Jacksonian Miscellanies, #3: Jan. 28, 1997

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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This issue might be called "In the beginning was the Word", or "Words are deeds".

A Slave (Frederick Douglass) Teaches Himself to Write

At an early age, the slave Frederick Douglass had to good fortune to move off the plantation for a while, and live, as a "companion" to master's child, in the city of Baltimore. This provided abundant opportunities for a mind with the creative genius to make use of them.

The following are excerpts from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave:


It will be noted that Douglass relished irony, and used it very effectively as a distinctive feature of his writing and oratory. This style, with an element of noble hauteur must have done much to remove him from his hearer's stereotypes of a black man.

Having learned just a little, Douglass managed to obtain a book, which he studied whenever possible, sometimes with the help of white street urchins. Though he had a little mastery reading, the skill of putting words on a page still eluded him. The way he got boys to give him lessons in writing was especially creative.

From time to time I feel a bit like Douglass, when my saying "Hey I can do history - just watch!", elicits corrections and valuable lessons from far more experienced members of the historical community.

Daniel Webster on John Adams

In 1826, at the commemoration of the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, on the exact 50th anniversary of the Fourth of July, 1776, Daniel Webster may have felt hard pressed to convey the qualities of John Adams, next to the memory of Thomas Jefferson's dazzling mastery of words. If he did sense a difficulty, the following - Webster at his best - shows how he turned it to advantage.

Did this speech inspire the phrase "Godlike Dan"? Webster did not always seem the most sincere of men - he seemed far too much concerned with bodily comfort and luxury. But he appeared to be, and surely in some important sense was the way he described John Adams, or a deep and real side of him was like that.

What is a Revival of Religon? The Old School and the New School Views

In Jacob Abbott's popular The Cornerstone, or A Familiar Illustration of the Principles of Christian Truth, pp313-338, he describes how virtually the whole student body at Amherst (where he was a professor), had a deep spiritual awakening in the course of a week. For traditional New England Christians, this was what was meant by a "revival". Religion was revived, as if by a visitation of the spirit.

In summarizing the experience, he implicitly takes issue with the new class of itinerant revivalists who try to make a revival of religion. Clearly he sees it as God's prerogative to "make a revival", and suspects these men of manipulating emotions, and not leaving in their wake a true conversion. The notion of conversion had a definite place in New England religion. It was considered a definite, recognizable happening in a person's life, and many young people, such as Catharine Beecher, anguished over their inability to have this sort of experience, without which, according to the old belief, one was destined for Hell.

In this concern to detect and avoid the "counterfeit" revival, the question is "Was this the true conversion experience ? Was it really a work of God performed on souls of participants?" Or was it merely some artificially, and humanly induced induced excitement?

Charles Grandison Finney was the most famous, and the most articulate of those who would set out to "make a revival". He and like-minded men set off a wave of revivals, especially in upstate New York, and created a heated controversy in the Presbyterian church, by boldly setting out to "make a revival" as Abbott would have said. The following is from Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 1838, which is practically a "How to" book for generating a revival.


Much of what he said after this is conciliatory to the old position, but clearly and emphatically, he is saying that men can and ought to "try to make a revival", however much God's help may be needed for its success.

Finney was pre-eminently the man of action. He exemplified Lyman Beecher's assertion that a sermon that didn't ask the listener to do something was a sermon thrown away. And the asking to do did not stop with the appeal to have God take possession of ones soul (not a very active action indeed). Like Beecher, the first of the major religious temperance crusaders, Finney challenged listeners to continue acting; to act in the world like a righteous man. While he did less of promoting particular reforms than others, he seemed to inspire the reformers, such as Theodore Weld, to go out and do something in the world, which could be considered God's work.

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