At home with the Reverend Charles Follen. A Cambridge tale.


by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. For months and months, I had been spending all my waking hours researching the housing market in Cambridge, Massachusetts and elsewhere. It was a long, frustrating, and expensive process involving as it did weekly flights to places I thought I might like to live, New York, Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, and many more.

By the time I got to Follen Street, I was exhausted, irritated, and ready to pack it in for the day. But because I am a punctilious, precise kind of fellow, I insisted on seeing the last property on my list. It was on Follen Street.

A property in this building had just gone on the market, and this, given its proximity to Harvard Square, Harvard Yard, and the Cambridge Common, seized my immediate attention. In fact, it was love at first sight.

My first question was how did this brick building stay out of the hands of the Harvard real estate office. Someone had missed the boat for sure, for an apartment building this close to all things Harvard would have been ideally situated for a new administrative building, or faculty housing.

Instead, what I saw was a spacious unit on the top floor, excellent sun and light, and a size which caused an audible gasp. I didn’t need any sales palaver from a realtor… what I wanted was a purchase document to sign… just like that.

The realtor, however, was slow and lethargic. It was late on Friday. He didn’t want to get any papers out. He didn’t want to do any of the necessary paperwork. He turned to me and said, in response to my brisk approach to the matter, “Come back Monday, and we’ll settle the details.”

As a result, I spent a very uncomfortable weekend afraid that someone else would snap up this property. I have never regretted my decision, and the fact that the value of my unit has gone up as many as 15 times what I paid for it is just so much gravy. My love affair with Follen Street had begun.

Over the course of the years, I have whenever possible gathered information for what became this article. The first item to be considered was how it came to be known as Follen Street, a name which most people render “Fallen”, thinking that there might be a giant sink hole which caused this street to fall. In fact, the street is named after the Reverend Karl Theodor Christian Friedrich Follen.

His story is key in several areas, including the development of a liberal pastorate, such expertise in German and gymnastics that Harvard appointed him to several academic appointments, and most importantly, his controversial work with the Anti-Slavery Society and William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879).

German social activist

Follen is a representative of what every organization needs to take root, grow, and flourish. Follen was born in 1759 into the Grand Dukedom of Hesse-Darmstadt. It was a deceptive place, for it looked calm and conservative, but dark waters surged beneath the surface.

Karl’s father, Christoph Follenius, was a counselor at law and judge in Giessen. The spirit of revolution was in the air, and no matter what your political or legal position, you had to have at least had a nodding familiarity with what was happening in all aspects of life, and how to protect your interests and even advance them.

Follen was a boy of energy, imagination, and vision. It is easy for such boys to find high minded colleagues, and to stay up late over a stein or two of beer solving the problems of the world. This was man’s work, and no one much cared about your age.

This was, however, a time particularly in the German states of acute anxiety. The conservative powers, led by Austria and Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), Chancellor of the Austrian empire, and a man determined to destroy any liberal idea or notion. Metternich stood squarely on behalf of no change whatsoever. Any advanced political group was to be infiltrated and destroyed.

This was intolerable to Charles Follen. The more he understood about Prince Metternich and his machinations, the more he determined things must become better, and to this end, began connecting with advanced liberals around Europe. His ideas were expressed in political essays, poems, and patriotic songs. He commenced his romance with liberty.

Follen bit by bit came to the notice of the powers that be. Given the fact that he traveled widely and connected with revolutionaries, not just in Germany, but in France, Switzerland, and more. In so doing, he made the mistake so many social activists make… talking too loud, shouting his ideas at the top of his voice, publishing too honestly… a man who thought that the future was liberalism just waiting for him and his colleagues.

Of course, he was arrested, in 1824, as a revolutionary, and this only had the effect of making him more determined to advance the cause of Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite. As part of his maturation, he came in touch with such prominent Americans as Peter Stephen Du Ponceau and George Ticknor, a Harvard professor. They assisted in getting him an unusual post: instructor in the German language. This was the first time the German language had been on Harvard’s curriculum.

Harvard, under the leadership of John Thornton Kirkland, had an acute interest in German education, which was then thought of as being the most useful and advanced in the world. Using this position as an entry way for advancement, Follen in 1828 became an instructor of ethics and Ecclesiastical history at Harvard Divinity School. Simultaneously he was admitted as a candidate for the ministry. In 1830, he became professor of German literature at Harvard, and married Eliza Lee Cabot, the daughter of one of Boston’s most famous families.

Now at this point, Follen already advantageously launched at Harvard, could easily have expanded his Cambridge empire. This would have been a high achievement, to be the advocate and leader of all aspects of the German curriculum at Harvard, already recognized as one of the great universities on Earth. But he wanted more… not just for himself, but for the entire Cambridge and Harvard communities.

This led him into making a review, not just making a list of the advantages of Harvard and Boston, but of what he came to see as their drawbacks and deficits. In short, he intended to use American freedom to advance his numerous causes of interest, particularly the anti-slavery movement.

Anyone who looks at the period from 1820 to 1860 cannot but be drawn into America’s peculiar institution: slavery.

Many in the United States, both North and South, had made fortunes in the slave industry, either directly or indirectly. Many of these people either lived in the Northern United States, or had strong business and personal contacts there.

There was the sound of Yankee dollars being made, and world opinion largely blinked to avoid the moral implications of their dark world. In short, since slavery was legal, though not in several states, experienced businessmen and traders continued their work without moral distress. Charles Follen thought differently.

It is the moment he becomes aware of how deeply slavery was ingrained in a society that he becomes important. He picked up his tattered banner of Liberte, Egalite, and Franternite, determined to do something about it.

The time period is 1835

His lectures more and more found their focus in freeing the unhappy slaves of Africa. No man, it was clear, should ever own another man. He took these increasingly violent sentiments and began recruiting for his increasingly outspoken abolitionist beliefs. President Josiah Quincy of Harvard didn’t like what he heard, and how often he heard it, for Harvard was based to a considerable extent on money from slavery, directly or indirectly.

In 1835, Harvard president Josiah Quincy decided that he had had enough, and that the indefatigable Follen would be removed from his many positions. Of course, Follen made a beeline to William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator (1831-1865). Garrison was like so many social reformers… he was belligerent, argumentative, and absolutely determined that his efforts would change society and free the slaves. Most of Harvard was appalled, and could hardly wait to trip up Garrison and ultimately Follen, and remove them from doing anything that would adversely impact the business of slavery.

The period between 1835 and 1860 was one where pro and anti-slavery forces were juggling for supremacy, and where the very idea of freeing the slaves had only just been advanced. But conservative Boston could only stand so much. For Bostonians, making money was far more important than freeing the slaves. The issue might need to come to an ultimate resolution, but businessmen in Boston were not willing to throw away a single penny merely because the black races of Africa were being crushed and dispossessed. That was not their problem.

Businessmen of course could see the handwriting on the wall; after all, the British empire, one of the largest customers for slave labor, had abolished slavery in 1833. But there was time left… yes, years of it. Properly handled, the slave traders and their necessary business associates could have 15, 20, maybe 25 good years left. Men like Garrison and Follen were dangerous… and the conservative forces wanted them removed, one way or another.

Such people worked hard to get Follen out of the Boston area. They were assailed on every front for their opinions, for these got in the way of Mammon. In 1838, they somehow managed to find a congregation in New York where Follen could voice his increasingly strident views on slavery.

As he was going to take up his parish, the steamer that was taking him to New York caught fire, and Reverend Karl Follen was burned alive, drowning in a storm in the Long Island Sound.

Tears were shed, though they were crocodile tears for certain, for in fact, Follen’s untimely death lowered the temperature, giving people who had resolutely opposed him the possibility of appearing liberal themselves, when they were anything but.

Sadly, even Follen’s name was toxic. His family and friends, and remember, he was connected to the Cabots who speak only to God, had to work hard to find a church which would hold a memorial service on his behalf. Yes, the good Christian people of Massachusetts chose to wash their hands of this menace, who had the acute misfortune to actually believe in incendiary Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite.

Every monument they put up to honor Follen, and there were several, including the establishment of an octagon shaped church in Lexington, Massachusetts, and my very street in Cambridge, smacks of hypocrisy, for they were nearly all glad to see him go… his charred body bobbing in the choppy seas. The toasts they made to Follen throughout the city all were of the good riddance variety.

The things they are changing however, and if in 1840 Garrison and Follen were out there, they were not alone. Everyday that passed brought Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation to the top of the agenda, validating the reformers. It was slow, painful, aggravating, and often dirty and squalid… but this is how progress is made.

Christmas trees

As all this was going on, Follen’s house on Follen Street hummed with the sounds of a large growing family, where besides anti-slavery objectives, there must have been a goodly measure of the kinds of activities which distinguished family life in the 19th Century.

One of these was the Christmas tree. Follen is credited with introducing to New England the first Christmas trees with miniature ornaments on their fragrant branches. Many people of course are credited with the Christmas tree, including Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, but Follen’s claim seems secure.

Yes, Follen seems to have been the first to put little dolls, dried fruits, and seasonal ornaments on the green branches in Cambridge. This however almost did not happen, for as international traveler Harriet Martineau reported, who was then visiting in Cambridge as part of her celebrated American tour, real life candles were used on the branches, and one of these set the tree on fire, causing great anxiety at a lively German Christmas party in the drawing room.

It was however, despite this near catastrophe, a charming addition to the Christmas festivities which were in development against advanced Puritans who thought there should be no Christmas at all.

I often think of Reverend Follen. I am, after all, situated just above where his drawing room must have been. If not great, he at least made an impact on his new country, and on the town of Cambridge, which continues to welcome social revolutionaries from the entire Earth.

They are as persistent, demanding, and impossible as ever they have been, but you can rest assured of one thing. It is because of them, no matter how much we dislike them, that new ideas are advanced, vetted, analyzed, and improved or denied. After all, this is the function of a great University. Not orthodoxy, but constant investigation and research; the ability not to cling to outmoded ideas, but to freely acknowledge new ones, and disseminate them, not crush because they are not convenient or easy.

This was the credo of Reverend Charles Follen, and this must always be our credo as well… for the times, they are always a-changin’, and like it or not, we must change with them. My home, suffused with the ghost of Charles Follen, makes it easier to do just that… for even in death, he influenced life, and no social reformer of any kind can ask for more.

Musical note

I’ve selected for musical accompaniment to this chapter John Lennon’s celebrated tune “Imagine” (1971). Lennon was a social revolutionary just like Charles Follen. He found the present and its uses hypocritical and affronting. As a result, he composed this song, “Imagine”, which aggravated, infuriated, and irked people worldwide. Who did Lennon think he was?

We only came to know when a craven assassin pumped four bullets into his frail body, thus confirming his importance, particularly the songs at the end of his short life. Such people are often the target not just of harsh words and bitter accusations, but any number of means to curtail lives, offering much, demanding little, and with the possibility of changing everything.

“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”


Click here to listen to the song.

Howard Martell is the Owner of . Check us out anytime for marketing tips and a free subscription to our cutting edge newsletter.


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