[John Greenleaf Whittier was just not the "good gray poet" who wrote "warm and fuzzy" poems like "Barefoot Boy" and "Snowbound": he was also a fiery abolitionist, a champion of labor rights, and a mystic aware of the clash between science and traditional religion. This post is based on a talk that I gave at Whittier First United Methodist Church on June 23, 2002, in which I reflect on what I have learned from studying Whittier's life and poetry.]
My wife Kathleen and I have loved the city of Whittier from the time that we moved here six years ago. We love the small-town friendliness as well as the cultural diversity of our city. Our feelings about Whittier are summed up in a picture made by local artist, Cecilia Lowry, that hangs over our fireplace. Painted in an impressionistic style, with bright splotches of purple and yellow and pink, it shows the statue of John Greenleaf Whittier in Central Park. Behind it children are playing around a Maypole and you can see the spires of the First United Methodist Church, where my wife served as an assistant pastor for a couple of years and worked with the pre-school program. Over the years my wife and I have attended many concerts in the park, where this statue of Whittier invariably attracts children who like to play on his comfortable, grandfatherly lap. Now and then you see a beer can in Whittier’s hand, no doubt left by a college student. On the way to the library my wife and I often stop to admire another evidence of our city’s love of Whittier—the lifelike statue of Whittier’s “barefoot boy with cheeks of tan” fishing in a pond. A warm bath of nostalgia never fails to wash over us as we pause to admire this statue.
These warm and fuzzy images of John Greenleaf Whittier are not the whole picture of the man, or of the city named after him. Two aspects of Whittier’s life and work have not received the attention they deserve—his passion for justice and his deep Quaker spirituality.
Whittier’s image as a “good gray Quaker poet” reflect a period in his life after the Civil War when he was an old man reminiscing about his upbringing in rural New England. What we often forget, or may not know, is that for most of his life, Whittier was motivated by a passion for social justice—abolition of slavery, fair treatment for workers, equality for women and men of all races, and the peaceful resolution of conflict.
Whittier’s values were shaped by his Quaker background and by his upbringing in Haverill, a village in northwestern Massachusetts, not far from the New Hampshire border.
Whittier painted an idyllic portrait of these days in famous and popular poems like “Barefoot Boy” and “Snow Bound.” In reality, New England farm life in the early 19th century was so harsh that it permanently damaged Whittier’s health, and may have limited his career options. One of his first poems was a bit of doggerel complaining of farm life: “Must I always fling the flail,/and help to fill the milking pail?/I wish to go away to school;/I do not wish to be a fool.”
Whittier’s parents didn’t have the money to send Whittier to school, so he had to earn his own way by making inexpensive ladies’ slippers. College was beyond his means, so he tried to make a living by editing newspapers and playing politics, about which I will say more later.
Although Whittier’s parents couldn’t afford to give him a formal education, they did instill in him the principles and practices of Quakerism. The Religious Society of Friends (the formal name for “Quakers”) is a Christian reform movement that started in the 17th century during a time of religious war and turmoil. Its founder, George Fox, was a working class seeker who went through much spiritual turmoil and uncertainty until he had a profound inner experience of Christ. His followers believed that each individual can have a direct experience of the Divine Presence without the necessity of sacraments, priests, ministers, or scripture. Friends worship together in silence and “wait upon the Lord.” Because some Friends trembled with the Holy Spirit during worship, they came to be known as “Quakers.”
Friends have also tended to be “quiet rebels” against social demands that they feel infringe on the individual conscience. One of Whittier’s early New England ancestors, Thomas Whittier, is good example of this Quaker trait, even though he himself was a Puritan, not a Friend. Nonetheless, in 1662, Thomas Whittier protested against the persecution of Quakers by his fellow Puritans and was stripped of his voting rights. His family subsequently became Friends.
Because Friends strongly believe in the sacredness of each individual, they have been on the forefront of movements for social equality. The Religious Society of Friends abolished slavery for its members in 1777 and many Friends were active in the abolitionist movement.
Whittier always felt a deep dislike of slavery, but in his early twenties, his main preoccupation was with making a living. Whittier also hoped to become famous, if not rich, through his literary gifts and his knack for politics. At one point, he even tried to change the date of an election so he would be old enough to run. He promised one of his supporters that “if my friends enable me to acquire influence, it shall be exerted for their benefit.” Whittier admitted that during this period, he was driven by “a very foolish desire of distinction, of applause, of fame, of what the world calls immortality.”
What changed Whittier’s life was the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison first met Whittier when Whittier’s sister submitted one of her brother’s poems to a local newspaper. When the poem was published, it attracted a lot of attention. The young editor Garrison showed up at Whittier’s home and said that Whittier would some day have a brilliant career as a poet. Unimpressed, Whittier’s father replied, “Sir, poetry will not get him bread.” His father was right. It was forty years before poetry earned Whittier a decent living.
As a young man, Whittier tried his hand at newspaper editing and political writing—activities which yielded only a modest income. Many of the poems he wrote during this period are based on New England legends, written in the spirit of Robert Burns and the Romantics. When Whittier turned 25 in 1833, Garrison wrote him a note urging him to become an abolitionist: “Whittier enlist!—Your talents, zeal, influence—all are needed.”
These fiery words energized young Whittier and inspired him to study the slavery question in earnest. After several months he wrote a tract condemning slavery called Expediency and Justice and published it at his own expense. It was an act of faith and courage that cost Whittier dearly. The pamphlet was widely circulated and extremely controversial. It made Whittier famous, or rather infamous, since most Americans at this time supported slavery and disliked abolitionists. A doctor in Washington, DC, gave this pamphlet to a friend, was charged with circulating “subversive literature,” and thrown in jail. Conditions in jail were so harsh that the doctor died soon afterwards.
Writing this pamphlet changed Whittier’s life, and for the next 30 years he worked tirelessly to end slavery.
Whittier’s objection to slavery was based on religious principles—the Quaker belief that “there is that of God in every one.” For this reason, Whittier was especially critical of religious people who attempted to justify slavery. After a pro-slavery meeting in Charleston, S.C., in 1835, a newspaper reported: “The clergy of all denominations attended in a body, lending their sanction to the proceedings, and adding by their presence to the impressive character of the scene.” Whittier was incensed that he wrote these lines condemning the clergy as “kidnappers” and “robbers”:
Just God! And these are they
Who minister at thine altar, God of Right!
Men who their hands with prayer and blessing lay
On Israel’s Ark of light!
What! Preach, and kidnap men?
Give thanks, and rob their own afflicted poor?
Talk of thy glorious liberty, and then
Bolt hard the captive’s door?
One of Whittier’s most scathing and bitter satires is called “The Christian Slave.” In his preface to this poem, Whittier notes that in a slave action in New Orleans, the auctioneer tried to sell a woman at a higher price because she was a “Good Christian,” and therefore would make a more docile and obedient slave. Whittier wrote with outrage:
A Christian! Going, gone!
Who bids for God’s own image? For his grace,
Which that poor victim of the market-place
Hath in her suffering won?
Whittier contrasts this despicable Christian slave auction with the Muslim practice of releasing slaves when they make the pilgrimage to Mecca:
Oh shame! [says Whittier to us Christians.] The Moslem thrall [that is, slave]
Who, with his master, to the Prophet kneels,
While turning to the sacred Kebla [or Kaba] feels
His fetters break and fall.
Cheers for the turbaned Bey [or leader]
Of robber-peopled Tunis! He hath torn
The dark slave-dungeons open, and hath borne
Their inmates into day;
But our poor slave in vain
Turns to the Christian shrine his aching eyes;
Its rites will only swell his market price,
And rivet on his chain.
Whittier applauds Moslems who are freeing their slaves in the name of religion while Christians are using religion to boost the price of their human commodities. As you can imagine, such well-aimed attacks on religious hypocrisy made many Christians not only uncomfortable, but quite angry with Whittier.
More than once Whittier had to face angry mobs. In Plymouth, New Hampshire, Whittier was escorting a “notorious” British abolitionist named George Thompson who was hated for being an “outside agitator.” A mob of angry townspeople started tossing rotten eggs at Whittier, ruining his suit, and he had to run for his life to escape stoning. One stone grazed his leg and left him temporarily lame. Whittier and Thompson spent a terrifying night in a farmhouse surrounded by an enraged mob armed with not only rocks but also guns.
Whittier was unfazed by this mob violence and by the fact that his career in politics was ruined by his abolitionist stand. Whittier had found something more important than success and fame. He had found a purpose, and a deep sense of the Divine Presence, that sustained him for the rest of his life.
Whittier was exercised not only about slavery, but also about all forms of exploitation. He was especially concerned about women who toiled in the textile mills for long hours and could barely earn a living wage. In order to insure that workers were treated fairly and with dignity, Whittier supported unions, collective bargaining and the right to strike even though these ideas were considered radical.
If Whittier were alive today, he would no doubt be appalled by unfair labor practices caused by globalization. He would be horrified to learn that today’s American boys are not running around barefoot innocently enjoying nature, but are wearing sneakers made in sweat shops by Third World children and are playing video games with names like “Killer Ninjas” or “Global Domination.”
Because he voiced opinions that were unpopular—some would even say subversive—Whittier never earned much money until late in life, and this was one reason that he never married. Whittier had a fondness for women and came quite close to marrying on several occasions, but family responsibilities or financial worries stood in the way. For this reason, there is a certain poignancy in the fact that the town of Whittier was named after him. In a sense, this city could be considered Whittier’s child. He even wrote a poem in which he made this comparison.
Has the city of Whittier lived up to its spiritual father’s expectations? I am sorry to say that whenever I mention that I am from Whittier, the first thing that people say is: “Oh, you mean Nixon’s hometown.” At first, I used to cringe and reply lamely, “Well, actually Nixon was not born here but in Yorba Linda.” But one day I was walking to the library and noticed that this town has a street named after Nixon—a dead end street that leads to the police station. Whenever I tell people about this street, it gets a laugh.
Sad to say, the city of Whittier is not known for being politically progressive. But I have known some individuals in this city who have been faithful to Whittier’s vision of the social justice and the social gospel—people such as Edith and Gerald Haynes, Helen O’Brien, Dottie Andersen, Bill Miller, Hans Holbern, Susanne Weil, George and Judy Prather as well as others that readers of this newspaper can probably name. In them, the spirit of John Greenleaf Whittier lives among us.
Whittier was not only a political activist, he was also deeply spiritual. His spirituality was rooted in his Quaker faith, with its practice of silent worship. Quaker meetinghouses had no stained glass, no religious imagery, no music of any kind, to distract worshipers from the direct experience of the Divine Presence. Whittier describes such meetings for worship in “First Day Thoughts”:
In calm and cool and silence, once again
I find my old accustomed place among
My brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue
Shall utter words; where never hymn is sung,
Nor deep-toned organ blown, nor censer swung,
Nor dim light falling through the pictured pane!
There, syllabled by silence, let me hear
The still small voice which reached the prophet’s ear.
The “still, small voice” is what Friends listen for during their time of silent worship. To hear this inner voice of the Spirit, Friends believe that we must let go of everything that distracts us, even such pleasant things as stained glass windows, incense, and organ music.
This idea underlies one of Whittier’s most famous poems, “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways.” (Because this title offends feminists, and many of today’s Friends, the most recent Quaker hymnal offers a substitute first line: “Creator of all humankind.” Whittier probably wouldn’t have minded the change since he was a strong believer in the equality of the sexes and advocated not only women’s suffrage, but also higher education for women.)
The hymn that we call “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” is actually part of a much longer poem called the “Brewing of Soma.” Soma was an hallucinogenic drink that some Hindus used to induce religious ecstasy. Whittier compares the Hindu use of soma with the “smells and bells” used in some Christian churches: “We brew in many a Christian fane [church] / The heathen Soma still!” Although Whittier was himself a lover of poetry, music, and art, he regarded such things as unnecessary during worship since the purpose of authentic worship is to help us see life (and the Spirit) clearly, and act with a clear conscience. Whittier describes the effects of silent worship like the coming of dawn after a restless night:
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.
Whittier lived in a time of intellectual restlessness when science was undermining traditional religious faith. He felt that the only hope for vital religion was to base its validity on inward experience, not outward creeds. He wrote:
“They fail to read clearly the signs of the times who do not see that the hour is coming when, under the searching eye of philosophy and the terrible analysis of science, the letter and outward evidence will not altogether avail us; when the surest dependence must be on the light of Christ within, disclosing the law and the prophets in our own souls, and confirming the truth of Scripture by inward experience.”
Whittier anticipates the direction that liberal Quaker thought would take in the 20th century, with the advent of Quaker theologians like Rufus Jones, Howard Brinton, and Douglas Steere. They made it clear that the truly important questions of religion cannot be solved by logic or dogma, but by an inward religious experience that some would call mysticism.
Several of Whittier’s most moving religious poems were inspired by conversations that he had with seekers unsure of their faith. In the poem “Trust,” he tries to help his friend understand that the “baffling questions” posed by science cannot be answered by reason alone; ultimately, we must trust in the eternal goodness of God and the universe:
The same old baffling questions! O my friend,
I cannot answer them. In vain I sent
My soul into the dark, where never burn
The lamps of science, nor the natural light
Of Reason’s sun and stars!
After this inward search, Whittier admits: “I have no answer for myself or thee,/Save that I learned beside my mother’s knee;/’All is of God that is, and is to be,/And God is good.” Let this suffice us still/Resting in childlike trust upon His will/Who moves to His great ends unthwarted by the ill.”
In a poem called “Requirement” Whittier makes clear that “we live by Faith; but Faith is not the slave/ of text and legend. Reason’s voice and God’s/Nature’s and Duty’s, never are at odds.” God’s “requirement” is for us is to act with kindness and love towards all, not to believe in miracles or in incomprehensible dogmas. In a poem called “By their Works,” Whittier suggests that a “heretic” who does good deeds is as pleasing to God as someone who professes to be religious.
One of Whittier’s appealing ideas is his utter conviction that God is better than we human beings can even begin to imagine. This may sound absurdly obvious when it’s stated like this. But consider the strange ideas that human beings have had about God. God has been described as jealous and even vindictive (“vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord). It has even been claimed and believed by millions of Christians that God created the vast majority of His children simply to damn them from birth to eternal Hell and that He created only a very small number to be saved. Even today, some believers claim that God requires us to kill or dispossess others for His sake. Of such strange ideas, Whittier writes:
In the maddening maze of things,
and tossed by storm and flood,
To one fixed trust my spirit clings;
I know that God is good!
Not mine to look where cherubim
And seraphs may not see,
But nothing can be good in Him
Which evil is in me.
In other words, if it is wrong for human beings to be jealous or vindictive, if it is wrong for human beings to discriminate, if it is wrong for human beings to murder, then certainly it is wrong for God to behave this way or encourage us to do so. Even though we may not be able to understand the mysteries of the Infinite Mind, we can quite sure that that neither God nor a truly inspired scripture requires us to do what we know to be hurtful or unloving.
Whittier not only believed firmly in the goodness of God, he also believed that the Divine Light shines in every human soul. Although deeply Christian, he recognized that Truth can be found in those of other religions since the true light “enlightens everyone coming into the world” (John 1:13). Whittier’s appreciation for those of other faiths is revealed in a homely incident that occurred when Whittier was quite elderly. Noticing a young man leaning at the gate of his front yard, reading a book, Whittier became curious. He spoke to the young man and learned that he was an Arab from the circus. The book that he was reading was the Koran. Since Whittier had read most of the world’s sacred scriptures, he knew the Koran well. He was able to respect for this young man’s religion and made him feel welcome in a strange land.
Whittier would, I’m sure, have been very pleased by the way that many churches have reached out to Muslims here in Whittier and elsewhere since September 11th.
The image we have of Whittier as a kindly old grandfather is therefore not inaccurate. Whittier was in fact a tolerant, loving, and gentle man. When he was 85 years old, he suffered a stroke and just before he died, he repeated over and over: “Love—love to all the world.”
I’m sure that old Greenleaf would be very pleased that children today play on his statue, and I don’t think he would have minded very much that college students place beer cans in his hands. Whittier had a good sense of humor and he loved children and animals. He sensed that the Eternal Goodness was present in even the lowliest or most unlikely creature. He had a pet rooster that used to perch on his shoulder, as well as a pet squirrel. After its death this squirrel was stuffed and placed on display in the Whittier room of Whittier College, where it was occasionally kidnapped by college students and paraded around the campus.
But Whittier’s most colorful and beloved pet was Charlie, a gray parrot with a scarlet tail. This parrot was given to Whittier by a sailor, and it had a vocabulary common among rough, sea-faring men. Whittier tried to teach the parrot to use more genteel words, but one Sunday morning, Charlie perched on the roof of Whittier’s house and began swearing at people on their way to church.
Whittier loved this parrot, salty vocabulary and all. When it died, Whittier wrote to his friend Lucy Larcom. “Charlie was an old friend… the heartiest, jolliest, pleasantest old fellow I ever saw.”
The same words could be applied to John Greenleaf himself. He cared deeply for justice and peace, but he did not take himself too seriously. Even though Whittier is not the world’s most progressive place, I think that old Greenleaf would appreciate the city named after him. He would love the diversity of people living here, he would appreciate our small town friendliness, and he would forgive our foolish ways. But he would also urge us, with gentle persuasion and occasional exasperation, to live up to the Christian ideals and the Christian love that we profess.