Why Thoreau did not succeed in his own lifetime

Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote: “Perhaps if Thoreau could have been a religious fanatic, he would have prospered better.”

This is from The Memoirs of Julian Hawthorne, ed. Edith Garrigues Hawthorne (New York: Macmillan, 1938). Julian Hawthorne knew Thoreau, and like Thoreau was raised in part in Concord’s Unitarian church. This is one of the most perceptive commentaries on Thoreau I have read.

Had he lived a few decades later, Julian would have been a revered bestselling author; as it was, he had to live up to his father’s reputation, and so tried to write in a high literary style which was not his native tongue. After writing a concise and trenchant one-sentence critique of Thoreau, Julian follows it with a paragraph filled with less insightful and less well-written judgments. Here’s the whole paragraph:

Perhaps if Thoreau could have been a religious fanatic, he would have prospered better. He had no small mixture in him of the fanatic. But his faith in God was not that towering flame which the great religious reformers have manifested; the acid rationality was too strong in him. He was no barren atheist, but he had not fathomed the great secret, and could not preach without it. He had almost a rage for sincerity — to be as sincere as a bird, a tree, or a wolf; and the compromises and skilful locution of the church revolted him. If we cannot explain the Trinity, let us not affirm belief in it. He accepted the designation of Transcendentalist as committing him to nothing, but he did not regard himself as a disciple of Emerson or [Bronson] Alcott. His virtue was that he was a misfit anywhere in human congregations; he must be himself, and nobody, not even he, knew exactly what that was.

The middle of the paragraph is not really worth reading, but that last sentence is almost as good as the first. Put those two sentences together, and you have an image of someone who could have started a millennial cult. Actually, thinking back to the time when I was a tourist guide in Concord, some of today’s followers of Thoreau have all the characteristics of cultists, so maybe Thoreau did by accident found a cult; just not a very successful one.

Not Emerson?

Recently, I have been trying to track down the origins of the following quotation attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“A person will worship something — have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts — but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

This quotation appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, but there is no source listed for it in Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition. (This quotation does not appear in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the predecessor to Singing the Living Tradition.)

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson are available online at www.rwe.org. I searched the complete works for “tribute,” using both the online concordance, and a brute force search using Google, and did not find this quotation.

Emerson’s complete sermons are also available online at www.emersonsermons.com — these are the genetic texts (including manuscript variations) used in the definitive four-volume The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Albert J. von Frank et al. (University of Missouri Press, 1989-1991). Using a brute force Google search, I did not find this quote in the sermons. I was also able to search eight of the ten volumes of Emerson’s letters online using Google Books (vols. 1-5, and 8-10). This quotation was in none of those volumes. All my searches used the relatively uncommon word “tribute” as the key search word.

At this point, I have not searched vols. 6-7 of the Letters; The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H. Orth et al.; and The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H. Orth. Nevertheless, I’m assuming that Emerson probably did not write this passage, and the attribution should read “attributed to Emerson.” Can anyone prove me wrong by providing a definitive source for this quote?

(1/5/22: Click here for another Not Emerson hymn.)

Tidbit on William Jackson

I’m still finding out bits about the life of Rev. William Jackson, the African American minister, abolitionist, and military chaplain who declared himself a Unitarian in 1860, and was ignored by the American Unitarian Association.

I had Jackson’s birth date — 16 August 1818 — but not his date of death. Everett Hoagland, poet, retired professor, and UU, writes to me that Jackson died 19 May 1909, according to the reference librarian at the New Bedford Public Library.

Jackson is well worth a full book-length biography. He, with some others, helped to forcibly free an escaping slave imprisoned under the new Fugitive Slave Law in Philadelphia. He may have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was converted to Unitarianism by Frances Harper, but was rebuffed by the A.U.A., and so remained a liberal Baptist. He was the first person of color to receive a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army, and served briefly as chaplain to the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, before being transferred to the 55th when it was formed. And in the late nineteenth century, he was one of those middle class African Americans who began summering on Martha’s Vineyard. His life would make a great Ph.D. dissertation, or a great book.

Robert Gould Shaw, liberal religious patriot

For Independence Day, here’s the story of Robert Gould Shaw to inspire you. Excerpted and slightly modified from a sermon I delivered yesterday at the Palo Alto church.

Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston in 1837 to a wealthy Unitarian family. His parents were Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis; they had inherited money from Francis’s father, and Francis was involved in business and philanthropy. When Robert was five, the family moved to West Roxbury, near the famous Brook Farm community; and when Robert was in his teens, they moved to Staten Island, where the family helped found the Staten Island Unitarian church. The Shaws were abolitionists, and they may have been active in the Underground Railroad, helping escaping slaves to flee to the northern states.

Given the wealth and influence of the Shaw family, Robert surely could have avoided military service during the Civil War. But he chose to enlist. On April 19, 1861, Shaw joined the private Seventh New York Volunteer Militia. That short-lived unit disbanded after a month or so, and he joined the Second Massachusetts Volunteers (Infantry), and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant on May 28, 1861. He became First Lieutenant on July 8, 1861, and Captain on August 10, 1862. While with the Second Massachusetts, he took part in several battles, including the battle at Antietam. In late 1862, he was offered the chance to command a regiment made up entirely of free African Americans from the north. He became Colonel of Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on April 17, 1863.

A small volume titled Memoirs of the War of ’61, published in 1920 by George H. Ellis (who was the printer for Unitarian tracts and books), tells the story of Shaw’s military service through excerpts from his lettersBelow are the excerpts relating to the 54th Regiment, which show his courage, and his growing realization that the men under his command were indeed his equals; for even though he was an abolitionist, like most white people of his day, he began by thinking African Americans his inferiors:

[Upon accepting command of the 54th Regiment, February 5th, 1862. Shaw wrote:] “There is great prejudice against it — at any rate I shan’t be frightened out of it by unpopularity.” March 25: “The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me.” March 30: “The mustering officer who was here to-day is a Virginian, and he always thought it was a great joke to make soldiers of ‘n——s’ [African Americans], but he tells me now that he has never mustered in so fine a set of men, though about 20,000 have passed through his hands since September. The skeptics need only to come out here to be converted.” Morris Island, July 18: “We are in General Strong’s brigade. We came up here last night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being heavily bombarded. We are not far from it. We hear nothing but praise for the Fifty-fourth on all hands.”

Shaw was offered the post of greatest danger and greatest honor in the assault on Fort Wagner, and accepted immediately. Here is a contemporary account of what happened, written from South Carolina on July 22 by an unidentified person attached to General Strong:

The troops looked worn and weary; had been without tents during the pelting rains of the two previous nights. When they came within six hundred yards of Fort Wagner they formed in line of battle, the Colonel heading the first and the Major the second battalion. With the Sixth Connecticut and Ninth Maine and others they remained half an hour. Then the order for ‘charge’ was given. The regiment marched at quick, then at double-quick time. When about one hundred yards from the Fort the rebel musketry opened with such terrible fire that for an instant the first battalion hesitated; but only for an instant, for Colonel Shaw, springing to the front and waving his sword, shouted, ‘Forward, Fifty-fourth!’ and with another cheer and shout they rushed through the ditch and gained the parapet on the right. Colonel Shaw was one of the first to scale the walls. He stood erect to urge forward his men, and while shouting for them to press on was shot dead and fell into the fort.

Thinking to humiliate Shaw and his family, the Confederate Army, shocked that a white man would serve with African Americans, buried Shaw in a common grave with his soldiers. But his parents were pleased by this, and wrote:

We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!

The story of Robert Gould Shaw is a classic story of patriotism. He gave his life in service of his country; more to the point, he gave his life while serving the highest ideals of his country, the ideals of freedom and equality for all persons. And in this case, the ideals of his country, and the ideals of his Unitarian faith, were clearly aligned. It is a classic story of patriotism, yet even so, Shaw’s patriotism questioned a dominant notion of his day: that African Americans could not serve with distinction in the military. So you see, this is a story of how a religious liberal pushed the boundaries of patriotism.


Quote from Shaw’s parents from Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-century Reform, by Lorien Foote (2003: Ohio University Press). Other quotes by and information about Robert Gould Shaw from Memoirs of the War of ’61 (1920: George Ellis); the online biography of Shaw at the UU Historical Society Web site; and other online and printed sources.

Conrad Wright is dead

Conrad Wright died Thursday. Here’s the obituary on the Harvard Divinity School Web siteand here is the obituary on the Boston Globe Web site. (Thanks to Bill for this.)

Wright was a towering figure in Unitarian history scholarship. His book-length history, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America, and his essays, many of which are collected in The Unitarian Controversy: Essays in American Unitarian History, have not been surpassed. Later generations of historians have offered minor corrections to his narrative, by e.g. filling in more details on early Unitarian history outside New England, but we pretty much still accept his basic narrative as the default.

In 1998 Wright published a study of Unitarian Universalist polity, Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches, which collects some of his earlier writings on Unitarian history and adds material about Universalist polity. Unlike his work on Unitarian history, his work on Unitarian Universalist polity is somewhat problematic, particularly in the lack of in-depth treatment of Universalist polity, and in the way it does not place enough emphasis on how Unitarian Universalism has been affected by Universalist polity. Nevertheless, Walking Together is an essential book for anyone involved in or interested in the issues facing congregational polity.

But the reason Wright stands as one of my heroes has nothing to do with his scholarship. He’s one of my heroes because of (to use a now outdated word) his “churchmanship.” Wright was a long-time lay leader of First Parish of Cambridge. When I was involved in young adult activities in the Boston area some fifteen years ago (back when I still was a young adult), I got to know several young adults who were members of the Cambridge congregation, and they spoke of Wright with a certain amount of awe. In addition to serving his local congregation, he also used his talents in service of the denomination; it seemed to me that he was always a part of any denominational effort that reviewed our polity.

Wright was someone who cared deeply about the institutional health of Unitarian Universalism, and used his considerable intellect and talents to strengthen our institutions. We have lost one of our Titans.

According to the Globe obit, services will be private. I imagine that Harvard Divinity School will have some kind of memorial service in his honor. I hope that there will be a more public forum within Unitarian Universalism to recognize Wright’s contributions, perhaps at General Assembly.

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