Organ Note for September 17

The Philosopher’s Muse and Newport’s Early Organ

 Philadelphia City Hall set on fire by pro-slavery groups protesting against Angelina and Sarah Grimke speaking to the Anti-Slavery Convention in 1838

The Muse, the inspiration goddess of the arts and sciences, was disgusted at the decay of Europe. Seeking “happy climes, genial sun and virgin earth,” She was heading westward. So wrote George Berkeley (1685-1753), Ireland’s most famous philosopher, in his poem, On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America. The poem was composed in 1716. Thirteen years later, Berkeley followed his restless Muse to the Americas in anticipation of “another golden age.”

For Berkeley, an Anglican senior priest, the golden age necessitated the conversion of Native American populations to Christianity, as well as the improvement of the morals of European and English settlers. In his opinion, neither Harvard nor Yale were up to the task. And so, he proposed that he would found a seminary in Bermuda, a location which he had heard was paradisiacal.  Here, he would educate Native Americans as missionaries. If volunteers were lacking, he would kidnap young Native American boys. Imprisoned in Berkeley’s seminary, the boys would be trained in Christian doctrine. When they reached adulthood, they would return to their peoples and convert them to the religion Berkeley had forced them to espouse.

Berkeley raised money in England through a subscription fund, the eighteenth century version of Go Fund Me. Just before embarking on his sea voyage, he changed his destination from Bermuda to Newport, Rhode Island. And, rather than founding a seminary, he bought large farm, built a comfortable house, and purchased five slaves whom he housed in his cellar.

Berkeley was welcomed into the pulpit of Trinity Church in Newport, the oldest Anglican Church in the state. Berkeley’s sermons explained to the colonists how slavery was sanctioned by the Bible and human law, and how chattel slavery and Christianity were compatible and mutually beneficial. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, the missionary arm of the Anglican Church, similarly endorsed slavery.

In 1732, Berkeley left America. Upon leaving Newport, he donated his house, land and slaves to Yale College. Upon arriving in London, he commissioned an organ for Trinity Church from Richard Bridge, a well-respected English organ builder. The wooden case, decorated with the Crown of England and the mitres of the archbishops of Canterbury and York, still survives.

The church vestry found its organist, Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750), in Germany. Charles was the son of Johann Pachelbel (1653-1705), an important composer whose Canon in D Major remains popular to this day. After serving Trinity Church for four years, Charles Pachelbel moved to Charleston, South Carolina. He married, became a father, served as organist to St. Philip’s Anglican Church, and composed his own music.

We might hope to hear an organ composition by Charles Pachelbel someday on our new organ. We might also think of the much-lauded Berkeley, who despite his philosophical profundity, advocated for the worst abuses of fellow human beings. And we might especially think of overlooked Grimke sisters, Sarah (1792-1873) and Angelina (1805-1895). Daughters of a wealthy plantation owner in South Carolina, they had seen whippings and beatings, even brutal deaths inflicted on small children. They were religious, as was Berkeley. But they vehemently rejected Berkeley’s views on slavery. They argued that slavery not only crushed the bodies of slaves but also twisted the souls of masters.

On their trips to Charleston, Sarah and Angelina Grimke might well have sat in the pews of St. Philip’s Church. And as they listened to the organ once played by Pachelbel, they would have been contemplating their extraordinary paths as abolitionists and suffragists. They pitted themselves against their families and societies. They spoke, wrote and acted on their consciences. They endured verbal attacks, physical assaults, and social wrath. As women, they were politically powerless. Yet as moral guides for their generation and ours, they were peerless. Let us claim them as the American Muses.