UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS ON STAMPS
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine (then a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts). His father was a prominent lawyer and served in both the Massachusetts State legislature and the Congress of the United States. Through his mother, Zilpah Wadsworth, he received not only her family name, but also the blood of a number of Plymouth Pilgrims, including John Alden and Priscilla Mullins.
In 1825, Henry graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in the same class with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Franklin Pierce. Henry had already published both prose and verse, and hoped for a literary career. Bowdoin College offered him a Professorship, if he would study abroad first. So he spent three years in Italy, France, Germany and Spain, then taught at Bowdoin from 1829-1835.
He married Mary Storer Potter in Portland, and, being offered a Professorship at Harvard if he studied abroad for a year, they sailed for Europe. While on this trip, Mary lost the child she had been carrying and she died in Rotterdam in November 1835.
The young widower spent the winter in Heidelberg, in an effort to drown his grief in hard study, but didn't succeed. He then went to the Tyrol and planned to go to Italy. Because of passport difficulties, he went to Switzerland instead. This was one of those curious turns of events that can change a whole life. For it was here, during the summer of 1836, that Longfellow met Fanny Appleton and her family from Boston.
Beginning in December 1836, Longfellow taught at Harvard and lived in the historic Craigie House in Cambridge. This house had been built in 1759. Andrew Craigie bought the property in 1791, however in the meantime, George Washington used this house as his headquarters during the siege of Boston. Here he and Martha celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary in January 1776. After Mr. Craigie's death, his widow took in lodgers and Longfellow was one of them.
When Longfellow married Fanny Appleton in 1843, her father bought Craigie house and gave it to them for a wedding gift, Henry and Fanny had many happy years in this house. Henry lived in this house for 45 years, It is now a National Historic Site.
Fanny was described as being "very beautiful, very intelligent, and very pious". She also was a Unitarian and it was said that she shared to the full the Unitarian reverence for the human spirit. She attended the Bible Class given by Dr. Channing's assistant, Ezra Stiles Gannett, in 1842-43. Fanny and Henry had six children. Two daughters died in infancy.
While Henry was the Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, he wrote many of his poems, among them "The Wreck of the Hesperus" and "The Village Blacksmith". In 1842, on his return trip from Germany, he wrote the "Poems on Slavery" which constituted his contribution to the great moral-political conflict of his time, He wrote "Evangeline" in 1847, then his "The Song of Hiawatha!" in 1855. In 1854 he resigned his professorship and devoted his time to his writing and his family. In 1858 he published his poem: "The Courtship of Miles Standish" and in 1861 "Paul Revere's Ride".
His idyllic life was shattered in 1861 by the tragic death of his wife from burns. In his effort to put out the flames on the front of her dress, he himself was burned on the face. He grew a beard then, because shaving became impossible or inadvisable, He found comfort in the care of his children and in his zealous devotion to his translation of The Divine Comedy.
During his later years Longfellow was one of the most famous men in the world. On his trip to Europe 1868-69 he was lionized. In England, Queen Victoria received him in a private audience. He was given honorary degrees at both Oxford and Cambridge, England. Later, his bust was placed in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abby, the only American poet to have this honor.
He was elected to the New York University Hall of Fame in 1900. He was one poet who achieved great wealth, success and praise in his lifetime.
While Henry's mother was of Puritan descent, the atmosphere in the Stephen Longfellow home retained the Puritan highmindedness without its harshness and fanaticism. The influence of Wm. Ellery Channing, who had been a Harvard classmate of Henry's father, brought about a more benevolent attitude toward this world and the next. In later years, Channing maintained about Henry's religion: "that he did not belong to any one sect but rather to the community of those free minds who loved the truth."
H. W. Longfellow's written statements tell of his religious beliefs, as in the quote from the Theologian of the "Wayside Inn":
"With reverent feet the earth he trod,
Nor banished nature from his plan,
But studied still with deep research
To build the Universal Church
Lofty as is the love of God,
And ample as the wants of man,"
In our hymn book, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, is contained one of H. W. Longfellow's hymns, "All are Architects of Fate."
Henry's brother, Rev. Samuel Longfellow (Unitarian) wrote this of Henry's religion: "It permeated his life. His nature was at heart devout; his ideas of life and death, and of what lies beyond, were essentially cheerful, hopeful, optimistic. He did not care to talk much on theological points, but he believed in the supreme of good in the world and in the universe."
Fanny Longfellow, his wife, was also from a Unitarian family, and in later years of Henry's life, his daughter, Alice, was happy to tell her father's admirers that her father "was born a Unitarian and remained one all of his life. He never changed."
The funeral service for Longfellow was held in the Library Room of the house. Longfellow's brother, Samuel, gave the address and a female Quartet sang. His brother also spoke at the burial at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, only a half mile from his home. Then the family attended a public service at the Appleton Chapel in the Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After Henry's death and funeral, his brother, Samuel, wrote to a friend: "The daughters are brave and cheerful, and go on with all their accustomed life in the house, which seems so full of his bright and kindly presence that I cannot think of him as gone from it. It seems, too, as if the blessings of those he has cheered and strengthened fill the air . . . "
" . . . you may like to know that on the casket at the funeral, there lay two palm branches and a spray of passion flowers. They were the only flowers. He had known both the suffering and the victory."