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VI: in and out of the pulpit

In the summer of 1847, Wentworth Higginson, being then twenty-three, accepted an invitation to become pastor of the First Religious Society of Newburyport. He wrote a friend:—
I think the pastoral relation will be interesting to me—and if I fail in it, it will be for want of time or skill, not of inclination. . . . Now I have fairly shaken myself free of the too fascinating home of all my past years—I do not believe any one ever clung to Cambridge as I have done.

But the following extracts from another letter show that he soon became reconciled to the change:—

I do think we need transplanting, sometimes even I,—I grow tired of things and people. . . . I think all we have to do with, houses, rooms, towns, &c. should have perpetual slight changes going on, that we may feel that they live and grow with us. . . . Aunt S.'s everlasting parlors are a weariness to my spirit—even pretty engravings do not bear the same places and the same cords for years.

And his natural buoyancy, which never deserted him through life, led him to moralize thus:— [85]
It does require a great deal to live in such a world—but the way to prepare for the worst is not to be constantly expecting it, but to be constantly sensible of the superabundance of beauty and good in the universe, a thought which is never for an instant out of my mind, and in view of which I cannot conceive of being overcome by anything.

In this courageous frame of mind, Mr. Higginson was ordained September 15. His friends Johnson and Hurlbut wrote hymns for the occasion. His cousin, Rev. William Henry Channing, preached the sermon, and Dr. James Freeman Clarke gave the charge. While the latter exhorted his young brother to reform by construction, not destruction, he urged him to speak scathing words of rebuke against the sin of slavery. Thus was the path marked out in which the new minister was not reluctant to walk and which finally made his position too hot to hold him.

His marriage to Miss Channing took place September 30, 1847, he having previously convinced the young woman that two healthy persons could keep house perfectly well without servants, and that housework would never destroy real romance; and they began housekeeping on this plan. The economy practised by the newly married pair was amazing, and the following year Mr. Higginson summed up their financial status in this wise:— [86]

We have now no bill over $3 in Newburyport. We are amply provided for this year and the next must take care of itself. . . . On looking back at our expenses, the clothing account surprises me most— our united expenses have never gone beyond $80, which is very little.

These frugal habits pleased the young clergyman's mother and she exhorted him: ‘Rise up moralist and preach frugality to the age!’ And the son responded, ‘The most trying thing is this great big house. I pine for a nutshell.’ Yet he determined to make the best of unwonted luxury and wrote to his brother:—

I am fairly settled now in a lovely house, with a noble-hearted wife and a marvellous parish. . . .

You can hardly imagine how far off my dreamy Cambridge life now seems to me.

In the spring, they rejoiced in a garden:—

Our sunny little garden is insane with tulips everywhere—appearing in the most unexpected and improper places.

Of his parish, he wrote:—

They [the parishioners] manifest regard for us only by full and attentive presence at church— certainly the most agreeable way, but queer. Not a particle of petting. Rather afraid of us, in fact, Mary thinks—as if we were handsome spotted panthers, good to look at and roaring finely—something to [87] be proud of, perhaps—but not to be approached incautiously, or too near; except by a few familiar ones. . . .

I find less to complain of and far more to enjoy in the ministry than I have ever anticipated: my people are thus far willing and impressible at least; I say whatever seems right, and they listen; I preached yesterday to about 400. . . . If I can do my duty, there is much to be effected here. . . .

We met Mr.——the richest man (about) in the Society . . . he ere long proceeded to compliment me on “the good whipping I gave them Sunday afternoon on Freedom of Speech.” . . . I have not yet found one who approves the war or disapproves free speech on the minister's part and I begin to feel somewhat confident that they will stand the trials I have ready for them. . . . I have talked very plainly in private.

But in the midst of his satisfaction doubts occurred, and Wentworth wrote to his mother:—

Strive as I may, I still feel myself in a position to some extent artificial. . . . I cannot reconcile myself to the recurring forms even of worship, still less those connected with church organization. I find no outward difficulty, but only inward; this may decrease, but it looks more like increase.

To his Aunt Nancy he confided that he sometimes felt ‘terribly false, . . . like Mr. Emerson with a hole in the heel of his stocking. (He refused to go to pay a visit on this account.) “Why, nobody will [88] know it,” urged his friend. “I shall know it,” replied the sage, gently.’ With prophetic foresight he added: ‘But as regards preaching proper, I have no sort of doubt of its being my mission—in some form or other—that is speaking to men, in the pulpit or elsewhere. . . . But enough of churches and preachers and future botherations; what trifles they all seem when Spring is opening and the tardy blue anemones are almost ready to open their blue eyes.’

Of his work outside the parish, he wrote—

We are becoming somewhat more acquainted with the poor people here, which is to me very painful work—unnatural I think, this charity—though necessary in our present imperfect state. It seems so much easier to prevent than to cure. This necessity of entering into the concerns of so many families (in sympathy if not in act) which is part of a minister's duty is trying to me,—it is as much as I feel fitted for to steer my own course. It is n't because I sympathize too little but too much.

This sympathy led him to take an active interest in the working-people and to concern himself about the long hours of labor of the factory girls. At the same time he interested himself in a magazine for their benefit with a title which he pronounced somewhat uncouth, ‘The Mirror and Casket of Female Industry.’

Besides this local work, Mr. Higginson often preached and lectured in other places, spoke at antislavery [89] and temperance meetings, and wrote for various newspapers. He was also drawn into politics. In the autumn of 1848, he accepted the nomination of the Free Soil Party for Congress and wrote thus to his brother:—

You have probably seen my nomination for Congress. I did all I could to get Whittier nominated, but he obstinately declined, and it was he who proposed my name. . . .

Perhaps I should not have started my [local] newspaper column had I expected this nomination —but now I am in for it, I have no thought of flinching. It will hurt my popularity in Newburyport for they call it ambition &c.—but I trust that time will do me justice. . . . I expect to “stump” a little and but little.

To the same he wrote, October II, 1848:—

I shall be glad when the Presidential Campaign is over. I spoke at Haverhill last Monday to a fine large audience—the best I have seen, and the best speech. I always knew I had a fountain of extempore matter in me somewhere—but did not expect to find it tapped so suddenly. . . . I am getting used to seeing my name at the Corners of the Streets. In juvenile days that would have seemed beyond the horizon of earthly ambition, but it don't seem to tell for so much now. I don't think Morleena Kenwigs herself would be tempted to be proud, could she actually have the experience.

Free Soil does n't prosper much just in this [90] town—it will take longer than in most places. My good people have not yet uttered a croak—nor will they, [a prediction which was not realized.]

The young politician, in gauging his prospect of success wrote, ‘There is of course no chance of my being elected; but I am sincerely desirous that Mr. ——should be defeated.’ And he recalled with some amusement ‘how carefully good President Quincy used to forbid our showing any political preferences on public occasions, even on the popular side.’

The watchful mother, who had warned her son against Theodore Parker's radical sermons, thus wrote of his activity in politics:—

And so you are fairly entered again on a political career—safe—because on the unpopular side. Therefore I don't complain.

And later she wrote to his wife:—

I have been thinking of him this winter going from Dan to Beersheba on his Mission and concluded [that] with his utter contempt of all wrappings he must freeze.

‘I am engaged in several new enterprises,’ wrote Higginson to Samuel Longfellow who was abroad;

one is or was the attempt to bring back the Free Soil Party to self-control and consistency from the more fascinating paths of coalition and conquest; this has failed already; and I have only seen my name [91] in many newspapers, with unwelcome Whig compliments and melancholy Free Soil ones; and no good done but warning and reproof. The other may be more successful—it is to induce Massachusetts to follow the example of Maine, and either have laws that can do something, or none at all, in the way of checking the liquor traffic. But as you are now in England where all teetotallers take to drinking, and going soon to the Continent where all forget that they ever were teetotallers, you will not care about this, though we are really entering on a very important revival.

Temperance was one of the vital causes in which the young minister interested himself with some practical results. His wife wrote:—

W.'s Temperance Sermon which he repeated last Sunday eve—has already done good—three establishments are to be closed in consequence.

Of this interest Mr. Higginson wrote to his mother in 1851:—

I have been persuaded to speak on Temperance Every Sunday for a few weeks to come and after Christmas shall perhaps take the offer made me by our State Central Committee and become their Secretary for a month or so, during the agitation of the Maine Law . . . the Committee are ready to take me at any time on handsome terms, and but for the Evening School and a small piece of literary work I have for this month, I might perhaps go at once. . . . [92]

Last Tuesday and Wednesday I went to the State Temperance Convention; the best part of a Convention is in the preliminary meeting when the wires are pulled and all the real fighting done. I was in the thick of it.

He adds:—

A week ago to-day I lectured at Concord on the Maine Laws. . . . I had a queer time going to Concord—part in stage and part in sleigh and was upset once in each, together with a slight concussion on the railroad, coming back.

The clergyman's pen as well as his voice was busy and he never lost an opportunity to help what was called the ‘woman question.’ One of the prominent workers in this cause wrote to him, in later years, that he had ‘done great service by bringing to the necessary hard work of unpopular reforms the urbanity of literary culture and social talent,’ and he has been called a ‘harbinger of successful causes.’ In 1849, at a meeting in Boston of a society of literary men called the Town and Country Club, he nominated a woman for membership, and gave as his reason, ‘Because it seemed a rare opportunity for asserting a valuable principle, viz., the union of the sexes in all intellectual aims and instrumentalities.’ This club, as Mr. Higginson wrote later, was ‘valuable as an attempt to organize intellectual Boston in the days of its most seething mental activity’; [93] and ‘died, like so many other good things, in endeavoring to be born.’ The effort to include women members failed, but he persisted in similar cases, as when much later he accomplished the admission of Julia Ward Howe to the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Of all the movements which claimed the young reformer's support, that of anti-slavery was nearest his heart. He wrote to his mother:—

We have had another interesting beggar, viz. a colored brother of gigantic proportions, named Foster, who is raising money for an excellent Manual Labor School he has started (for fugitive slaves and others) in Michigan. He spent the night here and was very good company; told plenty of stories about slaves and slave-catchers; a man of superior intelligence, information and humor. . . . I entirely forgot he was black,—(though I never have much colorphobia).

Later, when the prejudice against the race seemed increasing, he wrote, ‘The worst trait of the American race seems to me this infernal colorphobia.’

Mrs. Higginson always regarded her husband's philanthropies with whimsical—if sympathetic— amusement, and once exclaimed, ‘Why do the insane always come to you!’

As to Mr. Higginson's sermons, his wife wrote to the family at Brattleboro:— [94]

The Parish are really beginning to appreciate W. somewhat. His last two Sermons were so much liked they insisted upon their being published—and he gave his consent. They are upon The Tongue.

Another sermon on ‘Merchants’ attracted much attention, and a friend begged the preacher to write and print a lecture on the same subject and ‘sow it broadcast.’ This advice was taken, for later he said, ‘I have just had one of the most real honors I have ever had; the reprinting of nearly all my Lecture on Merchants in Hunt's Merchant's Magazine.’

To the children of his parish, the minister preached sermons once a month, writing to his mother, ‘I want to do something for them and this is much easier to me than Sunday School addresses. The little things seem to listen and enjoy it.’

A letter recently received from one of these very children, now a wife and mother, says that Mr. Higginson was connected with many of the most joyous experiences of her childhood; ‘for while he was an inspiration to the young people of the town, he was a genuine playmate to us. Many were the bright winter afternoons when we went coasting together on the long hills back of the town, when we had no doubt he enjoyed himself as much as we did.’ She adds that the children listened with delight to the juvenile [95] sermons, feeling that they were spoken to them by a comrade, and she gives a vivid description of a Christmas tree which he had for poor children, an unusual and exciting event in those days. One small child who had spent a day with the minister told his parents that Mr. Higginson was a ‘real boy’; which meed of praise the latter reported with glee to his mother.

The young clergyman gathered around him also a remarkable bevy of maidens who studied English poetry with him and for whom he planned a course of Shakespeare readings. These young girls assisted him in the evening school which he established for working-people. This evening school was one of the first in the country, and the experiment led to similar schools in other States. Some of these Mr. Higginson aided in establishing, as the one in Dover, New Hampshire. In his carefully kept records of the evening schools of Newburyport are the names of ‘male’ and ‘female’ pupils with their various employments and the factories where they worked. Even then most of the men were of foreign extraction, and instruction seems to have been given principally in the three ‘R's.’ One of the young teachers who helped in these classes was Harriet Prescott, now Mrs. Spofford. She writes, ‘Mr. Higginson was like a great archangel to all of us then and there [96] were so many of us! Coming into the humdrum life of the town, he was like some one from another star’; and incidentally she speaks of his great personal beauty. This last impression was confirmed by Wendell Phillips, who, while listening to a lecture by Higginson, said to his companion, ‘Is it not glorious to be handsome!’

Among other things it fell to the lot of the clerical pair to entertain various men and women of note who came to Newburyport to lecture. In the winter of 1848, Mr. Higginson wrote to his mother of Professor Agassiz:—

He is a charming companion, very joyous, gentle and modest, always ready and willing to communicate his endless information about all invisible things. . . .

Mr. Emerson comes on Friday and will stop here—as will also probably the minor star, Dr. Holmes, the week after. 'T is a nice way of seeing great people, for they can't well be otherwise than complaisant when you rescue them from a dirty tavern and give them hominy for breakfast.

And Mrs. Higginson added:—

Friday night that enormous Charles Sumner stretched his ponderous form of seven feet in length under our roof. He has not very good manners—he always sits in the rocking chair, gapes almost constantly without any attempt at concealment. . . . [97] But he is a true moral reformer which is a good thing.

Apropos of these visitors the following extracts are taken from Mr. Higginson's letters to his mother:—

I had the pleasure week before last of making acquaintance with Henry Ward Beecher who came here to lecture. . . . Something very fresh and noble about him, and he showed vigor and richness of mind, rather than subtlety and refined culture; perfectly genial and simple and practical too. It was so much pleasanter to see him in this informal way. . . .

A most charming individual has been here in the shape of a female Anti-Slavery lecturer—Miss Lucy Stone by name—a little meek-looking Quakerish body, with the sweetest, modest manners and yet as unshrinking and self-possessed as a loaded cannon.

At Plymouth I heard some pretty things. One is about Laura Bridgman—that a lady whom she visited in Duxbury read her the whole of Evangeline on her fingers! Laura enjoyed it excessively and has talked about it a great deal. She wants to be as good as the heroine and wonders whether Evangeline would have kicked a cat—that animal being her aversion.

After hearing Kossuth, he wrote:—

No such series of speeches was ever delivered in so short a space by one man, since the world began; and when you add the fact of the foreign language, it becomes so astonishing that you cannot remember [98] how astonishing it is. There seems absolutely no limit to the resources of his eloquence, his mastery over language, or his power of meeting the occasion; his career from the moment he landed has been one long intellectual triumph. It seems more like the Chronicle of the Cid than any more modern story— a prolonged tournament in which the victor is always the same.

And after meeting Thoreau:—

In Concord I went to see Thoreau; he is more human and polite than I supposed, and said he had heard Mr. Emerson speak of me; he is a little bronzed spare man; he makes lead pencils with his father on Monday and Tuesday and was in the midst of work. On other days he surveys land, both mathematically and meditatively; lays out houselots in Haverhill and in the moon. He talks sententiously and originally; his manner is the most unvarying facsimile of Mr. Emerson's, but his thoughts are quite his own. . . .He does not seem particularly affected by applause, but rather by his own natural egotism. I find nobody who enjoys his book as I do (this I did not tell him). . . . I saw his mother, a gaunt and elderly Abolitionist who had read my Thanksgiving sermon with comfort, and told me anecdotes of “Henry's” ways which are more domestic and filial than one would suppose.

While at Newburyport, Higginson renewed his acquaintance with Whittier, having first met him when a boy of nineteen. [99]

I spent a day in Amesbury and saw Whittier. . . . Dark, slender, bald, blackhaired, kind, calm, flashing eyed, keen, somewhat narrow; not commanding, but interesting. Evidently injured by politics, easily content with limited views; yet sympathetic and (probably) generous. Lives in an appropriate cottage yet very simple. A queer compound of Yankee-Quaker and Yankee-hero and Yankee-poet; the nationality everywhere. He would whittle, no doubt. But his eye gleamed with a soft, beautiful tenderness as he came to the door and remarked on the cold sunset sky. . . . He lives with an odd Quaker-dressed mother, who haunted the back room with knitting and spectacles;—square and mild, as the elderly of her persuasion always are. Also his sister who talked with us, a queer little sprightly woman, reputed very brilliant and looking so. We laughed a good deal, (he has much humour) and she was funny; for she has, you see, a tremendous nose, very solid and peculiar, and her wits seem all to be dodging behind it and when you look into one eye that seems very demure they are all sparkling in the other— and vice versa. She is half an invalid.

Boston was near enough for occasional visits, and after attending a concert by Jenny Lind, Mr. Higginson wrote to his mother in November, 1851:—

I was very ardent at the time, partly because the Boston audience seemed so peculiarly icy. There was not a spark of enthusiasm from beginning to end. . . .

There she stood and looked out over the people [100] in a half-smiling, thoughtful sort of way, swaying herself a little to and fro, not graceful, but sweet and gentle, tall, slender, with a very unbecoming white dress, and white roses in her hair,—face like all the pictures. I could conceive what a “new sensation” she might have been to hacknied opera-goers in London. . . . [She sang] a wonderful Bugle Song, the notes dying away in the distance. This last was perfectly incredible—you listen and listen and at last become perfectly bewildered and decide that the notes will never end but go with you always.

One of the valuable friendships formed at this period was that with David Wasson, whom Mr. Higginson dubbed ‘the most interesting person I know.’ This radical young parson had recently been ordained at the neighboring town of Bradford (or Groveland), to Mr. Higginson's surprise, who thought Wasson too heretical for any council to admit. Mr. F. B. Sanborn remembers encountering in that region a country youth who summed up the two independent clergymen thus: ‘Wal, he's [Wasson] a sort of infidel; he says he don't take much stock in th' old saints; Mista Hinkerson [Higginson], daown ta the Port, 's the sweetest saint I ever knew.’

After attending some of the May anniversary meetings, Mr. Higginson reported that he had spoken his mind freely about the emptiness of Unitarian gatherings. Some present did not approve, [101] and other elders who were there said it ‘should have been said long ago and had been long felt. I am very sure that good will come of what I said: they need a note of discord to break the general monotony of the meetings.’ To Mr. Wasson he confided some of his professional anxieties:—

Nov. 17, 1851.
Something must be done with this great Orthodox church; no question of that; the how and what, alas, are more difficult of decision, and beyond my gifts and training at least. . . . Who is to pilot the ship, pray, if each Palinurus jumps overboard and strikes out for shore on his own account . . .

I wish you would go and see. . . Sam Johnson of Salem, . . . who can help many troubles by his sheer Unconsciousness of the possibility of having them.

Doubts as to his own success in his chosen profession sometimes recurred. In his second year of preaching, he mused:—

I am weary of these lives that end early and leave only blossoms, not fruit, for a remembrance. Unless it is worth while to have me stay long enough on earth to produce something, it is not worth while to be remembered at all. Was this in Keats' mind, when he chose his epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” ? Should I go before I have borne not flowers only but fruit, I would have no biography written and have my epitaph

'T is not a life!
'T is but a piece of childhood thrown away!


Later, after one of the annual family Thanksgiving parties in Brookline, Wentworth thus defined himself to his mother:—

If not exactly one of the Hans Andersen's ugly ducks, I have always been an odd chicken. I have always been at other people's Thanksgiving parties and not my own. I have been a snubbed little boy among an elder cousinly circle, I have been a Lord of Misrule among a younger; but not until we are all born again into some sphere of Saturn or Uranus shall I find a Thanksgiving party of contemporaries. Still I am not sure but this office of connecting-link has as many pleasures and as few pains as any other.

At this time, Mr. Higginson wrote few letters, except these filial ones and said to a neglected correspondent:—

People don't lecture and edit and keep school for 135 factory girls for nothing, and cannot expect to have much time left afterwards to answer bright letters.

He reports clearing about twelve dollars from a lecture, and consenting to have some of his sermons printed because the people wanted them, and adds, ‘My lecture arrangements, poor people, etc., have kept me going down town so much that M. thinks I have begun to practice physic.’

‘All is prosperous thus far,’ wrote the hopeful son. ‘I preached my most (preachable) theological [103] heresies yesterday and have heard nothing yet but applause. . . . It is the place for me and I think there is now but a small chance of a reaction against me— as I have already taken ground against the War (they say) and my next Sunday's blast will be but a following up of that.’

The preacher evidently did not foresee that these frank utterances would antagonize his hearers. In reference to an anti-slavery convention at Newburyport, he wrote:—

I read the notice of the Convention and said I should preach on Slavery in the afternoon—in connexion with it—which I did, on the text, “Behold the men who have turned the world upside down are come hither also” giving a free spoken blast, showing . . . the apathy . . . and the duties of the North— and finally recommending (indirectly) my hearers to go to the Convention in the Evening—which many did. . . . There has been much discussion on the subject this week and I feel entirely satisfied with the success of my effort—which has not, so far as I know, excited any opposition. At all events I have defined my position.

The pro-slavery sentiment was very strong in Newburyport, and Mr. Higginson's parish contained sundry sea-captains who saw no sin in returning fugitive slaves to their owners. Later one of these very men took Sims, the runaway slave, back to Savannah. Mr. Higginson's frequent sermons on the [104] abolition of slavery and his activity in furthering the crusade caused growing discontent in the parish; although it is said that even these unwelcome sermons were so intensely interesting that the dissatisfied members of the society were his most constant hearers. But the opposition to his political views finally led to his resignation, after preaching for two years. ‘An empty pulpit,’ he said to his people, ‘has often preached louder than a living minister.’ He thus stated the event to his mother (September 6, 1849):—

The case was perfectly simple. Mr. W. distinctly stated that they had no fault to find with me personally, they liked and respected me; they were always interested in my preaching; they had no complaint as to pastoral matters; the only thing he had ever heard mentioned was Slavery and Politics; my position as an Abolitionist they could not bear. This, he admitted, could not be altered; and he tacitly recognized that I had but one course to pursue.

To his old friend, Sam Johnson, he wrote at the same time:—

Dear but agitated brother,—

I intended to write you, but for procrastination and the knowledge that ill news travel fast. Mine is good though. I had resolved to release myself from the whole thing next year, for various reasons. But the discontents of the Pleasant St. “upper ten” . . . [105] have led to it now. I said so Sunday before last, to the surprise of many and the tears of all women, poor men, young men, Democrats and Come-outers. A kind of reaction has followed since, and now all the rest are shedding tears—still they have accepted my resignation only not to take effect for 6 months. With a free church I could carry off half the society and many urge it—but I will not . . . I intend to give lectures here by and by or something of that sort. We are never going to leave these parts and are to board for the present at Mrs. Curson's, Artichoke Mills, 3 miles from town and the loveliest place on earth . . . .

Not a dozen are really opposed to me, but they have all the wealth. Oh Christian Church!

One member of the congregation wrote (November 7, 1849) these words to a relative of the dislodged pastor:—

After hearing his two exquisite sermons—in the morning “Rejoice in the Lord” —in the afternoon “It doth not yet appear” I felt profoundly sad at the thought of his leaving the pulpit . . . We cannot spare such gifts.

During the last six months of his stay in the parish, Mr. Higginson wrote to a friend:—

The beautiful words “pastor” and “minister” have become almost offensive; but the good thing they used to denote has not. . . .

These last months have something of pain for me, though they go very fast.


When this trying period was over, the Higginsons removed to a charming rural spot embowered in trees where the Merrimac and Artichoke Rivers meet. Here they shared the home of certain distant family connections who held their right to the place as long as they ground corn once a year. In this retreat the banished couple not only produced their own butter, but even sent some to Brattleboro, for Mr. Higginson wrote to his mother:—

This is not my first churning, nor did I do all of this, for it took a great while and I had not time, but week before last I did it all and this time most of it, so you may safely call it my butter with some twirls of the crank from M. likewise.

You don't see such butter every day!

Soon he added:—

‘It is quite as beautiful here as was reported and our feet are fast growing to the ground.’ From this earthly paradise ‘in the ecstasy of June’ he wrote:—

The soft west wind blows into my window, rich with lingering apple blossoms and half blown clover... thrushes' and bobolinks' and robins' notes. . . .

In these lovely Spring days with the blue Merrimack waves dancing before me, the world seems very young, and all evil short-lived.


It is said in Newburyport that the young minister on leaving there burned all his unpublished sermons. However this may be, he preached in a hall after he had, to use his own words, ‘preached himself out of his pulpit.’ One of his Newburyport friends says that the majority of his parish, those who agreed with him, followed him to this hall, and those who remained in the church went to his evening meetings. This lady, who was then one of the adoring young people, says, ‘We sat on the steps of the platform from which he spoke, and worshipped him instead of God.’

‘It is pleasant to me to feel,’ he wrote, ‘that I have resumed my post of public scold. I have announced about 12 lectures, on every other Sunday Evening.’

He remained in Newburyport two years after his resignation, interesting himself as before in the welfare of the people. He kept up his evening classes, walking back and forth to the town, made frequent visits to the public schools and served on the school committee. The pupils looked up to him with great reverence and accepted his advice as final. He was one of a committee of three which offered a prize of ten dollars each for the best essay and the best poem. Harriet Prescott wrote the successful essay on ‘Hamlet,’ and remembers how she retired to her [108] room in deep emotion after receiving from Mr. Higginson's hands her gold eagle in a little mesh purse.

His practical interest in libraries seems from this record to have begun here.

We have about $1250 subscribed and hope to get $1500 in town and $500 to $1000 out of town—besides books. By January 1 I hope the Library will go into operation; but we have a temporary place of deposit now.

In answer to his mother's entreaties, he wrote:—

Thanks for your letter and its excellent advice. Certainly I shall never edit a paper—not go solely into politics; and as for companions I am always too thankful for real ones to care what garments they wear,— “Bob” my principal crony, at the Mills, has rather nondescript ones at present, but will probably come to pantaloons in time. . . . Did I tell you of seeing them (the Whittiers) at the Mills with Miss “Grace Greenwood” the poetess &c. whom I had the privilege of rowing on the Artichoke?

While in Newburyport, he renewed his intimacy, begun in college days with Levi Thaxter. The latter had announced that he was looking for some lonely place where he could, like Demosthenes, declaim to the waves. ‘I have suggested,’ said Mr. Higginson, ‘the Isles of Shoals. They are peopled by a queer race of fishermen.’ Neither of the friends could have foreseen that the result of this suggestion would be [109] the discovery of Thaxter's future wife. Later Wentworth wrote to his mother:—

We had a nice visit from Levi, he brought the loveliest seaweed and gave a glowing account of Appledore.

But Mrs. Higginson's version of the visit was somewhat different, for she declared:—

Last Wednesday Levi appeared with a cod and several Salt Mackerel (awful things); we are trying to give them away.

After an expedition to the Isles of Shoals, where he met for the first time the fair young Celia Leighton, with her necklace of sea-shells, Mr. Higginson wrote:—

There is no passion so beguiling as boating and I could sympathize with Levi in that; Levi has still his beautiful boat The Lady of Shalott. . . . As to his other Lady I grew more and more attracted to the sea maiden; Celia has a lovely nature, simple, true, confiding, brave and of perfect serenity of temper. . . . And the more I think of her, and remember that she is but fifteen; the more I feel that there is no predicting what she may not turn out.

In writing nearly a year later of the Thaxter marriage, Mr. Higginson said:—

Characteristically enough the great event was decided on, the priest sent for to the mainland and the ceremony performed all in one day!


The interludes of play, however, were brief and infrequent, and the days more than full of manifold tasks. To his over-anxious mother, the dutiful son reported his doings thus:—

I have just been writing a sheet of Maxims for Maidens going to Normal School. Two of my children—they were little girls when I came here—are bound thither in a fortnight. . . to let two such locomotives as these two girls go off to one small town . . . without any manual of wisdom would be obviously unsafe; so I have written them a series of little Maxims like General Washington's. This I say partly to frighten you, because you believe such singular things about me that I have no doubt you suppose that I advise them to take boxing lessons every Sunday morning . . . but I don't.

Again he wrote:—

I was amused yesterday by reading in a note of Dr. Young's Chronicles that when Francis Higginson, the ancient, became a non-conformist ‘he was accordingly excluded from his pulpit; but a lectureship was established for him, in which he was maintained by the voluntary contributions of the inhabitants'; so I have good precedents.’

Having given up his editorial column in the Newburyport paper, Higginson undertook to write two articles a week for the ‘Commonwealth’ to appear as editorials, for which he was promised two dollars and a half per column. His early connection [111] with this paper was brief; he was impatient at the misprints in his contributions, and complained:—

This makes five articles of mine in your unhappy paper and there has been some diabolical erratum in each one. I shall try no further.

It is needless to say that these diaboli continued to annoy the author through life.

It was while in Newburyport that, with the cooperation of Samuel Longfellow, Mr. Higginson undertook to edit a volume of sea poems called ‘Thalatta.’ The editors apparently thought of bringing this volume out at the same time that ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’ appeared, as Higginson wrote, ‘Thalatta is at a standstill because Mrs. Stowe exhausts all the paper mills.’

The young author was aroused from these peaceful pursuits by the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, September 18, 1850. After reading the details of what he called ‘this most cruel and unrighteous bill,’ he appealed to his old schoolmate, Charles Devens, United States Marshal, writing a burning letter of expostulation from which this passage is quoted:—

Newburyport, Sep. 29, 1850.
. . . For myself there is something in the thought of assisting to return to slavery a man guilty of no crime but a colored skin [at which] every thought of [112] my nature rebels in . . . horror. I think not now of the escaped slave, though he has all my sympathies, but of the free men and women who are destined to suffer for this act. And I almost feel as if the nation of which we have boasted were sunk in the dust forever, now that justice and humanity are gone; and as if the 19th century were the darkest of all the ages.

In April, 1851, Mr. Higginson, as a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, received a summons to aid in rescuing Sims, the first fugitive slave captured in Boston and returned to slavery. Higginson was at this time a stockholder in the yacht Flirt, which was nominally for rent, but actually kept cruising about the coast in readiness to rescue slaves from incoming vessels or to kidnap their pursuers.

A crowded meeting was held in Tremont Temple, where Higginson made a vehement speech urging instant action. To this advice a subsequent speaker, Charles Mayo Ellis, strongly objected. Apropos of these speeches, Mr. Higginson's sister-in-law, Miss Barbara Channing, wrote:—

I went to see Anne Phillips [Mrs. Wendell Phillips], who is enthusiastic about W. [Wentworth] —she said her hopes of Sims' rescue rested upon him, and if he had not been followed in his splendid speech at the Temple by a man who threw cold water upon his coals, he would have sent hundreds to the Court House.


Reporting the comments upon this eventful meeting to his mother, Wentworth quoted Anson Burlingame, a prominent politician, who said:—

It [Higginson's] was the most remarkable speech he ever heard; it held the audience spellbound; it was more remarkable for what it kept back and hinted at than what it said; there was a fire in the eye that made him tremble.

W. Phillips said that Dr. Howe said “we were on the eve of a revolution with that speech—nothing but Ellis's speech saved us.”

Yet it was very short and I was conscious of no such effects. In fact I walked in a dream all that week, but it tested me to the utmost . . . . Meetings where every one present had to be identified and every window closed; and plans that involved risking one's life and reputation solitary against law, state and nation.

From an account of the attempted rescue, written by Mr. Higginson in 1890, these extracts are taken:

All projects for the rescue of fugitive slaves were embarrassed in those days by the fact that the most trusted abolitionist leaders were largely nonresist-ants in principle, and were unwilling to take part in any actual outbreak, while other well-wishers, such as Horace Mann, were utterly opposed to any violation of the law. . . . A plan was hastily formed by four or five abolitionists for the rescue of Sims. The plan was to communicate with the prisoner through a colored clergyman, and get him to consent to jump [114] from his window in the third story upon a pile of mattresses to be placed below, a carriage being placed in readiness to take him away. . . . We were not sure that Sims would have the courage to do this, rather than go back to certain slavery. . . . At any rate the mattresses were got and placed in a lawyer's office in Court Square. Great pains were taken to keep the plan a secret and I well remember the sinking of the heart with which I saw, on walking through Court Square on the evening planned for the enterprise, that masons were at work putting iron bars in the window of Sims' cell. The whole plan was thus frustrated.

In this despairing mood the ardent young Abolitionist found some comfort in the attitude of his fellow clergymen, for he wrote:—

I heard from Sam Longfellow a few weeks since that he was thinking of leaving Fall River. Among “settled” divines the game of Puss-in-the-corner seems growing harder and hotter. The Fugitive Slave Law has mightily stimulated it. But how finely our “Unitarian” brethren have done and are doing, on that point. It shows the clergy to be a grade above politicians, after all, that the capitalists have less power to muzzle the Reverends than the Honorables. Perhaps you read an editorial of mine in the “Commonwealth,” some 2 months ago, on Sims' case. It was Dr. Walker who said to me, apropos de Sims, that if these things continued ‘the pulpit would become a refuge for scoundrels!’ Don't of course [115] imagine my mind at all anxious or perplexed. I have plenty to occupy me and the current of thought may float me as it pleases.

Although Mr. Higginson had fancied his preaching days were over, he received in 1852 an invitation to take charge of a Free Church in Worcester, an organization which the influence of Theodore Parker had just brought into existence. This society was composed of radicals of all descriptions and as a whole was imbued with strong anti-slavery sentiments. Mr. Higginson wrote to a friend:—

They want me to stay at Worcester where there are 600 come-outers and a very thriving city and a clear Free Soil majority and no anti-slavery preaching, and 40 conventions in a year.

‘Rather to my own surprise,’ he wrote from Worcester in May, 1852,

I find myself likely to assume the charge of a new Free Church in this city, on a plan resembling Mr. Parker's in Boston more nearly than any other. This is a very thriving and active place, materially, intellectually and morally; there is as much radicalism here as at Lynn, but more varied, more cultivated, and more balanced by an opposing force; a very attractive place, and this free church movement a very strong one. I feel a sort of duty toward it, because I see clearly the need and the possibility of infusing more reverence and piety into this comeouterism of New England, to which I belong by nature; and this seems a good place to do it. The congregation is very large and [116] they desire very much that I should come. And it will very probably be so.

Later he told his mother:—

I was yesterday offered $1200 to give up Worcester and be Secretary to the Temperance Committee for another year. . . . There is a feeling of the necessity for a vigilant superintendence while the law is being enforced. I of course declined.

His mother replied that she would let him choose his own way of doing good, not even saying, as Judge Story's mother did: ‘Now, Jo, I've sat up and tended you many a night when you were a Baby, and don't you Dare not to be a great Man.’ She added that she did not even care to have him a ‘great Man,’ except as greatness was achieved by interesting himself in the good of those within his reach. ‘Steer clear your own way,’ she exclaimed, ‘and the result I am sure will be right. . . . You object to beginning Life anew—remember you are not yet 30!’

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