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Buckminster, Joseph Stevens (1784-1812)

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Joseph Stevens Buckminster

Joseph Stevens Buckminster

Joseph Stevens Buckminster, a son of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Buckminster of Portsmouth, N.H., was born May 26, 1784. His mother was the only daughter of the Rev. Dr. Stevens, of Kittery Point, and was distinguished alike for her accomplishments and piety. The early development of the son was in some respects unprecedented. He began to study Latin at the age of four, and was so desirous of studying Greek also that his father taught him to read a chapter in the Greek Testament by pronouncing the words to him.

Until the age of ten Joseph remained at the grammar school at Portsmouth; but in the year 1795 he was sent to Phillips Academy, Exeter, which, at that time, and for nearly half a century after, was under the care of Dr. Benjamin Abbot. Here he was scarcely less under the influence of his father than while he was under the paternal roof; for he was constantly receiving from him letters of the most judicious and affectionate counsel. So rapid was his progress that at the age of twelve he was well prepared to enter college; but his father kept him back till the next year. Meanwhile it was a matter of doubt whether his collegiate course should be at Harvard or Yale, the son preferring the former on account of some associations which he had formed at Exeter, and the father indicating to the latter as most likely to secure to his son the religious influence which he considered most desirable. In 1797 Joseph was admitted, at the age of thirteen, to Harvard College.

His college course fully realized in its progress all that was promised at its commencement. His college “themes” showed a richness and gracefulness of mind, and sometimes an extent of reading, that was truly remarkable; and his reading and speaking were so inimitably beautiful that it was regarded as a high privilege to listen to them. His oration delivered at the Commencement, when he took his first degree, taken in connection with his very youthful appearance and beautiful form and face, quite captivated the audience.

After leaving college, he accepted the appointment of assistant teacher in Exeter Academy. About this time he offered himself as a candidate for membership in his father’s church. His father addressed to him an excellent letter on the occasion, reminding him of the solemnity of the act which he was about to perform, but seems to have had no scruples about complying with his request. It does not appear that up to this time he had formed any definite views of Christianity different from those in which he had been educated.

During his residence in Exeter he began a course of study with reference to the ministry, and it was here probably that his mind began first to diverge from the faith of his fathers. It was here also, in the autumn of 1802, that he was visited with the first attack of that terrible malady (epilepsy) which finally carried him to his grave. The following passage was written in his journal, and evidently intended for no eye but his own.

Another fit of epilepsy. I pray God that I may be prepared not so much for death as for the loss of health, and perhaps of mental faculties. The repetition of these fits must at length reduce me to idiocy. Can I resign myself to the loss of memory, and of that knowledge I may have vainly prided myself upon? O my God, enable me to bear this thought, and make it familiar to my mind, that by thy grace I may be willing to endure life as long as thou pleasest to lengthen it. It is not enough to be willing to leave the world when God pleases—we should be willing to live useless in it if he, in his holy providence, should send such a calamity upon us. O God, save me from that hour!

In the next year a favorable opening presented itself in the family of his relative, Theodore Lyman, Esq., who was glad to employ him in preparing two of his sons for college. Mr. Lyman soon removed from Boston to Waltham, and Buckminster accompanied him; and here he was surrounded with all the happiest influences. At this period he was accustomed frequently to visit Boston, and he became particularly intimate with Dr. Freeman, minister of King’s Chapel, who was his relative by marriage. It was the opinion of his father that it was owing to this intimacy that he became a Unitarian. At least it was now that his father became aware of his defection from the orthodox creed; and a correspondence was carried on between them which gave evidence of the strongest parental affection and the bitterest disappointment, on the one hand, and the deepest filial reverence, on the other. The father more than once advised his son to direct his attention to some other profession, and the son, merely from a regard to his father’s feelings, at one time nearly determined to devote himself to literary pursuits. But, as the father’s opposition seemed somewhat to relax, he was finally examined and approved as a candidate for the ministry, by the Boston Association. His first sermon was preached at York, Me., in the pulpit of his venerable relative, the Rev. Isaac Lyman, on the 10th of June, 1804.

His intellectual development had, previously to this, been so remarkable and so well known that the congregation in Brattle Square, Boston, then recently rendered vacant by the death of Dr. Thacher, immediately fixed upon him as a suitable person to fill that important vacancy. Here, again, his anxious father was distressed at the idea of his occupying, at so early an age, so public and responsible a station; but his wishes were overruled by the importunity of the congregation. He accepted the call to the Brattle Street Church, and was ordained and installed their pastor, January 30, 1805, when less than twenty-one years of age. His father, though not without some reluctance, consented to preach the ordination sermon. On the very day after his ordination Mr. Buckminster was seized with a severe fever, by which he was kept out of his pulpit till the beginning of March; and the first sermon which he addressed to the congregation, as their pastor, was a sermon on the “Advantages of Sickness.”

As soon as his health permitted, he made it his business to become acquainted with all the families and individuals of his congregation, and recorded the names of all in a manuscript book, together with such remarks in respect to various characters as might serve to aid him in his pastoral intercourse. In addition to his numerous duties as a parish minister, he was connected with many of the public interests of the day, and especially was one of the most active members of the Anthology Club, which at that time concentrated much of the literary talent of Boston. It was by this association that the Monthly Anthology, a well-known periodical, which was continued through a series of years, was conducted; and it is understood that a considerable proportion of the ablest articles contained in it were written by Mr. Buckminster.

Though the Anthology was chiefly a literary publication, it was not altogether silent upon theological subjects; and the history of the Unitarian controversy, for several years, is to be traced through its pages. It sustained, at one time, an attitude of decided antagonism to the Panoplist long the accredited organ of the orthodox party, and conducted by the venerable Dr. Morse.

The labors of the first year of his ministry had so far affected Mr. Buckminster’s health, and his terrible constitutional malady returned with so much frequency, that in the spring of 1806 his physician, the elder Dr. Warren, recommended that he should try the effect of a voyage to Europe. Accordingly, in May he embarked for Liverpool. Early in August he was joined by his friend, the Rev. Samuel Cooper Thacher, of Boston, and they spent nearly a year together on the Continent, and reached Boston again on the 10th of September, 1807.

Joseph Stevens Buckminster

Joseph Stevens Buckminster. Courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association Archives.

This journey in Europe was always a source of rich and constant gratification to Mr. Buckminster. He made the acquaintance of many of the most distinguished persons both in Great Britain and on the Continent, and on some of them at least it is known that he left an impression that led them to rank him among the most remarkable men of his time. One important object which he kept constantly in his eye was the selection of a library, and he brought with him to this country the rarest collection of books that was then to be found in any private library in New England.

On his return to his pastoral charge it is hardly necessary to say that he was met with the most enthusiastic demonstrations of affection. He seems to have been regarded by his congregation as if he had been a son or a brother in each family which it contained; and his first meeting with them in the church was a sort of jubilee. His address on that occasion (for it could scarcely be called a sermon) was one of the most beautiful of all his productions. It was the simple effusion of a splendid mind and a loving and grateful spirit. But with all the rejoicings of the occasion there was mingled somewhat of sadness; for it could not be concealed that, however his general health might have been improved by a year’s rest and recreation, yet there was no evidence that the disease was dislodged.

From this period to the close of his life there were few incidents in his history of special moment. While he gave himself laboriously to the duties of his profession, he cultivated continually his taste for literature, and was ready to lend the aid of his pen to every effort designed to promote the literary interests of the country. He superintended the printing of Griesbach’s edition of the New Testament, and corrected several errors which had escaped in previous editions. In 1811 he was appointed first Lecturer on Biblical Criticism upon the foundation in Harvard College established by the Hon. Samuel Dexter. This appointment he accepted; but, while he had yet scarcely begun his preparation for the duties of the place, death put an end to all his earthly labors.

Election Week, as it used to be called—now Anniversary Week—of 1812, brought to him more than the ordinary routine of duty; for he was the preacher that year before the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Piety, and Charity. The sermon which he preached on that occasion he repeated in his own pulpit on the succeeding Sabbath, and it was the last sermon that he ever preached. On the next Wednesday, the 3rd of June, his malady returned upon him with a crushing weight. During the six days of his illness (for he died on the 9th) his house was continually thronged with anxious and distressed visitors; and, when he died, it seemed as if the whole town went into mourning.

The funeral sermon was preached by President Kirkland, and is printed in part in Mr. Palfrey’s Discourses on the History of Brattle Street Church.

Mr. Buckminster’s publications during his life were not numerous. The first was a sermon published in January, 1809, on the death of Governor Sullivan. In July of the same year he wrote the address of the Massachusetts Bible Society at its first formation, which was afterwards republished in the Report of the British and Foreign Bible Society. In August succeeding he delivered the annual address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, which was published in the Anthology. In May, 1811a was published his sermon on the death of the Rev. William Emerson. Besides the preceding he published part of a sermon on the death of Governor Bowdoin and the right hand of fellowship to his classmate, Charles Lowell, and was a liberal contributor to the Monthly Anthology.

His person was rather below the medium size, and perfectly symmetrical in its formation. His face is admirably represented by Stuart’s portrait. His manners were as simple as childhood. There was an openness, a gentleness, a gracefulness about them, which made him quite irresistible. In the pulpit he had almost unparalleled attractions. With a voice that spoke music and a face that beamed light and love and a calm self-possession and winning gracefulness of manner, he held his audience as if by a spell; and, though one might dissent from his opinions, he would find it difficult to resist the power of his oratory. He prayed with his eyes open.

Not long after Mr. Buckminster’s death a selection from his sermons was made and printed in an octavo volume. A few years later another volume was published; and finally his Works appeared in two volumes duodecimo, in which are included various extracts from the sermons printed through a succession of years in the Christian Disciple. With the first selection of his sermons was published a biographical sketch written by his friend, the Rev. Samuel Cooper Thacher, from which most of the facts of the foregoing account are derived.

First Person Accounts of Joseph Stevens Buckminster

His classmate, President Joshua Bates, of Middlebury College, wrote of him in 1849:

It was in one of the halls of Harvard College, in the autumn of 1797, that we first met. He was then a lad of thirteen, small of stature, delicate and modest in demeanor. But his bearing, his brilliant countenance, and dignified conversation produced at once the impression on my mind that he was not like other boys, that there was in him what I had never seen before. Indeed, the feeling excited in me was that of wonder and admiration; and this feeling I never lost.

His appearance and performance while under examination were such as perfectly corresponded with the high expectations which my first impression had raised. I remember, in particular, his admirable reading and translation of a long passage in The Iliad. He read the Greek as if it had been his vernacular—with ease, fluency, and expressiveness; and his translation was at once free and accurate.

I had never heard Homer so read and so translated before; and the admiration which I felt was evidently felt by all present. A similar ease and elegance characterized his subsequent recitations in the class, at least so far as regarded the classics. I scarcely ever heard him corrected by the teacher, and never, as far as I could judge, for the better.

His written compositions in English, especially under the fascinating charm of his own delivery, fully sustained, through our college course, my first impressions concerning him, as a youth of exalted genius. I distinctly remember the thrilling effect produced on my mind, and apparently on the minds of others, by his oration at the Junior Exhibition of our class. His subject was “Enthusiasm”—enthusiasm in the best and most enlarged sense of the term; and it was illustrated with such perspicuity, and exhibited with so much force and elegance as to secure universal admiration and the most enthusiastic applause.

In proof of the power and charm of his reading, I might adduce what I distinctly recollect as an approved remark of one of our discriminating classmates. At the close of a meeting of a “Composition Club,” when Buckminster had been the reader for the evening, of the anonymous pieces drawn from the secret box, it was remarked, “When Buckminster reads, all the compositions are good.”

If it were proper to apply the term beauty in describing the personal appearance of any man, I should say that no man whom I have ever known possessed the elements of this quality in a higher degree than he did. As he stood in the pulpit and delivered his message, all was symmetry, propriety, elegance. His enunciation and expression, his brilliant eye and lofty brow, the mingled sweetness and strength, solemnity and cheerfulness, intelligence and feeling, which continually pervaded and animated his whole countenance while speaking, gave to his discourses more than half their charms, and enabled him to exert an absolute control over the feelings of his audience.

Mr. Buckminster, as I said, sustained the character of a distinguished classical scholar through his college course. Indeed, in everything pertaining to literature, ancient and modern, he made himself eminent. For in this direction his taste inclined his inquisitive mind, and his powers of acquisition were never suffered to remain inactive. He was a diligent student. He wasted no time. He could be diverted from his chosen pursuits by no influence, however alluring or persuasive. His play was study. His recreation was profitable reading. His social enjoyment, generally indulged in connection with wholesome exercise, as he walked abroad with some single companion, was instructive conversation.

The result of all this—of his great powers of mind faithfully employed and steadily directed—was high literary attainments. He acquired knowledge with great facility, and he retained permanently what he acquired. Books of history, biography, and general literature he read with uncommon rapidity, and yet he read nothing superficially. The rapid manner in which he read was indeed most remarkable, and often attracted the notice of those who had opportunity to see him in his reading hours. He seemed to turn over the leaves with such rapidity as most men pass over the pages of the smallest folded sheet; and yet he saw every letter and caught and held every important idea. Children, it is known, read by syllables, and most men by words or phrases, some perhaps by sentences; but he seemed to read by paragraphs and pages. I remember that an experiment was once made by a number of fellow-students-of whom he was one-with a view to ascertain the comparative rapidity with which we could grasp the contents of a book. Each one in succession read aloud as rapidly as he could articulate, till one of the number, without previous notice, interposed some object between the eye of the reader and the book. The result of the experiment was striking. It was found that Buckminster could continue to read, after the interposed object had covered the printed page, for a longer, a much longer, time than any other member of the company.

He was not a man of science, as that term is technically used. Mathematics he did not love. He had no taste for abstract studies. Above all, he manifested an unconquerable aversion to metaphysical speculation and transcendental flights of fancy. It is true he made himself acquainted with what may be called “the literature of science.” He knew the origin, the progress, the state, indeed the whole history, of every science of the age. He could tell you who made each discovery, and who was the inventor of the instruments, and what were the appliances by which it was made. He could speak learnedly of the character and merits of the philosophers of all ages and countries, and beautifully illustrate the topics of literature on which he descanted by appropriate allusions to the success of scientific pursuits and the beneficial application of scientific principles. But here his intercourse with the sciences ended. The principles themselves he never investigated. Though our prescribed course of mathematical studies was then extremely limited, he never went beyond the text-books put into his hands. He was never seen, nor would he have been willingly seen, proceeding from the college library with Sanderson’s Algebra or Newton’s Principia under his arm.

Were I to attempt to give an analysis of his mind, I should speak of the fixedness of his attention, and the perfect command which he possessed over the current of his thoughts, as the first and most obvious quality of his mind. His perceptive powers, I should admit, were quick and excursive. Indeed, this has already been stated with reference to the rapid movement and far-reaching glance of the eye. The remark might be extended with truth to all his powers of perception. Of the principles of association, on which memory and imagination, comparison and the process of reasoning, depend, as they were developed in his mind, I should say, they were those which belong to the poet rather than the philosopher. The analogies on which his associations depended were delicate and flexible; and yet, as he followed them with wonderful rapidity in his pursuit of knowledge, they became rigid, and gave him an enduring hold upon his knowledge as soon as it was acquired. Hence his memory was one of the most comprehensive and tenacious as well as ready. Hence, too, his imagination was at once excursive and brilliant, chaste, correct, and rich in its combinations. Indeed, it may be affirmed, though he never wrote poetry, he was born a poet, and possessed all the elements of poetic genius.

Among all my friends in college, and during a long life of familiarity with men distinguished in the several departments of learning, in various portions of our country, I have never found one who seemed to me to possess more of that indescribable character of mind, or rather, I should say, a more complete combination of those intellectual powers and susceptibilities which we usually denominate genius, than Buckminster.

In the same year Edward Everett, who succeeded Buckminster at Brattle Street Church, wrote:

If I should attempt to fix the period at which I first felt all the power of his influence, it would be at the delivery of his oration before the Phi Beta Kappa Society in August, 1809, at which time I had been two years in college, but still hardly emerged from boyhood. That address, although the standard of merit for such performances is higher now than it was then, will, I think, still be regarded as one of the very best of its class—admirably appropriate, thoroughly meditated, and exquisitely wrought. It unites sterling sense, sound and various scholarship, precision of thought, the utmost elegance of style, without pomp or laborious ornament, with a fervor and depth of feeling truly evangelical. These qualities of course are preserved in the printed text of the oration. But the indescribable charm of his personal appearance and manner, the look, the voice, the gesture and attitude—the unstudied outward expression of the inward feeling—of these no idea can be formed by those who never heard him. A better conception of what they might have been may probably be gathered from the contemplation of Stuart’s portrait than from any description. I can never look at it without fancying I catch the well-remembered expression of the living eye, at once gentle and penetrating, and hear the most melodious Yoke, as I firmly believed, that ever passed the lips of man.

It would be presumptuous in me, from my youthful impressions, to attempt an analysis of his intellectual and moral character. I will only say that I think he possessed, in a greater degree than I have seen them combined in one person, an intellect of great acuteness and force, a brilliant imagination, a sound practical judgment, a taste for literary research of all sorts, and especially for critical learning, together with an elevation of moral feeling approaching to austerity (not in his judgments of others, but in his own sense of duty), and a devotional spirit rapt and tender almost beyond the measure of humanity. All this was at the age of twenty-eight, when he was taken from us. Had he lived to the ordinary age of man, it seems to me that he gave an early assurance that he possessed those intellectual and moral endowments which would have made him, in his profession, the foremost man of his country and time.

Finally, Dr. John G. Palfrey wrote of him in 1861:

I first saw him in 1805, going up to the pulpit of Federal Street Church, where the family worshipped of which I was a member. Boston was then a town of less than thirty thousand inhabitants and much more isolated than it is now from the rest of the world. The appearance of a youthful prodigy of pulpit eloquence was the theme of conversation in all circles. I strained my eyes for the first glimpse of one so celebrated. I heard him preach occasionally from that time forward. I seemed to understand all that he said, and was captivated by it, like all around me. As I now read his sermons of that period, they do not appear to me so level to the comprehension of a child as those which I heard habitually with less interest from Dr. Channing. It must have been the exquisite charm of manner, which impressed the meaning that the language alone would have failed to convey.

I have seen days of sorrow in Boston; but I still think I never saw one like the day when his death was announced. The afternoon of his funeral was stormy, but the church was so thronged that great numbers sought admittance in vain. All the bells of the town were tolled, and in the streets through which the long procession passed the shops were closed.

He was buried in the cemetery of King’s Chapel. I can still see the forms of men, now honored by history, as, in the rain, they bowed weeping over the open tomb. The remains were conveyed, a few days after, to the tomb of his relative and lifelong friend, Mr. Theodore Lyman, at Waltham. In 1842 they were disinterred, and placed beneath a monument erected at Mount Auburn by some of those whose tender and admiring love for him survived. I had then ceased to stand in the place where he had ministered, but I was desired to speak the simple words of commemoration which it was thought fit should make a part of the proceedings. The grief of that company was something strange, as we stood again so near to what of our friend had been mortal, on the thirtieth anniversary of the day when it was first buried from our sight.

What Mr. Buckminster would have become, had time been granted to realize the whole of the rare promise of his few years, would not be a profitable subject for conjecture. What is certain is that his short life has borne precious and imperishable fruits. Everything about him was captivating—his face, his presence, his voice, his winning manners, at once so graceful and so hearty, his quick sympathy with all things beautiful and good, his keen relish alike for sense and for wit, his elegant accomplishments, his exquisite taste, his precocious knowledge. It followed that whatever he venerated and loved was presented to other minds with singular attractiveness. His enthusiasm for the excellent was contagious. The religion for which he pleaded was invested with all associations that made it seem honorable and lovely. He impersonated the beauty of holiness.

Since his time New England has won a recognized place in the realm of letters. Looking back through fifty years, I hold nothing to be more sure than that much of the impulse that has achieved that triumph is to be traced to him of whom I make this desultory record. An admiring company of young men was inspired with his generous love of learning. Norton, Ticknor, Frothingham, the Everetts, were among those who came within the circle of his personal companionship. Sparks, Prescott, Bancroft, felt the influence at a further remove. The more numerous scholars who have won a name in later days have known him only by the traditions of their circle; but the propitious atmosphere in which their genius has been unfolded owes more of its nourishing quality to no other mind.