"This wretched set of people, the Catholics”: Harriett Low's Unitarian Bookshelf, China, 1829–34

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM
Tremont Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Kimberly Alexander , Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth, NH
How is it that a young, unmarried antebellum Salemite, Harriett Low (1809-1877) came to make such unfiltered, vitriolic comments? Prior to her trip to China, where she served as a companion to her delicate aunt, Harriet's life centered on her large family, her Howard Street Church and her schoolgirl friends. Staunch New England Unitarians, the family's emphasis on reading, particularly religious tracts, harkened back to Puritan ancestors who made communal literacy and the Word centerpieces of their simple practices. The New England expatriates bridled at what they described as the superstitious and ignorant qualities of the Roman Catholic rites they found in the Portuguese outposts, such as Macao, which they considered their temporary home. This paper will examine the contributions to Harriett's burgeoning religious ideology—the course of readings encouraged by her father, Abiel Abbot, the sensibility of her time and natural temperament—resulting in the manner in which she framed her interactions with “the other,” in this case, the Portuguese and Spanish Catholics in Macao. Of particular interest for this study is an analysis of Harriett's readings: her description of her room and its contents (and the way she connects her own identity to the books on her table), reveals a strong leaning toward the conservative branch of Unitarianism in the years leading up to the “Unitarian Controversy” of the early 1830s. These volumes and others provide the backdrop against which Harriett and dozens of expatriates define their American identity through a comparison with “those wretched people”.
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