Sue Young Histories

Thomas Wentworth Higginson 1823 - 1911

March 09, 2008

Thomas Wentworth Higginson 1823 –
1911Thomas Wentworth Higginson 1823 – 1911 was an American minister, author, editor, abolitionist and soldier. Strongly influenced by Theodore Parker and William Lloyd Garrison, he married Mary Elizabeth Channing (his second cousin) whose family advocated homeopathy.

Higginson was active in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s, identifying himself with disunion and militant abolitionism.

During the Civil War, He served as colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized African-American regiment, from 1862-1864.

Following the war, Higginson devoted much of the rest of his life to fighting for the rights of freed slaves, women and other disenfranchised peoples…

He invited Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson and fugitive slave William Wells Brown to speak at the church; in sermons he condemned northern apathy towards slavery…

Higginson was a fervent supporter of John Brown and is remembered as one of the “Secret Six” abolitionists who helped Brown raise money and procure supplies for the intended slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry.

Meanwhile, mounting frustration over the failure to achieve peaceful emancipation made many abolitionists receptive to Brown’s violent approach.

Some of them, known subsequently as the “secret six” - Franklin Sanborn, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, George Luther Stearns, Gerrit Smith, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Theodore Parker

  • were aware of his intentions and became his financial supporters.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a strong advocate of homeopathy. In 1863 he wrote to Mary Channing Higginson -

".. and also Ms. [Laura Matilda Towne](/archives/2008/02/02/laura-matilda-towne-and-homeopathy/), the homeopathic physician of the department, chief teacher and probably the most energetic person this side of civilisation: a person of splendid health and astonishing capacity....

I think she has done more for me than anyone else by prescribing homeopathic arsenic as a tonic, one powder every day on rising, and it has already, I think (3 doses) affected me.”

Higginson was also a Spiritualist:

Spiritualism also developed out of specific religious conditions. Scholars have devoted themselves to explaining the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and mystic, in seeking the roots of modern Spiritualism…

His basic notion was the doctrine of “correspondence,” that there was a spiritual equivalent to each and every material object. Spiritualist testimony about the life after death almost invariably derives from Emanuel Swedenborg’s meditations.

Tracing the origins of these ideas, however, is only part of the challenge we face. We also need to figure out why they became so influential when and where they did. Why should reform-minded Northerners, male and female, have turned to the works of a truly obscure mystic who wrote in Latin?

Part of the answer lies in their dissatisfaction with their own religious tradition. What was happening within American Protestantism, and especially within its most “liberal” denomination, Unitarianism, which turned so many of its adherents into spiritual seekers?

The works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who became an active spiritualist in the 1850s and who is even more neglected by historians of spiritualism than Cora Hatch), Adin Ballou, and Lucretia Mott provide a far better avenue into the mindset of spiritualists than the collected works of Andrew Jackson Davis and Emanuel Swedenborg.

Higginson is also remembered as a correspondent and literary mentor to Emily Dickinson.

In April of 1862, a few months before he assumed command of the First (Black Regiment) South Carolina Volunteers of the Union Army, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an editor of The Atlantic Monthly, published perhaps the most fruitful letter of advice ever written by an editor, “Letter to a Young Contributor.”

Convinced that “To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as … of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera,” Higginson offered an open hand to new talent.

He explained the interlocking roles of editor and contributor, certain that most of his journal’s readers either “might, would, could, or should be _The Atlantic Monthly_’s contributors.” One of those who “might, would, could, or should” was the young, unpublished Emily Dickinson, who responded to the letter by submitting a few poems—and the rest is literary history.

It is noted in passing that Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s older brother, Dr. Francis John Higginson, was well acquainted with homeopath Robert Wesselhoeft, having a practice in Brattleboro for forty years.

Higginson was at the centre of a group of transcendentalists and radical activitists, he knew Caroline Wells Healey Dall, The Peabody Sisters, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, William Lloyd Garrison, and Phebe Hanaford, Theodore Dwight Weld, Mark Twain, Margaret Fuller and many more such interesting people.

Higginson also assisted Helen Hunt Jackson:

At 35, when Helen emerged into society, she redefined her life as a writer of poetry… Ready to launch her writing career she moved to Newport, Rhode Island where writing was a way of life and Thomas Wentworth Higginson ruled the city as its King.

As an advocate of controversy, Helen was drawn to Higginson because of his outspoken support of women. It was through Higginson that she met such people as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Julia Ward Howe.

Her relationship with Higginson was one of a passionate friendship kept from fulfillment by his wife Mary who was ill much of the time. On many occasions, Helen acted as his hostess as someone else would do for her in the future. The two spent a great deal of time together over the next 5 years…

The novel that evolved during that difficult winter of William’s campaign was ”Mercy Philbrick’s Choice” It was the story of a woman much like Helen herself: energetic, resilient, an individualist who did things with an intensity that she sometimes later regretted. So much of that book seemed to be patterned after her relationship with Thomas Higginson and his wife Mary.

Higginson’s correspondence made its way into the Garrison family archives:

The fourth subseries, Friends and associates, consists of the same type of materials as subseries three with the addition of published writings and memorabilia.

This subseries contains information on many noted people. Although most of the material included here concerns friends of the Garrisons, there is also information about others that that the family collected. They include Susan B. Anthony; Alice Stone Blackwell (homeopath and daughter of Lucy Stone); Josephine Elizabeth Butler; Frederick Douglass; Henry George; Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Harriet Martineau; Lucy McKim Garrison, the May and Pankhurst families; Theodore Parker; Wendell Phillips; Parker Pillsbury; Joseph Lindon Smith (including drawings and sketches); Harriet Tubman; Booker T. Washington; Theodore Dwight Weld; and Marie Zakrzewska.


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