Whittier as Quaker

The Brewing of Soma

The god Indra, for whom the libations were prepared.When a woman wrote to Whittier asking if he were a Unitarian, he answered that he was an Orthodox part of the unhappily divided Society of Friends, although he trusted practical piety over doctrinal soundness and inclined rather to the old standards of Quakerism than to the "new lights."  He also wrote to the Editor of the Friends' Review, questioning the efficacy of the protracted meetings and revivals that were coming into fashion among some groups of Friends. Whittier disliked noise and excitement in religious services.

In an unidentified letter, quoted in Woodwell (508) Whittier wrote, “Quakerism has run into Methodism, and the Quaker singing is dolefully bad.  I am too old--fashioned to bear it with patience; but I suppose the singers mean well, and perhaps like the speakers of “unknown tongues” in Paul’s day they “edify themselves.

In “The Brewing of Soma” he makes a strong statement against evangelicalism and revivals, but the last six stanzas, beginning with “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,/Forgive our foolish ways!” (by which he meant the foolishness of evangelism) was used as a hymn in many Prostestant churches that were home to both Revivals and the Evangelical Movement.

The poem appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.  It started with an account, evidently from Max Muller's translation of Vashista, of the drink brewed by Hindu priests and drunk by worshippers, bringing "sacred madness" and "a storm of drunken joy."  Then it led to the "sensual transports" in Christian churches and to the stanzas that appear in many Protestant hymnals.

Whittier begins with a quotation from Max Muller.

“These libations mixed with milk have been prepared for Indra: offer Soma to the drinker of Soma.”

The fagots blazed, the caldron’s smoke
Up through the green wood curled;
“Bring honey from the hollow oak,
Bring milky sap,” the brewers spoke,
‘In the childhood of the world.

And brewed they well or brewed they ill,
The priests thrust in their rods,
First tasted, and then drank their fill,
And shouted, with one voice and will,
“Behold the drink of gods!”

They drank, and lo! In heart and brain
A new, glad life began;
The gray of hair grew young again,
The sick man laughed away his pain,
The cripple leaped and ran.

“Drink, mortals, what the gods have sent,
Forget your long annoy.”
So sang the priests. From tent to tent
The Soma’s sacred madness went,
A storm of drunken joy.
Then knew each rapt inebriate
A winged and glorious birth,
Soared upward, with strange joy elate,
Beat, with dazed head, Varuna's gate,
And, sobered, sank to earth.

Whittier saw a parallel with Evangelism through history

As in that child-world's early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!

Some fever of the blood and brain,
Some self-exalting spell,
The scourger's keen delight of pain,
The Dervish dance, the Orphic strain,
The wild-haired Bacchant's yell,--

The desert's hair-grown hermit sunk
The saner brute below;
The naked Santon, hashish-drunk,
The cloister madness of the monk,
The fakir's torture-show!

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!

And then Whittier continues with what is still a popular Protestant Hymn:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

He ends with a plea for peace and calm.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Full text of "The Brewing of Soma"

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