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Whittier's Religion

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



EVERY Sabbath afternoon, in the little farmhouse, the mother of John Greenleaf Whittier read and expounded the Bible to him, so that the book became not only the foundation of good character, but also the basis of literary merit and fame. Through life, like Tennyson and many other distinguished poets, he fairly devoured the Scriptures. He claimed that he derived more inspiration as a poet from them than from all other books combined. Whittier was eminently a religious poet. In his words and works he was a living commentary on the Scriptures. He was not only a poet but a prophet, a finder of the mystery of God in nature, in humanity, in the Book, and a faithful revealer of that mystery to the children of men. He felt that his words were from the Divine promptings, that his acts were performed in obedience to the Divine command. Now he stands on Sinai to cry out against the sins of the people and voice God's anger against them, and now he stands at the Cross of his Saviour in tears singing of love and of life. The world loves to hear him sing, because his voice and lyre are tuned to the melodies of heaven. Longfellow beautifully refers to his spirituality in lines written on Whittier's seventieth birthday :

" O thou whose daily life anticipates
The life to come, and in whose thought and word
The spiritual world predominates,
Hermit of Amesbury! Thou too hast heard
Voices and melodies from beyond the gates,
And speakest only when thy soul is stirred!"

The people of New England at the time Whittier came upon the stage were brilliant in intellect, correct in morals and pure in spirituality. They had such literal faith in God, in prayer, in providence, in the Bible, in the Atonement, in Immortality, that life was a terribly solemn thing, and duty was the undisputed sovereign of thought and of act. They never thought of anything but making religion the chief end, the all of life. Whittier was the religious exponent of his time. He was a Quaker, but, as some one has said, the Quaker was only a Puritan dressed in drab. Excepting Milton, Whittier was the greatest poet of Puritanism that ever lived. He believed the cardinal doctrines of Christianity as taught by most of the churches of his time, and most of the churches of our time.

His faith in the Atonement is expressed in the " Crucifixion," which closes as follows :

" And shall the sinful heart alone
Behold unmoved the atoning hour
When Nature trembles on her throne
And death resigns his iron power?
O, shall the heart, whose sinfulness
Gave keenness to His sore distress
And added to His tears of blood
Refuse its trembling gratitude."

His trust in Divine Providence is voiced in a poem which contains this verse:

" And thou, O Lord, by whom are seen
Thy creatures as they be,
Forgive me if too close I lean
My human heart on Thee."

His intense love for Christ is breathed in " Our Master," which will live as long as " Snow Bound." We copy two stanzas, that contain a whole volume of essential truth:

Apart from Thee all gain is loss,
All labor vainly done ;
The solemn shadow of thy Cross
Is better than the sun.
Alone, O Love ineffable !
Thy saving name is given
To turn aside from Thee is Hell,
To walk with Thee is Heaven."

The warmth of brotherly love, which was a part of his love for God, can be felt in almost everything Whittier has written.

In the literary history of nations men of genius have often been so reckless in their morals that the world half looked for social weaknesses where the poetic instinct was discovered. Whittier, and the cluster of great men contemporary with him that made American poetry what it is, have shown that temperance, social purity and religious vigor are most becoming to the poet. That Whittier, a man who never touched wine in its mildest form ; who had the courage to propose the health of the shoemakers in a glass of cold water ; who was so religious that he performed every act with reference to the Last Day; who was so consecrated that Christ's image was in his character and Christ's spirit was in his life; who closed almost every poem with an exhortation to be good, to love God and man—that such a man should be one of the best-loved poets the country has ever produced, is an evidence of the encouraging condition of the public conscience.



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