Who was Thomas Wentworth Higginson?

Thomas Wentworth Higginson - Image from the Library of Congress

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1817-1911) was a younger follower of the Transcendentalist movement. A precocious child, he entered Harvard at the age of thirteen, the youngest of his class. He was an excellent student, but following his graduation he was undecided as to a career. He was drawn to the spiritual vision and social activism of the Transcendentalist movement which was in full swing during the 1840s.

In 1844 he entered Harvard Divinity School. The Unitarian congregation in Newburyport, MA, offered him his first settlement in 1847. He was committed to the antislavery cause before going to Newburyport, having vigorously opposed the US war of aggression against Mexico, which was widely seen as a pretext for the extension of slavery. Once settled, he took up local causes as well, including the plight of female factory workers who worked long hours for pitiful wages. His antislavery views and support of factory workers aroused the ire of leading members of his congregation and he was dismissed.

Forced to seek other means of earning an income, Higginson turned to free-lance writing and lecturing on the Lyceum circuit. Relieved of ministerial duties, he found time for nature studies and cultivating friendships with Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and others similarly in pursuit of literary careers. The “woman question,” along with abolitionism, consumed much of his time and energies. He signed the call for the first national women’s rights convention in 1850 and frequently spoke at women’s rights meetings.

Radical abolitionist

With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, followed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, he adopted a radical position on the slavery issue. Citing “the higher law,” he helped establish the Boston Vigilance Committee, vowing to resist the rendition of fugitive slaves. In 1854 he took an active role in the effort to free an escaped slave, Anthony Burns, from a federal jail in Boston. Although he was indicted for his part in the affair, he was never arrested or brought to trial.

In 1852 Higginson received a call to serve the Free Church in Worcester, MA. Worcester was a hot-bed of antislavery activity. Amidst his abolitionist activities, he was also becoming a widely-known speaker, lecturing in the East and the Midwest on literature, history and nature, as well as abolition and women’s rights. While living in Worcester he joined the school committee, integrating classrooms and raising teacher salaries; led a campaign for building a free public library; formed a local natural history society; and organized a boating club for young men and women. An early proponent of physical culture, he engaged in gymnastics, a variety of sports, and outdoor activities.

When anti-slavery settlers in Kansas were attacked by pro-slavery forces from Missouri determined to drive them out, Higginson, acting as an agent of the Kansas Aid Committee, purchased guns and ammunition and took these to Kansas in order to arm the settlers. A year and a half later he met John Brown and joined with five others, including Theodore Parker and Samuel Howe, to form the “Secret Six,” a committee to raise money for Brown and support him in his effort to raise a slave insurrection in the South. He was the only member of the group who remained in the country during the trial and subsequent congressional investigation of the Harpers Ferry affair.

By this time, he had resigned from the Free Church, devoting his energies increasingly to writing, abolition, women’s rights and the care of his invalid wife. He became a regular contributor to The Atlantic. In response to one of his articles in the magazine, he received a letter from Emily Dickinson asking his opinion on the quality of her poetry. Following her death he assisted in editing her poems for publication.

Colonel of the first Black regiment

When Confederate forces fired on Ft. Sumter, Higginson volunteered to fight and in 1862 received an offer to command the first black regiment of the Civil War, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, which he readily accepted. Many doubted the bravery and fighting ability of freed slaves, but he had confidence in his troops. Injured in a raid, he resigned in 1863, but continued to fight for equal treatment of African-American soldiers. “Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom,” he concluded in his account of the experience, Army Life in a Black Regiment. “It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”

While he was away, Higginson’s wife moved to Newport, RI. He joined her there after he was discharged and resumed his writing career, publishing articles on his army experience, book reviews, and a translation of the works of Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Following the assignation of Lincoln, Higginson denounced the treatment of African-Americans under Reconstruction, which, in his view, legitimized the continued oppression of black people in the South. An ally of the American Woman Suffrage Association, Higginson served for fourteen years as co-editor and frequent contributor to the Woman’s Journal, an organ of the A.W.S.A.

The Free Religious Association

In 1867 Higginson helped to found the Free Religious Association. As a Transcendentalist Unitarian minister he had stressed the ethical application of religion and embraced an increasingly universal and inclusive definition of faith. His religious cosmopolitanism was reflected in positive assessments of Buddhism and Islam and in a widely circulated essay originally published in The Radical magazine, “The Sympathy of Religions.” “There is a sympathy in religions, and this sympathy is shown alike in their origin, their records, and their career,” he wrote. “Each of these, in short, is Natural Religion plus an individual name. It is by insisting on that plus that each religion stops short of being universal.”

After the death of his wife in 1877, he took his first trip abroad and, upon his return, moved back to Cambridge. In 1879 he remarried, becoming a father for the first time at the age of 57. Outliving many of his contemporaries, he wrote biographical sketches of most of them. In all, he published more than 25 books and hundreds of essays, columns, and reviews.Though he might have settled at last into a life of letters, Higginson continued to be involved in reform and public affairs, promoting the enfranchisement of women, beneficial treatment of the poor and homeless, and religious freedom. In his later years he became less radical, but he never relented in his quest for justice and human rights.

[Abridged from my longer entry in the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography. Visit duub.org.]

Our true religious life begins when we discover that there is an Inner Light, not infallible but invaluable, which “lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” Then we have something to steer by; and it is chiefly this, and not an anchor, that we need. The human soul, like any other noble vessel, was not built to be anchored, but to sail. An anchorage may, indeed, be at times a temporary need, in order to make some special repairs, or to take fresh cargo in; yet the natural destiny of both ship and soul is not the harbor, but the ocean; to cut with even keel the vast and beautiful expanse; to pass from island on to island of more than Indian balm, or to continents fairer than Columbus won; or, best of all, steering close to the wind, to extract motive power from the greatest obstacles. Men must forget the eternity through which they have yet to sail, when they talk of anchoring here upon this bank and shoal of time. It would be a tragedy to see the shipping of the world whitening the seas no more, and idly riding at anchor in Atlantic ports; but it would be more tragic to see a world of souls fascinated into a fatal repose and renouncing their destiny of motion.

— From “The Sympathy of Religions”