Comte and His American Disciples
— One could both smile and sigh, to use old Thomas Fuller’s phrase, at the homage paid to the founder of the Religion of Humanity by two American disciples, as shown in Lettres d’Auguste Comte à Henry Edger et John Metcalf (Paris, 1889). Edger, a native of Fletching, Sussex, had settled at Thomson’s Station, Long Island, where his farm bore the singular name of Modern Times. He became an American citizen in 1861, and died at Versailles in 1888. at the age of sixty-eight. Mr. Metcalf, apparently a native American, was his first and chief convert, and is still living in Ohio. Edger opened the correspondence with Comte, in 1854, by a letter inclosing ten francs towards the “ sacerdotal subsidy;” that is to say, the fund — about one thousand dollars a year_ raised by Comte’s disciples for his maintenance. He promised to increase his contribution as his means improved. Comte’s acknowledgment is dated “19 Aristotle, 66; ” in vulgar parlance, March 16, 1854. He wished to know Edger’s age, so as to judge how far he was susceptible to influence, and what position he might take in the new religion. (Comtist priests must not be younger than forty-two.) He had foreseen that the first great Positivist movement would spring up in that immense colony where western renovators had for two centuries found spontaneous lib— erty. Except Paris, America was the only part of the world where Positivist worship could be openly practiced. At the moment of receiving Edger’s letter, Comte was starting for his weekly visit to the tomb of Clotilde de Vaux, which tomb had for eight years presided over his advance to perfection. Clotilde (his Laura, as Comte styled her) had a husband condemned to the galleys for life, and Comte was separated from his wife. They were, for the last year of her life, platonic lovers. Comte was not a little gratified when Edger named a new-born daughter Sophie Clotilde; Sophie Germain being Comte’s devoted servant, or housekeeper, one of his “three angels; ” his mother and Clotilde being the other two. “ You are the only man,” he assures Edger, “ whose large heart has permitted full appreciation of my incomparable Sophie without having ever seen her.”At the rite of “ presentation,” the Positivist baptism, he authorized Edger to act as his deputy, directing him to wear a green scarf on the right arm, as the emblem of his priestly office. Mr. Metcalf was godfather, if the term can be used in a religion without a Deity; but there was some difficulty in finding a suitable godmother, though a non - Positivist, provided she had some sympathy with the cause, was eligible.
Edger, though we have not his letters, seems at first to have written hopefully on the prospects of Positivism in America, and he set about translating some of his master’s works. His wife assisted him, a sign of the “ restored conjugal harmony,”which gave Comte much satisfaction. Comte enjoined Edger, moreover, to direct his propaganda especially to women, who must be disgusted with the dry bones of Protestantism and theism. Yet he had to check his disciple’s extravagances. Edger had an idea of establishing a Positivist monastery, a refuge for weary or persecuted souls; but Comte thought matrimony preferable for men tired of isolation, and he saw no reason to fear persecution. Edger also suggested “ astrolatric prayers,” apparently some kind of planet worship, but this Comte discountenanced. Edger likewise had a notion of utilizing Catholicism as a stepping-stone to Positivism ; but Comte, while recognizing Mariolary as a transitional form of worship, thought this more feasible in Catholic South America than in the Protestant North. Nevertheless, he regarded conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism as ultimately favorable to Positivism, and he approved Edger’s resort to Catholic churches as a temporary substitute for Positivist temples. When these latter were built, their axis was to be in the direction of Paris, and private oratories should, if possible, observe the same rule ; though otherwise it was enough, when engaged in prayer, to turn the face towards Paris. Edger had thoughts of founding a Positivist township in Long Island, and Comte hoped to see him become the head of the American Positivist church, provided he could go through the “ encyclopædic and mathematical initiation ” requisite for the priesthood. Discouragement, however, supervened, and Comte resigned himself to the prospect of Edger’s remaining a simple apostle. Eventually the latter began studying mathematics and history, and he became one of Comte’s Council of Seven. His AngloSaxon colleagues were Mr. Congreve and a Mr. Fisher, a surgeon at Manchester. Comte enjoined these two Englishmen to agitate for the restitution of Gibraltar to Spain.
Comte did not expect more than a millionth of the existing generation to embrace his religion, but this would suffice to leaven posterity. As for those who adopted his philosophy, but rejected his religion, — Stuart Mill was one of them, — he regarded them as his worst enemies, but I believe they were his chief subscribers. He looked upon America, with its Puritanic ancestry and its democratic government, as a promising field for Positivist culture ; and extracts from Mr. Metcalf’s letters to Edger reminded him of Cromwell’s Ironsides, combining religious enthusiasm with political activity. Four of the sixteen letters — Comte’s death, in 1857, stopped the correspondence — are addressed to Mr. Metcalf, but these are of less interest than those to “ mon cher disciple,” Edger; and it is enough to say that Comte, practical enough in many things, dissuaded Metcalf from visiting Paris till he had mastered French. There is incidental mention of three Americans: a Miss Blaker (?), for whose memory Comte sanctioned Edger’s private adoration, pending fuller investigation before public adoration was permissible; a Mr. H. Wallace, of Philadelphia, who died in 1842, shortly after a visit to Comte ; and Dr. Wm. Gillespie, professor of civil engineering at New York, described as a half-believer.
Thirty years have passed, and another generation has sprung up, but the conversion of a millionth of mankind to the Religion of Humanity seems still distant.