Rev. Charles Follen & the Christmas Tree in America


The Radical Reverend Follen

Text in plum-colored letters is (slightly abridged) from Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (NY: Knopf, ch. 5). Permission requested.

The year 1830 was a banner year for the politically radical German émigré Karl (now Charles) Follen: he became a US citizen, a minister in the Unitarian Church, a full-time professor of German literature at Harvard, and the father of little Charley.

"But within less than five years, the radical commitments that had brought him to America in the first place brought him down once again. This time the issue was slavery, a subject that was just beginning to arouse feelings of urgent intensity in a handful of Americans… His fall was heroic."

By 1834 Follen, who was coming up for the equivalent of tenure at Harvard, was a confirmed and uncompromising abolitionist. "But radical abolitionism did not sit well with most Northerners, even with the Boston Unitarian establishment, whose members were offended by what they regarded as its vulgar style as well as its constant insistence that abolition be total and immediate."

Harvard did not renew Follen's contract in 1835. Fortunately, his admirers found him a salaried position directing the education of two children whose rich merchant father had died in Boston.

Unfortunately, Follen proved to be a radical in education too. He believed that education, instead of drilling lessons by rote, should draw out the character and energies already present in a child's young soul. These progressive ideas, Nissenbaum relates, represented "the kind of approach that struck many people (including many Unitarians) as leading inevitably to an indiscriminate parental indulgence of children in their immature desires and whims."

As his detractors apparently maneuvered against him, the abolitionist educator and staunch Unitarian stuck to his principles - and lost his job only weeks before Christmas of 1835.

"Through these trying hours, as always," writes Nissenbaum, "Follen maintained his characteristically calm, patient demeanor, but he did not retreat a single inch. He was a man of extraordinary principle and tenacity."

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