Catharine Nobel: professor of religion?

In researching my Mayflower line, I was looking into previous research on my third-great-grandmother Catharine Noble (1826–1911), daughter of Solomon Noble Jr. (1783–1858) and Dorcas Vinton (1802–1837). I came across a volume I keep encountering, but have yet to fully exploit: Vinton, John Adams (1858) The Vinton Memorial: Comprising a Genealogy of the Descendants of John Vinton of Lynn, 1648: Also, genealogical sketches of several allied families, namely, those bearing the names of Alden, Adams, Allen, Boylston, Faxon, French, Hayden, Holbrook, Mills, Niles, Penniman, Thayer, White, Richardson, Baldwin, Carpenter, Safford, Putnam, and Green, with an appendix containing a history of the Braintree Iron Works, and other historical matter. You’ve got to love those ponderous Victorian titles!

[In a related development—I’m excited to report that I just found an original copy of this rare book for less than $20 online, and so I’ll soon have it permanently on my bookshelf, and will almost certainly be diving deeper into this line over the next several months as a result.]

On page 173 of this volume, Catharine is listed as being the eldest of the five children of Solomon Noble Jr. and Dorcas Vinton (who was in turn the daughter of Seth Vinton and Polly Rider):

What caught my eye was the last paragraph:

None of these were m[arried] in May, 1853. The two daughters are professors of religion.

In May 1853, Catharine Noble was 28 years old and unmarried. Her youngest sibling Lydia Ann Noble was 19 and unmarried. Both are referred to as being “professors of religion.” What exactly did that mean?

For some additional context, three and a half years later, on January 15, 1857, Catharine Noble married for the first time. She married 57-year-old divorcé Alonzo Bailey who had three surviving teenage daughters, aged 11, 13, and 17. Lydia Ann Noble, meanwhile, was still unmarried by 1860, when she was living as a guest or boarder in the home of Phineas W. Turner in Hebron, Connecticut.

Back to being “professors of religion.” Not knowing exactly what that phrase would have meant in Connecticut in the mid-1850s, I searched the Newspapers.com database for mentions of the phrase “professor of religion” in Connecticut between 1850 and 1860. I found 27 matches for that phrase, all in one newspaper—the Hartford Courant. It wasn’t a common phrase, even in the 1850s. It appears about 2–3 times per year, on average, in the 1850s (although it became more common for a couple of months in early 1858).

Here is every mention I could find of the phase “professor of religion” in Connecticut in the 1850s:

May 24, 1850
(Friday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a religious practitioner (or advocate?) of any faith.
January 18, 1851
(Saturday, page 2)
At the late colporteur meeting in Cleveland, one of the number reported that he visited a small village, in which two distilleries were in full blast, but no religious privileges, and but one professor of religion. Through the blessing of God on his labors, a place of worship has been erected in the village, and twenty persons have become hopefully pious.Seems to indicate a pious person who tries to spread the gospel.
September 18, 1851
(Thursday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a devout individual; associated (although not necessarily exclusively) with the Methodist Episcopal Church.
January 31, 1852
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a truly devout individual.
March 6, 1852
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate either someone who teaches religion or someone who studies religion.
July 16, 1852
(Friday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a person who professes (i.e., enthusiastically talks about) a religious belief.
October 23, 1852
(Saturday, page 1)
Seems to indicate a pious man, assumed to be beyond reproach.
December 3, 1853
(Saturday, page 10)
Seems to indicate that it is a self-identification (apparently sometimes undeserved) that is not associated with any particular branch of Christianity.
December 8, 1853
(Thursday, page 2)
Same as above (article is a reprint of the above).
February 18, 1854
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a someone who is enthusiastic about religion, including those considering joining the ministry.
December 13, 1854
(Wednesday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a truly pious individual in a Protestant faith.
April 21, 1855
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate (for the Episcopal Church at least) a person who has had the rites of confirmation administered to them.
November 2, 1855
(Friday, page 2)
Hard to tell with this one, but seems to indicate a pious person.
March 15, 1856
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate someone devoted to religious studies, but not because their father was a minister, and not because they themselves wish to enter the ministry.
February 28, 1857
(Saturday, page 2)
Same as above.
January 16, 1858
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate an especially pious brand of New England man.
March 6, 1858
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate just a person who holds sincere religious beliefs.
March 20, 1858
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a person involved in a religious revival, who also appears to be spreading the gospel.
April 21, 1858
(Wednesday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a participant in a contemporary religious revival movement.
April 26, 1858
(Monday, page 2)
Seems to imply that a person has a “permanent conviction” of a set of religious doctrines.
May 14, 1858
(Friday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a pious man, beloved by all who knew him.
August 7, 1858
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a pious person of any Protestant faith with an interest in religious revival.
January 28, 1859
(Friday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a pious practicer of faith.
February 10, 1859
(Thursday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a person who professed the gospel, and who was a “living epistle” of Jesus Christ.
October 15, 1859
(Saturday, page 2)
Seems to indicate an especially pious person, in this case associated with the Baptist Church.
June 15, 1860
(Friday, page 2)
Seems to indicate a truly devout person, but one who had another profession (so not a lay minister).
September 19, 1860
(Wednesday, page 2)
Ummm… I’m guessing this is making fun of a typo in a competing newspaper?

From this survey of the usage of “professor of religion” in Connecticut in the 1850s, it is my understanding that this phrase meant that a person had formally rededicated themselves to the gospel and to the message of Christ, and had become an active player in the religious revival among Protestant faiths in the 1850s in the United States.

While being a “professor of religion” was primarily a religious decision and statement, from the ostensibly non-religious places in which the term “professor of religion” was used (e.g., newspapers, family histories), it seems that this label also carried important social implications. I struggle to find a modern analog, but it seems close to saying “my son is a doctor” or “my daughter is a lawyer” in today’s world. Being a “professor of religion” seems to have signaled more than just piousness in the 1850s.

My guess is that the two daughters, Catharine Noble and and Lydia Ann Noble were indeed devout, pious women. But at the time this statement was written (1853–1858), such a statement also conveyed a social meaning along the lines of “this is an upstanding family, concerned with the well-being of their community and of the nation as a whole.”

To my readers who are themselves “professors of religion,” or who are theologians, ministers, or are otherwise more enlightened in the ways of mid-nineteenth-century Christianity than I, does this sound like the correct interpretation for the statement “The two daughters are professors of religion?” Let me know in the comments section below.

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