In the 21st century, mentors are needed even more than ever. Sometimes we find them within our contemporary context, sometimes within the pages of history. This topic especially springs to mind each January when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (commemoration of his birthday) rolls around. He served as mentor for many, during his lifetime and beyond with his enduring legacy. Rev. Rudi Gelsey, a dear colleague of mine, met Dr. King in the 1960s. He influenced this Unitarian Universalist minister to complement the comforts of congregational life with front line activism. Rudi, among other actions, joined King and thousands at Selma in March 1965. These brave men and women marched for equal voting rights for all Americans regardless of race. Rudi and his wife Trudi later met Dr. King face-to-face in what became a highlight of Rudi’s life. In later years, he earned a Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for his social activism.
While Rudi found this main mentor in his own lifetime, one of the most influential women in my life came to me through the portal of time. I “met” Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) during my doctorate. She was one of the most well-known authors and activists of 19th-century United States. During a particularly arduous campus campaign in the mid-1990s, the voice of Maria Child reached out to me through her letters and published writings. I recalled that Maria stayed the course of social activism for fifty years. Her words and actions sustained me during those difficult days. I reminded myself that if she could remain engaged for five decades with some of the most harrowing moments of her century, I could and would continue with my calling as an independent scholar and activist.
In like manner, Maria had her mentors. Among her guides, she counted William Lloyd Garrison and William Ellery Channing as two of the most significant ones. An early encounter with Garrison drew her into the wide world of 19th-century reforms. She and Garrison remained friends and colleagues throughout their days. Channing’s wisdom encouraged her to allow her life to be fed and nurtured beyond her activist activities. This guidance helped ground and center her, especially during rocky times. Just as Garrison’s and Channing’s words and actions fed and guided Maria in the 19th century, they can reach out to us in the 21st century.
William Lloyd Garrison
An encounter with the well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) in the early 1830s drew Maria into the world of reforms. Her description of that first meeting suggested a conversion experience. She described that encounter in her public remarks after Garrison’s death in 1879:
I remember very distinctly the first time I ever saw Garrison. I little thought then that the whole pattern of my life-web would be changed by that introduction. I was then all absorbed in poetry and painting,–soaring aloft, on Psyche-wings, into the ethireal [sic] regions of mysticism. He got hold of the strings of my conscience, and pulled me into Reforms. It is of no use to imagine what might have been, if I had never met him. Old dreams vanished, old associates departed, and all things became new. But the new surroundings were all alive, and they brought a moral discipline worth ten times the sacrifice they cost. But why use the word sacrifice? I was never conscious of any sacrifice. A new stimulus siezed [sic] my whole being, and carried me whithersoever it could. “I could not otherwise, so help me God!”
[Letter from Child to Anne Whitney, 25 May 1879.]
Maria remained an activist the rest of her life, almost fifty years. Besides abolitionism, her reform work found three other major areas of social and political reform—equal rights for freedpeople, women’s rights, and American Indian survival. She added additional causes as she could such as trying to stop anti-Chinese agitation in the 1870s. Maria’s work for religious toleration became her fourth major campaign. She and fellow reformers believed that religious intolerance and dogmatism often preceded injustices in other realms of communal life.
By the time Garrison died in May 1879, Maria had full confidence in his direct transition into the next realm. She communicated this to their mutual friend John Greenleaf Whittier:
How could such a spirit die? I wish he could tell us something about it, in a way we could trust. But, assuredly, my friend there is no such thing as death. The whole universe is a marvelous evolution of ever changing forms. … [A]nd why should not they [persons like an Emerson, a Whittier, a Garrison] evolve into seraphs, with immensely larger powers acting under laws as different from those that regulate our earth, as air is from water?
[Letter from Child to [John Greenleaf] Whittier, 18 June 1879]
When sending a letter of sympathy to Garrison’s son Frank, Maria hoped to console him with these thoughts of the ongoing connection to the afterlife: “He had such a realizing sense of the continuity of life, that the passing from one plane of existence to another was merely going from one room to another room full of friends all eager to welcome him. In such a life and such a death, there is nothing to mourn for”[30 May 1879]. Fittingly, in her last article published in August 1879 in the Atlantic Monthly, she paid tribute to Garrison.
William Ellery Channing
William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), an American theologian and leading Unitarian in 19th-century United States, encouraged Maria to live a more balanced life. She never forgot those words. They gave her permission to soar into the spiritual and cultural realms when her soul called out for rest from reforms. In like manner, Maria deeply influenced Channing, drawing him into the anti-slavery circles and fighting to end the enslavement of black men, women, and children.
Maria experienced a very difficult time in the early 1840s. From 1841-3, she edited the National Anti-Slavery Standard. By doing do, she became the first woman in the United States to serve in this capacity for a national newspaper dealing with political issues. She did not have an easy time. She received some backlash due to being a woman in the role; other push back for trying to contain costs while the American Anti-Slavery Society (the paper’s backer) desired expansion. After two years, she was burned out. She needed time away from the newspaper as well as the abolitionist movement itself. The conflicts within the paper simply mirrored wider rifts. To top this off, she and her husband David Child were undergoing difficulties. They separated during this time.
All these factors affected Maria to her core. She suffered physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion. For her professional and personal rejuvenation, Maria chose the emerging cultural scene of New York City. She prioritized her literary career over reformist writing during this time (the 1840s). While never abandoning the antislavery cause, she continued this passion with informal actions and occasional writing on the topic. Her focus on individual conscience became the thread uniting both aspects of her professional life.
Advice from Channing especially guided her during this time of burnout and needed rest, helping her move forward to a more grounded state of being. In 1842, just six months before he died, Channing encouraged Maria to continually cultivate the other parts of her personality. He cautioned:
You see I would wed you and myself to reform, and yet we must do something more than reformers. We must give our nature a fair chance. We must not wither it by too narrow modes of action. Let your genius have free play. We are better reformers, because calmer and wiser, because we have more weapons to work with, if we give a wide range to thought, imagination, taste, and the affections. We must be cheerful, too, in our war with evil; for gloom is apt to become sullenness, ill-humor, and bitterness.
[Channing to Child, 12 March, 1842]
In Maria’s reminiscences of Dr. Channing after his death, she confirmed the impact of his words:
I owe him great thanks for helping to preserve me from the one-sidedness into which zealous reformers are apt to run. He never sought to under-value the importance of anti-slavery, but he said many things to prevent my looking upon it as the only question interesting to humanity. My mind needed this check, and I never think of his many-sided conversations without deep gratitude.
[Reminiscences of Dr. Channing by Mrs. Child, Written after His Death and Published in His Memoirs, The Letters of Lydia Maria Child. With a Biographical Introduction by John Greenleaf Whittier (Boston, 1833), 48]
Who Are Your Mentors?
Maria Child, William Lloyd Garrison, and William Ellery Channing left part of themselves in the earthly realm with their written legacies. If we are drawn to them, they can and do guide us in the 21st century. May we rejoice in knowing that we are not alone. If we choose, the words and actions from our foremothers and forefathers strengthen and guide us as we find our places within our 21st-century world.
Who are your mentors? Do you interact with them in the here and now or do they step forward through the pages of time?