Benjamin Church was one of the most able and promising members of the Revolutionary generation, but treason prompted by debt largely neutralized his contributions.
Church was born in Newport, Rhode Island, the son of a prominent New England family. He attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard College in 1754. Publication of two poems in 1760 celebrating the coronation of George III first brought Church to public notice. He studied medicine under the renowned Charles Pynchon, and became a skilled and respected surgeon.
In the late 1760s, Church built an opulent home in Raynham, Massachusetts, and apparently incurred a huge debt in the process. This was probably the great turning point in his life as he sought various means to address his obligations.
During this period, Church was active with the Sons of Liberty and used his writing talents to support the American side in the disputes of the day. He was a close associate of John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere. However, at the same time, Church secretly penned letters and essays supporting the British side of the issues.
Church was the first physician on the scene of the Boston Massacre in 1770 and tended the wounded and dying. In 1772, he joined Joseph Warren and John Adams on the Massachusetts committee of correspondence. The following year, Church was honored by his selection to deliver the annual commemorative address on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre; his oration was regarded as a classic.
Paul Revere was among the first to harbor deep suspicions about Church’s loyalties. Information shared at a secret meeting ended up in the hands of royal officials; Church had been in attendance. Nevertheless, he was selected in 1774 to be a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, the popular assembly formed after the British suspended the legislature in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.
In April 1775, in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Church traveled from Cambridge back into Boston, explaining that he needed to secure medical supplies. He claimed that on this mission he was apprehended by British forces and taken to General Thomas Gage for an interview. It was later learned from witnesses in the city that Church had voluntarily sought out the British commander.
Church continued to operate in the highest circles of the Patriot cause. He offered testimony on military matters to the Continental Congress in May. In July, he was appointed Surgeon-General and the Director of Hospitals.
Church’s fortunes turned, however, when he sent a prostitute to the British with a letter describing the American positions outside Boston. The message was intercepted and Church was arrested. He faced charges on two fronts. First, a court-martial was held with George Washington presiding. The accused was found guilty of “criminal correspondence" with the enemy. Shortly thereafter, he appeared before the Provincial Congress, which sought his dismissal. Speaking in his own defense, Church claimed that his letter was a ruse and that he had purposely inflated information about American strength in order to confuse the British war effort. This explanation fell on deaf ears.
Church was sentenced to a life term in prison. He began his incarceration, but ill health enabled him to return to Boston where he was paroled. Church received permission to immigrate to the West Indies; the ship that provided his passage was lost at sea.
It was later learned with certainty that Church had been in the pay of General Gage and had furnished the British with a detailed description of colonial military plans and equipment several weeks before Lexington and Concord.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Benjamin Church.
Regarding Boston Massacre
Breach of trust in a governor, or attempting to enlarge a limited power, effectually absolves subjects from every bond of covenant and peace; the crimes acted by a king against the people are the highest treason against the highest aw among men.