March 29, 2019

A “Half-Welcome” Neighbor

“O Sabbath rest by Galilee,

O calm of hills above,

Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee

The silence of eternity . . .

Take from our souls the strain and stress

And let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of Thy peace.”

The author of this beautiful paean to the Sabbath day, John Greenleaf Whittier, was one of the most popular American poets of the nineteenth century. The celebration of his seventieth birthday dinner in 1877 included such luminaries of the time as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mark Twain.

As a child of devout Quaker parents, Whittier’s ancestral roots reached directly back to the French Huguenots. The most significant theme of his poetry, when it began to be published widely, was an expression of his ardent advocacy for the abolition of slavery in the United States. Even a casual reading of his poetry reveals his deep Christian roots as well. Some of his verse, with his permission, has been arranged into hymns that are still today very familiar in worship services. Four of these appear in our own Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal: “All Things Are Thine” (376), “I Heard the Voice of Jesus” (465), and two versions of “Dear Lord and Father” (480, 481).

In 1866 Whittier published a poem that is considered his masterpiece. He entitled it “Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl,” and it has been frequently anthologized as representative of the “Fireside Poets.” In it he describes in no less than 750 lines of heroic couplets a time when in his childhood he and his family were isolated for a winter week in their homestead in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Much of “Snow-Bound” is a recounting of the tales that the family exchanged as they waited out the storm near the warmth of their hearth. It is, as he described it to his publisher, “a homely picture of old New England homes.”

This extensive poem also includes some interesting character studies of those who were gathered together in the shelter of that household. In his introduction, Whittier described them as “my father, mother, my brother and two sisters, and my uncle and aunt, both unmarried. In addition, there was the district school master, who boarded with us.”

Further, there was a neighbor whose presence was, for some reason, unexplained. But Whittier specifically identified this individual. Her name was Harriet Livermore. And she was an Adventist, well, sort of—before there was any official adoption of that name by the people of our faith.

But Harriet Livermore appears to have been one who looked with anticipation to the predicted Second Coming, even before the time that William Miller went public with his ministry. Yet she appears in Whittier’s poetic, childhood memory as something less than appreciated:

“She sat among us, at the best,

A not unfeared, half-welcome guest. . . .

With hope each day renewed and fresh,

The Lord’s quick coming in the flesh,

Whereof she dreams and prophesies!”

The reader of this verse can easily imagine a child with a tempest raging around his family and his home, possibly a storm to end all storms, and frightened all the more by this self-appointed prophet of the imminent end of the world.

Harriet Livermore, however, does not appear by name in the poem “Snow-Bound” itself. Whittier took the trouble to identify her in the detailed introduction to it. “She early embraced the doctrine of the Second Advent,” he writes, “and felt it her duty to proclaim the Lord’s speedy coming. With this message she crossed the Atlantic and spent the greater part of a long life in traveling over Europe and Asia.” A historical figure in her own right, she became a renowned preacher, a contemporary of William Miller, though they had some differences of interpretation over the exact location and timing of the Second Coming. Four times she accepted the invitation to preach in the House of Representatives chamber of the United States Congress, at one of which President John Quincy Adams heard her speak.

So the doors were open to Harriet Livermore in the U.S. House of Representatives, but as far as we can tell, to the house of Whittier she was only a “half-welcome guest.”

This redoubtable woman was what may be described as larger than life. Though born and reared in a nominal New England Christian family, at the age of 23 she made a decided change in her life. “Tired of the vain, thoughtless life I had led,” she writes, “sick of the world, disappointed in all my hopes of [earthly] bliss, I drew up a resolution in my mind to commence a religious life—to become a religious person.” Possibly an unusual description of the experience of conversion to Christianity, but there is little doubt that it evinced a clear change of direction in her life.

The biographical writings that outline her remaining years indicate that she took to heart the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Whittier’s reference to her well-documented travels to Europe and Asia were testament to this. She also attempted a mission effort to native Americans in the Midwest. In fact, her apparent belief that Christ’s return would center on the Mount of Olives in 1847 led her even to the Holy Land itself.

The experience in the account of “Snow-Bound,” in which she somehow found herself a “half-welcome” neighbor in the Whittier household, must have occurred sometime between her conversion and the year she decided to become a preacher 10 years later. But there appears to be little biographical note of her life as it reflected Christ’s other counsel in quoting the heavenly Father to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:19).

The call to proclaim the message of Jesus is certainly not a call to popularity. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time did not receive well His references to “hypocrites,” “vipers,” and “whited sepulchres.” But in His own ministry on this earth, He lived a life that was so much more an example of loving neighborliness that made Him many times over something greater than a half-welcome Guest.

Gary B. Swanson edits Perspective Digest.