The GOSPEL TRUTH
THEODORE WELD: CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM
BENJAMIN P. THOMAS
A MAN OF RECKLESS RIGHTEOUSNESS
It was almost midnight as the stage-coach lurched and slithered along the miry road eight miles east of Columbus. The driving rain had stopped; and the gusty southwest wind, which had brought Ohio a mid-February thaw, was working back to the north. Already the air had a tangy bite, and the four-horse team snorted steam as the driver pulled up short at the ford of Alum Creek. Ordinarily a shallow, peaceful stream, the creek was now a torrent from the long-continued rain and melting snow. As the driver and his helper swung down stiffly from their seat, they were joined by the two passengers, one a tall, spare white man, the other a brawny Negro.
The four men examined the slope and footing of the bank, then tried to pierce the darkness above the sucking eddies, seeking where the wagon ruts emerged on the opposite bank. The driver decided to risk a crossing, and the passengers, yielding to his judgment with some misgivings, clambered back into the coach. The driver and his helper climbed up to their seat, and with shouts, curses and slashing whip urged the nervous horses forward. The reluctant animals pulled, then braced, as they skidded down the treacherous slope with the coach plunging down behind them. The full force of the current struck them; but they were powerful and accustomed to deep fording; lunging and driving through the swirling water, they pulled out safely on the farther bank. The stage regained the rutted road and rocked on, until, some three miles farther on, the meandering torrent blocked the road again.
Once more the driver flogged the horses in. But the water was deeper here. Almost at once the animals were swimming and the stagecoach was afloat. The power of the current swept horses and coach downstream, and as the two lead horses wrenched around suddenly in an effort to regain the shallow water of the ford the coach tipped dangerously, then went completely over on its side, tossing drivers and passengers into the flood. The water was bitterly cold.
Instinctively, the white passenger drew a deep breath as he felt himself hurled from the coach. But as he broke the surface of the water coming up, he was horrified to find himself directly in the path of the snorting horses, and so close that their breath was in his face. To prevent their swimming over him, he grasped the bit of the nearest horse, but a sharp blow from its hoofs made him let go and sink again. Once more he came up, this time between the lead horses and the wheel horses, and again he was knocked under by a paralyzing kick. Rising again, he was still entangled with the beasts, which were thrashing, plunging and screaming in frenzied fright. At last, somehow, he was free of them, and thinking only of keeping clear of the dangerous hoofs, he struck out downstream with all his might.
But now new danger threatened. Already he was benumbed with cold; his water-logged boots and sodden clothes and overcoat made swimming difficult. As the racing water carried him along, he saw no place where he could land along the steep, dark banks. Working his way toward shore, he grasped desperately at a projecting root, only to feel his hand slip slowly off its slimy surface. Once more he was whirled out into the channel, bruised by submerged rocks, conscious of the increasing intensity of the cold and the weight of his soaked garments.
Fighting with waning strength to keep afloat, he worked out of his overcoat and boots; and then ahead he spied a fallen tree, its branches lying in the water. With his last remaining strength he fought to reach it, trying to push across stream before the current carried him by. He clutched the tree, hung on, finally worked his way to shore along its branches, and then lay there exhausted, his body half in, half out of the water, on a little shelf of land below the steep bank. Between his sucking gasps for breath he called for help, realizing as he sank into unconsciousness that his cries could never penetrate the forest walls that hemmed him in.
Later, in recounting his adventure, he gave thanks to God for the strength that enabled him to reach the bank; and he saw God's mercy in his deliverance at the hands of three men, who, living in a log cabin on the opposite shore some eighty rods from where he was, had heard his cries and searched until they found him. Theirs was the only habitation along that stream for miles.
It was characteristic of Theodore Dwight Weld to draw increased devotion to God from such an experience. Already he thought of himself as God's instrument; and now, in thanks for his miraculous deliverance, he would devote himself with even greater consecration to God's purposes. This event, in fact, was to provide a major propulsion of his career. It left him with a sense of indestructibility, a belief in an omnipotent Providence constantly watching over his personal welfare, and a feeling of indebtedness to God that was beyond his power ever fully to repay.
Twenty-eight years old at the time of this mishap, Weld had been born in Hampton, Connecticut, on November 23, 1803. His father, Ludovicus Weld, a graduate of Harvard, was pastor of the Congregational Church at Hampton for thirty years. His mother's maiden name was Elizabeth Clark. Both of his grandfathers were also ministers, and among his forebears were Dwights, Edwardses, and Hutchinsons. He had three elder brothers, Lewis, Charles, and Ezra, and a younger sister, Cornelia.
As a boy, young Weld was daring to the point of recklessness. He delighted to run, jump, wrestle, leap fences and chasms, dive into deep water from high rocks or overhanging trees. He seemed to hold a strange communion with the elements; the rolling thunder that frightened other children touched his soul like music. In his later years he recalled how, before he was six years old, his mother had tingled his legs with switches many times because, whenever a thunderstorm came up, he would rush out into it and run whooping and hallooing through the fields like a wild Indian. Before he was ten, he had accumulated an uncommon list of injuries--a broken hand, a broken foot, at least four dislocated bones, the cords of a finger severed, and an eye almost hooked out of its socket.
This recklessness stayed with him as he matured. In his middle age he confessed, "I must cut capers"; and every day the chance afforded he would seek a secluded spot where he might "jump and hop and scream like a loon and run on all fours and wrestle and throw stones and play 'tag' and 'hide and seek' and 'blind man's buff' and all those childish rompings."
Too occupied with higher thoughts to care about his personal appearance, Weld was a slovenly man of slouching gait with unblacked boots and unbrushed coat. His hair was as unkempt as a hermit's, and he allowed his beard to grow until his friends begged him to shave for decency's sake, or until the discomfort of its chafing against his collar brought him to his razor in self-defense.
"Every morning, I put my head into cold water half a dozen times," he wrote when confessing his personal idiosyncrasies, "then frictionize it with a stiff hair brush after wiping it dry and then let it straggle in all directions like the quills of a porcupine."
Added to these peculiarities was a strange defect of memory. Weld could not remember people; he had difficulty keeping account of the days of the week or even the months. "Many a time when sitting in my room I have got up and gone to the window to determine by the face of nature what season of the year it was," he admitted. He searched his room for his pen, when he had it gripped in his teeth, or for his knife, when it was in his hand. He forgot to wind his watch; and, paring an apple, he might throw it away, then several minutes later be surprised to find the parings clutched in his hand. "I very often swing like a pendulum in a dreamy totally abstracted revery," he said, "don't hear questions that are asked me, and sometimes I am told that I go on making a sort of inarticulate um, um, um, um, as a sort of unconscious mechanical assent to someone talking to me, and keep this up for five minutes perhaps without knowing or even hearing a single word he has said."
Weld's face reflected the reformer's conscience. Meeting him for the first time, strangers were invariably impressed with his stern expression. To one he suggested a pirate; another was reminded of the Inquisitor-General. Weld himself recalled how a child of four once came into a room where he was, and, after one glance at him, ran screaming to her mother. His hair and eyes and skin were dark. His nose was thin, high-bridged and twisted slightly to the right. The ridge above his right eve socket was disfigured with a peculiar dent. Heavy lines ran upward from his mouth. The skin hung loose and wrinkled on his neck. An artist, to whom he went with a friend to have a miniature painted, remarked that he could easily depict the outline of Weld's face, but the expression would be difficult to reproduce. "Its SEVERITY," he said, "is like a streak of lightning." Once as Weld sat on a platform waiting to speak, a woman in the audience whispered to her neighbor: "Mercy, I hope that young man never gets married. I should pity his wife. He'll break her heart."
But it was only in repose that his face repelled. Let it assume expression, and at once the beauty of the soul within shone through. To know him was to feel the warmth of his benignity, to sense his charm, to yield to his persuasiveness. His voice was rich, full, mellow; his presence breathed an almost godlike power. When Weld visited John Greenleaf Whittier, it seemed to the poet's shy maiden sister, Elizabeth, "as if an archangel had visited our home," and to her diary she confided: "His smile has been haunting me . . . ever since he left us."
Scion of Puritan forebears, Weld grew up under the rigorous Puritan discipline which relied on Biblical precepts and a stern, dogmatic theology to thwart the ever-present beguilements of sin. From his boyhood he was infused with an unwavering sense of right and wrong, and with that inquisitive and intrusive morality which insists that one must not be satisfied to purge oneself of sin, but must also try to ransom others from Satan's clutches. There was the customary reverence for the Bible and the Sabbath, the resolute sense of duty, the mistrust of worldly pleasures and diversions, all intensified in Weld's case by reason of his father's calling and the family's ecclesiastical traditions. But there was also warm parental affection, and the questing intellectuality that characterized the home of the New England clerical scholar.
It was the sort of upbringing that makes for quick maturity, and enables apt youths to assume adult responsibilities. At the age of fourteen, Theodore took full charge of a hundred-acre farm, thereby earning enough money to enter Phillips Academy, now Phillips Andover, in his sixteenth year.
He had a resistless urge to get ahead, and in his second year of residence, aspiring to do two years' work in one, he would toil all day and late into the night, then sprint up Andover Hill and down again to put his blood in circulation before retiring. Even his tough young body was unequal to such a regimen, and suddenly his eyesight failed. He was told he might regain it in seven years if he rested regularly in a dark room, and later his physician advised him to travel. But he had no money of his own, and his father was rearing a family on a salary of three hundred dollars a year. Baffled and discouraged, he pondered what he should do until he remembered a course of lectures on the science of mnemonics, or art of improving the memory, which he had attended at Phillips. All the more impressed by reason of his own strange mental lapses, he had pursued the "science" further on his own, until now he believed he was sufficiently well versed to teach it.
His father doubted that a boy of seventeen could command an audience, but Weld mastered the nomenclature of mnemonics, prepared a lecture, and, borrowing the family horse and chaise, set out to try the experiment at Colchester, some fifteen miles from home. His face was preternaturally hairy for a youth's and he left off shaving until his bearded visage looked mature beyond his years. At his father's suggestion he wrote out his talk. But it would seem strange for one supposedly adept in memory training to read his message, so at the last minute he left his manuscript at home and spoke without even a note. His success was greater than he hoped, for after paying all expenses he returned with twenty dollars in his pocket.
Soon he was off to try his luck at Hartford, where Dr. Thomas Gallaudet, principal of the American Asylum and later to be famous for his work in behalf of the deaf, was so impressed that he gave Weld letters of recommendation to leading New England clergymen, among them Lyman Beecher, then pastor at Litchfield, Connecticut. Scanning Gallaudet's testimonial, Beecher told young Weld, "Go ahead. I'll risk you," and was astonished at the young man's platform presence and power with words. Weld's father now consented to allow Theodore to set out on his own, and he lectured at Miss Emma Willard's Female Seminary at Troy, New York, and at Albany, Monticello, Niagara, Utica, and Poughkeepsie. From New York his route led through Ohio, then back across Pennsylvania and Maryland to Washington, D.C., where he visited the Capitol, gazed in youthful awe at Henry Clay, and listened to a thundering speech by Daniel Webster. Turning south, he ranged through Virginia and North Carolina.
Weld's practice was to post an advance announcement of his lectures signed by respected local citizens who had been persuaded to vouch for him by the testimonials he sent ahead. His terms were twelve shillings for a course of four lectures, and subscribers were requested to affix their names to his announcement. If as many as forty subscribed, Weld gave a fifth lecture free. No payment was required until the course was finished. Sometimes he found it necessary to give the first lecture without charge in order to draw a crowd.
Weld was gone from home three years. And if he brought back little money, he had at least proved himself to be a speaker of uncommon natural talent, adroit with words and phrases, and convincing despite his own traits of forgetfulness that must so often have been in startling contrast with what he taught.
On this tour he had his first contact with slavery. He had always had a kindly feeling for the Negro, ever since the time when, as a seven-year-old boy, he had begged permission to sit in school beside a little colored lad who was mistreated by the teacher and shunned and ridiculed by the other students. A boy must possess unusual moral courage to stand against the crowd and allow his latent sympathies to assert themselves in opposition to juvenile intolerance. But moral courage was Weld's by cultural inheritance, and the human sympathy that he displayed so early was enlivened by a firsthand view of slavery. During his sojourn in the South he was convinced of the wrongfulness of holding fellow human creatures in bondage.
His eyes were much improved by the time he arrived back home, and in 1825, when his family moved to Fabius, New York, he entered Hamilton College, located at Clinton, about forty miles away. Having demonstrated his speaking talents, he now tried his hand with the pen. Attending the commencement exercises at Hamilton, he wrote an account for a newspaper, signing his effort with a Latin pseudonym, "Sylvaticus," in keeping with a custom of the time. He hated "puffing," he declared. Every new book, every speech, every anniversary celebration was launched with a puff. "Puffing is the rage of the time." His account would not be dulcified by flummery, he warned. One speech was plain and chaste, he said, but pitched in a harsh key. Another speaker displayed energy but chose a hackneyed subject. A third man showed insufferable conceit. The gestures of a fourth orator were almost spasms. A colloquy on steam was so forced that it burst the boiler.
Welds comments manifest no little adolescent cynicism and conceit. No doubt the stripling master of the art of mnemonics could have outdone them all.
Weld had been at Hamilton only a few weeks when his life's course was altered by a turn of fate that brought him under the spell of Charles Grandison Finney, the moving spirit in a great revival that was sweeping upstate New York. Trained to be a lawyer, Finney had been converted by George Washington Gale, a Presbyterian minister, who founded Oneida Institute and Knox College. Joining the church and attaining ordination as a preacher, Finney soon earned fame as an itinerant evangelist. He was a tall, grave man, dressed in a natty unclerical gray suit, with a mop of light hair hanging over his forehead and great staring eyes through which his very soul seemed to peer forth. His mien was dignified, his voice loud yet melodious, and to the usual histrionic talents of the frontier preacher he added the lawyer's logic. Finney's sermons never lasted less than an hour, and he could hold his audience spellbound for two or three times that long when the spirit was upon him. Depicting the glory or the terrors of the world to come, he strummed his auditors' emotions with a voice that ranged from pathos to denunciation. As he faced the side gallery and suddenly wheeled around with outflung arm, the audience on the side toward which he whirled would duck involuntarily; and as he pointed his long forefinger at the ceiling and slowly brought it down, tracing the descent of a sinner to perdition, his hearers in the rear of the building would rise unconsciously to their feet, the better to see the lost soul descend into the imaginary hell in front of the pulpit.
"Ye generation of vipers, how can we escape the damnation of hell?" would be his challenge; and as he warmed to his work he would address himself to individual members of his congregation, calling upon the Lord to "smite that wicked man, that hardened sinner," to send "trouble, anguish and affliction into his bed chamber this night," or to "shake him over hell." Only the most callous reprobate could resist this personal assault, and as Finney laid about him, the "anxious seat" in front of the pulpit would gradually fill with sinners who were ready to give up. The more conservative clergy of the East deplored Finney's radical methods, charging that a minister had no right to shake his fist in people's faces and shout "You lie! You are going to hell!" Finney denied that he ever used such threats, and claimed he was blamed for the practices of preachers who tried to ape him. But he did put awful emphasis on "hell," "damnation," and "devil," and even years later, when he had given up evangelism and accepted a regular pastorate, he rebuked his congregation one hot Sabbath afternoon by calling out in chiding tones: "Now brethren, how can I preach the gospel to you, how can the Holy Spirit work in your hearts when you come here at half past 2 o'clock and nod over your pudding and milk?"
In his agonizing earnestness of prayer, Finney often spoke to God with a familiarity that seemed to conservative clergymen to border on irreverence. The Reverend Asahel Nettleton was moved to lament: "Seven years ago about two thousand souls were hopefully born into the Kingdom, in this vicinity, with comparative stillness. But the times have altered. The Kingdom of God now cometh with great observation." It was surely true that Finney did not capture souls with guile and snares; he rode them down with irresistible charges.
Finney's meetings usually lasted three or four days, but sometimes he protracted them for weeks. New converts were enlisted in his "Holy Band," and sent forth into the audience to assist him by personal intercession. Although a cynic once said that Finney's converts were more anxious to escape hell than to serve God, yet the essence of his message was that true holiness demands unselfish benevolence and that salvation comes not merely by faith and divine grace but also through good works. In every community where Finney labored he left behind groups of young men, "overflowing with benevolence for unsaved mankind," obsessed with a duty to reform the world. Beginning his revivals in Oneida County, not far from Weld's new home, Finney soon set the region ablaze. The lowest grogshop in Evans' Mills became a place of regular prayer meetings. At Rome a prominent merchant, coming under Finney's spell, fell out of his seat as though shot. At "Sodom," a crossroads hamlet so called because it was deemed hopelessly degenerate, Finney felt "the Lord let me loose on them in a wonderful manner." At a schoolhouse in the neighborhood he tried to lead his congregation in a hymn; but the people were so unused to spiritual exercises that their discords almost drove the valiant Finney from the meetinghouse. He clasped both hands to his ears and stuck it out, and when the horrible dissonance had stopped, he knelt in prayer, interceding with such effect that people fell off the seats and howled and shrieked for mercy in the aisles. So terrific was the bedlam that Finney had to scream as he adjured them: "You are not in hell yet; and now let me direct you to Christ." The meeting lasted through the night, and in the morning several converts, still too weak to walk alone, were carried home to clear the room for school. "Wonderful outpourings of the Holy Spirit" were reported everywhere. Whole towns were converted. Courts adjourned for lack of business. Jails stood with open doors. Convictions were "very pungent and deep." The Albany Synod reported that "the theatre has been deserted, the tavern sanctified; blasphemy has been silenced, and infidelity confounded." Six years after Finney's visit it was still impossible to organize a dancing party at Gouverneur, and circuses shunned the territory. Ministers from nearby towns came to hear Finney and went home to spread the word. Some three thousand persons were rumored to have experienced conversion. It was as though a reign of terror had seized upon the ungodly.
At nearby Hamilton College, Weld deplored the unseemly excitement. "My father is a real minister of the Gospel," he declared, "grave and courteous, and an honor to his profession. This man is not a minister, and I will never acknowledge him as such." At every chance he warned his fellow students against the impostor Finney.
Pressing north through Antwerp, Gouverneur, DeKalb, and then south again to Westernville and Rome, Finney came at last to Utica, where it chanced that Weld was visiting his aunt. A devout admirer of Finney, she lived next door to the Reverend Samuel Clark Aiken, with whom Finney was staying and at whose church he was holding forth. Distressed at Theodore's recreancy, "Aunt Clark" urged him at least to go and hear Finney, but he spurned her every appeal. Finally she explained that Finney always preached in the afternoon and evening, while Aiken conducted the morning services, and if Theodore would have nothing to do with Finney, he might at least accompany her to Aiken's meeting. Little suspecting duplicity on the part of one as saintly as his aunt, Theodore agreed to go, whereupon she immediately rushed next door to confide the fact of his coming to Aiken and Finney. Weld was a prize well worth the taking, for he was influential with the young men of the county, and his strictures upon Finney had induced a goodly number of them to resist conversion.
As Weld marched down the aisle of the church, his aunt opened the door of the pew and motioned for him to enter first. Then she and several other ladies followed, shutting him in. Aiken opened the meeting. But after the preliminaries, it was Finney who rose to preach. When he announced as his text "One sinner destroyeth much good," Theodore reached for his hat; but his aunt and the other ladies bowed in prayer with their heads on the pew in front of them, thus rendering escape impossible. "I gave up," Weld recalled, "and resigned myself to my fate; and then for an hour, he just held me up on his toasting fork before that audience."
Weld took it manfully; and he still had no suspicion of Aunt Clark, when she innocently commented on the way home: "Why, Mr. Finney never preached in the forenoon before, but always in the afternoon."
The next day, however, Weld poured out his indignation to a group of loungers at a store, and when aroused he was "mighty with words." Someone slipped away to tell Finney what was happening, and as Weld's denunciation reached ever more marvelous heights, Finney himself strode in. He tried to interrupt, but Weld shouted him down, abusing him with every epithet to which he could lay tongue. The store filled up with a crowd of shocked or marveling spectators which soon spread into the street, until at last, realizing what a spectacle he was making, Weld desisted and went home.
But Theodore was a kindly man at heart, and, admitting to himself the enormity of his censures, he was overcome with remorse. He resolved to ask Finney's pardon, and went next door to the Aikens' and knocked. The hired girl let him in, and he waited in the hallway for Finney to come downstairs. The light was dim, and Finney did not recognize him till he reached the bottom step. Then he stopped short and exclaimed: "Ah! Is it not enough.'-- Have you followed a minister of the Lord Jesus to his own door to abuse him?"
Weld started to speak. But by this time Finney had seen the expression on his face. Both men went to their knees; and Finney sobbed as he prayed. Thenceforth there was no more devoted disciple of Finney than Theodore Weld, who described the evangelist as "that modern Paul" and regarded him as towering above all other preachers "to an overshadowing height. For the remainder of the summer Weld worked with Finney as a member of his "Holy Band," accompanying him to Auburn, Troy, and numerous other places. Interceding with the waverers, Weld helped in many conversions. And to Finney's innovations he added another when he urged women to speak in meeting. This was unheard of in that day, except among the Quakers, and it profaned the Apostle Paul's injunction that women should be silent in mixed assemblages. Finney was blamed for flouting the apostolic admonition, and, all unaware of Weld's complicity, he pleaded that the unseemly boldness of the women was a spontaneous phenomenon, amazing even to him. Weld could scarcely suspect that the assertion of woman's right to speak in public meetings would one day be one source from which would flower an aggressive demand for female equality.
Weld worked with such unremitting vigor that his health became impaired. His brother Charles was unwell, too, so in the winter of 1827 Theodore left Finney, and the two young men shipped on a whaling vessel bound for Labrador. Weld worked before the mast for several months and came back sinewy and fit.
At Utica, Weld had become acquainted with Charles Smart, a retired British army officer. Born in Jamaica, Stuart had served in the East India Company's forces for thirteen years. He had risen to the rank of captain, when, according to one story, he was ordered to make a night attack on a group of unarmed Indian natives. He refused on the ground that such an assault would be sheer butchery, whereupon he was court-martialed; but the court decided he must have had a touch of sun, and sent him home. Another story has him earning the ill will of his colonel by rebuking him for breaking the Sabbath, and resigning when his offended superior dragooned him at every chance.
In 1819 Stuart went to Amherstburg, in Canada, and eventually moved to Utica to be principal of a boys' school. A bachelor, his paternal instincts found expression in good works. During vacations he preached temperance, traveling through the country at his own expense and also distributing Bibles and religious tracts. He was looked upon as "a true man of God"--Weld called him "a perfect being"--but he was also so eccentric that some people thought him crazy. Winter and summer he wore a Scotch plaid frock, with a cape reaching nearly to his elbows. He was as tender-hearted as a woman, and so strongly attracted to children that he often stopped to romp and play with them. Like Weld, he had come under Finney's influence and enlisted in his "Holy Band." Despite the disparity in their ages, Weld and Stuart were mutually attracted from the day they met. Stuart's fondness for the younger man might have struck a casual observer as an unnatural attraction, for, like many religious enthusiasts before and since, Stuart expressed his spiritual yearnings in terms of earthly affection. His advice to Weld was in the style of love letters, and their relationship was almost rapturous. But there was no perversion in it. With Stuart it was a passionate obsession with Weld's spiritual advancement. With Weld it was unbounded admiration for a man of Stuart's character. Stuart also fancied himself to be in love with Weld's sister Cornelia, but his feelings were not reciprocated, and he concluded later that they came merely of "a foolish and romantic attraction."
In the summer of 1829 Stuart returned to England to serve the British antislavery cause, and as the sinfulness of slavery impressed itself on his conscience he wrote to Weld, begging him to enlist in the "sacred cause" of Negro emancipation. Stuart was grateful that God did not treat the white race according to its deserts. He must have exercised great patience, Stuart thought, to restrain Himself from "breaking up the earth beneath our feet, and dashing us all into sudden hell," for what had been done to the Negro. Stuart sent Weld copies of British antislavery pamphlets, several of which he wrote himself, imploring his "prayerful perusal" of them. And as Weld followed his admonition, his mind and heart were won. His reforming bent took more positive antislavery direction.
At Stuart's instigation Weld left Hamilton and enrolled at Oneida Institute at Whitesboro, New York, his mind made up to be a preacher. Stuart sent him money for expenses from time to time, requiring in return only a quarterly report of Weld's spiritual progress.
Oneida was a "manual labor institution," where each student paid part of his expenses by working on the school farm. It had originated through the efforts of the Reverend George W. Gale, who, having impaired his own health through hard study, had regained it through farm work. He began to instruct students on his farm, keeping them fit by farm labor; and noting his achievements, the Oneida Presbytery took over his project with its 114 acre farm, and installed him as president of its school. By the time that Weld enrolled at the academy it had sixty students, the limit of its capacity, and so popular was the new idea of manual labor education that some six hundred applicants were being turned away.
Oneida was not the first school of its sort; the system of manual labor education had originated in Switzerland and was tried in other European countries before being introduced in the United States. Here its supposed benefits--improvement of student health and reduction of the cost of education--were especially needed in theological seminaries, and following Oneida's lead, many of these institutions adopted the idea. At Andover Theological Seminary the trustees built a workshop to accommodate seventy-five students. Maine Wesleyan Seminary had a farm of 140 acres as well as a shop. Theological schools at Auburn, New York; Wilmington, Delaware; Maryville, Tennessee; and Danville, Kentucky, fell in with the plan, as did also colleges such as Bowdoin, Waterville (now Colby) and Middlebury, and academies like the Woodbridge School at South Hadley, Massachusetts, and Phillips at Andover. In all these schools, however, manual labor was optional; at Oneida it was compulsory.
Tuition at Oneida was $5.50 per quarter, payable in cash, but for twenty-one hours' labor per week a student could earn his board. "My sons are at a school where all the students work on a farm three hours every day, & nearly support themselves by their labor," wrote an observing parent, the rich New York merchant Lewis Tappan, describing Oneida Institute to his brother. "They live very simply and happily. I attended the annual exercises & the students acquitted themselves well. These institutions are multiplying, & the time is not far distant I hope when physical and intellectual education will go on together & be considered inseparable. It has been the disgrace of this country that education has made most men ashamed of manual labor. I was delighted to see young men, who a few hours previously were reaping, mowing, milking etc come onto the platform before a large assembly & deliver their compositions in latin and English--orations, poems, colloquys etc with ease and dignity." With evident pride, Tappan told his brother how his older boy, William, had charge of fourteen pigs and must feed them at four o'clock every morning, carrying their swill in pails hung from a yoke on his shoulders.
All the Oneida students began their labors at 4 A. M.. It was no place for sluggards. The rising hour, meals, classes, and work periods' were announced by sounding a horn. The day opened with devotions, and some classes met at five o'clock, an hour before breakfast. The diet was frugal. "We have griddle cakes and molasses once a week," a student wrote, "rice and molasses once--hasty pudding once. These we have in the morning. Twice in the week we have codfish and potatoes for dinner. For the remainder we have bread and butter and bread and milk." A student was delegated to read aloud at mealtime while the others ate. Business was also transacted at table. Declamations and formal debates were held each week. Not a moment was lost from rising until bedtime.
As one of the older students--he was now twenty-five--Weld was monitor of the milking class and had charge of some thirty cows. Each morning he must be up in time to have the milk loaded on the wagons, ready to start for Utica, by daybreak. At first the institution had no barn, and Weld asked a neighboring farmer to allow the students to cut some timber from his woodlot. Cynical of the boys' capacity for work, the farmer agreed to give them all the timber they could cut, whereupon Weld organized his milking crew with saws and axes and descended upon the woodlot like a holocaust. Lashing their logs together to form a great raft, the students floated them downstream to the Institute, where they built not only a barn but also several sheds.
Even more basic to Oneida than the manual labor principle were piety and service to mankind. The school was surcharged with high moral purpose, and every Sunday the older students fanned out through the surrounding countryside, often walking several miles, to preach or teach Sunday School. Weld was not only ardent in this sort of work, in addition he was often away for weeks at a time delivering temperance lectures. As a matter of fact, he was so useful he had little time for his books. Oneida was in critical need of money, and President Gale, well aware of Weld's persuasive oratory, sent him forth on frequent money-raising tours "The Lord has given Brother Weld and this Institution great favor among the people at Rochester," wrote Gale to Finney when Weld returned from one of these campaigns" But Weld's mother and Charles Stuart both warned that he was occupied with "too much serving," and his father implored him to renounce extracurricular activities and complete his ministerial course.
Already, however, Weld was caught in the reform whirl. Causes of every sort decoyed him. A controversial moral issue of the times was the conveyance of mail on Sunday, and one day when Weld returned to Whitesboro from a two-weeks' temperance trip he learned that the local advocates of Sunday mail had called a meeting at the courthouse that night. Weld inquired if it was open to all, and finding that it was, he and a few students of kindred mind attended. Weld asked permission to speak. He was allowed the floor. But when he spoke for strict Sabbath observance, and it was ascertained that he was a ministerial student, a hostile clamor broke out. Someone shouted, "We did not come here to discuss priestcraft, but to put it down!" Another cried, "I motion that priests work on highways and do military duties"--a protest against the practice of exempting ministers from such unpopular tasks. "I motion they stop preaching," a third man shouted. "I motion someone knock him down," cried another.
Weld and his reform neophytes stirred up such hot resentment that they were chased back to the Institute and obliged to hide in a woodhouse.
Weld was a convincing temperance speaker. Fortitled with statistics of crime, poverty, and lunacy, sometimes he directed his appeal to drunkards, urging them to reform. On other occasions, abstainers would be his target as he encouraged them to be steadfast and to join temperance societies as a means of concentrating the force of public opinion behind the temperance movement. Again, he spoke to vendors, challenging them to answer if their product had ever made a community more peaceful or happy. Against this group a favorite technique of Weld's was to pose rhetorical objections to their renouncing the liquor business. Did the dealer argue that he must support his family? Weld reminded him of his paramount duty to God. Did he plead that he never sold to drunkards? Weld compared him to a man who owned a collection of poisonous snakes. This man was careful to keep his serpents from biting anyone already infected with their venom, but he flung them with indifference into a throng of persons who had never suffered their bite.
If anyone reasoned that liquor was not altogether harmful, Weld retorted that neither was an eruption of Mr. Aetna. Its lava replenished the soil. But at what an inordinate cost in life and property! Sometimes Weld supplicated the women, appealing to their pity for the victims of hard drink and beseeching them to bring their subtle influence to bear in the cause of reform. At Rochester, where he spoke in December, 1830, a group of eight or ten liquor dealers were persuaded to renounce the liquor business; and at the Oriskany Woolen Manufactory his lectures were productive of so much good that the manager and a number of the employees presented him with a broadcloth suit. Weld's suggested solution of the liquor problem contemplated no compulsion other than the force of public opinion and personal influence. It was merely for persons to abstain from the use of alcoholic beverages themselves and to convince others of the virtues of abstemiousness. And if it seemed overly simple, experience has demonstrated that these may well be the only sanctions that will work.
On March 22, 1831, the Western Recorder noted that Weld was at Utica, where his temperance speeches were drawing "throngs" to the First Presbyterian Church. A Baptist editor was so impressed by Weld's forensics that he wrote a summary of what he heard. He wished the whole population of the Union night have been there. Not that Weld presented any new facts. He used the same stale facts the public had heard for years. His genius lay in his technique--his skill with words and power of imagery.
"All have read again and again of the 30,000 drunkards which annually fall victims, in the United States, to intemperance," Weld's clerical admirer observed, "of the 200,000 paupers, the inmates of the alms-houses and poorhouses from this vice; of the 20,000 convicts, secured in the cells and dungeons of our prisons; and of the 1500 maniacs, chained in our asylums; but comparatively few have seen this army mustered, and marched in regular review. This was done by Mr. W. The mighty host, more than 200,000 strong, was picked from the gutters and sewers, the groceries and grog-shops, poor houses, prisons and asylums, and marshalled with their bloated and shocking visages, their staggering gait, their filthy and tattered habiliments, their lettered limbs, and their clanking chains. The first grand division was 150,000 paupers; next in order came the 20,000 convicts, handcuffed, from the dungeons and cells of our prisons; then 1500 raving maniacs brought up the rear; and besides the whole, on the field of review, were piled up 30,000 dead men, to complete the horrid assemblage.
"This made up one part of the picture. Another no less startling succeeded. The extended grave of 30,000 drunkards, annual victims, was then opened before us, and they arrayed on its verge; and immediately behind them, the whole army of the intemperate and temperate, rank after rank, was arranged in accurate gradation, on to the merest sippers. At the close of the year, those in front were tumbled into the grave before them; and the next rank behind were marched up to take their places; and each posterior rank compelled to make the like advance. The next year, another 30,000 were swept into the tomb, and the host was seen in regular advance; and so on, year after year, until the self-secure sippers were beheld occupying the rank in front, on the verge of the drunkard's grave."
It must have been a fearsome and macabre scene, and the man who could conjure up such grisly spectacles found his services in constant demand. Weld's reputation had already reached the point that he was urged to take a church at Troy, to help with a revival at Homer, and to accept a pastorate at New Orleans. But he felt himself deficient in theology, and he held the pastoral office in such high honor that he would accept no permanent appointment until sure that he was adequately prepared.
Charles Grandison Finney, Weld's patron during these early years, was proud of Weld's success; but at the same time he had some misgivings. Weld showed an inclination to conceit, and his personal habits left much to be desired. "If you don't take care I fear you will be spoiled by an idea of your own importance," Finney warned, at the same time admonishing Weld that cleanliness and attention to "the decencies of life" were virtues that ministerial students must not ignore. "You know I am not recommending the stiffness of Scholastic manners," Finney explained; "from such buckram refinement the Lord deliver ministers. Nor am I in favor of those pretty dandy airs which are sometimes affected by clowns who set up as gentlemen. But when a man appears in good company let him see that his boots & clothes are clean so as not to create disgust by his inattention to what they will insist upon as decorous. A word to the wise. Some of your friends have given a hint upon this subject. Your own example must teach upon this subject. I am more afraid that you will be spoiled with pride than I used to be." Conceit was the curse of the ministerial profession, Finney cautioned. "We & all our friends are, if we are not aware, going to be shorn of all our strength by this insidious Delila."
Reformers held it a duty to point out each other's faults, so Weld was not offended. Indeed, the result of Finney's admonition shows the measure of his influence on Weld. For if Weld still remained untidy in his dress, every day thereafter he took a bath, fearful that if he passed a single day, winter or summer, without washing himself from head to foot, he would lose his self-respect. And he recoiled with shuddering loathing from anything that savored of conceit.
Finney was now located temporarily in New York City, where he was preaching in a "free" Presbyterian church. This innovation, a church that, contrary to the then prevailing custom, charged no rent for pews, and where the poor were welcome to worship on an equality with the rich, had been instituted by the philanthropic brothers, Arthur and Lewis Tappan. When Finney advised Weld of his intention to go to New York, he confided that he would live in Arthur Tappan's house and would try to direct the brothers' benevolence toward Oneida Institute. Thus it came about that Lewis Tappan enrolled his two sons at Oneida, and that Lewis, visiting the school, was won to the idea of manual labor education.
Indeed, the new departure in education, of which Oneida was the prototype, showed such promise that in July, 1831, the Tappan brothers, ever eager to foster benevolent enterprise, organized a Society for Promoting Manual Labor in Literary Institutions. Lewis Tappan had met Weld on one of his visits to Oneida, and from their first acquaintance the brothers had regarded the young man as a potential leader of one or another of their manifold reforms. Manual labor education was second only to temperance in Weld's esteem, but the Tappans had something else in mind for him at first. Finney's "free church" had become so popular that they planned to establish others, and it seemed to them that Weld would be a superb pastor. So Lewis Tappan brought him to New York for a conference about this and another matter that had come to the fore of late.
In England there was tremendous agitation for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies; and the Tappans and other New York philanthropists, stirred by the British excitement, wondered if the time had come to assail American slavery. Weld was well posted on the English situation by reason of his regular correspondence with Charles Stuart, and the Tappans called upon him to explain the status of the British movement to a number of men of antislavery sympathies whom they had summoned to New York. Out of this meeting came a recommendation to organize an American National Antislavery Society. But the idea seemed some-what premature, and the conferees eventually decided to allow it to lie over pending the outcome in England.
Weld made a number of temperance speeches in New York and was well received. But he refused to accept a pastorate, insisting that he was not ready for the ministry Whereupon the Tappans, disappointed in their original intention, but resolved to bring him within their reform orbit in any event, offered him the job of heading up the manual labor education movement. This he could scarcely refuse. To bring education to the masses and develop strong minds in healthy bodies would be a boon to mankind, and the job was all the more alluring in that it would afford time for temperance lectures as a sideline. It meant renunciation of his studies for a season; but Weld, having savored the gusty relish of good works, could not resist such an opportunity to serve. At the age of twenty-eight he became general agent of the Society for Promoting Manual Labor in Literary Institutions.
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