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  • Religion and Profit Jump Together:Isaac Allerton's Tale
  • Michael McGiffert (bio)

Something unexpected happened to me the other day in New Haven. I went there to give a talk at Yale Divinity School, where I had studied half a century ago. The school stands on Prospect Street a mile or so from the city's center on high ground overlooking Long Island Sound. I had arrived a little early for a lunch date with the dean and was killing time, poking around and noting the persistence of the old amid the presence of the new. And as I mused upon the changing face of earthly things, it seemed to me the place became strangely translucent, as though of mist or gauze; the scene seemed lit from far behind; and I passed through the scrim of time into another world, three and a half centuries ago.

The rise of land seemed higher then and nearer heaven. The granite ridge looked out on blue water, green shore, and the tight grid of a small town centered on a common and a church. A breeze was kicking up whitecaps in the harbor; sailing ships bounced at their moorings. . . . I did not see the man approaching till he came quite near, for my mind was dazed and he came quickly.

He was remarkably palpable for a ghost-a wiry, angular man about my own height, five feet ten-tall for his time; clean shaven, with gray hair and pale blue eyes; his face was lined like spiders' webs, a weather beaten face. I took him to be past 60. His trim, plain clothing marked him as a man of means or, at any rate, as one who cared about appearances. His hands were smooth. He greeted me as though there were no difference in our worlds and times. He gestured toward the view as though he owned some part of it. He spoke matter-of-factly, as a guide might speak. That town, he said, was planted 16 years ago and now in this year of grace 1654 numbers above 500 souls. He squinted toward the harbor while he spoke, as though checking the ships, and he kept one hand in a pocket, chinking coin. [End Page 145]

"How shall the future of this town be cast?" he asked. "Will the scale tip towards port or meeting house?" He paused. When he spoke again, an oracular note came into his speech: "I shall not live to see this question out, for I approach the rightful limit of my span. I shall die in this place, where I have lived these latter years. My dust will lie in the common burying ground. I do not think it will add much to the general corruption. Others, I know, hold differently. The question hangs thus betwixt them and me.

I have my present dwelling in the town, nearer the harbor than the church. After long wayfaring, more wet than dry as I can tell you, I came here in the natural course of trade. I have outlived two wives; my third helpmeet and my younger son are here. My other children, those that live, are . . . where they are; I have no eye to them. Daughter Mary, who came with me on the Mayflower, remains at Plymouth; she wed the son of Master Robert Cushman, that pious little fraud. May she live long and never know regret; the choice was none of mine.

For some threescore years, I have known good and evil fortune. My compass in this world is wider than most men's, for I have crossed the ocean 15 times, and I have sailed this rude coast eastward to the Gulf of Maine, past Castine and down Machias way. They say a seasick man dies many deaths . . . yet I survive.

My name? My name is Isaac Allerton-Master Allerton. My trade . . . is trade. Hear me."

He and I had been standing. Now we sat down on a slab of ledge, and Master Allerton, still peering at the sea, spoke on. While he spoke, I scribbled, trying to catch his brusque and marching words. Lunch with the dean would have to wait.

"I come," he...


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pp. 145-161
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