The trajectory of Francis Bellamy’s life and role in American history may seem predestined. But in his time, it was an improbable journey from the far reaches and anonymity of western New York, where he was born and lived most of his first three decades, to Boston, where he would earn his lasting fame. It was an age of great quarrel and contradiction, of religious awakenings and heady materialism, as well as massive migrations and mergings of people and ideas. Bellamy may have seemed the unlikeliest of men to pull off an assignment to run a national marketing campaign, but in late-nineteenth-century America, he was also the perfect man for the job.

We know this: he came from sturdy stock. His mother, Lucy Eells, was born in a log cabin in 1819 near the Genesee River in Rochester, then just a tiny village of a few hundred people in what were still the wild and forested frontier lands of western New York. When her parents decided to seek a better future in an even more remote Michigan, they left young Lucy in the care of an aunt and uncle—and never returned for her.

This was the time—and place—when modern industry, in the form of the Erie Canal, which opened six years after Lucy’s birth, met The Last of the Mohicans, published a year later and celebrating an era that was fast disappearing. The mighty hand-hewn waterway—363 miles of deep ditch dug out of rock and mud—would cut through American Indian lands, adding to the pressure on the tribes to move west or die. The canal was not just a symbol of the new nation’s vigor, it added to that force, opening what was then the western frontier to easy transportation and the commerce that came with it. By 1830, Rochester had ninety-two hundred people and was, thanks to an abundance of waterfalls on the Genesee and a canal that cut transportation costs by over 90 percent, a humming hub of flour mills. By 1838 the city had doubled its population and was the largest flour-producing city in America—and arguably the nation’s first “boomtown.” It was the first of many such booms in America’s push westward, that transformed towns and cities all along the canal route between Albany and Buffalo.

The canal was also a thoroughfare of ideas—“the Internet of its era,” as commentator David Ronan put it many years later. Much of central and western New York became an epicenter of political and ideological ferment. And it put the region in the grip of the spiritual revival movement then in full flower. The Second Great Awakening, as it has been dubbed, was one of several periods of intense Christian evangelism in a country that was, and still is, whipsawing between high secularism and fervid religiosity. Historians have put the bookend dates on this Awakening at 1790 and 1840, a period of time when Francis Bellamy’s parents were growing up in a region where the new evangelism enjoyed many adherents, including Joseph Smith, Jr., who claimed to have had his first “vision” of God on a hill near Manchester, New York, just thirty miles east of Rochester and on the Erie Canal. Smith said an angel named Moroni had given him a set of golden plates, which he translated and published in 1830, describing the hill as a place where, centuries earlier, 230,000 Nephite soldiers were killed in a final battle with the Lamanites.

And side by side with this intense spiritualism, equally intense political crusaders were gathering. In 1847, Frederick Douglass, the former slave, founded the abolitionist newspaper The North Star in Rochester, and the following year he attended the first women’s rights convention in nearby Seneca Falls. This convention, and its resulting Declaration of Sentiments, marks what most historians now call the birth of the women’s rights movement in the United States.

In 1855, when Francis Bellamy was born in Mount Morris, New York, twenty-five miles south of Rochester, the region was a bubbling cauldron of progressive social, religious, and political activism and upheaval. In this mix it is perhaps not surprising that Francis’s mother, from pioneer stock, married a child of old New England. David Bellamy was the oldest of four sons born to a dry-goods merchant in Kingsbury, New York, not far from Lake George. David had passed up an offer by his father to go to college, accepting instead a thousand dollars to start his own business. He set up shop in a tiny village in the country town of Ellery, near Lake Chautauqua and Lake Erie, with his first wife, Eliza Benedict. But after only a few years of commerce, he was called to a religious life and was ordained a Baptist minister, like his great-grandfather Joseph and younger brother Rufus. Joseph Bellamy, a Yale graduate, was a preacher, author, and theologian of some note in the latter part of the eighteenth century. He was a student, and eventually friend, of the great evangelizer and religious thinker Jonathan Edwards, who is credited with igniting the (first) Great Awakening, an American religious resurgence—more determinedly practical than the Second—that began in the 1730s and ran up to the American Revolution, which was in part inspired by it. (Rufus’s son Edward was to become famous as the author of Looking Backward.)

Self-educated though he was, David was a gifted preacher and was soon serving as pastor of two New York City churches. But after overseeing the establishment and construction of Hope Chapel, which later became Calvary Baptist Church on 57th Street in Manhattan, David suffered a health crisis—there is some evidence to suggest it was a nervous breakdown—and, at age forty-four, took refuge in his brother Frederick’s home upstate. He and his wife Eliza remained there for two years, until David grew strong enough to pastor a church in the nearby town of Arcadia, only to lose his wife to an illness.

Two years later, David married Lucy Ann Eells, fourteen years his junior, who had been a longtime friend of his first wife. He found another church, this one in Mount Morris, where Francis was born. Mount Morris sits near the northern end of the magnificent Letchworth gorge, which tourist brochures today call “the Little Grand Canyon.” The twenty-two-mile-long chasm was carved over aeons by the Genesee, one of the country’s few northward-flowing rivers, which drains into Lake Ontario, sixty-seven miles away. Francis’s family departed Mount Morris when he was a young boy, but it is reasonable to suppose that, even for a five-year-old, a glimpse of the chasm—its rocky cliffs, its waterfalls, its thick forests—would have left imprinted in his mind’s eye a landscape of grandeur and startling beauty. The young Francis may have been awed, too, by the raw power of the river, which regularly flooded the fields around Mount Morris and the town itself. (Today, a huge concrete dam, completed in 1952, helps control flooding.)

Unfortunately, within a few years of moving to Rome, just east of Seneca Falls, David died suddenly, of a stroke, at age fifty-eight. Francis was only nine years old. His uncle Rufus traveled from Northampton, Massachusetts, to help bury his brother, and the following Sunday mounted the pulpit of David’s church to read the sermon the late pastor had prepared.

Despite his father’s untimely death, young Frank excelled at the Rome Free Academy, the village’s first public school, and was a member of the school’s first graduating class—this at a time when there was great controversy over publicly funded schools, arguments that were still going on at the time of the Youth’s Companion sponsorship of the national Columbus Day event in 1892. Francis no doubt owed much of his love of public school, a hallmark of that quadricentennial celebration, to his experience at the Rome Free Academy, and he later helped found the school’s alumni association and served as its head.

It is tempting to speculate that for Francis Bellamy, fatherless from a young age, patriotism was in some way a surrogate, as the Greek root of the word suggests. Indeed, maybe anyone who gives themselves over to patriotic feeling is seeking a warm and protective parental embrace. In the case of Bellamy, the substitute-father theory might be plausible if patriotic activity had been an ongoing fixation for him, but in reality it wasn’t. He could wax patriotic at the drop of a hat, especially when talking about the Pledge, but he was not exceptionally demonstrative on the subject.

To the extent that he had father surrogates, they were individual mentors, beginning with his father’s successor as pastor of the Rome First Baptist Church. Francis was fifteen when the Reverend H. H. Peabody took over the pastorate in Rome. Peabody, an early adherent of Social Gospel belief, must have sowed a few seeds of dissent from mainstream religious notions within Francis’s mind, a theological bent reinforced at Rochester Theological Seminary, founded as an alternate religious school in 1850, which Francis would later attend.

Still, Francis’s mother must have been impressive. And Rome, the place Bellamy considered his hometown, no doubt played an important role in his formation. It is where he was schooled, where his mother continued to live until her death in 1898, where his ashes are enshrined. Redolent of history, the area was important for many generations. Called variously the Great Portage, or Oneida Carrying Place, or sometimes just Carry, it was where Indian travelers and traders had carried their canoes and their contents overland from the Mohawk River to Wood Creek, the sole connection from the Hudson River to Lake Ontario. Not far from Rome, at Fort Stanwix, the Third New York Regiment under the command of Colonel Peter Gansevoort held off a prolonged attack by British, German, Loyalist, Canadian, and American Indian troops under the command of British general Barry St. Leger in 1777. Following the Revolution, many of the soldiers that served at Fort Stanwix returned to the area, to live on the land nearby.

In the 1850s and 1860s, these rough-and-ready places were still very much part of a boy’s life in a region that was part frontier, part economic and social mixing bowl. Francis was raised and educated in a region that felt the growing country’s many surges keenly. And he came of age during the Civil War and Reconstruction, a time of tremendous national strife, only to see the country lose its way decades later when, as he put it, “the shameless, indecent, almighty dollar came in and turned the heads of our people from the contemplation of our better traditions.”

All these currents fed a young mind that was also surrounded by books and religion. He was lucky to be educated at a new school and he had most surely heard his father pacing the family living room practicing his Sunday orations. He learned and became a practiced speaker. “A very natural orator is Frank J. Bellamy,” said the Rome Sentinel newspaper following his high-school commencement address in July 1872. “The speaker possesses a very full and round voice, speaks fluently and distinctly, and appears upon the stage with most of the graces of a practiced orator.” For his essay on Horace Greeley, one of two compositions awarded prizes, young Frank received a poetry collection that included works of Spencer, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, and Tasso.

At the University of Rochester, he also won essay prizes, both as a sophomore and as a senior. As a commencement orator in June 1876, the centennial year of the Declaration of Independence, Francis extolled the moral power of American poetry as a galvanizing force in opposition to slavery:

[It is] in the new world, in our own day, that the Poetry of Man has found its noblest mission. Here, in the birthplace of liberty, was heard the clank of the fetter, the despairing moan of a race of slaves. In America, the lash had drunk of human blood and the wail of the oppressed awaked response in America’s finest poets—Longfellow, Lowell and Whittier. To arouse a nation from apathy, to stimulate to action, to reconquer Freedom was the Poet’s mission.

While some of the twenty-one-year-old scholar’s rhetoric may seem overwrought to twenty-first-century readers, a newspaper reporter covering the commencement judged the speech to be “one of the very finest” of the occasion. “The oration was carefully and elegantly written and delivered with great earnestness and power,” the reporter wrote in a review of the commencement proceedings.

As a Baptist minister—first in the prosperous Mohawk valley town of Little Falls and later in Boston—Bellamy gained plenty of practice putting words together and became especially adept at phrasing ideas to be delivered orally—whether in formal sermons and invocations or extemporaneous remarks at the baptismal bath, at grace over meals, at the wedding bower, at the sick bed, the graveside, and in the multitude of other circumstances a man of the cloth is called on to say the right thing.

There is some irony in Francis Bellamy’s flag salute having become an exercise in conformity. Bellamy himself was, from an early age, an independent-minded person, at times even a maverick. He was strong-willed with a robust intellect and the enterprise and initiative to chart his own course. While in Little Falls, according to John W. Bauer, a retired economics professor who has written a wonderful short history of the Pledge, he supported a presidential candidate of the National Prohibition Party against Republican James Blaine and Democrat Grover Cleveland. But while there, as Margaret Butterfield of the University of Rochester archives says, Bellamy “devot[ed] much of his time to work with laboring people.” Among everyday folk of the late nineteenth century, Bellamy would be as good a model as any of the “rugged individualist” whom historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously described in 1893 as the epitome of the American frontier experience. His “niece” Marian, the only daughter of his cousin Edward, described her “Uncle Frank” as a man with “rugged features to match his body. He was altogether charming and urbane, which qualities did not seem to fit his physical makeup.”

This may have been what attracted Harriet Benton, a Methodist, to him. The young couple married in 1881, in Newark, New York, a town not far from where Francis’s mother was born. Francis and Hattie would have two sons, John and David, and be together for thirty-seven years, until Hattie died in 1918. But just four years after they married the young couple moved to Boston, where Francis took up the pastoral reins of the Dearborn Street Church. As Ms. Butterfield points out, “again he distinguished himself as a leader in the movement to utilize the church as a means of social and educational as well as religious service.” John Baer says that Francis “felt it was his duty to bring moral and spiritual uplift to hard-pressed factory workers and their families. He liked the idea of a church service for the poor which emphasized charity, philanthropy, education, and spiritual uplift. Labor disturbances were prominent in the news, and Francis wanted to help solve their economic, social, political and religious problems.”

But though Bellamy was successful in building his flock at Dearborn Street, Irish immigration brought more Catholics to the neighborhood, and the young preacher was forced to move his congregation to a different part of the city and Bethany Baptist. His new congregants were not as sympathetic with Bellamy’s increasingly socialist views. He was an outspoken advocate of the rights of working people and the equal distribution of economic resources, which he believed was inherent in the teachings of Jesus. Bellamy became a charter member of the First Nationalist Club in Boston, formed to discuss and implement the ideas in his cousin’s bestselling Looking Backward, and was the vice president of education of the Society of Christian Socialists in Boston.

All of this was too much for Bethany’s business establishment, which reduced funding for the church in the spring of 1891. For his part, Bellamy arrived at the conclusion that the ministry required “a spirit, a versatility, a tirelessness of pastoral care which he had no longer to give,” and abruptly resigned. Years later, the congregation would remember him “as a man who brought to the service of communities a creative mind, a kindly heart and a just fame.”

Though it is unclear what the majority of the congregation thought of Bellamy, it could not have been an easy decision for him. In his four years at Bethany Church, he had baptized the young, comforted the sick, buried the dead, consoled the bereaved, and soothed many a troubled soul. He had found a new home for the congregation when the old neighborhood tilted too Catholic, and he had gotten a new church built. With that kind of investment, it could not have been a trouble-free resignation. At the same time, though, leaving the pastorate seems to have been a relief and a release for Bellamy. He had been restive in the ministry for some time—weary of shepherding a flock and keen to test himself in a broader sphere. Now, though, he was unemployed with a wife and two sons to support and a new house half-built.

He was not long out of a job. Daniel Ford, a member of the Dearborn Street Church who had followed Bellamy to Bethany because he was sympathetic to the minister’s philosophical beliefs and his oratory, offered him a job at the Youth’s Companion. He saw talent, pluck, and practical energy in the raw-boned preacher from western New York. He had witnessed Bellamy get the new church built, he had heard his homilies and read his essays. And Ford had seen Bellamy hold his ground with the hidebound church hierarchy, even though it cost him his livelihood. He wanted to help Bellamy, and Ford, the hardheaded businessman, saw something in Bellamy he believed could help him.

As Bellamy moved on to the world of journalism, he took with him his passion for social justice and love of America; the ability to work within the confines of a structured institution (like the church) and get things done; and a great intellectual energy. He was committed to restoring American “principles” and “ideals” and would apply these considerable skills to that task.

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