On July 4, 1845 Thoreau moved to Walden Pond and remained there for the next two years. The year before he had returned to his family home in Concord, Massachusetts to work in the Thoreau pencil factory. He dreamed of buying or leasing a farm where he could support himself and pursue his writing. In the spring of 1845 his friend Ellery Channing had told Thoreau that he should immediately build a hut for himself somewhere.
So he did. The book that famously resulted from Thoreau’s sojourn in the woods is often interpreted as the eccentric work of an isolated hermit and social misfit. It is true that Thoreau’s solitary life and writing did occupy much of his time. In 1846 he would complete and publish his first book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Riverswhich described an 1839 hiking trip with his brother Charles. But during Thoreau’s two years at Walden Pond he was also immersed in the abolition movement. By day Thoreau sheltered runaway slaves in his small cabin and at night saw them safely on their way further north.
Soon after his return to Concord the local collector came to garner six years of unpaid taxes. Thoreau was not opposed to the payment of debts, however he looked upon the imposition of a poll tax by a government that supported both slavery and the Mexican-American war to be against his conscience. He refused to pay.
Three weeks after his arrival at Walden Pond (and two weeks after his twenty-eighth birthday) Thoreau was arrested and put in the Concord jail. The legend goes that his mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson arrived to visit him and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” to which Thoreau responded to Emerson, “What are you doing out there?”.
Even though Emerson was also opposed to slavery and to the War he was appalled by Thoreau’s actions. Emerson felt the situation did not demand the extremes of civil disobedience that Thoreau was advocating. Emerson had much more trust in the political process and little sympathy for Thoreau’s anarchism.
However, Emerson was not adverse to the appeal of radical activism. He did not flinch when the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy of the U S Constitution declaring it to be a pro-slavery document. Emerson welcomed prominent abolitionists to his home on a regular basis. And only a few years later he would collect funds to buy rifles for John Brown.
The difference between Emerson and Thoreau at this point in time reflected their differing takes on the nature of the political crisis. Emerson still had hope that slavery could be abolished through due process and without a civil war. Thoreau thought, in agreement with the abolitionists, that the State was hopelessly compromised by its ongoing complicity with evil.
One year after Thoreau’s departure from Walden Pond, while he was immersed in revising Walden, he penned his famous lecture and essay on “Resistance to Civil Government”. It was of course inspired by his time in jail, but also informed by an 1831 poem of Percy Byshe Shelley entitled “The Mask of Anarchy”1 where Shelley wrote:
Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew,
What they like, that let them do.With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away
Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many — they are few.
Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience that “if a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” And then a few years later, in 1854 on the eve of publishing Walden. Thoreau wrote in his journal: “My thoughts are murder to the state.”
I think of Thoreau during these days of resistance. As in his day there is diversity among those of us united in our outrage at the injustice, existent evil, and imminent evil all around us. Some of this diversity reflects differing readings of the Bible or differing forms of Christian spirituality that either encourage or discourage public engagement. Some springs from differing dispositions on the efficacy of political activism. Even our small circle of Christians gathered around the concerns of “anarchism” often finds itself at odds about what implications the black flag entails for Christian discipleship.
The abolitionists of Thoreau’s day were one part of a larger reform movement that included activism on women’s suffrage, temperance, animal rights, “free love”, and communalism. The period from 1830-1860 was a yeasty time in American history in which the rise of capitalism, increased immigrant labor, the expansion of western markets, and political gridlock sparked increasing social ferment, unrest and opposition.
As perhaps the most radical of these reform movements, the abolitionists disavowed any appeal to process, appeasement, or compromise. In spite of the need to address many issues of injustice they remained focused on one. Understanding the systemic evil of a national (not just regional) economy based upon slavery, they insisted upon attacking this evil at its core. They asserted that slavery must be abolished. Period. Fugitive slaves must be protected and assisted. Commercial products dependent upon slavery (cotton, tobacco, sugar) must be boycotted. The spread of this virulent practice should be oppposed by any means necessary.
We of course know that the actions and reactions around this issue would eventually culminate in a horrible civil war that would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and permanently change the direction of United States history.
Some would question whether the systemic injustices of our day equate with those of one hundred and fifty years ago. Others would assert that our dilemma is if anything even more perilous and fraught with danger.
Whether we are committed to a Christian discipleship focused around the individual imitation of the historical Jesus, the missionary call of Matthew 28, the social activism of Luke 4, the communalism of Acts 2, or the apocalyptic hope of Revelation, I believe we must all seek to find the one place, the one issue, the one firm grip we can grasp upon our own responsibility and calling in this time. We have always understood that our spiritual lives are caught up in a divine drama far beyond our own understanding or ability to articulate. What we perhaps have yet to perceive is that our political and social lives are also engaged with a drama (perhaps just as divine) that extends beyond the horizon of any one point of view.
Radical times call for radical commitments. Those commitments must be rooted not just in those times, but (as Thoreau would write) in the “eternities”. And yet, those commitments must connect with our times in ways that are vital and efficacious. Our actions must have bite. Finding the tender spots of the empire may not be as self-evident as it was in Thoreau’s day. But often the reactions of the principalities and powers give some indication of when we are getting close. Christian radicals should never be condemned as the toothless dogs of complacency and cynicism. Eventually we have to show some teeth.
Image Credit: “Portrait of Thoreau” by Tink (TinkMakesArt.com)
- Shelley wrote the Mask of Anarchy in 1819 following a British massacre at Peterloo in which the British army charged into a crowd of protesters killing 15 and injuring 650. The poem was not published during Shelley’s lifetime. It is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent resistance. ↩