The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Collection Profile: Robert Keayne's Sermon Notebooks

I've been reading the new collection of Edmund S. Morgan's essays, American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women who Shaped Early America (W.W. Norton, 2009), and one of the people he profiles is Anna Keayne (later Lane), the granddaughter of early Boston merchant Robert Keayne (1595-1656). Anna's story is absolutely fascinating in its own right, but seeing Robert Keayne's name reminded me that we hold several collections of his notebooks:

- Robert Keayne sermon notes, 1627-1628. This volume contains notes taken by Keayne in London prior to his 1635 removal to Boston. Among the ministers represented are John Cotton, Hugh Peters, John Wilson and John Davenport. Extracts were published in the MHS Proceedings, Vol. 50 (March 1917), pp. 204-207.

- Robert Keayne sermon notes, 1639-1642. This volume contains notes of sermons preached at Boston's First Church by John Cotton. Keayne also includes minutes of the 1640-41 ecclestical trials of Sgt. Richard Wait and Ann Hibbins (the latter was executed for witchcraft in 1656). This notebook, which was given to the MHS as early as 1791 (possibly by founder Jeremy Belknap), was discussed at length by MHS Librarian Samuel Abbot Green at the March 1889 meeting of the Society. You can read an off-print of his paper here via the Internet Archive, or from the MHS Proceedings here via Google Books.

- Robert Keayne sermon notes, 1643-1646. This volume contains notes of sermons preached at Boston's First Church by John Cotton, John Wilson and Thomas Cobbet. Following Green's remarks about the earlier volume at the 1889 meeting, Amos Perry of the Rhode Island Historical Society wrote to Green to inform him that this volume was then in the collections of RIHS, having been presented to them in 1851 by a Mr. Cooke. "People must have been smart in that early period to read such writing," Perry wrote. The MHS purchased this third volume of sermon notes in 1969.

All three of the Keayne notebooks are available for consultation on microfilm, P-85.

Robert Keayne cut quite the figure in early Boston. He was the first commander of the town's Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and also served in various official capacities. His early success in business proved nettlesome to his neighbors; in 1639 he was tried before the General Court and fined for charging too much for his merchandise, and was later admonished by church authorities for this nefarious crime (also considered a grave sin). He issued a formal apology. He was later involved in a lengthy legal battle after being accused of stealing Mrs. Sherman's sow (see Darren Staloff, The Making of an American Thinking Class. Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 83-85).

Keayne's sermons notes are interesting, but they are not his most remarkable legacy. That distinction must go to his will, one of the longest known to exist from the American colonial period. The document runs to more than 158 pages and 50,000 words, and contains lengthy justifications of his life and conduct, as well as instructions for the disposition of his complicated and extensive estate.

Among his gifts were £300 for the creation of a granary, plus a town-house to house meeting rooms, a library, a gallery and an armory. He ordered that several books of his own authorship (biblical commentaries) to given to the library, plus any books from his own library not desired by his son Benjamin or his widow. As a contingency plan, if the town did not create his desired library, Keayne specified that his books were to go to the library of Harvard College. The town did use Keayne's legacy to partially fund the construction of the first town-house, which included the library (the first "public library" in Boston). The books were mostly saved from the 1711 fire which destroyed the building, but did not survive a second blaze in 1747.

For more on Keayne's will, and an edited version of the text, see Bernard Bailyn, ed. "The Apologia of Robert Keayne", Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 42 (1964), pp. 243-341.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 10 June, 2009, 12:12 PM


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