Lydia Maria Child (February 11, 1802-Oct. 20, 1880) was a novelist, editor, journalist and scholar who produced a body of work remarkable for its brilliance, originality and variety, much of it inspired by a strong sense of justice and love of freedom. Little known today, in her own time she was a famously radical abolitionist. She was a student of world religions with a breadth of vision and understanding extraordinary for her time. She was lonely religiously, dissatisfied with the institutional church and hungry for spiritual nourishment. Child is now remembered primarily, if at all, as author of the Thanksgiving poem, “Over the river and through the wood . . . ” She deserves an honored place in American and in Unitarian history, though she was critical of the Unitarianism of her day.
Born in Medford, Massachusetts, Lydia was the youngest of seven children of Susannah Rand Francis and Convers Francis, a successful baker and businessman. Though the home atmosphere reflected her father’s stern Calvinism, she grew up under the wing of her bookish older brother Convers and attended local schools and Medford’s First Parish, an orthodox Congregational church. When she was nine, her brother left home to attend Harvard College. Possessed of an eager, inquiring mind, Lydia missed his encouragement in her studies, but she was free to use the library of the Rev. David Osgood, the First Parish minister.
In 1814, after the death of her mother and the marriage of her favorite sister Mary, her father decided Lydia would be better off in Mary’s new home in Norridgewock, Maine. There Lydia helped with household chores but continued to read, study and correspond with her brother. She also visited a nearby Penobscot settlement, beginning a lifelong interest in Native Americans.
In 1819 Lydia took a teaching position in Gardiner, Maine where she discovered the thought of Emanuel Swedenborg. “You need not fear my becoming a Swedenborgian,” she wrote her brother Convers in May, 1820. “I am more in danger of wrecking on the rocks of skepticism than of standing on the shoals of fanaticism. I am apt to regard a system of religion as I do any other beautiful theory. It plays round the imagination, but fails to reach the heart. I wish I could find some religion in which my heart and understanding could unite; that amidst the darkest clouds of this life I might ever be cheered with the mild halo of religious consolation.”
Returning to Massachusetts in 1821, she was baptized at First Parish in Medford. Thereafter she always preferred her chosen baptismal name, Maria. Still in her teens, she was engaged in a religious search that would continue all her life. Though she was living with her brother, now a Unitarian minister at First Parish in Watertown, and attending his church regularly, she became a member of the Boston Society of the New Jerusalem in 1822. Apparently, she maintained some connection there until the 1830s, when the pro-slavery stance of the pastor made her doubt “whether such a church could have come down from heaven.” Later she was drawn to the preaching of William Ellery Channing, though she despaired over his reluctance to embrace abolitionism wholeheartedly. She found Unitarianism “a mere half-way house, where spiritual travelers find themselves well accommodated for the night, but where they grow weary of spending the day.”
In Watertown Maria set to work on a novel, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times, 1824, the first historical novel published in the United States. The story of was of a colonial New England girl who, when her fiancé was lost at sea, turned for support to a sympathetic Native American, lived with him in his village and bore his son. When her English lover returned, Hobomok nobly encouraged her to marry her fiancé, who adopted the half breed boy. The novel drew on Maria’s Maine experience to give an unusually sympathetic picture of Native Americans, commonly thought of as savages. Though she published anonymously, Maria was soon known as the author and was an instant celebrity. She continued to write novels and stories and became editor of The Juvenile Miscellany, a new and popular children’s magazine, one of the first of its kind.
In 1828 Maria married David Child, an idealistic but improvident lawyer and journalist whose debts exposed him to litigation and imprisonment and drained his wife’s earnings. Theirs was a loving marriage of like minds in political matters, though David’s ardor for good causes drew him into one impractical venture after another. The following year Maria published The Frugal Housewife, describing her ingenious methods of making do with little means. The popularity of the book helped to keep the household afloat as the couple moved from one temporary home to another.
Maria wrote five volumes of the Ladies Family Library, short biographies exemplifying feminine virtues, published from 1832 to 1835, for the growing audience of middle-class women. She included two of her heroines, Germaine de Staël and Manon Roland, known for their independence of mind. The last two volumes ambitiously covered The History and Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations.
In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison began publication of his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. Maria later recalled that Garrison “got hold of the strings of my conscience, and pulled me into Reforms. . . . Old dreams vanished, old associates departed, and all things became new.” She threw her support to Garrison and the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. Closely associated with active abolitionists and Unitarians like Henry and Maria Weston Chapman, Louisa and Ellis Gray Loring, Wendell Phillips and Samuel J. May, she began to write for the cause.
Publication of An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, 1833 marked a turning point in Child’s career. Outspoken in her condemnation of slavery, she pointed out its contradiction with Christian teachings, described the moral and physical degradation it brought upon slaves and owners alike, not omitting the issue of miscegenation, and not excepting the North from its share of responsibility for the system. “I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken,” she wrote in the introduction, “but though I expect ridicule and censure, it is not in my nature to fear them.”
The public was far from ready to accept what were considered extreme views. Sales of her books fell off, publishers refused to accept anything she wrote, and she lost her editorial post with The Juvenile Miscellany. The already strapped Childs paid a steep price, but more abolitionist tracts and stories followed.
From 1841-43 Lydia Maria Child served successfully as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the weekly New York newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. She and David were listed together on the masthead, but he stayed behind attempting to start a sugar beet industry in Massachusetts. “Such as I am, I am here,” she wrote in her first editorial, “ready to work according to my conscience and my ability; providing nothing but diligence and fidelity, refusing the shadow of a fetter on my free expression of opinion, from any man, or body of men and equally careful to respect the freedom of others, whether as individuals or societies.”
Two years later dissension within the movement caused Maria to resign the post. Garrison advocated staying out of government, even to the extent of refusing to vote, as a protest against union with slaveholders. New York abolitionists opposed his position, and Maria, who had built the Standard’s circulation as a family newspaper, felt it would alienate the audience she wished to reach with an antislavery appeal.
She separated from the movement but stayed on in New York and continued writing. Still hungry for a satisfying church affiliation, she commented, “The Unitarian meetings here chill me with their cold intellectual respectability.” Nor did the Swedenborgians or Episcopalians meet her needs. The art and music in the city fed her soul, though she was appalled by the poverty. She published Letters from New York, 1843 and 1845, popular collections of her regular columns in the Standard. Fortunately, New York State law allowed Maria to separate her income from David’s and to build up some savings protected from his debts.
Returning to Massachusetts, the Childs settled in the Wayland home of Maria’s aging father, with occasional intervals, her home for the rest of her life. Here she completed her three-volume work, The Progress of Religious Ideas through Successive Ages, 1854. She intended these volumes to remove “the superstitious rubbish from the sublime morality of Christ” and to give respectful attention to other world religions. Despite the immense labor of her research and positive reviews, the work did not sell well. Thomas Wentworth Higginson commented that it was “too learned for a popular book and too popular for a learned one.”
Meanwhile, the uproar precipitated by the 1850 Compromise and related events roused Maria’s abolitionist spirit. When John Brown raided the Harper’s Ferry arsenal, his example, Maria wrote, “stirred me up to consecrate myself with renewed earnestness to the righteous cause for which he died so bravely.” She wrote to Brown, praising his courage and offering to come and nurse his wounds. She sent a copy of her letter to Governor Henry Wise of Virginia, who responded condemning Brown’s action. When the correspondence was published in the New York Tribune, Maria received a flood of congratulations from the North and condemnation from the South.
Living in Medford for the winter of 1860-61, Maria plunged into Boston activism, writing that “When there is anti-slavery work to be done, I feel as young as twenty.” Back in Wayland when war broke out, she gathered supplies for the “contrabands,” slaves who fled for safety to Union lines, and compiled her Freedmen’s Book, a reading primer for former slaves.
After the war Maria supported the suffrage cause. She was a founder of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, though she believed black men should have the vote first. She also renewed her work on behalf of Native Americans, deploring the requirement that Cherokees leave their tribal lands and upholding the right of native people to their own language and religion.
When a group of Unitarians founded the Free Religious Association in 1867, Maria discovered their viewpoint agreed with her own. She attended FRA meetings regularly during her stays in Boston, more frequent after David’s death in 1874. In 1878 she published her own “eclectic Bible” of quotations from the world’s religions, Aspirations of the World, her motive, “to do all I can to enlarge and strengthen the hand of human brotherhood.”
Free of David’s care and enjoying financial security for the first time in her life, she gave generously to causes dear to her heart. When she died on October 20, 1880, her estate was valued at $36,000. Wendell Phillips gave the eulogy in a service at her Wayland home. She was “ready to die for a principle and starve for an idea,” Phillips said. “We felt that neither fame, nor gain, nor danger, nor calumny had any weight with her.” She was buried beside her husband in the town’s old burial ground.
Child’s papers can be found at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts; the Boston Public Library; the New York Public Library; the Milton Ross Collection, Corona del Mar, California; Cornell University Library; the Library of Congress; the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts; the Medford Historical Society, Medford, Massachusetts; the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Houghton Library at Harvard, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston, Massachusetts; and the Wayland Historical Society, Wayland, Massachusetts. Most of her correspondence is published on microfiche in The Collected Letters of Lydia Maria Child, edited by Patricia G. Holland, Milton Meltzer, and Francine Krasno (1980). A smaller version of this is available: Milton Meltzer and Patricia B. Holland, eds., Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817-1880 (1982).
Aside from the works mentioned in the article above Child wrote Anti-Slavery Catechism (1836), Philothea, a Romance (1836), The Evils of Slavery and the Cure of Slavery (1836), Duty of Disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), Isaac T. Hopper: A True Life (1853), The Patriarchal Institution, as Described by Members of its Own Family (1860), and The Right Way, the Safe Way, Proved by Emancipation in the British West Indies (1860).
Modern biographies of Child include Helene G. Baer, The Heart Is Like Heaven: The Life of Lydia Maria Child (1964); Milton Meltzer, Tongue of Flame: The Life of Lydia Maria Child (1965); William S. Osborne, Lydia Maria Child (1980); Deborah Pickman Clifford, Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia Maria Child (1992); and Carolyn L. Karcher, The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child (1995). Lori Kenschaft’s Lydia Maria Child: The Quest for Racial Justice (2002) is a short biography aimed at high school students. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a biographical introduction to Letters of Lydia Maria Child (1882).
Article by Joan Goodwin
Posted February 28, 2001