Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
XIV. Ezra Ripley, D.D.
  WE love the venerable house
  Our fathers built to God:
In Heaven are kept their grateful vows,
  Their dust endears the sod.
From humble tenements around
  Came up the pensive train,
And in the church a blessing found
  That filled their homes again.

EZRA RIPLEY 1 was born May 1, 1751 (O. S.), at Woodstock, Connecticut. He was the fifth of the nineteen children of Noah and Lydia (Kent) Ripley. Seventeen of these nineteen children married, and it is stated that the mother died leaving nineteen children, one hundred and two grandchildren and ninety-six great-grandchildren. The father was born at Hingham, on the farm purchased by his ancestor, William Ripley, of England, at the first settlement of the town; which farm has been occupied by seven or eight generations. Ezra Ripley followed the business of farming till sixteen years of age, when his father wished him to be qualified to teach a grammar school, not thinking himself able to send one son to college without injury to his other children. With this view, the father agreed with the late Rev. Dr. Forbes of Gloucester, then minister of North Brookfield, to fit Ezra for college by the time he should be twenty-one years of age, and to have him labor during the time sufficiently to pay for his instruction, clothing and books.
  But, when fitted for college, the son could not be contented with teaching, which he had tried the preceding winter. He had early manifested a desire for learning, and could not be satisfied without a public education. Always inclined to notice ministers, and frequently attempting, when only five or six years old, to imitate them by preaching, now that he had become a professor of religion he had an ardent desire to be a preacher of the gospel. He had to encounter great difficulties, but, through a kind providence and the patronage of Dr. Forbes, he entered Harvard University, July, 1772. The commencement of the Revolutionary War greatly interrupted his education at college. In 1775, in his senior year, the college was removed from Cambridge to this town. 2 The studies were much broken up. Many of the students entered the army, and the class never returned to Cambridge. There were an unusually large number of distinguished men in this class of 1776: Christopher Gore, Governor of Massachusetts and Senator in Congress; Samuel Sewall, Chief Justice of Massachusetts; George Thacher, Judge of the Supreme Court; Royall Tyler, Chief Justice of Vermont; and the late learned Dr. Prince, of Salem.  2
  Mr. Ripley was ordained minister of Concord November 7, 1778. He married, November 16, 1780, Mrs. Phebe (Bliss) Emerson, then a widow of thirty-nine, with five children. 3 They had three children: Sarah, born August 18, 1781; Samuel, born May 11, 1783; Daniel Bliss, born August 1, 1784. He died September 21, 1841.  3
  To these facts, gathered chiefly from his own diary, and stated nearly in his own words, I can only add a few traits from memory.  4
  He was identified with the ideas and forms of the New England Church, which expired about the same time with him, so that he and his coevals seemed the rear guard of the great camp and army of the Puritans, which, however in its last days declining into formalism, in the heyday of its strength had planted and liberated America. It was a pity that his old meeting-house should have been modernized in his time. I am sure all who remember both will associate his form with whatever was grave and droll in the old, cold, unpainted, uncarpeted, square-pewed meeting-house, with its four iron-gray deacons in their little box under the pulpit,—with Watts’s hymns, with long prayers, rich with the diction of ages; and not less with the report like musketry from the movable seats. He and his contemporaries, the old New England clergy, were believers in what is called a particular providence,—certainly, as they held it, a very particular providence,—following the narrowness of King David and the Jews, who thought the universe existed only or mainly for their church and congregation. Perhaps I cannot better illustrate this tendency than by citing a record from the diary of the father of his predecessor, 4 the minister of Malden, written in the blank leaves of the almanac for the year 1735. The minister writes against January 31st: “Bought a shay for 27 pounds, 10 shillings. The Lord grant it may be a comfort and blessing to my family.” In March following he notes: “Had a safe and comfortable journey to York.” But April 24th, we find: “Shay overturned, with my wife and I in it, yet neither of us much hurt. Blessed be our gracious Preserver. Part of the shay, as it lay upon one side, went over my wife, and yet she was scarcely anything hurt. How wonderful the preservation.” Then again, May 5th: “Went to the beach with three of the children. The beast, being frightened when we were all out of the shay, overturned and broke it. I desire (I hope I desire it) that the Lord would teach me suitably to resent this Providence, 5 to make suitable remarks on it, and to be suitably affected with it. Have I done well to get me a shay? Have I not been proud or too fond of this convenience? Do I exercise the faith in the Divine care and protection which I ought to do? Should I not be more in my study and less fond of diversion? Do I not withhold more than is meet from pious and charitable uses?” Well, on 15th May we have this: “Shay brought home; mending cost thirty shillings. Favored in this respect beyond expectation.” 16th May: “My wife and I rode together to Rumney Marsh. The beast frighted several times.” And at last we have this record, June 4th: “Disposed of my shay to Rev. Mr. White.”  5
  The same faith made what was strong and what was weak in Dr. Ripley and his associates. He was a perfectly sincere man, punctual, severe, but just and charitable, and if he made his forms a strait-jacket to others, he wore the same himself all his years. Trained in this church, and very well qualified by his natural talent to work in it, it was never out of his mind. He looked at every person and thing from the parochial point of view. I remember, when a boy, driving about Concord with him, and in passing each house he told the story of the family that lived in it, and especially he gave me anecdotes of the nine church members who had made a division in the church in the time of his predecessor, and showed me how every one of the nine had come to bad fortune or to a bad end. His prayers for rain and against the lightning, “that it may not lick up our spirits;” and for good weather; and against sickness and insanity; “that we have not been tossed to and fro until the dawning of the day; that we have not been a terror to ourselves and others,”—are well remembered, and his own entire faith that these petitions were not to be overlooked, and were entitled to a favorable answer. Some of those around me will remember one occasion of severe drought in this vicinity, when the late Rev. Mr. Goodwin offered to relieve the Doctor of the duty of leading in prayer; but the Doctor suddenly remembering the season, rejected his offer with some humor, as with an air that said to all the congregation, “This is no time for you young Cambridge men; the affair, sir, is getting serious. I will pray myself.” 6 One August afternoon, when I was in his hayfield helping him with his man to rake up his hay, I well remember his pleading, almost reproachful looks at the sky, when the thunder-gust was coming up to spoil his hay. He raked very fast, then looked at the cloud, and said, “We are in the Lord’s hand; mind your rake, George! We are in the Lord’s hand;” and seemed to say, “You know me; this field is mine,—Dr. Ripley’s,—thine own servant!” 7  6
  He used to tell the story of one of his old friends, the minister of Sudbury, who, being at the Thursday lecture in Boston, heard the officiating clergyman praying for rain. As soon as the service was over, he went to the petitioner, and said, “You Boston ministers, as soon as a tulip wilts under your windows, go to church and pray for rain, until all Concord and Sudbury are under water.” I once rode with him to a house at Nine Acre Corner to attend the funeral of the father of a family. He mentioned to me on the way his fears that the oldest son, who was now to succeed to the farm, was becoming intemperate. We presently arrived, and the Doctor addressed each of the mourners separately: “Sir, I condole with you.” “Madam, I condole with you.” “Sir, I knew your great-grandfather. When I came to this town, your great-grandfather was a substantial farmer in this very place, a member of the church, and an excellent citizen. Your grandfather followed him, and was a virtuous man. Now your father is to be carried to his grave, full of labors and virtues. There is none of that large family left but you, and it rests with you to bear up the good name and usefulness of your ancestors. If you fail,—‘Ichabod, the glory is departed.’ Let us pray.” Right manly he was, and the manly thing he could always say. I can remember a little speech he made to me, when the last tie of blood which held me and my brothers to his house was broken by the death of his daughter. He said, on parting, “I wish you and your brothers to come to this house as you have always done. You will not like to be excluded; I shall not like to be neglected.”  7
  When “Put” Merriam, after his release from the state prison, had the effrontery to call on the Doctor as an old acquaintance, in the midst of general conversation Mr. Frost came in, and the Doctor presently said, “Mr. Merriam, my brother and colleague, Mr. Frost, has come to take tea with me. I regret very much the causes (which you know very well) which make it impossible for me to ask you to stay and break bread with us.” With the Doctor’s views it was a matter of religion to say thus much. He had a reverence and love of society, and the patient, continuing courtesy, carrying out every respectful attention to the end, which marks what is called the manners of the old school. His hospitality obeyed Charles Lamb’s rule, and “ran fine to the last.” His partiality for ladies was always strong, and was by no means abated by time. He claimed privilege of years, was much addicted to kissing; spared neither maid, wife nor widow, and, as a lady thus favored remarked to me, “seemed as if he was going to make a meal of you.”  8
  He was very credulous, and as he was no reader of books or journals, he knew nothing beyond the columns of his weekly religious newspaper, the tracts of his sect, and perhaps the Middlesex Yeoman. He was the easy dupe of any tonguey agent, whether colonizationist or anti-papist, or charlatan of iron combs, or tractors, or phrenology, or magnetism, who went by. At the time when Jack Downing’s letters were in every paper, he repeated to me at table some of the particulars of that gentleman’s intimacy with General Jackson, in a manner that betrayed to me at once that he took the whole for fact. To undeceive him, I hastened to recall some particulars to show the absurdity of the thing, as the Major and the President going out skating on the Potomac, etc. “Why,” said the Doctor with perfect faith, “it was a bright moonlight night;” and I am not sure that he did not die in the belief in the reality of Major Downing. Like other credulous men, he was opinionative, and, as I well remember, a great browbeater of the poor old fathers who still survived from the 19th of April, to the end that they should testify to his history as he had written it.  9
  He was a man so kind and sympathetic, his character was so transparent, and his merits so intelligible to all observers, that he was very justly appreciated in this community. He was a natural gentleman, no dandy, but courtly, hospitable, manly and public-spirited; his nature social, his house open to all men. We remember the remark made by the old farmer who used to travel hither from Maine, that no horse from the Eastern country would go by the Doctor’s gate. Travellers from the West and North and South bear the like testimony. His brow was serene and open to his visitor, for he loved men, and he had no studies, no occupations, which company could interrupt. His friends were his study, and to see them loosened his talents and his tongue. In his house dwelt order and prudence and plenty. There was no waste and no stint. He was openhanded and just and generous. Ingratitude and meanness in his beneficiaries did not wear out his compassion; he bore the insult, and the next day his basket for the beggar, his horse and chaise for the cripple, were at their door. Though he knew the value of a dollar as well as another man, yet he loved to buy dearer and sell cheaper than others. He subscribed to all charities, and it is no reflection on others to say that he was the most public-spirited man in the town. The late Dr. Gardener, in a funeral sermon on some parishioner whose virtues did not readily come to mind, honestly said, “He was good at fires.” Dr. Ripley had many virtues, and yet all will remember that even in his old age, if the fireball was rung, he was instantly on horseback with his buckets, and bag. 8  10
  He showed even in his fireside discourse traits of that pertinency and judgment, softening ever and anon into elegancy, which make the distinction of the scholar, and which, under better discipline, might have ripened into a Beckley or a Parson. He had a foresight, when he opened his mouth, of all that he would say, and he marched straight to the conclusion. In debate, in the vestry of the Lyceum, the structure of his sentences was admirable; so neat, so natural, so terse, his words fell like stones; and often, though quite unconscious of it, his speech was a satire on the loose, voluminous, draggle-tail periods of other speakers. He sat down when he had done. A man of anecdote, his talk in the parlor was chiefly narrative. We remember the remark of a gentleman who listened with much delight to his conversation at the time when the Doctor was preparing to go to Baltimore and Washington, that “a man who could tell a story so well was company for kings and John Quincy Adams.” 9  11
  Sage and savage strove harder in him than in any of my acquaintances, each getting the mastery by turns, and pretty sudden turns: “Save us from the extremity of cold and these violent sudden changes.” “The society will meet after the Lyceum, as it is difficult to bring people together in the evening,—and no moon.” “Mr. N. F. is dead, and I expect to hear of the death of Mr. B. It is cruel to separate old people from their wives in this cold weather.”  12
  With a very limited acquaintance with books, his knowledge was an external experience, an Indian wisdom, the observation of such facts as country life for nearly a century could supply. He watched with interest the garden, the field, the orchard, the house and the barn, horse, cow, sheep and dog, and all the common objects that engage the thought of the farmer. He kept his eye on the horizon, and knew the weather like a sea-captain. The usual experiences of men, birth, marriage, sickness, death, burial; the common temptations; the common ambitions;—he studied them all, and sympathized so well in these that he was excellent company and counsel to all, even the most humble and ignorant. With extraordinary states of mind, with states of enthusiasm or enlarged speculation, he had no sympathy, and pretended to none. He was sincere, and kept to his point, and his mark was never remote. His conversation was strictly personal and apt to the party and the occasion. An eminent skill he had in saying difficult and unspeakable things; in delivering to a man or a woman that which all their other friends had abstained from saying, in uncovering the bandage from a sore place, and applying the surgeon’s knife with a truly surgical spirit. Was a man a sot, or a spendthrift, or too long time a bachelor, or suspected of some hidden crime, or had he quarrelled with his wife, or collared his father, or was there any cloud or suspicious circumstances in his behavior, the good pastor knew his way straight to that point, believing himself entitled to a full explanation, and whatever relief to the conscience of both parties plain speech could effect was sure to be procured. In all such passages he justified himself to the conscience, and commonly to the love, of the persons concerned. He was the more competent to these searching discourses from his knowledge of family history. He knew everybody’s grandfather, and seemed to address each person rather as the representative of his house and name, than as an individual. In him have perished more local and personal anecdotes of this village and vicinity than are possessed by any survivor. This intimate knowledge of families, and this skill of speech, and still more, his sympathy, made him incomparable in his parochial visits, and in his exhortations and prayers. He gave himself up to his feelings, and said on the instant the best things in the world. Many and many a felicity he had in his prayer, now forever lost, which defied all the rules of all the rhetoricians. He did not know when he was good in prayer or sermon, for he had no literature and no art; but he believed, and therefore spoke. 10 He was eminently loyal in his nature, and not fond of adventure or innovation. By education, and still more by temperament, he was engaged to the old forms of the New England Church. Not speculative, but affectionate; devout, but with an extreme love of order, he adopted heartily, though in its mildest form, the creed and catechism of the fathers, and appeared a modern Israelite in his attachment to the Hebrew history and faith. He was a man very easy to read, for his whole life and conversation were consistent. All his opinions and actions might be securely predicted by a good observer on short acquaintance. My classmate at Cambridge, Frederick King, told me from Governor Gore, who was the Doctor’s classmate, that in college he was called Holy Ripley.  13
  And now, in his old age, when all the antique Hebraism and its customs are passing away, it is fit that he too should depart,—most fit that in the fall of laws a loyal man should die. 11  14
Note 1. This sketch was written for the Social Circle, a club in Concord dating from the close of the Revolution. During that struggle the notables of the town, formed into a Committee of Safety, had come together from their farms, shops or offices to raise men for the army and provide for them in the field. After the war was over they missed these friendly gatherings for the common good, and so in 1782 organized the Circle, “to strengthen the social affections, and disseminate useful communications among its members.” The minister of the town was not, however, chosen a member until 1785. Mr. Emerson was a member from 1839 for the rest of his life. After the death of Dr. Ripley, who was his step-grandfather, he was asked to prepare the customary Memoir for the Club-Book. It was enlarged from a notice printed by him in the Middlesex Yeoman at the time of Dr. Ripley’s death.
  Mr. Emerson himself enjoyed the club, which met at the house of each of the twenty-five members in turn from October to April. The hours were from seven to nine in the evening, for, when he joined, a large part of the members were farmers. The Circle held strictly to its formation, the company, sitting upright in their chairs around the small parlor of the entertainer, strove to keep the conversation general. Just before they went home they partook of simple refreshment,—apples, nuts and raisins, sometimes cake, and cider or chocolate for drink.. Mr. Emerson wrote to a city friend in 1844:—
  “Much the best society I have ever known is a club in Concord called the Social Circle, consisting always of twenty-five of our citizens, doctor, lawyer, farmer, trader, miller, mechanic, etc., solidest of men, who yield the solidest of gossip. Harvard University is a wafer compared to the solid land which my friends represent. I do not like to be absent from home on Tuesday evenings in winter.”
  The celebration of the birthday of Emerson held in Concord, May 25, 1903, was under the auspices of the Social Circle. [back]
Note 2. The following information regarding this subject is gathered from Shattuck’s History of Concord:
  “The buildings of Harvard College were occupied as barracks for the American army, while stationed at Cambridge, and the students were dispersed. The college was removed to Concord and commenced its operations on the first of October, 1775. President Langdon lived at Dr. Minot’s [on the Common, where until a few years since the Middlesex Hotel stood]; Professor Sewall lived at James Jones’s; Professor Wigglesworth at the Bates place on the Bedford Road; and Professor Winthrop at Darius Merriam’s, near which was the library and philosophical apparatus…. The students boarded … in many different places. The recitations were at the court-house and meeting-house. Prayers were attended at the latter place.
  “The following proceedings of the government of the college were communicated to the town when it was about to be removed to Cambridge:—

“‘CONCORD, June 12, 1776.    
  “‘At a meeting of the President, Professors, and Tutors of Harvard College, voted, that the following address of thanks be presented by the president to the selectmen, the gentlemen of the committee, and other gentlemen and inhabitants of the town of Concord, who have favored the college with their encouragement and assistance, in its removal to this town, by providing accommodations.
  “‘Gentlemen,—The assistance you have afforded us in obtaining accommodations for this society here, when Cambridge was filled with the glorious army of freemen, which was assembled to hazard their lives in their county’s cause, and our removal from thence became necessary, demands our grateful acknowledgments.
  “‘We have observed with pleasure the many tokens of your friendship to the college; and particularly thank you for the use of your public buildings. We hope the scholars while here have not dishonored themselves and the society by any incivilities or indecencies of behaviour, or that you will readily forgive any errors which may be attributed to the inadvertencies of youth.
  “‘May God reward you with all his blessings, grant us a quiet re-settlement in our ancient seat to which we are now returning, preserve America from slavery, and establish and continue religion, learning, liberty, peace, and the happiest government in these American Colonies to the end of the world.
“‘SAMUEL LANGDON, President.        
“‘Per order.’”    
Note 3. Phebe was the eldest daughter of Rev. Daniel Bliss, the zealous pastor of the Concord Church from 1738 until his death in 1764. Then the young William Emerson was summoned from his teacher’s desk at Reading to supply the pulpit for a few weeks. His preaching pleased the people, and in the end of 1765 he was chosen pastor by the church, and their action confirmed by the town at the “March meeting.” He boarded with the widow of his predecessor, and fell in love with Phebe, whom he married, and in 1769 built the Manse by the Old North Bridge, “a nest for his phebe-bird.” He was an eager Son of Liberty, and fanned the flame of patriotism of his parishioners at the outbreak of the Revolution. In August, 1776, having obtained from the church leave of absence for the purpose, he joined the Northern army at Ticonderoga as chaplain, but in October sickened and died of fever. Four years after his death his widow married the young successor, the subject of this Memoir.
  Dr. Ripley was always kind and hospitable to the Emerson children and grandchildren of his wife. He especially befriended the widow of William the younger, with her five boys, who thus learned to regard Concord as a home. This determined Waldo’s settling there, and on his return from Europe in 1834, while looking for a house in Concord, he stayed with Dr. Ripley, and much of “Nature” was written at the Manse. [back]
Note 4. Rev. Joseph Emerson, the minister of Malden for years. He married Mary, the daughter of Rev. Samuel Moody of York, Maine, a good but eccentric man, and a rugged and powerful preacher. Joseph Emerson was a devoted scholar. Mr. Emerson recorded with pleasure this anecdote of him,—that he said after he had read the Iliad that he should be sorry to think that the men and cities he read of never existed.
  Three of his sons were ministers, Joseph of Pepperell, William of Concord and John of Conway, Massachusetts. [back]
Note 5. In previous editions this has been printed “repent this Providence,” but I am quite sure that this was an error arising from Mr. Emerson’s habitual use of the old-fashioned long s. “Resent” was then used in a good as well as a bad sense to signify the reaction of the mind on any event. Rev. William Emerson, the son of Joseph, in writing to his wife of the narrow escape from death of her two brothers who were in the crowd at the Boston Massacre, so-called, said: “However afflicting such a Scene as ye Murder of ye 4 above mentioned, yet to you and I it is more sensibly felt, & ought to be gratefully resented, the very wonderful Preservation of our dear Brothers, Theor and Saml.” [back]
Note 6. In his journal for 1834 Mr. Emerson notes: “Dr. Ripley prays for rain with great explicitness on Sunday, and on Monday the showers fell. When I spoke of the speed with which his prayers were answered, the good man looked modest.” When Dr. Ripley was old and feeble and also deaf, Rev. Hersey B. Goodwin was associated with him as pastor, and their relations were pleasant. One Sunday Mr. Goodwin exchanged with Rev. Octavius B. Frothingham, then a young minister and unacquainted with the old-time formalities connected with the church and the aged pastor. Arriving early, the clergyman from Boston took his place in the pulpit and soon heard the Doctor’s voice at the entrance inquiring for him, and tones of disapproval when it appeared that he had not waited for the senior pastor. On ascending the pulpit, Dr. Ripley read and handed over to Mr. Frothingham the customary notes sent up by families or individuals, in affliction or in joy, desiring by name the prayers of the congregation. When the prayer was over, Dr. Ripley, who had leaned forward to hear with his hand to his ear, was heard by the congregation to say, “But you have n’t prayed for our afflicted members.” Mr. Frothingham had to explain, in voice loud enough to make the Doctor hear, that it was his custom not to read notes aloud nor to pray for individuals, but to frame a general petition including all, to which the Doctor severely answered in a voice audible to the congregation, “Well, it is a very bad custom, and the sooner you change it the better!” [back]
Note 7. The Manse stood close by the old North Bridge, and Mr. Emerson, while a guest there in 1864, writes: “Francis comes to Dr. Ripley at breakfast to know whether he shall drive the cow into the battlefield.” [back]
Note 8. He was a member of the old Fire Association of Concord, founded in 1794. Mr. Emerson was also a member, and over the stairway in his house always hung the two leathern fire-buckets and green baize bag for saving property. [back]
Note 9. This was the remark of Mr. Emerson’s brother Edward. [back]
Note 10. Journal, 1835. “I listened yesterday as always to Dr. Ripley’s prayer in the mourning house with tenfold the hope and tenfold chance of some touch of nature that should melt us, that I should have felt in the rising of one of the Boston preachers of proprieties—the fair house of Seem. These old semi-savages do from the solitude in which they live and their remoteness from artificial society and their inevitable daily comparing man with beast, village with wilderness, their inevitable acquaintance with the outward nature of man, and with his strict dependence on sun and rain and wind and frost, wood, worm, cow and bird, get an education to the Homeric simplicity, which all the libraries of the Reviews and the commentators in Boston do not countervail.”
  Journal, 1840. “Dr. Ripley is no dandy, but speaks with the greatest simplicity and gravity. He preaches, however, to a congregation of Dr. Ripleys; Daniel Webster to an assembly of Websters. Could this belief of theirs be verified in the audience, each would be esteemed the best of all speakers.” [back]
Note 11. Journal, 1841. “Sept. 21. Dr. Ripley died this morning. The fall of this oak of ninety years makes some sensation in the forest, old and doomed as it was…. His body is a handsome and noble spectacle. My mother was moved just now to call it ‘the beauty of the dead.’… I carried Waldo to see him and he testified neither repulsion nor surprise, but only the quietest curiosity. He was ninety years old, yet this face has the tension and resolution of vigorous manhood…. A man is but a little thing in the midst of these great objects of Nature, yet a man by his moral quality may abolish all thoughts of magnitude, and in his manners equal the majesty of the world.” [back]

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