Founders of the Massachusetts Bible Society - 1809

The Massachusetts Bible Society began on July 6, 1809 and is an ecumenical, Christian organization dedicated to promoting Biblical literacy, understanding, and dialogue. This blog lists brief biographies of our founders who gathered in the Massachusetts State House Senate Chamber on that historic day to sign the Charter founding MBS. Please visit our website:

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Location: Newton Centre, MA, United States

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mr. John L. Sullivan, Esq.

Born in Saco, Maine in 1777, John L. Sullivan was the son of Governor James Sullivan, who served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1807-1808. John Sullivan graduated from Harvard in 1807 and became a civil engineer. Governor Sullivan had a special interest in canals and was President of the Middlesex canal, even while Governor, and the superintending of the canal passed to John Sullivan upon the Governor’s death in 1808.

As an inventor, John L. Sullivan spent much of his time in court, first defending his right to a patent for the invention of the steam tow boat and then to obtain the rights for using those boats exclusively on the Connecticut River.

He describes his invention in his petition to the legislature this way: “That after many experiments and much expense, your petitioner succeeded in adapting steam engines of a peculiar construction, to boats of the small burden Mail on our canals and rivers, so as to enable a steam boat of this size to contain a power of twenty or thirty horses, and to tow a number of luggage boats, and to overcome rapids by the same power applied to a windlass connected with the engine. Your petitioner now owns such a boat, and put the same in operation on the Merrimack river the last year.”

John Sullivan remained as superintendent of the Middlesex Canal for 16 years, and did much to turn rivers into canals for the purpose of serving commerce and, of course, his invention.

While successful in his petitions, the effect of the boats on the banks of the canal proved to be destructive, and the power of the boats to tow freight through the rapids insufficient, and so their use was discontinued. He did, however, manage to take the Massachusetts legislature up the river as far as Concord, NH without incident.

Unlike most other founders, John L. Sullivan does not seem to have traveled in the same benevolent societies of the time, nor was there record of church participation. He was, however, in the circle of the Massachusetts legislature and a Harvard graduate, both of which circumstances could have led to bonds with other founders. His son, Thomas Russell Sullivan, became a Unitarian minister in Keene, NH, suggesting that while the literature focuses on his inventions, there was a personal piety that may have led him to the Massachusetts Bible Society.

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