Jim Marten, Professor of History and Department Chair at Marquette University and a member of First Church, wrote a blog from a historical perspective celebrating the life and contributions of the Rev. N. A. Staples to First Church and the Milwaukee area. His unique use of quotes and descriptive words really helps to paint a picture of this important man.
“The Troubles of His Country Were His Own”: Rev. N. A. Staples: Citizens of Milwaukee: A Blog for First Church: 175th Anniversary
One of the most dramatic events to take place in First Church history occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 1859, when Rev. N. A. Staples delivered the scorching anti-slavery sermon, On the Irrepressible Conflict. It achieved modest fame (or infamy, depending on your point of view), but in this blog I want to focus more on the man who delivered it. Staples, (his initials stood for Nahor Augustus, Nahor being an Old Testament name belonging to the grandfather and the older brother of the prophet Abraham) was very much a product of his time. He served the congregation during its first “resurrection,” in the late 1850s and for my money is one of the most interesting people to have served First Church. Others have had far more influence on the history our congregation and did more to increase membership to solidify the church’s place in town or to create an identity for the church.
But Staples seems, in some ways, quite modern the sort of person who we would admire for his passion and commitment, for his insistence on mixing theology with social justice and political activism. Thanks to a rather adoring biography published shortly after his death by a close friend, we can get a sense of the life of this driven, complicated, and committed Unitarian minister.
Born in Massachusetts in 1830, Staples graduated from Unitarian Theological School in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in 1854. After serving a church in Brooklyn for two years, he came to Milwaukee in 1856, just at the time that William Metcalfe and others were raising money to bring the waning society back to life. Within a year, a new building, (the congregation’s second permanent home) was completed on Cass Street. Staples arrived in Milwaukee at a time of great prosperity. For the first few months he preached in Young’s Hall, at Broadway and Wisconsin, a venue that hosted classical musicians, singers, traveling operetta companies, and other, more low-brow entertainments, “not marked by even mediocre merit to recommend them to the people,” an early historian of Milwaukee sniffed. The twenty-six-year-old Staples came to the city full of hope; sharing the foot-lighted stage with various stage sets, props, and magician’s gear failed to discourage him.
The Cass Street building was finished in early 1857 and the enthusiasm for the young minister’s preaching continued for some time in the new church, which, “within a few months of its dedication . . . was filled to overflowing.”
Staples became known outside the church, too. “He became more and more a power in the city and throughout the state,” and was asked to speak on many public occasions.
“The common people heard him gladly. He attracted little children to him, and young men and women,” not to mention “lake captains, the foundry mechanics, the men of brawn, whose hands were callous with their daily toil.”
His inspirational style of speaking—which comes out even in the printed version of his anti-slavery sermon reflected a “spirit . . . so strong . . . that men and women who had gone down into the depths, and yet longed to rise out of them into a purer and a better life, were drawn to him instinctively.”
He offered help to all who asked: “money, if they needed it; advice, if they asked for it; but at all times love.”
Staples’ reputation grew—like other First Church ministers over the years, he became known throughout the city—but he also planted the seed for future unhappiness. His sermons “took a wide range, busying themselves much with the social and political topics of the day”—especially slavery.
During this time when “the South was violent and aggressive” on the subject, and “the North vacillating and timid,” Staples sought to keep the issue before his congregation and his community.
He placed so much importance on the issue of slavery. He called it,—“the touch-stone of moral soundness in this age,”. He once wrote that it would be more acceptable for a Unitarian to “believe in Trinity, total depravity, etc., etc. than . . . not positively hate and oppose” slavery.
As the slavery issue heated up, Staples’ situation in Milwaukee worsened. An economic depression that started in 1857 had forced thirty First Church families to leave Milwaukee. Others left because they didn’t care for his absolute honesty and the “breadth of his theology.” Still others may have tired of his sense of humor. He had a “keen sense of the ridiculous” and was a skilled mimic of other people. Although there was never malice in his joking around, “he did not have it under very good control,” and it apparently wore thin for at least some of his congregation. In addition, he came to hate the administrative side of ministerial work.
But the most important reason the idyllic situation of the first two years in the Cream City deteriorated was his “outspoken and determined opposition” to the “slave power,” which culminated with his famous Thanksgiving sermon in late 1859.
A few months later, Staples recorded in his journal that “the position I have taken on the slavery question is making much disturbance. But it has been forced upon my conscience.” He felt compelled to continue to speak out, “either I must purify my heart and trust myself to its promptings . . . . or lose these swellings of inspiration entirely. Their wings are too delicate to chafe long against such constraining bars without being destroyed thereby.” Staples had clearly begun believing that his more conservative parishioners were, as it were, chafing his wings.
Personal tragedies also weighed heavily. Between spring 1857 and spring 1860 he had two daughters die before reaching the age of two. Staples apparently found some solace in his absolute faith, but he also suffered from chronic health problems, including migraines and a vague throat ailment. Although he refused to accept the fact that he was sick, old friends who came to visit after long separations were shocked at his appearance.
And yet he continued his political activism. As his biography wrote, “with Mr. Staples the troubles of his country were his own, and he was hardly less a martyr in her cause than if he had died in the field, so wearing on him was his anxiety in her behalf.” Although the winter of 1860-1861 following Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency was filled with efforts by Congress to reach an agreement to avoid civil war, Staples “set his face as flint against every form of compromise.” He rejoiced when Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, without giving in to Southern demands. By that time the Confederacy had been formed and within six weeks the war had begun at Fort Sumter.
As the nation slid toward war, Staples’ situation deteriorated. By spring 1861, although he had previously refused calls to other congregations, he was looking for a way out. Despite his poor health, in July he jumped at the chance to become chaplain of the 6th Wisconsin Regiment. He stated his reasons for going to war in a journal entry soon after accepting the commission. He wanted to “sanctify this cause in the hearts of the soldiers and the community from which they go, and make them if possible worthy of so great a mission.” Aware of the ways that making war can change men, he also wanted to keep the soldiers “human in the midst of war’s savage necessities” and to act as a “mediator between [the soldiers’] new life and the old.” Finally, he wanted to “speak words of courage and hope” to the 1100 men in the Sixth, “keeping ever before them, as far as I can, the fact that God is very near them always.”
Although as part of the famous “Iron Brigade” the Sixth Wisconsin would go on to be one of the most famous regiments in the Union army, fighting at Gettysburg and many other battles at the cost of over 350 men out of a total of 1600 who served. Staples’ time in the military was limited to just a few months due to his poor health. He returned briefly to Milwaukee and then moved back to Brooklyn. He took the pulpit of the Second Unitarian Church in September 1862, just a few days before his regiment suffered 150 killed and wounded men at the Battle of Antietam. He preached in Brooklyn for less than two years before dying in February 1864 at the age of thirty-four.
It’s arguable that no other First Church minister has endured so many challenges and suffered quite so much for the sake of principle. Of course, perhaps, no other minister has served during a time so rife with conflict, drama, and controversy for both the congregation and the nation.
*Unless otherwise noted, all the quotes and information for this blog come from John W. Chadwick, Way, Truth, and Life: Sermons by Nahor Augustus Staples, with a Sketch of His Life (Boston: William V. Spencer, 1870), chapter 4, “Milwaukee and the Army.”