Jerry Keiser - September 2010

 

Thomas Bacon: Educator
by
Jerry Keiser

 

In the beginning was the word. It meandered through Talbot County like the many rivers carving the county’s shoreline and constructing the many “necks” that would geographically define the county. One of the earliest places that the word would take hold was at the headwaters of the Tred Avon River about the half way point from the Port of Oxford and the mercantile wharfs of Dover on the upper reaches of the Choptank River. Here the parish of St. Peters or “Hole in the Wall,” to which it is sometimes incorrectly referred was constructed to be the Anglican presence in the county. It was here among the turning leaves of the forests and the cultivated rows of tobacco fields, which a revolution in education would begin with a young parish priest named Thomas Bacon.
Thomas Bacon was the eldest son of William Bacon and Elizabeth Richardson. He was born in the small fishing village of Whitehaven on shore of the Irish Sea. Since Thomas’s father was a master mariner, Thomas, the eldest son, was expected to follow his father’s foot steps and become a master mariner. However, Thomas had come to a different conclusion and with the support of his kinsman he was hired by the Whitehaven coal merchants in 1737 for a salary of 150 pounds per year to manage a Depot of Coals at the Custom House in Dublin.
However, during this time Thomas appears to have spent most of his time writing and in that same year, at the age of twenty-six, he published A Compleat System of the Revenue of Ireland. This publication and his marriage to a widow that owned a coffee house a block from the Custom House embarked Bacon on a career in book publishing, printing, selling and management.
During this time, Bacon became a quite successful publisher and bookseller. In addition to publishing titles such as A General Treatise Of Naval Trade And Commerce, As Founded On The Laws And Statutes Of This Realm, Thomas also was the publisher of the Dublin Mercury and Dublin Gazette. These newspapers were successful for a period of time and highlighted Bacon’s copious interests in literature, music and civil affairs.
Bacon’s business finally collapsed on June 19, 1742 due to some unfortunate business dealings. Thomas would spend the next three years studying on the Isle of Man under the Bishop Thomas Wilson. Bacon was ordained a priest on March 10, 1745 and would set sail for Maryland the following summer.
On September 20, 1745 the newly ordained Reverend Bacon, his wife and his youngest son John arrived, along with ninety Irish indentured servants, in the port town of Oxford aboard the Sally of Whitehaven. Upon his arrival in port, Robert Morris, Sr., who was the chief agent of the port, greeted Reverend Bacon as was customary.
Reverend Bacon would take up residence in Oxford until moving to the village of Dover on the Choptank River in the late summer of 1747. Dover was about half way between St. Peter’s Parish and the Chapel on Kings Creek. It is also where Thomas’ brother Anthony had wharves and stores. It is most likely that Bacon considered his brother’s mercantile business, as well as the benefits to the church, when he relocated his family to Dover instead of Oxford.
Mr. Bacon took up his post as curate of the Parish of St. Peters in November of 1745. Reverend Marynadier would pass away in March of 1746 and Reverend Bacon would become the new rector with a salary of 250 pounds. His quick rise from Curate of the Parish to Rector provided Bacon with the chance and freedom to pursue his own ecclesiastical agenda.
Bacon had always been concerned with the education of the poor as evident in his writings for the Dublin Gazette and Dublin Mercury, both of which he was editor, printer and publisher. He was especially concerned with the education of the children bound as slaves in the New World as noted in correspondence between Bacon’s mentor Bishop Thomas Wilson of the Isle of Man and William Dawson of the College of William and Mary before Bacon’s arrival in Maryland.
Bacon, whose own secular writings were already well known in England and Ireland, used his own writing talent to move his ecclesiastic agenda forward. Bacon wrote and published more than any other 18th century writer in Maryland. His first publication that helped promulgate his plan was Two Sermons, Preached to a Congregation of Black Slaves in 1749.
In these sermons, Bacon took great pride and reveled in the fact that he had been accepted by the slave community as their de facto parish priest. He baptized their children, conducted marriages and attended their funerals. He would preach to them regularly at his home on Sundays and other evenings.
A year later in the Maryland Gazette, Bacon published A General Plan Or Scheme, For Setting Up And Supporting A Charity School In The Parish Of St. Peters In Talbot County, For The Maintenance And Education Of Orphans And Other Poor Children. In the same year Bacon published one of his more controversial pieces entitled Four Sermons, Upon The Great And Indispensable Duty Of All Christian Masters And Mistresses To Bring Up Their Negro Slaves In The Knowledge And Fear Of God.
Over the years, these sermons would be re-printed, taken out of historical context or whole passages removed in order to advance a pro-slavery position steeped in religious writing during early antebellum America. However, Bacon’s purpose of publishing was to gain favor from the Masters and Mistresses whose consent, economic support and universal cooperation would be essential if his plan had any hope of progressing forward.
Given an opportunity to put his convictions to practice Reverend Bacon immediately took up the cause of the poor children of the area by setting up a charity school in Talbot County. Reverend Bacon had already gained the support of the slave community in Talbot by setting up the first Sunday school in America for slaves. In addition, the school was revolutionary in Maryland and the rest of the British Colonies as it set out to educate the children of slaves at their master’s expense.
Mr. Bacon solicited funds from the members of his parish and raised money in the area by performing concerts in Maryland and Virginia. On December 1, 1751, the Charity Working School opened its door with an enrollment of six boys and was the first manual training school in what would become the United States. In 1755, a new brick school was completed and for approximately 30 years thereafter the school continued.
Reverend Bacon’s vision for a new paradigm in education for orphans, poor and slaves alike had finally become a reality and it must have brought Reverend Bacon great personal and professional satisfaction. However, like the biblical Job, his faith would become challenged the same year.
His youngest son, Jacky, was killed in combat in western Maryland fighting in the French and Indian War under the command of George Washington. As a side note, the Washington family was also originally from Whitehaven and Jacky’s uncle Anthony Bacon and George Washington would later form the Great Dismal Swamp Company.
Bacon’s wife of twenty-two years died and later in the year he was accused of rape and fathering a child by a young mulatto woman named Rachel Beck. Bacon was cleared of the charges and his accuser Rebecca Beck was sued for libel of which she was convicted and ordered to pay 100 pounds.
Though found innocent of the charges and vindicated by the conviction of Rachel Beck, doubt as to Bacon’s innocence has lingered even today. Especially since during her trial Beck alluded to that fact that Talbot County Sheriff Dickinson was Bacon’s cousin and implied that she could not get an impartial trial against the minister.
Bacon, whose bouts of melancholy were widely known throughout the county, turned his mind and attention on his writing of the compilation of the Laws of Maryland which would be his greatest writing legacy in Maryland. Bacon’s Laws, as they are commonly referred are arguably the best example of printing and writing in the Maryland during the 18th century.
Bacon remarried the following year to Elizabeth Bozman and they would have two daughters named Elizabeth and Rachel. Bacon was soon promoted as the Rector of All Saint’s Parish in Frederick Town in the waning months of 1758, which was the largest and most profitable parish in Maryland.
While at All Saints, Bacon continued his work on the Laws of Maryland. However, he did attempt to set up another charity school in Frederick County to educate Negro girls. In addition, he set up a plan for a circulating school master for Frederick County.
On May 18, 1768, Reverend Bacon was elected a member of the prestigious American Philosophical Society. However, it is unlikely that the Reverend Bacon received notice of his membership as he died ten days later in the early morning hours on the 26th of May 1768 at his home in Frederick Town (now known as Frederick).
As customary at the time of his death it is speculated that his body was buried under the floor of All Saints Parish. He was survived by his wife and two daughters. It is not clear how his wife was able to take care of all the debts and in the Maryland Gazette she pleaded for patience and time from her husbands creditors. It is most likely that Anthony Bacon, Thomas’s brother and one of the richest men in the British Empire made arrangements to take care of his brother’s debts. Bacon’s daughters were specifically mentioned in Anthony Bacon’s will when he died in 1786.
In the end was the word. Reverend Bacon used his talents of writing and preaching to educate the poor of all races and servitude. His journey started on the banks of the Irish Sea and culminated in his death in Frederick Town. His journey laid the foundation for abolitionism in the Maryland.