Discipleship and Amnesia

After his friend, the Rev. Charles Follen died in the Janurary 1840 burning of the steamer Lexington, Dr. William Ellery Channing was asked to lead a public memorial service. The trustees of the Federal Street Church denied his request to hold the service there, since Follen was an outspoken abolitionist. Channing soon retired from active preaching. Fifty members of his congregation, including Elizabeth Peabody and Channing’s own brothers, began to discuss what spiritual and organizational reforms Boston churches themselves needed. The Rev. James Freeman Clarke, recently returned to Boston from a pioneering ministry in the West, at Louisville, KY, gave a series of lectures on the subject. The covenant of the Church of the Disciples was signed in the parlor of the Peabody home on West Street – where Elizabeth sold books, published The Dial, and hosted Margaret Fuller’s famed “conversations” for women. After Channing died in 1842, Theodore Parker may have succeeded him as Boston’s most prominent preacher, but Clarke as the pastor to leading reformers and literati. In the same West Street parlor he presided when Sophia Peabody married Nathaniel Hawthorne, and when Mary Peabody married Horace Mann. Clarke was the only Unitarian minister to continue to exchange pulpits with Parker after the latter gave his provocative sermon on “The Transient and the Permanent.” The organizing principles of the Church of the Disciples – the voluntary principle (democratic governance by all covenanted and contributing members); the liturgical principle (participatory worship, including preaching by lay men and women); and the social principle (weekday gatherings for fellowship, study, prayer, song, and service) – are today taken for granted, but were then novel. The Disciples survived Clarke’s serious illness and three year absence from Boston in the early 1850s. One of the leading Disciples, attorney John Albion Andrew, became the Civil War governor of Massachusetts. The congregation undertook to outfit the first black regiment he authorized, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. On a trip to Washington in the midst of the war, Clarke and his parishioner Julia Ward Howe heard soldiers singing John Brown’s Body. Clarke suggested that Julia write some better lyrics, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic resulted. After the Civil War, Clarke helped other ‘broad church’ Unitarians create the National Conference of Unitarian Churches. His own congregation grew to be the largest Unitarian church in Boston. He wrote 22 books, including Ten Great Religions, one of the first efforts to see religion globally and in evolutionary perspective. He was the first professor of comparative religion in the U.S. Clarke was the first intellectual partner of Margaret Fuller and an original member of the Transcendentalist circle. Yet today he is less known and appreciated than he was in his own time. Why?