James F. Clarke

“Conscience in the soul is the root of all true courage. If a man would be brave, let him learn to obey his conscience.”

James Freeman Clarke (April 4, 1810 – June 8, 1888) was an American theologian and author. He was one of the very first Americans to explore and write about Eastern religions. A portrait of Clarke, painted by E.T. Billings, hangs in the Boston Public Library.

  • Born in Hanover, New Hampshire, James Freeman Clarke attended the Boston Latin School, graduated from Harvard College in 1829, and Harvard Divinity School in 1833.
  • Ordained into the Unitarian church he first became an active minister at Louisville, Kentucky, then a slave state, and soon threw himself into the national movement for the abolition of slavery.
  • His mild theology was unusual for the conservative town and, reportedly, several women walked out of his first sermon.
  • As he wrote to his friend Margaret Fuller, “I am a broken-winged hawk, seeking to fly at the sun, but fluttering in the dust.”

In 1839 he returned to Boston where he and his friends established (1841) the Church of the Disciples which brought together a body of people to apply the Christian religion to social problems of the day.

  • One of the features that distinguished his church was Clarke’s belief that ordination could make no distinction between him and them. They also were called to be ministers of the highest religious life.
  • Of this church he was the minister from 1841 until 1850 and again from 1854 until his death. He was also secretary of the Unitarian Association and, in 1867-1871, professor of natural religion and Christian doctrine at Harvard.
  • Clarke contributed essays to The Christian Examiner, The Christian Inquirer, The Christian Register, The Dial, Harper’s, The Index, and Atlantic Monthly.
  • In addition to sermons, speeches, hymnals, and liturgies, he published 28 books and over 120 pamphlets during his lifetime.
    • Clarke edited the Western Messenger, a magazine intended to carry to readers in the Mississippi Valley simple statements of liberal religion and what were then the most radical appeals to national duty and the abolition of slavery.
    • Copies of this magazine are now valued by collectors for containing the earliest printed poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a personal friend and a distant cousin.
    • Clarke became a member of the Transcendental Club alongside Emerson and several others.
    • Many of Clarke’s earlier published writings were addressed to the immediate need of establishing a larger theory of religion than that espoused by people who were still under the influence of Calvinism.

In 1855, Clarke purchased the former site of Brook Farm, intending to start a new Utopian community there.

  • This never came to pass, instead the land was offered to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War; the Second Massachusetts Regiment used it for training and named it “Camp Andrew.”
  • In November 1861, Clarke was in Washington, D.C. with Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe.
  • After hearing the song “John Brown’s Body”, he suggested that Mrs. Howe write new lyrics; the result was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Clarke was an advocate of human rights.

  • Being a Boston Latin School alumnus, he served on a committee of the Massachusetts Society for the University Education of Women which was greatly instrumental in establishing Girls’ Latin School in 1878.
  • Tempered and moderate in his views of life, he was a reformer and a conciliator and never carried a pistol as fellow preacher Theodore Parker did.
  • He published few verses, but is regarded by some as a poet at heart. A diligent scholar, among the books by which he became well known is one called Ten Great Religions (2 vols, 1871–1883).

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