As I repeat often enough about polymath Jonathan Fisher, religious belief directed his life as the congregational minister in Blue Hill, Maine, but his encyclopedic interests nourished his mind and soul. Raised and educated in Massachusetts, he lived from 1768 until 1847, and for the greater part of his life in the Maine seaport where he raised a large family, built a home and farm, and regularly took account of daily events. Science, art, and faith converged in his prolific writings, and in his 1834 book Scripture Animals, which he illustrated with over a hundred boxwood engravings which he carved by any available light and free moments.
Fisher routinely visited Penobscot Indian encampments, colleagues, and members of his Blue Hill parish in order to deliver broadsides and homilies or bibles and books, and to solicit money for missions abroad; to sell buttons or straw bonnets made by family members or subscriptions to religious magazines; and to send letters by way of trusted friends setting out for Portland or Boston. He performed marriage, birth and death rites, coaxed or cautioned those who professed no religion, and ministered to the sick.
Fisher appended descriptions of creatures referenced in the bible in Scripture Animals with descriptions of what he categorized as the six races of humans, superior to the lower orders of animals. These he illustrated by imagery he appropriated from the frontispiece of William Fordyce Elements of Natural History and labeled them “The Negro,” “The Laplander,” “The Tartar,” “Native Americans,” “Southern Asiatics,” and “Europeans.” As he contemplated the 1830s state of man for this latter section of his magnum opus he considered the political plight of the Penobscot and other Native Americans he knew in Maine:
…the poor Indians must suffer the greatest cruelties, principle subversive of the faith of treatys, and principle which, if carried into effect, will probably ruin them. Oh, that God would interpose and deliver these oppressed sufferers from the arm of oppression. The course pursued by the dominant part of the nation toward the Indians is an awful demonstration that the nation as such, is selfish and that no confidence can be placed for obtaining justice where selfishness reigns and farther than present self interest may seem to prompt.
Fisher was referring to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, wherein Congress, under President Andrew Jackson, granted the authority to “persuade” Indians to give up their eastern territories and to accept resettlement west of the Mississippi. This callous measure ensured the eastern United States’ development of Native lands for American settlement, lumbering, and other industries. Fisher and other ministers expressed their opposition.
In the Appendix to Scripture Animals Fisher fixed broad generalities of character upon what he categorized as the six races of humans. To Europeans Fisher attributed “strength of mind for deep investigation, patience in labor, and boldness of enterprise,” qualities he admired within himself and among his associates. He indicated that Penobscot tribes were persecuted by “white neighbors, destitute of humane principle,” who took advantage of their struggles by providing them with “ardent spirits.” Most interesting of Fisher’s descriptions for what they reveal about nineteenth-century Native Americans he came to know in Maine are his observations of their language, clothing, and customs. And yet, he dismissed their culture as he made it his mission to override it in attempting to convert Penobscot peoples to Christian belief and practice: “they might in the course of a few years become christianized, civilized, and respectable among Christian nations.”
I seek to understand historical figures in light of their times. I admire Fisher’s energy and intelligence, his unfailing curiosity, his powers of observation, his wonder at astronomical spectacle, his appreciation for the interactions of the smallest of insects and birds, and the responsibility he exercised on behalf of family and community during droughts or storms or cold spells in Maine. I admire his efforts to comprehend the world in which he found himself. His talents transcend his times. I admire his self-questioning as a young man, I sense his sorrow expressed more powerfully in his diary by his lack of words when a son died, I applaud his compassion for others. Am I suspicious of the religion that provided solace and structure for so many in his uncertain world?
Jonathan Fisher was a man of contradictions. As a student of the Enlightenment he passed on belief in a hierarchy of species that extended from insects to humankind through the vehicle of Scripture Animals. In its Appendix he perpetuated racist views to his audience of youthful readers. I detect in his religious views a misplaced sense of superiority, and in his fervor to convert indigenous peoples an inherent disrespect of their belief systems, and consequently, a flaw in his humanitarian spirit.
Image at top: William Fordyce Mavor, Frontispiece from Elements of Natural History: Chiefly Intended for The Use of Schools and Young Persons, London, 1799.