Tuesday, October 04, 2005

1853: William B. Greene at 34

In 1853, William B. Greene had resigned from his position as pastor of a West Brookfield church, but had not yet settled himself in Paris, where he would stay until his return in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War. Greene was 34 years old, was married to "the belle of Boston," and had two children, one of them only a couple of years old. He was financially comfortable, but politically unsettled by the recent passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (to which some attribute his resignation and emigration). He was on the tail end of one of the most active periods of his literary life. The period 1847-1850 saw the publication of all these texts:

  • The Doctrine Of The Trinity: Briefly And Impartially Examined In The Light Of History And Philosophy, 1847. [32 pages]
  • The Incarnation. A Letter To Rev. John Fiske, D.D. , 1848 [52 pages]
  • Remarks In Refutation Of The Treatise Of Jonathan Edwards, 1848.
  • Letter to Rev. Eber Carpenter, Southbridge, Mass., 1849 [8 pages]
  • Equality, 1849. [74 pages]
  • A New Gnosis, 1849. [10 pages] Remarks On The History Of Science; Followed By An Apriori Autobiography, 1849. [164 pages]
  • Transcendentalism, 1849. [49 pages]
  • Mutual Banking, 1850. [95 pages]

This amounts to the meat of Greene's entire oeuvre . All of his ideas still awaited their most mature expression, which would come in the book-length collections of the 1870s, but nearly all of his concerns had now been expressed and worked through, in most cases, in multiple essays. By 1853, he had already started his appeals to the Massachusetts General Court in favor of allowing mutual banking. However, when he became a member of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in that year, his activism was almost entirely directed towards redefining the concept of the people--specifically which people were to be allowed to vote on the nature of state government. It was in the context of the debate on this question that Greene made a fascinating speech, which was reprinted in the Liberator, and which is now available at the Libertatia Laboratories site. It is one of the rare occasions where a majority of Greene's various concerns are articulated all in one place, and it gives us a taste of what he must have been like behind the pulpit. Here is a long excerpt:

I will trespass upon the patience of the Convention for a few moments, only, and hope I may secure its attention, as I shall be under the necessity of having recourse to an order of ideas not often brought before a body of this kind. I ask every gentleman to weigh, in his own mind, and answer me a few of the questions which I will suggest to him. Is there not always before us an ideal, a mental picture, if you will, an image, of what we ought to be, and are not? Does not every one who endeavors to follow this ideal revealed to his inward vision, every one who endeavors to attain to conformity with it, find it enlarge itself, and remove from him? Does not he that follows it improve his moral character, the ideal remaining ever above him, and before him, prompting him to new exertions? What is conscience but a comparison of ourselves as we are, mean, pitiful, weak, with ourselves as we ought to be, wise, powerful, holy? What is conscience but a comparison of our actual conduct with our ideal of human perfection? As we make new efforts in striving after the fullness of perfection revealed in our hearts, the ideal removes further and further from us, making higher and higher claims, until, at last, we lose ourselves in the contemplation of the Infinite Majesty; for, in this upward aspiration, there is revealed to us a knowledge of our spiritual existence, and a knowledge of the Most High God. Man is created in the image of God, and it is his duty to bring out into its full splendor that Divine Image which is latent at the bottom of his heart. When a man first recognizes this Divine Ideal, which is the shadow of God, it is to him like the dawning of a new day. As he looks steadfastly, the darkness of his understanding begins to disappear, and the day-star begins to rise in his heart. As he moves forward toward the mark of his desire, subordinating his will to the divine will, he enters into communion and fellowship with God the Father; and the Eternal Sun fills the whole firmament of his soul with its rays of threefold glory. But, if a man aspire toward God, he must aspire according to his threefold nature; he must aspire according to his body, his soul, and his spirit; he must obey the divine law in its threefold applications. Man must follow what he ought to be in the natural world, in the moral world, and in the world of thought. Liberty is the right which every human being possesses of aspiring toward God, by the development of that threefold human nature-physical, intellectual, and moral-on which the image of God is stamped. Liberty is the form of the relation which exists, and necessarily exists, between man and his Maker. Now this liberty is the sum of human right; for, because man has a
threefold existence-physical, moral, and spiritual-he must glorify God by aspiring toward him in accordance with his threefold nature; that is to say, man has a natural right and duty to develop all the faculties of his threefold being. Shall repressive laws, shall priests and creeds, shall public opinion, separate between me and the Father of my spirit? Tyrants and priests know nothing of the revelation which God makes in the centre of my individual heart. I stand before God as an individual man; he communicates his will in the secret chambers of the centre of my individual heart. The revelation which God makes to me, is made to me, not to another. Individualism (which is the opposite to egotism) is, therefore, a holy doctrine. The individual man is a mysterious and holy force placed on the earth in accordance with the mysterious designs of a holy providence. Touch him not, therefore; seek not to guide him by indirect influence, for he is holy! Man is the temple of God, and his heart is the sanctuary from which the Almighty deigns to reveal his presence. He that contends against the rights of an individual man, contends against God; for it is the ever-attractive in-dwelling of God in the individual soul, that is the origin and foundation of all human rights. An organization of society which renders a man dependent upon his neighbors, upon public opinion-which, in a word, renders him subservient to his accidents, instead of being supreme over them-is destructive to individualism, and is, therefore, profoundly immoral.

Now, I maintain-and let me see the man stand up that claims to deny it-I maintain that woman has an intellectual and spiritual nature; I maintain that woman aspires towards God, that she stands in secret and direct relations with God; that the will of God is revealed to her, secretly, and in the centre of her individual heart. I maintain, therefore, that woman has natural, divine rights, and that these rights come from that relation which she sustains to her Maker, which, because it imposes duties upon her, imposes the correlative duty upon us of taking from her nothing that is necessary to enable her to perform her duties. At the risk of being tedious, I will endeavor to show the identity of the fundamental dogma of Democracy (that of the supremacy of man over his accidents) with the fundamental principle of Christianity; for I recognize no Democracy that is contra-distinguished from Christianity, and no Christianity which teaches either the divine right of kings, or the divine right of any portion of the people to govern any other portion, without the consent of the governed. What is this upward aspiration of the soul toward God, if not that spiritual attraction or gravitation, of which St. Augustine speaks, and which he denominates charity or love? " Charity," he says, "is the weight of spiritual existences." What is Faith, if not the conviction which is awakened by the spiritual world, through the power of this supreme attraction in the soul, that is akin to itself. Is not Hope the confidence which is borne in this upward aspiration? From these fundamental principles of democracy, can we not thus deduce every one of the fundamental principles of Christian morality?

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