Samuel Hopkins, by John Greenleaf Whittier

Old Portraits and Modern Sketches

Three quarters of a century ago, the name of Samuel Hopkins was as familiar as a household word throughout New England. It was a spell wherewith to raise at once a storm of theological controversy. The venerable minister who bore it had his thousands of ardent young disciples, as well as defenders and followers of mature age and acknowledged talent; a hundred pulpits propagated the dogmas which he had engrafted on the stock of Calvinism. Nor did he lack numerous and powerful antagonists. The sledge ecclesiastic, with more or less effect, was unceasingly plied upon the strong-linked chain of argument which he slowly and painfully elaborated in the seclusion of his parish. The press groaned under large volumes of theological, metaphysical, and psychological disquisition, the very thought of which is now "a weariness to the flesh;" in rapid succession pamphlet encountered pamphlet, horned, beaked, and sharp of talon, grappling with each other in mid-air, like Milton's angels. That loud controversy, the sound whereof went over Christendom, awakening responses from beyond the Atlantic, has now died away; its watchwords no longer stir the blood of belligerent sermonizers; its very terms and definitions have well-nigh become obsolete and unintelligible. The hands which wrote and the tongues which spoke in that day are now all cold and silent; even Emmons, the brave old intellectual athlete of Franklin, now sleeps with his fathers,—the last of the giants. Their fame is still in all the churches; effeminate clerical dandyism still affects to do homage to their memories; the earnest young theologian, exploring with awe the mountainous debris of their controversial lore, ponders over the colossal thoughts entombed therein, as he would over the gigantic fossils of an early creation, and endeavors in vain to recall to the skeleton abstractions before him the warm and vigorous life wherewith they were once clothed; but Hopkinsianism, as a distinct and living school of philosophy, theology, and metaphysics, no longer exists. It has no living oracles left; and its memory survives only in the doctrinal treatises of the elder and younger Edwards, Hopkins, Bellamy, and Emmons.

It is no part of our present purpose to discuss the merits of the system in question. Indeed, looking at the great controversy which divided New England Calvinism in the eighteenth century, from a point of view which secures our impartiality and freedom from prejudice, we find it exceedingly difficult to get a precise idea of what was actually at issue. To our poor comprehension, much of the dispute hinges upon names rather than things; on the manner of reaching conclusions quite as much as upon the conclusions themselves. Its origin may be traced to the great religious awakening of the middle of the past century, when the dogmas of the Calvinistic faith were subjected to the inquiry of acute and earnest minds, roused up from the incurious ease and passive indifference of nominal orthodoxy. Without intending it, it broke down some of the barriers which separated Arminianism and Calvinism; its product, Hopkinsianism, while it pushed the doctrine of the Genevan reformer on the subject of the Divine decrees and agency to that extreme point where it well-nigh loses itself in Pantheism, held at the same time that guilt could not be hereditary; that man, being responsible for his sinful acts, and not for his sinful nature, can only be justified by a personal holiness, consisting not so much in legal obedience as in that disinterested benevolence which prefers the glory of God and the welfare of universal being above the happiness of self. It had the merit, whatever it may be, of reducing the doctrines of the Reformation to an ingenious and scholastic form of theology; of bringing them boldly to the test of reason and philosophy. Its leading advocates were not mere heartless reasoners and closet speculators. They taught that sin was selfishness, and holiness self-denying benevolence, and they endeavored to practise accordingly. Their lives recommended their doctrines. They were bold and faithful in the discharge of what they regarded as duty. In the midst of slave-holders, and in an age of comparative darkness on the subject of human rights, Hopkins and the younger Edwards lifted up their voices for the slave. And twelve years ago, when Abolitionism was everywhere spoken against, and the whole land was convulsed with mobs to suppress it, the venerable Emmons, burdened with the weight of ninety years, made a journey to New York, to attend a meeting of the Anti- Slavery Society. Let those who condemn the creed of these men see to it that they do not fall behind them in practical righteousness and faithfulness to the convictions of duty.

Samuel Hopkins, who gave his name to the religious system in question, was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1721. In his fifteenth year he was placed under the care of a neighboring clergyman, preparatory for college, which he entered about a year after. In 1740, the celebrated Whitefield visited New Haven, and awakened there, as elsewhere, serious inquiry on religious subjects. He was followed the succeeding spring by Gilbert Tennent, the New Jersey revivalist, a stirring and powerful preacher. A great change took place in the college. All the phenomena which President Edwards has described in his account of the Northampton awakening were reproduced among the students. The excellent David Brainard, then a member of the college, visited Hopkins in his apartment, and, by a few plain and earnest words, convinced him that he was a stranger to vital Christianity. In his autobiographical sketch, he describes in simple and affecting language the dark and desolate state of his mind at this period, and the particular exercise which finally afforded him some degree of relief, and which he afterwards appears to have regarded as his conversion from spiritual death to life. When he first heard Tennent, regarding him as the greatest as well as the best of men, he made up his mind to study theology with him; but just before the commencement at which he was to take his degree, the elder Edwards preached at New Haven. Struck by the power of the great theologian, he at once resolved to make him his spiritual father. In the winter following, he left his father's house on horseback, on a journey of eighty miles to Northampton. Arriving at the house of President Edwards, he was disappointed by hearing that he was absent on a preaching tour. But he was kindly received by the gifted and accomplished lady of the mansion, and encouraged to remain during the winter. Still doubtful in respect to his own spiritual state, he was, he says, "very gloomy, and retired most of the time in his chamber." The kind heart of his amiable hostess was touched by his evident affliction. After some days she came to his chamber, and, with the gentleness and delicacy of a true woman, inquired into the cause of his unhappiness. The young student disclosed to her, without reserve, the state of his feelings and the extent of his fears. "She told me," says the Doctor, "that she had had peculiar exercises respecting me since I had been in the family; that she trusted I should receive light and comfort, and doubted not that God intended yet to do great things by me."

After pursuing his studies for some months with the Puritan philosopher, young Hopkins commenced preaching, and, in 1743, was ordained at Sheffield, (now Great Barrington') in the western part of Massachusetts. There were at the time only about thirty families in the town. He says it was a matter of great regret to him to be obliged to settle so far from his spiritual guide and tutor but seven years after he was relieved and gratified by the removal of Edwards to Stockbridge, as the Indian missionary at that station, seven miles only from his own residence; and for several years the great metaphysician and his favorite pupil enjoyed the privilege of familiar intercourse with each other. The removal of the former in 1758 to Princeton, New Jersey, and his death, which soon followed, are mentioned in the diary of Hopkins as sore trials and afflictive dispensations.

Obtaining a dismissal from his society in Great Barrington in 1769, he was installed at Newport the next year, as minister of the first Congregational church in that place. Newport, at this period, was, in size, wealth, and commercial importance, the second town in New England. It was the great slave mart of the North. Vessels loaded with stolen men and women and children, consigned to its merchant princes, lay at its wharves; immortal beings were sold daily in its market, like cattle at a fair. The soul of Hopkins was moved by the appalling spectacle. A strong conviction of the great wrong of slavery, and of its utter incompatibility with the Christian profession, seized upon his mind. While at Great Barrington, he had himself owned a slave, whom he had sold on leaving the place, without compunction or suspicion in regard to the rightfulness of the transaction. He now saw the origin of the system in its true light; he heard the seamen engaged in the African trade tell of the horrible scenes of fire and blood which they had witnessed, and in which they had been actors; he saw the half-suffocated wretches brought up from their noisome and narrow prison, their squalid countenances and skeleton forms bearing fearful evidence of the suffering attendant upon the transportation from their native homes. The demoralizing effects of slaveholding everywhere forced themselves upon his attention, for the evil had struck its roots deeply in the community, and there were few families into which it had not penetrated. The right to deal in slaves, and use them as articles of property, was questioned by no one; men of all professions, clergymen and church-members, consulted only their interest and convenience as to their purchase or sale. The magnitude of the evil at first appalled him; he felt it to be his duty to condemn it, but for a time even his strong spirit faltered and turned pale in contemplation of the consequences to be apprehended from an attack upon it. Slavery and slave-trading were at that time the principal source of wealth to the island; his own church and congregation were personally interested in the traffic; all were implicated in its guilt. He stood alone, as it were, in its condemnation; with here and there an exception, all Christendom maintained the rightfulness of slavery. No movement had yet been made in England against the slave-trade; the decision of Granville Sharp's Somerset case had not yet taken place. The Quakers, even, had not at that time redeemed themselves from the opprobrium. Under these circumstances, after a thorough examination of the subject, he resolved, in the strength of the Lord, to take his stand openly and decidedly on the side of humanity. He prepared a sermon for the purpose, and for the first time from a pulpit of New England was heard an emphatic testimony against the sin of slavery. In contrast with the unselfish and disinterested benevolence which formed in his mind the essential element of Christian holiness, he held up the act of reducing human beings to the condition of brutes, to minister to the convenience, the luxury, and lusts of the owner. He had expected bitter complaint and opposition from his hearers, but was agreeably surprised to find that in most cases his sermon only excited astonishment in their minds that they themselves had never before looked at the subject in the light in which he presented it. Steadily and faithfully pursuing the matter, he had the satisfaction to carry with him his church, and obtain from it, in the midst of a slaveholding and slavetrading community, a resolution every way worthy of note in this day of cowardly compromise with the evil on the part of our leading ecclesiastical bodies:—

"Resolved, That the slave-trade and the slavery of the Africans, as it has existed among us, is a gross violation of the righteousness and benevolence which are so much inculcated in the Gospel, and therefore we will not tolerate it in this church."

There are few instances on record of moral heroism superior to that of Samuel Hopkins, in thus rebuking slavery in the time and place of its power. Honor to the true man ever, who takes his life in his hands, and, at all hazards, speaks the word which is given him to utter, whether men will hear or forbear, whether the end thereof is to be praise or censure, gratitude or hatred. It well may be doubted whether on that Sabbath day the angels of God, in their wide survey of His universe, looked upon a nobler spectacle than that of the minister of Newport, rising up before his slaveholding congregation, and demanding, in the name of the Highest, the "deliverance of the captive, and the opening of prison doors to them that were bound."

Dr. Hopkins did not confine his attention solely to slaveholding in his own church and congregation. He entered into correspondence with the early Abolitionists of Europe as well as his own country. He labored with his brethren in the ministry to bring then to his own view of the great wrong of holding men as slaves. In a visit to his early friend, Dr. Bellamy, at Bethlehem, who was the owner of a slave, he pressed the subject kindly but earnestly upon his attention. Dr. Eellamy urged the usual arguments in favor of slavery. Dr. Hopkins refuted them in the most successful manner, and called upon his friend to do an act of simple justice, in giving immediate freedom to his slave. Dr. Bellamy, thus hardly pressed, said that the slave was a most judicious and faithful fellow; that, in the management of his farm, he could trust everything to his discretion; that he treated him well, and he was so happy in his service that he would refuse his freedom if it were offered him.

"Will you," said Hopkins, "consent to his liberation, if he really desires it?"

"Yes, certainly," said Dr. Bellamy.

"Then let us try him," said his guest.

The slave was at work in an adjoining field, and at the call of his master came promptly to receive his commands.

"Have you a good master?" inquired Hopkins.

"O yes; massa, he berry good."

"But are you happy in your present condition?" queried the Doctor.

"O yes, massa; berry happy."

Dr. Bellamy here could scarcely suppress his exultation at what he supposed was a complete triumph over his anti-slavery brother. But the pertinacious guest continued his queries.

"Would you not be more happy if you were free?"

"O yes, massa," exclaimed the negro, his dark face glowing with new life; "berry much more happy!"

To the honor of Dr. Bellamy, he did not hesitate.

"You have your wish," he said to his servant. "From this moment you are free."

Dr. Hopkins was a poor man, but one of his first acts, after becoming convinced of the wrongfulness of slavery, was to appropriate the very sum which, in the days of his ignorance, he had obtained as the price of his slave to the benevolent purpose of educating some pious colored men in the town of Newport, who were desirous of returning to their native country as missionaries. In one instance he borrowed, on his own responsibility, the sum requisite to secure the freedom of a slave in whom be became interested. One of his theological pupils was Newport Gardner, who, twenty years after the death of his kind patron, left Boston as a missionary to Africa. He was a native African, and was held by Captain Gardner, of Newport, who allowed him to labor for his own benefit, whenever by extra diligence he could gain a little time for that purpose. The poor fellow was in the habit of laying up his small earnings on these occasions, in the faint hope of one day obtaining thereby the freedom of himself and his family. But time passed on, and the hoard of purchase-money still looked sadly small. He concluded to try the efficacy of praying. Having gained a day for himself, by severe labor, and communicating his plan only to Dr. Hopkins and two or three other Christian friends, he shut himself up in his humble dwelling, and spent the time in prayer for freedom. Towards the close of the day, his master sent for him. He was told that this was his gained time, and that he was engaged for himself. "No matter," returned the master, "I must see him." Poor Newport reluctantly abandoned his supplications, and came at his master's bidding, when, to his astonishment, instead of a reprimand, he received a paper, signed by his master, declaring him and his family from thenceforth free. He justly attributed this signal blessing to the all-wise Disposer, who turns the hearts of men as the rivers of water are turned; but it cannot be doubted that the labors and arguments of Dr. Hopkins with his master were the human instrumentality in effecting it.

In the year 1773, in connection with Dr. Ezra Stiles, he issued an appeal to the Christian community in behalf of a society which he had been instrumental in forming, for the purpose of educating missionaries for Africa. In the desolate and benighted condition of that unhappy continent he had become painfully interested, by conversing with the slaves brought into Newport. Another appeal was made on the subject in 1776.

The war of the Revolution interrupted, for a time, the philanthropic plans of Dr. Hopkins. The beautiful island on which he lived was at an early period exposed to the exactions and devastations of the enemy. All who could do so left it for the mainland. Its wharves were no longer thronged with merchandise; its principal dwellings stood empty; the very meeting houses were in a great measure abandoned. Dr. Hopkins, who had taken the precaution, at the commencement of hostilities, to remove his family to Great Barrington, remained himself until the year 1776, when the British took possession of the island. During the period of its occupation, he was employed in preaching to destitute congregations. He spent the summer of 1777 at Newburyport, where his memory is still cherished by the few of his hearers who survive. In the spring of 1780, he returned to Newport. Everything had undergone a melancholy change. The garden of New England lay desolate. His once prosperous and wealthy church and congregation were now poor, dispirited, and, worst of all, demoralized. His meeting-house had been used as a barrack for soldiers; pulpit and pews had been destroyed; the very bell had been stolen. Refusing, with his characteristic denial of self, a call to settle in a more advantageous position, he sat himself down once more in the midst of his reduced and impoverished parishioners, and, with no regular salary, dependent entirely on such free-will offerings as from time to time were made him, he remained with them until his death.

In 1776, Dr. Hopkins published his celebrated "Dialogue concerning the Slavery of the Africans; showing it to be the Duty and Interest of the American States to Emancipate all their Slaves." This he dedicated to the Continental Congress, the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. It was republished in 1785, by the New York Abolition Society, and was widely circulated. A few years after, on coming unexpectedly into possession of a few hundred dollars, be devoted immediately one hundred of it to the society for ameliorating the condition of the Africans.

He continued to preach until he had reached his eighty-third year. His last sermon was delivered on the 16th of the tenth month, 1803, and his death took place in the twelfth month following. He died calmly, in the steady faith of one who had long trusted all things in the hand of God. "The language of my heart is," said he, "let God be glorified by all things, and the best interest of His kingdom promoted, whatever becomes of me or my interest." To a young friend, who visited him three days before his death, he said, "I am feeble and cannot say much. I have said all I can say. With my last words, I tell you, religion is the one thing needful." "And now," he continued, affectionately pressing the hand of his friend, "I am going to die, and I am glad of it." Many years before, an agreement had been made between Dr. Hopkins and his old and tried friend, Dr. Hart, of Connecticut, that when either was called home, the survivor should preach the funeral sermon of the deceased. The venerable Dr. Hart accordingly came, true to his promise, preaching at the funeral from the words of Elisha, "My father, my father; the chariots of Israel, and the horsemen thereof." In the burial-ground adjoining his meeting- house lies all that was mortal of Samuel Hopkins.

One of Dr. Hopkins's habitual hearers, and who has borne grateful testimony to the beauty and holiness of his life and conversation, was William Ellery Channing. Widely as he afterwards diverged from the creed of his early teacher, it contained at least one doctrine to the influence of which the philanthropic devotion of his own life to the welfare of man bears witness. He says, himself, that there always seemed to him something very noble in the doctrine of disinterested benevolence, the casting of self aside, and doing good, irrespective of personal consequences, in this world or another, upon which Dr. Hopkins so strongly insisted, as the all-essential condition of holiness.

How widely apart, as mere theologians, stood Hopkins and Channing! Yet how harmonious their lives and practice! Both could forget the poor interests of self, in view of eternal right and universal humanity. Both could appreciate the saving truth, that love to God and His creation is the fulfilling of the divine law. The idea of unselfish benevolence, which they held in common, clothed with sweetness and beauty the stern and repulsive features of the theology of Hopkins, and infused a sublime spirit of self-sacrifice and a glowing humanity into the indecisive and less robust faith of Charming. What is the lesson of this but that Christianity consists rather in the affections than in the intellect; that it is a life rather than a creed; and that they who diverge the widest from each other in speculation upon its doctrines may, after all, be found working side by side on the common ground of its practice.

We have chosen to speak of Dr. Hopkins as a philanthropist rather than as a theologian. Let those who prefer to contemplate the narrow sectarian rather than the universal man dwell upon his controversial works, and extol the ingenuity and logical acumen with which he defended his own dogmas and assailed those of others. We honor him, not as the founder of a new sect, but as the friend of all mankind,—the generous defender of the poor and oppressed. Great as unquestionably were his powers of argument, his learning, and skill in the use of the weapons of theologic warfare, these by no means constitute his highest title to respect and reverence. As the product of an honest and earnest mind, his doctrinal dissertations have at least the merit of sincerity. They were put forth in behalf of what he regarded as truth; and the success which they met with, while it called into exercise his profoundest gratitude, only served to deepen the humility and self-abasement of their author. As the utterance of what a good man believed and felt, as a part of the history of a life remarkable for its consecration to apprehended duty, these writings cannot be without interest even to those who dissent from their arguments and deny their assumptions; but in the time now, we trust, near at hand, when distracted and divided Christendom shall unite in a new Evangelical union, in which orthodoxy in life and practice shall be estimated above orthodoxy in theory, he will be honored as a good man, rather than as a successful creed-maker; as a friend of the oppressed and the fearless rebuker of popular sin rather than as the champion of a protracted sectarian war. Even now his writings, so popular in their day, are little known. The time may come when no pilgrim of sectarianism shall visit his grave. But his memory shall live in the hearts of the good and generous; the emancipated slave shall kneel over his ashes, and bless God for the gift to humanity of a life so devoted to its welfare. To him may be applied the language of one who, on the spot where he labored and lay down to rest, while rejecting the doctrinal views of the theologian, still cherishes the philanthropic spirit of the man:—

         "He is not lost,—he hath not passed away
          Clouds, earths, may pass, but stars shine calmly on;
          And he who doth the will of God, for aye
          Abideth, when the earth and heaven are gone.

         "Alas that such a heart is in the grave!'
          Thanks for the life that now shall never end!
          Weep, and rejoice, thou terror-hunted slave,
          That hast both lost and found so great a friend!"