Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Hicks, Elias (1748–1830)
Author:
Davey, Christina
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Elias Hicks was a popular and influential liberal Quaker minister. His followers became known as Hicksites during the 1827–1829 separation of Quakers into liberal and orthodox branches. Hicks explained his religious views and recorded his experiences as a minister in his Journal (1832).

Hicks, son of John and Martha Smith Hicks, was born in Hempstead, Long Island, New York. He educated himself by reading the Bible, Quaker journals and histories, and borrowed books, having received little formal education as a child. In 1771, Hicks married Jemima Seaman; soon thereafter, they made their permanent home in Jericho, Long Island.

From 1779 through 1829, the Quaker minister journeyed more than forty thousand miles to locations primarily in the Northeast; but he also made trips to Virginia (1797, 1801, 1819, 1828), to the northern shore of Lake Ontario, Canada (1803, 1810), and to Richmond, Indiana (1828). Hicks spoke outdoors and in meeting houses, barns, schools, homes, and taverns to overflowing crowds of Quakers and non-Quakers. He preached that people could experience salvation without the aid of ordained clergy. God dwells within every person, he explained, and reveals truths to each one by means of the Inner Light. Employing their free will, people could choose salvation by submitting to the will of God revealed to them, or they could choose sin by rejecting God's will to follow their "independent will" (Hicks 336).

Whitman believed in the Inner Light. In 1890, he told Horace Traubel, who recorded Whitman's conversations from 1888 until the poet's death, that he subscribed to Hicks's views of spirituality. Neither Whitman nor his parents were Quaker. However, Whitman's mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, had often spoken to him about Hicks, and Whitman's father, Walter Whitman, admired Hicks. Moreover, Whitman's paternal grandfather, Jesse Whitman, and Hicks had been friendly as youths, and his maternal grandmother, Naomi Williams Van Velsor, had been born into a Quaker family and followed Quaker traditions. In November 1829, Whitman, at his father's invitation, went with his parents to Morrison's Hotel Ballroom in Brooklyn, where they heard Hicks speak about the Inner Light. Whitman was so impressed with Hicks's ideas and speaking ability that for decades he vowed to write about Hicks. He finally fulfilled this commitment with the publication of his November Boughs essay "Elias Hicks" (1888); he used Hicks's Journal as one source for the essay.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Forbush, Bliss. Elias Hicks: Quaker Liberal. New York: Columbia UP, 1956.

Hicks, Elias. Journal of the Life and Religious Labours of Elias Hicks. Written by Himself. 1832. 5th ed. New York: Arno, 1969.

Templin, Lawrence. "The Quaker Influence on Walt Whitman." American Literature 42 (1970): 165–180.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 7. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992.

Whitman, Walt. "Elias Hicks." Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964. 626–653.


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