Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 4


Tuesday. March 1st.

The Reverend Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham in 1842, by Thomas Ball following or facing page 380[unavailable]

Nathaniel Frothingham (1793–1870) was the husband of Abigail (Brooks) Adams’ oldest sister Ann. After the death in 1830 of their mother, Mrs. Peter Chardon Brooks, the two sisters became increasingly close to one another and remained so. Their husbands, drawn together by this circumstance, seemed to find common ground on which to build a long relationship that was cordial if not intimate. During the years covered by these volumes Charles Francis Adams was in the Frothingham manse many more times than he was in any other house in Boston save his own. Frequently the Adamses were guests for meals, and Charles Francis Adams seems generally to have eaten at the Frothinghams’ when for one reason or another it was convenient for him to eat out. The two men seem not to have been naturally congenial, although Adams found Frothingham “an exceedingly amiable man” and “a man of talents.” Frothingham was the older by almost fifteen years; they differed sharply in their theological and political views and in their interpretations of American history (see volume 3:289); and although Adams was not moved by Frothingham as a pulpit orator, he listened with respect to his sermons at the First Church once or twice each Sunday that xivAdams was in Boston (see volume 3:42; below, p. 405–406, 426 and passim). They did share an absorbing interest in the classics; Frothingham’s learning was solid, and his concern for music and poetry and literature in the modern foreign languages made his conversation sufficiently cultivated to meet Adams’ exacting standards.

Frothingham succeeded William Emerson in the First Church pulpit in 1815 and remained the Church’s minister until ill health forced his resignation in 1849. A preceptor in rhetoric and oratory at Harvard before he began his First Church ministry, he retained his identification with Harvard, serving as an Overseer from 1819 to 1850. In his retirement, until he was prevented by blindness, he pursued his literary activities, publishing Sermons in 1852 and Metrical Pieces in 1855. Charles Francis Adams wrote in his diary (6 April 1870) that the estimate of Frothingham’s life and character given at his funeral in the oration by the Reverend Frederic H. Hedge “was just, discriminating and forcible”: “As a preacher, he could hardly be said to be popular.... The circle of his admirers was small; but those who composed it listened to him with enthusiastic delight.... The poetic beauty of his thought, the pointed aptness of his illustrations, the truth and sweetness of the sentiment, the singular and sometimes quaint selectness ... of the language, won my heart, and made him my favorite among the preachers of that day.... As a scholar, he had in his profession no superior,— scarcely a rival.... In richness and extent of intellectual culture he stood pre-eminent among his brethren.... In familiar discourse, when most at his ease, the unstudied and innate grace of his mind gave a peculiar and emphatic zest to his conversation.... His words expressed with unerring fitness the thing most fit to be expressed.” (Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 1st series, 11 [1869–1870]: 378–380; see also, Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–1936; Arthur B. Ellis, History of the First Church in Boston, 1630–1880, Boston, 1880, p. 252–284.)

Charles Francis Adams, returning from the funeral services and mindful of their long association, wrote: “I walked home meditating on the time when I first knew him in connection with the sunniest hours of my life, on the steady good will that prevailed between us all through middle life, and lastly on the fading of the scene” (Diary, 6 April 1870).

The portrait of Frothingham here reproduced hangs in the office wing of the First Church in Boston. (Photograph by George M. Cushing Jr.) It was painted in 1842 by Thomas Ball (1819–1911), who is better known as a sculptor than as a painter. He maintained a studio in Boston from 1837 to 1853 and exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum almost every year from 1840 to 1867. (George C. Groce and David H. Wallace, The New-York Historical Society’s Dictionary of American Artists, 1564–1860, New Haven and London, 1957; Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–1936; Mabel M. Swan, The Athenaeum Gallery, 1827–1873, Boston, 1940, p. 179–180, 199.)

Courtesy of the Trustees of the First Church, Boston.