Child, Lydia Maria

views updated May 14 2018


CHILD, LYDIA MARIA . Lydia Maria Child (18021880) was a prolific author and a founder of the American abolitionist movement. Child wrote two books on religion: The Progress of Religious Ideas (1855), which offered a history of the world's religions and sought to put Christianity on a level footing with other religions; and Aspirations of the World: A Chain of Opals (1878), which collected what Child considered the most valuable religious texts, including many more excerpts from Greco-Roman, Buddhist, Persian, and Hindu sources than from the Bible. Child's radically universalist religious sensibility informed her life-long quest to eradicate racial prejudice.

Child did not fit easily into religious categories. She was born in Medford, Massachusetts, the daughter of a baker, and she rejected her parents' Calvinism as an adolescent. The older brother who educated her, Convers Francis, became a Unitarian minister, but she found Unitarianism cold and intellectual. She was attracted to Swedenborgian mysticism, but felt that it fed her imagination more than her heart or her intellect.

Child published her first novel, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times (1824), a controversial story about an Indian-white romance and marriage, when she was twenty-two, and was soon feted as a promising young author. She wrote a book or two per year while editing the first successful children's magazine, and she married David Lee Child, an idealistic and debt-prone political activist.

In 1833 Child published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, the first significant study of slavery, emancipation, and American racism. This ardent yet well-researched plea for the eradication of slavery established her as a leader of the abolitionist movement. She went on to edit the National Anti-Slavery Standard, thus becoming the first female editor of a national political newspaper. During this time, Child concluded that Swedenborgianism was not a true religion because so many of its followers accepted slavery. She attended numerous religious institutions, including a Catholic cathedral and a Jewish synagogue, but felt they were all too narrow-minded.

Child took seven years to write her three-volume Progress of Religious Ideas, in which she argued that all religions are revelations of the divine spirit. People throughout history have asked the same questions and expressed the same hopes, and the divine spirit has spoken to them using whatever forms they were best able to receive. Symbols that may seem odd to an outsiderthe Egyptians' golden scarab, the Christians' crossfeel quite different when viewed from inside a tradition. People should therefore respect all the world's religions, acknowledging their weaknesses but cherishing the ways in which they partake of truth and goodness. True religion is a matter of faith and hope, not theological arguments or sectarian divisions.

Christianity, Child suggested, has no privileged status. Each religion builds upon the spiritual insights of earlier eras, and Christianity is rooted in Jewish, Greek, and Persian thought. It may, furthermore, eventually be superseded by new, more true, beliefs that cannot yet be imagined. Child warned against holding too tightly to old revelations. Each revelation is designed to be comprehensible in a specific time and place, and once people move too far past that state of society a written revelation may hinder, not help, further spiritual growth.

Child conceded that Christianity can have unusually good practical results. All religions have an iniquitous tendency to divide humanity into competing sects, but Christianity alone sometimes preaches universal sympathy and benevolence. Christians often fall into divisiveness, bigotry, and war, but Christianity can encourage them to see all people, even non-Christians, as one family. Christian sympathy, for example, led England to abolish slavery. Christianity is thus desirable not because it is more truthful than other religions, but because it is potentially more moral.

Many reviewers protested Child's refusal to give Christianity any preferential divine origin, but two of the abolitionist ministers whom Child most respectedTheodore Parker and Samuel Mayenthusiastically praised her work. Forty years later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton echoed Child's views in her Woman's Bible (18951898). Child's readership was not large, but she gave courage to some of the nineteenth century's most rebellious religious thinkers.

When Child was in her seventies, she finally found a compatible religious community. The Free Religious Association was founded by a group of progressive Unitarians who wanted a place for people of all religions, including agnostics, to come together in an unconstrained pursuit of truth. Child found its gatherings inspiring and thought-provoking.

She had become particularly interested in Buddhism, and avidly read new translations of Asian texts. In two Atlantic Monthly articles, written at a time of rising anti-Asian racism, she portrayed Buddha and Jesus as almost identical figures. Both, she explained, identified with the poor and outcast and sought to open "the road to holiness" to everyone. No longer did Child claim that only Christianity teaches universal sympathy.

Child's last book was Aspirations of the World: A Chain of Opals. Its goal, she explained, was to illuminate the soul's universal aspirations and intuitions. Most of the book consists of selections from the world's sacred scriptures, grouped into subject headings such as "Ideas of the Supreme Being," "Moral Courage," and "Fraternity of Religions," and arranged in chronological order under each heading. Child included only the passages that she found most wise, beautiful, and intellectually and imaginatively satisfying. This "Eclectic Bible," she suggested, offered guidance and inspiration from the best aspects of all the world's religions. In this work, as in all her religious and political writings, Child sought to eradicate divisions within the human race and help readers see everyone as equal parts of one humanity.


Child, Lydia Maria. An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833). Edited by Carolyn Karcher. Amherst, Mass., 1996.

Child, Lydia Maria. The Progress of Religious Ideas: Through Successive Ages. 3 vols. New York, 1855.

Child, Lydia Maria. Aspirations of the World: A Chain of Opals. Boston, 1878.

Child, Lydia Maria. Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians. Edited by Carolyn Karcher. New Brunswick, N.J., 1986.

Karcher, Carolyn. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham, N.C., 1994.

Karcher, Carolyn, ed. A Lydia Maria Child Reader. Durham, N.C., 1997.

Lori Kenschaft (2005)

Lydia Maria Francis Child

views updated May 23 2018

Lydia Maria Francis Child

The popularity and moral force of the American author Lydia Maria Francis Child (1802-1880) contributed to the impact radical abolitionists exerted on the antislavery debate that preceded the Civil War.

Lydia Maria Francis was born in Medford, Mass., of an old New England family, on Feb. 11, 1802, and revealed early her sensibilities and intelligence. Her novels of pioneer life, Hobomok (1824) and The Rebels (1825), opened a literary career for her. Juvenile Miscellany, an annual that she instituted in 1826, pioneered in its field, and her later publications appealed to girls and wives. In 1828 she married David Lee Child, a Harvard College graduate who had capped an idealistic, adventurous youth by becoming a lawyer. As a state legislator and editor of the Massachusetts Journal, he seemed on a successful path.

Both were converted to abolitionism by William Lloyd Garrison, but it was Lydia who most startled conventional circles with her Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833). This tract made abolitionists of such noteworthy persons as the Reverend William Ellery Channing and Charles Sumner. It also, however, closed various social circles to her and caused her book sales to fall. Her Juvenile Miscellany suspended, she pressed on as author and abolitionist. She published several abolitionist compilations, as well as biographies of notable women and the groundbreaking History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations (1835). Her husband introduced beet sugar manufacture in the United States and penned important abolitionist pamphlets. However, he was impractically dedicated to agricultural experiments, and his wife was required to manage their often-constricted finances.

In 1840 Child assumed the editorship of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, representing Garrison in New York. While there she wrote Letters from New York (1843, 1845), which contained much of contemporary interest. Her husband joined her in the work in 1843. The next year, embittered by factional differences between abolitionists, she returned to private life, settling in Wayland, Mass. Among her later books was Progress of Religious Ideas through Successive Ages (1855), which once more broke ground in its religious liberalism.

When John Brown was wounded in the raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859, Child asked permission to nurse him; this resulted in an exchange of letters which were read nationwide. Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason of Virginia (1860) exhibited her abolitionist prose at its strongest.

Child's later writings struck a summary note, as in Looking toward Sunset (1864). Many of her works were outmoded, but her own character evoked admiration. She survived her husband 6 years, dying on July 7, 1880. A memorial volume, Letters (1883), was introduced by John Greenleaf Whittier and included Wendell Phillips's funeral address.

Further Reading

Two biographies of Child are Helene G. Baer, The Heart Is like Heaven: The Life of Lydia Maria Child (1965), and Milton Meltzer, Tongue of Flame: The Life of Lydia Maria Child (1965). She is discussed in numerous works, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Contemporaries (1899), and Margaret Farrand Thorp, Female Persuasion: Six Strong-minded Women (1949). Her works are described in volume 2 of Jacob Blanck, Bibliography of American Literature (1957).

Additional Sources

Clifford, Deborah Pickman, Crusader for freedom: a life of Lydia Maria Child, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Karcher, Carolyn L., The first woman in the republic: a cultural biography of Lydia Maria Child, Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. □