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Christian Biblical Studies
John Greenleaf Whittier
Brother man, fold to thy heart thy
SUCH SENTIMENTS AS THESE epitomize the life and example of this well-loved American poet, hymn writer, and political campaigner for the anti-slavery cause.
Born to a farming family at East Haverhill, Massachusetts, and raised in the Quaker faith, Whittier had only a basic education, but was an avid reader. Though not a robust lad, he was expected to take his share in the daily labours of a not-very-profitable farm. His familiarity with the sights and sounds of nature and his deep love for God’s creation is revealed in the affectionate warmth of his ballads, poetry, and works of prose.
It was after being introduced at 14 years of age to the works of the Scottish poet Robert Burns that young John discovered in himself a "way with words." In later life he recalled his youthful leanings toward a literary career, and told how, in spite of the genuine misgivings of his father, he worked his way through two years’ schooling at Haverhill Academy, supporting himself as a shoemaker and schoolteacher. In 1826 his first poem, The Exile’s Departure, appeared in the Newburyport Free Press, edited by the abolitionist W.L. Garrison, who became a lifelong friend. From that time, Whittier contributed many poems, sketches, and articles to various newspapers, and edited some important journals supporting the anti-slavery movement.
Regarded by many as the gentle poet whose profound reflections on country life and whose vivid word-pictures of a now bygone age still have great appeal to the English-speaking world, the fiery politician within him is often forgotten.
Whittier declared himself an abolitionist in his 1833 pamphlet, Justice and Expediency, and attended the unpopular anti-slavery convention. In 1834 he served a term as a Whig in the Massachusetts Legislature, was mobbed and stoned the following year in Concord, New Hampshire, and was on other occasions threatened with personal violence. During his tenure as editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, a journal of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the paper’s offices were burned to the ground during a mob attack, but Whittier continued there until his health failed and he returned to Massachusetts to live with his mother and sister, who settled at Amesbury since the death of John’s father.
Whittier’s shrewd mind and resolute character might have carried him far as a politician, but his abolitionist stand ran counter to any such ambitions. The stern, stoical upbringing typical of the Quaker way of life endowed him with an unswerving constancy to good principles, and he became a lifelong defender of the oppressed. While deeply interested in questions that concerned the welfare and honour of the nation, Whittier generally declined invitations to public office, having no ambition for worldly acclaim.
Poor health afflicted him all his life. In an autobiographical letter to a friend he said he had inherited a nervous, sensitive temperament from both parents, and had suffered head pains from earliest childhood, which later limited his reading and writing to half an hour at a time. Yet he never neglected an opportunity to publish some fervent lyric to point out a wrong and rally support for redress.
Whittier’s words were simple. He says his ballad poems were "written with no expectation that they would survive the occasions which called them forth; they were protests, alarm signals, trumpet-calls to action, words wrung from the writer’s heart, forged at white heat, and of course lacking the finish which reflection and patient brooding over them might have given."
The simple beauty of the words reveals the true genius of the man. They express for the worshipper the heart sentiments he could not himself frame, bestowing a sense of communion with the Creator, elusive to the less articulate.
Whittier said: "I have been a member of the Society of Friends by birthright and by a settled conviction of the truth of its principles and the importance of its testimonies, while, at the same time, I have a kind feeling towards all who are seeking, in different ways from mine, to serve God and benefit their fellow-men."
While hymns were not a feature of Quaker worship, John Greenleaf Whittier served God and blessed generations of Christians by his words, as by his deeds.