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WISWALL, JOHN, Church of England clergyman; b. 15 April 1731 in Boston, Mass., son of Peleg Wiswall and Elizabeth Rogers; m. first 17 Dec. 1761 Mercy Minot of Brunswick (Maine), and they had four children; m. secondly March 1784 Margaret Hutchinson of New Jersey; d. 2 Dec. 1812 in Wilmot, N.S.

The son of a well-known schoolmaster, John Wiswall graduated from Harvard College in 1749 and taught at various schools in the vicinity of Boston. In 1753 he began studying divinity under Jonathan Mayhew and other Congregational ministers, and for the next couple of years he travelled about Massachusetts as a supply preacher. Eventually, in 1755 or 1756, he was made minister of a Congregational church at Falmouth (Maine), then part of Massachusetts and literally a “frontier post.” Life here had its pleasures, for in 1761 Wiswall married Mercy Minot, a “tall and genteel” woman who had captivated him with her “lively blue eyes,” “graceful modesty,” and “indescribable sweetness.” Yet all was not domestic bliss. A week after his marriage Wiswall was “taken distracted,” and the following year he was placed in the care of a leading Boston physician, who attempted to cure his patient by confining him in a “dark chamber.” Notwithstanding this treatment, in early 1763 Wiswall regained his health and made his way back to Falmouth.

Wiswall became the object of public abuse when in 1764 he announced his conversion to Anglicanism – a decision he defended on the grounds that there was no “essential difference” between the Church of England and the “congregational communion.” Newspapers as distant as New York commented on his conversion, and one-journal blamed his apostasy on the fact that he was “very much disordered in his upper House.” Wiswall, however, ignored his critics, and in late 1764 he travelled to England for ordination, sponsored by Benning Wentworth, the governor of New Hampshire. Ordained priest by the bishop of London in February 1765, Wiswall was back in Falmouth by the following May and ministered faithfully to his new Anglican congregation until the “publick Distractions” of the early 1770s. When he was arrested in 1775 he insisted that “not the severest punishment, not the fear of death” would shake his allegiance to the crown. Released on the understanding that he would remain in Falmouth, Wiswall broke his parole and travelled to Boston, arriving there in early June. He immediately appealed for assistance to commander-in-chief Thomas Gage*, but his petition yielded only an appointment as deputy chaplain to two regiments. To add to his misfortunes, his wife and one of his daughters died that summer. A disconsolate Wiswall wrote that “the sufferings and Persecutions I have Undergone: together with the rebellious spirit of the People has entirely weaned my Affection from my native Country – the further I go from it the better.”

Made a navy chaplain in late 1775, Wiswall spent most of the next few years in wartime service. In 1781 he accepted a curacy in Suffolk, England, but within a year he was serving in a parish in Kent, and later still he moved to another parish in Essex. Early in 1783, after obtaining a temporary pension of £60 annually in compensation for his losses during the American revolution, he emigrated to Nova Scotia to succeed Jacob Bailey as the Anglican clergyman in Cornwallis.

Wiswall arrived in Cornwallis in August and the following February was formally inducted as the clergyman of the parish, the ceremony being performed by Jacob Bailey. In March 1784 Bailey, now stationed in Annapolis Royal, married Wiswall to Margaret Hutchinson, a widow from New Jersey whom Bailey termed “very clever” and “sensible and . . . prudent in the management of family affairs.” As before, however, Wiswall was far from happy. Although he lived in a “decent house,” received an annual salary of £100 from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (to which was added a grant of more that £200 from the loyalist claims commission), and was married to a woman with “the gleanings of a very ample estate,” Wiswall felt just as poverty-stricken as the most humble of the settlers among whom he laboured. He also complained bitterly of the state of religion in his district. Besides facing opposition from his own congregation, some of whom criticized him as a “passionate man” and tried to eject him from the Cornwallis glebe, Wiswall had the difficult task of strengthening the Church of England in an area that was overrun with dissenters. Soon after arriving in Cornwallis he wrote that in his mission, which also included the settlements of Horton and Wilmot, Anglicans were greatly outnumbered by “wild enthusiasts” of every denomination. Whereas Wiswall was the only Anglican clergyman in the district, no fewer than six non-Anglican ministers – the most prominent being the Methodist itinerant William Black* – served Cornwallis and its surrounding settlements. With these rival preachers, moreover, Wiswall was not on the best of terms: he dismissed the Baptist Nicholas Piersons as an “illiterate shoemaker,” and he had to resort to the courts before a dispute with the Presbyterian clergyman James Murdoch over the ownership of the Horton glebe was resolved in his favour.

In 1788 a bitter Wiswall wrote: “I regret that ever I came to this Country – I was wretchedly deceived . . . I am banished from my Friends – and doomed to lead a most laborious life, pinched with poverty and oftimes not knowing where to procure the common conveniences not to say necessarys of life.” Despairing that “the church should ever flourish in Cornwallis,” by the late 1780s Wiswall had begun concentrating his energies on the neighbouring communities of Aylesford and Wilmot. In 1789 he resigned his Cornwallis charge and was given responsibility for these settlements; he moved to Wilmot that fall. Even a change of scene, however, could not improve his spirits. Most of the people in his new mission were Baptists and Methodists, and soon Wiswall was complaining of “strolling, fanatical teachers” and their “deluded hearers.” His own flock refused to contribute to his financial support, claiming that a combination of apathy and physical infirmity was preventing him from discharging his duties. This charge seems to have had some basis in fact. Many years earlier the SPG had rebuked Wiswall for his lack of missionary zeal, and Charles Inglis, the Anglican bishop of Nova Scotia, made the same point in a letter of 179l. “Wiswall is an infirm man,” he wrote, “& rather incapable of that exertion which the state of the country requires – like too many of the Clergy here, he does not seem to have such notions of order, conformity to the Rubrics, & subordination as I could wish; nor of the necessity of vigorous exertions in the Clergy. . . .

Wiswall, for his part, resented Inglis’s criticisms and made no effort to change his ways. From the 1790s he seems to have spent more time cultivating his glebe than ministering to his parishioners. In 1796 he asked to be relieved of Aylesford, but on the recommendation of Bishop Inglis the SPG refused this request. Abiding by the society’s decision, Wiswall continued to serve his two parishes until 1801, when John Inglis*, the bishop’s son, was appointed to Aylesford. That same year Wiswall was seriously injured in a fall from his horse, and for the last decade of his life he was too crippled and frail to minister to his Wilmot flock on a regular basis. He died on 2 Dec. 1812, at the age of 81, and was buried near the Anglican church in Middleton. One of his sons, Peleg, was elected to the House of Assembly and later became a judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

Maud M. Hutcheson

Acadia Univ. Arch. (Wolfville, N.S.), John Wiswall, journal, 1771–1812 (mfm. at PANS). PRO, AO 12/10: f.309; 12/61: f.39; 12/99: f.42; 12/109: f.312; AO 13, bundles 51, 82–83. USPG, Journal of SPG, 24: 134–36, 262–64, 314–17, 337–41, 358–62; 25: 2–5, 37, 69–71, 100, 144, 149–50, 157–59, 184–85, 201–4, 211; 26: 19, 99, 193–94, 415–17; 27: 117–19, 128–30, 204–8, 277–78, 284–86, 377–78; 28:25, 52, 80–81, 177, 184–86, 359–61, 382–84; 29: 8–9, 95–97, 175–76, 205–7, 335–56; 30: 10–13, 151–52, 284. [Jacob Bailey], “Nova Scotia, 1784: a letter of Jacob Bailey,” ed. David Siegenthaler, Canadian Church Hist. Soc., Journal (Sudbury, Ont.), 19 (1977): 131–37. Glimpses of Nova Scotia, 1807–24, as seen through the eyes of two Halifax merchants, a Wilmot clergyman and the clerk of the assembly of Nova Scotia, ed. C. B. Fergusson (Halifax, 1957). Journals of the RevThomas Smith, and the RevSamuel Deane, pastors of the first church in Portland . . . , ed. William Willis ([2nd ed. ], Portland, Maine, 1849). “United Empire Loyalists: enquiry into losses and services,” AO Report, 1904: 172–73, 188. Jones, Loyalists of Mass. Sabine, Biog. sketches of loyalists, vol.2. Calnek, Hist. of Annapolis (Savary). A. W. [H.] Eaton, The Church of England in Nova Scotia and the tory clergy of the revolution (New York, 1891). Fingard, Anglican design in loyalist N.S. Stark, Loyalists of Mass. (1910). E. M. Saunders, “The life and times of the Rev. John Wiswall, M.A., a loyalist clergyman in New England and Nova Scotia, 1731–1821,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 13 (1908): 1–73.

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Cite This Article

Maud M. Hutcheson, “WISWALL, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wiswall_john_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wiswall_john_5E.html
Author of Article: Maud M. Hutcheson
Title of Article: WISWALL, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: July 22, 2014