Portraits of American Women: Iv. Mary Lyon
Born in Buckland, Massachusetts, February 28, 1797;
Mount Holyoke Seminary opened November, 1837;
Died March 5, 1849.
MARY LYON, the foundress of Mount Holyoke College, had a magnificently persistent spirit. She did what she set out to do and got what she wanted to get. No doubt the grit and determination in her were fostered, if not bred, by the sturdy, rugged training of her childhood. Born at the very close of the eighteenth century, on a farm in Western Massachusetts, she was brought up by a widowed mother with many children and small means. The discipline was stern, but it rooted character deep down among the solid needs and essential efforts of existence. Every moment of life was of use and was put to use. When Mary was hardly out of infancy, her mother found her one day apparently trifling with the hour-glass, but she explained that she thought she had discovered a way of making more time. As years went on, she did make more time, by getting double work and thought into what there was. It was not time only; but every resource of life must be made to yield all there was in it and a little more.
‘Economy,’ she said to her pupils later, ‘is not always doing without things. It is making them do the best they can.’ Nothing helps so much towards this final extraction of utility as knowing the exact nature of things, not only what they serve for, but how they are made, even knowing how to make them one’s self. Mary made her own clothes from cloth made by her own hands. Many other women did this; but Mary, when she lived near a brickyard, wanted to make brick, and did it. Always she had the instinct and the habit and the genius for doing something.
Very early, however, she appreciated that to do something, in her sense, a wider and ampler education was needed than a New England farm would give her. The most essential education, that of character, she could indeed give herself. Self-training, self-discipline she began early and kept up to the end. When a friend ventured to suggest the getting rid of certain little awkwardnesses, she replied, with perfect good humor, ‘I have corrected more such things than anybody ought to have.’ She corrected little defects as well as great.
But no one knew better than she that education could not come wholly from within. There were broad regions of spiritual joy and spiritual usefulness which must be explored by the help and the guidance of others. The means of obtaining such help and guidance for women in those days were limited, and Mary’s situation and circumstances made them doubly limited for her. But what persistent and determined effort could do, she did. Her natural capacity for acquisition was undoubtedly great. She said of herself, in a connection that precluded boasting, ‘My mind runs like lightning.’ It not only moved swiftly, but it held what it seized as it went. She was given a Latin grammar on Friday night. On Monday she recited the whole of it. I do not know how much this means, not having seen the grammar; but obviously it means enough, even with her humiliating confession that she had studied all day Sunday.
In her case, however, it was less the brilliancy than the everlasting persistence that counted. She had no money to get an education. Very well, she would get the money first and the education afterward. She went to school when she could; when she could not, she taught others — for seventyfive cents a week and her board. The opportunities that she did get for her own work she improved mightily. Those with whom she boarded when she was studying say that she slept only four hours out of the twenty-four. They add, with the amazement which persons differently constituted feel for such endeavor, ‘She is all intellect; she does not know that she has a body to care for.’
But do not imagine that she was a mere human machine, created to think of work only. She had her ups and downs, as those who sleep only four hours must — her days when work seemed impossible and, what is worse, not worth doing; her utter discouragements, when the only relief was tears. She inquired one night how soon tea would be ready; was told, immediately; and on being asked the reason of her evident disappointment, replied, ‘I was only wishing to have a good crying-spell, and you do not give me time enough.’
How far other emotions touched her active youth, we do not know. She was always sweet and merry with her companions, but she had not leisure for much social dissipation. One or two vague glimpses come of loving or, much more, of being loved, but they lead to nothing. Other interests more absorbing filled that eager and busy heart. As she looked back from later triumphs at the struggles of these early days, she said, ’In my youth I had much vigor — was always aspiring after something. I called it loving to study. Had few to direct me aright. One teacher I shall always remember. He told me education was to fit one to do good.’
Whatever education might be, she sought it with a fervent zeal which was an end in itself as well as a most efficient means.
To get an education for herself, with heroic effort, was not enough for Miss Lyon. In getting it, she came to feel its value and others’ need of it. Obtaining it for them was an object for as much zeal and devotion as she had bestowed upon her own. No one then felt it necessary that women should be educated as men were. Men, whether educated themselves or not, felt it to be distinctly unnecessary; and the suggestion of systematic intellectual training for the weaker, domestic sex did not fill the ordinary husband and father with enthusiasm. A fashionable finishing school was a girl’s highest ambition, and to be accomplished, pending being married, was the chief aim of her existence. To Miss Lyon it seemed that women had brains as well as men, were as well able to use them, and often more eager. And she determined very early to devote her life to giving them the opportunity.
Her object was certainly not moneymaking. Her personal standards were always simple, and her earnings, when she did earn, would seem, even to the modern teacher, pitiful. In fact, her view of profit and the teacher’s profession, like that of Socrates, was ideal to the point of extravagance. ‘If money-making is your object,’ she cries, ’be milliners or dressmakers; but teaching is a sacred, not a mercenary employment.'
So with the ambition to be great and prominent and remembered. Who shall say that anyone is wholly free from the subtle and searching temptation here? But at least she is free from it so far as she knows herself. Some, she writes, will say that Miss Grant and Miss Lyon wish ' to see a great institution established, and to see themselves at the head of the whole, and then they will be satisfied.’ And she recognizes that this is human nature, and she does not trouble herself to deny the allegation directly, but her tone implies that it touches her not.
Nor did she seek to be of use to those who had wealth or social prominence or influence. They could take care of themselves. What she wished to provide for was the great mass of women throughout the country who had little means or none, but the same devouring thirst for better things that had tormented her. She would exclude no one who was really worthy, no one, as she said herself, but ‘harmless cumberers of the ground’ and those ‘whose highest ambition is to be qualified to amuse a friend in a vacant hour.’ Such, rich or poor, might find their vocation elsewhere. The saving of their souls was not her business.
So, trusting in the goodness of God and in her own unbounded energy, she set about taking a great step in the forward progress of the world. She was practically unknown, she had no money, she had no influence, she had no access to the many agencies which facilitate the advancement of great undertakings. She had only courage and hope. ‘When we decide to perform a certain duty, we should expect success in it, if it is not utterly impossible,’ she said quietly; and she practised as she preached. She was ready to make any sacrifice. ‘Our personal comforts are delightful, not essential.’
She approached everyone who could possibly help her, with tireless, but not tedious, persistency. She went into people’s homes and pointed out what she was trying to do for them, showed fathers and mothers what their daughters needed and how little effort would help to get it.
She spoke publicly on formal occasions; she spoke privately to anyone who she thought might assist her, even to strangers. Some of her friends complained of this. In that day it seemed odd for a woman to make herself so conspicuous, and the doubters feared that she might injure her cause instead of aiding it. She differed from them positively. ‘What do I do that is wrong?’ she urged. ‘I hope I behave like a lady; I mean to do so.’ Who that knows anything of her will question that she did ? But she was working for a great cause and she did not mean to let trifles stand in her way. ‘My heart is sick,’ she cried; ‘my soul is pained with this empty gentility, this genteel nothingness. I am doing a great work. I cannot come down.'
Of course there were discouragements, crying spells, no doubt, as in the earlier days; times when everything went wrong, and the world seemed utterly indifferent. The very vastness of the hope made it shadowy, and she had her lurking possibilities of skepticism. ‘I always fear when I find my heart thus clinging to the hope of future good.’ There was physical collapse, too, under such enormous effort, even in a body mainly healthy. For two or three days, sometimes, she would give herself up to a state of partial stupor, forgetting even hope and duty in an absolute relaxation of all nervous energy.
Then she would emerge with fatigue and depression behind her, ready to face any difficulty and overcome any obstacle. ‘It is one of the nicest of mental operations,’ she said, ‘to distinguish between what is very difficult and what is utterly impossible.’ But what was impossible to others was apparently only difficult to her. Walls hardly built and hardly paid for might fall down, and her only comment was one of delight that no one was hurt. Stupid and obstinate people might oppose her methods, but somehow or other she accomplished the result. ‘She made the impression on every one with whom she had anything to do, from the common day-laborer to the president of a college, that if she set herself to do anything, it was of no use to oppose her.’
This does not mean that she was rough or overbearing in her methods, that she forced money out of pockets, or souls into the kingdom of God. She had indeed her share of the prophet’s severity. If she had let herself go, she might have reprehended and reprimanded with a righteous scorn. In one wealthy household, where she had expected much, she got nothing, and to friends who had foretold her failure she confided, with bitterness, ‘They live in a costly house, it is full of costly things, they wear costly clothes, but oh, they’re little bits of folks!’
Such bitterness she mainly kept to herself, however. She knew that her progress must be slow, often hindered, and often tortuous. She disciplined herself not to hope too much and to forget disappointments. She practised infinite patience. ‘ I learned twenty years ago never to get out of patience.’ She would not dispute or argue. She would state her position, her plans, her prospects. She would answer every question which really tended to clarify. Then the conscience of her hearers was left to work by itself. Attacks, abuse, sarcasm, slander touched her not. She did not deserve them, why should she heed them? They distressed her friends and one of the closest, Professor Hitchcock, wrote an answer which he submitted to Miss Lyon’s consideration. ‘That was the last I ever saw of it,’ he said.
Instead of this sharper combativeness, she worked by persuasion, by insinuation, by tact and sympathy. She would not yield a syllable of her main theory; but if anything was to be gained by meeting criticism in a detail, by accepting a minor suggestion, she was always ready. ‘ In deviating from others,’ she advised, ‘be as inoffensive as possible; excite no needless opposition.’ She excited none, where it could be avoided, and people found themselves agreeing with her before they knew it, and almost against their wills. She conquered less by formal argument than by personal charm, and had the golden faculty of making others feel that her will was their own. One who knew her well said that she held men ‘ by invisible attractions which it was hard to resist and from which very few wished to be released.’ Another simpler mind put it still better: ‘I would have done anything she asked me to. Everybody would.’
The habit of getting what she wanted from others came naturally. That of making use of what she got, perhaps somewhat less so. She had to train herself a little in business methods. This a clear and sound brain can always do, and she did it. But order and system and punctuality seem at first to have been difficult for her. She was not born neat and tidy in trifles. Some women’s things, she said, seemed to have feet and to know their right places and return to them of their own accord. Hers did not. She was not born punctual or with a consciousness of time. If she got interested in a task, she wanted to finish it, regardless of the arrival of the hour for doing something else. She wanted to go to bed when she pleased, to get up when she pleased, to eat when she pleased, not at a set and given minute.
But she understood these weaknesses, and had conquered them in all essentials before she entered upon her great work. If she was not born a woman of business, she made herself one, and she had overcome inner obstacles before she began her fight with those without. Therefore she was able, not only to raise the sums she needed, but to use them wisely; and, after innumerable difficulties, in the autumn of 1837, Mount Holyoke Seminary was opened.
It was a day of triumph for Miss Lyon — of pure personal triumph, of course it was. She would not have been human, if it had not been. She had labored through years of toil and vexation. Now at last the way was clear to accomplish what she had dreamed. Of an earlier time of prosperity she says, ‘There is an unusual evenness and uniformity in my feelings, freedom from excitement, of any rising above the common level.’ But on that November day in 1837 her spirits certainly did rise above the common level. She saw all that she had longed for and hoped for realized in that plain, square building with its vast possibilities, and her words have the inspiration of a prophetess: ‘The stones and brick and mortar speak a language which vibrates through my very soul.’
So she had performed her huge task, her practically single-handed task, of preparing the material facilities for extending education. Now came the subtle and complicated labor of conveying it. And first as to the negative problem, so to speak, that of discipline. This considerable body of girls had been brought together, unaccustomed to the restraints of community life. How to train them to do their best work without injuring themselves or each other?
To begin with, Miss Lyon did not believe too much in formal rules. Of course, a certain number of such rules was necessary, as always. But she endeavored to impress upon her girls the spirit of those rules and not the letter. She brought home to them vividly the struggle between the body and the mind, and the absolute necessity of making the mind master at the start. ‘The mind,’ she told them, ‘should not sit down and wash the body’s feet, but the body should obey the mind.’
So in relations with others. It was not so much a question of following rules as of getting into the right tone. ‘Avoid trying the patience or irritating the feelings of others,’ she reminded them. She made her precise directions flow from such general precepts as these.
Then she trusted the girls to carry them out. Of course, they could not always be trusted, and she knew that they could not. They were human and young and girls, and had their weaknesses. Dress and boys were in their thoughts, as they always have been and always will be. But something about Miss Lyon’s presence took the place of rules — something about the thought of her presence. ‘One could not do wrong where she was,’ writes one pupil. There were occasionally those who could do wrong and did, either from carelessness, or even from contumacy. With them Miss Lyon had such severity as was needed. Read the quaint old biographer’s account of the forcible removal of one young woman from one room to another: ‘“You must go into the large room,” said the teacher.’ The young woman went.
But usually the reliance was less upon coercion than upon persuasion. ‘She will try to make us vote so-and-so, and I won’t do it — I won’t,’ said one recalcitrant to another, as they prepared to listen to her gentle exhortation. Then they voted as she wished. Above all her discipline was dynamic, consisted in instilling a bewitching impulse to do things, not to avoid things. Our happiness lies largely in remembering, she said; do what will be pleasant to remember. And whatever you do, put life into it. Do not half do, or do negligently. ‘Learn to sit with energy.’ Did ever anyone put more character into a phrase than that?
And as they were taught energy, so they were taught the use of it by order and method. Hours should be planned and kept and followed. ‘I have suffered all my life from the want of regular habits,’ she told her girls; ‘I wish you to accustom yourselves to be thoroughly systematic in the division of your time and duties.’ Train and discipline the mind, she urged upon them, govern your thoughts. ‘ Bring the mind to a perfect abstraction and let thought after thought pass through it.’
She herself was ardent, full of emotion, full of impulse. ‘I endeavor daily to avoid excessive emotions on any subject,’ she says. She was not always successful, and admitted it; but she wanted those who learned from her to be better than she. Even in benevolence, in charity, which meant so much to her, she advised restraint and intelligence. ‘If you had really rather spend your money on yourselves, spend it.’ Do not overdo from the impulse of the moment. ‘I don’t want artificial fire.’ In short, she was as anxious to make progress solid and sure as to establish it upon an undying enthusiasm. ‘Character,’ she told those incorrigible workers of samplers, ‘like embroidery, is made stitch by stitch,’
From all this you gather perhaps an impression of pedantry, of formal priggishness. It is true that, as we look back from the familiarity of to-day, Miss Lyon’s methods and manners sometimes seem stiff, like her caps. Her girls to her were always ‘young ladies,’ as their contemporaries of the other sex were ‘young gentlemen.’ Her phraseology was elaborate, and she wished others to use the same. In her portraits one perceives a certain primness, and the undeniable beauty has also an undeniable suggestion of austerity. If haste made her sometimes forget to fasten a button or adjust a tie, one imagines her upon any state occasion as complete in her dignity as Queen Elizabeth herself.
But brief study suffices to penetrate beneath this superficial stiffness and form. ‘It is very important that a teacher should not be schoolified,’ said Miss Lyon to her pupils.
Many teachers say this, not so many practise it. She did. Under the formal garb and manner, she was essentially human. In the first place, she had the keenest insight into human strength and weakness. She knew the heart, or at least knew that none of us know it, and was ever alive to opportunities to increase her knowledge. In one case she comments with the keenest analysis upon the weaknesses of a relative, and then apologizes for doing so; ‘only I love to remark the extreme unlikeness in members of the same family.’ In general, the good qualities impress her most, though she notes this with due reserve. ‘On the whole, as I grow in years, I have a better opinion of people.’
But her humanity went far deeper than mere observation and insight. Under the formal outside there was the most sensitive affection and tenderness. She loved her pupils as if they were her daughters, felt as if she must supply the mother’s place to every one of them.
‘You are spoiling that child,’ said her teachers, of one whom she petted, though she never really showed any favoritism. Her answer was, ‘Well, she is young and far from her mother, and I am sorry for her, and I don’t believe it will hurt her.’
This was only one instance out of many. When girls were solitary and homesick and weary and discouraged, she could and did sympathize, for she had known all those things herself and went back readily to the days when she had said that she had ‘but just physical strength enough left to bear her home, just intellect enough to think the very small thoughts of a little infant, and just emotion enough to tremble under the shock.’
In short, she had the supreme element of sympathy, the power of always putting one’s self in the place of another. Nothing can be of greater help to a teacher or to any leader of men or women than this, and saying after saying of Miss Lyon’s shows how richly she was endowed with it. The brief remarks and comments gathered at the end of Miss Fidelia Fiske’s quaint little volume of Recollections are the best illustration of what I mean. ‘More than nine tenths of the suffering we endure is because those around us do not show that regard for us which we think they ought to do.’ This bit of wisdom, curiously exaggerated for a thinker so careful as Miss Lyon, is as interesting for what it suggests about herself as about her study and comprehension of others.
With the sympathetic and imaginative power of putting one’s self in the place of others is apt to go a large and fine sense of humor. Had Miss Lyon this? It is amusing to see how answers vary. Some of the numerous pupils who have written reminiscences of her insist that she had no humor at all, that she rarely, if ever, smiled, and took life always from the serious side. Others are equally positive that she was ready for a jest, and on occasion could twinkle with merriment. The explanation of these conflicting views probably is that she was very different with different people. Some persons have the faculty of cherishing the warm flame of humor, of teasing even fretted spirits into bright and gracious gayety. Others put out that pleasant flame as a snuffer puts out a candle. I have known pupils of Miss Lyon with whom I am sure that she was always as serious as the bird of Pallas.
Then, too, she was brought up in a school that restrained laughter. As a teacher, she knew the danger of satire and herself admitted that she had to be on her guard against her appreciation of the ludicrous, lest she should do irreparable damage to sensitive hearts. Moreover, the Puritan strain was strong in her and she shied at any suggestion of uncontrolled gayety for herself or those she guided. ‘It is not true,’ insists an admiring pupil, ‘that Miss Lyon enjoyed fun! . . . “Fun,” she said, “is a word no young lady should use.”’
Yet I dare swear that she enjoyed fun, just the same; that she could see a joke, and take and make a joke. One would certainly not say of her, in the dainty phrase of the old poet, —
Even as autumn’s dust.
But at any rate, in youth, before care settled too heavily, she was capable of full-lunged, resounding cachinnation. ‘Mr. Pomeroy’s father has heard Miss Lyon, when a girl, laugh half a mile away from one hill to another. Once she laughed so loud she scared the colts in the field and made them run away.’
Now, is n’t that jolly? In later years she did not, indeed, scare the colts or the coltish young ladies, but there can be no doubt that large possibilities of spiritual laughter lightened the difficulties and vexations that were inseparable from her triumph. To be sure, she sometimes fell into strange freaks of professional solemnity, such as seem quite inconsistent with any sense of humor at all, as when she cautioned her young ladies, ‘The violation of the seventh commandment may and ought to be examined as a general subject, but beware of learning particulars’; or again, ‘Choose the society of such gentlemen as will converse without even once seeming to think that you are a lady.’ But I believe the winking of an eye would have made her see the humorous slant of these suggestions. She saw it in regard to many others, and especially in regard to that most delicate of humorous tests, the absurdity of one’s self. Is there not a depth of humor in her overheard remark, as she stood before the mirror trying to tie her bonnetstrings: ‘Well, I may fail of heaven, but I shall be very much disappointed if I do — very much disappointed.’
All this analysis of Miss Lyon’s educational influence, her discipline, her method, her sympathy, her laughter, does not catch the entire depth and power of it. We must add the magnetism, the gift of inspiration. She could draw money out of men’s pockets, she could draw folly out of girls’ souls and put thought and earnest effort in its place. Never give up, she taught them, never submit, never be beaten. ‘Teach till you make a success of it.’ Live with high ideas, she taught them; make noble dreams noble realities. ‘Our thoughts have the same effect on us as the company we keep.’ When you have a great object in view, let no obstacle, no difficulty distract you from it. ‘Go where no one else is willing to go — do what no one else is willing to do.’
And she herself never forgot the greatest test of teaching; did her best to keep it before all who assisted her and worked under her. ‘Make the dull ones think once a day, make their eyes sparkle once a day.’ The teacher who can do this has indeed magnetism, has inspiration. She did it, perhaps, many times a day.
It is interesting that the enthusiasm of scholarship proper is not a marked element in Miss Lyon. She had an immense desire to educate herself; later, an immense desire to educate others. It does not appear that in youth or in age she was overpowered by the passion for acquiring knowledge as an end merely. Now and then she has words that seem to belie this. ‘There are peculiar sweets derived from gaining knowledge, delights known only to those who have tasted them,’ she says. She pursued all varieties of study with equal ardor. Mathematics, logic, science, literature, she was at home in all, delighted to talk about them, delighted to teach them. But you feel instantly the difference between her and, for example, Mrs. Samuel Ripley, in this regard. Mrs. Ripley followed all studies because they were all in themselves equally delightful. Miss Lyon followed them all, because they were all, comparatively speaking, indifferent. To Mrs. Ripley knowledge was an end in itself, an all-sufficing, inexhaustible end. To Miss Lyon knowledge was only a beginning. Mathematics and all the rest were bright, sharp, splendid instruments. The first thing was to get them, but an infinitely more important thing was what you could do with them. What a significant, if unintentional, revelation there is in the phrase I have already quoted: ‘In my youth I had much vigor — was always aspiring after something. I called it loving to study.' (The italics are mine.) What scorn there is in another brief phrase of her later years: ‘The intellectual miser is an object of contempt.’
No, she was not essentially a scholar; she could never have been content to spend long hours and long years over books and the problems of books. She was essentially and by every instinct a teacher. And her object in teaching was not to make others scholars. In all the great volume of Reminiscences contributed by her pupils, pure scholarship fills but a very little place. What she aimed at was to teach girls, not to know, but to live. It is true, her biographer says that in her early years of teaching her great aim was to make scholars. But even so, I think she was rather anxious to succeed in anything she had undertaken than to impart the fine fury of intellectual acquirement.
And as time went on, the mere lore of books took a more and more subordinate place. Life was to be studied, character was to be studied, all the curious, subtle, surrounding and moulding influences that govern our existence. ‘Make as much effort to gain knowledge from objects around us, from passing events, and from conversation, as from books.’ She labored hard and long at the greatest of human tasks, that of making people think for themselves. ‘Knowledge and reflection, she said, ‘should balance’; - though she added, with a sigh, that ‘all we can do in this matter is to stand about the outer court and say, “Won’t you reflect ?”’
And her object was not only reflection, but reflection turned into conduct. She wanted to take a group of bright and eager spirits from the great middle circle of democracy and send them out again to make over the world. This America, as she then saw with almost prophetic vision, needed so many things, some consciously and some unconsciously. She wanted her girls to do something toward supplying the need. ‘We have made it an object,’ she said, ‘ to gain enlarged and correct views . . . as to what needs to be done, what can be done, what ought to be done; and, finally, as to what is our duty.’
To know one’s duty, in the largest sense, and to do it, was her idea of education. As one of her pupils expresses it, ‘her first aim was to make us Christians; her second to cultivate us intellectually.’ But her own phrase, far finer, rings like a trumpet: ‘That they should live for God and do something.’
Here we have the essence of Miss Lyon’s teaching, of her work in the world, of her own heart: that they should live for God and do something. Is it not, so far as it goes, a splendid, direct, and simple clue to the great problem of education? It is perhaps for the lack of such a clue that nowadays we grope and flounder so dismally. For who will deny that in all the difficulties that beset educative theory at the present day the greatest is that we do not know what we want? The old convenient standard of a liberal education is slipping from us, has slipped from us completely. What are we to put in the place of it? Two at least of our great institutions of learning have mottoes that suggest Miss Lyon’s, ‘Not to be ministered unto but to minister,’ and ‘For Christ and the Church.’ But we can neither agree about what they mean nor unite to apply them. As with the unhappily married couple in Mr. Ade’s Fable, ‘The motto in the dining-room said, “Love one another,” but they were too busy to read.’ Instead, we turn to the practical issue of bread and butter, and make it our educational ideal to train men and women to go out into the world and contend with their fellows for the material necessaries of life.
Miss Lyon’s aim was simpler — not always easy to apply perhaps, but tangible and, above all, inspiring from its very nature: That they should live for God and do something. But to understand the full bearing of the words, we must consider more carefully what God was to Miss Lyon herself.
To begin with, her religion was not a matter of convention, not a mere tradition accepted from others and passed on to others again, without an intimate grasp of its nature and meaning. She came slowly to the fulness and ripeness of faith, regretted often in her early years that the divine ecstasy descended less amply upon her than upon some more favored. She abhorred pretence, the theory of feeling, wanted only sentiments that were truly hers. How admirable is her confession in the presence of great natural beauty: ‘I feared that I should be unable to feel the soul-moving power, and I had an ardent desire that I might not acknowledge, even to myself, any second-hand emotions, any influence which did not affect my own heart.’ Second-hand emotions! Do we not all of us need to beware of them?
As religion took fuller possession of her, she did not suffer herself to be unduly exalted. To others it seemed to come with ease and swiftness of glory. It came with struggle and effort and long agony to her. ‘ In view of invisible and divine realities, my mind is darkened, my perceptions feeble, my heart cold and stupid. It seems as if such a low, groveling worm of the dust could never be fitted for heaven.’ There were days of distress and discouragement, days of barrenness, if not of doubt. ‘ Sometimes I almost feel that I am not my own, but I find my heart repeatedly desiring those things from which I had almost supposed it was forever separated.’
A clear, calm intellectual analysis was so natural to her, that she was tempted to apply it where faith and love would have been more wholesome; although, in the end, with the author of the Imitation, she finds that ‘After winter comes summer, after the night the day, and after a storm a great calm.’ ‘It is wonderful to me how the mind, after a state of doubt and difficulty, from which it seemed impossible to be extricated, can, without any new light or new evidence, settle down into a state of calm and quiet decision.’
But all these negative elements were as nothing to the joy and rapture which religion gave her. She was certainly not a mystic in the sense of pure contemplation. Action was life to her, her soul was dynamic, and her conception of God must have been that of a full, outflowing, energetic, creative love. But this energy of action came to her seasoned and flavored with rapturous delight. ‘I love sometimes,’ she says, ‘to lose sight of individuals, in thinking of the bundles of eternal life and happiness that are bound up together in heaven.’ And again, ‘But amidst the darkness, and with a burden on my heart which I cannot describe, there is something in my soul which seems like trust in God, which is like a peaceful river, overflowing all its banks.’
She wanted to bathe all who followed her in this peaceful river, to make them partakers of this sustaining and enduring joy; and to do this, she wanted to build up their souls on an assured and stable foundation of thought and devotion and self-control and self-sacrifice. It must be admitted that some of her methods for accomplishing her end seem to us now strange and a little repellent, though perhaps they were none the worse for that. Even to-day some persons feel that dancing is not a very profitable employment; but few would go so far as Miss Lyon: ‘When Satan would spread his net to fascinate, allure, and destroy, he never omits the dance.’ The payment of small debts is undoubtedly desirable; but it is making a serious matter of it to urge that ‘It might be impossible, when praying for some one, to keep out of mind a ten cents her due.’ Again, the following injunction seems a little portentous, though eminently appropriate to much modern youthful reading: ‘Never read a book without first praying over it.’
These extremes make us smile. Others more solemn make us tremble. Miss Lyon believed in hell with all her soul. ‘If she ever had a flitting doubt of the certainty of future retributions, that doubt was never known or suspected by her most intimate friends.’ She proposed to have her pupils believe in hell, also. She stood before them in chapel, a quiet, prim New England lady, and made hell real. ‘It was the warning voice of one who saw the yawning gulf. She would point to the dark, shelving, fatal precipice, without a gesture, without a motion, save of her moving lips, her hand laid devoutly on that well-worn octavo Bible. She would uncover the fiery billows rolling below, in the natural, but low, deep tones with which men talk of their wills, their coffins, and their graves. ’ And this to a company of young girls, at the most sensitive, emotional age, just snatched from their sheltering homes and already unhinged by novel strains of every kind. It seems to us like saving their souls at fearful peril to their bodies.
Even Miss Lyon’s most concrete definition of education, so often quoted, will hardly be quoted by anyone today without a smile of good-natured amusement. ‘A lady should be so educated that she can go as a missionary at a fortnight’s notice.’
Yet, in spite of all these excesses, I believe that the essence of the matter was with Miss Lyon. The minor drawbacks, the superficial eccentricities, — even hell, — fall away, and leave her dominant and vital with the supreme object of all her thought and life, which was God. Those who followed her, she taught, must get out of themselves, forget themselves. ‘How much happier you would be to live in a thousand lives beside yourself rather than to live in yourself alone!’ They must be ready to give all, to sacrifice all, to endure all, for Christ and his Kingdom. ‘Property, education, time, influence, friends, children, brothers and sisters, all should be devoted to this object.’ And in giving, in sacrificing, there should be no waywardness, no wilfulness, no whim, even no judgment of the individual. ‘Neither teachers nor scholars should have any way of their own, or will of their own, but all should be swallowed up in the will of God.’
Finally, the heart of the whole was not merely doing, not merely the devoted, unremitting effort to do right, but rapture and glory. ‘Our minds are so constituted that nothing but God can fill them.’
‘There is but one thing needful,’ said Amiel, ‘to possess God.’ Miss Lyon thought it needful, not only to possess God herself, but to make all others possess Him, and she could not feel her own possession perfect when she was not laboring at this magnificent, if impossible, task.