Walt Whitman and Quaker Preacher Elias Hicks
Walt Whitman Elias Hicks

AS MYSELF A LITTLE BOY hearing so much of Elias Hicks, at that time—and more than once personally seeing the old man--and my dear, dear father and mother faithful listeners to him at the meetings--

Though it is sixty years ago since--and I a little boy at the time in Brooklyn, New York--I can remember my father coming home toward sunset from his day’s work as carpenter and saying briefly, as he throws down his armful of kindling blocks with a bounce on the kitchen floor, "Come, mother, Elias preaches tonight," Then my mother, hastening the supper and the table-cleaning afterward, gets a neighboring woman to step in....puts the two little ones to bed, and as I had been behaving well that day, as a special reward I was allow’d to go also.

We start for the meeting. Though as I said, the stretch of more than half a century has passed over me since then, with its war and peace, and all its joys and sins and deaths (and what a half century! I can recall that meeting yet. It is a strange place for religious devotions. Elias preaches anywhere--no respect of buildings--private or public houses, school-rooms, barns, even theatres-- anything that will accommodate. This time is in a handsome ball-room, on Brooklyn Heights, overlooking New York....the second story of "Morrison’s Hotel," used for the most genteel concerts, balls, and assemblies--a large cheerful, gay-color’d room, with glass chandeliers bearing myriads of sparkling pendants, plenty of settees and chairs....all the principal dignitaries of the town.....On a slightly elevated platform at the head of the room, facing the audience, sit a dozen or more Friends, most of them elderly, grim, and with their broad-brimmed hats on their heads. Three or four women, too, in their characteristic Quaker costumes and bonnets. All still as the grave.

AT LENGTH AFTER a pause and stillness becoming painful, Elias Hicks rises and stands for a moment or two without a word. A tall, straight figure, neither stout nor very thin, dressed in drab cloth, clean-shaved face, forehead of great expanse, and large and clear black eyes, long or middling long white hair; he was at this time between 80 and 81 years of age, his head still wearing the broad-brim. A moment looking around the audience with those piercing eyes, amid the perfect stillness. (I can almost see him and the whole scene now.) Then the words come from his lips, very emphatically and slowly pronounced, in a resonant, grave, melodious voice. "What is the chief end of Man?"... (I cannot follow the discourse.) Most of his discourses….they were extempore. Of one, however, delivered in Chester, Pa.. .there is a careful transcript; and from it….we give the following extract:

"I don't want to express a great many words; but I want you to be called home to the substance. For the Scriptures, and all the books in the world, can do no more: Jesus could do no more than to recommend to the Comforter, which was the light in him. 'God is light, and in him is no darkness at all; and if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another.' Because the light is one in all, and therefore it binds us together in the bonds of love; for it is not only light, but love--that love which casts out all fear. So that they who dwell in God dwell in love, and they are constrained to walk in it; and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin."

"But what blood, my friends? Did Jesus Christ, the Saviour, ever have any material blood? Not a drop of it, my friends--not a drop of it. That blood which cleanseth from the life of all sin, was the life of the soul of Jesus. The soul of man has no material blood; but as the outward material blood, created form the dust of the earth, is the life of these bodies of flesh, so with respect to the soul, the immortal and invisible spirit, its blood is that life which God breathed into it…."

THERE IS A SORT of nature of persons I have compared to little rills of water, fresh, from perennial springs--(and the comparison is indeed an appropriate one)--persons not so very plenty, yet some few certainly of them running over the surface and area of humanity, all times, all lands. It is a specimen of this class I would now present. I would sum up in Elias Hicks, and make his case stand for the class, the sort, in all ages, all lands, sparse, not numerous yet enough to irrigate the soil--enough to prove the inherent moral stock and irrepressible devotional aspirations growing indigenously of themselves, always advancing, and never utterly gone under or lost.

Always Elias Hicks gives the service of pointing to the fountain of all naked theology, all religion, all worship, all the truth to which you are possibly eligible--namely yourself and your inherent relations. Others talk of Bibles, saints, churches, exhortations, vicarious atonements—the canons outside of yourself and apart from man--Elias Hicks to the religion inside of man’s very own nature. This he incessantly labors to kindle, nourish, educate, bring forward and strengthen. He is the most democratic of the religionists--the prophets...

Of course what Elias promulg’d spread a great commotion among the Friends. Sometimes when he resented himself to speak in the meeting, there would be opposition--this led to angry words, gestures, unseemly noises, recriminations. Elias, at such times, was deeply affected--the tears rolled in streams down his cheeks--he silently waited the close of the dispute. "Let the Friend speak: let the Friend speak!" he would say when his supporters in the meeting tried to bluff off some violent orthodox person objecting to the new doctrinaire. But he never recanted.—Walt Whitman, 1888.


Added 7th Month 20, 1998

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