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Samuel Longfellow was born June 13, 1819, in Portland, Maine. He was the youngest of eight children. His father was a Harvard classmate of Dr. Channing and Judge Story, a cultured and high-minded gentleman; the mother, a direct descendant of the John Alden and Priscilla of Henry’s “Courtship of Miles Standish.” From her Samuel drew what was finest in his nature, the sensibility and ideality which invited a Boston wit to speak of Henry as “the brother of the poet”—a tag which Samuel habitually wore with humorous resignation. Henry was already installed as Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard when Samuel entered there in 1835, on the elder brother’s return from Europe, making his home with him in the fine old Craigie House, rich for the later generations with the double fame of Longfellow and Washington. His college course brought him nothing better than the beginning of his lifelong friendship with Edward Everett Hale, a member of his class. It is Dr. Hale’s persuasion that together they made the first photographs made in this country—this in Massachusetts Hall. Graduating in 1839, Longfellow did not enter the Divinity School until 1842, in the mean time teaching a private school near Baltimore. Like young Lowell, he took a little time to orient himself. But, once entered on his Divinity School studies, the influence of his classmate, Samuel Johnson, drew him steadily to the reform party, political and religious. Those were stirring times. The annexation of Texas was making disunionists of “Conscience Whigs,” and Theodore Parker was causing much anxiety to the conservative Unitarians with his South Boston sermon and his “Discourse on Matters pertaining to Religion.” Parker is always “Theodore” in Longfellow’s contemporary letters. He congratulates himself on having got through with one of them without mentioning him, and then pours himself out. He was hearing him preach with enthusiastic admiration. He was taking his side in the controversy he was stirring up.
At the end of his first year he went to Fayal, and spent there an idyllic year as tutor in the family of Mr. C. W. Dabney, whose long-standing consulship in the Azores had made him “Lord of the Isles.” Johnson also had taken a year’s vacation, during which Longfellow was in eager correspondence with him and with Hale, who had tried to dissuade him from the Divinity School as “a monastic institution.” Longfellow and Johnson, re-entering the school, cemented their friendship, destined to be the most striking feature and the richest blessing of their lives, with the stuff of which good hymns are made. They made the Book of Hymns. Some of the best were their own, wearing a veil of anonymity, never completely drawn aside. Parker, who called it the “Sam Book,” hailed it as “recognizing more than was usual: the idea that there is a Holy Spirit and that God is really present with us and in the soul of man.” Longfellow claimed for it the virtue of superior “humanity.” It did some bold things in the way of extracting hymns from longer poems (Whittier’s, particularly) and in adapting orthodox hymns to liberal uses. The changes were much blamed, and some of them were over-bold; but Longfellow’s self-justification was that he never introduced a sentiment foreign to the writer’s spirit, and that he was respecting the exigencies of public use. “If,” he said, “I had been making a collection of hymns or religious poetry for private reading, I should not have changed a single word.”
A year of candidating followed his graduation. His first preaching was for Dr. Lamson in Dedham, two sermons, for which he received one dollar. It was significant that the afternoon sermon was on “Reforms,” and that the next Sunday he preached for Theodore Parker. He was called to West Cambridge, but declined, and in February, 1848, was ordained and installed in Fall River, his brother Henry furnishing the hymn, “Christ to the young man said”—a hymn which must have troubled Samuel’s sense of what a hymn should be. His Fall River ministry continued for three years. It was marked by those traits which were conspicuous in every field of his activity—a profound spirituality, interest in children and young people, sympathy with the sorrowing, straightforwardness in dealing with great national sins. He wrote to Johnson, who had been barred out from his Dorchester pulpit:
This antislavery question comes, as Christianity came, into an unbelieving age—comes judging, dividing, separating family, church, political party, precisely because it is the question which now in this country tests the fidelity and sincerity of individuals and church and party.
He thinks the majority of his society would not be satisfied with a man “wavering or wanting in this matter.” But the minority held the purse-strings, and it was probably because of his anti-slavery preaching that his Fall River ministry was not a more assured success.
His next experience was a taste of European travel. That “passion for Europe” which Emerson deprecated was one of Samuel Longfellow’s most vivid traits. It was later to enjoy full swing, but the first taste was an almost bitter one, devotion to a pupil keeping him for nine months in Paris, a city to which he was indifferent, for all the glories of the Louvre. Returning to America, the fall of 1852 found him again candidating, irked by some of the attendant experiences and amused by others, such as his host’s talk of “indigenous products” and “ephemeral publications.” His humor and his sense of humor were resources on which he could draw at will for the amusement of his correspondents and associates. A more ingenious punster never paltered in a double sense. The stress of candidating was relieved by his publication of Thalatta in conjunction with T. W. Higginson, then minister of an independent society in Worcester. The book was a collection of sea-poems, which has hardly been surpassed by any of its kind. The sea and the mountains always drew him with an equal charm. He preached for the Second Unitarian Church in Brooklyn in the fall of 1852, but endeavored to persuade the people that his friend Johnson was the right man for them. Johnson assured them to the contrary, and prevailed. Entering on a six months’ engagement with the society in April, 1853, he was installed the following October. In the collection of his sermons made by Rev. Joseph May, his principal biographer, we have two of the earliest of the Brooklyn series, “The Word Preached” and a “Spiritual and Working Church.” His definition of a church was characteristic—“a society of men, women, and children associated together by a religious spirit for a religious work.” The society, a new one, formed in 1851, had at first no distinctly liberal character, but it took this on rapidly under the pressure of Mr. Longfellow’s preaching. The society took possession of the Brooklyn Athenaeum, new and spacious, and for five years Mr. Longfellow’s preaching and conduct of the service accomplished the impossible—made the place a home. But in 1857 a church, the “New Chapel” of Mr. Longfellow’s affectionate solicitude, was built and dedicated in March, 1858. In the dedication sermon Mr. Longfellow put forth all his strength, and those who would understand the thought-side of his work should go to that. The text was Eph. 4:6, “One God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in you all.” The doctrine of an immanent and transcendent God was never presented in a more powerful and persuasive manner. And this is a good place to say that the gentleness and sweetness of Mr. Longfellow’s disposition have too much obscured the stronger features of his character and mind. Such studies as the “Theism” and that on “Comparative Religion” in the May collection display an intellectual vigor equal to his spiritual ardor and his moral power. Moreover, his habitual preaching, however the foreground might be occupied with such forms as “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,” had always a background of sheer mountain strength, of intellectual reality. And for all his gentleness he was, as Colonel Higginson has written, “equal in strength of character to any emergency, and would have borne himself firmly upon the rack when more boisterous men failed.”
The progress of the anti-slavery struggle furnished Mr. Longfellow with the opportunity to display a noble courage. Let who would hear him or forbear, he bore his testimony in a straightforward manner, “speaking the truth in love,” and yet so plainly as to offend the more prudent and less serious minds. There was a “John Brown sermon” which gave particular offence. There was a sifting of his people, and the process left the best. Meantime Mr. Longfellow had arranged a vesper service, the first in use among Unitarians, more simple and more beautiful than any since devised. The hymns which he wrote expressly for this service were the product of his happiest inspiration. “Now on land and sea descending” and “Again as evening’s shadow falls” are the two best known and loved. It is through his hymns that he exerts the widest and most persistent influence. No bounds of sect or creed have been able to withstand their perfect charm. Another interesting feature of a ministry of marked individuality was Mr. Longfellow’s administration of the Lord’s Supper. There was no distinction of church and congregation. All were so cordially welcomed that they gladly stayed, and Mr. Longfellow himself carried about the bread and wine, murmuring verses of Scripture, old and new, and not unmindful of the personal sorrow, need, or joy. The Sunday-school took on an equally unique impression from his careful hand. His love for children made him wise in all the arts of pleasing and attracting them. It was as a pastor that he brought to his people the most invaluable service. Was there anything pretty or pleasant in a room, he was sure to notice it, and for things unlovely he was quick to find some palliating word. For the joys and sorrows of his people he had the same ready sympathy, silence when that was best.
In 1860 he resigned his Brooklyn charge. His “Parting Words,” also in the May collection, had for a text Deut. 15:1: “At the end of seven years there shall be a release.” It marked the strength of his attachment to Brooklyn that he did not take another charge till 1878, when he went to Germantown, Pennsylvania, and remained there five years, working in the same spirit as with his former people and to the same purpose, quiet, but deep and sure. He did much preaching here and there between the Brooklyn and the Germantown pastorates, by every engagement, though it was but for a Sunday, widening the circle of his friends. On his seventieth birthday (1889) he said he would invite only those who called him “Sam.” A good many called him so to his face, so little formidable was he, and many more by the familiar name expressed their kindly regard. For two years after he left Brooklyn he was in Europe, part of the time in company with his friend Johnson. At Nice they completed their compilation of Hymns of the Spirit, adding many fine hymns of their own, notably City of God, How Broad and Far (Johnson’s), and One Holy Church of God Appears (Longfellow’s), paired in so many books and in the memory and affection of so many worshippers. The book was so much better than the Book of Hymns that it was less favorably received. That it was distinctly more universal, less verbally Christian, than the other book, was, in the eyes of many, a defect. Moreover, hymn books with music were coming into use. Mr. Longfellow himself made one in 1860, the Book of Hymns and Tunes, which later he revised. It would be no just account of his life which did not emphasize his enjoyment of music. What Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony meant for him is set down in Mr. May’s biography.
Other visits to Europe were made, but the last years of his life were spent in Cambridge in the house endeared to him by so many beautiful associations with his brother’s life and work. He wrote an elaborate biography of his brother, and a briefer one of Samuel Johnson, both with too much reserve for the satisfaction of a legitimate curiosity. Besides many perfect hymns he wrote a few poems, the loveliest “The Golden Sunset,” worthy to be compared with Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” and prefiguring the quietness of his own passing in the city of his birth, October 3, 1892. Henry’s description of a good minister is commonly supposed to have intended Samuel Longfellow. It did not, and yet he could not be described in words more fit:
He preached to all men everywhere
The gospel of the Golden Rule,
The new commandment given to men,
Thinking the deed and not the creed
Would help us in our utmost need.
With reverent feet the earth he trod,
Nor banished Nature from his plan,
But studied still with deep research
To build the Universal Church,
Lofty as is the love of God
And ample as the wants of man.
— By John White Chadwick
Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection
Prayers for Today: Samuel Longfellow