Toleration

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

ONE of the life lessons that I carried with me from my Andover home, strange as it may seem to those who think of Andover Hill as an arena of strife, was toleration of other denominations. This spirit was fostered in me by a certain experience of my childhood. With some of my schoolmates I had once run away from home to hear a sermon by Elizabeth Fry. The escapade of which I write was similar in its object. We Hill children never ran away to go to the circus, — oh, no: only to go to meeting.

To understand the episode you must realize how hot was the controversy between the so-called Orthodox Congregationalists and the Unitarians. Nowadays members of the two sects can hardly be told apart, — even, I sometimes suspect, by themselves. But matters were very different then. Andover Seminary had been founded just after Unitarian influences had got the upper hand at Harvard College, on purpose to combat what many good ministers considered a manifestation of the Evil One. Articles and pamphlets had been written back and forth by our Dr. Woods and by Professor Ware of Harvard, in a debate called the ’Wood ’n’ Ware Controversy.’ Dr. Channing, the Unitarian leader, had preached sermons and published articles in which he had charged the other side with being as bad as the Inquisition. And my own father had written an answer to Dr. Channing, which proved — to the satisfaction of Andover, at least — that Dr. Channing was entirely in the wrong. If we children had been asked which we should less dislike to be, a heathen or a Unitarian, I fancy that we should have decided to join the interesting heathen, in whose behalf the sympathies of the community were so fully enlisted.

As a little girl just entering my teens, I was a wide-awake and silent listener at spirited discussions in which the name of Channing frequently recurred. For months I longed to hear this great and dreadful preacher, who was setting so many Boston people on the way to hell. At last there came an opportunity.

My mother went to Boston to visit friends, taking me with her, as she often did. On our walks about the town, they pointed out to us the church where Dr. Channing preached; and a seemingly careless question brought the assurance that the following Sunday would be no exception.

The next Sunday, accordingly, I asked to be excused from going to church with the others. My mother looked surprised and grieved; but she did not urge me to go. We were never obliged to go to church; we were only expected to. As everybody in the community went regularly, except in case of illness, it no more occurred to us children to stay away than to absent ourselves from our meals. The shadow on my mother’s sweet face half-tempted me to give up my cherished plan; but I turned away my eyes and thought of Channing.

When from the window I had watched the party down the street, I fetched my hat, and stole softly past the loud-ticking eight-day clock, through the empty house, and out the door. As I walked all by myself along the streets, I heard the church-bells slowly tolling. Presently, after several quick strokes, they stopped. A few belated church-goers hastened by; and still I had not reached Federal Street. I was going to be late! But I thought of Channing, and kept on.

Sure enough, when I pushed open the door from the vestibule into the church, the congregation were singing. And what hymn do you think they sang? It was one that I had often heard in the chapel at Andover, and the very last that I should have expected to hear in a church of the heretical Unitarians. It was, —

There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

I can hardly believe that they sang that hymn very often in Dr. Channing’s church; but they certainly sang it that morning; and it made a little Andover girl feel much less guilty and less strange.

Of the rest of the meeting I can remember little, except the appearance of the wonderful Dr. Channing. I was used to hearing at Andover preachers of height, presence, and good looks. On seeing the Unitarian champion, I was distinctly disappointed. He was a little, frail wisp of a man, I thought. I wish I could remember his sermon, but I cannot. I only know that though I listened with the expectation of being shocked, I was not shocked at all.

I crept out at the beginning of the final hymn and ran back to the house, reaching it before the Orthodox party had returned. Why should I distress my dear gentle mother by telling her about my expedition, especially as there had evidently been no harm in it at all? I did not tell her what I had done until long afterwards. This experience, as may easily be believed, did much to broaden my horizon.

With a spirit of toleration growm with the years, I once went with a party of friends to attend a campmeeting. The ground was pleasantly chosen on the borders of a thick wood, before which, at the distance of only a few miles, stretched out a lovely bit of the Green Mountain range. It was a common Vermont grove, full of roots, low bushes, and general unevenness, but full also of the delicious breath of resinous trees, and of the low buzz of myriad insects singing their evening hymn. Perhaps I ought to confess it with shame and repentance, but when I found myself hurrying to the tented ground with so many cheerful companions, and was met by old friends with such cheerful, outspoken gladness of welcome, I felt as if I were out for something for which the undignified word ‘spree’ seems most applicable; and I had to hum snatches of holy song to keep my ‘vital spark’ alive. Now you may smile, if you will, but it is nevertheless true, that when I passed through the entrance into the camp-ground, there came upon me a feeling of reverence hardly second to that with which I waited for the lifting of the heavy leather curtain which hangs before the door of St. Peter’s in Rome. And why not? This temple, with its dome covered with spangling stars, its tall pillars carved in minute and exquisite tracery, its cloistered aisles, and its innumerable arches, was planned and executed by the artist beside whom even Michael Angelo is ‘a very little thing.’

As the twilight deepened, people began to take their places decorously upon the boards which were closely ranged before a rude pulpit. A peculiar audience it was! There were sunburnt men, with marked features, plainly, often coarsely dressed, but there for an object. There were women, — thin, pale, hard-worked, with sharp faces and wan eyes, — women who had toiled and moiled a whole year, and who had now come here to rest, and, some might add, to gossip, but I prefer to say, to worship. Do you suppose there is another being in the wide world who needs what are technically called ‘the comforts of religion’ as much as the middle-aged, hard-working woman? I do not.

It was refreshing to turn to the young people. There they were, whole bevies of them! girls with red lips, rosy cheeks, and wide-awake eyes; and true Green Mountain boys, in the poetical interpretation of the phrase. For these young people I kept looking through the evening, in the changeful, weird light.

It was this light that gave to the scene its chief picturesqueness. At the four corners of the camp-ground there had been built huge mounds of stone; and on top of these, piles of dry pineknots had been placed. At the ringing of the first bell the knots were lighted; and it was as if the scene had been instantaneously converted into a great picture by some old Dutch painter. Such a wealth of chiaroscuro was surely never seen before. How the shadows chased the lights around the trunks of the old trees! How the lights chased the shadows among the dancing, flickering leaves! How a stray beam, falling on an old, seamed face, softened its troubled look, as if that beam had been indeed the light of God’s countenance! How a darkening, like that under an outspread angel’s wing, rested upon another face, hallowing it! There we sat, bathed in this sea of light, its waves sweeping over us in great undulations, as one knot after another yielded to the flames and a fresh one took its place.

I shall leave out of this sketch any account of the preaching and praying. I hold that if your taste inclines you to what is gentle, noiseless, and very reverent, you should go only where you are sure to find it, or else receive what you meet in silence. Of the singing, however, I can speak with enthusiasm. There is no music more stirring than these camp-meeting songs. The melodies in themselves are full of spirit; and when hundreds of voices break into them from all parts of a tented field, the effect is wonderful. If I had been tempted to utter any ejaculations of pious fervor, it would have been when a chorus came suddenly to a full stop, or a winged note carried up with it the souls of the audience. If they would sing more, and pray less — but, as I said, I wall not criticise.

The intolerant spirit that can see no good in alien forms of religion is typified for me by an incident that I witnessed many years ago in Rome. While I was walking one noon with a party of friends along a narrow street, a cry came sounding down that the Pope was coming. Almost before we could turn round, the outriders were upon us. I was separated from my friends, and pushed near an elderly man, whom I recognized as a compatriot whose veins were blue with Puritan blood. As the gilded chariot drew near us, every gentleman uncovered his head, and every lady bent hers in kindly reverence. I said every one; but there was an exception. The American at my side stood stark and stiff, looking neither to the right nor to the left, but straight before him. The old man sitting there in his ‘pomp of circumstance,’ with his gentle smile, his flowing gray hair, and his faded eye, was for this Puritan the representative of the ‘scarlet woman,’ and an embodiment of the abominations, cruelties, sins, sorrows, and shames of the religious world. Not all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could have bent one of his stiff Puritan joints into any attitude but that of open defiance. If the color mounted quickly into my cheeks, and my reverence was even more deferential than the occasion demanded, do not blame me. The man’s demeanor seemed to me so little, that I could not help myself.

The thing by which I have been most strongly tempted to intolerance was no feature of an alien sect, but an outgrowth of the faith of my fathers in its early days. With one companion I was visiting the old burial-ground at Copp’s Hill. The superintendent had shown us a vault on which, by taking pains, we had deciphered the names of the ‘Reverend Drs. Increase, Cotton, and Samuel Mather.’ There we had stood reverently, in the shadowy presence of their great souls, feeling that it was no slight thing to have lived lives the memory of which can never die, — to be sending down, over the long, long years, influences which still tell upon the world.

Then we wandered about the graveyard, studying the old tombstones. That any one could have been willing to die, knowing that he would be so commemorated, — that any one could sleep, with a headstone like some of these above him, — remains a marvel unto this day. In the sixteen hundreds they put at the head of every stone the most horrible, grinning death’s head. In the seventeen hundreds they carved instead a cherub, with puffy cheeks, fluffy wings, and a general air of prosperity in striking contrast to the former favorite.

But I am weakly putting off my tale. On one side of the graveyard there was a mound encircled by an iron fence. The grass there was green and soft and happy-looking; so I asked, with something like relief in my voice, sure that here death had lost its sting, —

‘Whose grave is that? ’

‘That,’ answered the superintendent, looking as if the words were forced out of him, ‘that is a relic of the intolerance of the age of Cotton Mather. There they buried the unbaptized infants !

‘Come,’ I said, turning hastily to my companion, ‘I have seen enough, — too much. Let us go home.’

‘I don’t believe a word of it,’ he confided to me quietly, as we walked quickly away. ‘And if it was so, Cotton Mather had nothing to do with it! ’

But I answered not a word.