Transcript, poems and photos
In previous episodes we’ve touched on the challenges of identifying and talking about the lives of women in the past, but in the case of Rhoda Bingham Daniels our task gets a little easier because we have a lot of personal writings that survive from the Daniels family. And it gives us an intimate portrait of family life and religious beliefs in the early to mid-1800s; a time when the religious landscape in the United States was transiting from the staid and uptight religion of the Puritans to a much more religiously pluralistic society.
This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.
First: let’s set the scene and define what the Puritans I alluded to in the opener are. I’ll be quoting a lot from poems sent to Rhoda Bingham Daniels from her grandfather, Jeremiah Bingham, who was an elder at the First Congregational Church in Cornwall, VT. Congregationalists held that each church was independent, ecclesiastical sovereign, and autonomous and the first Congregationalist churches popped up in what would become the United States in the 1620s when Puritans started rolling up on these shores. And the Puritans? Folks who believed that the church of England hadn’t reformed enough and still had too much Roman Catholicism in it. Fun Fact: the very first War on Christmas in the United States was waged by the pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation because religious holidays are too Catholic and one should be working instead.
When it came to the Christian reformation, there’s two big names that influenced Protestant theology moving forward: Martin Luther and John Calvin. We don’t have time to talk about these guys in too much depth but one of the big things to note is that both rejected the hierarchy of the Catholic church and a lot of it’s practices that couldn’t be solely supported by the Bible itself. The Puritans were of the Calvinistic or Reformed side of the Reformation. The theology of Calvinism can be summarized by the acrostic TULIP:
Total Depravity (sin is inherited from Adam and Eve and thus even a human’s will is completely corrupted),
Unconditional Election (which holds that God predestined some humans to be saved and the rest are destined for hell),
Limited Atonement (Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was only for the elect),
Irresistible grace (if you’re part of the elect the message of salvation through Jesus will overcome all your opposition),
and Preservation of the saints (the elect will continue in communion with God and those whose faith has fallen away were never the elect to start with).
And if you think that that’s a heck of an acrostic, buckle up, babes, because the Bingham family LOVED them some acrostics. But also, keep this general religious world view in mind because it colors everything in this story.
For some women in the early 1800s, like the Prindle sisters, it’s hard to find out much about them personally. Oftentimes, family histories and genealogies focused on the men in the family and a woman’s contributions, history and personal correspondence end up lost. In Rhoda Bingham Daniels case, though, we have a rich repository of letters that were sent to her and others in the family and through them we can glean what was going on in her world, her place in her family and how others viewed her.
Rhoda Bingham Daniels was born Rhoda Bingham in 1816 in Cornwall, VT and was the youngest of five daughters born to James and Rhoda Sperry Bingham.
We don’t have very much information on Rhoda’s early life, but from her family’s connection to the Congregationalists church in New England, and going off off the family’s later letters, we can infer that she was fairly well educated. After all, being able to read the Bible was of chief importance and Congregationalist churches relied on their members being able to read and discern scriptures and theology for themselves when making decisions.
Like the Prindle sisters, Rhoda didn’t stay out east for very long and appears to have moved out west with her older, married sisters. In 1834, Rhoda’s grandfather, Jeremiah, sent her a letter addressed to David Brown in Lewiston, NY. David Brown was married to Rhoda’s sister, Almira, and it would appear that Rhoda was living with them. Almira was 16 years older than Rhoda and she and David had one child in 1834.
In 1834, Rhoda was 18 years old and living in a rapidly changing world. The Midwest had recently opened up for American settlement and several of her other sisters and their families were already living further west in Michigan. Lewiston NY is situated on the Great Lakes between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and Rhoda probably was familiar with the site of steam ships and their cargo going back and forth. The Erie Canal across NY, completed in 1825, meant that communication and the movement of people and goods could move ever more quickly.
The religious landscape was shifting as well. As settlers pushed further and further west, there weren’t professional clergy or already established churches waiting for them. Traveling preachers, both professionals and lay preachers, provided western settlements with not just religious edification but also entertainment and the ability to learn about other sects or new movements.
The area Rhoda lived in is referred to as the “burned over district” as religious revivals would “catch fire” there and sweep through over and over again. This period, from about 1790 until 1840 is called “the second great awakening” (the first happened in the 1730s and 1740s and gave us such bangers as Jonathan Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). Established Protestant sects, like Methodism, attracted new converts by embracing sending out traveling preachers. Spiritualism incorporated more conventional Protestant Christianity while believing that the living could reach beyond the physical and into the spirit realm. Quakers and Shakers introduced radical equality between the sexes while the Shakers reintroduced an option lifelong celibacy for devout Protestants.
On the other end of the spectrum, other religious groups were experimenting not just religiously (though, it must be stated, almost all of these new religious groups grew out of Protestant Christianity) but also with the very structures of society, the economy and the family itself. The Oneida Community, located less than 200 miles from Rhoda, Almira and David, coined the phrase “free love” and practiced complex marriage where each member was allowed to sleep with any other consenting member and possessiveness and jealousy were frowned upon.
Yes, the silverware company started from what some would describe as a sex cult. Feel free to make family dinners super awkward with this information. What a lovely set of silverware, aunt Phyllis, wanna hear about the origins of the phrase free love?
In the Puritan world of Cornwall, VT, you couldn’t just walk into the woods and ask God to show you which church to join and walk out with the foundations of a brand new one, but on the frontier of NY it was completely possible. While Mormonism hadn’t yet embraced polygamy and various forms of communal socialism, those were only a few short decades away.
End of the world fever was in the air as well, as adherents of William Miller, believing that Jesus’ return would occur on October 22, 1844, sold their possessions and sought to purify themselves.
One of the other big ideas that was intertwined in a lot of these religious movements? Radical Abolition. Many of the faiths that were created or bolstered in this time period also held firmly that slavery was a great evil that had to be abolished. This would then influence the personal beliefs of settlers as they went ever further west and created new settlements and communities. Many of the families that would form the backbone of Oakland County, MI’s Underground Railroad network had migrated from the “burned over district” during this time period.
How much of this shifting landscape Rhoda was aware of is unknown, but her grandfather was very concerned. In his letter he writes
You are young and exposed to a thousand temptations, which Satan will not fail to lay before you, if possible to ensnare and ruin you forever, and there is no safety for you my dear child, unless you repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make him your friend, by keeping his commandments; and when he will keep you by his mighty power, through faith unto salvation. I beseech you therefore immediately, to remember your Creator now in the days of your youth, and seek the Lord with all your heart, and ask him to forgive your sins for his own namesake. My dear child, do attend to this subject now in the morning and flower of life, and while God is waiting upon you to be gracious, and not delay until the door of mercy be shut against you forever. I shall add a few verses in hope God will awaken your attention to the subject of religion, and make you a vessel of mercy & prepare you for his heavenly kingdom.”
And because Jeremiah was a poet, there is a very long poem attached. I’m not going to read the whole thing, but feel free to keep a few of these stanzas in your pocket for the next time you get into a religious rap battle.
“Dear Rhoda hear the voice of truth,
How in the morning of your youth;
Harken to what the Lord may say,
And all his sweet commands obey.
You are a sinner born to die;
Death's pointed arrows round you fly:
Someone may strike you down to death,
And take away your mortal breath.
You every moment are exposed,
To have your short probation clos'd
And if impenitent, you know
The place is hell where you must go!
The Lord condemns you down to hell;
Because 'gainst God you do rebel:
Under its dreadful course you lie,
And wrath from him is drawing nigh.”
In this same letter, we get to some good stuff. And by that I mean, how would your belief in Calvinism (you remember TULIP, surely?) lead you to view children? We get a whole poem about how babies are born sinners.
“The new born babe is full of woes
Its heart is full of lies
And from the womb astray it goes
And young it often dies.
Is this the innocent,
That has no soul to save!
Yet death by sin is hither sent
To rush it to the grave!
We are inform'd that death by sin,
Came armed to this world,
And every sinner he can find,
Down to the grave is hurl'd.
The royal psalmnist did confess,
That he was born in sin,
And from the very womb and breast,
His lying did begin.
But infidels with scoffing dress'd,
Deny it all so Bold;
Can infants hanging on the breast,
Can lies by them be told?
I answer yes; for there is sin,
And here the truth is sold;
Tis in the heart that lies begin,
Before they can be told!
The heart tho' young is full of lies,
And God can hear it say,
Depart from me thou just and wise,
I will not thee obey!”
Anyways, Jeremiah signs off the letter as “yours in sincere friendship”, so there’s that at least. This letter was one the family kept and its hard for me to picture Rhoda, as an older woman who lost two children when they were less than a year old and another one when still a child, might have felt recalling these words.
But that would be in the future, less than a decade in fact. We don’t know exactly when Rhoda made the move from Lewiston to Michigan but she married Hiram Daniels on September 13, 1836. We have evidence that her older sister, Rebecca Bingham Davis was in Birmingham in 1833, where she had a daughter also named Rebecca. If Rhoda had visited the Rebeccas sometime after she received her grandfather’s letter, say in 1834, 35 or 36 she was in the perfect position to meet Hiram who had recently purchased land in Birmingham and whose family had settled in Southfield in 1823.
Hiram also appears to love poetry, although spelling doesn’t appear to be his strong suit. His partial diary still exists and opens with a poem that’s hard to read because of the tears to the paper but it appears to be religious and devotional in nature. For so many couples in the past, we don’t know what initially brought them together but in the case of Hiram and Rhoda, they seem to at least have a love of poetry and religious devotion in common. And if you think about it, that’s a lot more than a lot of couples that come out of the “Bachelor” do.
The couple settled into a home that still stands at 1128 Pierce Street. In some documents, it’s stated that their house was built in 1831, but that’s the year that Hiram buys the property and from his writings, he lived on his property in a “shack” (his sister calls it a “hut”) and the vernacular of the house suggests a later date, possibly 1835. You know the stereotype; heterosexual men are perfectly happy to live in a windowless box until they meet their future wife and realize that she will not live in a windowless box so they need to find or build a nicer box with windows.
Jeremiah Bingham wrote a poem to Rhoda shortly after her marriage. It’s significantly less unhinged in the “all babies are liars” way. This poem is not in verse, but rather in an acrostic that spells out Rhoda’s name. Poetry has always been a popular medium but Acrostic poems were having a moment during this time period. Acrostics were great because you didn’t particularly need to follow rules about rhythm and rhyming and you can also embed further puzzles in them to amuse and delight the recipient. Some of the acrostics in the Daniels’ collection are double or triple acrostics that needed the reader to decipher clues in the poem to reveal secret messages. And it must have delighted Jeremiah’s heart that acrostics are a very old form of poetry that can be found in many of the psalms in the Bible.
While we know from personal writings of the family that Rhoda was deeply religious her entire life, we don’t have records of what her church membership was. There wasn’t a Congregationalist church in the Birmingham area, so if she was still of that faith tradition she may have held private devotions while maybe occasionally going to services in other churches. Hiram’s family too is a bit of a religious mystery. Did she stick to the faith she grew up with, did she experiment with other churches? We just can’t say for sure.
And the poems continued to fly back and forth between family members. Remember how I mentioned how the Binghams LOVED them some acrostics? The Daniels did too. But these aren’t your typical one word per letter acrostic, oh no, that’s amateur hour. This is the freeform jazz of acrostics where each letter could stand for an entire sentence or just half a word. This is part of a triad acrostic that John Gardner Mason, Hiram’s nephew, wrote and dedicated to Rhoda and Hiram’s firstborn, Louisa.
“Down to their Homested they retire,
To test the pleasures of real life;
Harmony, peace and quietness reigns.
Encircled by all that's lovely and kind -----;
Imagine to yourself, in process of time,
Regardless of age. Their prospects are bright:
Cooing, Coying, Courteously, Cordially;
His firstborn, Louisa, he brought----.
Intensely I viewed it, - to Heaven I sighed,
Lord, may she be trained, and nurtured aright,
Dedicate - and seal her, Eternally thine.”
The whole acrostic spells out “Hiram Daniels and Miss Rhoda Bingham and the Heir Child”, just to give you a sense of how long of a poem it is.
Sadly, Louisa died in 1839, just days after this poem was written, at only 11 days old. Did Rhoda believe that Louisa was a sinner who deserved hell? Was she like the infidels of the poem her grandfather wrote to her a decade earlier who declared that babies at the breast couldn’t lie? In 1853, Hiram and Rhoda wrote a letter to an acquaintance named John and Rhoda wrote:
“The Lord has seen fit to take another of our dear little ones from our arms(.) What can I say I dare not murmur nor complain but I will serch (sic) ,my self and see why I need be thus chasten. John I do intend to strive to live more to God and less to the world(.) My babe died in March and was three months old and was a boy.”
This was about their son Emulus and gives us a peek into the anxieties that Rhoda had about her son’s death. While couched in religious language, it’s an anxiety that all parents can perhaps relate to- “did my kid get sick because I let them stay up late? Did I do something to cause this?”
Rhoda and Hiram had 9 children in total, with three dying before reaching the age of four. It’s a common misconception that folks back when infant mortality was higher weren’t super attached to their children and didn’t grieve them too much. This belief is purely modern and mostly helps a person today cope with facts that make us deeply uncomfortable. Rhoda and Hiram recorded exactly how old each of those three had been at the time of their death-down to the month and day. From that, I think we can infer that those kids were deeply cherished.
Rhoda died in 1862 at the age of 45, the year her son, Hiram, would enlist in the Michigan 22 infantry to fight in the Civil War. In the years following the Civil War the religious landscape would shift again- but that’s a story for another time.
Rhoda and Hiram’s surviving children married into numerous other prominent families in 1800s Birmingham. Rhoda’s story is a fascinating one not just because we still have her house and several letters, but because her life bridges the gap between Puritan New England to the American west of the first half of the 1800s. American innovation and ingenuity isn’t just limited to technology, Americans during this time period were exploring questions of religious authority, the structure of the home and society and equality between sexes, races and classes, amongst other things.
Some of those ideas we still have with us and others have fallen out of fashion. When was the last time someone wrote you an acrostic?
Join us next time as we take a little break and look at a fascinating document found in the Daniels’ family correspondence all about how Napoleon III was the antichrist. It’s a story of the end of the world, fire from the sky and I might just get an excuse to use some more French.
To see photos of Rhoda and Hiram’s home, and read some of the letters for yourself check out our website, the link is in the shownotes.
I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you for joining us for this episode of “Birmingham Uncovered”. Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible. Also thanks to past and present staff of the Birmingham Museum, and our amazing volunteers.