Ellen Tucker Emerson, daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was an engaging writer in her own right. She never bothered to publish anything, writing instead for the enjoyment of her family and friends. Recently, I’ve been dabbling in the two volume set of her letters (Kent State University Press, 1982), and I came across a letter in which she describes going to a Unitarian summer conference with her father in 1879; by which time her father’s memory loss was fairly pronounced. In addition to giving a fascinating glimpse into the very beginnings of the kind of summer religious conferences that still continue today at places like Star Island and Ferry Beach, she also writes about how she happened to meet Jenkin Lloyd Jones, the secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference:
Weir’s N.H. July 22nd 1879
We all met at Nashua and came in high spirits to Lake Winnepisagee. We landed on a platform right over its waters, and felt all that sense of coolness & stillness & relief of getting out of the cars into beautiful nature that we have all often enjoyed. A friendly voice cried out “All who wish to go to Concord Building, follow me,” so we all followed, presented our credentials which were received with laughter and pocketed unread, because they said we didn’t need any, and the we were told the evening meeting was just beginning. The Meeting consisted of a welcoming address from Mr Powell of Laconia, who said he was chairman of the Reception Committee appointed by the N.H. Unitarian Assn. as their representative, as such, servants of all who arrived, to take good care of us, and that they would do it to the utmost. Then one Rev. from Mr Beane of Concord N.H. telling us about the lat Grove-Meeting, and that all who attended it learned the lesson that religion was more a social & less a solitary sentiment than they used to think, and that the cumulative effect of making it the business & study of a whole week night and day had been very great so that not only in general the Unitarians of N.H. had been more active, zealous and mutually attached ever since than they had been before, but that individual men had felt through the whole year the lift they got here last July, it was true of him, and he believed almost all who were here would be able to give the same testimony. So he congratulated us that we had come, and said we couldn’t help expecting much from this week. Then some notices, and we were dismissed and brought by Mr Powell to our present abode, Mrs Lovett’s house, quite near the Ground on a hill overlooking the lake and having a fine view of the Gunstock Mountain and the right and Ossippee Mountain on the left. The cooking is admirable, and there is plenty of new milk. Of course the mountain water is excellent. We arrived just a little late at the 8.30 morning prayer-meeting. There was the “Rev. Jenk. Ll. Jones” addressing us, not from the stand but down in the aisle. What he said was good and in a quiet sincere voice. Someone else spoke. Then there was silence, and Mr Powers said “If the Spirit doesn’t move us, we will close the meeting.” Notices were given, a hymn was sung, and Mr Jones gave the blessing. We were told that Mr Tiffany would preach at 10.30…. We were pleased, I of course most of all, that dear Mr Tiffany was here and we enjoyed his sermon. It was “Physician heal thyself”, learn something before you attempt to impart. In the course of it he couldn’t help saying that Mr Emerson was an example of the true way of teaching. Then arose his brother ministers and “hackit him in pieces sma’ ” (not on the point of Papa) except Rev. J. Ll. Jones who had a great deal to say about Father, in much the same strain as Mr Tiffany, and what did the man do, but standing within a rod of me insist on looking me in the eye all the time he wa speaking of Father. I stood it a little, but kept him out of focus a great deal….
I love the way she slides from dead serious to dryly humorous to slyly witty, sometimes in the space of one sentence. And I like the way she threads together small observations and minor incidents, seemingly quite unrelated, to make her narrative. But to conclude her miniature portrait of Jenkin Lloyd Jones….
In a letter to her sister, dated two days later, she wrote, “I have here had a chance to see the Western Unitarian Minister side by side with the Eastern. They are the most different creatures imaginable.” I suppose one difference was that the Eastern Unitarian Minister would preach from behind a pulpit; while Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a Western Unitarian Minister, came down from the stand to speak from the aisle. Ellen concludes, “On the whole my hero is the Rev. Jenk. Ll Jones…. Mr Jones spoke on the subject of the afternoon “If Life worth living?” I heard more clearly now than I had before the advantages, the joys, the light of Unitarianism. It was a beautiful, beautiful speech.”