The author of this letter signed his name “M. Briggs” and it’s clear from the contents that he grew up in either Natick or Dedham, Massachusetts, where at an early age, he formed the acquaintance of the woman he wrote the letter to, which was Elizabeth (Morrill) Noyes (1788-1853), the wife of Samuel Noyes (1784-1863). Elizabeth was the daughter of Eliakim Morrill (1753-1824) and Ruth Russell (1757-1824).
Briggs leaves few other clues as to his identity, however. From the letter we know that his mother was still living in 1837, and that he commenced (1837) teaching a school for girls in Burlington, New Jersey. We also know that he was a Congregationalist and had some aspiration of becoming a missionary to India. Beyond that, nothing else is revealed by the letter.
Addressed to Mrs. Samuel Noyes, Dedham, Massachusetts
Burlington [New Jersey]
August 22d 1837
My Dear Mrs. Noyes,
I am most happy to avail myself of the kind invitation you gave me to write you, for in writing you, I feel that I am writing my spiritual mother. Whenever I think of you, the spiritual improvement I have derived through means of your instruction, is my all absorbing theme. I look back to the time when I used to steal into your house, sit upon the cricket by your fireside, and listen to your words, while you pointed out to me the path to heaven as the most important & interesting period of my life. Were it not for the interest you so kindly took in my welfare, thanks to a kind heavenly Father, time may never prove what & where I might now have been. I love to dwell upon those hours and the time may never afford me the wished for privilege of repaying you by any act of kindness; in eternity, I shall be one among those who compose the crown of your rejoicing. I can scarcely realize, my dear Mrs. N., that I am 400 miles from you — yet so it is.
I came to Burlington the third day after I left you and immediately commenced a school with six young ladies. My number has now increased to fourteen. Whether I shall be able to continue the school through the winter, I am not yet able to determine. If I should fail, I may return to Boston in the fall. Our minister is very much interested in my school which affords me some assistance. Being a man of wealth, it gives him some influence but, or tho, it is Congregationalism is very much opposed this way.If I were an Episcopalian, it would be very much more for my secular advantage, but I cannot become one of sordid lucre’s sake. I love episcopacy, but I love congregationalism more.
Burlington is a very delightful little city situated on the Delaware, about 17 miles from Philadelphia. The streets are laid out with a great degree of taste, and beautifully adorned on both sides with Willow, Linden, and Poplar trees, which have a very beautiful effect — particularly at sunset. The shore of the Delaware, called the bank, presents a most splendid appearance at twilight. The rich water reflects on its mirrored bosom the trees on the opposite side, through which may be seen a brilliant & gorgeous horizon. These vistas I almost imagine I shall pass on my way to yonder glorious world.
Do not, my dear Mrs. Noyes, infer from what I said when I was last with you that I have any sanguine expectation of going to a foreign country. If it should be the will of God that I spend a part of my days in India, I should esteem it a great blessing. But when I consider the uncertainty of all earthly things, and the varied vicissitudes of five years, I can scarcely expect that a plan so early devised can ever be carried into operation. yet I feel that time and changes cannot interfere with God’s designs. That His will may be done is all my desire. To think of this subject fills my mind with a sort of mingled awe, & gloom, accompanied with a sweet quietness or repose — a freedom from solicitude which is the result of confidence in that God for the knowledge of whose character I am so much indebted to you. When this subject was first suggested to me, my only reply was that I deemed a subject of momentous importance, one which above all others required due consideration; the guidance of eternal wisdom and one which I could not immediately decide.
Please give my love to each of your children & tell them I hope they are walking in the path of religion & virtue; that they are growing up to become blessings to their parents; ornaments to society; pillars in the church, and useful to all around them. I hope Bradley continues his studies. I trust he is chosen as an ambassador of God ____ he gloriously reflect the savior’s image, and be a bright and shining light in this dark world. The most I fear for him is that being a lung man of talents, a cup of sorrow may often be prepared for him, by the applause which he will be likely to receive. For pride is a sin which I believe God seldom suffers to go unpunished; one to which I believe all are given in a greater, or less degree, and one which seems to grasp the heart of man with greater veracity than almost another other. I would remind him of what a very distinguished clergyman once told me, was said to him by an eminent devine, “that where he would be told of one of his faults, he would hear of ninety-nine of his virtues.”
I wonder if Natick people have forgotten me. I have not forgotten them. I have an affection for them which will never be eradicated.
I have just received a letter from a good lady in Massachusetts who calls herself my mother containing some heart cheering news. She says a revival is going on in the town where she resides, that eight now stand propounded for admission into the church. Is not this delightful in this time of spiritual declension? How dreadful were the proceedings of the last convention of the general assembly. A clergyman told me a few days ago that he trembled at the result.
Do you not feel sad in view of our missionary prospects? Were not the work the Lord’s, I should have no hope that it could go forward. But how sweet is the thought that all is in the hands of an omnipotent God. Nothing can do our friends, or ought, that we love, ay harm so long as they are in the hands of such a being. I was thinking the other day how wretched we should be if we believed in the epicurean doctrine that God is subject to fate; that the object of our supreme affection must be subjected to the evils which attend our fellow mortals. But happy are we in having no such cause of anxiety.
I am very anxious to hear from you & other friends in Dedham, but cannot expect that one with so many cares as you have will take the trouble to favor me with a letter. But if you will induce M. to write me as soon as convenient & will put a few words in her letter, I shall be very grateful for such a kindness.
Please remember me affectionately to friends — particularly to Mr. Morrill & family. Does he think of removing? If so, where? Is Mr. Burgess at home? How is his health? Is the church now quiet or is it in commotion?
Most affectionately yours, — M. Briggs