Monday, November 4, 2013

Austin Phelps A Memoir

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: There may be two reasons for writing a man's biography. His public service may have been of so valuable a kind as to create a public demand for the details of his history. Or, his private character may have been of so rare an order as to add the materials of inspiration to the public ideals. Sometimes it happens that these two motives unite in the formation of one memoir. In the case of him whose life these pages will commemorate, the sacred task is made easier to the pen which attempts it, by the assurance that this dual reason for doing so exists in fine proportion. What he did has created the readers who will care to know what he was. His professional eminence is reason enough for the appearance of this memorial. But his personal character is as much a greater reason, as character is always greater than reputation, and private nobility than public honors.
Austin Phelps was the child of a strong and also of a sensitive ancestry. He never placed great emphasis upon his genealogical antecedents, but treated them very much as well-bred people treat social position, — a thing too evident and satisfactory in itself to call attention to, and therefore not worth mentioning. So far as is known he was contented with his ancestors, but fully aware that one's family tree is not likely to be a subject of general interest. Sometimes, when we asked him, he would tell us something about the vague figures of our forefathers, whose footprints on the sands of fact seemed less real to us than those of Robinson Crusoe's Man Friday, and whose relation to ourselves seemed of less importance than the movements of Mr. Greatheart in the "Pilgrim's Progress." 

Certain of these forefathers seem to have been, in the remote past, connected with the Guelphs of Guelph and Ghibelline history; and while he never found it necessary to deny the diluted drop of royal blood in the family veins, he knew too well how little ancestry signifies to the live people and the live work of America to-day, to inculcate in his household much interest in such matters. It was with his own keen sense of the ludicrous that he detected and exposed the little vanity of one of his children who boasted to a mate of being "descended from Queen Victoria!"
The family, like most American families who have amounted to anything, sprang from that "one settler" who figures so prominently in genealogy, and who came over so early and proved so useful and so eminent in his day. Such items are not of public interest in a memorial like this, except so far as they can give a definite impression of the kind of stock to which the subject of the biography owed his temperament.
In a few words it can be said that it was sturdy, clean, intelligent, "well-connected" stock; we find magistrates, members of legislatures, a trustee of the colony, or, what was considered an equal honor in those pious times, deacons of the church, and so on, — a comfortable, honorable record: the men usually eminent for something in local history; the women domestic, gentle, modest, and always very religious. Indeed, the stock was devout from beginning to end, with only scapegraces enough hanging to the branches of the tree to serve as a foil to the general color of the blossom and flavor of the fruit.
Belchertown, Hampshire, Massachusetts, USA Congregational Church, Belchertown, Mass. Source: Postcard

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Belchertown, Hampshire, Massachusetts, USA Congregational Church, Belchertown, Mass. Source: Postcard

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The father of Professor Phelps was the son of a Massachusetts farmer of some local importance and influence, — a man whose neighbors called him "Squire," and who gave his sons a college education, and started them well in life. Eliakim Phelps became a clergyman of the Orthodox Congregational Church, and was a man of ability and of its proportional success: both these facts go for what they are worth — in this case they were worth decidedly something — in the history of the son.
 Dr. Eliakim Phelps was a man of sanity, both of soul and body; without an untuned nerve, without an undue prejudice, firm, fearless, equable, and lovable. He had the originality to belong to the underground railroad, in the times which tried the fibre of men. Clergymen did not necessarily find it their duty in those days to protect a fugitive slave in peril of his freedom and his life. Dr. Phelps did consider it his; and that bit of blazonry on the family escutcheon shines as brightly to our eyes to-day, as the useful little religious tale, with the large circulation, for which Dr. Phelps was responsible, or the great "revivals" which occurred in his ministry. Possibly this view of the case may be shared by greater and wiser eyes than ours.
Dr. Phelps's name has been somewhat distorted from its natural association in the public mind, by the painful experience of house-possession, similar to that afflicting John Wesley, which for seven months haunted Dr. Phelps's household, and for thirty-seven years has haunted the columns of the American press.
This unpleasant fact, it is as well to note, was only an episode in the history of a useful and level-headed man, who bore himself through it with a serenity, and good sense, and simple, undeviated Christian faith, which, taken together, compose the chief moral of the situation. See Haunted hovel Of his father, Professor Phelps1 himself says : —"I have never known a man — I have known a few women — who had a more profound reverence than he had for the office and work of a Christian pastor. To him they were above all other dignities on earth. So persuasive was this conviction in the atmosphere of his household, that I distinctly remember my resolve, before I was four years old, that I would become a minister; not so much because the ministry was my father's guild, as because he had taught me nothing above that to which ambition could aspire. Was not ours the house of Aaron, and ours the tribe of Levi?" "I remember once riding with him six miles into the country in search of a man, not one of his congregation, but who professed to be an infidel, and whom my father claimed on the principle which he often affirmed as the rule of his pastoral labors,— 'The man who belongs nowhere belongs to me, and I must give account of him.'" We learn that Dr. Phelps was one of the first men in the county to establish a Sunday-school, much to the disapproval of his deacons; but he "started one the next day after he heard of such a thing." He "organized a temperance society, on the principle of total abstinence, when only one other member even of the Brookfield Association of Ministers supported the movement. He was the first clergyman of the county to remove the liquor-bottles from his sideboard. He bore calmly the charge that he did it from parsimonious motives. "An aged clerical associate, who had more than once been seen to stagger up the pulpit stairs on a Sunday afternoon, begged of his young brother not to be wiser than his fathers, nor more temperate than his blessed Master. For one, he wanted no better example than the Lord Jesus." "My father, by natural temperament, was not a conservative, and he was not a radical. . . . But if the course pf events compelled him to side with either extreme, he was apt to drift toward the side of the radical. He refused his pulpit to an abolitionist lecturer, . . . because, he said, his people had rights there which he was bound to respect; but, if a fugitive slave applied to him, ... he fell back on first principles, and bade his fellow-man welcome. . . ."He once employed for several months a runaway negro as a laborer. One morning the rumor camethat John's master was at the hotel, within a pistol shot of the parsonage, that he had obtained a warrant for the arrest of his chattel, and that he had a leash of dogs on hand for the hunt. Geneva attracted slave hunters at that time; because, besides being near the border-line of Canada, it was the seat of a negro colony of some three hundred, nearly all the adults being runaways. I suppose it would have cost the pastor his pulpit, if the deed of that day had been known. The United States marshal of the district was one of his parishioners. It is sufficient token of the dominant politics of that period, that it was on the eve of the election of Martin Van Buren, a favorite son of New York, to the presidency. Among the pastor's flock were magnates to whom the 'Union and the Constitution' were second only to the oracles of God.
"But the shield was turned now in his vision; and John appeared to have rights, which, pulpit or no pulpit, must not be ignored by a minister of Christ. He resolved that John should have fair play. He asked him if he wanted to go back to Maryland. John thought not. But had he not left a wife in Maryland? Yes, but he had 'anoder one' in Geneva. She was 'black but comely,' and had borne him two children. His Maryland master had not taught him very clear notions of the marriage-tie. On the whole, he thought 'he'd sooner die than leave the pickaninnies.' 'If he went back, his master would sell him South.' 'He'd rather go to hell.' 'He reckoned he wouldn't be took alive.' 'He'd take his chance with the hounds.' "As the market stood in those days, he was worthtaking alive, if the hounds could be kept off from the jugular vein. He was a stout 'six-footer,' in the prime of manhood; a bright mulatto, with white brains, sound in wind and limb; his teeth would bear counting on the auction-block, and he was a trained mechanic withal: in return for some teaching which I gave him, he had taught me how to shingle a barn. The master's title, too, was beyond a doubt: his broad back was branded very legibly. My father told him he hoped nobody would have to die; but he added some advice, in tones too low for me to hear, but with a compression of the mouth which was well understood in the discipline of the family. He then told John to take to a certain piece of woods, and wait there, while he himself went to the hotel to reconnoitre. "John crept around the barn of the hotel to a little cabin, where 'the pickaninnies' were rolling in the dirt, and was soon ranging the woods. A few hours after, the pastor returned, with lips more sternly compressed than ever, and proceeded to make up a basket of food for John. He brought it to me, and told me to go with it, and find him. My father's eye silently answered mine when I observed that the knife was not the mate of the fork, that it was too large to be covered in the basket, that, in short, it was the largest carver in the house, — the one with which John had not long before slaughtered a pig. It was as nearly a facsimile of a bowie-knife as the credit of the parsonage ought to bear. I found John. His eye, too, alighted first on the familiar knife. The grim smile of his savage ancestors gleamed around his white teeth. He played with the food, but treasured theknife in his bosom. Said he, as I took his hand at parting, 'Tell your fader that he is a Christian and a gentlemen, every inch of him.' His ideas of what Christianity is may have been rather mixed (he had learned them at the whipping-post); but his half savage intuitions of what Christianity ought to do for a hunted man were not far wrong. So, at least, the pastor thought. It was well for dog and master that they did not find John's trail. Indeed, I suspect the dogs were left at the hotel. Even Martin Van Buren's constituents in a livery-stable would hardly have winked at that business on the soil of New York. Human nature has an innate reverence for the jugular vein. 
"My father's prayer with us that night was unusually solemn. He remembered both the slave and the slave-hunter." In regard to the phenomena at Stratford, to which reference has been made, Professor Phelps among other comments makes this one: "That the facts were real, a thousand witnesses testified. An eminent judge in the State of New York said that he had pronounced sentence of death on many a criminal on a tithe of the evidence which supported those facts. That they were inexplicable by any known principles of science was equally clear to all who saw and heard them, who were qualified to judge. Experts in science went to Stratford in triumphant expectation, and came away in dogged silence, convinced of nothing, yet solving nothing. If modern science had nothing to show more worthy of respect than its solutions of Spiritualism, alchemy would be its equal, and astrology infinitely its superior. . . ."To my father the whole thing was a visitation from God. He bowed to the affliction in sorrow and in prayer. He never gave credence to it as a revelation of religious truth for an hour. The only point in which it affected his interpretation of the Scriptures was that of the biblical demonology. When science failed to give him an explanation which deserved respect, he fell back upon the historic faith of the Christian Church in the personality and activity of angels, good and evil." It is one of the truisms of biographical literature that men of eminence owe their most marked qualities to their mothers. There looks down upon the writer from the old fashioned frame of an older-fashioned portrait, one of the purest, most beautiful, most devout faces that ever bent with happy tears above the cradle of a first-born son.
Sarah Adams was at once a saint and a beauty, a belle and a devotee; and when she married the energetic young minister, and went from her village home in Wilbraham, Mass., to his first parish in Brookfield, she took there the best blessing that the sternest law of heredity can select for unborn children, — the mental and spiritual harmony of a perfect married love. In the aged hand of her widowed husband we find quaint tributes to the wife, whom, perhaps, he never viewed apart from the conventional feminine ideal of his times, but whose rare quality he felt to the day of his death, like the perfume in the atmosphere left by the lily of a vanished angel. He tells us what a "domestic and affectionate disposition" she had; that she "was never known to have an enemy "; that she was "fond of books and retirement." He adds with a touch of pardonable vanity that she was "taken to be thirty when she was fifty, and when travelling with her eldest son was often judged to be his wife." She was the "idol of her household," and she "entered into that higher life, the privilege of which few Christians enjoy." He adds by way of climax, that she "had a remarkable sense of propriety, and was never known to do a foolish thing." Quite as vivid a picture of this lovely matron used to come to us from his own lips, which never tired of saying, — and we wondered sometimes why they should tremble when they said, — " We lived together in conjugal happiness for almost thirty years. I never knew her, in all that time, to do one unkind or impatient thing; and I never heard her speak an irritable word to any human being." It seems, indeed, that she was really one of the few mortals of whom it is not excessive to speak in superlatives. In Brookfield, Mass., in the parsonage of his father, Austin Phelps was born. It was the year 1820, — the month was January, and the day the seventh.
Into the bitter climate of one of the coldest sections of Massachusetts there ventured one of the tiniest, most unpromising babies who ever defied the prophecies of wise women or the despairs of anxious parents. It was one of the family traditions that the child was so small that he was put at an early age into a coffee-pot; and the mischievous interest which hisown children took in this bit of genealogy, especially the astonishing legends with which they ornamented it, never failed to light his sense of humor. The coffee-pot story was one of our little devices to divert the tides of dark hours which always yielded to the ingenuities of tenderness.
Like many children who "begin hard," this very little baby continued to meet with discouragements, and celebrated his infantile career by a fall from the arms of a careless nurse upon a stone hearth. Convulsions followed, and imminent death threatened the child for some time. He himself believed that much of the physical suffering which shadowed his mature life owed its first cause to this accident. However that may be, the child, having made rather a sad entrance through the gates of a life which was to know its full share of human pains, passed on, stoutly enough, to a period of good health and good spirits and good promise.
We are told that when he was "two or three years old"—the record is a trifle vague just here — he began to read; and it is noted, without surprise or comment, that this baby "learned all the letters of the alphabet, but three, in one day!" Precocity followed precocity. At the age of four he reads the Bible at prayers with the family, apparently as well as anybody else. At eight he can do any sum in cube root and explain every process in the operation. He himself tells us that he distinctly remembers a great public event which occurred when he was about a year and a half old. This characteristic sub-consciousness is conscientiously explained in the autobiographic notes, which he left at the urgent request of a member of his family, and which, as he will be always left to speak for himself in these pages, when he can do so, are herein reproduced, (with a few omissions) as they stand.


  1. A wonderful nugget of the past-that 'haunts' us today. Thanks

  2. My glowing comment full of glowing praise for this wonderful piece disappeared in thin air.

  3. It's hardly likely that the New Haven Journal newspaper made up stories about a poltergeist - seeing that their story could so easily have been shot down by readers simply visiting Eliakim Phelps at his church and asking him about the 'ghost' - a story which he would have declared untrue if the newspaper had falsely 'quoted' him. This poltergeist was for real. .