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Clarke, James Freeman (1810-1888)

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James Freeman Clarke

James Freeman Clarke

James Freeman Clarke was born April 4, 1810. His childhood was a very happy one. He was one of the fortunate group of children who called James Freeman grandfather, himself the namesake and pupil of the wise and good man, who, living before his time in his views of religion and education, made an ideal teacher for the little grandson. In the pleasant town of Newton these early years were passed. His two homes (Dr. Freeman’s and that of his parents) were almost side by side, so that the two families were like one; and the brothers and sisters enjoyed together years of the companionship which is one of the greatest blessings of life.

Without extraordinary precocity, James was a child of active and intelligent mind. The exuberant vitality which was always one of his chief characteristics found free scope in the active out-of-door amusements of country life, varied by the lessons with his grandfather—never “tasks,” but sources of keen enjoyment. Alluding to this period, he says:

Happy child! The roof of whose school-room is the blue heaven with its drifting clouds, and mellow tints of sunrise, and glories of evening; whose bench is the soft grass, the gray stone, the limb of the apple-tree; whose books are all illustrated with moving, living forms, waving trees, dewy leaves, wild flowers, all varieties of birds and insects and fishes and animals, how fast he learns!—finding ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.’

Best of all was the religion of faith, hope, and love, the seed of which was at this time planted in the boy’s heart, and which was to spring up and bear fruit an hundred-fold. He says, “It is an infinite blessing when little children grow up in a church which teaches them that God is, in his essence, not wrath, but love.”

He was graduated at Harvard in 1829, in the same class with William Henry Channing, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others who became his lifelong friends. Channing and William G. Eliot were his fellow-students at the Divinity School, where he was graduated in 1833. It seems significant that the sermon preached at his ordination by Mr. Greenwood should have had for its text, “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). These words are the keynote to the ministry of James Freeman Clarke. By nature he was exceedingly hopeful; but the gift became a grace, and caused his preaching and influence to become a source of strength and comfort to many.

The next seven years were spent in Louisville, Kentucky These were years of hard, faithful work, of happy friendships, of carrying the standard of Unitarian faith in places where it was misunderstood and despised. Perhaps the most interesting result was to make him a practical Abolitionist; for up to that time his cheerful optimism had led him, with many others, to believe that everyone must feel the sin of slavery, and that the evil thing would disappear of itself before long, as soon as a way was discovered to get rid of it. Intemperance and duelling, the youth of twenty-three attacked bravely, to the surprise of the rougher members of a community who thought “one might as well preach against courage as against duelling,” and to whom his always refusing wine on social occasions was an inexplicable action.

In 1839 he was married to Anna Huidekoper, the daughter of Harm Jan Huidekoper, of Meadville, Pennsylvania It would be hard to express in one sentence what was the influence on his lifework of a companion and counsellor so wise, unselfish, and high-minded. Their eldest child, a boy of uncommon beauty and promise, died at the age of eight years.

In 1841, returning to Boston, he founded the Church of the Disciples, of which he continued the pastor until his death, June 8, 1888.

The three principles on which this society was founded were:

  1. The voluntary principle, each member paying according to his ability for the support of the church, and all seats being free.

  2. The social principle, each member feeling responsible for the spiritual welfare of the church as a sort of assistant pastor.

  3. Congregational worship, the congregation sharing in the service, singing the hymns, and joining in the prayers and responsive readings.

The statement of faith and purpose was thus expressed:

Our faith is in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. And we do hereby form ourselves into a Church of his Disciples, that we may cooperate together in the study and practice of Christianity.

After nine years came a sad break to the joyous activities. An illness of several months, followed by illness in his family, separated James Freeman Clarke for nearly four years from his young society. The little church in Freeman Place was sold, the congregation without a pastor. Now was proved the advantage of the social principle. The little church continued to live—in its Bible classes, conducted by each member in turn, in its communion service, held in the same manner; and, when Mr. Clarke returned in 1854, a living nucleus was ready to receive him, and to help him carry on the Church of the Disciples.

James Freeman Clarke

James Freeman Clarke. Courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The four years’ absence was not an unmitigated misfortune. In the quiet study of the country home where his convalescence was passed, began one of the most important parts of his lifework. Here were written his first two religious books, The Christian Doctrine of the Forgiveness of Sin and The Christian Doctrine of Prayer. Later (in 1866) came one of his most important and characteristic productions, Orthodoxy: Its Truths and Errors. This was an examination of the doctrines called Orthodox, from the sympathetic instead of the controversial standpoint, showing the kernel of truth contained in each, the substantial truth under the exaggerated statement.

Some critics have spoken of Dr. Clarke’s mind as “judicial,” because he saw so clearly and justly both sides of the questions he discussed. It was rather from sympathy and imagination that he received the power to understand the position from which he differed. This quality has caused his writings to be acceptable to many members of orthodox churches, by whom his books are much read. They have done much to heal the breach between orthodoxy and Unitarianism, and to create and strengthen a friendly feeling where before was antagonism.

This quality is still farther shown in Ten Great Religions, his best-known and most widely read work, where the object is to show clearly the central truth contained in ten of the most important religions of the world. It was a new idea to many honest thinkers (when this book was written) that any religion except Christianity could contain important truth. After this the most popular and useful of his works is Self-Culture: Physical, Intellectual, Moral, and Spiritual.

His own remark in regard to his writings was: “People read my books because they are intelligible. They are written for a useful purpose, not a literary.” It is a somewhat interesting point that minds of very different types and gifts enjoyed his books. By men like Dr. Martineau and Phillips Brooks, by children often, by convicts in the State’s prison, they are enjoyed and appreciated. His friend Dr. Hedge said: “You do not get a true estimate of Clarke, unless you see him as a poet. The rest of us have written as if we were philosophers. He approached every subject on its poetical side.” With him the poetical side of thought was closely allied with the spiritual. But he was timidly sensitive in regard to making his poems and hymns public. The two best worth knowing are the “Hymn and Prayer” and “Dear Friend, whose presence in the house!” He had a strong feeling of the peculiar sacredness of prayer. This led him to advocate the making attendance at prayers voluntary at Harvard College, when he stood quite alone in his view of the subject. At this time he made a better argument in favor of retaining the old system than was made by any of those who were its advocates, and then concluded:

These reasons would be cogent if it were not for one which I regard as final. If I understand the teachings of Jesus, prayer is too sacred a thing to be used for any secondary purpose, however good.

The fearlessness and superabundant energy which in boyhood found an outlet in climbing into dangerous places afterward received its natural use in advocating unpopular causes—anti-slavery, woman suffrage, civil service reform. He was warmly interested in the temperance movement and in work for neglected children. In the cause of education he worked on school committees, on the State Board of Education, and for many years was an overseer of Harvard College, where he upheld practical methods of education, advocating more study of modern languages and other important improvements.

In early life his fiery impulsiveness, absolute candor, and the lack of anything like diplomacy sometimes caused him to give offence. But in later years this somewhat reckless outspokenness was controlled and modified by the ever-growing Christian charity which was one of his chief characteristics. Without ignoring the faults of others, he saw the excuse or the palliating circumstance. Rough manners and language he called “want of tact”; gross exaggerations and misrepresentations were “the result of many years speaking in public, and so acquiring the platform habit”; bitter and captious criticism must be pardoned, because he had often heard the speaker “just as severe in speaking of his own faults.” But he never failed, when needed, to give the direct reproof with a fearlessness and gentleness which precluded all possibility of offence. “I will tell Mr. — that he talks too much at our meetings,” he would say cheerfully. “I have told several people that they talked too much, and never offended any one.” Once, when bitterly attacked and slandered by a man who had acquired the unhappy “platform habit,” he broke through his customary rule of “not answering,” and began to write a reply. His habit of seeing and speaking of good, and not evil, was too much for him; and his pen indicted nothing but a glowing eulogy on his enemy, who was a somewhat noted reformer. So the matter ended there.

This sympathetic quality caused him, a Unitarian, not only to hold the friendliest relations with members of the older churches, but also with those of his own denomination from whom he differed most widely—those who represented the extreme radical element. He belonged to the type of Unitarian to whom the leadership of Jesus Christ is everything. In accordance with the teachings of Jesus the rules that governed his life were formed. Each year brought a closer union of heart and mind with the beloved Master and Teacher, and the hope was always before him of a nearer and closer communion in the life beyond the veil.

The stories of his childhood show that by nature he had a violent temper. But all who knew him, even as early as during his college days, testify to his wonderful patience and gentleness under irritating circumstances, injustice, abuse, and gross misrepresentation. His heart was like a fountain of sunbeams, and could not retain a drop of bitterness; and his first impulse was to show good will toward his assailants. If it were possible to take blame on himself, he always did so. No one was ever more ready to say, with sweet humility, “It was my fault”; “I was wrong”; “I am sorry, dear friend, to have wounded you: do forgive me.” The friend who knew him, perhaps, better than any other said, “I do not know whether there is such a thing as being too forgiving; but, if there is such a thing, he was that.”

It has been said that a man produces his best work before middle life. It was not so with James Freeman Clarke. In early life his preaching was unequal, sometimes good, sometimes inferior. But toward the end of his life all his sermons were good; the productiveness and energy of his mind increased; the keen enjoyment which he took in the beauties of nature, the discoveries of science, the thoughts of great minds, was greater, not less. He wrote book after book, his services were more inspiring and comforting. And when at last the soul began to lay aside the body, although at the age of seventy-eight, it was as a young man, in the midst of every joyous activity, that those who loved him remember him. The last days were a time not of decay, but of transfiguration—ever more faith, more hope, more love, and more life, until he stepped through the open door into the yet higher life beyond.

— By Lilian Freeman Clarke

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

“A Sermon on the Principles and Methods of the Church of the Disciples,” by James Freeman Clarke

James Freeman Clarke, “A Discourse Delivered at the Dedication of the Chapel”