Samuel Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine on 18 June 1819. The youngest child of lawyer and Congressman Stephen Longfellow and his wife Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow, Samuel was educated at the Portland Academy, which his elder brothers and sisters attended, and his childhood letters and journal show a precocious aptitude for literature, art, and foreign languages.
Samuel went to Harvard College, where older brother Henry was teaching. He took Henry’s German class translating Faust as well as core courses like Rhetoric and Mathematics. His other languages included French and Italian.
After a short stint teaching at a small home school near Elkridge, Maryland, Samuel entered the Harvard Divinity School in 1839, an epicenter for the Transcendental movement that would have a deep impact upon his approach to religion. During a break from his studies at Harvard, he served as a tutor to the children of American Consul Charles Dabney on the island of Fayal in the Azores from 1843 to 1844.
Upon his return to the U.S., Longfellow resumed his divinity studies and made his home from 1845 to the beginning of 1847 with his brother Henry, Henry’s wife Fanny, and their growing family at the Craigie House on Brattle Street.
Samuel’s first position as a clergyman was at West Cambridge (now Arlington) for three months, followed by positions in Fall River, Massachusetts, and then in 1853 in Brooklyn, New York. Initially he appreciated the intellectual sympathy of his Brooklyn parishioners who encouraged him in his “free” religious thought that de-emphasized the role of formal religion. He did not hide his abolitionist views, but his sermons portraying John Brown as a courageous martyr after the Harper’s Ferry raid drew dissent. Samuel was also a pacifist, and a supporter of women’s rights. He left his position in Brooklyn in 1860 to travel again to Europe.
Longfellow spent much of the 1860s and 1870s giving sermons at various New England parishes while the regular clergyman was away. His brother Henry’s house in Cambridge served as his home base. The Quaker-leaning parish of Germantown, Pennsylvania welcomed Samuel as their pastor in 1878. He reluctantly left his duties there in 1882 to start the biography of his late brother Henry. Much of the biography, The Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is quoted from the journals and correspondence, which were stored in Henry’s study. Samuel drew together reminiscences and additional excerpts for Final Memorials published in 1887, and both works were arranged to form the three-volume Life.
Longfellow, both in cooperation with his colleague Samuel Johnson and independently, published several books of hymns, many of which were adaptations of others' work. Among these were A Book of Hymns for Public and Private Devotion, Vespers, and Hymns of the Spirit.
While on a visit to Portland, Samuel fell ill and was admitted to the Maine General Hospital. He died on October 3, 1892.
Did You Know?
In 1867, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow became the first American to complete a translation of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno".