John Greenleaf Whittier: A Bicentennial Reflection

The birthday of one of the United States’ most popular Quakers was once a national event. Around the firesides and in schoolrooms across the country, people affectionately recited—and even sang—the lyrical poems of John Greenleaf Whittier. On his 70th birthday, Harriet Beecher Stowe called Whittier’s life "a consecration, his songs an inspiration, to all that is highest and best." And to celebrate the occasion of his 100th birthday, Booker T. Washington praised "the unselfish labors rendered by this great individual to the cause of freedom."

Now, on this 200th anniversary of his birth, hardly anyone knows the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier. He modestly described his work as "the farm wagon and buckboard of verse," and admitted it was not built to endure: "I shall not dare to warrant any of my work for a long drive."

Yet Whittier wanted to be remembered—for his life if not for his poetry. In 1867, at the height of his popularity, he wrote to the editor of The Nation: "I cannot be sufficiently grateful to the Divine Providence that so early called my attention to the great interests of humanity, saving me from the poor ambitions and miserable jealousies of a selfish pursuit of literary reputation."

Whittier’s renown has understandably faded; his rhymes and subjects reflect the sensibilities of a bygone era. But the life of this Quaker humanist endures as an inspiring witness for our own times. At the most critical period in our nation’s history, he spoke truth to power. As he once said of a Quaker woman he admired: "The Gospel of a life like hers / Is more than books or scrolls." We can learn much from the "gospel" of a life like John Greenleaf Whittier’s.

Born on December 17, 1807, Whittier grew up on a struggling New England farm. His father, a practical but not a prosperous man, had little use for books—only the Bible and the writings of William Penn, Richard Baxter, Thomas Chalkley, and several other devout Quaker writers. Whittier absorbed those books fully, but the farm life was demanding and John’s health was poor, so he received little formal education.

Whittier’s early life bears witness not so much to his own determination as to the encouragement he received in those early years—from individuals like Joshua Coffin, a schoolmaster, who one day dropped by the farmstead with a book, firing the young teen’s imagination with the lyrical poems of Robert Burns. And when Whittier, still a teenager, began to write his own lyrics, it was his older sister who rescued him from his bashfulness, sending one of his poems to William Lloyd Garrison’s Free Press where it was published. In turn, Garrison, himself only 20 years old, came to see the young poet and persistently begged his father to release him for more schooling. "Poetry will not get him bread," his father grumbled. But eventually he consented. By the time he was 20, John Greenleaf Whittier had published nearly 80 poems.

Most of those early poems are quite forgettable, and even Whittier called them "wretched" attempts. But what should not be overlooked is the vitality of this youthful collaboration. However insufficient their knowledge or inadequate their experience, these two young people provided mutual encouragement by acting upon their dreams and learning by doing.

One of Whittier’s more popular poems, "Maud Muller," tells the story of an encounter between a young farm girl and a wealthy judge; each envies the life of the other and dreams of what might be possible. But neither does anything to make it happen. Whittier concludes the poem expressing pity for them both:

For all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been."

Whittier’s membership in the Religious Society of Friends was "the decisive factor which gave force and direction to his life," according to biographer, John A. Pollard. "It was not chiefly the mystic aspect of Quakerism which held him. The intense religion in him bore not the slightest relation to theology or creed. It was the practical Quaker way of life which gripped him, the consecrated purpose to help the helpless. . . . A large part of his life was nothing less than the practical application of Quaker principles to a troubled social era."

For Whittier, this practical application of principles meant devoting some 30 years to the abolition of slavery, a personal commitment for which he paid dearly.

Whittier had studied for two years at Haverhill Academy when William Lloyd Garrison found him a newspaper editorship and encouraged him in the abolitionist cause. Whittier, now in his early 20s, found himself composing editorials and speeches opposing slavery and lobbying for the abolition of slavery. He vigorously supported Henry Clay’s campaign and even ran for political office himself. "The truth is, I love poetry," Whittier wrote to the popular poet Lydia Sigourney in 1832. But, he continued, "Politics is the only field now open for me, and there is something inconsistent in the character of a poet and a modern politician."

There are scholars who think Whittier could have been a greater poet had he not been so politically fervent. It certainly took a toll on his health and his reputation. Not all northerners supported abolition, and not all Friends approved of Whittier’s militancy about slavery. On more than one occasion, Whittier was pelted with sticks and stones; in 1838, when Whit-tier was editing The Pennsylvania Freeman, an angry mob looted and burned his office in Pennsylvania Hall, threatening to hang him. Two years later, broken by the stress, Whittier gave up editing and went home to Amesbury, Massachusetts.

Students are sometimes surprised to learn that this apparently benign Fireside Poet was such a political activist, or that such fiery passions could burn so brightly in the heart of one so quiet. Whittier’s friend Edna Dean Proctor once told him, "I have always been impressed by the mingled volcano and iceberg of your character."

His character certainly made a lasting impression on Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was 19 years old when he met the middle-aged Whittier. "We shook hands," Higginson recalled many years later, and "to me it was like touching a hero’s shield." To Higginson, Whittier’s character was purposeful and authentic: "Whittier’s interpretation of ‘The Inward Light’ included no vague recognition of high impulse, but something definite, firm, and extending into the details of conduct. It ruled his action; and when he had, for instance, decided to take a certain railway train, no storm could keep him back."

Higginson, a Unitarian minister, also became a man of political and military action. He was one of the Secret Six, a group that supported the radical efforts of John Brown, and as a colonel in the Civil War Higginson commanded a regiment of former slaves, the First South Carolina Volunteers. When the war ended, Higginson continued his friendship with Whittier, pursuing a literary life himself and mentoring other writers, most notably, Emily Dickinson.

Whittier, having abandoned editing and having grown increasingly disillusioned with politics, still refused to compromise on abolition. When the great orator Daniel Webster did compromise his principles, enabling passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which allowed slave owners to pursue escaped slaves into free states), Whittier was bitterly disappointed. He wrote, and immediately published in National Era magazine, a poem called "Ichabod," denouncing that sort of political expediency and lamenting the loss of all Webster had represented:

All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!

Today, the phrase "speaking truth to power" has become something of a political cliché, but Whittier’s life and the courage of his convictions show what that concept means.

When the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery, Whittier poured out an uninhibited song of praise in "Laus Deo":

Sing with Miriam by the sea:
He has cast the mighty down
Horse and rider sink and drown;
He has triumphed gloriously!

Through the years that followed the abolition of slavery, Whittier became more and more a poet of hearth and home, a national treasure who articulated many of the culture’s spiritual and domestic values. People found comfort and reassurance in his poetry. Thomas Wentworth Higginson tells the story of one college girl who felt that her life was a failure who was advised by the college president to read the poems of Whittier. "The young girl came back in an hour with a changed countenance," Higginson relates. "She said, ‘I will go on with my college course. I believe, after reading Whittier, that life is worth the effort.’"

There are many such stories about Whittier—about his persistent sense of humor, his friendships, his decision not to marry, his simple lifestyle, and his amazing generosity with his money.

As the century wore on, Whittier also became known in various Protestant churches for his hymns, but he maintained he was not really a hymn writer and knew nothing of music. His was a tradition of silence, as he said in "First-Day Thoughts":

I find my old accustomed place
My brethren, where, perchance,
no human tongue
Shall utter words; where never
hymn is sung,
Nor deep-toned organ blown, nor
censer swung. . . .

Among the Protestant churches of the 19th century, however, there was great enthusiasm for singing—especially for new American hymns. In 1846, two students at Harvard Divinity School, seeking fresh and unconventional hymns, lifted stanzas from Whittier’s poetry, set them to music, and published them in A Book of Hymns. Other editors continued to mine Whittier’s poetry for hymns. Because so many of his poems were composed in common meter, they were readily adapted to the metrical standard of hymn tunes. Arranging Whittier’s stanzas in various ways, editors created perhaps 100 hymns from poems Whittier had never intended for this use.

Here is yet another lesson one might draw from Whittier’s life, and perhaps, at the same time, a glimpse one might gain into the mysterious workings of Providence. Those few poems Whittier called "hymns" were never memorable, and the great hymns for which Whittier is still remembered were adapted by others—by Unitarians and Presbyterians—for uses he never envisioned.

Religious themes, especially the experience of God’s goodness and love, informed Whittier’s later poetry and led to some of his best writing. "The Eternal Goodness" is his quintessential Quaker poem from which several hymns have been drawn. This very personal yet humble composition offers a series of contrasts.

Addressing those who hold to the "iron creeds" of their Calvinistic convictions, Whittier presents the simple pleading of the heart. While they emphasize God’s justice, he clings to the knowledge "that God is love." They see the curse of original sin brooding over the world; he hears the beatitudes and the Lord’s cry from the cross. Where they "tread with boldness shod," he walks "with bare, hushed feet." In a manner that is both direct and confessional, Whittier acknowledges the pain he perceives in the world around him: "I see the wrong," "I feel the guilt," and "I hear, with groan and travail-cries. . . ." Yet even more, he says, "I know that God is good!"

"Our Master" is Whittier’s most Christological poem; it also yielded several hymns. Jesus Christ, Whittier explains, is not to be found in "the heavenly steeps," nor primarily through the sacraments or Scriptures, nor to be looked for in a literal Second Coming. "His witness is within," declares Whittier. "We touch him in life’s throng and press, / And we are whole again." The reality of the Christ is found through the experience of the human heart, where "faith has still its Olivet, / And love its Galilee."

In 1870, Whittier turned his critical attention to the Religious Society of Friends itself, composing a letter to the editor of Friends Review in Philadelphia. In it, Whittier writes with the rhetorical strength and soulful appeal of a Pauline epistle:

With the broadest possible tolerance for all honest seekers after truth, I love the Society of Friends. My life has been nearly spent in laboring with those of other sects in behalf of the suffering and enslaved; and I have never felt like quarrelling with Orthodox or Unitarians, who were willing to pull with me, side by side, at the rope of Reform. A very large proportion of my dearest personal friends are outside of our communion. But after a kindly and candid survey of them all, I turn to my own Society, thankful to the Divine Providence which placed me where I am; and with an unshaken faith in the one distinctive doctrine of Quakerism —the Light within—the immanence of the Divine Spirit in Christianity.

We have not, as a society, been active enough in those simple duties which we owe to our suffering fellow-creatures, in that abundant labor of love and self-denial which is never out of place. Perhaps our divisions and dissensions might have been spared us if we had been less "at ease in Zion."

Encountering John Greenleaf Whittier on this bicentennial can be unsettling, making one feel a bit less "at ease in Zion," as he put it. Opening his book today feels something like carelessly flinging open a door to a chamber you thought empty, only to be startled by a strong voice calling from within, "Hey! There’s more work to be done!"

"Life is indeed no holiday," Whittier wrote in his very last poem, shortly before his death in 1892.

"It is no use trying to sum people up," Whittier once said. "One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done."

This is good advice for honoring Whittier on his 200th birthday. His poetry is best taken in very small doses, but what he said, and what he did, offer us plenty of hints to follow and suggestions for what might yet be possible.

Thomas Becknell

Thomas Becknell is professor of English at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., where he teaches courses in American Literature and Environmental Writing. His book, Of Earth and Sky: Spiritual Lessons from Nature, reflects his passionate interest in the natural world and Christian spirituality.