The spiritual progress of William Charlton Hibbard

Sarah and William Hibbard

My great-great-grandfather, William Charlton Hibbard, lived from 1814 to 1880. He was born in Littleton, New Hampshire, the oldest of six, and grew up between there and Waterford, just across the border in Vermont. In 1849 he married Sarah Ann Smith (1815-1891), from Dover at the other end of New Hampshire; they spent most of their lives in Boston (William had moved there in 1837 to pursue a career in engineering), and had five children. I'm preparing some deeper research into the lives of the Hibbard family, but some really interesting stuff has come up about William Charlton Hibbard's religion, which I'm summarising here.

William's father (and my 3x great-grandfather), Lyman Hibbard (1783-1865), is variously described as a lumberman and a mechanic in official documents. But the only time he is mentioned in the three-volume History of Littleton, published in 1905, is in the context of the Congregational Church, Littleton's first place of worship:

In this period [between 1803 and 1820] also Lyman Hibbard was one of the most active and intelligent members [of the Congregational Church]. It was his fortune soon afterward to be the first member of the church to be arraigned at its bar, and to suffer the penalty of excommunication. His offence was heresy, the particular form of which the record does not state, but it would doubtless be covered by the term "agnostic," which [T.H.] Huxley applies to all sorts of doubters.

Lyman's father, my 4xgreat-grandfather David Hibbard, was deacon of the Congregational Church in nearby Concord, Vermont, so expelling his son must have been a pretty big deal. But the dating of this incident is frustratingly inexact. We know that Lyman was born in 1783, and married Rebecca Charlton in 1813. Her father is also noted as being one of the pillars of the Congregational Church in Littleton, so the balance of probabilities is that Lyman was excommunicated some time after the marriage rather than before, in other words around the time William was born in 1814 or when he was very young.

Three decades later, it's interesting to note that William and Sarah married in a civil ceremony in New York in 1849, the officiant being a local alderman. Civil weddings were of course far from unknown in the USA at that time. But of eighteen weddings recorded in that week's The Literary American, theirs is one of only two non-religious ceremonies, held instead in the Irving House Hotel on Broadway. I can't find any strong connection for either side of the family with New York City; I wonder if this was a mid-nineteenth century "destination wedding" for the New Englanders, Broadway being 1849's Las Vegas or Antigua?

There is another fascinating hint to William's beliefs in an official document, the transcript of an 1853 patent infringement court case between inventor Ross Winans and the Eastern Railroad Company, where he appeared as an expert witness for Winans (who claimed intellectual property rights over the design of passenger railroad carriages). The official transcript runs to several pages of technical inquiry about Hibbard's qualifications and links to the parties, and then turns startlingly theological. William had declined to take a religious oath at the start of his deposition, and the Eastern Railroad's lawyers pounced on him:

“Do you believe in the existence of a God, who will reward the good deeds and punish the evil deeds done in the body, in a future state of existence?” “Do you believe in the existence of a Supreme Being; and that he will reward and punish you according to your deserts?”

William refused to answer either of these questions.

The reference to the 1852 Howe vs Bradford trial is also intriguing. This was a notorious case where the inventor Walter Hunt had clearly been the first person to develop a sewing-machine, in the 1830s, but had never developed the idea as a business proposition; twenty years on, Elias Howe and Isaac Singer were locked in a series of law suits to claim patent rights, one of which went to full jury trial. Hunt himself was a disastrous witness; he had more or less forgotten about his own invention, and had a tendency to tell people about his unorthodox views about God. I cannot find a reference to the judge saying, as William Hibbard reports, that Hunt was "not bound to answer" questions about his religious views; on the other hand, it was widely reported in the news that the judge actually refused to allow Hunt to testify, because he was an atheist – here, for instance, is a representative article from a local newspaper in Virginia, the Staunton Spectator (21 July 1852):

Walter Hunt and William Hibbard may well not have used the word "atheist" to define their own beliefs, but it was an easy label for their opponents to put on them.

Likewise, their relatives. My grandmother was born in 1899, almost twenty years after William had died, but she seems to have downloaded as much as she could from her own father, who was William's second son, and later from her stepmother. My grandmother notes that William

was an atheist, and left to himself he would have preferred his children to have no religious instruction at all, but my step-mother told me that Papa told her that his mother – though I doubt if she had any strong religious belief herself – said that the children must be brought up like the other children in West Roxbury, near Boston, where they lived, and she saw to it that they attended the Unitarian church there.

My grandmother's note may sound like her own grandmother sending off the kids to a nice respectable Sunday school, but that is not quite what was happening. The Unitarian church in West Roxbury is now named in honour of Theodore Parker, the firebrand minister who was based there from 1837 (the year that William Hibbard arrived in Boston) to 1846. The church congregation was very progressive, firmly opposed to slavery and supporting social reforms, and members included Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (It is intriguing that there is no explicit mention of Sarah attending the church herself, but maybe I am over-interpreting.)

The only obituary that I have found of William is in a place that greatly surprised me: Banner of Light, a weekly newspaper for Spiritualists. Its 5 June 1880 issue sadly notes:

Mr. William C. Hibbard, of West Roxbury, joined the procession of the homeward bound on the 28th ult [i.e. May]. Mr. H. was a parishioner of Theodore Parker, and had his attention directed to the subject of Spiritualism many years since by Prof. Mapes. In connection with that gentleman he made a very thorough scientific investigation and analysis of its phenomena, and became convinced of its truth, as every one invariably does who follows with an equal degree of honesty and determination a similar line of inquiry. He was intimately associated with the pioneers and early workers in social reforms; and zealously opposed all oppression and bigotry, whether introduced under a cloak of sanctity or otherwise. He claimed individual sovereignty for himself and all others; hence he cared nothing for what folks thought or said, pursuing the even tenor of his way, conscious of his own integrity and regardless of unfriendly criticism.

His conceptions of a Supreme Power were very far in advance of those commonly accepted. He despised all shams in men and dogmas in religion. He did not estimate the value of man by the quality of his clothes, or consider the amount of money he possessed as an indication of what he was worth. He thought nothing of preaching but very much of practicing. With such views and feelings he could have but little sympathy with the thoughts and purposes of the majority. He was, consequently, during his later years, what the world would term “much shut up in himself” but which really was a living of the life and an association with the intelligences of another world while held by his body to this. He had learned much, but no one more than he felt that he had much to learn. He has gone and taken his treasures with him.

One can read quite a lot between the lines there, but maybe that's for another time.

It's worth remembering that in mid-nineteenth century America, spiritualism was regarded as totally scientifically robust by its proponents, and that they in turn tended to be politically progressive, with for instance Harriet Beecher Stowe writing a pro-Spiritualist pamphlet as well as Uncle Tom's Cabin. For a man like my great-great-grandfather, an engineer brought up without a particular church tradition and perhaps with a distrust of organised religion, the proofs of an afterlife offered by Spiritualism, "scientifically" proven but unshackled by doctrine, may have been rather compelling. My own encounters with Spiritualism have not been convincing – at the age of 18 I attended a service in Northamptonshire where rather standard English hymns were interspersed with a tired medium passing ambiguous messages to the congregation from the voices in her head. But everyone must find their own way.

The Banner of Light obituary also confirms the connection with Theodore Parker of the West Roxbury Unitarian church. Although Parker had left his formal leadership role some years before the Hibbard children were born, he continued to circulate in that community (and anyway William had probably got to know him soon after they both moved to Boston in 1837). There's a bit of a conflict here between the progressive politics of Parker and the awful views of Ross Winans, who tried to get Maryland to join the Confederacy in 1861; but that was some years after the 1853 court case where William Hibbard had testified in his favour.

It may also be worth noting that William and Sarah's first child, Mary, died before her third birthday, in 1852. They were of course not the only parents ever to suffer that kind of tragedy, but it must have affected them deeply, and it is the sort of experience that can lead to a reassessment of one's views about the afterlife. Their other four children all survived to adulthood and three have living descendants, including me; the fourth lives on in biology. William and Sarah have two living great-grandchildren, a brother and sister in their eighties who still live in New England, the only branch of the family that has consistently stayed in the region for the last 170 years; and it's pleasing to report that they were brought up as Unitarians, in the family tradition.

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