Plymouth County Biographies

Part of the Massachusetts Biographies Project

Dr. Robert Child

Governor Winthrop has left us a record of Dr. Robert Child who settled in Hingham in 1644, saying he was "a man of quality, a gentleman and a scholar."

Source: "History of Plymouth, Norfolk and Barnstable Counties Massachusetts; Volume I" by Elroy S. Thompson. Pub. 1928. Page 124

During the eleven years from 1629 to 1640, that egregious fool, Charles Stuart, governed, or rather misgoverned England without a Parliament, and during those eleven years twenty-six thousand of the best blood of England expatriated themselves and came to the inhospitable shores of New England, chiefly to the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. It was one of the epoch-making events in the world's history, whereof the consequences, immediate and remote, can never be estimated or over-valued. But while the Puritans fled from the dangers and turmoils of Old England, they brought their own peculiar squabbles along with them, and the real battle of liberty of conscience in matters pertaining to religion was fought out amid the mountains and forests of New England. The purpose of the Puritans was to found and perpetuate a Theocracy or "Biblical Commonwealth;" a form of government based upon religion, and a form of religion modelled by themselves and administered by themselves. "The right of suffrage was restricted to the members of the churches of the Colony" [of Massachusetts Bay], "just as in England the suffrage was limited to communicants of the Church of England. The churches which were recognized by law, that is, the 'Independent Congregational Churches,' were supported by a tax upon all the inhabitants, just as in England the Established Church was supported by rates upon all property of the people of the Parish."' The leading Puritans, like John Winthrop, John Endicott, Samuel Skelton, Francis Higginson, et al., conscientiously believed that the course they adopted was necessary for their protection against the tyranny of the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud, as well as against the wiles of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, Thomas Morton and other unscrupulous adventurers who hankered for slices of territory and unrestricted power in the mysterious western continent. Hence it was enacted in 1631 that "no man shald be admitted to. the freedom of this body politic, but such as are members of some of the churches within the limits of the same,"i. e., the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. Hence also, troubles began early with some of the colonists on account of their resistance to the above decree which was very rightly deemed arbitrary and unjust. But all immediate resistance was disposed of by Governor Endicott, by simply bundling the malcontents out of the country and sending them back to England, which was casting them out of the frying-pan into the fire. In fact, Governor John Endicott could have given King Charles Stuart and Archbishop Laud some fine points as to the manner of dealing with "nonconformists."

Among those who undertook to break the theocratic rule of the Puritans was Dr. Robert Child, "a learned physician, who after a good deal of roaming about the world, had lately taken it into his head to come and see what sort of a place Massachusetts was." Hutchinson says in his Annals, "Child was a young gentleman just before coming from Padua, where he studied physic, and, as was reported, had taken the degree of doctor."

"But he did not "join some of the churches"-the Independent Congregational-which the Puritans had established, and consequently he was not "admitted to the freedom of the body politic"; that is, he could not exercise the right of suffrage, or hold office, or levy taxes, although he could and must pay taxes for the support of those very churches whose doctrines and policy he not only disliked but detested. In other words, he could be a tax payer, but he could not be what we call nowadays a "tax eater," nor could he exercise any voice as to what should be done with the taxes, and this aroused just the spirit of protest and opposition which George the Third encountered, rather more than a century later, in a more determined and accentuated form.

In the year 1646, Dr. Child and six others addressed a "formidable Remonstrance or Petition to the General Court of Massachusetts Bay, complaining of their exclusion from church privileges, from the franchise, and other grievances, while still being taxed, and asking that their civil disabilities might be removed, and that members of the churches of England and Scotland might be admitted to communion with New England churches. If this could not be granted, they prayed to be relieved from all civil burdens. Should the Court refuse to entertain their complaint they would be compelled to bring their case before Parliament." The effect of granting this petition would be to admit the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Established Church of England in competition with the Congregational Church of the Puritans, and, of course, if the "open door" was permitted at all, there would be no telling where it would end. At all events, it would be an inglorious end of the Puritanic dream of a "Biblical Commonwealth," to use the phrase of George E. Ellis. The immediate consequences of the petition of Dr. Child and his friends were first, that said petition was contemptuously dismissed, and the petitioners were arrested and roundly fined; and secondly, the General Court issued an elaborate "Declaration," setting forth the "Fundamentalls of the Massachusetts," or a formal statement of the principles by which they governed themselves-that is, the church members-and by which they intended to govern others.

Child now made his preparations to go to London with his grievances, but just as he was starting, "the magistrates overhauled his papers, and discovered a petition to the Parliamentary Board of Commissioners, suggesting that Presbyterianism be established in New England, and that a viceroy or governor-general should be appointed to rule there."This was enough to make the hair of a Massachusetts Puritan stand on end, especially when it was found that the signers of this petition were the same who had signed the petition to the General Court. They were again arrested, smartly fined, and thrown into jail for six months. Wthen we remember Governor Endicott's appetite for the whipping-post, the pillory, the stocks and other dainty instruments of punishment in use in those days, we are surprised that they got off so easily. But they found their way to London, after any vicissitudes; but they also found already on the ground Mr. Edward Winslow, of Plymouth, whom the Colonists had sent to oppose their designs.

Dr. Child had a brother in London, who seems to have been something of a dabster in literature, and he published a frothy pamphlet entitled, "New England's Jonas cast up in London," in which he made a ferocious assault on Winslow; but the latter gave Child as good as he sent, under the title of, "New England's Salamander Discovered." In the absence of public newspapers, pamphleteering was the fashion of the day, and so Child and Winslow castigated each other in a style which would never be mistaken for that of Joseph Addison.

Shortly before Dr. Child sailed for London, Rev. John Cotton, of Boston, preached a sermon based on the text, "Take ye the little foxes"; one of the little foxes which were likely to spoil the Puritanic vine was the very petition which Child was to carry to London, and the preacher insisted that if a storm should arise along the course of the ship with that particular "fox" on board, it should be regarded as a Divine judgment, and the petition should be thrown overboard. A storm did arise, and the fierce waves broke over that devoted ship, whereupon a woman passenger demanded that the guilty "fox" be cast overboard. Accordingly, a paper which was supposed to be the petition was solemnly torn piecemeal and cast into the sea, the storm subsided, and the "fox" reached London safely.

Dr. Child and his associates failed completely in their mission. They went down along with the general defeat of Presbyterianism in England consequent upon the scheme of King Charles to unite the Royalists of England with the Presbyterians of Scotland, in an attempt to place him again on the throne; but "Pride's Purge" came along and settled all those questions with a vengeance.

It must, in all candor, be admitted that Dr. Robert Child did not add any material strength or wisdom to the medical profession of his day, and he and his petition drop out of sight in London, and we hear of them no more. But he is entitled to the credit of antedating the patriots of the Revolution more than a hundred years in asserting the principle of no taxation without representation, and that is my apology, if any is needed, for attempting to resurrect and do justice to his memory.

Source: Medical Library and Historical Journal, 1905, pages 227-231