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Frothingham, Octavius Brooks (1822-1895)

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Octavius Brooks FrothinghamOctavius Brooks Frothingham was born in Boston, November 26, 1822. His father was Rev. Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, D.D., minister of the First Church in Boston from 1815 to 1850. The mother was Ann Gorham Brooks, a daughter of Peter C. Brooks and a sister of Mrs. Edward Everett and of Mrs. Charles Francis Adams.

Mr. Frothingham followed the course marked out for Boston boys of that period; and, after passing through the public Latin School, he entered Harvard College, where he graduated with the class of 1843. “To enter at once the Divinity School was,” as he tells us in his Recollections and Impressions, “to start on a predestined career.” “For,” he adds, “from childhood I was marked out for a clergyman.”

In 1846, therefore, he graduated from the Harvard Divinity School, having had Samuel Longfellow, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson among his companions during the three years’ course of theological studies. But he did not sympathize with the early radicalism of these men, with whom in later years he came to be intimately associated. His own early tendencies were distinctly conservative, and it was only slowly that he came to break away from traditional opinions. His first settlement was in Salem, Massachusetts, where he was ordained and installed on March 10, 1847, as minister of the North Church. The pastorate began most happily, and continued for eight years. Like many others, however, at that trying period, it was brought to a close by reason of differences of opinion in regard to the question of slavery. Mr. Frothingham cast in his lot with the Abolitionists, and it was not long before he found himself in distinct collision with certain members of his church. The issue was brought to a head on a certain Sunday, “after a brutal scene in Boston attending the return of a slave to his master.” The young minister knew that “the larger part of his congregation,” as he put it, “were in sympathy with the government, and approved the act of surrender.” It seemed to him that it would be a mockery, under such conditions, to administer the communion; and he accordingly declined “to give the ordinance.” The feeling ran high. The parish became divided in sentiment, and in 1855 he accepted an invitation to become the minister of a society which had recently been organized in Jersey City.

The departure was more than a move: it proved to be a break. He had slipped the traditional moorings, and henceforth was to tempt the open sea. The fact is that during his Salem ministry he had come into close and even intimate touch with Theodore Parker. The influence of the famous radical was deeply felt and freely acknowledged. A crisis in belief was the natural result, of which the anti-slavery sympathies were a symptom only. Transcendental ideas were eagerly accepted. Thus the conservative by nature became a radical by conviction. Taste and sentiment held him back; but conscience led him on, till one advanced position after another was fearlessly assumed, and he felt impelled to reach beyond the limits that were set by the Unitarian thought of the time.

The pastorate in Jersey City, as might have been foreseen, was only a brief one. The lurings of the larger center near at hand were not to be resisted. His friends in New York soon determined that he should have a field of labor commensurate with his talents. A new society was organized for him in the great metropolis, and in 1859 he became the minister of the Third Congregational Unitarian Church of New York City. Later on, with broadening thought, the Unitarian name was dropped; and the society called itself the “Independent Liberal Church.”

Mr. Frothingham’s distinctive career had now begun—a career at once both brave and brilliant. He soon began to attract attention as the bold and stainless champion of free and unsectarian religious thought. He preached for a time in a church on 40th Street, near Sixth Avenue. Before long this building was sold, however; and the society removed to Lyric Hall, “which,” in the words of Edmund Clarence Stedman, “became famous through the reputation of the preacher.” But still another move was necessary, this time in order to meet the needs of gathering numbers; and the congregation finally established itself in the great auditorium of the Masonic Temple. There Sunday after Sunday Mr. Frothingham stood before an eager throng of people, and without pulpit, gown, or manuscript, with absolute directness, faced his theme. There “was,” says Colonel Higginson, “no ornamentation. The illustration came as something inevitable, and the most daring iconoclastic thoughts were presented with a frankness which disarmed. It seemed for the moment as if there were no other thoughts supposable.”

There can be no doubt of Mr. Frothingham’s greatness as a preacher. He was second to none in the liberal fellowship of the day. He was polished, graceful, graphic, eloquent. As Rev. John W. Chadwick put it, “There was the noble style, the exquisite phrasing, and an oratory that had been without a parallel in our pulpits since Edward Everett had abandoned them for collegiate and political activities. But there were no concessions to a promiscuous assemblage, to a lower taste. The thoughts and manner always kept the lofty heights.”

Mr. Chadwick adds in another connection:

No one was ever fonder of under-statement than Mr. Frothingham, or applied it to himself more freely. From the minimizing account of his preaching in Lyric Hall and the Masonic Temple which he gave in his ‘Recollections,’ no stranger to the facts would derive any just conception of the force and beauty and nobility of his pulpit ministration, or the profound impression that it made upon a congregation then the largest in the city. The printed sermons contain the substance of his message, but give no idea of the fascinating grace and beauty of the spoken word, which hardly Curtis could surpass.

Around such a man it was only natural that a most unusual congregation should have gathered. Some of the most prominent and distinguished writers, thinkers, and reformers of the day were members. Among them were George Ripley, E. C. Stedman, and C. P. Cranch. It became, to a large extent, “a church of the unchurched.” Many earnest people, who had definitely discarded all ecclesiastical names and connections, were attracted to it as a place where absolute freedom of thought was not only permitted, but encouraged. “Members of the literary, artistic, and dramatic guilds,” found its atmosphere congenial. Edwin Booth was often seen at the Sunday service.

Octavius Brooks Frothingham

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives.

Mr. Frothingham’s influence was greatly extended by the printing of his sermons nearly every week. These sermons had a wide circulation, both as pamphlets and in book form. They found readers in all sections of this country and in various parts of Europe, while some of them were heard from as far away as China. With all of this, he was also a man of letters, an author, and for many years the art critic for the New York Tribune. His critical studies in the line of German theology were very fruitful. He became a well-equipped scholar, as well as an eloquent interpreter of advancing thought. In a series of noteworthy books and articles he proved his mastery. An extraordinary fluency and vigor marked his literary handling of topics that in most men’s minds lie outside of the realm of literature. He excelled, however, in biography, uniting discernment and sympathy with absolute sincerity and candor of treatment. Perhaps the best of all his books is the Life of Theodore Parker. This was natural, for, in many senses, he became the successor of the famous Boston preacher. Indeed, when Parker sailed away on his last sad search for health, he referred to Mr. Frothingham as the probable successor he was leaving behind him in America.

For twenty years the work in New York was carried on with unremitting vigor. Voice and pen were taxed to the utmost. In 1879 the break came. The first dread symptoms of locomotor ataxia made themselves apparent. He resigned his charge, and went abroad, half hoping to regain his health. But the trouble grew. It was clearly impossible for him to continue preaching, and on his return from Europe he took up his residence in Boston. There for several years, fighting with sturdy resolution the slow encroaches of disease, he devoted himself to biographical and historical writing. It was during this period that he wrote the Lives of George Ripley and William Henry Channing, publishing also his volume on Boston Unitarianism and his Recollections and Impressions. He died November 27, 1895, having just completed his seventy-third year.

For many years Mr. Frothingham was the dominating influence of the Free Religious Association. He was its first president, and steered it through the most difficult and important as well as the most useful and brilliant period of its existence. His addresses at the annual conventions of the association were models of clear statement, manly courage, considerate sympathy, and prophetic power. Strength and sweetness were extraordinarily united in his temperament. A pungent critic and vigorous debater, he was also essentially a poet, rising at times to great beauty of expression and power of description. Not a little of his influence in the pulpit and on the platform was due to his voice and person, the first being rich and deep and tinged with peculiar pathos, while the second was graceful, dignified, and expressive in the fullest sense of culture and refinement. Withal there was a certain “fine audacity” about him which won respect, even when it did not gain assent. He never failed in his championship of free thought. Shackles of all kinds were distasteful to him. His influence was, above all else, a liberating one. Few men of character and force have ever been so free as he from dogmatism. He had a wonderful gift for entering into characters and ideals very different from his own, and he plucked out the heart of their mystery with a kindly hand. His orthodox friends frequently confessed that they never heard their position so well stated in their own churches. This was an evidence of the man’s entire fairness and instinctive candor. It was natural joy to him, therefore, in his later years, having fought the good fight for religious freedom, when he saw the Unitarian churches moving in his direction, adopting his ideals, and recognizing the value of the service he had done the cause. He wrote at the end of his life:

The new Unitarianism is neither sentimental nor transcendental nor traditional… It calls itself Unitarianism simply because that name suggests mental freedom and breadth and progress and elasticity and joy. Another name might do as well, perhaps be more accurately descriptive. But no other would be as impressive or, on the whole, so honorable.”

In his own career he was destined to give and to receive hard blows; but he never failed in chivalry, generosity, and kindliness of spirit. Dr. Joseph Henry Allen wrote of him:

His services to our common life of thought were so many, and his contribution to it so rich, that it is not easy at first glance, to fix upon a point of view for seeing it as a whole. Happily, he has given us the hint of what we seek in the title of the hymn written for his graduation from the Divinity School, ‘The Soldiers of the Cross.’ The hymn itself is the very finest idealized conception of the holy war that summons the faithful and the brave. Its imagery is of the arming, the vigil and the vow of a young knight, to whom the crusade he embarks in is a glorious thing, for the joy of conflict it offers no less than for the nobility of the cause it fights for.

Colonel T. W. Higginson was impressed with precisely the same quality. In writing of him, he said:

Frothingham was a knight of the Holy Spirit. The external man was the symbol of the whole nature. In his whole make-up he was the high-bred radical, the silver weapon with the edge of steel.

–By Revere Frothingham