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Follen, Charles Theodore Christian (1796-1840)

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Charles Theodore Christian Follen

Charles Theodore Christian Follen

Charles Theodore Christian Follen, the second son of Christopher Follen, counsellor at law and judge, was born at Romrod in Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany on the 4th of September, 1796. His mother died when he was hardly three years old. In the spring of 1813 and before he was yet seventeen years of age he passed the regular examination with great honor, and received permission to enter the University of Giessen.

It was shortly after he entered the university that Germany declared war against France. Animated by a spirit of glowing patriotism, he joined a corps of riflemen; but a few weeks after he left home he had a very severe attack of the typhus fever, which prevented him from seeing much active service. At the restoration of peace in 1814 he returned to Giessen, and resumed the study of jurisprudence at the university. He soon became distinguished for his liberal sentiments, and attached himself to a union, or Burschenschaft, which was suspected of aiming at political revolution, and he by his zeal and activity rendered himself especially obnoxious. He wrote a defense of the Burschenschaft, and many patriotic songs, which were published at Jena in 1819; and he was one of the authors, though it was not known at the time, of the celebrated “Great Song,” which expressed the prevalent spirit of sedition. In March, 1818, he received the degree of Doctor of Civil Law, and began immediately to lecture on jurisprudence, while he studied the practice of the law at the court where his father presided.

In the same year, when Dr. Follen was twenty-two years of age, he was employed as counselor in a cause of very high importance. The government had passed a law establishing a commission to collect the debts of the communities of towns and villages of Hesse, incurred during the late war; and these communities employed Dr. Follen to resist what they deemed an unreasonable claim. A remonstrance had already been made against it, but the government had met it only with a frown, and threatened to deprive any counselor of his office who should venture to place himself in conflict with this oppressive law. Follen, not daunted by this threat, did not hesitate to undertake the cause; and he drew up a petition, which was presented to the grand duke and distributed extensively among the people. He succeeded in obtaining a repeal of the law, but he did it at the expense of bringing upon himself a bitter persecution and ruining all his hopes in his own country. Under these circumstances he left Giessen, and accepted an invitation to lecture in the University of Jena.

When he had been in Jena about six months, Kotzebue, who had long been an object of hatred and contempt to the liberal party on account of his ridicule of their most cherished purposes, was assassinated by a young fanatic by the name of Sand. Follen was accused of being an accomplice, and was twice arrested, but, though every possible effort was made to prove him guilty, there was no evidence against him, and he was honorably acquitted. About the same time he was arrested on the charge of being the author of the “Great Song,” but here, again, there was an utter absence of proof upon which he could be convicted. Forbidden to continue his lectures in Jena, he returned to Giessen, and quickly discovered that he was still an object of suspicion with the government, and that they were even making their arrangements to imprison him. Satisfied that his only safety was in flight, he resolved on leaving Germany. His clothes, books, and valuable papers, which he left behind, were by his request directed to him at Strasburg; but the vessel by which they were sent took fire, and everything was destroyed. He then went to Paris, where he became acquainted with Lafayette, and through him with the Abbe Gregoire, Benjamin Constant, and many other persons of note. After the murder of the Duke of Berri an order was passed by the French government requiring all foreigners to leave France who were not there on special business that met the sanction of the government. This obliged Dr. Follen to leave the country; but, fortunately, just at this time the Countess of Benzel Sternau, who knew his story, invited him to visit her at her country seat upon the Lake of Zurich in Switzerland. He accepted the invitation, and there for some time enjoyed the most generous and refined hospitality.

In the summer of 1821, while Dr. Follen was at Zurich, he received an invitation to become a professor at the Cantonal School of the Grisons in Switzerland, which he accepted. But in his lectures on history to the higher classes he advanced certain views favorable to Unitarianism, which gave offence to some Calvinistic ministers. He requested of the Evangelical Synod an audience at their next meeting for the purpose of defending the doctrines he had put forth; and the request was granted, but the meeting was so hastily dissolved that he was not able to gain a hearing. The moderator, however, who was considered at the head of the Calvinistic clergy in that canton, gave him a certificate of his having applied to the synod for an audience, and also of the general acceptableness of his services in connection with the institution. Dr. Follen now asked of the Council of Education his dismissal from the school, and he received it with another very high testimonial in respect to his talents, learning, and fidelity as a teacher.

Soon after it was known that Dr. Follen was about to leave Chur (for that was the seat of his school), he was appointed Public Lecturer of the University of Basel, where he taught civil and ecclesiastical law, together with logic. He also, with De Wette and some other professors in the university, edited a literary journal, which contains two important treatises of his—one on “The Destiny of Man,” the other on “The Doctrine of Spinoza,” particularly in regard to law and morals.

During his residence both at Chur and Basel a demand was made by the Allied Powers for his surrender as a revolutionist. It was twice refused, but on its renewal a third time, accompanied with a declaration that a continued refusal would interrupt the harmony that existed between the two governments, Basel consented to his arrest, and an order for it was accordingly issued. As soon as this became known, his friends were on the alert to provide for his safety; and one of them actually took him out of the city, secreted under the boot of his chaise, while another, whose personal appearance strongly resembled his, gave him his passport. He left Basel on the 27th of October, 1824, and arrived at Paris on the 30th, where he found his friend Dr. Beck, who had left Basel a few days before him. They proceeded together to Havre, and engaged passage for America in the “Cadmus,” Captain Allen; but the sailing of the vessel was delayed four days by a contrary wind, and it was not till she was actually under way that Dr. Follen could feel any security that he should not be arrested and imprisoned. He was occupied during the voyage partly in developing and maturing a long-cherished scheme of religious philanthropy, partly in learning the English language, and partly in studying, with his friend Dr. Beck, a German work on the Constitution of the United States. He arrived at New York on the 19th of December.

Shortly after his arrival he wrote to his friend General Lafayette, who was then in this country, invoking his influence in procuring for him some field of useful occupation. The result was that through the exertions of Mr. Duponceau, of Philadelphia, and Professor Ticknor, whom Lafayette enlisted in his behalf, he was appointed in the autumn of 1825 teacher of the German language in Harvard University.

Dr. Follen now established himself at Cambridge, and met a cordial welcome from the faculty of the college, and especially from its president, Dr. Kirkland. A class was soon formed in Boston to hear his lectures on the Civil Law, and this introduced him at once to the best society. In the spring of 1826 he accepted a proposal to take charge of a gymnasium in Boston, and at the same time he undertook the direction of the gymnastic exercises of the students in Harvard College. Almost immediately after going to Cambridge he began to prepare a German Reader, and then a German Grammar; while he devoted no small part of his time to the study of the English language and literature.

In the winter of 1826-1827 the teachers of the Sunday school in Dr. Channing’s church were accustomed to meet in his study once a fortnight, to discuss with him and each other the subject of religious education. Dr. Follen, by invitation of one of the teachers, attended these meetings; and the very intelligent part that he took in them led one of his friends, who was present, to suggest to him the idea of becoming a minister of the gospel. At first he thought there were insuperable obstacles to it; but further reflection convinced him of the contrary, and he was very soon engaged in preparing himself to preach, being greatly aided by the sympathy and counsel of Dr. Channing. On the 28th of July, 1828, Dr. Follen was regularly admitted as a candidate for the ministry, and he preached on the following Sunday for the Rev. Mr. Greenwood at King’s Chapel. In August of this year he was appointed Instructor in Ecclesiastical History and Ethics in the Harvard Divinity School. On the 15th of September he was married to Eliza Lee, daughter of Samuel and Sarah Cabot, of Boston.

In the summer of 1830 Dr. Follen spent several weeks at Newburyport, supplying the Unitarian congregation, and in due time he received an invitation to become their pastor. This invitation he would probably have accepted, but that about the same time he was elected Professor of German Literature at Harvard.

In the winter of 1834-1835 he preached for some time to a number of families in East Lexington, who had requested him to assist them in the formation of a religious society in that village. In January, 1835, he resigned his place at the university and received under his care several pupils, and in the autumn of that year removed to Milton. Though this was a very pleasant change to him and his services were altogether acceptable to his employers, he felt constrained on account of some peculiar circumstances to relinquish it at the close of the year.

In April, 1836, Dr. Follen, having given up his comfortable establishment, had no longer any fixed home, and no employment was offered him. He went with his family to Stockbridge, where he took lodgings in the midst of some kind friends in the hope of being able to prosecute certain literary enterprises which he had projected. In June he made a visit to Niagara Falls, and proceeded thence to Chicago, where he addressed a company of Unitarians and was instrumental in arranging for the establishment of a new church.

Soon after his return to Stockbridge he received an invitation to preach two Sundays for the First Unitarian Society in New York; and, having complied with this request, he was asked to remain longer, with an understanding that his services would be desired at least for the ensuing winter. Having received ordination in Boston, he returned to New York, where he came under an engagement to preach for the next six months; and at the end of that time his engagement was renewed for one year. But between the close of the first and the commencement of the second engagement, he spent a few weeks in supplying the Unitarian church in Washington by particular request of Judge Cranch, and his services here were received with great favor. He remained in New York until May, 1838, when he took leave of the church with which he had been temporarily connected, chiefly on account of the opposition to him which had been excited by his intense devotion to the cause of antislavery. He now returned to Boston, and took lodgings at Milton, intending to devote his whole time to his Psychology, a favorite work which was then in progress.

Dr. Follen had resolved on visiting his friends in Switzerland; for he had received satisfactory assurances that he might do this with safety, though it was thought that it would be perilous for him to attempt to visit Germany. But he was prevented from carrying out his purpose by an urgent request from the society in East Lexington, which he had been instrumental in gathering, to come and take charge of their religious concerns for six months or a year. The appeal to him was so earnest that he knew not how to deny it; and, therefore, he reluctantly consented to postpone his transatlantic visit, and took up his residence at East Lexington, where his labors were highly acceptable and he was instrumental in the erection of a small church since called by his name. Just before the church was to be dedicated, he had occasion to go to New York to deliver several lectures. With his dedication sermon only partially prepared, he embarked in the steamer “Lexington” on the 13th of January for Boston. The steamer, before she had half made her passage, took fire, and large numbers, among whom was Dr. Follen, perished. He left a widow and one child.

First Person Accounts of Dr. Follen

The Rev. George F. Simmons wrote:

The following are some of my memories of Dr. Follen. I first knew him as a teacher in the Boston Gymnasium. In the various calisthenic exercises he was something of an adept; and he all his life retained great muscular vigor, and would lay his hand on the rail of a fence and leap over it with an agility and ease which surprised those unaccustomed to this bodily energy in scholars.

In the pulpit a certain foreign accent and slowness of enunciation rendered his delivery less agreeable, but he had acquired a great command of the language, and his pronunciation was surprisingly correct. In public discourse he was distinguished by a certain fervent simplicity, a kind of boyhood of mind, which he ever retained. He was also distinguished by a poetic reverence which is characteristic of the preachers of his native land, which showed itself still more in the tones of his voice than in his language. His enthusiasm, which was large, never seemed to find full vent in the pulpit. His treatment of a subject might sometimes be esteemed commonplace. He rarely stirred the deepest sensibilities of his audience. His preaching was usually neither pungent nor commanding. But there was a persuasive gentleness and sincerity of tone, a fairness and a candor in argument, and a maturity of thought which gained the respect and affectionate assent of the hearer.

Dr. Follen took a lively interest in the slavery question, and was an uncompromising and outspoken friend and member of the anti-slavery league. His zeal, however, never betrayed him into acerbity or intolerance. He was not made to be a bigot in any department of thought or action.

Dr. Follen had the features and stature of the Suabian race. He was rather short, with a round and large head, set very closely on square shoulders, a large mouth which easily relaxed into a broad smile, eyes set very far apart, large and somewhat projecting, a great width at the temples, and a broad and retreating forehead, on which a little thin brown silken hair lay softly.

Miss Elizabeth P. Peabody has described his introduction to the Boston Unitarians as follows:

Dr. Follen came to Boston with letters to the Miss Cabot, who afterwards became his wife, from Miss Sedgwick, the authoress; and she proposed, when he called one evening, to take him with her to Dr. Channing’s study, where were used to gather every Thursday evening the Sunday-school teachers of the congregation, to consider together the passages of the Gospels which were to form the subjects of their lessons to their classes on the ensuing Sunday. The teachers’ meeting had been some years in existence, and in the course of time it had come to be the plan to converse upon some general subject after the special business of the meeting was over. It happened at his time that for several successive evenings the subject had been the significance of the death of Christ, together with all its circumstances, especially the agony in the garden. In the course of the evening something had been said about the fact of men’s dying for certain causes and from the inspiration of the passions merely. By and by Dr. Charming, looking around the room which was filled with people, observed Dr. Follen, quite hidden behind the rest, and said, with a desire to draw him out, if perchance there was anything in him worth saying, “Dr. Follen, can you tell us what they say on this great subject in your country?” He was extremely modest, and his color deepened and mounted; but he immediately with great simplicity and earnestness of manner, in a speech worded with the greatest felicity of expression, proceeded to state the views of the death of Christ which made him a Christian. It was all exceedingly individual and impressive. The company sat quite entranced, as these passages of the deep inner life were so simply narrated; and, when he ended, there was a dead silence.

Dr. Channing had been entirely absorbed, his countenance growing brighter at every word. He saw he had sprung a mine; for here was a man whose religion was not an inheritance nor an imitation nor a convention of society, but the covenant of a consciously finite being with God. From that moment was cemented a friendship that never had a shadow of misunderstanding fall upon it, but was a perfect mutual respect and tender love. I heard them talk together a great deal, as I usually spent my evenings with Dr. Channing; and I heard each of them speak of the other frequently, when they were apart. They were in union upon general principles, though they often took very different views of special subjects.

Dr. Channing was the most Germanic mind of the two, if we define the Germanic mind as that which believes that individualities are of depth immeasurable by reason. Dr. Follen tended towards sacrificing individualities to laws, and individuals to humanity. Still he was not in the least deficient himself in personal affections; and there are a series of beautiful articles upon the immortality of the human affections, which he published in the Christian Examiner. He sympathized very much with the glowing enthusiasm of youth and the fervors of an elevated devotion, and was ardent as a lover of liberty, individual and national. His temperament was warm, but his temper was perfectly sweet, because his impulses were in harmony with his principles, and he was above all petty personal passions and interests absolutely.