Rev. James MacSparran

Inducted: 1998
Born: 1693 - Died:
1757

Dr. James MacSparran (1693-1757) was born in County Derry, Ireland, of Presbyterian parents who had migrated from Scotland. He earned a master’s degree at the University of Glasgow and then studied for the Presbyterian ministry. In 1718, he came to America from his native Ireland and served for a year in Bristol as pastor of the Congregational Church, a sect akin to Presbyterianism in its Calvinist theology. But a dispute with Boston Congregational leader Cotton Mather clouded his appointment, and as a result, he changed his church affiliation upon his return to Ireland.

When MacSparran again set foot in Rhode Island in December 1721, it was as a presbyter of the Church of England, assigned as a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Foreign Parts to the Narragansett County of Southern Rhode Island and other outposts. MacSparran’s parish church was Old St. Paul’s, founded in 1707, about five miles south of Smith’s Castle at Cocumscussoc, and moved to its present site in Wickford in 1800.

For the next 36 ½ years, the learned Anglican clergyman was a dominant religious and intellectual influence in South County. In addition to his pastoral work, MacSparran became a gentlemen farmer, a practicing physician, and a tutor whose students included Thomas Clap, later president of Yale. On his visit to England in 1736, his achievements prompted Oxford University to confer upon him an honorary Doctor of Sacred Theology.

MacSparran was the author of a series of analytical letters to friends in Ireland graphically depicting the American colonies in their various aspects–environmental, political, economic, and religious. These letters were published in 1753 under the title America Dissected, and they discouraged emigration. MacSparran kept a diary, a document rich in human interest, some of which (the entries for 1743 to 1745 and 1751) have survived. This narrative is one of the few extant day-to-day farming records in colonial New England, and it is regarded as the best-written record of slave labor on the plantations of southern Rhode Island.

A major blemish on MacSparran’s record is that he held slaves, as did the other major South County landholders. In mitigation of this fact is the observation of historian Carl R. Woodward that “a perusal of his diary leaves one with the impression that in some respects Dr. MacSparran’s slaves commanded nearly as much of his interest and concern as did his parishioners. Actually, he counted not only his slaves but those belonging to other parish families as members of his flock, deserving of his ministrations, both medical and spiritual.”

In 1722, MacSparran married Hannah Gardiner, who became his helpmate until she died in London from smallpox in June 1755 during one of the MacSparrans’ visits to England. Her passing profoundly impacted his outlook and health, and having returned to St. Paul’s broken in spirit, he died there in December 1757.

MacSparran was an imposing speaker and had a commanding presence. Tall and portly (he reputedly weighed nearly three hundred pounds), sometimes dominating in manner and given to certain foibles, he has been described by Professor Woodward as “the most able divine sent to this country by the Society [for the Propagation of the Gospel].”

Rev. John MacSparran was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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