The Reverend Joseph Bellamy (1719-1790) was a leading preacher, author, and educator in New England in the second half of the 18th century. In 1735, Bellamy completed four years of study at Yale University where his coursework included arithmetic, algebra, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, rhetoric (effective use of language in writing and speaking), and logic. Following his graduation, he spent a year and a half studying theology and boarding with the prominent minister Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts. He was licensed to preach in 1737. In response to the North Purchase residents' request to the General Court, 20-year-old Bellamy became the minister in Bethlehem, Connecticut in 1740.
Joseph Bellamy's theology was rooted in Puritan beliefs, yet he molded the religion to fit the people rather than having the people fit the religion. Bellamy's sermons reveal his knowledge of the Bible and theological debate, but also human nature. Through his sermons and writings he sought to link traditional Calvinist doctrine with the reformers' belief that the "offer or call of the gospel was to everyone without exception." Reverend Bellamy unquestionably believed in the traditional Puritan doctrines of original sin, the lack of free will, the need for saving grace, and God's arbitrary choice in granting salvation. He also maintained the view that an excess of material goods and worldly influence corrupted humans. Although Bellamy often criticized human behavior, his sermons were not as emotional and filled with "fire and brimstone" as Jonathan Edwards' famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Instead, Bellamy warned listeners to resist worldly temptations and to be serious about their duty to God, as in the sermon he preached on October 7, 1747, at Stratfield, Connecticut:
The world looks gay to you, and your companions entice you along, but verily that road leads to eternal ruin. I see you and know the way you take. I pity you, I call to you, I warn you. I command you...Remember the Creator, be mindful of God now, without any further delay,--in the days of thy youth.1
Reverend Bellamy fervently believed that religion should be "a heart-affecting, soul transforming, vital efficacious remembrance of God," not a "mere empty, dry, lifeless notion of God in the head."2 He argued that God promised all people, rather than the select few, salvation. Bellamy preached the gospel to all who wanted to listen, and because he was such an effective speaker, he became well known in New England. A book about the clergy in his region noted that, "Pious people and those without religion, the learned and the unlearned, the orthodox and the heterodox, united in pronouncing him an eloquent preacher."3
With the approval of his new congregation, Reverend Bellamy traveled extensively throughout Connecticut. Over a two-year period in the early 1740s, he spoke more than 450 times to audiences outside his congregation. However, Bellamy, Edwards and other revivalist ministers became disenchanted with the fanatical extremists that the Great Awakening also generated from the population. As a result, they gave up itinerant preaching. Bellamy settled back down in Bethlehem to a more normal minister's work of preaching once or twice a week to his own parishioners. It was also at this time that Bellamy became the leader of the New Divinity ministers, who shunned the beliefs of the "Old Light" preachers (the social elite who dominated Congregational theology prior to the Great Awakening). Bellamy's beliefs remained constant. Bellamy pursued a vigorous career as a writer, publishing 22 books in his lifetime, the most influential of which was True Religion Delineated, written in 1750. He also took in theological students and occasionally served as a guest preacher to other congregations.
The combination of Bellamy's oratorical abilities and his passion for and dedication to his profession led Lt. Eli Caitlin to write on August 11, 1775, "the lecture is warned this day 3 o'clock p.m. & everyone will rejoice to hear Dr. Bellamy preach."4 Contrary to Caitlin's belief, not everyone enjoyed listening to Bellamy preach. His ability to communicate coupled with his ardent beliefs set Bellamy apart from some of his ministerial colleagues. In 1763, fellow minister Gideon Hawley wrote to Bellamy claiming, "I don't know of but two clergymen however in the country that appear to like your principles."5 Many of his colleagues vehemently opposed Bellamy, believing that God chose people to be saved in a predetermined manner rather than people choose God to achieve salvation. Bellamy tried to avoid confrontation with them when it was unnecessary due to his belief that anger was a sign of evil. In a letter to one of his critics, Bellamy wrote:
Perhaps I did not express myself as accurately in my sermon as I ought; but in my Essay, which contains my real sentiment, I have taken great care in my expressions. And you like my Essay, it seems. If so, we do not differ; and is it not a pity to enter into controversy, if we do not differ? Would not Satan be glad? And would not good people be grieved? 6
On the day that Bellamy died, the Reverend Ezra Stiles, one of Bellamy's longtime critics and an Old Light minister, remarked, "He was of a haughty domineering temper and till of late years uncensorious of his brethren in the ministry and others who opposed him...he was...of a dogmatical and overbearing disposition...his numerous noisy writings have blazed their day, and one generation more will put them to sleep."7
There were admirers, as well, who recalled at the time of his death that Joseph Bellamy had remained true to his beliefs and had dedicated his life to helping his family, parishioners, theological students, and all who sought God's salvation. An article printed in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1935 speaks to Bellamy's lasting legacy to the town of Bethlehem:
Dr. Bellamy not only named the town, but he virtually founded it, guided it through its first early years, became its wealthiest resident, owned the biggest house in it, put the town on the map through his own reputation as a scholar and a divine [devoted to God], attracted many theological students to it who spent money on board and room, and left it at his death a well established and flourishing community.