A LETTER FROM REV. WILLIAM FISH
ON THE 125TH ANNIVERSARY
OF THE JAMES LIBRARY

May 2, 1999

 

Dear Richard,

As one of your former colleagues in South Scituate I am pleased to respond to your invitation to speak at the 125th Anniversary of the James Library which was built and dedicated during the time of my ministry in 1874. I regret that I cannot be with you in person, but I am delighted to be able to send you this letter which I hope you will share with the congregation on Sunday morning, May the 2nd, 1999. It is hard to believe that 125 years have passed since the date of the dedication of the James. Time flies when you’re in the spirit world. In fact there’s no time up here at all. I have been very busy of late as one of the librarians for the Akashic Records which houses the wisdom of the ages past, present and future. I enjoy my work. So much so that it would have been difficult for me to get away even for a short time. Moreover, I have not yet perfected the art of lowering my spirit vibrations for material expression. I am pleased, however, that I was able to send you this letter via the Spirit Internet which is not always a reliable means of communication between your world and mine. I am told that we are patiently awaiting the arrival of one of your well known personages named Bill Gates who will help up us establish a firm link between the Spirit Internet and the World Wide Web. In the meantime we don’t mind waiting since we’ve got all the time in the world.

You asked if I would share with your congregation my recollections of the founding of the James Library, how it came to be, what was my relationship to Josiah L. James, as well as a brief accounting of my life and ministry before coming to the First Parish in Norwell. I am glad to do so.

Josiah L. James was a native of South Scituate (now Norwell). In early life he was a partner in business with Mr. John Nash (Grocers), but when he was still quite young, though a married man, he left his native town for the City of New York where he was in business for several years. Subsequently, in the year 1834, I think, he moved with his family to Fayewell County, Illinois, where he and his associates organized a new town, calling the village which they laid out, Tremont. It soon became a pleasant and thriving village quite equal to the then better class of rural New England villages. It also became, and remained, for a time, the County Seat, made up, as it was, for the most part, of intelligent, enterprising seekers after new homes and fortunes, from the Eastern States, largely from New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island. I was one of those enterprising seekers, along with my wife (we were only recently married), who decided to venture westward to Illinois to try our hand at teaching in some of the private schools which had been established in Tremont. I had recently completed my studies for the ministry in Providence, for the Restorationist Church, but decided to postpone taking a church for a couple of years while we devoted our energies to the challenge of the teaching profession.

It took us a good month to make the journey from Providence, Rhode Island to the village in Tremont, Illinois. We were very warmly and graciously received by Josiah L. James who had laid out a beautiful farm a couple of miles from the village. He was in the process of erecting a large and fine house that was nearly complete, and he invited us to stay with him for a spell until we could find other accommodations, which we did for a week or two. We became fast friends, and I am pleased to say, that our friendship lasted for the remainder of our lives, though we eventually left Tremont after only a year and a half to return East. I decided it was time to begin my call to the ministry. I was ordained as a minister in the Restorationist Church in Millville, Massachusetts where I remained for a period of nine years. It was during this period that I became quite interested in the Transcendentalist movement, so much so that I joined the Hopedale Community and stayed for another nine years. I felt the call to ministry once again and decided I would much prefer to do so within the Unitarian Church, this time in Cortland, New York, where I resided for yet another nine years.

While minister in Cortland I helped organize a literary association under whose auspices the most celebrated lecturers and men of letters came and spoke and preached from my pulpit. I was honored to be host to such great orators as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison (the great abolitionist), Thomas Starr King, Horace Mann and Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, Theodore Parker, and Samuel J. May. Mr. May, as you know, was one of your former pastors, and it was he who induced me to consider accepting the post of minister to your church in South Scituate, which I am pleased to report, I did so gladly and with much enthusiasm. Thus it was that my wife and I moved further East in 1865. This was to be my final pastorate. This time I stayed, not for nine years, but for twenty years, and they were happy and productive years, both for the parish and myself.

I came to South Scituate just after the Civil War had ended and the town was welcoming back 120 of its citizens who had served in the Army, and honoring another 24 who had been killed. It was an honor for me to be here and to be able to bless the memory of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. A few years after I arrived I became concerned about the lack of sufficient books and reading materials for the education of our children in the Sunday School. Because of my long-standing friendship with Mr. James he began to take a new interest in his native town, and thought of doing something for it in a practical way. He was encouraged in this endeavor by his niece, Hannah Packard James, who was visiting with her uncle in Chicago, where he had been living for many years. She informed him that we were making efforts to replenish our Sunday School Library. He responded accordingly and sent me a check for $1,000. He said in his letter that he would like to aid the project from love of his native town and parish. It was indeed a great and grateful surprise to us all. The condition on which the donation was made was that the money should be safely and permanently invested, and the income from it, be annually appropriated for the purchase of books for the Sunday School teachers and pupils.

This generous donation of Mr. James gave a new interest to our Sunday School, which was already in a prosperous condition, under the long-time tutelage of its Superintendent, Mr. Henry A. Turner. The impression upon the Parish was influential for good, stimulating new activities, and setting many, if not all of us, to talking of a new and more general library and a building suitable for its use, and to be used for social, educational and religious purposes. Whilst we were earnestly considering this matter, quite to our surprise again, Mr. James sent me another check for $1,000 for the very purpose we had in view. This money was also to be laid out in books, for a separate and general library. This increased our desire for the new building. To help bring this about I suggested we circulate a subscription paper for purposes of procuring pledges for the new building. I wrote to Mr. James and asked him if he would agree to let us use $500 of his recent donation for that purpose. He wrote to me on May 22, 1872 and suggested instead that he would give us another $1,000 on the condition that the Parish would also give a matching amount. This the Parish agreed to do, but having no ready money in the Treasury, it gave its note for $1,000, on interest, till it should be paid.

Much encouraged by Mr. James’ generosity, and by the general appreciation of it and the disposition to follow in his lead, we began to secure pledges of support from a number of sources, including $1,000 gifts from N.C. Nash of Boston and Miss Abigail T. Otis, $600 from the Ladies Society, and $500 gifts from Mrs. Helen Rockwell and Miss Clarissa Cushing. The first thing we did after circulating the subscription paper was to seek for a suitable spot for the library building. After a considerable length of time we finally settled on the one on which it now stands. The lot was owned by Mr. Israel Nash, who was always interested and generous towards any public enterprise, which promised good for the Town or the Parish, and he agreed to donate it as a site for the library. It had an estimated value of $300. Including the gifts from Mr. James (which came to $5,920), and others already noted, we raised a total of $13,515 for the construction of the library. It is clear that but for the generosity of my lifelong friend, and devoted native of South Scituate, Josiah L. James, we never would have been able to erect the library, which continues to stand as a living memorial to the man who made it possible. The library was dedicated on May 1st, 1874, with speeches and the singing of hymns composed for the occasion. It pleases me that you have seen fit to sing them once again on this the 125th anniversary of the James.

I was honored to be the first librarian of the James. There were over 600 volumes on the shelves when it opened, many of them purchased at my suggestion. There were books by Carlyle, Emerson, Olive Wendell Holmes, Theodore Parker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier, and even a volume on Sex and Education by Julia Ward Howe. As you can see the collection reflected my deep interest in the ideas and writings of Transcendentalism, which had such a great influence on my own life and thought, and eventually attracted me to the Unitarian ministry.

The design of the library, I should mention, is in the manner of Italianate-style buildings, which I had come to appreciate during my ministry in Cortland, New York, where so many buildings of that type had been constructed. I suggested that we choose a design in the same style as a pleasant contrast to other buildings in the center. I am more pleased than I can say that the James Library has endured for 125 years and continues to serve the people of the Town and the Parish in the manner that it was so intended. That the library has become a Center for the Arts—literary, musical, and visual—is a welcome extension of my deep interest in literary enterprises dating back to my ministry in Cortland, New York, and my nearly decade of involvement in the Hopedale Community which fostered the ideals of the transcendentalist vision of beauty and harmony in mind and nature. Long may you continue in that endeavor. I extend my heartiest congratulations and best wishes to you, to the Parish, to the James Library trustees, and to the citizens of the Town of Norwell, on this important and significant anniversary celebration. I wish I could be with you in person, but you can be rest assured that I am with you in spirit. When next we meet we shall all be in spirit, and the Creator of all things material and spiritual, will be all in all.

 

Sincerely and in the Spirit of Love,

Rev. William H. Fish, Minister

First Parish, South Scituate (1865-1885)


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

History records that in the time of Ptolemy II, the great Alexandrian Library contained nearly 500,000 volumes, or rolls, and an additional 43,000 volumes in the annex of the Temple of Serapis. Most of the writings of antiquity were preserved in those collections and copies made and disseminated to libraries throughout the then civilized world. It is largely through those copies that most of the ancient works survived to modern times, the reason being that the Alexandrian Library was partially or wholly destroyed on several occasions, once in 47 B.C. in a civil war between Ceasar and Pompeii, again in 272 A.D. and 391 A.D. at the instigation of Roman Emperors, and yet again in 640 A.D. in a conflict with muslims. Many of the great works of art and poetry, history and drama were lost to antiquity and to future generations because of those tragic episodes. The ignorance of the Dark Ages was due in no small measure to the willful destruction of the wisdom of antiquity that was once housed in the great library at Alexandria. We can never measure the loss because it is incalculable.

Libraries are important to the human race in all times and places, important to large cities like Alexandria and to small towns like Norwell, Massachusetts. They preserve the creative work and history of past ages and promote the evolution of civilization in the present and future. Our little library preserves parish records and genealogies, town history and local lore, along with books of wide interest both fiction and nonfiction. It has had in its own small way a civilizing influence upon the minds and hearts of many people over the years.

But the library has been more than just a library. It has been a gathering place for people to meet for various purposes. The library has been used for parish suppers and Sunday School classes, for literary teas, music concerts and art shows, for committee meetings and board meetings both religious and secular. It is a continuing testimony to the dream of William Fish for the small parish and town where he was minister in 1874. It started out as a wish to improve the Sunday School library which was housed in the vestibule of the First Parish Meeting House and grew into a dream to provide a library of knowledge and inspiration for the citizens of the Town. Because of the fortuitous circumstances, which linked his life and ministry to that of Josiah James, the James Library became a reality.

William Fish and Josiah James would be delighted to know that the library they helped bring into being is still serving the needs of the people, the parish, and the town for which it was constructed. Thank you, William Fish. Thank you, Josiah James. Thank you, O Spirit of the Generations, who have given to us the gifts of a library and a building. May we be worthy recipients of that gift and continue to preserve its rich legacy for generations yet to come.


The minister of First Parish in Norwell, Richard M. Fewkes, acknowledges his indebtedness to two sources for the creation of this hypothetical letter from the Rev. William H. Fish. The first document was written by the Rev. Mr. Fish himself in 1894 (nine years after his retirement) as a permanent record for the Parish. The second document was "A Brief History of the James Library" by Sally I. Turner written for the 120th Anniversary of the James on May 1, 1994.