Thursday, May 10, 2012

Jared Sparks—More Than Just a Guy Who Got Ordained

Gilbert Stewart's unfinished--did he ever finish a picture?--portrait of Jared Sparks about 1827.

Jared Sparks may be best remembered for just sitting and listening to a speech.  The speech was really a sermon by the Rev. William Ellery Channing given at the First Independent Church of Baltimore on May 5, 1819 on the occasion of Spark’s ordination and installation as minister.  The sermon, known as Unitarian Christianity, was the final declaration of independence for what had been called liberal Christianity from the Calvinist orthodoxy of the New England Standing Order.  Essentially it was the foundational document of American Unitarianism.

Why Channing chose far off Baltimore and the ordination of a young man brought up in Connecticut’s strict orthodoxy has puzzled many.  The answer may lie in the remarkable life of Sparks himself.

Sparks was born on May 10, 1789 in Willington, Connecticut, a younger son of a large and struggling family with few prospects of his own.  He grew up in the post-Revolutionary period steeped in the lore of that struggle and in the strict orthodoxy that dominated the Congregationalists who dominated the state religiously and politically.

Unable to support or educate young Jared, his family sent him to live with relatives in Camden, New York when he was six.  His uncle and aunt were hardly in better shape to tend to his needs despite his obvious natural intelligence and eagerness to pick up any scrap of knowledge through haphazard reading and self instruction.  In his teen years he returned to his parents and got some grammar school education where he showed a special passion for astronomy.  By age 18 he was helping support the family as carpenter and rural schoolmaster.

At age twenty he gained access to the personal library of a local pastor and began systematic study of Latin, mathematics, and astronomy.  Impressed with his progress, the pastor arranged for his admission to Phillips Exeter Academy on a scholarship.  His tutors and classmates began describing him as a genius and he gained his first public reputation writing articles on education and science for local newspapers.

Upon graduation from Phillips Exeter, Sparks was undoubtedly expected to enroll a Yale, the bastion of Orthodoxy where he would have prepared to dutifully join the Black Legion of Congregationalist clergy.  Instead, Sparks surprised everyone, perhaps even himself, by opting attend arch-rival Harvard, then already in the hands of restive theological liberals.  Sparks cast his lot with people who asked questions.

He had to drop out of school in 1812 for financial reasons.  He signed on as a private tutor of a plantation family in Havre de Grace, Maryland.  He was a witness in May of 1813 when the town at the head of Chesapeake Bay was shelled by British naval forces under Admiral George Cockburn.  Sparks later wrote a memorable account of the action.

With the money he earned as a tutor, Sparks was able to return to Harvard where he became a stand-out student leader.  He won the coveted Bowden Prize for his essay on Sir Isaac Newton, joined the Phi Beta Kappa society, and was a commencement speaker when he graduated in 1815.

Sparks stayed at Harvard to study in the Divinity School paying his way as a tutor in geometry, astronomy, and natural history.

Upon graduation, he was called to the Baltimore congregation and to his rendezvous with American religious history.  Sparks was a respected minister and his carefully crafted sermons much admired.  He participated, as much as separation from the hub of the Unitarian universe in Boston permitted, in the affairs of Unitarianism.  He contributed to its vigorous press.  But he was not happy with the routine duties of a pastor and yearned for an academic or literary career.

He resigned his pulpit and left active ministry—although he would occasionally fill a pulpit as a guest or supply preacher—and returned to Cambridge in April of 1823.  Back in Massachusetts he became editor of the North American Review, already the young nation’s first and most distinguished literary magazine.  Under Spark’s stewardship it further cemented its reputation and printed not only literary criticism and poetry, but what would today be called policy-wonk stories about national and international events and politics.

Sparks also honed a new interest in history and biography, particularly concentrating on the Revolutionary period.  His first book, in 1827, was a biography of American explorer John Ledyard.  

To prepare for a planned biography of George Washington, Sparks traveled to Mt. Vernon to examine his papers.  Fascinated by what he found he went on a search for everything Washington wrote, interviewing and collecting letters and materials from survivors of the Revolution and from archives and libraries around the country.  The result was the massive 12 volume The Writings of George Washington published between 1834 and ’37.  No one had ever done anything quite like it before.  It was a revolutionary step forward in historical scholarship.

Sparks applied editing standards of his day—correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar; polishing rough phrasings, and omitting passages that might embarrass or demean the Old Hero.  Modern editors have had to re-plow Sparks’s ground to restore the original voice, warts and all, but that would probably have been impossible without his original efforts.

Sparks followed with other important books—The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, The Life of Governeur Morris, The Works of Benjamin Franklin,  The Library of American Biography. To gather materials for the book on diplomacy, he became the first American to travel to Europe to examine and collect source material there.

The books not only were essential contributions to understanding American history, they were popular enough to actually make money, making Sparks one of the few literary men in the country to be able to make a comfortable living from his private scholarship and pen.

In 1839 Sparks returned to Harvard as the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History.  He offered the first course in American history at any university and abandoned the traditional pedagogy of teaching from texts and requiring recitation by students instead using a combination of lectures, assigned reading from various materials including original sources, and small group discussion.  This refreshing change made his classes among the most popular with Harvard students.

Despite opposition of some disgruntled traditionalists, Sparks was elected President of Harvard in 1849.  He instituted several campus reforms.  He personally oversaw the organization and preservation of Harvard’s own institutional history documents, a bonanza for future historians.  But Sparks hated the petty politics of academia, the drudgery of a mountain of routine clerical work, and being disciplinarian to notoriously rowdy Harvard students.  He resigned in 1853 after only four years.

In retirement Sparks privately tutored and mentored Harvard students and continued his historical research.  His last major book was Correspondence of the American Revolution, Being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington in 1853.  In 1857 he took an extended tour of Europe concentrating on museums, libraries, and archives where the raw material of history could be found.  He published articles on those travels.

Jared Sparks died on March 14, 1866 at the age of 77.  He was honored as America’s premier historian—and the as the guy at whose ordination William Ellery Channing spoke.

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