Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
XIII. Chardon Street Convention
IN1 the month of November, 1840, a Convention of Friends of Universal Reform assembled in the Chardon Street Chapel in Boston, in obedience to a call in the newspapers, signed by a few individuals, inviting all persons to a public discussion of the institutions of the Sabbath, the Church and the Ministry. The Convention organized itself by the choice of Edmund Quincy as Moderator, spent three days in the consideration of the Sabbath, and adjourned to a day in March of the following year, for the discussion of the second topic. In March, accordingly, a three-days session was holden in the same place, on the subject of the Church, and a third meeting fixed for the following November, which was accordingly holden; and the Convention debated, for three days again, the remaining subject of the Priesthood. This Convention never printed any report of its deliberations, nor pretended to arrive at any result by the expression of its sense in formal resolutions;the professed objects of those persons who felt the greatest interest in its meetings being simply the elucidation of truth through free discussion. The daily newspapers reported, at the time, brief sketches of the course of proceedings, and the remarks of the principal speakers. These meetings attracted a great deal of public attention, and were spoken of in different circles in every note of hope, of sympathy, of joy, of alarm, of abhorrence and of merriment. The composition of the assembly was rich and various. The singularity and latitude of the summons drew together, from all parts of New England and also from the Middle States, men of every shade of opinion from the straitest orthodoxy to the wildest heresy, and many persons whose church was a church of one member only. A great variety of dialect and of costume was noticed; a great deal of confusion, eccentricity and freak appeared, as well as of zeal and enthusiasm. If the assembly was disorderly, it was picturesque. Madmen, madwomen, men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Come-outers, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh-day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians and Philosophers,all came successively to the top, and seized their moment, if not their hour, wherein to chide, or pray, or preach, or protest. The faces were a study. The most daring innovators and the champions-until-death of the old cause sat side by side. The still-living merit of the oldest New England families, glowing yet after several generations, encountered the founders of families, fresh merit, emerging, and expanding the brows to a new breadth, and lighting a clownish face with sacred fire. The assembly was characterized by the predominance of a certain plain, sylvan strength and earnestness, whilst many of the most intellectual and cultivated persons attended its councils. Dr. Channing, Edward Taylor, Bronson Alcott, Mr. Garrison, Mr. May, Theodore Parker, H. C. Wright, Dr. Osgood, William Adams, Edward Palmer, Jones Very, Maria W. Chapman and many other persons of a mystical or sectarian or philanthropic renown, were present, and some of them participant. And there was no want of female speakers; Mrs. Little and Mrs. Lucy Sessions took a pleasing and memorable part in the debate, and that flea of Conventions, Mrs. Abigail Folsom, was but too ready with her interminable scroll. If there was not parliamentary order, there was life, and the assurance of that constitutional love for religion and religious liberty which, in all periods, characterizes the inhabitants of this part of America.
There was a great deal of wearisome speaking in each of those three-days sessions, but relieved by signal passages of pure eloquence, by much vigor of thought, and especially by the exhibition of character, and by the victories of character. These men and women were in search of something better and more satisfying than a vote or a definition, and they found what they sought, or the pledge of it, in the attitude taken by individuals of their number of resistance to the insane routine of parliamentary usage; in the lofty reliance on principles, and the prophetic dignity and transfiguration which accompanies, even amidst opposition and ridicule, a man whose mind is made up to obey the great inward Commander, and who does not anticipate his own action, but awaits confidently the new emergency for the new counsel.2 By no means the least value of this Convention, in our eye, was the scope it gave to the genius of Mr. Alcott, and not its least instructive lesson was the gradual but sure ascendency of his spirit, in spite of the incredulity and derision with which he is at first received, and in spite, we might add, of his own failures.3 Moreover, although no decision was had, and no action taken on all the great points mooted in the discussion, yet the Convention brought together many remarkable persons, face to face, and gave occasion to memorable interviews and conversations, in the hall, in the lobbies or around the doors.4
Note 1. The story of these remarkable meetings, under the name of the Chardon Street and Bible Conventions, was written by Mr. Emerson for the Dial for July, 1842. The Chardon Street Convention, before breaking up, had appointed a Committee to summon a new Convention to be styled the Bible Convention, for the discussion of the credibility and authority of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. By invitation of this Committee, the new Association met at the Masonic Temple in Boston, March 29, 1842. Of this thinly attended convention Mr. Emerson wrote: Possibly from the greater unpopularity of its object, out of doors, some faintness or coldness surprised the members. At all events, it was hurried to a conclusion on the first day, to the great disappointment of many. Mr. Brownson, Mr. Alcott, Mr. West, and, among others, a Mormon preacher took part in the conversation. But according to the general testimony of those present, as far as we can collect it, the best speech made on that occasion was that of Mr. Nathaniel H. Whiting, of South Marshfield. Mr. Emerson says of him: A plain, unlettered man, leaving for the day a mechanical employment to address his fellows, he possesses eminent gifts for success in an assembly so constituted. He obtained from Mr. Whiting the substance of his address, occupying eight pages of the magazine, to which his own Dial paper, here given, was the introduction. [back]
Note 2. In the Lecture on the Times, given the year after this convention, the following is the concluding passage: Reality is all we prize, and we are bound on our entrance into nature to speak for that. Let it not be recorded in our own memories that in this moment of the Eternity, when we who were named by our names flitted across the light, we were afraid of any fact, or disgraced the fair Day by a pusillanimous preference of our bread to our freedom. What is the scholar, what is the man for, but for hospitality to every new thought of his time? Have you leisure, power, property, friends? You shall be the asylum and patron of every new thought, every unproven opinion, every untried project which proceeds out of good will and honest seeking. All the newspapers, all the tongues of to-day will of course at first defame what is noble; but you who hold not of to-day, not of the times, but of the Everlasting, are to stand for it: and the highest compliment man ever receives from heaven is the sending to him its disguised and discredited angels.Nature, Addresses and Lectures. [back]
Note 3. This very convention was probably in Mr. Emersons mind when he wrote in the first chapter of Representative Men these words: I go to a convention of philanthropists. Do what I can, I cannot keep my eyes off the clock. But if there should appear in the company some gentle soul who knows little of persons or parties, of Carolina or Cuba, but who announces a law that disposes these particulars, and so certifies me of the equity which checkmates every false player, bankrupts every self-seeker, and apprises me of my independence on any conditions of country, or time, or human body,that man liberates me; I forget the clock. I pass out of the sore relation to persons. I am healed of my hurts. I am made immortal by apprehending my possession of incorruptible goods. [back]
Note 4. Journal, 1841. We concede, O Miss P. [Peabody?], there is a difference between the spirit in which these poor men struggling to emancipate themselves from the yoke of a traditional worship, and crying out in their sorrow and hope, speak at the Chardon Street Convention, and the spirit in which he who is long already free from these fears turns back and knowingly shoots sarcasms at the old and venerated names. [back]