Convers Francis, 1795 - 1863

Convers Francis was a Unitarian clergyman, scholar, biographer, and historian.  He studied at Harvard Divinity School, was ordained in 1819, served as minister at Watertown, Massachusetts until 1842, then held the post of Parkman Professor of Pulpit Eloquence at Harvard for the rest of his life.  As the eldest member and moderator of the Transcendental Club, Francis contributed to the Transcendentalist revolt with his tract Christianity as a Purely Internal Principle (1836), but, unlike some other Transcendentalists--notably George Ripley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau--he preferred to reform the church from within rather than attack it from without.
Francis has been written about as follows by Octavius Brooks Frothingham, the first historian of American Transcendentalism.
In these sketches of transcendental leaders--as in this study of the transcendental movement,--few have been included but those whom the intuitive philosophy drew away from their former church connections and gathered into a party by themselves--a party of protestants against literalism and formalism.  The transcendental philosophy in its main ideas, was held by eminent orthodox divines who accepted it as entirely in accordance with the Christian scheme, and used it in fact as an efficient support for the doctrines of the church.  The most eminent divines of New England did this, and were considered entirely orthodox in doing it, their Christian faith gaining warmth and color from the intuitive system.  As has already been said, the Trinitarian scheme has close affinities with Platonism.  But none of these men called themselves or were called Transcendentalists.  The Transcendentalist substituted the principles of his Philosophy and the inferences therefrom for the creed of the church, and became a separatist.  With him the soul superseded the church; the revelations of the soul took the place of bible, creed and priesthood.  The men that have been named all did this, with the exception of James Freeman Clarke, who adhered to the ministry and the church.  But his intimacy with the transcendental leaders, and his cooperation with them in some of their most important works, to say nothing of the unique position his transcendental ideas compelled him to assume, as well in ecclesiastical matters as in social reform, entitle him to mention.  Convers Francis--parish minister at Watertown from 1819 till 1842, and Parkman professor of Pulpit Eloquence and the Pastoral Care at Cambridge from 1842 till 1863--though never conspicuous either as preacher or minister, and never recognized as a representative apostle, was influential as a believer in the spiritual philosophy, among young men.  To him Theodore Parker acknowledged his debt; to him successive classes of divinity students owed the stimulus and direction that carried them into the transcendental ranks; Johnson, Longfellow, Higginson were his pupils at Cambridge, and carried thence ideas which he had shaped if not originated.  In many things conservative, disagreeing on some points with Emerson, whom he revered and loved as a man, regretting much that seemed sarcastic, arrogant, derisive in Parker's "Discourse of Religion," he gave his full assent to the principles of the intuitive philosophy, and used them as the pillars of Christianity.  Had he been as electric and penetrating as he was truthful and obedient, high-minded and sincere, hearty and simple, he would have been a force as well as an influence.  In 1836 he foresaw the rupture between "the Old or English school belonging to the sensual and empiric philosophy,--and the New or German school, belonging to the spiritual philosophy," and gave all his sympathy to the latter as having the most of truth.  He was the senior member of the "Transcendental Club," composed of the liberal thinkers who met to discuss literary and spiritual subjects on the ground of reason and the soul's intuitive perceptions.  With deep interest he followed the course of speculative and practical reform to the close of his life.  Some, of whom he was not one, engaged in the discussions for a little while, attended the meetings, and set forth bold opinions, but retired within their close fellowships as soon as plans for propagandism or schemes of organization were proposed.  Their sympathies were literary and within the recognized limits of literature; but they had either too little courage of conviction, or too little conviction, to depart from accustomed ways or break with existing associations.  The number of professed transcendentalists in the restricted sense, was never large, and, after the first excitement, did not greatly increase.  There was but one generation of births.  The genuine transcendentalists became so in their youth, ripened into full conviction in middle life, and, as a rule, continued so to old age.  The desertions from the faith were not many.  Half a dozen perhaps became catholics; as many became episcopalians; but by far the greater part maintained their principles and remained serene dissenters, "in the world, but not of it."