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Chadwick, John White (1840-1914)

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John White Chadwick

John White Chadwick

Where did he get the sturdy truthfulness, the brave and loyal will, the tender reverential heart, the laughing, lyric quality of his mind? The rocks and sea winds of his birthplace had somewhat to do with it. He dearly loved all things in Marblehead. The lichened ledges, the beach, the harbor lights, the gulls, the barnacles, the sliding dories, the storms and sea-toss, the sunlit peace of summer seas, all lie mirrored in his verse. But more, no doubt, it came as a birthright from the plain-featured and plain-mannered parents, both of them compact of honesties and self-forgettings and the silent sort of tenderness. In the quiet of the old town they lived the humble epic which their boy translated afterwards to rhythmic sermon-ethics in a city pulpit. She was of the kind that “mothers” anyone in need—he a “captain courageous” on the Grand Bank of Newfoundland. In the wintertime, between fares, he made shoes. By dint of the codfish and the “ankle-ties” he brought up their little family of three, two girls and John. In later years he kept a tiny grocery—his heart scarce licensing him to take advantage of a rising market when he happened to have stock on hand, and in “crash” times obliging him to trust poor neighbors out of work till he lost full half his modest substance. “A man of most incorrigible and losing honesty,” wrote his son, “it was inconceivable that he could do any deliberate wrong or vary by a hair’s breadth from the line of perfect honesty and truth.” As others hang a father’s sword, he hung his father’s quadrant, “homesick” for the sea, in the hallway of his city home. Nobly born, then, was John Chadwick, at Marblehead on October 19, 1840. Well-trained, too, by hardships and economies. At thirteen he was leaving school to sell buttons in a drygoods store. Then he learned shoemaking. Things were still primitive in that art, and little shoeshops, antedating factories, perched everywhere among the village rocks. And then a great hope kindled. Some older townsboy whom he knew had escaped into the outside world and come home with a trailing glory of books and education. Why should not another boy of Marblehead aspire and do as well? Somehow it was managed—”Sister Jennie” being urgent for it, and helping from her pittance of $150 a year for teaching school. First he went to the Bridgewater Normal School for two years; then to Phillips Exeter Academy a little while; and then—no possibility of college opening between—pressed on into the Divinity School at Harvard, attaining it in the fall of 1868. This time the new hope kindled from a falling spark. While at the Normal School a sermon with which Samuel Longfellow had just dedicated the “New Chapel” in Brooklyn, New York, chanced into Chadwick’s hands. That sermon gave the boy a vision of all that a religious society might be. As he read, the thought burned in him, “I will be a minister!” And a strange dream drifted after, “What if, some day, I were to be minister of that very society!”

And the dream came true; but only by incessant overwork and a meager diet, doubly necessitated by the struggle of a moneyless youth for an education and by his passion for the ownership of books. They were glowing years, however, for his mind, the diet royal and eagerly assimilated. His exceptional powers were quickly recognized and his wide reading and brilliant written work brought him high reputation in the little cloister-world of the School. Besides his theological comrades several of Agassiz’s students roomed in Divinity Hall and high debate about “Darwinism” was always going on. “I was an early convert to that hypothesis,” wrote Chadwick at a later date.

Dr. Hedge suggested him to the Brooklyn Unitarian people as their prophet. “Give him a three-months’ trial,” was his wise counsel to ears wise enough to take it. Samuel Longfellow had withdrawn; “his ministry by our contemporary standards of numbers, bigness, and shouting, of but small account—tried by the highest standards, a success but seldom paralleled in the religious life of nineteenth-century communities.” And Nahor Staples had flamed out in two swift years his ardent soul. It was a church without a creed; with a pledge to Truthseeking, instead. Over the door of the quaint, low-roofed structure Samuel Longfellow had inscribed in golden letters, “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” The constitution read, “No subscription or assent to any formula of faith shall be required as a qualification for church membership.” The congregation was small but of shining quality, bound together by strong ties of affection and common, dearly-loved ideals, with—this, of course a record later earned—“never one parish quarrel in all its fifty years.” In the great “City of Churches,” “New Chapel” was as a little child set in the midst; a child with a strange light in its eyes, hearing and asking questions.

Chadwick was ordained at Brooklyn on December 21, 1864. Robert Collyer’s sermon showed by “Enoch’s walk with God” that religion is as ancient as the soul of man. Samuel Longfellow charged him to make his message “the gospel of the immediateness of the spirit,” and Octavius Frothingham offered the ordaining prayer. Soon, too, another dream came to blessed fulfillment; for when June roses next were red he married Annie Hathaway of Marblehead, and she it was who, for forty years brightened his home, guarded his working hours and shared his hopes. Three children were born to them and in due time, besides the parsonage in Brooklyn, there was a summer home on a western Massachusetts hilltop.

Happy the Unitarian minister whose service synchronized with the last third of the nineteenth century.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Chadwick in 1864 was all three, very much alive, and young, and eager for the things of morn. In the early century science had been vastly widening man’s ideas of Time and Space, and revealing Law as regnant everywhere in Nature; in its noon, the vision of the “forces” correlating with each other had given to the terms “Unity” and “Universe” intensity of mystic meaning; and now the theory of Evolution was making the heavens, the earth, and everything within them, the long history of man, the very atoms, one great Growth, one Life. As a result of science so transformed, everything connected with religion—philosophy, ethics, psychology, theology, Bible criticism—was showing signs of April change. In such a period, to a minister able to divine and to reveal the religious bearings of the new thought is assigned a lofty function. Not quite Prophet, but Interpreter, was his name. To this function Chadwick’s nature seemed to summon him. He wrote:

To reconceive the Bible, to reconceive the life and character of Jesus, to reconceive the universe and man and God, not with my own poor strength, but with the help of all the deepest, highest, noblest philosophical and critical and scientific thinking of the time—these are the tasks, which I have laid upon myself, and they have been worthy of my utmost consecration.

It was, indeed, a time when thoughtful men were struggling with what seemed to be the materialistic complications of science. That gave Chadwick constant opportunity to “translate Darwin, Huxley and Spencer into the language of religion,” and, an early and confident herald, to set forth “the essential piety of modern science.” This last phase was the title of his noble sermon before the National Unitarian Conference in 1876. Piety he there defined as “man’s sense of relation to the Universal Life, the infinite, informing Life of everything that is, for which we have, and need to have, no better name than ‘God’”; and he showed how under the greatening revelations of the age this sense was growing to be an ever deeper awe and thankfulness and trust, a more humble and delighted loyalty. Another time: “I have valued science most for its aid to worship, for those wonders of the Known it has revealed to us, that make the great Unknown kindle for our imagination with splendors of incalculable good.” However recondite the sermon the poet in Chadwick guaranteed that there would be no lack of emphasis on worship.

His prayers were tender, instinctive and unforced and the sermons always flowered into psalms.

His ardent faith and constant theme might well be defined as Cosmic Theism. It is best set forth in his book, The Faith of Reason, which was published in 1879. Then, with more and more distinctness Jesus took his place “within the human order and with a great access of delight in him and love for him as very man of very man.” Witness to this his volume, The Man Jesus, printed in 1881. With growing confirmation from his studies of the great religions of the world he set forth the value of the Bible. The “higher criticism” was the joy of his most studious hours, and in sermon, lecture, book, he hastened to condense its most significant results from the language of the specialists into that of the plain man. Few preachers in America were earlier, bolder, gladder, so prophetic and so useful, in this fundamental work; the witness here, his Bible of Today, printed as early as 1878. And finally, the dignity of human nature, at first apparently so challenged by the theory of Darwin, he soon came to see, stood not in any method of its origin but in its reach and measure of attainment; man’s slow process of development attesting the greatness of his worth, and “the long way he has come a longer way to go.” A longer way to go upon the earth—and off of it. Like preachers all, Chadwick returned often to the major themes; but, to judge from printed sermons, it would seem as if no word of his, except that which affirmed the Life of God, was quite so reiterant with him as that with which he faced the mystery of the Future Life.

For forty years John Chadwick preached this glowing faith amid his people. He knew well his limitations as their minister. He was “no organizer,” and he seldom ventured to offer pulpit counsel on the social problems of the day. There were two exceptions to this abstinence, however. Against the evils of the “spoils” system and of partisanship in politics he let loose his utmost soul; and if his people did not know his politics, it was because they were not in their pews on Sunday mornings. Between minister and people the Chapel grew somewhat distinguished for its contribution to the cause of righteousness and for other betterments in Brooklyn life; several of the city’s helpful institutions, kindergartens, the Flower Mission, Boys’ Guilds, were born and cradled in the Chapel precincts, and then “colonized” abroad. In all such betterments its minister rejoiced, but his part was that of inspiration rather than administration.

In a way the very excellence of his thought and statement limited his popular success. He seldom trusted himself to spontaneous speech, but read his careful sermon—read it too with a certain monotony of style and voice. He was an artist bringing in his hand a sensitively wrought picture from his studio or a scholar thinking thoughts aloud. The texture of his thought was delicate and there was a rich broidery of literary allusion. So his regular congregation was small but all were closely united in mutual confidence and goodwill and most of all in pride and joy in their preacher. He wrote in one of his anniversary discourses:

I am only a writer of sermons, which I hardly preach to you at all, but READ in a monotonous and sometimes abominable manner… But of one thing I am sure—that I have had a conscience for the Word preached. Good, bad or indifferent, it has been as good as I could make it from week to week, from month to month, from year to year. I have permitted nothing to interfere with it, no pleasure, and no other work. I have given to it ample time and preparation, writing much more slowly and carefully than is the average custom of my ministerial brethren, reserving for the writing of each sermon three days of perfect disengagement from all meaner things; doing everything I could to enrich my sermons with the spoils of science, literature and art, asking first, last, and always, how I might make them helpful to your thought and life; and to the end that I might bring them home to your experience, drawing them forth out of my own, and preaching to myself much more directly and more consciously than to any one of you.

After a few years his people bethought themselves to share their feast with others, and began (1875) to print one of his sermons monthly, eight a year. Thenceforth he had two congregations, his little one at home, the other far larger and scattered in many lands. This Church Invisible, whose gratitude reached him in letters by the hundred, was a great delight. It gave him a sense of “mission” and cooperation. From Australia, New Zealand, India, from all parts of the United States, he heard that his word was light to men—men often that had broken with the popular theology and reacted so far as to distrust all religion. To such minds he made it clear that the science which had undermined the popular theology had made religion a more vital substance, a more living joy, than ever. Two hundred and forty sermons were thus published in his thirty-pamphlet series.

His sermons (the last one numbered 1249) with their interpretation of the Living God within the freshening Universe, their glow of reverent joy, their many-colored illustrations from science, history, poetry, and life—these sermons were his chief deliverance of himself to men. But they were but one of the four or five staples in his harvest. Book reviews were another. It seems incredible but “nearly two thousand” was his count of these for his first twenty years of ministry! In 1895 he wrote two hundred and fifty-eight reviews for the New York Evening Post, the New York Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, the Christian Register, and Unity. Men heard his frank opinion, wincing sometimes, at other times admiring his gentle stroke of death; but they learned to trust his summaries and welcome the surefooted guide. Add to these his longer magazine articles, many in the course of forty years, and his books, not less than twenty-eight. Thirteen of these, to be sure, are but the monthly sermons under various titles. Of the four upon theology, three have been already named, the other will be. There were five biographies—Nahor Staples; a short sketch of his noble friend, George William Custis; Sallie Holley’s Life for Liberty; and his two best, and each perhaps the best about its subject, Theodore Parker, Preacher and Reformer, and William Ellery Channing, Minister of Religion. Two books of poems, and three more of his “collecting,” with his wife for comrade in the search—The Two Voices, poems of the mountain and the sea; Out of the Heart, for lovers young and old; Through Love to Light, songs of good courage. Now add to these his letters—“two to three thousand every year,” and we have the picture of a modern minister, busy all his days, abounding in his harvest—yet one who made few parish calls and organized no charities! Verily there are “diversities of gifts, differences of ministration, but—the selfsame Spirit.”

Throughout his life Chadwick was a steadfast and consistent Unitarian, but he emphasized not so much the changing elements of doctrine as the essential and abiding principles—Freedom the method in religion; Character its test; Service its expression. These were the things supreme, ever to be cherished and guarded. He set forth these principles explicitly in his book, Old and New Unitarian Belief, which he published at the time of the thirtieth anniversary of his ordination. It is, too, a careful history of the evolution of thought in the Free Churches concerning Man, God, Jesus and the Future Life.

The angel of death came to him suddenly and just before the church service of December 11, 1914.