Boutelle, Luther (1806–1898)
By Douglas Morgan
Douglas Morgan is a graduate of Union College (B.A., theology, 1978) in Lincoln, Nebraska and the University of Chicago (Ph.D., history of Christianity, 1992). He has served on the faculties of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland and Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. His publications include Adventism and the American Republic (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review and Herald, 2010). He is the ESDA assistant editor for North America.
First Published: January 11, 2023
Luther Boutelle, known for his zeal and eloquence in advocating social and religious reform, embraced the Second Advent message in 1840 and preached it for more than 50 years, eventually affiliating with the Advent Christian Association.
John (1766-1860) and Abigail Bancroft Boutelle (1765-1848) of Townsend, Massachusetts, named their twin boys born May 4, 1806, Luther and Calvin. It was Luther who turned out to be a reformer, though his path to that vocation would be indirect. The twins had two older sisters, Abigail (b. 1796) and Sarah (b. 1799), and a younger brother, Ebenezer (b. 1810). John Boutelle, a deacon in the Congregationalist church, was a shoemaker by trade and also had a small farm.1
After learning the trade from his father, Luther, at age 18, went to nearby Groton in March 1825 to work in a shoe shop owned by Loring Gates. He subsequently worked at the shop of Cragin & Company, where he became part owner.2
Luther married Hannah Conant (1808-1866) in a ceremony at Townsend on August 14, 1830.3 They made their home in Groton, where they had three children who survived infancy: Adelaide Matilda (b. 1831), Ebenezer Augustus (b. 1837), and Sarah Elizabeth (b. 1844).4
Hot Abolitionist and Reformer
In his twenties, Luther Boutelle remained a Congregationalist—a “church-going man” but lacking a personal religious experience. He took a strong interest in the temperance and antislavery movements, in both cases gravitating toward the radical forms of those causes that emerged in the late 1820s and early 1830s.5 Like others who would later become prominent in the Second Advent movement, including Joshua V. Himes and Joseph Bates,6 Boutelle was an early supporter of abolitionism when it was widely regarded—and persecuted—as subversive extremism. The town of Groton became something of a hotbed of abolitionist agitation and the Boutelle home an “antislavery hotel” hosting William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and other prominent activists.7
It was after becoming deeply involved in these reform efforts that, during a series of revival meetings in Groton, Boutelle personally pledged his life to Christ and his faith became “a living reality, vitalizing my whole being.” He continued working in the shoe shop but gospel revival now became his chief interest and would be for the remainder of his life.8
His conversion, though, brought no abatement of his activism for social reform. In fact, he testified, it “made me a better antislavery man than before.” His irrepressible exuberance in talking about the love of Christ gave him a voice, a talent he improved, and it equipped him to “speak in behalf of the truth and every form of righteousness with a good degree of freedom.” By his own description, the converted Boutelle was a “hot abolitionist and reformer.” Rather than taking a moderate, gradual approach, he was “inclined to run faster than the old school brethren thought safe.”9
Second Advent Preacher
A new chapter in Boutelle’s Christian journey opened in 1838 when Silas Hawley, Jr. (1815-1873), editor of the Christian Reformer, gave a series of abolitionist lectures in Groton, followed by another series on Christian Union. Hawley’s Christian Unionism, similar to other restorationist movements thriving during that era, sought to break down denominational divisions and unify Christians based on the Bible alone. Hawley’s preaching effectively won over 100 converts into a new Unionist congregation formed in Groton (though it failed to unify all the town’s Christians). Fourteen of them, including Boutelle, broke away from the Congregationalist church to join.10
On the heels of Hawley’s Unionist revival, the town of Groton once again was stirred when William Miller presented two series of lectures in 1839 on the Second Advent of Christ, the first in May and the second in October. Impressed by what he heard, Boutelle studied the scriptural evidence over a period of months. When he became “fully convinced” of the truth of Miller’s message, he also felt called to leave his business and home to preach it wherever he could.11
With the support of his wife, Hannah, who encouraged him to follow through on his convictions, Boutelle set out as a traveling evangelist, first in Vermont and then throughout New England. He experienced success and received an abundance of calls to preach, so that he was “never out of work.” Itinerant preaching of Second Adventism would be his vocation for the rest of his life. Despite much opposition, the joyful proclamation of the coming King and its momentum enthralled Boutelle. To him, it seemed that the “spiritual minded disciples of Jesus would fall in love with it at once.”12
The Second Advent Sieve
Absorption in the Second Advent movement left Boutelle little time for the meetings and activities of abolitionist organizations, and his presence was missed. In a letter to William Lloyd Garrison, published in the May 5, 1843, issue of the Liberator, Boutelle acknowledged that for the past few months he had not “met in Convention with the antislavery choir.” He denied, however, that this meant that he had forgotten the “poor, down-trodden” slaves, declaring he would never “refuse to speak for them.” His attitude toward slavery had not changed, but his convictions about the means by which it would be abolished had. After long years of labor for reform with the expectation that “moral truth is to rectify the wickedness of the land,” Boutelle had become convinced from Scripture that societal evil “is to be destroyed by the brightness of Christ’s coming.” Emancipation could be achieved only by “physical Omnipotence.”13
Furthermore, though he now believed that abolitionism would not succeed in its goal of purifying the moral consciousness of the nation, he still regarded the movement as essential to the divine program for a transformed world. Boutelle now believed that God used the abolitionist movement, with its compelling but inconvenient claims on the Christian conscience, as a test of faithfulness in purifying the churches, sorting out the “wheat” from the “tares.” Opposition to the Second Advent message and the abolitionist movement came from the same churchly sources, he pointed out, with the same charge of causing division leveled against both. Thus, he regarded Adventism as a further and final advance in the same direction that the abolitionist movement was headed. The “march of truth is onward,” he exhorted readers of the Liberator, warning that “the wheat that has been sifted through the abolitionist sieve must now go through the Second Advent sieve, or else be overtaken by the ‘coming of the Son of Man as a thief.’”14
In reply, Garrison affirmed Boutelle as an “esteemed and zealous friend” who “has long been a faithful soldier in the anti-slavery ranks.” He believed Boutelle was “laboring under a marvellous delusion” but was confident that he would soon again be “found at his post . . . in Liberty’s warfare” when the expected time of the second advent came and went.15
Boutelle wholeheartedly shared the expectation, sounded by the “midnight cry,” that Christ would return on October 22, 1844. He remembered the “seventh-month” movement leading up to that date as “solemn, yet joyful,” manifesting “a oneness of faith never before witnessed,” a closer parallel, he believed, to the apostolic “day of Pentecost” (Acts 2), than anything in the previous history of Christianity.16
“It was a humiliating thing,” he acknowledged, when their expectations were not realized.17 “It was hard to rally from the sad disappointment, but through trial, suffering, and affliction, the pillar of fire could be seen,” he wrote.18 He recalled Revelation 10 and its depiction of a “little book” as being of particular importance in helping the disappointed ones understand what they were going through. The word of God had been “sweet in the mouth” for them, then bitter in the stomach, leading to realization of a renewed mission to “prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.”19
Advent Christian Evangelist
Boutelle did “return to his post,” as Garrison predicted, but not in the exact manner the abolitionist editor expected. Boutelle resumed the “post” that he believed to be his calling, preaching the gospel of Christ and his soon-coming kingdom, not as an abandonment of his former work on behalf of the enslaved and oppressed but encompassing it within a broader and more comprehensive assignment. He continued itinerant preaching of Second Adventism, mainly in New England, for more than four decades after 1844. He affiliated with the Advent Christian Association organized in 1858. He was ordained for gospel ministry that same year by Joseph Turner and R. R. York, though by then he had been preaching full-time for 18 years in obedience to the divine calling he felt.20
Amidst the national devastation caused by the Civil War, Boutelle suffered much personal loss during the 1860s. His eldest daughter, Adelaide, died of “bronchial consumption” in 1863 at age 31. Two years later, in 1865, the Boutelles’ younger daughter, Sarah, only 20 years old, succumbed suddenly to typhoid fever. Luther and Hannah then relocated to Salem, Massachusetts, to be near their son Augustus and his wife. But in the subsequent months Hannah gradually weakened and she, too, passed away in January 1866 at age 57.21
On August 27, 1867, Boutelle married 44-year-old widow Caroline A. Ryder, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where they made their home.22 Tragic loss came again in 1875, when their daughter, Lizzie Ryder, died of consumption at 23. Just prior to this, Luther experienced a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, and after Lizzie’s death his condition worsened such that the Advent Christian periodical, the World’s Crisis, reported that he was “very sick, doubtless at death’s door.” His wife, Caroline, received assurance during a season of prayer that, like the biblical king Hezekiah, Luther would be granted another 15 years. He indeed experienced a remarkable and full recovery, and resumed preaching.23 It was, perhaps, because the 15 years had expired that Boutelle decided it was time to publish his memoir in 1891, even though he detailed in it a very full itinerary of travel and preaching in his 84th year.24 In fact, his extension of life lasted another seven years, and he still occasionally preached at age 90, according to a report of a celebration of his birthday in 1897.25
After the death of his second wife, Caroline, on February 2, 1897, Boutelle moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, and it was there that he died on December 6, 1898, at age 91, “due principally to old age.”26 He is buried with his first wife, Hannah, and their three daughters, in the Groton Cemetery.27
Similar to many other pioneers of the movement, Luther Boutelle’s legacy shines a light on the relationship between vibrant Second Advent faith and activism for social change. That complex legacy requires serious reflection and discussion, though it defies simplistic conclusions. Boutelle’s obituary in the Boston Globe poses the issue well. It described him both as “an ardent worker among adventists” and as “a warm abolitionist” whose “vigorous and able defense of the rights of the negro won for him the thanks of the leaders of the abolitionist movement, and he came to be a close friend of Garrison, Phillips, Douglass and others.”28
According to historian Isaac Wellcome, Boutelle displayed a “buoyant, cheerful spirit.”29 These qualities shine through his 1891 memoir, giving the strong impression that for Boutelle, the Second Advent faith was, above all else, joyful. It is noteworthy that his description of the time of the “midnight cry” leading up to October 22, 1844, the depths of the “great disappointment,” and the subsequent recovery of hope and purpose, bears many similarities to the narratives given by those who became Seventh-day Adventists. Despite the fact that he did not see the bearing of apocalyptic prophecy on all of this in the same way that they did, he expressed the experience in simple verse form that speaks to all branches of post-1844 Adventism.
In eighteen hundred forty-four,
We thought the curse would be no more.
The things of earth we left behind,
To see the Savior of mankind.
With many we took the parting hand,
Till meeting in the better land.
The day passed by—no tongue can tell
The gloom that on the faithful fell.
Then what it meant they hardly knew,
But to their Lord they quickly flew.
They searched the Word, and not in vain,
For comfort there they did obtain.
They found “the bridge” they had passed o’er;
Then they rejoiced and grieved no more.
Their faith was firm in that blest Book,
And still for Jesus they did look.30
“Aged Advent Divine Dead.” Boston Globe, December 6, 1898.
Boutelle, Luther. “Anti-Slavery and the Second Advent.” Liberator, May 5, 1843.
Boutelle, Luther. Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience of Eld. Luther Boutelle. Boston: Advent Christian Publication Society, 1891.
Garrison, William Lloyd. “The Second Advent.” Liberator, May 5, 1843.
“Luther Boutelle.” FamilySearch. Accessed December 29, 2022. https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/details/MVNQ-T7B.
“Personal.” Boston Evening Transcript, May 5, 1897.
Ruchames, Louis, editor. The Letters and Papers of William Lloyd Garrison, Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Wellcome, Isaac C. History of the Second Advent Message and Mission, Doctrine and People. Boston, MA: Advent Christian Publication Society, 1874.
Luther Boutelle, Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience of Eld. Luther Boutelle (Boston: Advent Christian Publication Society, 1891), 9-11; “Luther Boutelle,” FamilySearch, accessed December 29, 2022, https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/details/MVNQ-T7B.↩
Boutelle, Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience, 19, 22, 35.↩
“Luther Boutelle,” FamilySearch.↩
Boutelle, Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience, 21.↩
Douglas Morgan, “Himes, Joshua Vaughan (1805–1895),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, September 13, 2020, accessed December 24, 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=49HD; Joseph Bates, The Autobiography of Elder Joseph Bates (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1968), 232, 235-238.↩
Boutelle, Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience, 24-25.↩
Ibid., 209-210; Louis Ruchames, ed., The Letters and Papers of William Lloyd Garrison, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 695-696.↩
Sylvester Bliss, Memoirs of William Miller (Boston: Joshua V. Himes, 1853), 137-138; Isaac C. Wellcome, History of the Second Advent Message and Mission, Doctrine and People (Boston, MA: Advent Christian Publication Society, 1874), 219. Wellcome gives the date 1841 for Boutelle’s full commitment to the Millerite message; but more likely this took place in 1840, a few months after the October 1839 meetings.↩
Boutelle, Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience, 40-46, 58-59.↩
Luther Boutelle, “Anti-Slavery and the Second Advent,” Liberator, May 5, 1843, 70.↩
William Lloyd Garrison, “The Second Advent,” Liberator, May 5, 1843, 71.↩
Boutelle, Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience, 62-64, 67. On the “true midnight cry” and “seventh-movement,” see Morgan, “Himes, Joshua Vaughan (1805–1895)”; and Kevin Vinicius Felix Oliveira and Clodoaldo Tavares, “Snow, Samuel Sheffield (1806–1890),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, April 7, 2022, accessed December 24, 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=9A6O.↩
Wellcome, History of the Second Advent Message, 220.↩
Boutelle, Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience, 69-70.↩
Ibid., 89-91; “Luther Boutelle,” FamilySearch.↩
Boutelle, Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience, 92-93.↩
“Personal,” Boston Evening Transcript, May 5, 1897, 5.↩
“Aged Advent Divine Dead,” Boston Globe, December 6, 1898, 12.↩
“Elder Luther Boutelle,” Find A Grave, Memorial ID 66605937, March 7, 2011, accessed January 2, 2023, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/66605937/luther-boutelle.↩
“Aged Advent Divine Dead.”↩
Wellcome, History of the Second Advent Message, 220.↩
Boutelle, Sketch of the Life and Religious Experience, 70.↩