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#AceHistoryDesk Today in History – Ezekiel Cheever was a Latin schoolmaster active in the British American colonies for seventy years. He taught Latin in many colonial schools across Connecticut and Massachusetts from 1638 until his death in 1708. No image of Cheever is known to exist.
He was born in London on January 25th in 1614 or 1615 and attended Christ’s Hospital School and later enrolled in Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College.
He arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637. Soon after, Cheever left Boston for New Haven, where he began teaching Latin and Greek at a small one-room school. In 1650 he left New Haven to teach at a grammar school in Ipswich, Massachusetts and in 1661 he left Ipswich to teach at another grammar school in Charlestown, Massachusetts. In 1670, he became the headmaster of the Boston Latin school which was founded 35 years earlier. He remained in this position until he died.
What is known about this schoolmaster can be inferred from references to him in various anecdotes of his former students and in records of colonial Boston and other towns. Ezra Stiles, the 7th president of Yale, wrote in his diary entry for April 25, 1772, that he met a certain Reverend Samuel Maxwell, who was a student of Cheever in the late seventeenth century. Maxwell described Cheever as sporting a white beard ending in a point, and when he would stroke his beard, it indicated he was becoming angry.
Cheever’s reputation as a prominent schoolteacher spread throughout the New England colonies. He managed to teach up to 100 boys in a school that was just 40 feet long and 25 feet wide- and this was the size of a new school building that was built towards the end of his life. As indicated in the town records of Boston, on July 24, 1704 the selectmen “Agreed with Mr. John Bernerd as followeth, he to build a new School House of forty foot Long, Twenty-five foot wide & Eleven foot Stud, with eight windows below & five in the Roofe with wooden Casements to the eight Windows…& to make three rows of benches for the boyes on each Side the room…” This new building still must have resulted in cramped conditions with so many schoolboys!
In addition to his fame as a Latin teacher, Cheever is remembered today as the author of a little manual of Latin grammar which bears his name, sometimes called A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue, other times Accidence: An Elementary Grammar, for Beginners in the Study of the Latin Language. It is also colloquially referred to as “Cheever’s Accidence”. However, it turns out that Ezekiel’s assistant Nathaniel Williams, is the actual author of the book. He compiled it from Cheever’s teachings and notes, and published it in 1709. This book was wildly popular, appearing in over twenty editions and was last printed in 1838. Since the circumstances which led to this book’s creation were closely linked with Cheever and dependent upon his teachings, he has been designated as its author by default. A strong case for Williams’ authorship of the book was made by classicists John Latimer and Kenneth Murdock who published their findings in a 1951 article called “The Author of Cheever’s Accidence” in The Classical Journal.
Cheever taught many famous early New Englanders, some of whom attended Harvard and entered the ministry and sometimes public office. Among these are Jonathan Belcher, governor of the provinces of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire and Michael Wigglesworth, author of the poem Day of Doom. Another of his more famed students, the Puritan Cotton Mather, gave a eulogy at Cheever’s funeral and also wrote an epitaph in Latin for his departed teacher, which is included below with an English translation.
Ludimagister; Primo Neoportensis; Deinde, Ipsuicensis; Postea, Carlotenensis; Postremo, Bostonensis: cuius Doctrinam ac Virtutem Nosti, si sis Nov-Anglus, Colis, si non Barbarus; GRAMMATICUS, a Quo non pure tantum, sed et pie, Loqui; RHETORICUS, a Quo non tantum ornate dicere coram Hominibus, sed et Orationes coram Deo fundere Efficacissimas; POETA, a Quo non tantum Carmina pangere, sed et Coelestes Hymnos Odasque Angelicas, canere, Didicerunt, Qui discere voluerunt; LUCERNA, ad Quam accensa sunt, Quis queat numerare, Quot Ecclesiarum Lumina? ET Qui secum Theologiae abstulit, Peritissimus THEOLOGUS, Corpus hic suum sibi minus charum, deposuit. Vixit Annos. XCIV. Docuit, Annos, LXX. Obiit, A.D. M. DCC. VIII. Et quod mori potuit, HEIC Expectat Exoptatque Primam Sanctorum Resurrectionem ad Immortalitem.
Corderius Americanus. An essay upon the good education of children…delivered at the funeral of Ezekiel Cheever, principal of the Latin school in Boston… Cotton Mather, author; Boston, Printed by Dutton & Wentworth, 1828. p. 22-23none
A schoolmaster – first at New Haven, next at Ipswich, then at Charlestown, finally at Boston – whose instruction and virtue you learn if you are a New Englander. You cherish them, if you are not uncivilized. A grammarian from whom those who wished to learn, learned not only to speak purely, but also piously. A rhetorician, from whom those who wished to learn, learned not only to speak ornately in the presence of men, but also to expound highly effective prayers in the presence of God. A poet, from whom those who wished to learn, learned not only to compose songs but also to sing divine hymns and angelic odes. A lamp, by which (who is able to count) how many lights of the churches were kindled? A very skillful theologian who carries with him the entire body of theology. Here he lays down his body, less dear in his estimation. He lived for 94 years. He taught for 70 years. He died in A.D. 1708, and because he was able to die, he awaits and longs for the first resurrection of the saints for immortality.
Andrew M. Gaudio, Classics, Medieval Studies, Linguistics specialist/Reference Librarian; Researcher & Reference Services Division. The Library of Congressnone
- Search for additional printed materials from 17th century New England in the collection Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
- The following online exhibits also contain items about 17th century Massachusetts including the first book printed in British North America:
- First Among Many: The Bay Psalm Book and Early Moments in American Printing
- Religion and the Founding of the American Republic is divided into sections of which the following relate to colonial Massachusetts:
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