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V: the call to preach

Wentworth Higginson wrote to his mother, August 25, 1843:—

If fortune offers nothing better I mean to do this: Go to Cambridge. Take a proctorship. Live with the strictest economy. I can place my minimum at $300—$100 to be got by my proctorship and the rest by literary labors—. . . So I may regard it as from this day settled!

That I need not study a Profession. No Law! Hurrah!

And this is his estimate of necessary expenses:—

Board, not over$120

Continuing his meditations upon the proposed Cambridge move he again wrote to his mother:—

I don't want to keep up the dignity I must there as proctor—I want to be a boy as long as I can. . . . This brings another Evil as regards dress. Could I, in proctorial dignity, figure round in blouses and bobtailed frocks? If not it would affect my finances [56] much. . . . To be elegant, or even genteel in dress always, I will not undertake. . . . I have been brought up poor and am not afraid to continue so; and certainly I shall be glad to be so, if it is a necessary accompaniment to a life spent as I wish to spend it. . . .

By the various old gentlemen who ask me every time they see me what my profession is to be, I do not expect my plans to be understood or approved; I shall expect to be frowned at by many and laughed at by some. But I do not wish to be frowned at or laughed at by you. . . . I can never be happy myself or feel that I am doing my duty, if I neglect a single bright flower that I might plant in your evening days. And to you in return I look for sympathy and interest.

This beautiful tribute to Wentworth's mother is taken from a letter to Miss Channing:—

I think mother is one of the most fascinating persons I ever saw. She enjoys nature with a freshness more unalloyed than I ever saw in anybody. I wish all the world could have a chance to know her loveliness before she passes away from it. She is the most wonderful being I ever knew. There are no bounds to my enthusiasm about her.

And on the back of one letter his mother wrote these touching words:—

He is the star that gilds the evening of my days —and he must shine bright and clear—or my path will be darkened.


Soon after announcing his new plan, Higginson moved to Cambridge and wrote to his betrothed:—

I shall live very unobtrusively and probably have no intimates, but I shall have a world made up of you and books and nature and myself and a great touch of unknown human nature in the streets of Boston besides. Oh it will be nice—so free.

Life went a Maying
With nature, love and liberty
When I was young.

In this hopeful spirit, the young emigrant loaded his traps upon a wagon and led the horse over muddy roads to the room he had chosen in the first building called College House. The new quarters he described in a letter to his Aunt Nancy:—

Here I am very nicely fixed, Madam; a very pleasant place is the Old Den, I assure you, particularly this room, North East third story—commanding a pretty view of the College Yard, especially neat in the morning—dew—grass—trees—library ground-glass windows—sunshine and so on—overlooks the street too very nicely—Brighton cattle —enthusiastic pigs—agonized maternal cows— heartrent filial calves and all that, very enlivening. Oh it is the nicest room I know anywhere in its situation. . . the back part veiled into a bedroom by tall curtains a la Greque (secondhand—the gift of our liberal fellow citizen L. L. Thaxter, Esq.)— and the rest of the room filled up with superb furniture, among which shine pre-eminent two sulphur [58] colored chairs, a contribution from Brattleboroa —white curtains veil the windows, ditto the bookcase. Over the floor spreads a many hued carpet, put down by the fair hands of Mr. T. W. Higginson. . . . Parker is the only person I see—there are only one or two others of my class here, and no others I care much about—though I have half a dozen visiting acquaintance. . . . I lead a nice oysterlike life with occasional trips to Brookline and Boston. . . . Commons I like very much.

To his mother who was anxious about her son's frugal diet, he wrote:—

As to commons you must be satisfied too, you rebellious little thing—don't I tell you that we have an unlimited supply of good milk and excellent bread, and have n't I lived the greater part of my life on bread and milk? There is no stinting; whatever we have at all, we have an unlimited quantity of: vegetables every day, potatoes, beans, squash, tomatoes:—nice Indian and tapioca puddings: meat every other day very good and well cooked—nobody complains of anything. . . . With regard to going to a boarding-house I should not like it now at all. . . . I have never liked the relation between boarder and boardee and never should wish to try it.

Later the faithful son reported:—

You will be sorry to hear that I have been disappointed in getting a Proctorship. There were a few vacancies and a great many applicants. I was surprised [59] and provoked at first; and Mr. Channing who told me seemed surprised and sorry at my appearing so. The reason the others were appointed I suppose to be that they were considered more needy characters than I—so much for dressing like a gentleman, my dear. . . . It will not alter my plans and may be useful to me as obliging me to pinch, etc., more than I otherwise should. . . .

My life here is dreadfully prosaic—that is, in many respects I often feel as if I would give heaps of gold to be able to see something from my window that imagination can rest on—the view of the college yard was sweet to be sure. . . . If I could go into the woods and see a single flower I should n't care.

‘I have sighed, and sighed in vain,’ Wentworth confided to his journal, ‘considering the expense, for a tin hat [bathtub] and a big sponge.’ When Aunt Nancy sent him five dollars for clothing, he noted, ‘Determined to apply it to a velvet waistcoat’; but he thought better of it and said, ‘I am using part of Aunt Nancy's $5 to buy a tin hat— $3.’ This luxury being secured, he went still further and wrote:—

To-day I have taken quite a step. Resolved to go to the gymnasium. For $3 I can go three months. This is more than I like the idea of paying, but still it is worth it. I have considerable strength and activity to start with, and by 3 months daily practice I can strengthen my constitution for lifelong use.


Poverty possessed no terrors for this independent youth, and only when he thought of marriage did he sigh for the traditional rich uncle. He wrote: ‘I think I could bear and even enjoy poverty were I alone. I mean real, pinching poverty.’ And again, triumphantly, ‘I am an independent individual with a clear income of $60 to be doubled after this year.’ But he soon found ways to increase this incredible income by copying, making profiles (perhaps the black paper silhouettes then in vogue), doing work connected with surveying for his brother Waldo, and teaching a private pupil in town for half an hour daily. He wrote to his mother:—

I purpose giving the morning to study (par excellence), i.e., at present, languages—German, Greek & Italian, and the afternoon to other reading of various kinds—the evening when at home to reading, writing and so on. I am in my room all day pretty much, and find no difficulty in applying my mind—and no irksomeness, but rather a pleasure in reading and studying. . . . Although I need daily excitements, I can get along with very small ones— the post office, the reading room, the library at their regular hours each day are an all sufficient variety to me.

But soon Higginson mentions a more momentous interest:—

I had the excitement of the great Abolition convention which I several times attended. Got some [61] settled views about abolition, and all but made a speech.

And later,—

I have got the run of slavery argumentation now and can talk Abolitionism pretty well.

When the youth's anxious friends sought to restrict his movements, he burst out in his journal with this protest:—

It seems that the interesting pack of bloodhounds denominated ‘my friends’ have reopened their musical mouths. . . . Oh confound the whole set of wretches—if they could get me stuck to a polar iceberg for five years surrounded by seals, penguins, and law books, they might perhaps be satisfied. . . . Oh words cannot express how intensely I sometimes wish I could be put into a tin box and rolled away under a barberry bush!

Wentworth continued the habit of taking long walks, seventeen miles after supper being once recorded; and he returned to his old pastime of kicking football in the evening, pleased to find that his running powers had increased. Skating on Fresh Pond still attracted him; coasting was always to be had in Brookline; and there was the same fascination in having long evening talks with Parker (now a law student) as in undergraduate days.

Another diversion was attending mathematical [62] examinations at Harvard, being still on the Examining Board (at nineteen), and occasionally dining with the committee. In describing the committee examinations, the young visitor says:—

There are probably half a dozen in the present Senior class who know more by a good deal than I do now, or shall when I examine them. So I must go to the examinations and be satisfied with looking learned, which after all is all the Committee ever did when I was in College.

The journal records:—

I am studying away at a great rate and enjoying it especially. I do seek to gratify this craving for knowledge which will not let me rest. No kind of studying is anything but a pleasure to me.

And in the student's enthusiasm, he exclaims:—

Oh the delicious pleasure of learning whatever there is to be learned.

He continues:—

I am delighted to find my memory is becoming more retentive than ever before. The last year at Brookline gave me time to digest the immense weight of miscellaneous matter heaped on it from my earliest boyhood, and now I begin to study to very much more advantage and feel my powers of retention to be relied on.

But in spite of his enjoyment of this solitary life, Wentworth occasionally mused:— [63]

I think on the whole that this life is not the right one for me—I cannot live alone. Solitude may be good for study sometimes, but not solitude in a crowd for a social-hearted person like me. Here in my own pleasant room I seldom feel it, but when outdoors I constantly feel the unpleasantness of having no common interests in the life I lead and that of others.

Again he chides himself for being too much of a recluse:—

What I want now most urgently is more of a controversial spirit, the will and the power always to pitch right into people and show 'em how foolishly they are thinking and acting, instead of my present spirit of being willing people should think what they please if they'll only leave me alone. The latter spirit will never do any good to the world and I hope it'll wear off.

This anxiety would seem to have been needless, in the light of Higginson's later career.

What his future might be was a fascinating if troublesome problem, and he often made such notes as these:—

What destiny is intended for me, I cannot tell— not to go in the beaten track I am sure. I cannot express how strongly I long to come out and obtain a working place among men. How my ability will second my wishes I know not, but some things are in every one's power—to live a true, sincere, [64] earnest, independent life. Of this I think daily and hourly. . . .

I feel there is no man too small to be useful so he be true and bold. . . . I am an enthusiast now, I know. So much the better. Whoever was in the highest degree useful without being such?

In these years of thought and study, Wentworth wrote many verses, some of which were published in periodicals. This led to the dream of being a poet. His few hymns which are included in American and English collections of sacred song and are still sung in churches were written at this time. One day, many years later, he met his Worcester contemporary, George F. Hoar, on the street, who asked him if he was the author of the hymn containing the lines—

And though most weak our efforts seem,
Into one creed these thoughts to bind.

Upon Mr. Higginson's assenting, Mr. Hoar said that he considered this hymn ‘the most complete statement of Christian doctrine that was ever made.’

In that early period the young man exclaimed, ‘Oh, heavens, what would I not give to know whether I really have that in me which will make a poet, or whether I deceive myself and only possess a mediocre talent.’ But later the dream vanished and he wrote: ‘The idea of poetic genius is now utterly foreign to me and I cannot conceive at all now the [65] feeling that underlay my whole life two years ago. I must be content to enjoy instead of creating poetry.’

On the eve of his twenty-first birthday, Wentworth wrote to his mother:—

I have repented of many things, but I never repented of my first poetical Effusion. If you are not familiar with the poem, I will sometime give you a copy. . . .

The only additional “great truth” that occurs to me is this which it is strange I mentioned not before —that on Sunday next you will lose your last baby. Your youngest son will attain his majority! Shall you not have an ox roasted whole at Boscobel?

This was the name of the Brattleboro house.

The poem referred to, written at the age of eight, ran thus:—


How sweet the morning air
To those who early rise
To gather flowers for their hair
Before the sun is in the skies!


The waterman waits, the waterman waits
For somebody in his boat to glide:—
A gentleman from Santa Fe
Says, ‘I'll go in the boat with thee,
If you with cents will contented be
Then I'll go in the boat with thee!’

The plan of reviewing a book by Lydia Maria Child occurred to Higginson one winter evening. [66] He got home late, and without a fire sat down and wrote until midnight. His satisfaction was great, for it seemed to him that he now saw the way to gratify his ‘longing to do something for the world,’ and wrote, ‘I feel as if a new world were opening before me and my work were now beginning.’ Afterward he met Lowell who told him what he was earning by writing:—

Soon after the Year's Life was published, Graham wrote to him [Lowell] offering $10 per poem if he would publish there—This was afterwards raised to $20 and then $30—now he thinks he could get $50. This encouraged me considerably.

Once, the young critic sent ‘a box of gentians to Mrs. Child and carried a fine bunch up to Mrs. Maria Lowell in the evening. Spent an hour there. James and she are perfectly lovely together—she was never so sweet and angel-like in her maiden state as now when a wife.’ And again, describing a walk, he writes that he met ‘James Lowell and his moonlight maid—how closely I felt bound to them through the sonnets.’ Of a later visit at the Lowells', he wrote (September, 1846):—

The angel is thinner and paler and is destined to be wholly an angel ere long, I fear, but both were happy. . . . We talked Anti-Slavery and it was beautiful to see Maria with her woman angel nature plead [67] for charity and love even against James, that is, going farther than he, and as far as I could ask. This was delightful, but it was sad to me to feel we must lose her. . . . I do not suppose there ever was known before anything so beautiful as this union. There have been many loving couples but never any where both units and union were so wonderful in character and mind. They excite in me a perfectly chivalrous feeling. I . . . should delight in . . . being where I could constantly watch them.

To Miss Channing Wentworth dedicated his journals and wrote her letters full of his thoughts, struggles, and aspirations. Having never had a brother or sister near enough in age to himself to be a confidant, he found this outlet a great relief. In his gratitude he called his fiancee hisCommonplace Book,’ and was surprised that this epithet did not seem an endearing one to her.

During the four years of their engagement, although it was suspended for one year, on account of Higginson's straitened finances, and while he was feeling his way into the future, their correspondence was voluminous, in spite of the fact that they often met. In one letter Wentworth thus warns the young lady against the difficulties she may have to encounter as his wife:—

Setting out, as I do, with an entire resolution never to be intimidated into shutting either my eyes [68] or my mouth, it is proper to consider the chance of my falling out with the world.

He adds:—

I have been worrying a great deal lately as to what is to be done for this preposterous world. . . .

The great reason why the real apostles of truth don't make any more impression is this—the moment any person among us begins to broach any ‘new views’ and intimate that all things aren't exactly right, the conservatives lose no time in holding up their fingers and branding him as an unsafe person—fanatic, visionary, insane and all the rest of it—this has been the case with all reforms great and small and moreover there is often some ground for it because it is the enthusiastic (i.e. half cracked people) who begin all reforms. Mrs. Child you know has long been proscribed as an entirely unsafe person and as for Mr. Emerson and Mr. Alcott, it does n't do for a sober person even to think of them.

Miss Channing was a disciple of James Freeman Clarke, and Higginson was thus led to attend his church. There under Dr. Clarke's influence he began to think of studying for the ministry. But he deprecated haste and wrote to his betrothed, ‘I have declared my independence of this invariable law of our young men's sacrificing everything else to going ahead quick.’

Over this new project, Wentworth pondered long, now rejecting the plan as impossible, and again reconsidering. [69] ‘How long halt ye,’ he despairingly asked himself, ‘between two opinions. O, I am sorely puzzled and know not what to do. I cannot in action any more than in thought bear confinement—How then can I settle down into the quiet though noble duties of a minister. . . . I crave action . . . unbounded action. I love men passionately, I feel intensely their sufferings and short-comings and yearn to make all men brothers . . . to help them to strive and conquer.’ And he sometimes wondered if choosing the Ministry at Large would solve the problem. Another stumbling-block was theological doctrine, and he hoped to find light by studying Swedenborg.

However, the die was presently cast in favor of the church, although Higginson still announced himself ‘a seeker and entirely unsettled.’ His family were delighted at the decision, and he found satisfactory quarters in a quiet comer of Divinity Hall, looking toward the sunset and close by the Palfrey woods. Here he boarded himself, having contrived a wire and tin cup arrangement for boiling water over his study-lamp in order to wash his breakfast and tea dishes. ‘I feel very proud of it,’ he wrote to Miss Channing. ‘You should hear the water sizzle! I could brew rum punch with ease.’

He rejoiced in his leafy surroundings, there being [70] no house visible from his room, and wrote in March, 1845, ‘I am so impatient for spring that I keep my windows open perpetually though it is generally cool, but the birds do pipe surpassingly. Soon the anemones will be here and my summer joys begin.’

One of Wentworth's summer joys was a visit to Niagara with his mother and sisters. Before his first sight of the falls he said to himself, ‘There is more in this one second than in any other second of your life, young man!’ But after looking at the cataract, the only words he could use were Fanny Kemble's, ‘I saw Niagara. O God, who can describe that sight!’

While he was a divinity student Higginson's expenses for food were surprisingly small. His pencilled accounts report one dollar spent on food in a fortnight. He usually dined on Sunday at Dr. Channing's in Boston, but bread and milk formed his principal diet the rest of the week. Books were more attractive than food, and he wrote: ‘I am longing much for money to buy books [this was a lifelong want]. Books I want to read thoroughly I always want to have for my own, to annotate and mark.’

It was a relief to find that ‘the bonus to poor Divinity students amounts to almost as much as the proctors get, $100. This being the case, I need n't [71] take a proctorship. Just what I wanted. . . . At 20 before 6 A. M. the bell ding-dongs for prayers. I shall probably go to bed early and get up ditto.’

As the young man looked forward to the duties of the ministry, a feeling of despondency sometimes came over him.

A pure earnest aim is not enough. Intellectual as well as moral armor must be bright for I know I shall have to sustain a warfare. I feel that if I do justice to my own powers (i.e., if I do my duty) I cannot remain in the background. . . . Preaching alone I should love, but I feel inwardly that something more will be sought of me—An aesthetic life —how beautiful—but the life of a Reformer, a People's Guide “battling for the right” —glorious, but, Oh how hard!

In these moments of doubt his ever solicitous mother exhorted him to fresh courage and perseverance.

Through these years of study in Cambridge, Wentworth made frequent visits to Brattleboro, kept the family supplied with books, and suggested lists for the village book club. He was constantly adding to his own collections of books, and wrote, ‘My library is now becoming rather imposing.’

His principal companion in the school seems to have been Mr. Samuel Longfellow, brother of the poet, who was one year in advance of Wentworth. [72] About this friend he said, ‘He is a beautiful soul, though there is a certain shadow of reserve about him. He spoke of his sister “Mrs. Fanny” [Mrs. H. W. Longfellow]. I got a charming idea of the household goddess. She was just Wordsworth's “phantom of delight,” he said.’ While living in Divinity Hall Higginson formed a romantic attachment for a brilliant youth named Hurlbut, who was also a theological student. This friendship was destined to make a permanent impression on Wentworth's life, being freighted with much joy, but ending in deep sorrow.

During his first year in the school, our young theologian came into contact with an older student named Greene who had great influence over him.

Now has this man of real genius come to be with me, to teach me humility, even toward my fellowcreatures. He has shown me the difference between real genius and a self-confident talent and the lesson though useful is severe. I do not believe a vainer person than I ever existed. I have never really felt that anything that a mortal can reach was beyond me. It was negative rather than positive. What my mission was to be I never knew. I only felt assured that

Despair! thy name is written on
The roll of common men!

was not meant for a lesson for me.


In his long letters to Miss Channing, Higginson freely expressed his opinion on public questions, having already at twenty-one taken his lifelong stand as to the position of woman.

I do go for the rights of women as far as an equal education and an equal share in government goes. . . . I think it a monstrous absurdity to talk of a democratic government and universal suffrage and yet exclude one-half the inhabitants without any ground of incapacity to plead. This is theoretical—practically I have no doubt we should have much more principle in politics if woman had more share from her standard of right being higher than that of man. I think there is no possible argument on the other side excepting prejudice.

He was also then interested in the perennial problem of the workingman and wrote, ‘I have read the articles on the organization of labor and were I a rich man would have 30,000 printed and distributed.’ In the autumn of that year, 1845, he shared in the popular excitement about the proposed admission of Texas to the Union, attending meetings in Cambridge and at Faneuil Hall. He composed in verse a Texas rallying cry which appeared in ‘The Liberty News,’ in ‘The Free State Rally,’ and in ‘The Liberator.’ He joined others in getting signatures to a petition called ‘Remonstrance against the Admission of Texas as a Slave State from 764 Inhabitants [74] of Wards I and 2 of the Town of Cambridge, Mass. (known as East Cambridge and Cambridge Port).’ He records spending Sunday morning at home, the first time he had missed church-going for a year and a half, to prepare the petition. One hundred and sixty-six of the signatures were feminine and he pasted them all on a long strip of cloth and pressed them with a borrowed flatiron. Somewhat later he reported to his mother:—

At Cambridge we are in peace since the Texas petition thirteen feet long, double column, went off. . . . I have pretty much concluded that a consistent Abolitionist (which last every person who thinks and feels must be whether nominally or not) must choose between the Liberty Party and the Disunion Party. I don't like the dilemma at all, but fear I must come to it. . . . In the Liberty Bell which appears in a week at the Faneuil Hall Anti-Slavery Fair will be a sonnet of mine which may rather astonish some of my friends. Do not be afraid of seeing my name [signed] to pieces in papers.

In the midst of these absorbing public interests the young student was agitated by personal problems; and when his first year at the school was nearly over, he wrote this startling letter to his mother. It must have fallen like a bomb into quiet ‘Boscobel’:—

That the cup of your joy may not be more full than is good for you, I write to say that I have finally [75] made up my mind that I must leave the Divinity School. Entirely apart from the fact that instructors, companions, and course of study have failed to interest or satisfy me—I am now convinced from a longer trial that I cannot obtain the equilibrium and peace of mind I need while I remain a member of it.

My faith in God is unshaken—as of Festus— “with all his doubts he never doubted God” —but God gives to some people a temperament much harder to deal with than others and while nineteen persons are going quietly on their way the twentieth is working hard under ground to make his way up to light and sunshine. . . . It is now as impossible to tell what the course of my life will be as when I was a babe and this is no subtile repining, but plain and simple.

Higginson's plan was to resume solitary studies, thus escaping the routine of the school, but still living on in the same room, and this project he successfully carried out. During this period of self-banishment, he yet expected to make preaching his profession and sometimes cried out, ‘Oh, I keep asking who is there to go on with me to the aid of liberal Christianity.’

In this mental perplexity, he wrote to his fiancee:—

I feel that I have a right to some means of influence. I should prefer poetry or in general, literature —because that lasts the longest, but should be content with blacking boots, if I could only feel that to be the thing for which I was intended.


The student's interest in political questions never flagged, and in January, 1846, he thus commits himself to the disunion project:—

I might have recorded on my birthday or New Year's Day, my final self-enrollment in the ranks of the American Non-Jurors or Disunion Abolitionists and my determination not only not to vote for any officer who must take oath to support the U. S. Constitution, but also to use whatever means may lie in my power to promote the Dissolution of the Union. . . . To Disunion I now subscribe in the full expectation that a time is coming which may expose to obloquy and danger even the most insignificant of the adherents to such a cause.

In the following spring, describing to his mother a series of meetings, ‘Unitarian, Anti-Slavery, and Association,’ of which he had chiefly attended the Anti-Slavery ones, Higginson said:—

The most interesting and moving speech of all I have heard this week was by an old colored woman, Mrs. Thompson of Bangor, at one of the AntiSlav-ery meetings in Faneuil Hall. This old lady rose among the crowd and began to speak—all stood up to gaze on her, but she undaunted fixed her eyes on the chairman and burst out into a most ardent, eloquent and beautiful tribute of gratitude from herself and her race to Garrison “who came truly in a dark hour” she said; her style was peculiar, tinctured strongly with methodistical expressions and scripture [77] allusions, but her voice was clear and her language fluent and easy; and if ever a speech came straight from the heart of the speaker and went straight to the hearts of the hearers that was the one; no one could resist the impression and the tears came to many eyes; there was a perfect hush while she spoke on without a single pause or taking her eyes from the chairman—and when she sat down there was a spontaneous burst of applause. It was a truly beautiful and noble scene, one which opened to one's view the prospect of a future when American Brotherhood shall be a reality of daily life and honour and respect be given where they are truly due.

Wentworth now reported himself as peaceful and industrious, and ‘delving away at the Old Testament’ about which his mother had anxiously asked his opinion. He was still addicted to evening plunges in the river, and describes swimming at half-past 11 when it was high tide and he ‘found it beautiful to lie back on the water and gaze at the sky.’ So unconsciously he was even then preparing for his ‘Night in the Water’ many years after when in command of the black regiment. The student wrote his Aunt Nancy:—

One feels strangely lingering on here in Cambridge after one's time is up—mine has been just ten years; I have staid here longer than any of my contemporaries—yet never have felt before as if I had staid too long, but now I do; people look at one [78] with a kind of surprised glance— “Well, are you still here? Is there no end to you?”

As the year of solitary study drew to a close, the young recluse began to consider the importance ‘of being regularly authorized to preach and the desirableness of being associated with a special set of young men.’ These views were reinforced by a strong appeal from his class to rejoin them. He heard the class exercises when his special friends, Johnson, —whom he calls ‘my young hero and prophet,’— Longfellow, and O. B. Frothingham were graduated, and Johnson's oration on this occasion had a profound effect upon him. He felt a strong desire to speak himself on next ‘Visitation Day’ on the ‘Relation of the Clergy to Reform.’

In August, 1846, Higginson had a long talk with Dr. Francis, then dean of the school, about reentering his class, which resulted in a letter to the Faculty of Theology, applying for readmission. In this the writer, speaking of himself in the third person, explains his reason for withdrawal—the need of perfect freedom:—

This freedom might have been destructive to others: it was the breath of life to him. He has now built up a Credo for himself, whose essential and leading points are so strong and clear that he can patiently leave minor ones for a time unsettled. He [79] has abandoned much that men call belief . . . while at the same time his confidence in mere intellect has waned and he has grown more and more disposed to see in Love and Spiritual Trust the only basis of Christian Life within or Christian Union without and he feels now that for himself he has a gospel to preach and is ready to preach it. He feels more and more each day the call upon the minister; and this makes him feel he has been best preparing himself by learning to live. . . . Thus the result is to ask not “Have I learned?” but “Have I grown?”

In the autumn, Wentworth writes to his mother:—

Am very glad to have rejoined the school. I find it altogether improved in the year of absence, a higher tone of spiritual life and more mental activity . . . a fine liberal spirit such as has never before prevailed. . . . I am the only one who reads German. . . . Am busy on two dissertations—one on the erroneous views of the Scriptures—the other on the early history of the Trinity—both of which give an opportunity for original and “unsound” views. . . . Nothing keeps a man so fresh as abolitionism and kindred propensities, I observe.

In a December letter he continues:—

I wrote an elaborate essay on the true use of the Scriptures—against attributing (practically) literal infallibility to any part of them, or setting them up as absolute Master of Reason and Conscience; this excited interest and we brought it up at the Friday evening debate where it was discussed for four evenings [80] with animation; one evening Elder Holland a Christian minister from Buffalo was present and spoke. . . . He is considered one of the ablest men in the body, reads Emerson, etc. After the debate he inquired with some anxiety whether “that young man” (meaning me) “ever expected to find a pulpit to preach in?” . . . I look forward to preaching with great interest, it will be a serious work to me if I do it. But I have several doubts as to practical success —whether my view of Christ as in the highest sense a natural character, divine as being in the highest sense human, sent to aid men by living a higher spiritual life, not in the character of an infallible teacher of any truth to the intellect,—working wondrous works by virtue of this inward spiritual energy— whether this will be acceptable to people. . . . As for my particular poetical studies I never write a sentence without experiencing their benefit and look back with inexpressible satisfaction to one morning last spring when I shut Ecclesiastical History in despair (which I have often re-opened with pleasure) and rushed into the woods to read Browning's ‘Paracelsus’! . . . The Browning gospel is flourishing —my Bells and Pomegranates are half with Mr. L. [H. W. Longfellow] and half with——the former is very ardent and has agreed to try and get Ticknor & Co. to republish them, which I before attempted.


I have been writing more in these two months (or six weeks) than in the previous five years—I had begun to doubt whether I should ever feel the im- [81] pulse to write prose—now I have been manufacturing sermons and essays (to be read before the class) with the greatest readiness—all being crammed with as much thought as I can put into them. . . . I have a dozen subjects or so marked out—on all of which I have thoughts—but how will it be when these are used up? Will new ones come? How will it be when I have to write two a week and shall not be willing to dilute any?

The young thinker naturally felt some solicitude as the time approached for new responsibilities; and the thought of being obliged to write weekly sermons —forcing himself to write when not feeling inspired —filled him with dismay. He also dreaded the necessity of preparing his graduation theme or ‘Visitation Part.’ In February, he preached two sermons at Walpole, New Hampshire, which met with much favor. The minister borrowed one of the sermons for his wife to read, and she gave it her highest endorsement, pronouncing it a ‘real Parker sermon!’ His clear enunciation and expressive way of reading the hymns also won praise. About this time he had an invitation to preach at Newburyport. His mother was overjoyed at these successful beginnings and congratulated him on the ‘happy opening of his career.’

Wentworth was now reading Emerson's ‘Essays’ and sometimes wondered why he read any other [82] book. ‘I can't make up my mind,’ wrote the youth in one of his moments of doubt, ‘whether my radicalisms will be the ruin of me or not.’ At any rate, these ‘isms’ caused much dismay among his more conservative brothers and sisters. The question what the baby of the family might do next gave them many an uneasy moment. His brothers represented the old-fashioned type of Unitarianism, and, though sympathizing with his abolition views, shook their anxious heads over his theory about women. The independent and sympathetic mother did her best to keep up with her younger son in the path he was striking out for himself; but even she asked in bewilderment, ‘You don't want women to vote, do you, or be lawyers, or go to Congress!’

The son, never daunted, thus expressed his taste for individuality:—

I do not like family characteristics to prevail very strongly among brothers. Now the B——s are not regarded as individuals, but as a batch of brothers and sons of Dr. B.

Early in this year, Higginson had written to Samuel Johnson:—

I have made my debut at West Cambridge. I pleased the audience, I heard and did something towards satisfying myself that the pulpit is my vocation.

[83] After delivering his visitation address on ‘Clergy and Reform,’ 1847, he wrote Miss Channing:—

I cannot tell you what a sensation my yesterday's words made—nor how exhausted and weary of soft speeches I got before night. All sorts of men from Dr. Parkman to Theo. Parker introduced themselves to me (some of them knew father)—and said all manner of things. . . . With Mr. Parker I had some excellent talk—he came out to hear me principally he said and was not disappointed—and he said some wise words of sympathy and encouragement. . . . The Reformers were delighted. . . . One candid man . . . said . . . “I must thank you for your sermon to us, though I feel that in so doing I condemn myself.” . . . Edward Hale came up... and said he had missed hearing me, but he was glad to hear there was somebody who was going to electrify the world. . . . Finally Uncle George [Channing] has offered to insert it whole in the Christian World. . . .

When I got through I felt entirely uncertain what would be thought of it—it seemed tremendously severe as I spoke it and I put in my fullest energy—but I have not heard a single complaint of it or objection of any sort!

Somewhat late the young reformer learned that his visitation speech had been, after all, ‘a rock of offence’ to many. Yet this disapproval did not injure his prospects, as a pulpit was already awaiting him.

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