Robert Cotner


ernon Louis Parrington, were he alive, would be delighted with what I recently discovered about his family. You see, VLP sensed a true kinship with Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. In fact, he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning study, Main Currents in American Thought (1927), a sketch of Williams so poignant that one senses it may have been auto-biographical in sentiment.

VLP knew that Williams, a dissenter, came to colonial America and converted to the Baptist faith. Williams was, without a doubt, the first person to be immersed in baptism in the colonies. Parrington had Baptist connections, as well. In fact, he thought — mistakenly — that his grandfather, James C. McClellan, Jr., was a Baptist minister. McClellan did come to Chicago in 1835 as a teacher in a Baptist school on S. Water St. Upon the death of his first wife in 1838, McClellan returned to New York and married Eunice C. Sherman, a Baptist woman from Busti, Chautauqua County, NY. The Sherman family had rich traditions in the colonies with the Baptist church and, in keeping with Roger Williams’ legacy, good relations with the Indians. McClellan and his bride returned to Illinois to live, and in 1843, they had a daughter, Mary Louisa. In 1861, she met and married, in the Bristol Baptist Church, John W. Parrington, a schoolman in Aurora. They had two sons, John, born in 1869, and Vernon Louis, born in 1871.

Two years ago I found the homesite of the Shermans in Busti, NY. Located high above Lake Chautauqua, the site is now farmland and forgotten as a homestead. More recently, I discovered a genealogical study, Some of the Descendants of Philip Sherman, the First Secretary of Rhode Island (1968), assembled by the late Roy V. Sherman of the University of Akron. Sherman traces the lineage of Philip Sherman — “first in America” — through his descendants. We learn that he was born in Dedham, Essex County, England, in 1610. He came “into the land in 1633 a single man and afterward married Sarah Odding.” We learn that he, like Roger Williams, was banished from the Bay Colony in 1637 and came, like Williams, to Rhode Island. Williams advised him “to purchase the island of Aquidneck in the Narragansett Bay,” and he did, “obtaining title from Caunonicus and Mianantom, Sachems who had command of Narragansett and Aquidneck Island, July 1, 1639.” Sherman held a number of local leadership positions and then was appointed Secretary of the Rhode Island Colony in 1648. In 1656, he was chosen Representative.

Philip Shermen (often spelled Shearman) left a human legacy that went through Peleg (b.1638), Daniel (b. 1662), Seth (b. 1710), Humphrey (b. 1755), and Daniel (b. 1784). Daniel’s daughter Eunice was born in 1818 and died in 1850, in Bristol (now Yorkville), IL.

VLP, Eunice and James McClellan’s grandson, never knew he belonged to the eighth generation of a colleague of Roger Williams, an early Baptist and friend of Indians, and the first Secretary of Rhode Island. But he sensed through his scholarship a profound intellectual kinship with the democratic spirit born of Roger Williams and his compatriots in Rhode Island. My discovery links VLP in blood to that flourishing spirit, so important in American history and culture — and this would have delighted my old friend and neighbor, VLP.

We have not yet achieved VLP’s ideal of a generous social order, satisfying the aspirations of a “catholic fellowship, greater than any sect or church, village or nation embracing all races and creeds, bringing together the sundered society of [people] in a common spirit of good will.” As a nation we are closer than we were in VLP’s day. As a world, we have a long way to go. But the beneficence of books and the efficacy of art in human life will carry us forward through the anguish of the hour within the millennia in which we labor.

View a "family gallery" of Parrington illustrations.

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