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Life and Letters of Rev. Aratus Kent Introduction

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Life and Letters of Rev. Aratus Kent




The Reverend Aratus Kent was just one of a tide of Connecticut Yankees who went west in the early decades of the 19th century. Today, Kent’s name is recognized only among a small circle. His enduring influence is difficult to measure precisely, but it is surely considerable. His personal ethic of selflessness, so often espoused from his pulpit, was for him a way of life. His good works were performed in anonymity whenever possible. And, out of humility, he burned most of his letters and journals shortly before his death.1[1] This act of destruction was one that his conscience approved, but was a deed to be profoundly lamented by students of the social and religious history of pioneer Northern Illinois. “I have an invincible dread of such notoriety,” is how Kent himself once expressed his passion for obscurity.

The material artifacts of Kent’s memory include a little stone church, a weathered tombstone, a small assortment of brief recollections of those who knew him, some letters preserved by the American Home Missionary Society, and a few other scattered documents. A little hamlet in Stephenson County, Illinois, is named for Kent - a fifty year resident of Kent was recently queried as to the origin of the name of the town. “Named for an old preacher boy from the horse and buggy days,” was the pithy reply.

If the presence of a man’s spirit can be sensed in the places where he labored, then Aratus Kent remains among all of us in Northern Illinois. Kent long served the American Home Missionary Society; first as its charter Northern Illinois missionary; and then as its first agent for that state’s northern three tiers of counties. Before there were stage roads, he traveled the Indian traces and along the rivers on horseback and on foot. When the stage roads came into existence, he traveled them all in his buggy, wearing out many beasts and machines in the process, but never exhausting his own ecclesiastical energy. He rode “the cars” of the rail roads from their inception, stopping at the little depots to “prospect” for spirituality among the new populations. If he missed the “cars,” he “jumped” the freights (charming the stern train superintendents into looking the other way at his “bending” of the rules).

When an image of the weary traveling frontier preacher is conjured, Methodism is the stamp that comes immediately to mind. Aratus Kent was Presbyterian to his marrow. He frequently chided the missionaries in his charge to live amongst their flocks, not at a distance. Yet he himself was prone to itinerate, sometimes to the consternation of his superiors in New York. He always kept Galena as his home, but his letters were post-marked from Lodi, Haldane, Nora, Garden Prairie, Orangeville, Wayne, Little Fort, Crete, and Chicago, to name just a few of the hundreds of places where he preached and proselytized for the American Home Missionary Society. Doubtless there is not a single spot in Northern Illinois where Aratus Kent did not pass within a few miles.

His forty years of vigorous life in Northern Illinois encompassed two wars, many draughts and blizzards, and several economic cycles. Yet, human nature was his greatest adversary. He agonized over the indiscretions of his fellow clergyman, and he was tormented by “sectarian strife,” even though he himself contributed some to it.

He never really understood the power that the anti-slavery issue exerted amongst many of his fellow Christians. He certainly was not pro-slavery, as some of his contemporaries accused him. But he displayed none of the firey abolitionism that characterized the ministries of many of his fellow New Englanders.

His contributions to education, from Sunday schools to colleges, were manifold and lasting in their influence.

How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man? Perhaps, just as the popular ballad proclaims, the exact answer is blowing in the wind. Whatever the precise quantity, Reverend Aratus Kent’s travels in quest of salvation for his fellow man far exceed the minimum requirement. Even at the age of 65, though crippled with rheumatism, he often trudged alone 10 or 15 miles at a time across the treeless prairies in mid-February so that some destitute congregation would not miss a sermon on the Sabbath. The “Apostle of Northern Illinois” deserves a prominent place in the annals of the Prairie State.



Ancestry and Early Life

Aratus Kent sprang from the cradle of American academics & clerics: Connecticut. In Illinois, the phrase “Connecticut man” was one of grudging respect given to the generally shrewd and learned sons of the Nutmeg State. One of Kent’s Galena, Illinois, townsmen, U.S. Grant, once remarked that “it would not take a Connecticut man” to discern that Grant had been bested in his first horse trade.2[2] Many, perhaps even most, of the first doctors, lawyers, teachers, and clergy of the old Northwest were Connecticut’s expatriates.

Captain John Kent (1855-1827), Aratus’ father,, was a well-to-do merchant-farmer of Suffield, Connecticut, a town 16 miles north of Hartford, and 10 miles south of Springfield, Massachusetts, on the west side of the Connecticut River. Aratus was born there on the 17th day of January, 1794. He was joined to the same branch of the family from whence Chancellor James Kent of New York came.3[3] And he was a distant relation of Connecticut’s most notable figure of the age: Timothy Dwight. Aratus’ mother, Sarah Smith, died in 1813 at the age of 49.4[4] Aratus had an older brother, Germanicus, who became another important figure in Northern Illinois history by founding the City of Rockford. He also had an older sister Sally, and a younger sister Cecelia.5[5]

Aratus' great grandfather, Samuel, was a representative to the Great and General Court or Assembly of Massachusetts from Suffield from 1742 to 1747. Samuel had married one of the twin daughters of Nathanial Dwight of Northampton.6[6] Nathaniel Dwight was also the grandfather of Timothy;Timothy Dwight, President of Yale.7[7] Of course, Timothy Dwight's other grandfather was the great, if controversial, Calvinist Jonathan Edwards.

Jeddidiah Morse’s Gazetteer of 1821 put population at 2680.8[8] Aratus Kent was not the town’s only peripatetic son: in 1853 the population was only 2962.9[9] Suffields’ best known son of the 19th century was probably Dr. Sylvester Graham. He introduced the Graham system of dietetics based on unbolted flour, and thus the “Graham Cracker”.10[10]

Suffield had three churches in Aratus' time there: two Congregational and one Baptist. This, coupled with the strong Calvinistic environment that had always surrounded the Kent family, molded his early years, but did little to foster any ecumenical ideas in Aratus' young mind.

Suffield was one of the northern border towns of Connecticut that was originally included in the grant made by the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Springfield patentees. This was long a source of complaint from Connecticut, because the original survey that created the boundary was grossly in error. In 1700 Connecticut attempted to obtain an amicable settlement of the difficulties, and two years later appointed commissioners, who by actual surveys ascertained that the line should be a considerable distance north of the former limits. The Bay Colony dissented from this report, and in 1708 Connecticut appointed commissioners with full powers to establish the boundaries, and if Massachusetts would not unite to complete the transaction, an appeal to the Crown was threatened. The dispute was settled, but not finally until 1826, about the same time that the border between Wisconsin and Illinois was fixed.11[11]

When Aratus Kent arrived in Galena, Illinois, in 1829 a similar border dispute was in progress. Some felt that Galena was within the territorial boundaries of Wisconsin, and not within the State of Illinois. The Galena miners became suddenly and particularly knowledgeable about geography when the Illinois tax authorities came calling. When their geographical argument failed, with typical frontier brashness, some 120 residents of Galena and surrounding territory petitioned Congress on November 29, 1828, to form a new territory called “Huron”. This territory would encompass all of northern Illinois and most of the present states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. Naturally, in their memorial the petitioners humbly suggested that Galena be named the capital of their new territory. The memorial was “Read, and laid upon the table...” of Congress on December 29, 1828. Apparently its repose upon that table was never disturbed.12[12]

Aratus was fitted for college at the academy at nearby Westfield, Massachusetts, (where the only church was Congregational) At Westfield Aratus studied under the Rev. Ralph Emerson, a member of a family of ministers with whom Kent would have many associations.13[13] Ralph was only seven years older than Aratus Kent, but young men frequently taught school to support themselves while they pursued higher education. Ralph Emerson also became a Yale Graduate (1811), and he ended his days in Rockford, Illinois.14[14]

Education at Yale

At the age of nineteen Aratus entered the Sophomore Class at Yale College. College life at Yale in Kent’s years had improved considerably under President Theodore Dwight's “parental” system of discipline. However, some of the old pranks and frolics were beyond the control even of Dwight. One such custom Dwight never quite quelled was the traditional freshman-sophomore "push." This had been going on since time immemorial. ''Much as when a new cow is put along with a herd of others," each year, after the freshmen came, the sophomores put the strangers to the test.

Emerging from Chapel after evening prayers, the second-year men stopped on the porch and tried their strength at keeping the freshmen back. If they conducted the ceremony with the proper verve, individuals caught in the center found themselves raised high from the floor and had visions of being squeezed to death. The Faculty, convinced that the experience offered nothing beneficial, strove as strenuously to eliminate the rite. Sometimes by suspending two or three who had been "forward" in it, they broke it up for a year. But the effect was only temporary. The same mystic compulsion impelled successive classes to repeat the ritual, so strong is ancient custom.15[15] Aratus Kent, by entering Yale as a sophomore, avoided being the victim of the traditional "fagging" of freshmen. But Aratus did not totally avoid discomfiture at the hands of his classmates. The boys, true to all ages, gave him a nick name, and called him “Ratty.” The name so displeased him that he would never allow any of the twelve children whom he and Mrs. Kent took into their home to call each other by any nick names.16[16]

The Freshman, Sophomore and Junior classes were split into two divisions, each being assigned to its own tutor, who instructed them in all subjects. The tutor was often himself a student studying for an advanced degree in law or theology. One of Kent’s own tutors, Dr. Emerson, influenced Kent’s choice of the ministry for a career, and provided a son himself for the frontier ministry. Kent recalled the encounter:

“I remember with ineffaceable impressions some things in relation to Tutor Emerson, one of which is my visit to his room near the close of my college life to consult with him in relation to my future course.

This question rested with tremendous pressure upon my mind at that time whether I should become a minister and whether I did right or wrong, you must bear the responsibility of having encouraged me to go forward.”17[17]

The tutor commonly carried the same group through their second and third years. There was little variation in the fields covered, and the demand for pedagogical specialization was only beginning to be felt.

Another of Kent’s tutors was Chauncey Allen Goodrich. The son-in-law of Noah Webster, Goodrich became an accomplished lexicographer himself, working on many editions of the famous Dictionary. “His labours with me in the revival of 1815 were among the links which composed the change of influence which led me to consecrate myself to God and to the ministry,” is how Kent recalled his tutor’s influence.18[18]

Usually to the same tutor, sophomores like Aratus Kent recited:


Collectanea Graeca Majora, Volume I

Morse's Geography, Volume II

Webber's Mathematics, Volume II

Euclid's Elements

English Grammar (Lindley Murray's was the text)

Tytler's Elements of History

This took care of the requirement in the college laws that second year students be taught Geography, the "Elements of Chronology and History," Algebra, and Plane Geometry. From this, they advanced, in their junior year, to:

Tacitus (History)

Collectanea Graeca Majora, Volume Il

William Enfield's Natural Philosophy

Enfield's Astronomy


Vince's Fluxions

And, if the faculty lived up to the laws, English Grammar, Trigonometry, Navigation, Surveying, and "other branches of the Mathematics" were not neglected.

All students, regardless of class, were required, in daily rotation, to "exhibit" compositions of various kinds, and submit them to the instructor's criticism. About four at a time, they declaimed, publicly and privately, on Tuesdays and Fridays, in English, Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, as directed; and, whenever required, each had to hand in a copy of his declamation "fairly written." Seniors and juniors also disputed forensically before the class, twice a week, on a question approved by the instructor; when the disputants had fired their bolts, the instructor discussed the matter "at length," giving his own views of the problem and of the arguments used by both sides. Dwight considered it "an exercise, not inferior in its advantages to any other;" and one student assured his parents that all these disputes and compositions required "a great deal of hard thinking and close application."19[19]

With tutors performing the more mundane tasks, not unlike today’s graduate assistants, the professors could concentrate on a more detailed instruction in their specialties. Students were required to attend lectures with a notebook to record the principal points. At every tests were given on the preceding lecture. Dwight thus introduced the “daily quiz” into American education, and held the method as superior to the Old World methods. "This responsibility, so far as I am informed, is rarely a part of an European system of Education." In addition to these daily quizzes, all the students in the seminary were "publicly" examined twice a year in their several studies. Those discovered to be deficient were liable to "degradation" to a lower class or dismissal. A very laborious fortnight was devoted to this gruesome business of “semester finals”.

The seniors attended seminars given by the learned President himself, where Dwight encouraged open discussions. The topics covered are as germane today as they were in Kent’s time:

Ought capital punishments ever to be inflicted?

Ought Foreign Immigration to be encouraged?

Does the Mind always Think?

Which have the greatest influence in forming a National Character: Moral or Physical Causes?

Is a Lie ever justifiable?

Ought Anonymous Publications to be suppressed?

Ought Religious Tests to be required of Civil Officers?

Are all mankind descended from one pair?

Ought Representatives to be bound by the will of their Constituents?

Is a Savage State preferable to a Civilized?

Do Spectres appear?

Does Temptation diminish the turpitude of a Crime?

Is Privateering justifiable?

Is man advancing to a state of Perfectibility?

When the subject before them was peculiarly provocative the students entered the classroom after prolonged preparation. Young Benjamin Silliman became so stirred over the question, "Whether the mental abilities of the females are equal to those of the males," that he worked one evening until ten-thirty (which was late when you had to leave your bed at five in the morning), and all the next forenoon, on an affirmative answer. He believed that the apparent difference between the feminine and masculine mind “is owing entirely to neglect of the education of females, which is a shame to man, and ought to be remedied.”

The problem “was warmly contested at the eleven o'clock recitation, and decided in favor of the females, after a debate of more than two hours.” Such discussions as these must have influenced Aratus Kent. Certainly Kent's pivotal role in the establishment of the Rockford Female Seminary indicates that he and the great chemist Silliman were of one mind when it came to equal educational opportunities for females. Indeed, the charter of Rockford College, largely crafted by Kent, insisted that the Rockford school be of the same caliber as its brother institution for men at nearby Beloit, Wisconsin.

During debate Dwight sometimes interjected pertinent remarks, and after the students had finished their arguments, he gave his own. This might take thirty minutes or several recitations, according to the importance of the topic. The majority of the class brought notebooks to record even his most casual comments. Regrettably, none of Kent’s survive. Whatever the question, Dwight examined it from all angles, and, by close reasoning, found an unhesitating answer.20[20]

Aratus Kent united with the church under President Dwight August 15, 1815, and was graduated in 1816. The Providence that Kent always relied upon had been especially benevolent to him in permitting him to enjoy the tutelage of the greatest theologian and pedagogue of his era. Timothy Dwight was dying of a painful bladder cancer during Kent’s senior year, and he passed to his reward in the fall of 1816. Kent never left the watchful eye of Timothy Dwight, for he kept Dwight’s portrait hanging on the wall of his Galena study.21[21]

Calvinism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism in Aratus Kent’s Time

If Timothy Dwight was instrumental in shaping the attitudes of Aratus Kent, he was equally instrumental in shaping Kent's theology, and in creating the institutions that permitted Kent to embark upon his life's work. The grandson of Jonathan Edwards has not been classed with the first group of Calvinistic interpreters of the Scriptures. Yet more than that of any contemporary, his common sense “New Divinity” theology was accepted and promulgated. Dwight, unlike his famous grandfather, took no great delight in controversy. Being a practical man, he sought to narrow differences between sects. His recognition of the necessity to compromise was emulated by Aratus Kent. And, except when it came to the issue of slavery,22[22] this conciliatory theological attitude served Kent well.

Timothy Dwight’s Calvinism was of a kinder and gentler cast than that of his grandfather. His enormously popular and widely read treatise, Theology, Explained and Defended,23[23] (Kent distributed many copies to ministers on the frontier) focused as much on the duties of a Christian life as on Calvinistic doctrine. Indeed, Dwight as much as any man directed the Second Great Awakening that swept the country during the first half of the 19th century to a much less strident course than the first. No burning of witches was required, or even desired by Dwight. Infidels were to be debated with Christian zeal, not burned at the stake. In this regard, Dwight himself was perhaps un-Calvinistic.

Dwight let his close friend and associate Jeddidiah Morse carry much of the burden in the debate with the unorthodox. Morse bitterly opposed the elevation of the Unitarian Henry Ware to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard (a battle Morse ultimately lost).24[24] The issue of slavery was also a powerful wedge that drove apart the orthodox Presbyterians and Congregationalists of New York and Connecticut from the Boston and Cambridge Unitarians and unorthodox Congregationalists. Aratus Kent fought that battle on the frontier, where he devoted more energy to opposing Unitarians, “Ultra-abolitionists”25[25] Congregationalists, and “Old School” Presbyterians than to competing with the Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics.

Before the Revolution, Edwardian Congregationalists in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, and Presbyterians in the middle colonies had been drawing together. The New England clergy were then eager to secure united opposition to the threatened establishment of an Anglican episcopate in America. They differed from Presbyterians mainly in organization structure. Presbyterians organized their church government by an orderly system. The presbytery, consisting of the ministers and one lay elder from each church in a certain area, exercised local authority. Over the presbytery stood the synod, and over the synod stood the national body, the General Assembly.

In Connecticut the Congregationalists had a similar, if looser, organization of "consociations" and associations. Aratus Kent, like his mentor Dwight, always considered this “Connecticut Congregationalism” to be so close to Presbyterianism as to warrant no distinction. However, the unorthodox, Boston influenced “Western Congregationalism” that Kent watched evolve in Illinois was another matter altogether. This movement he considered “unscriptural” and far too independent in its polity.26[26]

Where the Presbyterians dominated, the consociations and associations exercised a much more powerful and binding influence, somewhat in the manner of the Presbyterian ruling councils. In Northern Connecticut near New York, where the Presbyterians were strong, Congregationalism was particularly akin to Presbyterianism.. Dwight himself leaned decidedly in that direction. When, in his Statistical Account of the City of New Haven, he listed the churches to be found in that town, he made no distinction between "Congregational" and "Presbyterian" but seems regularly to have used the terms more or less interchangeably. The three nominally Congregational Churches in Aratus Kent’s native Suffield probably fit this mold also.

Presbyterianism also was strengthened by the fact that the last great wave of immigration to the Colonies before the War for Independence was from Northern Ireland. Most of these Ulster Irishmen were Scotch by bloodline and religious tradition, and thus were Presbyterians.27[27] The Scotch-Irish element, however, introduced an element into American Presbyterianism that would prove difficult to alloy.

Following the war several motives favored a closer connection between the Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Congregational leaders in Connecticut, for the most part, sided with the Federalist view in favor of a strong national government. For them Jeffersonian democracy meant mob rule, and the excesses of the French Revolution strengthened their fears. Jeffersonian Deism and even atheism were growing threats. These two movements were easily seen as enemies, but a more subtle but equally powerful shift was occurring within the church itself in the form of a rising, if vague, "liberalism," that gradually evolved into Unitarianism. Here was a heresy that threatened the very foundations of the faith. The orthodox saw that a successful defense against Unitarianism required setting aside “minor” sectarian differences.

With a Presbyterian government it would be possible to erect creeds and enforce strict adherence to them. They could supervise more efficiently the training and licensing of candidates for the ministry, and make certain that only reliable pastors were ordained over the churches. The line between orthodox and unorthodox must be drawn sharply so that friend and foe might be unmistakably identified. All this would be difficult, if not impossible, under a purely congregational organization which permitted each church to be independent. The cause was impelling. Hence it was that Dwight and his confreres looked favorably upon Presbyterianism.

As more and more immigrants moved west to the frontier the need for churches there became more pressing. To theologically conservative Congregationalists, Presbyterianism seemed a more effective method of protecting these infant institutions against the perils confronting them. In the newer thinly settled regions like northern Illinois it took time for recently arrived inhabitants to become acquainted and accustomed to working together. Meanwhile, ministers of doubtful character might easily impose dangerous doctrines upon the unsuspecting. To churchmen of the older settlements in the East the evangelization of the West was a matter of supreme importance. Many believed that the Presbyterian organizational structure would best serve to preserve orthodoxy.

The friendly relations which Dwight helped establish led to the "Plan of Union," an agreement made in l80l between the Presbyterians and Congregationalists in order to avoid conflict in their missionary activity. A problem arose from the fact that among the new settlers who were continually pouring into the West, some were Presbyterian and some were Congregational. Division seemed undesirable in the small, frontier settlements, and so the Connecticut General Association and the Presbyterian General Assembly agreed upon the Plan of Union as a modus vivendi to promote harmony and a more uniform system of church government among Christians in the struggling young communities on the frontier. It was a compromise intended to be fair to all, but in actual practice it operated, at least initially ,in favor of the Presbyterians. Friction developed, and later doctrinal controversies widened the split until the “Old School” Presbyterians finally repudiated the agreement in 1837.28[28]

If Dwight had grave concern for the souls of the pioneers, he seemed to care little for their persons. He said of them: “They are impatient of the restraints of law, religion and morality; grumble about taxes by which school masters are supported, and complain incessantly ...of the extortions of mechanics, merchants, and physicians, to whom they are always indebted. At the same time they are usually possessed, in their own view, of uncommon wisdom, and understand medical science, politics and religion better than those who have studied them through life. In mercy, therefore, to the sober, industrious, and well disposed inhabitants, Providence has opened in the vast western wilderness a retreat, sufficiently alluring to draw them away from the land of their nativity. We have many troubles even now; but we should have many more if this body of foresters had remained at home.”29[29]

Out of this cauldron of theological ferment, Aratus Kent emerged with a strong, yet pragmatic, faith. Like most men, he had his share of difficulties reconciling the values of his formative years with fast evolving frontier conditions. His destiny was to minister to the “foresters” of the “vast western wilderness.” But first there was need for more preparation.

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