The Poetic Element in the Rising Faith[1]

William Channing Gannett, Rochester, NY

Berry Street Essay, 1903


Delivered at the Ministerial Conference

May 1903


[According to the scribal records of the Conference, Gannett delivered the 1903 essay. The essay posted was found in his ministry file at Harvard.  It addresses a topic of great concern to Gannett and may well be his Berry Street Essay; however, the scribal record does not include a title, so we can't be certain.]


"Is it rich in elements of poetry?” is not the most vital question to ask about a religion, but there are not many questions of greater importance; for the poetry in it, the appeal to the imagination that it makes, has much to do with its appeal to the heart and the life. All systems of faith have this poetry; and it is hard to conceive of faith held by the many that has not a great deal of poetry in it.   For all men are more or less poets, all born to see everything double,—that which we see forever suggesting the unseen and supplying eidola, "images,” with which we try to think the unseeable; and the more child-minded we are, the more we depend on these images. All faiths have their poetry, but some systems are by nature more poetic than others.  In view of the fact that the coming day is to be a day of science in any event, the wonder begins,—Will the new faith be richer, or poorer, than the old in elements of poetry?

The old phase of Christendom has two great sources of poetry.  One is its creed. Christianity is essentially a poetic system.  Like all religions it is a scheme of salvation, personal and social; but the Christian scheme, in the form that underlies the older church faiths, is itself a great drama, a culminating Passion- Play. Everywhere God is seen moving through history.  Each Bible scene in the drama is full of poetic incident; and when the God becomes Man, all the detail of that life, the Christ’s life among men, adds its pictures to the poem. For centuries now this drama, this life, has been furnishing both subjects and symbols to Christian imagination.  The saint-legends, the miracle plays, the art of the Church, the poems of Dante and Milton, the allegory of Bunyan, the friar's story-preaching, the modern revivalists’ vivid appeals, the Jesus hymns of the singing congregations, are compacted of poetry, largely due to this credal source. The national literatures of Christendom have this poetry in their keeping as an imperishable possession.  The lines of great English poets, of Shakespeare, Tennyson, Browning, are inlaid with allusions to it. All the preachers, of course, had their great common treasure of poetic subject and poetic symbolism at their command.  Always and everywhere he whom the people hear gladly has to reach them by imagery.  "Truth embodied in a tale” or an anecdote, in a fable or a parable or an allegory, in a picture, an emblem, a symbol – in any kind of an "image” – "shall enter in at lovely doors.”  And in Christian lands, this was the imagery, understood of the many, for things of the Spirit.  "Poet-preachers” were they who made most successful use of what all the rest of the preachers used with minor success.

But the creed has not been the sole source of their poetry. Where did Jesus himself find his poetry?  In the commonest experiences of life, right around him,—the sower sowing, the fisherman fishing, the shepherd seeking his lost lamb, the housemother sweeping and making the bread, the farmhands growling over their pay, the overseer's graft, the wayside robber, the reckless son and the loving father, the field flower and the flying bird and the nestling fallen from the nest.  These made good enough "images” for Jesus to preach the kingdom of heaven with.  And so it has been ever since.  These legend-bright saints of the church just referred to, they of the "imitation” and "footsteps,” were good men and women of near-yesterdays.  Those preaching Friars drove home their gospel with fable and anecdote, with "Exempla” and "Gesta Romorum.”  The Gothic cathedral owed nearly as much to latter-day and barbaric as to early and Christian imagination.  The Madonna was an Italian mother, a German Frau, a Spanish peasant girl, according to the painter’s nationality and the face of his wife. Dante met his old neighbors in Hell, and heard his old professors, under the Bible names, lecture in Heaven; and his heavens themselves revolved as Ptolemy taught them.  Milton’s "Satan” and Milton’s "Samson” were "modern instances.”  Evangelical hymns of today remain loyal to Jesus,—partly because the hymn is so often a prayer to him; but our most popular evangelical preaching springs, like his own, from the life of the day and the people.  Father Taylor used to entrance his Bethel with scenes of sea peril; Beecher pictured his sermons with glimpses of hill and pasture and street; Talmage held his millions of readers with roving-pictures of everyday tenderness and everyday tragedy,—often masterpieces of their kind; Moody made breathless his crowds with quick little dramas of soul life,—anecdotes of the pathos, the agony, the joy of the soul that struggles for self surrender to God. 

Nature and Life, then – the world in which we live, the men and women who live in it with us, the blooms and glories and mysteries of the day that is passing around us,—these and the creed have been the two sources of poetry in the old faith of Christendom.

What of these sources in the new rising faith?  To this faith that whole Christian scheme of redemption, in its old and literal form, is passing from credence.  Not that it is any danger of rapid displacement, taking Christendom over; and as we say that, let us recall and give heed to the thirty-third canto of "In Memoriam.”  Still, to the rising faith, it is passing away.  Not many, whether of those who gladden or those who sorrow over its loss, seem to see that it is greatening, not lessening, out of belief; but whichever way it be fading, it is losing outline as "fact,” and with that is losing its power to supply subjects for the imagination.  If [there is] ever another Dante, his poem will not be of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.  If [there is] ever a Milton again, his poem will not be of Paradise Lost and Regained.  Should Bunyan return, he will provide Christians with an altogether new Baedeker for his journey to heaven.  [There will be ] no more miracle plays save as curios of the stage.  The Passion-Play in the Tyrolese village draws because [it is] an anachronism.  Art may come back to the churches, but it will not bring back the Madonnas and Crucifixions and the throngs of martyrs and saints.  Whom will it bring?  And of what will the new hymns sing?  That drama of Redemption fading, that very Life dimming from historic reality to an ideal, they can hardly be hymns of the Jesus of story, his cross and his crown.  And the preachers are losing the subjects of many a sermon to which generations have listened in quakings, or in triumphs, of awe.

Of this faith of the past, then, is nothing left for the faith of today and tomorrow to use?  For uses of poetry a great deal is left.  Whatever our latter-day faith may become, we are all of us heirs of the imagery born of these outgrown Christian beliefs.  The heretic is as much a child of the centuries as the believer and shares in that heritage with him.  As established and understood symbolism for things of the Spirit, it belongs to the preacher of the liberal faith as much as to him for whom it is not only symbol but creed.  Paradise, Ark and Babel’s tower, Abraham’s faith in his angel-guests, Lot’s wife, Jacob’s dream-ladder and dream-wrestle, Moses from his river bulrushes to Pisgah, Egyptian plagues, Red Sea, Sinai and Tables of Law, Wilderness wanderings and Promised Land, and on through hero- tales and unconscious quotations from Prophet and Psalm,—through legends of the Bethlehem birth, the Baptism, the Temptation, the Transfiguration, the Parables, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the Cross, the Resurrection, and still on through Gifts of Tongues and Visions of Stephen and Peter and Paul and, at last, of the new Jerusalem,—and a thousand familiar pictures and phrases besides, are part of the permanent religious symbolism of Christendom, its abiding treasure of poetry.

Such spiritual transfiguration of belief into symbolism is a law of the mind, is the order of nature.  It is the creed achieving immortality,—the corruptible putting on incorruption and glory. What dies as a "truth,” as a "fact,” lives on as a symbol of a reality that is akin to, but vaster far than, the original. "The Incarnation” is discredited,– "Incarnation” becomes recognized as the supreme fact of divine manifestation; and "the Christ” stands the symbol thereof.  "The Cross,” with its victim sublime bearing the sins of the world, disappears from Calvary,—"Vicarious At-one-ment” is recognized as the supreme fact of brotherhood, the working law of humanity’s uplift; and that cross upon Calvary becomes its abiding symbol.  Thus it was with the old Greek myths,—dead, yet living forever.  Thus will it be with the old creed of Christendom,—dying today as beliefs, to live forever as symbols for things of the spirit.  The world harvests its poetry on the fields of its dying beliefs.

And what of the other source, Nature and Life, to which the faith of the past owes the rest of its poetry?  Here, for the coming faith, lies gain, and gain so great that it more than makes good any loss from the creed-source. We see so much more in Nature and Life today than ever before!  Vast, complex, intricate, subtle, grows the outward world as science reveals it; vast, complex, intricate, subtle, the inward world also, as developing consciousness reveals it.  The horizons of atom and soul forever expand as the searchers advance.  Each secret disclosed, without or within, becomes gate to new reaches of mystery.  And with so much more to see, then so much more to feel! If "devoutness” imply a specific theology, let the old rebuke go,—but the unawed astronomer is mad; the chemist uncharmed, the botanist praiseless, the biologist who does not rejoice,—all mad!  Science is confessedly becoming more mystical, if not frankly religious,—and draw, if thou canst, the line between.  The verified visions of science are losing themselves with "faiths.”  Behold its mystic creed today, in this the first watch of its morning!

[Marginal note:  "If possible, insert this a bit, as shown”]

One imminent in all.

The incident in the infinitesimal.

Eternal being in internal process of million-faced manifestation.

All things opening into each other and into the vast.

Life interwoven with life in measureless webs of vicarious weal and vicarious woe.

Life unfolding from life in ceaseless progression. 

This is the world, this is "Nature and Life,” as science is reading it from the outside today.  And of this world, the poet, the preacher, would fain interpret the inside,— himself—the key to it all, both the outside and inside: his body compact of its physical elements, a-thrill with its physical forces; the soul within him calling to soul in all things without, as deep unto deep; his reason discerning the Law and the Beauty, and his conscience affirming the Right, his heart assuring the Love, in it all.

It is early as yet to write the coming theology, but when it comes, it must match the new universe.  Man’s ceiling and imagination must needs keep pace with his widening and deepening thought; for the three are correlates of a trinity.  Assuredly, therefore, as it develops, the rising faith will not lack on its heart side.  This much we may say of its poetry: when it comes, it, also, must match the new universe,—even as Homer’s poem matched his world, and Dante’s matched his.  In the first century of the new science, to have had Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning as poet-interpreters of "Nature and Life,” is prophetic.  Splendors of poetry, lie on before!  This, too, may we not safely say? —that the poetry of the coming faith will be less sensuous (as Milton used the term), less dramatic, less picturesque than that of the old; more mystic, more intensive, more subtle, suggestive; its ethics much nobler; its passion a passion for goodness and service; its devoutness trustful and joyous en-thus-iasm, in the literal sense of the word.


And finally this.  The hymns of the faith are apt to be among its earliest expressions in language.  Thus it was in ancient India; thus in ancient Greece.  The hymns of the new faith seem to be coming already to birth.  As those of the old Christianity center around the idea of the Christ, with his cross on the Hill as the means of human redemption, those of the new Christianity center around the idea of the Immanent God, with this indwelling Life and Goodness and Love as the source of the soul’s growth and transfiguration.  Tenderly, joyfully, with poetic beauty, these hymns already uttering this central faith of the morrow.  Many of Whittier’s hymns reflect it,—the Friends’ "inner light” is simply that clear shining God in the soul; and for ready welcome and service they have the added advantage that Whittier’s orthodoxy enables him to use at choice the mystic, indwelling "Christ” as a name for the indwelling God.  The recognition, growing on both sides, that this mystic "Christ,” living and working today in creation, in history, in hearts, is but another name for "the Father,” may yet obliterate the line between liberal orthodoxy and liberal heresy.  Within the wider Unitarian circle itself a school of such hymn-writers is rising, and their hymns, spreading from book to book, are likely to be more and more used in the Church at large, so well do they voice the heart of the faith that is brightening around us.  As Luther’s swelling chorales of the faith that fought its way through the sixteenth century, as the trust songs of suffering German mystics amid the storms of the seventeenth century, as the hymns of Watts and the Wesleys interpreting the piety of the eighteenth century, are still lingering and loved in the Church of today, so the longing, the trust, the joy of some of these new hymns are likely to last as heart-song and church-song far into that day of religion, of which ours is the dawn.  Songs of the soul in earnest endeavor, songs of brotherhood seeking to save, are not yet sounding out as they will, when Unitarians join more actively the virile forces that are battling against the wrongs of today.  But tender awe, childlike trust, the rest of the soul on God,—and a vision of God in Nature, and a sense of fellowship and religion, and assurance of truth yet to spring, and of the Better and Happier to-be on the earth and of a life beyond life on the earth,—these of the key-notes of the new Unitarian hymns; and such hymns, perhaps better than anything else, herald the mystical piety and poetry of the coming religion.  Its sermons, its books, its argument, its rapture of prose affirmation, its poet-preachers, are also all on the way; but the first sounds of a new day are the bird-songs.



[1] Andover Harvard Library, Manuscripts and Archives, bMS 01446, "Unitarian Universalist Association. Inactive Minister Files, 1825-1999.,” William Channing Gannett.  Not specifically marked as a Berry Street Essay, this paper was the only essay appearing in Gannett’s files, which makes it likely that it was placed there because of its significance to the Association. [Paul Sprecher]