More from J.G. Whittier in Lowell (1843)

Another excerpt from John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Stranger in Lowell” (1843).—PM


“As a matter of course, in a city like this, composed of all classes of our many-sided population, a great variety of religious sects have their representatives in Lowell. The young city is dotted over with ‘steeple houses,’ most of them of the Yankee order of architecture. The Episcopalians have a house of worship on Merrimac Street,—a pile of dark stone, with low Gothic doors and arched windows. A plat of grass lies between it and the dusty street; and near it stands the dwelling-house intended for the minister, built of the same material as the church and surrounded by trees and shrubbery. The attention of the stranger is also attracted by another consecrated building on the slope of Belvidere—one of Irving’s ‘shingle palaces,’ painted in imitation of stone—a great wooden sham, ‘whelked and horned’ with pine spires and turrets—a sort of whittled representation of the many-headed beast of the Apocalypse.

“In addition to the established sects which have reared their visible altars in the city of Spindles, there are many who have not yet marked the boundaries or set up the pillars and stretched out the curtains of their sectarian tabernacles; who, in halls and ‘upper chambers’ and in the solitude of their own homes, keep alive the spirit of devotion, and, wrapping closely around them the mantles of their order, maintain the integrity of its peculiarities in the midst of an unbelieving generation.

“Not long since, in company with a friend who is a regular attendant, I visited the little meeting of the disciples of Emanuel Swendenborg. Passing over Chapel Hill and leaving the city behind us, we reached the stream which winds through the beautiful woodlands at the Powder Mills and mingles its waters with the Concord. The hall in which the followers of the Gothland seer meet is small and plain, with unpainted seats, like those of ‘the people called Quakers,’ and looks out upon the still woods and that ‘willowy stream which turns a mill.’ An organ of small size, yet, as it seemed to me, vastly out of proportion with the room, filled the place usually occupied by the pulpit, which was here only a plain desk, placed modestly by the side of it. The congregation have no regular preacher; but the exercises of reading the Scriptures,  prayers, and selections from the Book of Worship were conducted by one of the lay members. A manuscript sermon, by a clergyman of the order in Boston, was read, and apparently listened to with much interest. It was well written and deeply imbued with the doctrines of the church. I was impressed by the gravity and serious earnestness of the little audience. . . . I could scarcely make the fact a reality, as I sat among them, that here, in the midst of our bare and hard utilities, in the very centre and heart of our mechanical civilization, were devoted and undoubting believers in the mysterious and wonderful revelations of the Swedish prophet, — revelations . . . literally unmasking the universe and laying bare the profoundest mysteries of life.”