Chapter II. Student and Preacher.

From: The Life and Letters of Christopher Pearse Cranch (1917)
Author: Leonora Cranch Scott
Published: Houghton Mifflin Company 1917 Boston



IN 1829 Christopher Pearse Cranch entered Columbian College in the third Freshman term. There were no athletics in those days, consequently the walk of three miles in the outskirts of Washington, was both agreeable and salutary.

  My father, in his Autobiography, says:—

  The president was a Baptist minister, Dr. Chapin, a most excellent man. There was but a small number of students, and the course of study was not particularly extensive or thorough. My brothers, John and Edward, had graduated there. My father wished me to have a college education, but his means did not permit the expense of sending me to an institution away from home. There I remained till 1832, when at the age of nineteen I took my degree.

  As I lived near the Capitol, I went often to hear the great speakers in the Senate and House of Representatives. I remember hearing speeches from John Randolph, Clay, Webster, John Quincy Adams, Benton, Calhoun, and others. I had the good fortune to hear a great portion of Mr. Webster’s famous reply to Mr. Hayne. I was very much impressed with Webster’s eloquence.

  After leaving college the question was, what profession to adopt. My father seemed to think I ought to choose one of the three learned professions. For the law, I had no taste or ability. And my brother Edward was studying law at my father’s desire; one lawyer was enough. For a while I thought of medicine, but not very seriously. My cousin William G. Eliot, Jr.,1 who afterwards married my sister Abby, was a divinity student at Cambridge, and urged me to the study of theology. Of the three professions, this was most to my taste; and as it accorded with my father’s inclination, I decided to go to Cambridge and the Theological School. I studied a little German with an old Swiss gentleman who taught me a very bad pronunciation.

  In the summer of 1882, I left home for Cambridge. . . . At this time my brother John was in Italy studying art. My brother Edward had gone to Cincinnati to practice law. I took a room in Divinity Hall, Cambridge, and began my studies with a good deal of interest. [His classmates were:] C. A. Bartol, Charles T. Brooks, Edgar Buckingham, A. M. Bridge, A. Frost, Samuel Osgood, John Parkman, H. G. O. Phipps, George Rice, and J. Thurston. . . .

  Sunday, June 16, 1833, my father got up at half-past four, and having made arrangements with a brother minister to take his Sunday-School class, went to the Charlestown bridge to meet his cousin Richard Greenleaf in a gig, and ride out to Quincy to meet his father, Judge Cranch, and his mother, who were making a visit to New England, where they had not been for thirty years.

  In his journal he says: “A fine view from the top of the hill. . . . Found them at breakfast at Quincy. Father was there and looks very well.” After dinner at Uncle Daniel Greenleaf’s and the afternoon service, the second Church service, to which he had gone “. . . walked with father across the Quincy hills. He pointed out to me his father’s grounds, where the house, garden, etc., were. It was extremely interesting to be on the very spot, the very scenes of his boyish days with him, after so long an absence from them. Met J. Q. Adams in our walk. It was a fine afternoon and we had a noble view of the harbor.”

  Mr. Cranch’s days were spent thus at this date. Up at half-past five, sometimes an hour earlier, studied Hebrew, attended prayers, walked to breakfast, pitched quoits, studied and read, attended Dr. Ware’s exercise on the “Resurrection of Christ,” recited Hebrew, had tea, and passed the evening in a friend’s room singing, or in social converse. Once a week they bad practising of elocution, which they called “explosions.” Some of the students held a Sunday-School class in the State Prison, where they found some interesting men. The atmosphere was religious and prayerful, and my father earnestly strove to work conscientiously. His great diffidence kept him from doing justice to himself. He could always do better with his pen than in extemporaneous speech. But he nevertheless persisted.

  There were many fine preachers who came to them, and the studious life suited his temperament. Orville Dewey, Henry W. Bellows, William Henry Channing, Ezra Stiles Gannett, James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, and others spoke to them. And these were memorable occasions.

  My father’s good friend, John S. Dwight, was in his class for a year; going to Meadville, Pennsylvania, returning again later to Harvard. He was therefore in the class after Mr. Cranch, where also was Theodore Parker. The instructors were Dr. Henry Ware, Sr., Dr. Henry Ware, Jr., and Dr. John G. Palfrey.

  Mr. Cranch went home to Washington in summer vacations, but spent some time in Boston where he had relatives, and a good deal of time in the home of his grandfather, Richard Cranch, and of his uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. John Greenleaf, in Quincy. Their daughter Mary, Mrs. George Minot Dawes, was like a sister, and nursed him one summer in the old Greenleaf and Cranch homestead, very devotedly. This cousinly friendship was kept up all through their lives, and was a source of great pleasure to both.

  In the summer of 1835, Mr. Cranch graduated from the Divinity School, and entered at once upon the duties of preaching, at the age of twenty-two. Among the first churches in which he preached was Reverend Doctor Farley’s, in Providence, Rhode Island, a large church “which frightened me not a little,” he said.

  In the winter of 1836—an unusually cold one—Mr. Cranch was persuaded to go down to Andover, Maine. This was a hard place, but missionary work was much needed. He spent some weeks there, preaching in a small schoolhouse or in a half-finished meeting-house. A tremendous snowstorm set in, keeping people in their houses. A letter to his friend John S. Dwight describes his feelings:—

ANDOVER, MAINE, February 9, 1836.
  If you have a spark of sympathy and kindness in you, you will commiserate me. Will you have the kindness to put up the following note for me at some Christian church in the civilized country I have left: “A man abiding in the wilderness desires the prayers of his friends for his liberation and return.” Here am I, a tropical animal, as it were, thrown by some convulsion of the earth into the middle of an iceberg. Some ages hence I shall, peradventure, be discovered and be looked upon by the learned doctors as a rare specimen of a departed race of animals. What! is there nothing but snowstorms and snowbanks extant? Has the earth taken wings and left behind nothing but rugged mountains, endless pine forests and stumps! It would doubtless seem so to you were you in my situation, for I need take but a very few steps out of doors, to be a companion unto bears, wolves, and moose. In short I am mewed up in this ultima thule of civilization against my will, by reason of these vile and rough roads. It seems as if the elements had combined to keep me here. All passing almost is impracticable. I can’t even stir out of doors. There is a regular siege and blockade carried on by wind and snow against the town. I am like Hildebrand shut in by Kuhlborn and the water spirits, and the white old man nods and whistles in every snowbank; but alas, there are no Undines in this land of desolation to help me to beguile the lingering hours. But if I am a prisoner bodily, I am determined (and this is my resolution) that my thoughts and feelings shall have liberty, nay, even that they shall take the form of an epistle. O, the cacoethes scribendi, is a pleasant passion! . . . I have scarcely ever felt the mournful gusts of homesickness (why have we no better word?) sweep over my soul, as they have during my stay here. Were you ever six hundred and sixty miles from home? I think you have been. Then you may know how distance increases this aching and longing of the heart. Even from Boston and Cambridge—my adopted home—I am distant one hundred and eighty miles. Well, may you never light upon this wilderness in the depth of winter, for a very wilderness it is in all respects. I dream day and night of absent friends and of home.

  But there are redeeming circumstances about this same polar region. As to soil and climate, I say with Justice Shallow, “Barren! barren! marry good air!” As to products I can answer, for one, that they have most bountiful crops of snow, together with forests and stumps in any quantity. Inhabitants and parishioners few and far between, to my sorrow. Ignorant, rough and farmer-like, but withal good, ordinary, well-disposed folks as one could desire, and many good Christians among them; but as ignorant of Unitarianism and rational Christianity as “‘Ebrew Jews.” The good things that I have to mention are: the good, in the first place which I think my visit here does to myself; next the good—I hope I may have done a little—which the people may receive from my services; besides the pleasure which I have received in preaching and in talking with the good folks. I intended to have visited much among these Andoverites, but the bad driving has prevented. We have had a miserable place to preach in-a little box of a meeting-house not half finished, and afterwards a miserable little schoolhouse, hardly big enough to turn around in, without any pulpit or desk. I had as lief almost talk in a tin cup. Last Sunday was an extra Sabbath beyond my engagement, and I preached half a day. Besides regular preaching for four Sundays, I have preached and prepared two-evening-a-week lectures, one of them extempore, and a temperance address. I have small audiences, but very unusually attentive, which is pleasant. I found them all entirely ignorant of Unitarianism, but more or less disgusted with the orthodox preaching which they have had here, and willing and glad to hear something more liberal and rational from the pulpit. By far the larger part of the town are anti-orthodox in their feeling. As to their theologic notions they are very crude and unsettled. I have preached “plain practical, sermons, as Br’er Frost would say, and such they like. Besides, controversial discourses can do little good and much harm. . . . I have not attacked Calvinistic doctrines by name, but indirectly; and this I could not avoid, if I wished to preach what I believe to be truth. It was curious to observe how my sermons were received. Many good orthodox people thought I preached sound doctrine, and even a good old ultra-Universalist lady was pleased, L though I urged the doctrine of Retribution frequently. . . .

To John S. Dwight

RICHMOND, VA., June 15, 1836.
  I have just returned from the post-office with the glorious and unexpected haul of three letters, by no means a common occurrence in these later times, one from William G. Eliot, Jr., one from my brother Edward, and last, not least, the delightfully refreshing one from yourself. Glorious! Such a treat as this I have not had for a long, long time! Permit me to thank you for yours as it deserves. I own I should have written you before, but “matters and things” you know. But your kind epistle has done me infinite good. I can feel with you, as you describe your feelings in the pulpit. It is a throne, and you can hardly conceive the uplifting sensations that sometimes rush through one, when one mounts it as a spiritual leader, and stretches forth over his audience his invisible sceptre of thought and feeling. I realize every time I preach, more and more, the importance and the glory of the preacher’s office. O for one of those voices to sing for me the hymns I give out! I miss the old music of New England exceedingly.

  But now methinks you are anxiously looking down this scrawl, to learn when, why, and how, I got me into this out-of-the-way place. For by your direction I perceive you are not acquainted with my localities. I will answer you briefly: I have been here nearly four weeks; came not exactly as a candidate, though they seem disposed to hold me. They do want a settled minister here most confoundedly—to use a lay-phrase.

  They want doctrinal and controversial preaching here, as they do in almost all “new places.” The Virginians will not read and inquire for themselves. A tract or treatise on theology or religion is an abomination unto them. They depend very much on what they hear from the pulpit, but more persons depend entirely upon hearsay. I gave them a pretty direct talk about this matter, from the text, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind,” in the conclusion of which I told them they must not depend upon what they hear of our views, from the mouths of ignorant, prejudiced opponents, or what they hear from the pulpit, for the pulpit, though the altar of truth, is not the arena of controversy, but that they must read, things, and inquire. I felt gloriously while delivering this sermon. It was glorious to arrest the attention of a passer-by, or a door lingerer (such hearers of the word are by far too common here), to catch his eye and a new inspiration the same moment, to blaze away right at him and to hold him like the Ancient Mariner to his seat, and address to him an appeal, which it almost seemed as if Providence had brought him expressly to hear. I have preached better here than anywhere else. I think I have improved; but there is something of the feeling of desertion and of standing alone which one experiences in the Unitarian pulpit here, which makes me feel how very important is my station, and what a call there is for larger earnestness, directness, voice, gesture, and unction. I have had some most glorious moments in the pulpit, moments which have carried with them an excitement I do not remember ever to have experienced elsewhere, or ever so deeply. The audiences have been unusually small, but this we must expect. The habits of the people here of all denominations are, in this respect of regularity at church, diametrically opposite to our good old New England customs. Can’t some of your class come out here as a candidate? If I was not possessed with the Western mania in some degree, I should prefer settling here to almost any other place.

  The city itself of Richmond is, for situation, scenery, walks, etc., enchanting. There is nothing in all New England like it. The society is good. All that is disagreeable is the wall of prejudice and ignorance we must break through. I have not been much into the society here. I have become quite domesticated in one of the finest families I ever saw. They are Jewish ladies – not young or handsome, but everything else—refined, educated, Christian; in point of fact, poetical, and above all musical. I go there every day, sing, play the flute, chat, send poetry, etc., etc. I don’t know what I should have done with myself in my loneliness here, had it not been for these kind, excellent ladies. They know all the Unitarian ministers almost—are intimate with Dr. Channing, William Channing, Mr. S. G. May, and others. Their names are Hay and Myers. There are a great many Jews here and they have a synagogue. I cannot write you more of them now—I have a great many things to say, but my paper is out.

  I wanted to tell you about a musical minister I met with in Washington. A real German and enthusiast in everything. A student, a man of learning, but his voice and guitar were glorious. And he did sing with so much feeling, it was a luxury to listen. I heard from him the genuine air of the old ballad of the Erl King. It was unutterable. I was exceedingly sorry to leave him, with Washington,—my dear home.

  O that you were here, my dear friend, to enjoy my delightful walks with me! There are beautiful rambles in every direction, in and out of the city. Flowers are quite abundant. I have now on my mantelpiece a magnificent magnolia grandiflora. It is larger than my fist—when blown full, larger than both fists, a beautiful pure white, imperial-looking, forest flower. It grows here only in gardens. It would inspire you to write a sonnet upon it, to see it. It has almost inspired me. There is something so grand, queenlike, and chiselled in its large, oval, close-folded petals, and its dark, shining leaves, rising above it like guardian maidens of honor around their queen. Something in the powerful and delightful fragrance that carries the imagination so into the dark and deep forests of Florida, and the banks of the Mississippi, that I wish I could show my present—for it is a present, and from a lady too—to all my friends.

  Preaching in Bangor, Portland, Boston, Richmond, and back to Washington in the summer, Mr. Cranch made many friends; some that lasted all his life. One of these was Miss Mary Preston, of Bangor, Maine, afterwards Mrs. George L. Stearns, of Medford, Massachusetts. Her husband, Major Stearns, was the lifelong friend of the slave. He frequently hid runaway slaves in his own house, and provided them with clothes, money, railroad fare, and drove them to the station, which would take them to freedom, in his own carriage. It was he who advised the use of colored soldiers in the war, officered by young men of the best New England families. Before John Brown’s execution, Major Stearns went to visit him in prison. The only bust in the country of John Brown is the one by Brackett in the Stearns’ home.

  Giving his fortune, his life, to the great cause of freedom, Major Stearns was one of those quiet heroes, whose death was none the less a sacrifice, although not offered in the ranks of the soldier or on the field of battle.

  Mrs. Stearns lived among her relics, and in the past. She was the intimate friend of Whittier, of Samuel Longfellow, of James P. Bradford, and of Dr. Hedge. The portraits of these and of many others adorned her parlors, and before each was a little bunch of flowers and a wreath of pressed fem, forming a fragrant and tender offering at each shrine. The portrait of Major Stearns is over all,—as he was uppermost in the mind of her who lived ever in the light of his spirit and memory. Although in her seventies, when I knew Mrs. Stearns, she never seemed old; she was full of mental vigor and enthusiasm. There was an atmosphere of hospitality and serenity about her, rare nowadays in this over-strained, nerve-racking world. A combination of beautiful surroundings—exquisite flowers, rare and luscious fruits, which a dear old Scotch gardener, by his faithfulness and devotion of many years, helped to create—made a unique setting for this beautiful and strong personality. No wonder that Mr. Cranch enjoyed a long talk, after a walk to Medford and a Sunday evening tea, at his friend’s hospitable board! Her sympathy was always at his need, and during their long lives the friendship never wavered and was a beautiful tribute to the character of each.

  The Reverend Frederick H. Hedge was pastor of the Unitarian Church in Bangor, Maine, about 1836-87, and had met Mr. Cranch as a young minister and Transcendentalist. Mrs. Stearns was a member of Dr. Hedge’s church. One day she read in the “Dial” the lines called “Enosis,” and signed “C. P. C.”

  Although better known than any of my father’s poems, I quote the whole poem here, because not included in his later volume of poems:—

Thought is deeper than all speech,
Feeling deeper than all thought;
Souls to souls can never teach
What unto themselves was taught.

We are spirits clad in veils;
Man by man was never seen;
All our deep communing fails
To remove the shadowy screen.

Heart to heart was never known;
Mind with mind did never meet;
We are ccolumns left alone
Of a temple once complete.

Like the stars that gem the sky,
Far apart though seeming near,
In our light we scattered lie;
All is thus but starlight here.

What is social company
But a babbling summer stream?
What our wise philosophy
But the glancing of a dream?

Only when the sun of love
Melts the scattered stars of thought,
Only when we live above
What the dim-eyed world hath taught.

Only when our souls are fed
By the fount which gave them birth.
And by inspiration led,
Which they never drew from earth.

We, like parted drops of rain,
Swelling till they melt and run,
Shall be all absorbed again,
Melting, flowing into one.

  Miss Preston thought the lines very beautiful and asked Dr. Hedge who “C. P. C.” was. Dr. Hedge replied that he was a young minister, an admirer of Emerson, who contributed to the “Dial,” and other papers, and that he was coming soon to exchange pulpits with him, and she would have a chance to make his acquaintance. The visiting minister was entertained at Mr. Preston’s, and it was thus in her father’s house that Miss Mary Preston first met Mr. Cranch.

  I asked what kind of sermons Mr. Cranch preached. Mrs. Stearns said, “spiritual sermons,” that were much liked by the liberal members of the congregation.

1 Dr. William Greenleaf Eliot, of SL Louis, Missouri.

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