By Patrick Ford, Project Archivist, Bangor Theological Seminary Collection
The legend of Rev. John “Old Father” Sawyer was still alive and well in 1958 when this Ripley’s Believe It or Not! panel was featured in newspapers nationwide. Though perhaps best remembered for being a centenarian Sunday school teacher, Sawyer was a seminal proponent of Congregationalism in Maine and a founding trustee of the Maine Charity School, later renamed the Bangor Theological Seminary.
Born in Hebron, Connecticut, in 1755, and raised in New Hampshire, Sawyer fought as a Revolutionary soldier in the Battle of Saratoga. He later attended Dartmouth College, graduating in 1785, and soon after started preaching in Orford, New Hampshire. He married, moved to Maine, and was ordained in the Presbyterian faith in 1798, ministering to a congregation in Boothbay. From there he led missions to settlements east of the Kennebec River, preaching in Ballstown (now Jefferson and Whitefield), Robbinston, Pleasant Point, Moose Island, and many others. Without the aid of railroads or steamboats, Sawyer is said to have rowed a boat along rivers and the coastline to reach his preaching venues, which were typically school houses, barns, and the “best rooms” (parlors) of cottages.
In the early 1800s, Sawyer became an Orthodox Congregationalist. In 1814, he, along with Kiah Bayley, Mighill Blood, Jonathan Fisher, and 9 others, founded the Maine Charity School in the Congregationalist tradition. Given Sawyer’s input it is little surprise to learn that the school’s mission was to train men to minister to rural communities of Maine and Northern New England.
He lived his last four decades in Garland, Maine, though many nights were spent away from home, traveling by boat and foot, preaching in the “true Puritan style” well into his 90s. He became so treasured in Maine that a widely distributed pamphlet entitled The Pilgrim of a Hundred Years was published on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Upon his death in 1858 at age 103, Harper’s Weekly published an extensive obituary that attributes Sawyer’s longevity to the fact that, “New England is noted more than the other states for long-lived men.” In a remembrance written for the Portland Transcript on the 25th anniversary of his death, the author, who knew Sawyer, wrote, “He had not time to decay—he had too much work to do to rest upon his oars—there were too many who needed him—such a man could not die if he wished.”
The Rev. John Sawyer indeed lives on at the Maine Historical Society; the Sewall Collection has a daguerreotype and letters related to his work with Indians, and the Bangor Theological Seminary Collection has an extensive file containing articles and correspondence related to Sawyer. The Sewall Collection is currently open to researchers; the Bangor Theological Seminary Collection will be open to researchers in 2016.