Jeremiah Ingalls: Fact, Anecdote, and Invention

Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838) was born in Andover, Massachusetts. His father, Abajah, a Minute Man, died at Ticonderoga when Jeremiah was 13 years old. We know almost nothing about his musical education. But, growing up near Boston he was certainly influenced by William Billings. Billings was the godfather of an intentionally “American” music, sacred choral music sung with a drive and fervor befitting the spiritual culture of the times. That music migrated to the southern Appalachians in the mid-nineteenth century and became the basis of the Sacred Harp tradition which is alive and well today.

Jeremiah was an itinerant Singing Master, traveling from town to town teaching the art of choral singing. He had settled in Newbury, Vermont before 1791, when he married Mary (Polly) Bigelow. They had 11 children, 9 of whom lived to adulthood. Jeremiah was made choirmaster of the First Church of Newbury and made Deacon in 1803. He and Polly ran a tavern, and he was a cooper as well.

Ingalls was a very popular composer and choral leader, with people coming great distances to hear his music. He played the bass viol (similar to a cello), was portly, good-humored and absentminded. Several surviving anecdotes describe instances where he became so engaged with his music that his livelihood suffered.

In 1805 he published a book of his compositions, along with songs he had collected. He called his collection “The Christian Harmony, or Songster’s Companion”. The book begins with “A Plain and Concise Introduction to Music”, explaining the rudiments of musical notation and singing. The book has been immensely influential over time, but
was apparently not a financial success.

In 1810 Jeremiah was accused by his church of “adultery with the widow Dorothy Remon” (we have changed her name to Charity Tompkins in our play to avoid the connection to our composer who shares the same first name with the widow!). We have found, in the historical records of the First Church of Newbury, a “Letter of Complaint” outlining the accusation, the widow Remon’s admission, and Jeremiah’s refusal to repent. This was followed by a “Letter of Admonition” and, finally, a “Letter of Excommunication”. His excommunication seems to be based not on his sin, but on his refusal to repent that sin.

He moved to Hancock, Vermont with Polly and their younger children in 1810, and eventually became the first choirmaster of the Church of Christ in Rochester (now the Federated Church of Rochester, where composer Dorothy Robson is currently “choirmaster”). We don’t know the reason he chose Hancock. His homestead was at the Hancock/Rochester town line. There, he and Polly had two more children.

The mystery we were faced with, and unable to solve in our search of the historical record, is: why didn’t Jeremiah just repent and carry on with his life in Newbury? Our narrative needed to fill in that gap with something compelling and relative to that time. Thus was ‘born’ the character Thomas Tompkins, the love-child of Jeremiah and Charity Tompkins’ adulterous affair. (Thomas is the only named character in the play not in the historical record.) Jeremiah’s wish to protect his child from the stigma of illegitimacy thus became (in our story) his justification to refuse repentance.

We discovered, later in the First Church records, a note that there was “a verbal request from Jeremiah Ingalls that the Church respond to his letter of confession”, and that a copy of the letter from the church to Jeremiah “is in the Church records”. We were unable to find either letter. But from this we know that Jeremiah repented at some later time. We took the liberty to establish that time at 18 years — the time for Thomas to achieve his majority.

Ingalls’ service as choirmaster of the Rochester church was a successful one. He is one of the signatories of the document establishing the construction of the first church building in Rochester in 1812. He was eventually succeeded as choirmaster by his son, John.

Jeremiah Ingalls’ music is sung all over the world today, and is an important part of the Sacred Harp and Shape-Note singing traditions. He died in 1838, and is buried in the Old Cemetery in Hancock, Vermont.