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Bellows, Henry Whitney (1814-1882)

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Henry Whitney BellowsThis distinguished preacher and organizer of the Unitarian faith was born in Boston, June 1, 1814. The most sociable of human beings, he was not even born alone; a twin brother was born with him. If the twins were not “changed in the cradle,” they were mixed in baptism, Henry getting the name intended for his brother, Edward Sears. In this confusion there was something typical of the affectionate involvement of their lives. Certainly, Henry cherished for his brother a romantic passion which, after Edward’s death, clung to his memory. His death was tragic. He was found frozen upon some lonely Western trail, having undertaken a journey too heroic for his strength. Dr. Bellows never spoke of this event without a broken voice and tearful eyes. The mother died when the twin boys were only two years old. A good aunt and later a stepmother did all that could be done to fill the mother’s place. The father was a man of sterling character and civic fame, a man of wealth as wealth was reckoned in the days when Madison was President. He gave Henry an excellent education, one year of it on the ancestral acres in New Hampshire, close by the falls that bear the family name. The boy’s heart was so rooted in the lovely valley and the embracing hills that there was no detaching it. His blood and his experience conspired to bring him back in his maturity to the old family seat, beautiful for situation on the Walpole hills that rise precipitously from the banks of the Connecticut River. His satisfaction there, as I remember it in 1876, was boyishly exuberant. Sitting on the broad piazza, he told me of the sermon he had written on his acquisition of the place—“The Dangers of Too Much Happiness.”

From Walpole he went for four years to the Round Hill School at Northampton, Massachusetts. George Bancroft was one of the two principals, and the relation of pupil and teacher originated a friendship which Dr. Bellows prized as one of the best fortunes of his life. Entering Harvard in 1828—a feat then more common and less difficult for a boy of fourteen than it is now—he was graduated in 1832. During his college course he lodged or boarded at the Craigie House, anticipating Longfellow’s lodging there by nine years, and his ownership by several more. He did not at first apply himself to his studies as he did later, especially after a break in his father’s fortunes, which admonished him that he would have to fend for himself in an unexpected manner. A local ornithologist inoculated him with his own enthusiasm for bird-life; and, tramping about, defiant of the college laws, young Bellows bagged the living game of health which had before eluded him. Before he left college, that love of reading set in which flooded all his later life; and simultaneously his religious feeling deepened, and he resolved to enter the ministry. Straitened financially, he could not enter at once on his theological studies, and the year following his graduation was spent in Cooperstown, New York, teaching five languages and lecturing in a brother’s school. From this situation he passed to Louisiana, where he had one pupil on a doubled salary. Then with the savings that must have cost his expansive temper an heroic strain, he entered the Harvard Divinity School, and graduated in 1837.

His first preaching was in the South, and he was invited to settle in Mobile. “But the awful shadow of slavery frightened me away.” He feared, too, that so much personal kindness and consideration might dull his sense of the enormity of human servitude. Returning North, he was invited to the pastorate of the First Unitarian Church in New York. The attraction was the difficulty of the situation. This piqued his youthful courage. Dr. Dewey, in the Second Church, was in the full tide of his remarkable career, preaching sermons which had both Corinthian ornament and Doric strength, breathing prayers almost oppressive in the sense which they conveyed of “the dreadfulness of eternal things.” How could the boy of twenty-four expect to get a hearing in competition with that consummate power? But the wise poet sings, “Chambers of the great are jails, And head-winds right for royal sails.” And the boy’s sails were royal. He took the difficult position. He held it till he died, January 30, 1882—forty-three years—and not without dignity and honor for one day or hour.

Throwing himself into his preaching and parochial work with generous ardor, he was never able to think of himself as exclusively a clergyman. In the best sense, he was a man of the world, “an all-round man,” interested in literature and art, of great public spirit, “a clubbable man,” and a principal founder of the Century and Union League Clubs, often to be found in their quarters, adding equally to the wisdom of their pithy enterprises and to their brilliant talk. He enjoyed his cooperation and rivalry with Dr. Dewey for ten years. They enjoyed each other’s friendship until Dr. Dewey’s death. When Dr. Dewey could no longer keep up his end of the correspondence, Dr. Bellows wrote him every week. It was an intensely prejudiced community in which they found themselves working together. For all their splendid gifts, they did not succeed in making New York a Unitarian city. But they gathered congregations strong in numbers and in intellectual and moral qualities. Dr. Bellows’s church was soon outgrown. The congregation moved “up Broadway,” and again, twenty years before Dr. Bellows’s death, to the Church of All Souls, its name significant of the expansive sympathies of Dr. Bellows’s thought and life.

In one sense, Dr. Bellows was a sensational preacher. His choice and treatment of subjects often resulted in a profound sensation in the community. His Phi Beta Kappa address in 1853 had this effect. His subject was “The Necessity and Uses of Wealth.”

He said what many thought, but few confessed. Another sensation was that produced by his address in 1857 to the Dramatic Fund Society on “The Relation of Public Amusements to Public Morality,” a defense of the theater, not as actually existing, but as a possible development. There was a “war of pamphlets” and great uproar in the churches, here and there a brother Unitarian giving a few faithful wounds. In 1859 his address to the Harvard theological alumni, “The Suspense of Faith,” made the denominational sensation of his life. His remedy for Protestant disintegration was the organic, instituted, ritualized work of the church, “speaking through imaginative symbols and holy festivals.” His own faith in this remedy did not long survive the turmoil that his sermon made.

He was an opportunist in his preaching, in the best sense of the word—in his seizure upon those occasions which had in them a natural lesson, and in his ability to rise to the full height of those occasions of great public interest which demanded lofty utterance. The Channing centennial sermon was his opus magnum in the way of the occasional discourse. Like the painter Haydon, he liked a large canvas; and he had it there. But the sermon was as broad as it was long. Even in his extemporaneous utterances he required a certain generous latitude to give his genius scope. I remember his indignation when Dr. Storrs, preceding him at a public meeting and asked to speak twenty minutes, spoke an hour and twenty; but his own testimony was sometimes extremely enlarged, while generally he made the longest time seem short by the electric energy and the proud magnificence of his unpremeditated speech.

Deeply impressed by Channing’s anti-slavery writings, his distrust of Garrison’s method of reform was more sweeping than Channing’s. As the logic of slavery worked itself out, he brought the clearest vision to the apprehension of its tendency and his most fervid eloquence to the rebuke of any policy of compromise or concession. The Civil War gave him an opportunity to put forth all his strength. We know that opportunity as the Sanitary Commission. He was its creative spirit, its informing soul. For details of organization he had no aptitude, but his imagination and his fine enthusiasm were felt on every line, in every part, of that immense humanitarian alleviation of the inevitable war. Moreover, his personal appeal was mainly instrumental in raising the five millions of money necessary for the blessed work. He wrote the story of the Commission, but he did not paint himself into the glorious shield—the compulsory failure here a quite incalculable defect.

He was among the first to recognize the spoils system as a menace to the Republic, more dangerous because more subtle than the great Rebellion. He was the first president of the New York Civil Service Reform Association, entering heartily into the principles and purposes of his great Unitarian allies— Jenckes, the father of the reform, Curtis, destined to be its chief protagonist, Eaton, not far behind. There are words which are whole battles: witness Dr. Bellows’s “unconditional loyalty.” The Union League Club was begotten of the spirit of this phrase. The birth-night was a sleepless one on the train by which Dr. Bellows, Frederick Law Olmsted, and another officer of the Sanitary Commission came from Washington to New York. Once at least the club proved a Frankenstein which, having raised, he could not quell. It was when the hard treatment of Union prisoners excited a demand for retaliation. The club went with the crowd, and Dr. Bellows flung himself against the swelling spirit of revenge with such eloquence of protestation as made resistance apparently impossible. But not really, and he went home feeling that he had suffered a calamitous defeat. Soon, however, the club and the whole country rallied its better mind.

The triumph of the Union cause found Dr. Bellows with a fund of unspent energy at his disposal and demanding instant use. His experience in camps and hospitals had so deepened his sense of the Eternal Fatherhood and the Brotherhood of Man that he felt that there must be an organization of religion that would make these primal truths the centers of a vast ellipse. It is certain that his hope, at first, was for something broader than a Unitarian organization; but he found his Unitarian material too intractable for his purpose. He furnished the inspiration which brought $100,000 into the astonished treasury of the American Unitarian Association, to which the devising of liberal things was hitherto unknown. He then turned his energy to the formation of a National Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches.

In the convention (1865) which organized the Conference he was equally eloquent in thwarting those who would thrust on us some creed of desiccated phrases for the bread of life and those whose voice was for a more absolute freedom from all creedal bonds than he was ready to accept. In these encounters he was no calculating politician, but a man whose veins ran fire and loosed it in torrents of emotion, streaming like lava down a mountain’s side, and destroying good and bad together in its boiling flood. But almost every good thing among Unitarians from this time on took its initiative from him, or to his splendid advocacy owed its practical success. The conference meetings always left him hungry for more of their most stimulating intellectual food, and the Ministers’ Institute was his device for making good the lack. It was also his device (he told me so) for bringing together those whom the divisive terms of the Conference preamble had separated for a time. At all Unitarian meetings he was the best wine, the headiest and heartiest, which the wise householders saved until the last. If the meeting had been dull and spiritless, he could always bring it to a happy and inspiring end. If it had been reactionary, he sounded the progressive note; if the driving of the radicals was like that of Jehu, he put on the brake. We had no other servant to compare with him in willingness to go upon our errands. He never spared himself. He never consulted his own ease or comfort when a way opened, or could be forced, to serve the denomination and the doctrine that he loved. He came home to die in 1882 from one of his most wearing journeys, which he had undertaken with already broken strength.

There was nothing ascetic in Dr. Bellows’s principles or practice. He lived a generous and expansive life. He was not obliged to live within his salaried means, which were exceptionally large; and he never did. Soon after his first marriage the younger Ware, finding him in quarters that seemed princely, sighed a solemn warning; but he paid no heed. He exercised a genial hospitality, and there never was a better host. Give him a guest as brilliant as himself—Coquerel, for example—and there was lively scintillation; but the dullest man at the table was encouraged, tempted out, and made to feel at home. His table-talk was generally deferential, but once, I remember, when there were some heavy weights and he was thrown back a good deal on his own resources, he ran on for a long time about the circus in a vacant lot nearby, as affording an excellent opportunity for the study of human nature. A week later I found all his talk, and more, in the Independent, and said to him, “So you were retailing that to us when we thought you so spontaneous?” He protested that the article originated in his talk, the prosperity of which had encouraged him to write. Before long I saw the article covering some rods of fence, and headed “Dr. Bellows on the Circus.” Barnum had got hold of it. “My only large paper edition,” the doctor might have said, and perhaps did.

The fulness of his physical development told on his sermons, speeches, prayers. There was body in his mind, a noble sensuousness in his style, warmth, color, a magnificent virility, sometimes so daring that the timid thought he went too far. His writing was almost as extemporaneous as his speech; his sermons were generally written, as he said, “at one lick”—the homely phrase provoking conjugal admonition. Besides his sermons he wrote voluminously for the Inquirer, The Liberal Christian, and the Christian Examiner. But it was as an extemporaneous speaker that he won his proudest bays. Often the best he said was what he least intended at the start. The most complex similes and metaphors were dared and justified. When the wrong word came first, wonderful was the sprightliness of his self-recovery. Once in a course of theater sermons in Boston he abandoned his manuscript, and preached one of his grandest sermons, on the text, “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him,” making good the saying of Cromwell— “A man never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going.” He often made this proverb good.

He was not technically a scholar, but a man with a great appetite for books and a too lively sensibility to the impression of the book which for the time being had its way with him. Here was the defect of his finest quality—his quick and vital sympathy. When Strauss’s “Old Faith and New” appeared, it completely captured him: he sounded its praises in conversation and in an editorial article. Writing of Channing, he well-nigh foreswore his denominational consciousness, which was commonly intense, and took on Channing’s views. His oscillations and surprises earned for him a reputation for instability, and to define his theological position would be a difficult matter. Conservative in his sentiments, he was often radical in his ideas. For the Church as an institution he had a profound and mystic admiration. Its sacraments were very dear to him, and remained so while one prop after another of his supernaturalism gave way. In theological matters he accepted the reproach of inconsistency, and wore it as a victor’s crown. Nevertheless there was a principle of growth coordinating all his more conspicuous alternations. These were the tacking on and off of a great ship that seem considerable at the moment, but which in relation to her course from continent to continent become insignificant. Tack on and off he did, yet none the less he left his early supernaturalism far behind, and neared the port of a consistently natural and spiritual conception of the religious life. He wrote me a few years before his death:

I can truly say that my peace and hope are greater than they were when I was less uncertain about many things that I supposed then to be essential. I find a great willingness to be in the hands of the Mighty Power and Goodness that underlies and encloses the universe, even without understanding its ways.

It was not as a thinker more than as a scholar that he took his most characteristic attitude and did his most effective work. It was as an organizer of activities and as an inspirer of men in common purposes and aims. He was pre-eminently the citizen among our ministers. Indeed, there was no greater citizen in any business and profession in the city of New York than he, or in the United States. He said frankly that, if he had to choose between the church and the world as his field of action, he would choose the latter without hesitation. He kept himself “unspotted from the world” by the simplicity of his nature and his purity of heart. But, if he had great talents for public action, social and religious organization, he had genius for the simplicities of friendship and domestic love. He was rarely fortunate in knitting up again the broken threads of conjugal affection, and delighted in the children that renewed his youth when he was beginning to grow old. There was a heart of quiet in this thronged and busy life; and the time I like best to recall is one summer evening when he sat, careless of all politics and theology, on the piazza of his country house, and crooned together with his wife the Negro melodies which they had learned when they first met each other in the South—“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and others sweet and sad. That is a more precious memory than any which brings back the times when with a master’s hand he swept the chords of serious purpose till they rang responsive to the earnestness and passion of his soul. Happy were they who knew him well in these contrasted aspects of his life and all the broad and fertile range of it that lay between!

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

“On the Alleged Unattractiveness of the Christian Pulpit” By Henry W. Bellows

“The Reformed Church of Christendom or the Duties of Liberal Christians to the National Faith at this Crisis of Opinions” By Henry W. Bellows

Henry Bellows, “The Suspense of Faith”

Henry Bellows, “The Relation of Liberal Christians to a True Theology and a Higher Religious Life”