Read CHAPTER XII of Maria Mitchell: Life‚ Letters‚ and Journals, free online book, by Maria Mitchell, on


Partly in consequence of her Quaker training, and partly from her own indifference towards creeds and sects, Miss Mitchell was entirely ignorant of the peculiar phrases and customs used by rigid sectarians; so that she was apt to open her eyes in astonishment at some of the remarks and sectarian prejudices which she met after her settlement at Vassar College. She was a good learner, however, and after a while knew how to receive in silence that which she did not understand.

“Miss Mitchell,” asked one good missionary, “what is your favorite position in prayer?” “Flat upon my back!” the answer came, swift as lightning.

In 1854 she wrote in her diary:

“There is a God, and he is good, I say to myself. I try to increase my trust in this, my only article of creed.”

Miss Mitchell never joined any church, but for years before she left Nantucket she attended the Unitarian church, and her sympathies, as long as she lived, were with that denomination, especially with the more liberally inclined portion. There were always a few of the teachers and’ some of the students who sympathized with her in her views; but she usually attended the college services on Sunday.

President Taylor, of Vassar College, in his remarks at her funeral, stated that all her life Professor Mitchell had been seeking the truth,that she was not willing to accept any statement without studying into the matter herself,“And,” he added, “I think she has found the truth she was seeking.”

Miss Mitchell never obtruded her views upon others, nor did she oppose their views. She bore in silence what she could not believe, but always insisted upon the right of private judgment.

Miss W., a teacher at Vassar, was fretting at being obliged to attend chapel exercises twice a day when she needed the time for rest and recreation, and applied to Miss Mitchell for help in getting away from it. After some talk Miss Mitchell said: “Oh, well, do as I dosit back folding your arms, and think of something pleasant!”

“Sunday, De, 1866. We heard two sermons: the first in the afternoon, by Rev. Mr. A., Baptist, the second in the evening, by Rev. Mr. B., Congregationalist.

“Rev. Mr. A. took a text from Deuteronomy, about ‘Moses;’ Rev. Mr. B. took a text from Exodus, about ‘Moses;’ and I am told that the sermon on the preceding Sunday was about Moses.

“It seems to me strange that since we have the history of Christ in the New Testament, people continue to preach about Moses.

“Rev. Mr. A. was a man of about forty years of age. He chanted rather than read a hymn. He chanted a sermon. His description of the journey of Moses towards Canaan had some interesting points, but his manner was affected; he cried, or pretended to cry, at the pathetic points. I hope he really cried, for a weakness is better than an affectation of weakness. He said, ‘The unbeliever is already condemned.’ It seems to me that if anything would make me an infidel, it would be the threats lavished against unbelief.

“Mr. B. is a self-made man, the son of a blacksmith. He brought the anvil, the hammer, and bellows into the pulpit, and he pounded and blew, for he was in earnest. I felt the more respect for him because he was in earnest. But when he snapped his fingers and said, ’I don’t care that for the religion of a man which does not begin with prayer,’ I was provoked at his forgetfulness of the character of his audience.

“1867. I am more and more disgusted with the preaching that I hear!... Why cannot a man act himself, be himself, and think for himself? It seems to me that naturalness alone is power; that a borrowed word is weaker than our own weakness, however small we may be. If I reach a girl’s heart or head, I know I must reach it through my own, and not from bigger hearts and heads than mine.

“March, 1873. There was something so genuine and so sincere in George Macdonald that he took those of us who were emotional completelynot by storm so much as by gentle breezes.... What he said wasn’t profound except as it reached the depths of the heart.... He gave us such broad theological lessons! In his sermon he said, ’Don’t trouble yourself about what you believe, but do the will of God.’ His consciousness of the existence of God and of his immediate supervision was felt every minute by those who listened....

“He stayed several days at the college, and the girls will never get over the good effects of those three daysthe cheerier views of life and death.

“... Rev. Dr. Peabody preached for us yesterday, and was lovely. Everyone was charmed in spite of his old-fashioned ways. His voice is very bad, but it was such a simple, common-sense discourse! Mr. Vassar said if that was Unitarianism, it was just the right thing.

“Au, 1875. Went to a Baptist church, and heard Rev. Mr. F. ’Christ the way, the only way.’ The sermon was wholly without logic, and yet he said, near its close, that those who had followed him must be convinced that this was true. He said a traveller whom he met on the cars admitted that we all desired heaven, but believed that there were as many ways to it as to Boston. Mr. F. said that God had prepared but one way, just as the government in those countries of the Old World whose cities were upon almost inaccessible pinnacles had prepared one way of approach. (It occurred to me that if those governments possessed godlike powers, they would have made a great many ways.)

“Mr. F. was very severe upon those who expect to be saved by their own deserts. He said, ‘You tender a farthing, when you owe a million.’ I could not see what they owed at all! At this point he might well have given some attention to ‘good works;’ and if he must mention ‘debt,’ he might well remind them that they sat in an unpaid-for church!

“It was plain that he relied upon his anecdotes for the hold upon his audience, and the anecdotes were attached to the main discourse by a very slender thread of connection. I felt really sad to know that not a listener would lead a better life for that sermonno man or woman went out cheered, or comforted, or stimulated.

“On the whole, it is strange that people who go to church are no worse than they are!

“Sep, 1880. A clergyman said, in his sermon, ’I do not say with the Frenchman, if there were no God it would be well to invent one, but I say, if there were no future state of rewards and punishments, it would be better to believe in one.’ Did he mean to say, ’Better to believe a lie’?

“March 27, 1881. Dr. Lyman Abbott preached. I was surprised to find how liberal Congregational preaching had become, for he said he hoped and expected to see women at the bar and in the pulpit, although he believed they would always be exceptional cases. He preached mainly on the motherhood of God, and his whole sermon was a tribute to womanhood.... I rejoice at the ideal womanhood of purity which he put before the girls. I wish some one would preach purity to young men.

“July 1, 1883. I went to hear Rev. Mr. at the Universalist church. He enumerated some of the dangers that threaten us: one was ’The doctrines of scientists,’ and he named Tyndale, Huxley, and Spencer. I was most surprised at his fear of these men. Can the study of truth do harm? Does not every true scientist seek only to know the truth? And in our deep ignorance of what is truth, shall we dread the search for it?

“I hold the simple student of nature in holy reverence; and while there live sensualists, despots, and men who are wholly self-seeking, I cannot bear to have these sincere workers held up in the least degree to reproach. And let us have truth, even if the truth be the awful denial of the good God. We must face the light and not bury our heads in the earth. I am hopeful that scientific investigation, pushed on and on, will reveal new ways in which God works, and bring to us deeper revelations of the wholly unknown.

“The physical and the spiritual seem to be, at present, separated by an impassable gulf; but at any moment that gulf may be overleapedpossibly a new revelation may come....

“April, 1878. I called on Professor Henry at the Smithsonian Institute. He must be in his eightieth year; he has been ill and seems feeble, but he is still the majestic old man, unbent in figure and undimmed in eye.

“I always remember, when I see him, the remark of Dorothy Dix, ’He is the truest man that ever lived.’

“We were left alone for a little while, and he introduced the subject of his nearness to death. He said, ’The National Academy has raised $40,000, the interest of which is for myself and family as long as any of us live [he has daughters only], and in view of my death it is a great comfort to me.’ I ventured to ask him if he feared death at all. He said, ’Not in the least; I have thought of it a great deal, and have come to feel it a friend. I cherish the belief in immortality; I have suffered much, at times, in regard to that matter.’ Scientifically considered, only, he thought the probability was on the side of continued existence, as we must believe that spirit existed independent of matter.

“He went to a desk and pulled out from a drawer an old copy of ‘Gregory’s Astronomy,’ and said, ’That book changed my whole lifeI read it when I was sixteen years old; I had read, previously, works of the imagination only, and at sixteen, being ill in bed, that book was near me; I read it, and determined to study science.’ I asked him if a life of science was a good life, and he said that he felt that it was so.

“... When I was travelling with Miss S., who was near-sighted and kept her eyes constantly half-shut, it seemed to me that every other young lady I met had wide, staring eyes. Now, after two years sitting by a person who never reasons, it strikes me that every other person whom I meet has been thinking hard, and his logic stands out a prominent characteristic.

“Au, 1879. Scientific Association met at Saratoga. ... Professor Peirce, now over seventy years old, was much the same as ever. He went on in the cars with us, and was reading Mallock’s ’Is Life Worth Living?’ and I asked, ‘Is it?’ to which Professor Peirce replied, ’Yes, I think it is.’ Then I asked, ’If there is no future state, is life worth living?’ He replied, ’Indeed it is not; life is a cruel tragedy if there is no immortality.’ I asked him if he conceived of the future life as one of embodiment, and he said ’Yes; I believe with St Paul that there is a spiritual body....’

“Professor Peirce’s paper was on the ‘Heat of the Sun;’ he considers the sun fed not by impact of meteors, but by the compression of meteors. I did not think it very sound. He said some good things: ’Where the truth demands, accept; what the truth denies, reject.’

“Concord, Mass., 1879. To establish a school of philosophy had been the dream of Alcott’s life; and there he sat as I entered the vestry of a church on one of the hottest days in August. He looked full as young as he did twenty years ago, when he gave us a ‘conversation’ in Lynn. Elizabeth Peabody came into the room, and walked up to the seat of the rulers; her white hair streamed over her shoulders in wild carelessness, and she was as careless as ever about her whole attire, but it was beautiful to see the attention shown to her by Mr. Alcott and Mr. Sanborn.

“Emerson entered,pale, thin, almost ethereal in countenance,followed by his daughter, who sat beside him and watched every word that he uttered. On the whole, it was the same Emersonhe stumbled at a quotation as he always did; but his thoughts were such as only Emerson could have thought, and the sentences had the Emersonian pithiness. He made his frequent sentences very emphatic. It was impossible to see any thread of connection; but it always was sothe oracular sentences made the charm. The subject was Memory.’ He said, ’We remember the selfishness or the wrong act that we have committed for years. It is as it should beMemory is the police-officer of the universe.’ ’Architects say that the arch never rests, and so the past never rests.’ (Was it, never sleeps?) ’When I talk with my friend who is a genealogist, I feel that I am talking with a ghost.’

“The little vestry, fitted perhaps for a hundred people, was packed with two hundred,all people of an intellectual cast of face,and the attention was intense. The thermometer was ninety in the shade!

“I did not speak to Mr. Emerson; I felt that I must not give him a bit of extra fatigue.

“July 12, 1880. The school of philosophy has built a shanty for its meetings, but it is a shanty to be proud of, for it is exactly adapted to its needs. It is a long but not low building, entirely without finish, but water-tight. A porch for entrance, and a recess similar at the opposite end, which makes the place for the speakers. There was a small table upon the platform on which were pond lilies, some shelves around, and a few bustsone of Socrates, I think.

“I went in the evening to hear Dr. Harris on ‘Philosophy.’ The rain began to come down soon after I entered, and my philosophy was not sufficient to keep me from the knowledge that I had neither overshoes nor umbrella; I remembered, too, that it was but a narrow foot-path through the wet grass to the omnibus. But I listened to Dr. Harris, and enjoyed it. He lauded Fichte as the most accurate philosopher following Kanthe said not of the greatest breadth, but the most acute.

“After Dr. Harris’ address, Mr. Alcott made a few remarks that were excellent, and said that when we had studied philosophy for fifteen years, as the lecturer had done, we might know something; but as it was, he had pulled us to pieces and then put us together again.

“The audience numbered sixty persons.

“May, 1880. I have just finished Miss Peabody’s account of Channing. I have been more interested in Miss Peabody than in Channing, and have felt how valuable she must have been to him. How many of Channing’s sermons were instigated by her questions! ... Miss Peabody must have been very remarkable as a young woman to ask the questions which she asked at twenty.

“April, 1881. The waste of flowers on Easter Sunday distressed me. Something is due to the flowers themselves. They are massed together like a bushel of corn, and look like red and white sugar-plums as seen in a confectioner’s window.

“A pillow of flowers is a monstrosity. A calla lily in a vase is a beautiful creation; so is a single rose. But when the rose is crushed by a pink on each side of it, and daisies crush the pinks, and azaleas surround the daisies, there is no beauty and no fitness.

“The cathedral had no flowers.

“Au, 1882. We visited Whittier; we found him at lunch, but he soon came into the parlor. He was very chatty, and seemed glad to see us. Mrs. L. was with me, and Whittier was very ready to write in the album which she brought with her, belonging to her adopted son. We drifted upon theological subjects, and I asked Mr. Whittier if he thought that we fell from a state of innocence; he replied that he thought we were better than Adam and Eve, and if they fell, they ‘fell up.’

“His faith seems to be unbounded in the goodness of God, and his belief in moral accountability. He said, ’I am a good deal of a Quaker in my conviction that a light comes to me to dictate to me what is right.’ We stayed about an hour, and we were afraid it would be too much for him; but Miss Johnson, his cousin, who lives with him, assured us that it was good for him; and he himself said that he was sorry to have us go.

“One thing that he said, I noted: that his fancy was for farm-work, but he was not strong enough; he had as a young man some literary ambition, but never thought of attaining the reputation which had come to him.

“July 31, 1883. I have had two or three rich days! On Friday last I went to Holderness, N.H., to the Asquam House; I had been asked by Mrs. T. to join her party. There were at this house Mr. Whittier, Mr. and Mrs. Cartland, Professor and Mrs. Johnson, of Yale, Mr. Williams, the Chinese scholar, his brother, an Episcopal clergyman, and several others. The house seemed full of fine, cultivated people. We stayed two days and a half.

“And first of the scenery. The road up to the house is a steep hill, and at the foot of the hill it winds and turns around two lakes. The panorama is complete one hundred and eighty degrees. Beyond the lakes lie the mountains. We do not see Mt. Washington. The house has a piazza nearly all around it. We had a room on the first floorlarge, and with two windows opening to the floor.

“The programme of the day’s work was delightfully monotonous. For an hour or so after breakfast we sat in the ladies’ parlor, we sewed, and we told anecdotes. Whittier talked beautifully, almost always on the future state and his confidence in it. Occasionally he touched upon persons. He seems to have loved Lydia Maria Child greatly.

“When the cool of the morning was over, we went out upon the piazza, and later on we went under the trees, where, it is said, Whittier spends most of the time.

“There was little of the old-time theology in his views; his faith has been always very firm. Mr. Cartland asked me one day if I really felt there was any doubt of the immortality of the soul. I told him that on the whole I believed it more than I doubted it, but I could not say that I felt no doubt. Whittier asked me if there were no immortality if I should be distressed by it, and I told him that I should be exceedingly distressed; that it was the only thing that I craved. He said that ‘annihilation was better for the wicked than everlasting punishment,’ and to that I assented. He said that he thought there might be persons so depraved as not to be worth saving. I asked him if God made such. Nobody seemed ready to reply. Besides myself there was another of the party to whom a dying friend had promised to return, if possible, but had not come.

“Whittier believed that they did sometimes come. He said that of all whom he had lost, no one would be so welcome to him as Lydia Maria Child.

“We held a little service in the parlor of the hotel, and Mrs. C. read the fourteenth chapter of John. Rev. Mr. W. read a sermon from ’The pure in heart shall see God,” written by Parkhurst, of New York. He thought the child should be told that in heaven he should have his hobby-horse. After the service, when we talked it over, I objected to telling the child this. Whittier did not object; he said that Luther told his little boy that he should have a little dog with a golden tail in heaven.

“Au, 1886. I have been to see an exhibition of a cooking school. I found sixteen girls in the basement of a school-house. They had long tables, across which stretched a line of gas-stoves and jets of gas. Some of the girls were using saucepans; they set them upon the stove, and then sat down where they could see a clock while the boiling process went on.

“At one table a girl was cutting out doughnuts; at another a girl was making a puddinga layer of bits of bread followed by a layer of fruit. Each girl had her rolling-pin, and moulding-board or saucepan.

“The chief peculiarity of these processes was the cleanliness. The rolling-pins were clean, the knives were clean, the aprons were clean, the hands were clean. Not a drop was spilled, not a crumb was dropped.

“If into the kitchen of the crowded mother there could come the utensils, the commodities, the clean towels, the ample time, there would come, without the lessons, a touch of the millennium.

“I am always afraid of manual-labor schools. I am not afraid that these girls could not read, for every American girl reads, and to read is much more important than to cook; but I am afraid that not all can writesome of them were not more than twelve years old.

“And what of the boys? Must a common cook always be a girl? and must a boy not cook unless on the top of the ladder, with the pay of the president of Harvard College?

“I am jealous for the schools; I have heard a gentleman who stands high in science declare that the cooking schools would eventually kill out every literary college in the landfor women. But why not for men? If the food for the body is more important than the food for the mind, let us destroy the latter and accept the former, but let us not continue to do what has been tried for fifteen hundred years,to keep one half of the world to the starvation of the mind, in order to feed better the physical condition of the other half.

“Let us have cooks; but let us leave it a matter of choice, as we leave the dressmaking and the shoe-making, the millinery and the carpentry,free to be chosen!

“There are cultivated and educated women who enjoy cooking; so there are cultivated men who enjoy Kensington embroidery. Who objects? But take care that some rousing of the intellect comes first,that it may be an enlightened choice,and do not so fill the day with bread and butter and stitches that no time is left for the appreciation of Whittier, letting at least the simple songs of daily life and the influence of rhythm beautify the dreary round of the three meals a day.”

Miss Mitchell had a stock of conundrums on hand, and was a good guesser. She told her stories at all times when they happened to come into her mind. She would arrive at her sister’s house, just from Poughkeepsie on a vacation, and after the threshold was crossed and she had said “Good morning,” in a clear voice to be heard by all within her sight, she would, perhaps, say, “Well, I have a capital story which I must tell before I take my bonnet off, or I shall forget it!” And there went with her telling an action, voice, and manner which added greater point to the story, but which cannot be described. One of her associates at Vassar, in recalling some of her anecdotes, writes: “Professor Mitchell was quite likely to stand and deliver herself of a bright little speech before taking her seat at breakfast. It was as though the short walk from the observatory had been an inspiration to thought.”

She was quick at repartee. On one occasion Charlotte Cushman and her friend Miss Stebbins were visiting Miss Mitchell at Vassar. Miss Mitchell took them out for a drive, and pointed out the different objects of interest as they drove along the banks of the Hudson. “What is that fine building on the hill?” asked Miss Cushman.“That,” said Miss Mitchell, “was a boys’ school, originally, but it is now used as a hotel, where they charge five dollars a day!”“Five dollars a day?” exclaimed Miss Cushman; “Jupiter Ammon!”“No,” said Miss Stebbins, “Jupiter Mammon!”“Not at all,” said Miss Mitchell, “Jupiter gammon!

“Farewell, Maria,” said an old Friend, “I hope the Lord will be with thee.”

“Good-by,” she replied, “I know he will be with you.”

A characteristic trait in Miss Mitchell was her aversion to receiving unsolicited advice in regard to her private affairs. “A suggestion is an impertinence,” she would often say. The following anecdote shows how she received such counsel:

A literary man of more than national reputation said to one of her admirers, “I, for one, cannot endure your Maria Mitchell.” At her solicitation he explained why; and his reason was, as she had anticipated, founded on personal pique. It seems he had gone up from New York to Poughkeepsie especially to call upon Professor Mitchell. During the course of conversation, with that patronizing condescension which some self-important men extend to all women indiscriminately, he proceeded to inform her that her manner of living was not in accordance with his ideas of expediency. “Now,” he said, “instead of going for each one of your meals all the way from your living-rooms in the observatory over to the dining-hall in the college building, I should think it would be far more convenient and sensible for you to get your breakfast, at least, right in your own apartments. In the morning you could make a cup of coffee and boil an egg with almost no trouble.” At which Professor Mitchell drew herself up with the air of a tragic queen, saying, “And is my time worth no more than to boil eggs?”