Finding the French Connection: Elizabeth Duncan and the Naming of Massillon, Ohio

By: Andrew Preston

On September 1, 1715, Jean-Baptiste Massillon delivered a heart-stopping eulogy for the late king of France, Louis XIV. He began with a simple declaration: “God alone is great my brethren.” Legend has it that as these words echoed through the basilica of Saint Denis, Massillon’s audience jumped to their feet in disbelief. The sheer audacity of a preacher who would diminish the king’s majesty at his own funeral compelled their unanimous rise. Or so the story goes. Such a man had risen from mediocre beginnings in France’s Provence region to become a preacher of wide renown at the turn of the eighteenth century. Two years after his famous funeral oration, Massillon was made the Bishop of Clermont. He was esteemed for his style, which was both eloquent and rational, and his delivery, which stirred the soul and “spoke to the heart.”[1. I am grateful to the Massillon Public Library and Stark County Library Genealogy Department for their superb assistance and willingness to suffer my questions and requests. The Massillon Museum and its supporters funded and guided the research that I conducted for this essay, which is an adaptation of a work for a book scheduled to be published in June 2013 by the museum. I owe them a particular debt of gratitude. Elizabeth Mancke at the University of Akron and Thomas Blantz at the University of Notre Dame gave me thoughtful and gracious feedback. So too did Jacci Welling, Jay Case, Greg Miller, and Scott Waalkes at Malone University. For the quotation, see “Literary Intelligence of Europe,” Star (London, England) Issue 187 (6 December 1788).] Not one to pull his punches, Massillon’s sermons mainly dealt with issues of personal morality and social responsibility. Yet the preacher’s rhetorical genius and humble manner often enabled him to convey his piquant messages in ways that moved his listeners deeply without offending them.[2. I am indebted to Katina Hazimihalis and her biography on Jean-Baptiste Massillon (soon to be published by the Massillon Museum) for the information presented in the preceding paragraph. Few substantial biographies of Massillon exist in English. For a short yet serviceable encyclopedia entry on his life and work, see “Massillon, Jean Baptiste,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 2nd ed., ed. Bernard L. Marthaler, et al. (Farmington Hills, MI: Thompson Gale, 2003), 9:313-314.]

It is a curious matter of fact that on another continent about a century after his death Massillon’s name would come to signify a burgeoning canal town in Northeast Ohio.[3. The founders of this town were the first (though not the only) Americans to choose “Massillon” as their town name. A few decades later, settlers in Iowa allegedly copied this name from their Ohio counterparts.] Continue reading Finding the French Connection: Elizabeth Duncan and the Naming of Massillon, Ohio