BLM - the forgotten life of a campaigning hymn writer

Authors & translators:
Whittier, John Greenleaf
Worship Resources:

As the Black Lives Matter movement re-ignited in the summer of 2020, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, statues of those associated with the slave trade became focal points for expressions of profound anger. One such statue is situated in the Central Park of Whittier in California.

john-greenleaf-whittier-statueOn 14 June, the words “(expletive) Slave Owners” were found spray-painted across the statue of a seated man: across his face, chest, book and chair.

The man commemorated here is John Greenleaf Whittier, for whom the city itself is named. Whittier (1807 – 1892) was a Quaker, a prolific magazine editor and, in his time, a popular poet.

His poetry was as much informed by his Quaker beliefs as by his desire (inspired by Robert Burns) to capture his native, rural, New England environment in poetic form. In the UK at least, neither Whittier nor his poetry are nowadays remembered to the same degree as his contemporaries Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nevertheless he turns up in Singing the Faith as the author of a hymn that consistently makes it into lists of most popular hymns in Britain: Dear Lord and Father of mankind (StF 495). 

But probably Whittier’s most significant claim to fame is as a campaigner for the abolition of slavery in America. “John Greenleaf Whittier did not enslave people, and indeed, was a leading anti-slavery activist in his time,” says Celia Caust-Ellenbogen, an archivist at the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. (Whittier Daily News, 15 June, 2020) Whittier was a founder-delegate at the first meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Convention and later said, “I set a higher value on my name as appended to the Anti-Slavery Declaration of 1833 than on the title-page of any book.”

john-greenleaf-whittier-2Before signing that declaration, Whittier (pictured right) had already established himself as a leading activist for the cause. Born in 1807, into a Quaker farming family in Massachusetts, he had a strong social conscience and by the time he was twenty he was already expressing his abolitionist views through his poetry. The first published collection of his poetry (produced without his knowledge by abolitionists in Boston) was called ‘Poems Written During the Progress of the Abolition Question in the United States, Between the Years 1830 and 1838’.

He went on to edit a number of abolitionist newspapers and magazines – and helped found The Monthly Atlantic, which still exists as The Atlantic. It was in this magazine that the poem was published from which the verses of Dear Lord and Father of mankind are drawn (see our hymn post to find out more).

Whittier wrote against a campaign to resolve the slavery issue by sending American blacks, slave and free, back to Africa. He attacked the hypocrisy of Southern clergy who supported the institution of slavery. He founded the antislavery Liberty party in 1840, and in the same year attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

john-whittier-broadside-publication-of-whittiers-our-countrymen-in-chainsAt one level, it may or may not have been a misunderstanding that his statue was targeted in June 2020. Whittier, of all people, would have understood the deep-rooted anger expressed through the BLM movement.

However, he would also have felt the injustice that – as Caust-Ellenbogen says – “while Whittier is celebrated for his poetry and his activist legacy, there are numerous African American poets and activists of his era (such as Frances E.W. Harper, James Madison Bell, and James M. Whitfield) who have received too little recognition. The statues in this country over-represent the influence of White people and under-represent the importance of people of color.”





Image above: a broadside (poster) publication of Whittier's "Our Countrymen in Chains"

More about Whittier the poet at the Poetry Foundation website. Also read about James Montgomery, author of Hail to the Lord's Anointed (StF 228) and another opponent of the slave trade.

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