Work: Finding religion

Theodore Parker

Chapter 9 of Work, A Story of Experience brings us face to face with another character based upon a real life person. The character is Rev. Thomas Power and the actual person is the Rev. Theodore Parker.

The power of life’s example

In Work, Christie, very taken with Cynthy Wilkins’ optimistic view of life, fulfills a promise to herself to find out how Cynthy is able to live a life of deep joy despite hardship. Cynthy suspects that Christie could use a bit of religion and suggests that she attend a service presided over by Rev. Thomas Power.

“Rampant radical”

Christie is surprised upon receiving the suggestion for Rev. Power has quite the reputation as “a rampant radical and infidel of the deepest dye,” and she had been warned “never to visit that den of iniquity called his free church.”

The Reverend Parker

Undoubtedly Theodore Parker was seen this way too. A staunch abolitionist and champion to the downtrodden, he had been a key figure in helping Louisa out of her own despair. Parker was already known to the Alcott family as he had visited Fruitlands and attended some of Bronson’s conversations. His views on Christianity were so radical (“Christianity would be better off without the Gospels” – Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson, page 234 ebook) that he was banned from preaching in Boston churches and was forced to preach at the Music Hall (now known as the Wang Center).

The Boston Music Hall where Rev. Parker preached.

This is not unlike Rev. Power in Work who also did not preach in a church. Power, and Parker, delivered the kind of authentic Christianity that Louisa had witnessed through her parents’ example: “Father and Mother had no money to give, but gave them time, sympathy, help; and if blessings would make them rich, they would be millionaires. This is practical Christianity.” (Ibid, page 238 ebook).

True grit

Parker often preached on the plight of working women and his inspiring words had led Louisa through her darkest hour. She hero worshipped him as she had done with Emerson and Thoreau. After hearing his sermon on “Laborious Young Women” where he advised, “Don’t be too proud to ask, and accept the humblest work till you can find the task you want,” (Ibid) she felt compelled to speak with him in person. She presented herself at his door only to find that he was not home. His wife, however, sympathized with Louisa’s plight and offered her work sewing ten hours a day at a girl’s reform school in Winchester. Remembering Parker’s words (“accept the humblest work till you find the task you want”) she accepts despite grave reservations. In the end, Parker’s wife had been testing her “earnestness” and offered instead a governess job in the city for four hours a day. Upon meeting Louisa, Parker praised her saying, “The girl has got true grit.” (Ibid, page 268)

Religion of the heart

Christie too was moved by the words of Rev. Thomas Power and by the earnestness of the congregation:

“Many earnest, thoughtful men and women were there, some on the anxious seat, and some already at peace, having found the clew that leads safely through the labyrinth of life. Here and there a white head, a placid old face, or one of those fine countenances that tell, unconsciously, the beautiful story of a victorious soul.”

The setting was admittedly foreign to her but that authenticity of the congregants and the minister soon won her over. The opening hymn spoke volumes about the congregants:

“At first, Christie wanted to smile, for some shouted and some hummed, some sat silent, and others sung sweetly; but before the hymn ended she liked it, and thought that the natural praise of each individual soul was perhaps more grateful to the ear of God than masses by great masters, or psalms warbled tunefully by hired opera singers.”

Powers’ method of prayer, a simple and heartfelt conversation with God, and his “judgment day” sermon spoke directly to Christie’s heart; she found her religion.

A living and generous faith

The familiar theme of authentic Christianity appears again and again in Louisa’s writing. Bronson’s brand of spirituality may have been strange but it was real and Louisa would settle for nothing less. The example of her father’s quest for spiritual perfection coupled with his and Abba’s practical philanthropy (often at the expense of their own family) left a deep impression.

Louisa not only understood religion but personal spirituality. Most of her life she rejected the formal religious component, never truly aligning to any denomination (although the Unitarians have claimed her as one of their own); there is no solid evidence to suggest she joined a congregation. She demonstrates again and again through her characters a keen understanding of the nature of authentic spirituality where faith and beliefs govern actions and motivations.

A life-saving faith

Cynthy Wilkins is a wonderful example of the transforming power of authentic spirituality, having been changed from someone who was self-centered and dissatisfied to a woman full of optimism, governed by peace. She glows with an inner light that attracts Christie like a moth to a flame.

In the depths of her despair, Christie found redemption by finding religion of the heart. Cynthy’s life example coupled with the teachings and compassion of a powerful preacher leads her to the next chapter of her life, one that would change her in ways she could never have imagined.

Click to Tweet & Share: “Work:” Louisa writes of the living, breathing faith that saved Christie and the preacher that saved her own life.

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