BENJAMIN CHURCH was born at Newport, Rhode Island, August 24, 1734. He was the son of a deacon of the same name in Dr. Byles's Church in Boston, and entered the Latin school of that city in 1745. In 1754 he was graduated at Harvard. His first poetical production, The Choice, a poem, after the manner of Mr. Pomfret, by a young Gentleman, was composed while he was at college. It is smoothly written, and among the best of the many imitations of that pleasant castle in the air.
In this poem the author warms with his favorite tastes in books, for rural and domestic life In the first he shows his attachment to the ruling poet of the day, "unequalled Pope." His choice in a wife and a country-seat is to be commended. With Freneau he has the honor of helping Campbell with a line and an idea. Noticing the physician Boerhaave, he writes of his death—
At length, fatigu'd with life, he bravely fell,
And Health, with Boerhaave, bade the world farewell;
which will recall the lines in the Pleasures of Hope, written nearly half a century later, where—
Hope for a season bade the world farewell,
An Freedom shriek'd as Kosciusko fell.
The coincidence is creditable to Benjamin Church at the age of eighteen.
He appears to have next studied medicine in London, and while in England married Miss Hannah Hill of Ross (Pope's Ross). He returned to Boston, where he established himself in the practice of his profession. He contributed one or two English poems to the Pietas et Gratulatio, a volume of congratulatory verses in Latin, Greek, and English, addressed to George III. on his accession, by members of Harvard College. In 1765 he published The Times, a poem by an American, in an anonymous pamphlet of sixteen pages. It was written soon after the passage of the stamp act, and its satire is chiefly directed against that measure and its abettors. In 1766 he wrote an Elegy on the death of Dr. Mayhew, which is characterized by much more than the ordinary vigor sufficient for such productions. His introduction invoking the spirit of truth over the ashes of the dead, has such lines as these:—
Great is the task and glorious is the end,
When the chaste Muse in Virtue's cause engage;
'Tis her's to patronize, protect, defend,
And hold th' exemplars to a distant age.
Deep into times rolled by — to dart her ken,
At the tribunal of her lowly mind,
T' arraign the conduct of the mightiest men,
Acquit, or doom the Nimrods of mankind:
and in 1769 An Address to a Provincial Bashaw. By a Son of Liberty. Printed in (the Tyrannic Administration of St. Francisco) 1769. Like The Times, it is full of the warmest expressions of sympathy with the popular cause, of which the author was now one of the recognised leaders. In 1770 he examined the body of Crispus Attucks, the mulatto slain in the Boston massacre, and his deposition appears in the narrative published by the town. In 1773 he delivered an oration on the fourth anniversary of the contest in the Old South church, which was so densely crowded that the orator and moderator of the meeting, John Hancock, had to be introduced through a window. Public expectation was not disappointed, the address being received with "universal applause," and soon after printed by request. It maintains its place in public estimation as one of the best of the Boston Massacre orations. In addition to these productions Church wrote An Elegy to the memory of that pious and eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, on his death September 80, 1770, and was a frequent contributor of political essays and popular songs to the periodicals of the day. He was chosen a member of the Massachusetts Legislature and of the Provincial Congress in 1774, and in the same year physician-general to the American army.
Church resided in an elegant mansion at Raynham, on Nippenickett pond, near Boston, which he had erected about the year 1768, and where he appears to have led an extravagant and licentious life. Want of money to support wasteful expenditure seems, as in the case of Arnold, to have led to the treason which suddenly changed a career of honor to one of infamy. In 1774 Church was found to have written parodies of popular songs composed by himself in favor of liberty, for the Tory journals. It was also noticed that his articles in defence of the American cause were followed by ably written answers in the government journals. General Gage was also found to he constantly informed in relation to the patriot movements. Soon after the battle of Lexington in 1775 further suspicion was excited by a visit which Church made to Boston on the pretext of obtaining medicines for the use of the army. He stated on his return that he was arrested on crossing the lines and taken before General Gage, who examined him; but on the subsequent testimony of Deacon Caleb Davis, who happened to call at Gage's house at the same time, he appears to have visited Gage more as a friend than a prisoner. The charge of treasonable conduct seems to be further established by the testimony of "a gentleman who studied with Church," who stated to Paul Revere, of Boston, a year or two after, that he knew for certain that, a short time before the Battle of Lexington — for he then lived with him and took care of his business and books — he had no money by him, and was much drove for money; that all at once he had several hundred new British guineas.
This double dealing was soon to be closed. On the fifth of October of the same year Washington writes to Hancock: "I have now a painful, though necessary duty to perform, respecting Dr. Church, director-general of the hospital. About a week ago, Mr. Secretary Ward, of Providence, sent up to me one Wainwood, an inhabitant of Newport, with a letter directed to Major Cane in Boston, in characters; which he said, had been left with Wainwood some time ago, by a woman who was kept by Dr. Church. She had before pressed Wainwood to take her to Capt. Wallace, at Newport, Mr. Dudley the collector, or George Rowe, which he declined. She then gave him a letter, with a strict charge to deliver it to either of those gentlemen. He suspecting some improper correspondence, kept the letter, and after some time opened it; but not being able to read it, laid it up, where it remained until he received an obscure letter from the woman, expressing an anxiety after the original letter. He then communicated the whole matter to Mr. Ward, who sent him up with the papers to me. I immediately secured the woman; but for a long time she was proof against every threat and persuasion to discover the author. However, at length she was brought to a confession, and named Dr. Church. I then immediately secured him, and all his papers. Upon his first examination, he readily acknowledged the letter; said it was designed for his brother Fleming, and when deciphered would be found to contain nothing criminal. He acknowledged his never having communicated the correspondence to any person here but the girl, and made many protestations of the purity of his intentions. Having found a person capable of deciphering the letter, I, in the meantime, had all his papers searched, but found nothing criminal among them. But it appeared, on inquiry, that a confidant had been among the papers before my messenger arrived."
Church was convicted by the General Court, notwithstanding an eloquent defence made by himself, in which he endeavored to prove that his communications to the enemy were designed to impress them with "a high opinion of the strength of the Americans, in order that the meditated attack might be delayed till the continental army was stronger," and to obtain information from the royalist forces which he had imparted to the American leaders and used for the benefit of his country. He was expelled from the House of Representatives of the State, and convicted by a court-martial at which Washington presided. His sentence was referred to Congress, and that body resolved that he be closely confined in some secure jail in Connecticut, without the use of pen, ink, and paper; and that no person be allowed to converse with him except in the presence and hearing of a magistrate, or the sheriff of the county. He was consequently imprisoned in Norwich jail, but his health failing, was released in May, 1776, and permitted to leave the country. He sailed from Boston for the West Indies in a vessel which was never afterwards heard from. His family received a pension from the English crown.