As we approach Thanksgiving, it is hard to imagine how precariously dependent people once were — and in many areas of the world still are — on their harvests and on those who employed men and women and provided them with resources.
If any reminder is needed, two poems illustrate the dependence many Newfoundlanders felt in the 1840s on sea and land, and how a failure of the fishery could affect their daily lives.
We find these verses in a book of poems published by Robert Traill Spence Lowell, a privileged and educated American, who served under Bishop Spencer as Anglican priest in Bay Roberts.
Spencer and Lowell were religiously evangelicals, meaning that personal salvation and the Bible and its Reformation heritage dominated their religious outlook. At worst, this faith could lead to an otherworldly preoccupation with personal holiness at the expense of the world around. At best, these Bible-oriented Christians saw this Earth as a sphere for action in helping those who needed help, the poor and disadvantaged.
Consequently much of Protestant benevolence and education in the early 19th century resulted from evangelical initiatives, even as practicing evangelicals fuelled much of the political and ideological opposition to Catholicism.
This tension between the two poles of a privatized Protestantism and an activism open to the world can be observed in Robert Lowell’s literary works.
His novel, “The New Priest in Conception Bay,” turns around a Roman Catholic conspiracy, and he published contentious correspondence with a Roman Catholic priest. Yet he also wrote engaged and caring poems during one of the most trying periods in Newfoundland history, when a serious downturn in the fishery and a potato blight, aggravated by lack of political leadership, led to famine and great human suffering during 1846 and 1847.
During this crisis, Lowell served as relief commissioner in Conception Bay and attempted to meet the needs of the people around him.
Cry of the Wronged
In his poem “The Cry of the Wronged,” Lowell voices a plea of the poor for human solidarity, since they as well as the more fortunate are all children of God.
God has given light and air:
Grudge not thou my little share;
Lo! it cometh everywhere,
We may share together.
Their fundamental kinship, Lowell believed, should elicit care of human beings for one another during one of the most trying winters, also known in Newfoundland history as the “Winter of the Rals.”
Brother, look at me again:
Toil has given me many a stain,
Toil has swollen every vein,
Yet I am thy brother.
I am man, as well as thou,
And our Lord has crossed my brow,
Calling me God’s child, and how
Wilt thou call me other?
In another poem from the same period, titled “Newfoundland,” Lowell paints Newfoundland as it was: “rugged,” “stormy,” with “rocky moss” and “drear barrens,” swept by “cold north winds,” as well as “drifting, bitter sleet and blinding snow,” all in all a “bleak, bleak realm.”
A tinted growth appears:
Grass, shrub, and tree, slow growing in long years,
Where gapes the rocky rift.
Yet amid such challenges of nature, Lowell recognized a certain graciousness by which God had provided and an inner freedom held by those eking out their precarious existence. For Lowell, the pious evangelical, this human dignity was grounded in faith.
Ay, thou art good:
The poor man at his door
Gathers his fuel; and year-long thy shore
Yields, in free gift, his food.
When the famine struck, the Conception Bay priest exerted himself by seeking to provide help. Physical exhaustion as well as radical theological differences with the newly arrived Tractarian Bishop Edward Feild, led eventually to Lowell’s departure from the island.
Even after he had departed, Lowell appealed through newspapers in his native New England for relief, describing his suffering parishioners as people “who have death as near to them, as if they had been shipwrecked in mid-ocean upon some rock that bore not so much as a blade of grass.”
Lowell drew on his own experiences when he wrote that he “knows enough of the pittances with which the people of that district were compelled to eke out the cold weary months, Sundays, weekdays and Holy-days alike — has seen enough of processions of men, women and children, hurrying from every quarter with bags which once held a cubic weight of biscuit, to get a few pounds of flour, or rice, or Indian meal, which were to feed a family for a week, or three days, as the case might be.”
Lowell was able to send two loads of Indian meal to Conception Bay. Fearing favouritism, he insisted in a letter to the governor that it be distributed “without distinction of any sort, except degrees of wretchedness.”
Hans Rollmann is professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.