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United Empire LoyalistsHallo again to all.

We know that you know that we know the walls of time to be paper-thin. In our personal reading, conversation, internal streams of thought, and even in our prayer we find historical delight at every turn. When we read about great moments of decision in history, especially church history, we wonder where we might have found ourselves on the balance-sheet of various crises. Where and how would we have chosen to worship at various stages in the Reformation? In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, would we have been conscience-bound to become Nonjurors? In the American Revolution, might we have been among the United Empire Loyalists whose bonds of affection, family, allegiance, religion, or commerce impelled them to side with the Crown and toward Canada, England, Bermuda, or the Caribbean? Several of us live in parishes where Anglicans faced the latter question just over two centuries ago—a question we find daunting in the hypothetical dimension and which we're glad we do not have to consider today.

With a long historical view, we can see that the personal dimensions of the American Revolution were messier—perhaps especially for Anglicans, with ties of liturgy and loyalty to their nursing father King George—than many normally assume. Families dispersed, parishes split or were extinguished, livelihoods were gained and lost; even now, victories continue to be celebrated by some and wounds continue to be nursed by others. We cannot any longer think in the stark terms of winners and losers, or entirely right and entirely wrong. It's clearer than ever to us that the Man Who Said No and Jacob Duché both acted according to what they understood to be upright motives.

Thanks to a friend who sent us a book in the mail this week, we've learned that the legacy of Transatlantic discord and division that came out of the American Revolution could also be wonderfully, Christianly fruitful on an individual level.* Until recently, we'd known the name of Margaret Coffin (1769-1855) only through the Margaret Coffin Prayer Book Society founded in her memory. Margaret was born in Boston to a Tory Anglican family. She lived through the siege and evacuation of Boston, and most of her family went into exile following the war. Some had their property confiscated, and others were banished by express order of the new American government. Margaret and her mother remained in Boston, settling in the house where Margaret herself spent a long, unmarried life. At her death, it was discovered that she had distributed some three thousand copies of the Book of Common Prayer to poor Bostonians and needy parishes—quietly, calmly, with near-anonymity and a singleness of purpose over time. We have in our minds a clear picture of Margaret's benefactions. We see her leaving a copy of the Prayer Book at the bedside of a sick friend, sharing it in a non-obtrusive way with a bereaved neighbour, sending a crate of 20 copies to a struggling mission. The terms of her will established a legacy to continue this ministry in an institutional form, and we're happy to know some of the people who still administer this good work.

Margaret Coffin's signature from a letter to George Washington DoaneLike every saint we've ever met or heard about, Margaret Coffin bloomed where she was planted. With many good reasons for disorientation in the new republic—a scattered family and shattered church—she chose a path of sustainable, cumulative generosity that shared with others the best treasure she knew:

[...] a book which Christians prize,
Next to the blessed book of heaven,
Its words inspired beyond the skies,
Its faith, the faith by Jesus given.

We do not know how the Anglican world will look a year from now, let alone a century from now. Margaret Coffin could not have known at her confirmation in 1786—among the first ever administered in Massachusetts—that her church would be radically different in 50 or 100 years. But she did know that there was simple, good work for her to do with God's help; and so she did it, maugre the easier, cheaper alternatives. In times of change and chance, we're thankful for her guiding light.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 1 February 2009

* For the full story, see John Morton Gallop's A Revolution, a Lady, and a Book: A Boston Lady in Revolutionary Times: Margaret Coffin and Her Tory Family (2000). You can also read about her here.

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