A Powerful Symbol of Early American Democracy
By Gloria Korsman
The Dummer bowl, a silver basin sometimes used at child dedications in the Meetinghouse, is one of several pieces of American silver belonging to the Deacons of the First Church in Cambridge (Unitarian Universalist) and on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Also at the museum are four tankards. Two of the tankards are a matching pair, with the inscription “The Gift of Mr. William Wilcocks to the | Church of Christ in Cambridge N.E. | Anno Dom 1654”. These tankards bear the maker’s mark of John Coney of Boston (1655-1722) and have a cast cherub’s face on the handle. Our church records from 1704 describe the congregation voting to sell land bequeathed by William Wilcocks’ widow that “vessels should be made of ye money for ye Com[m]un[ion] Table”. A third tankard, also made by John Coney, is similar except for the inscription and a slightly different cherub on the handle. The fourth tankard is made by John Burt of Boston (1691-1745) and lacks a cherub.
Why does First Parish own tankards? Tankards, as well as other household and tavern vessels, were used as communion silver in colonial New England. Our Puritan ancestors chose everyday drinking vessels to distance themselves from the Catholic tradition of chalices. They believed that by using multiple vessels associated with convivial gatherings, rather than a single ornate chalice, their service would closely resemble the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples. Tankards downplayed social distinctions between clergy and laity, and between members of differing social status. We may view our tankards as symbols of our religious movement’s longstanding commitment to democratic process.
Why were the tankards made of silver, rather than another metal, glass, or pottery? Silver was a great way to preserve wealth. Not only was it durable, silver was a valuable currency in all the colonies. Although the Puritans did not write much about the meaning of communion silver, we may theorize that a shared meal with beautiful silver vessels says something about how our forebears understood the realm of God, or “beloved community”.
The Dummer bowl, used occasionally on special occasions, is an important piece of American silver. Made by Jeremiah Dummer (1645–1718), merchant and silversmith of Boston, it was the gift to First Parish from the Reverend William Brattle, minister from 1696 to 1717, and tutor, fellow, and treasurer of Harvard.
The bowl was made and presented to Brattle in 1695 by his Harvard students, as the original inscription “Ex dono Pupillorum” indicates. The Brattle coat of arms is engraved on the rim. The bowl bears Dummer’s mark, a heart-shaped device within which are his initials, with a small pellet between the initial, and a fleur-de-lis. It was made for domestic use. Rosewater dishes or basins were used at feasts before the advent of forks and knives; between courses a basin would be passed, with a napkin, to guests.
The use of a bowl instead of a baptismal font in early New England churches was due to a decree of Parliament during the Commonwealth that all fonts would be removed from the Church, and that a basin would be used instead. The hope was that the superstitions connected with baptism would thereby be removed. Of the two of these rosewater bowls that survived as baptismal basins in New England Churches, the Dummer Bowl is the earlier.
Brattle died in 1717 and in his will appeared this clause: “I hereby present to the Church of Christ in Cambridge for a baptismal basin , my great silver basin, an inscription which I leave the prudence of the Revd. President (John Leverett) and the Rd. Mr. Simon Bradstreet.” The inscription that Leverett and Bradstreet selected is “A Baptismal Basin consecrated, bequeathed, and presented to the church of Christ in Cambridge, his dearly beloved flock, by the Revd Mr Wm Brattle Pastr of the Sd Church; who was translated from his charge to his Crown, Febr 15: 1716/1717.”