By D. Michael Ryan, a Sergeant with the Concord Minute Men and Associate Dean of Students at Boston College.
Using his pulpit to indicate the injustices of British rule, Emerson was selected chaplain to the Provincial Congress when it met at Concord in October 1774 and served the same capacity with the local militia. His fiery words enticed minute company enlistments and at a March 1775 muster he sermonized, "Behold God himself is with us for our Captain and his priests with sounding trumphets to cry alarm..." Some weeks later his Tory brother-in-law Daniel Bliss would flee Concord.
The time for action to replace words came on the morning of 19 April 1775 as British regulars fresh from killing Americans on Lexington Green approached Concord. At the first sounding of the alarm bell, Rev. Emerson mustered on the Common in his black minister's frock, musket in hand. As rumors swirled about and courses of action were discussed, tradition has it that Emerson exhorted, "Let us stand our ground; if we die, let us die here." Encouraging a frightened 18 year old Harry Gould, the Reverend said, "Stand your ground Harry! Your cause is just and God will bless you."
Questions have arisen as to whether Emerson remained at the manse or crossed the Bridge to join his fellow countrymen. One story has him watching the activities with his family from an upstairs, north window. Another story notes that he was not just a spectator but stayed with the men, encouraging them in the battle. His own words in a diary, though impersonal, read as if he was in the ranks with the colonials. His use of "we" could include himself as personally involved or merely refer to the Americans as a whole.
Family tradition holds that Emerson did not enter the manse. Granddaughter Sarah Ripley Ansley wrote that she never heard that he stayed in the house but had always been told that he was out all day with the others. Another granddaughter remembered that her grandmother watched from the house windows to where her husband was and thought him cheering the men on but not fighting himself as he was a minister. Great granddaughter Phoebe Ripley Chamberlain also stated it was a mistake to think Emerson remained in the house.
In an interesting aside, Gordon's "Letter" noted that as the British retreated, they left behind dead and wounded. One of the latter was Lt. Edward Gould who might have been killed by the victors had not a minister present prevented such. Since Emerson was nearby, he may have been the life-saving hero. While no other accounts of this event exist, it should be noted that Gould was able to hobble to Concord center and following his capture in Menotomy was interviewed by Gordon. Emerson's morning concluded when his breakfast was interrupted by the British units returning from Barrett's farm.
On 16 April 1776, Emerson would join the American army as a chaplain and depart Concord for Ft. Ticonderoga. He never returned for at age 33 on 20 October, he died of camp fever and was buried in Rutland, VT.
The Rev. William Emerson would be remembered as a patriot, a man of God overseeing his church, a citizen joining countrymen in a common cause and a family man loving and protecting his wife and children. And most of all, Concord's minister would be remembered for being at the Bridge with his men on 19 April.
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