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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,311


This is the grave of James Freeman Clarke.

Born in 1810 in Hanover, New Hampshire, Clarke came out of the elite religious families of Puritan New England, with ancestors that went back forever and many relatives being leading religious figures in the Early Republic. In fact, his grandfather was the minister at King’s Chapel in Boston and this is where the boy largely grew up. He went to Boston Latin and then Harvard (of course), graduating in 1829. He then went to Harvard Divinity and finished that degree in 1833.

By this time, much of that old religious elite had become Unitarians and that included Clarke. He became a Unitarian minister and went to Louisville to lead a church. That was pretty far away from Brahmin Boston for a young man and it also meant he actually saw slavery. He did not like what he saw. In fact, he hated Louisville generally. Even Unitarians in white Kentucky were quite conservative on social issues of the day. It wasn’t a good fit. He longed to get back to Boston.

Clarke managed to escape Kentucky in 1839. He started a new church that combined Transcendentalist ideas with social movements to create an early form of a social justice Christianity. This was within the Unitarian church still, but a rather radical Unitarianism. He also taught at Harvard beginning in the 1840s, both in natural religion and Christian doctrine. His church ended in the early 1850s as he recovered from the death of a son and then typhoid and was forced to rest for a long period of time. But the ideas hung around. In fact, although more conservative Unitarians criticized him, Clarke became chaplain of the Massachusetts state senate in 1844, so he obviously had a lot of powerful supporters.

Remembering back to his days in Kentucky, Clarke really targeted his ideas to change the rougher areas of the nation farther west. He came to believe while out there that all his book learning was irrelevant to the problems of everyday Americans. He created a journal called Western Messenger, specifically for left-leaning Christians in places like Kentucky. He wanted to convert them to his Boston style of radical Unitarianism. What this actually meant was lots of articles on things such as slavery, women’s rights, temperance, and the other reform ideas of the day. In fact, it also contained the earliest published poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Margaret Fuller also was a frequent writer for it. So this was a serious literary magazine. Not surprisingly, Clarke was a committed Transcendentalist and close to Emerson personally as well as spiritually. They were also distant cousins. This was a pretty insular world, it is worth remembering.

Clarke was also interested in the new intentional communities of the antebellum era that so fascinated these reformer types. Everything seemed up for rethinking during these years and there were no ideas–including family, work, religion, and anything else–that perhaps could not be reworked into something more utopian. Clarke actually bought the site of the failed communal movement of Brook Farm to start a new commune but he never got around to doing anything with and eventually gave the land to the government so that soldiers could train on it during the Civil War.

Clarke was a strong abolitionist. In fact, it was he that suggested Julia Ward Howe work up the song “John Brown’s Body” into what became “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This did take awhile though. Most of the Unitarians in Louisville were slaveholders but also prided themselves on treating their slaves well, whatever that meant to them. What that meant for Clarke is that at first, he was under their spell and didn’t see that the problem was slavery, but rather bad and immoral slaveholders. It took him until the 1850s to really get this out of his system and realize that slavery itself must be abolished.

Clarke was for women’s rights as well, including both women’s suffrage and women’s education. He did a lot to promote the latter. He was more circumspect about the former; women’s suffrage was quite controversial during his lifetime after all. But in letters, historians have clearly discovered his support for the principle of it.

After the Civil War, Clarke turned to serious publishing, putting out several books, mostly around the idea of rational Christianity. In short, the idea that all the new discoveries and reworkings of the world should inspire atheism was something he thought needed fighting. So he published Steps of Belief: Or, Rational Christianity Maintained Against Atheism, Free Religion, and Romanism in 1870. Oh yeah, you’d better believe an elite Bostonian liberal hated Catholicism. Don’t get the wrong impression–these were the people most outraged by the Irish entering Massachusetts in such huge numbers, even as they relied on these immigrants for their labor. Interestingly though, he did build on Catholic holy days as important ideas when articulating his own ideal religious beliefs. He also published books of his lectures on eastern religions, making him the rare American interested in these religions in the mid and late 19th century.

By the end of his life, Clarke had become a Democrat was a major supporter of Grover Cleveland. Some of this had to do with civil service reform, which Clarke began to write about significantly and he was something of an informal policy advisor on the issue. How Clarke managed to combine Cleveland’s disdain for Black rights with this, I am not sure. But a lot of these old abolitionists managed to convince themselves that once slavery was over, the nation really didn’t need to do anything for Black people, so it’s not that shocking he would end up in Cleveland’s camp.

Clarke died in 1888. He was 78 years old.

James Freeman Clarke is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other antebellum reformers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Joseph Smith is in Nauvoo, Illinois (say what you will about Mormonism, but this is where it comes from) and Catharine Sedgwick, known for the prison reform movement, is in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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