Boston’s Rev. Mather Byles was a Loyalist through and through. His loyalty to England never wavered throughout the American Revolution. What set him apart from others, however, and what may explain his ability to remain in Boston unmolested until his death in 1788, was his wit.
Mather Byles , a Harvard-educated clergyman born in 1706, became pastor of the Hollis Street Congregational Church in Boston in 1733. Though he did not use his pulpit to push his politics, everyone knew his views. Yet the colonial leaders viewed him highly. Because of his charm and wit, he often spoke at funerals of high officials.
Mather Byles viewed the coming Revolution as probably inevitable, given the festering relations between the colonies and the crown. However, he viewed the undisciplined violence of the revolutionary leaders as particularly odious.
He is perhaps most famously remembered for his retort when questioned why he didn’t support the uprising of the Sons of Liberty. The quote attributed to him:
“Which is better — to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?”
During the siege of Boston, Mather Byles remained in his home and reportedly had good relations with the British who occupied the city. His influence did not extend so far as to protect his church, however, as the occupying forces converted it to a barracks.
Upon the departure of the British, Byles did not flee. His congregation, however, soon removed him from his post (a decision fellow ministers were not comfortable with). Massachusetts officials charged and convicted him of aiding the British and speaking against the Revolutionary cause.
Though ordered to leave Boston in 1778, the aging minister simply refused. Eventually the colonists learned to tolerate him, partly because they considered him more a buffoon than an enemy. Mather Byles could never resist a pun or a witticism, even in the direst circumstances.
The Mather Byles Wit
Some examples of his humor:
When he witnessed the parade of celebrating revolutionaries returning to Boston, he observed the rotund form of Henry Knox. He knew Knox as a bookstore operator before the outbreak of the war.
“I never saw an ox fatter in my life,” Byles reportedly said as Knox passed by. Knox’s assessment of the remark? He called Byles a ‘damned fool.’
When Byles came before the judges who were to hear charges against him, he was ushered into their chambers and offered a seat by the hearth, as it was a cold day. His retort:
“Gentlemen, when I came among you I expected persecution, but I could not think you would have offered me the fire so suddenly.”
After they convicted him, Byles refused to leave Boston. The town leaders now had the quandary of what to do with the obstinate old minister.
For a time they placed him under house arrest, and posted a sentry in front of his home. That scenario generated several farcical scenes attributed to Byles. Asked once by a visitor what the guard was doing outside, he replied: “Oh, that is my observe-a-Tory!”
On another occasion, he supposedly asked his guard to bring him water from a nearby well. When the guard refused to leave his post, Byles offered to stand in for him while he fetched the water, and the guard agreed.
While the sentinel went for a bucket of water, Byles shouldered his musket and marched to and fro while waiting for him to return.
Eventually, the town fathers got sick of guarding Byles. They temporarily removed his guard, reinstated him, and then permanently abandoned the operation. That gave him the opportunity to explain that, “I have been guarded, re-guarded, and disregarded.”
Thanks to: The Famous Mather Byles by Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton. This story about Mather Byles was updated in 2022.