Document 4:

Author: James Harris Fairchild

Recipient: Mary Fletcher Kellogg

Date: 16 April 1838

Location: Oberlin College Archives, James H. Fairchild Papers. Series III Courtship Correspondence,

1771-1926, RG 2/003.

Document Type: Transcript (1939) Autograph Letter, Signed by Author.

Colonial Hall, copied from the Oberlin Archives website
Colonial Hall, copied from the Oberlin Archives website


This letter was written by James after about a month of correspondence, and is worthy of remark due to the sheer amount of it dedicated to expressing James’ disappointment that Mary was not writing him back quickly enough for his taste. Like the second letter he sent her, the tone verges on sarcastic, even a tad aggressive, and clearly illustrates the fact that James felt entitled to set the pace of their correspondence. Instead of allowing Mary to proceed at a pace that felt comfortable to her, he seems determined to mold this correspondence, and their relationship, into a form that suits him.


Monday Evening.

Dear Mary<,> We are ever doomed to disappointment. Yet who would have <it> otherwise? If we could always know the when and how of all our joys and sorrows, we should torment ourselves with anticipated evil or feel only half the pleasure which an unexpected event is calculated to give. There is a satisfaction in thinking that the most common events of life will be to us new, and that every passing day is a revelation of at least a part of our destiny. Life is a volume which we all have to read. None can precede us in a knowledge of its contents–[sic] we have to cut the leaves as we proceed. It is not only a new book<,> but every one possesses the only copy of the kind extant. The titles only are the same, the contents as various as the varying wind.–[sic] If we might read the book before the time, how would our hearts sometimes sink within us as our eyes rested on the darkened pages. Everyone would be discontented with his lot. Hope, that spring of human action, would wither. As it is, when any evil has befallen us<,> we hope tomorrow will unfold a brighter picture. When tomorrow has brought us no relief<,> we still wait for tomorrow. What a charm there is in that word. It is the young child’s joy, the old man’s hope. If we could foreknow our fate<,> there would be no tomorrow but an eternal now. A glass that should expose to our view events far removed in regions of coming time would not be a blessing. Yet while we turn over leaf after leaf of this charmed book<,> it is with trembling anxiety. On the next page we may find Finis. No, I am mistaken, it is an unending drama. The curtain may soon drop, but only to prepare for a more important exhibition. The scene may be laid in these terrestrial climes or on the eternal plaines. But I have forgotten myself–[sic] one page gone! Quite a sermon isn’t it? Well now I must give you the text, though last not least. I began with disappointment and was going on to tell ho<w> many days I had expected a letter from you. Every morning renewed the hope<,> and every evening gave room for expectation. Friday morning I was sure would bring it. I saw<,> or fancied I saw, a circumstance which tended to increase the hope. When we all left the table as usual*1 and I had returned to my room, I felt vexed with myself for permitting a slight movement at table to increase my disappointment– I supposed you had a reason for not writing and bade myself be content. Again I was surprised by my brother coming in and dropping a letter on the table before me with a cunning look as if he knew something that I did not.

You say in your letter, “Write soon”. So said I. You intended to comply with the request.–[sic] Then soon means after ten days, does it? I thank you for the definition. I shall remember it. ‘Twill be a valuable addition to my vocabulary.—–[sic] My last, you say, conveyed happiness to you. May this be as successful. What a world this is! How we are all striving after something we have not. This will not militate [sic] against your theory that common sense is the only requisite to contentment. I have often wished that I had never learned to distinguish between different feelings or rather that I could divest myself of the habit of watching the emotions. What a chill there is in this spirit of speculation. Is not Mr. Finney2 a little too nice here? To “preach Christ and him crucified” is not enough but he must give us a spice of his metaphysics. I don’t believe he can make religion more simple or complex than love to God.3 Why will he not stop here? I have not a favorable opinion of his spiritual thermometers or barometers. (pardon the expression) Do you not think it a characteristic of Prof. F. to have his mind occupied with one idea which for a time fills his whole horizon? Sometimes, I thin<k> he pursues it even

“Beyond the flaming bounds of space

Where angels tremble when they gaze.”

When he speaks of a wicked and perverse will, I understand him. When he tells of Jesus and his power and love, my soul is moved. When he bows in prayer, I can almost see the windows of heaven opened above him.4 But when he measure feeling, there is an involuntary shudder. Perhaps others are not so easily disturbed. How I have spun this out, long and dull. Well, I shall appeal from the Court of Criticism to that of Friendship. Shall I stand acquitted there?…….

I shall not say write soon. I have learned what that word means, I shall leave you to supply a better adverb. McCord5 quotes the Latin grammar thus, “Time how long is put in the accusative.”

I have not finished, but must stop. I would say something more and yet will not.

Your friend<,>


Transcribed by Rebecca Debus.

1*The Boarding Hall, later called Ladies’ Hall, was a frame building three stories high with with two wings of two stories, erected upon oak pillars sunk into the ground. The dining room accommodated two hundred boarders, and there were rooms besides for about sixty students. The young women lived here; the young men came in for meals. It must be remembered during the early part of this correspondence that the two writers met each day and, part of the time, sat at the same table in the dining hall.

2Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875). Finney was a revivalist preacher and one of the most important figures from the Second Great Awakening. In 1835, the major financial backer of Oberlin College, Arthur Tappan, invited Finney to establish the Theological Department there. Finney agreed, on the conditions that he still be allowed to preach in New York, that free speech be guaranteed at Oberlin, and that the school admit people of color. These conditions were met, and Finney became a fixture of Oberlin. He used the newspaper, The Oberlin Evangelist, to promote his own unique religious views, which  became known as “Oberlin Theology” or “Oberlin Perfectionism.” He held that people had a limitless capacity for repentance, and that an exalted states of spirituality was attainable if one led a perfectly Christian life. He was against tobacco, tea, coffee, and popular amusements such as dancing and card games, feeling that they led away from a moral life. These views were not popular among many older Calvinist sects, and Finney’s beliefs were sometimes considered heretical. In 1851, Finney became the second President of Oberlin College, and made his home in Oberlin for the rest of his life (Oberlin College Archives, “Charles Grandison Finney Presidential Papers Finding Guide.” web address, accessed 11 August 2015).

3Here, as in some of his other letters to Mary, James seems to be criticizing Finney’s belief in Perfectionism, or the idea that an exalted spiritual state can be attained through living the most Christian life possible. Though James had a great deal of respect for Finney, and the two were close friends, James was far more conventional in his theological beliefs, and felt that Finney often went too far (Oberlin College Archives, “Charles Grandison Finney Presidential Papers Finding Guide.” web address, accessed 11 August 2015).

4Finney was known for his oratory skills and his passionate preaching, and his sermons were described as being particularly evocative for the audience.

5This may be James’ former classmate, Joseph McCord, who graduated from Oberlin with an A.B. in 1837 (General Catalogue).