The Parson And The Bluestocking

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The Old Calvinists were poulticing the bruises received from the Unitarians and the heretical Henry Ward Beecher, and though Nathaniel Taylor preached on infant damnation, one senses that he was not wholly for it. He had even made a strong case for free will in his controversy with Bennet Tyler twenty years previously. But now from “bawling and quarreling about the Trinity” the parsons and their parishioners had fallen victim to a fit of salvation by works, while the salvation-through-grace-alone faction smouldered in the ascendant within the university, free will notwithstanding. But the rank-and-file preacher continued to boom with reforming zeal, replacing the totemic deity with something that closely resembled a kindly social worker. Antislavery was a hotter issue than antinomianism. Yahweh suffered further from the rising cluster of scientists who ignored him and from women—intellectual women, such women as Lyman Beecher’s wives and daughters—who simply regarded him as a frightful mistake. The doctrinaire Calvinists had heard themselves roundly refuted by Delia Bacon’s mentor, Catharine Beecher, in 1836. Delia’s assault upon MacWhorter look on the character of a thumping blow delivered at the infallibility of the Establishment, while his misuse of her confirmed the opposition in its suspicion that predestination made for poor preaching and worse practice. New Haven split over the matter like a melon in the sun.

In a city less remorselessly dynastic so ragged a rent in the garment of civic unity might not have shown so threadbare. But here, where Days married Shermans and Blakes married Thachers and Bacons married Wisners and the issue married their kith, while Taylors stood godparents to first-born Bacon babies, it was clear that death could not sunder the family party but, shockingly, Delia Bacon could.

The Bacon family were of the church churchly, and what they lacked in earthly goods they more than made up for in spiritual dignities and prestige. Leonard and Delia were the children of a missionary, David Bacon. Leonard had been born in that outpost of the Connecticut empire now known as Detroit. After Delia Salter’s birth in 1811, David gave up his attempt to establish heaven on earth at Tallmadge, Ohio, and died heartbroken and debtridden, leaving his widow, Alice, with six children to rear. By various shifts she managed to educate all six. Leonard graduated from Yale at the age of eighteen, finished his theological studies at Andover, and entered on his pastorate at Center Church at the age of twenty-three. Delia, the youngest and most promising of the girls, early began to raise both hopes and apprehensions in the bosoms of her relatives. Clever, mercurial, and ambitious, she did not seem to know the meaning of the word moderation. When she caught the mumps, her sister Alice wrote to Leonard in real consternation that “Delia has a swelled face and has lost her reason.” Delia’s faculty for mislaying this article continued to be a source of genuine anxiety, but when in possession of her wits she showed herself industrious as a spider and ready to attack almost any difficulty if she glimpsed the possibility of a reward.

“Delia will do anything for money,” wrote the hardpressed Mrs. Bacon to her son in a letter that contains little else of an encouraging nature.

The little girl’s natural liveliness was tempered with spasms of religious melancholy, common among children as measles or chicken pox in those days.

“Your sister has resisted the Holy Spirit and He has departed from me,” she wrote at the age of ten to Leonard. “When I think of it I tremble. … oh, what will become of me when I leave this vain, transitory world and rise before my God in judgment? Cease not to pray for me. I have neglected the offers of salvation; I have despised my dear Redeemer but there is still mercy with Him who is able to save.”

When Delia was about eleven, some friends of her mother’s took her under their charge and enrolled her as a pupil at the female seminary in Hartford, recently established by Lyman Beecher’s eldest daughter, Catharine. Here the volatile, bright-eyed youngster became a favorite not only with her teachers but with a fellow pupil, Catharine Beecher’s droll, exquisite, and spirited little sister, Harriet.