct “voted to receive the sum that might be necessary to discharge the salary, by an assessment on the polls and estates of the inhabitants of the precinct.” Bliss continues, “All things went well with the people, for some time; and all were contented, so long as the minister could preach without calling for his salary.” Then I found another source, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, Vol. 12. It contains a fairly detailed and sourced biography of the Reverend, but the writer’s perspective was different from Mr. Bliss’s. For example, Bliss neglected to mention that the meeting where the precinct voted on Rev. Ellis’s salary was attended by only twenty taxpayers out of three hundred total.

Not everyone in the precinct was a Congregationalist — there were at least six or seven Baptist churches in the town — yet everyone was supposed to be taxed to pay Rev. Ellis. As in Franklin, payment for his services was irregular, if sometimes non-existent. Rev. Ellis eventually had to sue the precinct for the money they owed him.

An added source of dissension was the armed uprising called Shay’s Rebellion that occurred in 1786/7. Many precinct members were sympathetic to the rebellion while Rev. Ellis “was known to be a true friend to government” according to Sibley, and pretty outspoken about it. After several incidents, including a takeover of the meetinghouse by the Baptists, Ellis and the Congregational Church went back to court in 1794, which found for the plaintiffs. Rev. Ellis stayed two more years before retiring, giving age and infirmity as the reason, and moved back to Franklin, Connecticut.

Sibley noted that “he was still quite active” after his retirement, joining several societies including the Providence Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. He died in 1805 and his widow Bethiah in 1814.


Franklin Conn Congregational Church and Society, Ashbel Woodward, Franklin 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), 102-103; digital images, Internet Archive, (https://archive.org/stream/celebrationofone00fran : accessed 28 October 2018).

Leonard Bliss, The history of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts (Boston: Otis, Broaders, and company, 1836), 214; digital images, Internet Archive (http://archive.org/details/historyofrehobot01blis : accessed 21 July 2018).

Clifford Kenyon Shipton John Langdon Sibley, Sibley’s Harvard graduates, Vol. 12 1746-50 (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933), 545; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/101759318 : accessed 30 October 2018).

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