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Dr. Hedge was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 12, 1805. In 1818, he went with his tutor, George Bancroft (afterward the famous historian), to Germany, where he spent five years in German schools. Returning to America, he entered Harvard College, and graduated in the class of 1825. In 1829 he was settled as minister of the church in West Cambridge (now Arlington, Massachusetts). In 1835 he removed to Bangor, Maine, where he remained pastor of the Independent Congregational Society till 1850. His next settlement was in Providence, Rhode Island, over the Westminster Congregational Church; and this terminated in 1856. In that year he accepted a call to the First Parish of Brookline, Massachusetts This last and longest settlement extended till 1872, a period of sixteen years.
One reason for his removal from Providence to Brookline was that this latter place brought him near to Cambridge. He was thus enabled to accept an appointment as non-resident professor of ecclesiastical history in the Harvard Divinity School, which position he held from 1856 till 1878. The next year after the beginning of his pastorate in Brookline, in 1857, he also became editor of the Christian Examiner, and continued in that office till 1861. Upon his retirement from the active work of the ministry in 1872 he removed to Cambridge, and became professor of the German language and literature in Harvard College. Ten years of service in this place ended his working career, save for the literary occupations which he still pursued, and some notable occasional addresses which he from time to time delivered.
He had married, in 1830, Lucy, daughter of Dr. Pierce, the minister of the Brookline church. This lady lived to help establish the home in Cambridge, and survived her husband a few months.
Dr. Hedge served for a time as president of the American Unitarian Association, having been elected to that office in 1849. He was a member of many learned societies and of various philanthropic organizations. Harvard conferred upon him the degree of D.D. in 1852, and that of LL.D. in 1886. He lived eight years after he gave up his professorship, and died in Cambridge, August 21, 1890, being then in the eighty-fifth year of his age.
Dr. Hedge was committed by his ancestry, it would seem, to a scholar’s career; and Nature fitted him well for a life of studious toil. His father, Levi Hedge, was professor of logic and philosophy in Harvard College from 1810 to 1832. His grandfather, Lemuel Hedge, was a graduate of the college in the class of 1759, and was minister of the church in Warwick, Massachusetts. His mother also came of a scholarly line, as she was the granddaughter of President Holyoke of Harvard. It may be worthy of remark that Levi Hedge, who was the second of six sons, and therefore not entitled to a college education by the traditions of the day, nevertheless, laid down the tools of the mason’s craft, to which he had been apprenticed, and fought his own way to the professorship which he afterward attained. Something of his resolute quality we may find in his distinguished son.
Physically, Dr. Hedge, though not of large stature, was of unusually tough fiber; and he possessed a powerful frame. Thomas Carlyle, who had an almost unrivalled faculty for describing men, once applied to him an adjective which suggests, as well as any, the impression made by his personal appearance. Dr. Hedge had visited Carlyle, bearing a letter of introduction from their mutual friend, Emerson. Carlyle afterward wrote to Emerson:
Hedge is one of the sturdiest little fellows I have come across for many a day. A face like a rock, a voice like a howitzer, only his honest gray eyes assure you a little.
In his later years, at least, one would have said that the expression “little fellow” did not apply to him; for, though he was something short of the average height, a certain massiveness of build gave him an imposing presence. But “sturdy” well describes his outward appearance. He was like the oak, which is not lofty among trees, but wide-spreading, of large girth, and plainly possessed of unusual vigor and vitality. He was made capable of putting forth enormous energies and of enduring great hardships. He accomplished a vast amount of work; and he was called upon to endure much suffering, which he bore with singular fortitude and patience.
In youth he was a precocious student. At the age of twelve he was fitted for entrance to Harvard College. Being too young to enter, he was sent to Germany. Here he spent five years in various gymnasia. What he gained from this training, other than his proficiency in the language of the country, is not clear. The only fragment of autobiography he left behind him tells the story of this life in German schools. It was not a luxurious life, and he looked back upon it with no special gratitude or pleasure. It fitted him, however, to become in after-years the pioneer in introducing to American thought knowledge of German poetry and metaphysics, one of the most important services he performed for his countrymen.
While in college, it was his supreme ambition to become a poet. This poetic strain in him, as we shall see, bore important fruit, though his youthful ambition was not directly fulfilled in his mature career. He was the poet of his class, and later, in 1882, the poet of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. At various times he published hymns, some of which will long survive in the collections used through all branches of the Church. Whatever was poetic in him, however, was soon turned to the enrichment of his prose.
His first choice of a profession was that of medicine; but, in deference to his father’s wishes, he entered the Harvard Divinity School. Here he made the acquaintance of Emerson, with whom he soon became extremely intimate. The ways in which these two minds influenced each other it is, of course, impossible to trace; and the extent to which one modified the thought of the other it is difficult to measure. But in the nature of things their intercourse must have been mutually productive of profound results. Both men, it is true, were strongly individualistic; and neither of them was particularly receptive toward suggestions from other minds. Hedge had the more imperious quality which goes with great intellectual strength. Emerson, of gentler habit, possessed that steel-like quality of resisting outward impressions in the maintenance of his own opinion which gentle natures sometimes show. Yet they could not have been so much together without affecting considerably each other’s thought.
Hedge appears to have been the original leader in what became later the “Transcendental” movement. It was he who urged the establishment of a periodical to represent German idealism; and the plans were formed for such a publication, of which he was to have been the editor. But for his removal to Bangor the Dial would undoubtedly have appeared under his editorial care. In 1836 Emerson, Hedge, and Ripley formed what was known as the “Transcendental Club.” But so important a member was the second of these three that, on the inside, it was commonly called the “Hedge Club.” In those days, travel was so difficult as compared with the present time that a residence in Bangor put one out of immediate touch with affairs in Boston. For this reason (if for no other) the young minister of the church in Bangor became somewhat detached from the circle of ardent Transcendentalists. Most of these people drifted away from active sympathy and connection with the Church. In his comparative seclusion, Hedge developed a broader and saner position.
The church in Bangor was made up of a remarkably intellectual class of people; and the same may be said of the churches in Providence and Brookline, to which he afterward ministered. All these congregations were richly fed by him. Being not at all what is called a “popular” preacher, he attracted by his sermons the more thoughtful portion of the community; and to such people the pulpit has seldom vouchsafed a more acceptable teacher and guide. While one or another literary project always claimed much of his time, he was one of the most faithful and conscientious of parish ministers. Always his sermons were models of careful preparation, and always he stood before his people to deliver the best message that deep reflection and painstaking industry could furnish. Never indifferent concerning the great controversies of the hour, nor silent about them, he dealt with them in such wise and reasonable fashion as to lift them above the realm of mere partisan strife. He was, for example, like Abraham Lincoln, an anti-slavery man, but not an Abolitionist—a follower of Channing rather than of Garrison or Phillips. No one who knew what he was talking about would ever say that the attitude of either Channing or Hedge on that burning question was due to cowardice.
Through all these years of pulpit work he maintained a serene and lofty and exceedingly busy life. In 1847 the strain of his rather secluded life in Bangor led him to make a trip to Europe. The winter of 1848 he spent in Rome. George William Curtis was the companion of his travels, and it was during this journey that he made the visit to Carlyle to which reference has been made.
In speaking briefly of the main characteristics of the mind of Dr. Hedge, no doubt we should put first some mention of his great intellectual power. This more than anything else, perhaps, distinguished him from other men with whom he was associated. His instinctive or intuitive faculty for divining the truth in any given situation was not extraordinary. That help which the seer derives from the subconscious part of his mental organism, Dr. Hedge either could not so much command or did not care to invoke.
But his mind, considered as a machine which he himself could fully govern and direct toward the attainment of truth, was an instrument of great accuracy and tremendous force. His was the gift of philosophic demonstration rather than that of philosophic insight.
Together with this unusual ability to seek out knowledge there went, in his case, complete fearlessness. Great courage is in itself sometimes a source of weakness; and, if Dr. Hedge was subject to any prejudice that warped his judgment, it came from his scorn of counting the consequences. This may have given him, as it has given others, a kind of instinctive preference for the conclusion that runs counter to man’s natural inclination. In part, this may explain his doubts as to the more commonly received forms of the doctrine of immortality. However this may be, as measured by intellectual standards, he was one of the greatest thinkers of his day; and he was, to an unusual degree, both free and fearless in the use of his extraordinary powers.
To the casual acquaintance the manner of Dr. Hedge was apt to seem brusque. Sometimes he was accused of being haughty and overbearing in his ways. But, though it is apt to be true of a man who thinks clearly and knows much that he does not “suffer fools gladly,” yet Dr. Hedge was one of the last of men to be much lifted up in his own conceit. His reserved demeanor was that with which a shy and sensitive and essentially affectionate nature frequently arms itself against chance injuries from a heedless world. One who knew him well has testified, “To have once passed the barrier of his external reserve was to discover a tenderness of heart, a sweetness of affection, a loyalty and appreciativeness of friendship such as is seldom found.”
We may add to this enumeration of his mental qualities that he possessed a keen and delicate sense of humor. This appears here and there in his published writings, but was more frequently the delight of those who were privileged to share his friendly intercourse. He was the author of certain sayings attributed to the more famous among the older ministers of his day, and supposed to be uttered at the moment of their entrance to the scenes of another world. His father-in-law, Dr. Pierce, a great pedestrian, was represented as taking his watch from his pocket and saying, “Just twenty minutes from Brookline, and I walked all the way.” The peculiarities of several other ministers were characterized by these sayings in an equally happy manner, and they are still related from time to time in ministerial gatherings.
Another of Dr. Hedge’s mental gifts was a phenomenal memory. This gift in his latest years was a great help and solace. When he was ill and in much distress for a period of months together, he found comfort in repeating page after page of the noblest poetry which had been stored up in his remembrance. His friend Dr. Joseph Allen said that “he had the rare gift of mastering with verbal accuracy, by a single reading, the form and phrase of a long, elaborate discourse,” but that he seldom availed himself of this power, probably because “it involved a grasp and strain that he did not care to put forth too often.” At the celebration in Boston of the four hundredth anniversary of Luther’s birth (November, 1883), when he was the appointed orator, he delivered his address in this fashion; and, though it was more than an hour and a half in length, he did not hesitate in its delivery to recall or correct a single word. He was then in his seventy-ninth year, and his oration throughout possessed the very highest critical and literary quality. On this occasion Dr. Hedge came nearest to the enjoyment of a real popular triumph. The Arlington Street Church was thronged to the doors with the best audience that Boston could furnish, and for some time afterward the oration was a subject for universal comment and praise.
It is quite beyond the scope of so brief a sketch to enter upon any critical examination of the teachings of Dr. Hedge. It may be noted, however, that his thought, as he gave it to his fellow-men, was always clothed in the most perfect literary form. President Walker once spoke of him as “the only man we have who is master of the grand style.” If he did not write much poetry, he wrote such prose as only a man who is at bottom something of a poet can produce. And the beauty of his phrase was never mere prettiness. It had the nobility and strength that belong to classic grace. His speech has been likened to the quality of a deep-toned bell. There was a certain resonance in what he said. Apart from the meaning of his words, they sounded lofty and sublime.
It would be hard to indicate in any single word or phrase what was probably the total effect of his lifework upon the world. At a dinner given to him in honor of his eightieth birthday, when Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes presided at the feast, Dr. Hedge himself said he supposed that, if he had accomplished anything during his career, it had been by way of “emancipation.” Surely, he deserves the title of emancipator. He did break the shackles from many minds. Though he was often reckoned in his own denomination an extreme conservative, he held to nothing whatever merely on grounds of convention and tradition. He brought all things to the test of the best light of reason that was in him, and encouraged others to pursue the same course. Both by precept and example he taught men to believe that the whole truth needful for humanity to know was attainable at last by human faculties, and to be themselves fearful of no risks they might run in the search for it.
But he did more than to send forth those who listened to him, each one on his own individual quest. He was a wise teacher who had great stores of knowledge to impart, and from whose words much wisdom is still to be gathered. In philosophy he was a pronounced idealist, and his German training gave him powerful weapons with which to fight the battle of idealism in a day when mighty hosts had risen up against that cause. In the truest and best sense of the word, he was also an invincible optimist. No shallow creed that “whatever is is right” could hold his thought. His moral sense was the foundation upon which his whole edifice of belief was built, and he would accept a dualistic interpretation of existence rather than gloss over or seem to try to hide the terrible facts of injustice and iniquity. But he held that, if there were sin in the world, it were best that the world should have been so made as to contain the possibility of sin; and he had no doubt of that final end of good towards which “the whole creation moves.” One of his last whispered sayings was, “I believe in the best.”
— By Howard N. Brown