September 16, 2013

Very: something dangerous in his air

In the summer of 1838, Jones Very had surprised a group of Harvard students he was teaching when he shouted to them, "Flee to the mountains, for the end of all things is at hand!" Fired from his job, he was sent back to his native Salem, Massachusetts for rest and relaxation to combat what others thought was a nervous collapse.

Instead, Very became more and more convinced he was a prophet and went door to door in Salem in an attempt to find recruits for this belief. On September 16, 1838, he went to his neighbor Elizabeth Palmer Peabody who, like him, was an early member of the Transcendentalist movement. To Peabody, Very quoted from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, before offering his own interpretation of the text. As Peabody later recalled,

He looked much flushed and his eyes very brilliant and unwinking. It struck me at once that there was something unnatural—and dangerous in his air—As soon as we were within the parlor door he laid his hand on my head—and said "I come to baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with Fire"—and then he prayed—I cannot remember his words but they were thrilling—and as I stood under his hand, I trembled to the centre.

Peabody said she tried to stay quiet and allow Very to have this experience. When he was finished, he sat down and the two sat quietly for a moment. He then asked how she felt. "I feel no change," she admitted. "But you will," he said, before revealing himself as the Second Coming of Christ. She was moved by his connection with "Absolute Spirit" but was nervous about his "frenzy." When Very repeated the incident with the local minister, he was institutionalized for insanity. Peabody, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others, meanwhile, were concerned for the young man's health but were somewhat awed by his profound thoughts on the human spirit and its relationship with the deity. Emerson particularly encouraged Very's writings, including essays on Shakespeare and a huge number of sonnets — written, Very claimed, with the Holy Spirit. His poem "Worship":

There is no worship now: the idol stands
Within the Spirit's holy resting-place I
Millions before it bend with upraised hands,
And with their gifts God's purer shrine disgrace.
The prophet walks unhonored 'mid the crowd
That to the idol's temple daily throng;
His voice unheard above their voices loud,
His strength too feeble 'gainst the torrent strong;
But there are bounds that ocean's rage can stay
When wave on wave leaps madly to the shore:
And Boo'n the prophet's word shall men obey,
And hushed to peace the billows cease to roar;
For He who spake — and warring winds kept
peace, Commands again — and man's wild passions cease.

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