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The Story of Emily Dickinson and Rev. Charles Wadsworth

    January 01, 1900 | Our Member's Stories by Casey Thompson

    The Story of Emily Dickinson and Charles Wadsworth

    May 23, 2018

    At Log College Press, we like to say that "History isn't dead. Primary sources aren't dry and dusty. American Presbyterians aren't irrelevant."

    An example of this is found in today's window on 19th century American Presbyterian history. A perusal of the partial contents of the library of one of America's most famous poets - Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) - reveals that in addition to the many poets one might expect to find on her shelves, she also owned volumes written by several of the authors found on this site, including Archibald Alexander, Lyman Beecher, William Buell Sprague, and Charles Wadsworth.

    The latter was serving as the minister at the Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1855 when Emily and her family ventured from their Amherst, Massachusetts homestead to visit Washington, DC and then Philadelphia. It was then, while spending two weeks with her school friend Eliza Coleman, that Emily first met Charles Wadsworth (1814-1882), presumably in attendance upon his preaching. They only met in person two other times (in 1860 and in 1880), but they also exchanged a series of letters over many years, only one of which (from Wadsworth to Dickinson, probably dated 1862) has survived. This correspondence began in 1858, when Dickinson asked Wadsworth for counsel concerning her mother's illness. She had also been sent a copy of one of his sermons earlier in the year. It is known that Dickinson's letters to Wadsworth were forwarded to him by her friend Mary Holland. The impact of Charles, who was married, upon Emily, who never married, is well documented, nonetheless. Emily would go on to refer to him as "my Philadelphia," "my Clergyman," "my dearest earthly friend" and "my Shepherd from 'Little Girl'hood."

    In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Dickinson experienced "an explosion of creativity" (she wrote 52 poems in the year 1858 alone and that number would steadily rise in succeeding years). The contents of these poems indicate strong feelings of passion and sometimes despair in the heart of the poet. Although Dickinson's letters were mostly destroyed after her death per her wishes, three drafts of letters addressed to "Master," which are viewed by many as intended love letters, did survive. They come from the period of 1858-1862, but the identity of the "Master" to whom they were addressed has never definitively established. Wadsworth moved to San Francisco in 1862 to take up a pastorate there. Wadsworth may have mentioned to her the previous year of his plans to relocate, and it is believed that Dickinson wore white dresses only commencing in 1861 and continuing the remainder of her life.

    In 1863, George Burrowes (1811-1894), living in California, wrote his Impressions of Dr. Wadsworth as a Preacher. His account helps modern readers to understand better the private nature of the man and also the popularity and appeal of Wadsworth in the pulpit, both to the crowds of his day and to one particular poet-in-residence at Amherst (pp. 13-15): "

    No preaching can be popular without being practical. His preaching is eminently practical. It shows great shrewdness and penetration into the heart and into the motives operating in daily life. It owes not its interest to startling novelties; it does not draw its power from oratorical elocution. It is not rhetorical; it is not flowery; it is not metaphysical. It is not addressed to some particular fancy or idiosyncrasy of the day. You cannot detect in him any shade of resemblance to the features of the family of sensation-preachers. He has nothing in common with them. The very appearance of the man in the pulpit shows his abhorrence of claptrap and cant. You see that self is left in the background. His case is a fulfillment of the promise, 'He that shall humble himself, shall be exalted.' — Matt. 23: 12. He shrinks from public notoriety, public demonstrations, and public applause. He possesses eminently, so much so that it is a deficiency in his character, the very unusual disposition to undervalue himself and his productions. He cannot understand how he could ever be viewed as a preacher of mark and power. The crowds that have ever hung around his ministry, are to him alone a mystery. After sermons under which all hearts in a crowded congregation are melted down, and recover from their breathless and even painful attention with admiration and tears, he alone will sit down overcome with a sense of failure and of little worth in so magnificent an effort. Nor is this feeling of personal shortcoming and unworthiness a mere pretense, a maneuver for drawing forth expressions of admiration. It is a deep, honest conviction, resulting from a constitutional peculiarity that can never be removed. A humility so unfeigned, allied with so much greatness, and mellowed, no less than deepened, by divine grace, throws a great charm around the character, and gives an attractiveness seldom met in such a world."

    Dickinson owned at least two volumes of Wadsworth's sermons, and writers such as Paul Meibert Miller, Charles Wadsworth: Spiritual Preceptor to Emily Dickinson (1987), and The Relevance of the Rev. Charles Wadsworth to the poet Emily Dickinson (1991); Benjamin Lease, Emily Dickinson's Readings of Men and Books: Sacred Soundings (1990); and Mary Lee Stephenson Huffer, Emily Dickinson's Experiential Poetics and Rev. Dr. Charles Wadsworth's Rhetoric of Sensation: The Intellectual Friendship Between the Poet and a Pastor (2007); have demonstrated the influence of his sermons on her poetry, as have many of Dickinson's biographers. James Sulzer has written a fictional account, based on the letters and poems of Emily Dickson and the sermons of Charles Wadsworth, of their first meeting in 1855 and beyond, titled The Voice at the Door: A Novel of Emily Dickson (2013).

    Wadsworth moved back to Philadelphia in 1869 and continued to minister there until his death on April 1, 1882. Dickinson's correspondence with others after Wadsworth's death reveals much of how greatly she esteemed him. In a letter to Elizabeth Holland, for example, she wrote "All other Surprise is at last monotonous, but the Death of the Loved is all moments - now - Love has but one Date - 'The first of April' / 'Yesterday, Today and Forever.'"

    From 1882 until her death four years later, she also corresponded with James D. Clark, perhaps Wadsworth's closest friend, who sent her a volume of his sermons as well as his photograph, while she inquired about details concerning Wadsworth's life, and represented Wadsworth in a brief poem contained in one letter to Clark, which linked "the dead minister to the living Christ" (Benjamin Lease, Ibid., p. 33):

    Obtaining but his own extent
    In whatsoever Realm -
    'Twas Christ's own personal Expanse
    That bore him from the Tomb.

    All the evidence that scholars have from the writings of both Charles Wadsworth and Emily Dickinson points to the known and certain facts that he was her greatly esteemed spiritual mentor and confidant, that he was and remained til death a happily married father of two, that her feelings for him clearly at some level ran deep. Beyond that, we need not inquire. There is a mystery in their relationship to be sure, which has generated much speculation. But not every mystery must be solved - where the historical record leaves off, sometimes at least we are better off not delving into what we do not know for certain. In the words of a favorite poet of Dickinson, Charlotte Brontë, "The human heart has hidden treasures, / In secret kept, in silence sealed;– / The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures, / Whose charms were broken if revealed."