Audacity
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Phebe Bliss Emerson Ripley

 Why do we still not hear the stories of our women ancestors, or ancestors of color, as we do our White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) male ancestors?  Their stories should be told.

Concord’s sixth minister, Daniel Bliss (1739 – 1764), was its last Calvinist, Loyalist, and Puritan minister. The times were rapidly changing.  Bliss was, like Jonathon Edwards and George Whitefield, a product of the American Great Awakening.  He preached hellfire and damnation to his often-frightened congregation.  The previous minister, John Whiting (1712 – 1737) was far more liberal, but had apparently been fired for public drunkenness, so he offered alternative worship services at the Black Horse Tavern.

His oldest daughter, Phebe Bliss, lived through Concord’s greatest time of transformations.  Born in 1741, she grew up in a British colonial town, loyal to God, King and Country.  She was only 23 when her father died young (age 49) leaving she and her mother and two younger sisters scrambling to make ends meet.  Concord turned to William Emerson, age 22 and a direct descendent of Concord’s founding minister Peter Bulkeley, for their next minister.  He initially boarded with the Blisses to help them meet their expenses.

Phebe and William fell in love, marrying the following year, and would have five children over the next ten years, creating the Emerson family line in Concord.  William built a large home for his growing family near Concord’s North Bridge, now called the Old Manse.  He was a revolutionary, actively involved in the illegal and rebellious First (1774) and Second (1775) Provincial Congresses.  When war broke out on April 19, 1775, William gave a mighty patriotic sermon and joined the revolutionary army as a chaplain at Fort Ticonderoga.  Unfortunately, he became desperately ill and was sent home, but died along the way home.

Phebe (age 37), a minister’s widow like her mother before her, took in Concord’s next minister as a boarder to help make ends meet.  Ezra Ripley (age 27), Concord’s eighth and longest serving minister (1778 – 1841), fell in love with Phebe and they married the following year.  Together they navigated creation of the United States of America, a new federal constitution (1789), the Unitarian controversy in religion (1805), industrialization coming to Concord (1808), and the war of 1812.  During this period Concord emerged as a county seat, with a larger diverse population and a much wider income distribution.

The American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825, the year of Phebe’s death, standing against the Puritan Standing Order of Churches, and six years later Massachusetts voted to disestablish religion.  This led to the creation of new Concord churches, the Trinitarian Congregational Church in 1826 and the Universalist Society (1838 – 1857).  Their building on the common was converted to Concord’s first Roman Catholic congregation (1863).  Later congregations were added as the town grew and prospered.  Phebe’s grandson Ralph Waldo Emerson would return to Concord and the Old Manse to write his first book Nature.

Phebe lived during Concord’s transition from a small English colonial town, governed by a Puritan theocracy, to the prosperous county seat of a religiously diverse town in the new United States of America.  She died at age 84 before the full flowering, led by her grandson Waldo, of the philosophical and spiritual movement which came to be called American Transcendentalism.  The daughter of one of the town’s ministers, and wife of two more, Phebe is said to have had remarkable insights into the changing times.  However, because of the cultural priorities of her time, none of her perspectives or writings have survived.  We only glimpse her through the writings of men who loved her.  Otherwise, the tales she might tell us!

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident of Concord.  He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.

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