The conversion of George C. Leach

On April 9, 1848 -- 175 years ago next week -- Boston's Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick baptized George C. Leach, a former Unitarian minister who had been a prominent figure in the Transcendentalist movement in Massachusetts.

The life of George C. Leach can be characterized as a frenetic, tireless and seeking lifetime. Who was God and how did he expect his children to live? What was the correct way to relate to one's fellow man, and which political and social movements promoted this relationship? In his pursuit of answers to these questions, Leach was deeply influenced by 19th-century Romanticism, a philosophy that, when applied to religion, emphasized the ideals of personal emotional experience. He became consumed by the need to live a life of total self-surrender to the moral imperatives of truth and integrity as he understood them, and, in walking this path, he first found for companions the transcendentalists.

In his early career, George C. Leach worked as a Unitarian minister in Roxbury. He must have watched with interest as, in 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned his position as a Unitarian minister at Second Church of Boston, refusing to serve communion because he found the ritual devoid of meaning. In 1836, Emerson's essay "Nature" introduced the fundamental principles of transcendental philosophy. The transcendentalist movement, which stressed self-reliance and the individual's everyday contact with the divine, was quickly embraced by many in New England and beyond, especially among Unitarians, including Leach.

In 1841, Leach became one of the founding members of Brook Farm, a utopian community in West Roxbury inspired by the ideals of transcendentalism. Its members sought to balance work and leisure, with all members -- men and women -- working for the benefit of the community as a whole. While short-lived, the Brook Farm experiment became famous both as an early implementation of a socialist societal structure and for its prominent members, including the author Nathaniel Hawthorne (who would later fictionalize his experience at the farm in his novel, "The Blithedale Romance").

While at Brook Farm, Leach and his wife, Elizabeth (Allen), joined several other social and political movements. They became especially involved in the abolitionist movement through their membership in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Along with Frederick Douglass, George Leach served as an agent of the society, soliciting membership subscriptions and donations to the abolitionist cause. Around the same time, the Leaches joined the New England Non-Resistance Society, William Lloyd Garrison's radical peace movement, which rejected all human governments, social distinctions based on race, nationality, and gender, and all uses of force. They also embraced the dietary reforms of Sylvester Graham, an advocate of vegetarianism, temperance, and whole-grain bread (and the namesake of the graham cracker). Indeed, the Leaches left Brook Farm in 1843 to start a hotel based on Graham's principles.

After all this seeking, all these movements, George Leach ultimately found a place to rest in Catholicism.

"I baptized conditionally + admitted into the Church George Leach, aged 36 years. The sponsors were Orestes A. Brownson and Rosetta Magdalen Hodges. + John Bernard, Bp. Of Boston," reads the entry in the baptismal register of Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross on April 9, 1848.

The choice of Orestes A. Brownson as a sponsor was no coincidence. Brownson, like Leach, had been a prominent transcendentalist. His own conversion to Catholicism had been in 1844, at which point he devoted himself to writing articles seeking to convert others, especially his former intellectual compatriots, the transcendentalists. No doubt, Brownson's work influenced Leach, as it influenced other prominent transcendentalists, including Sophia Ripley, a cofounder of Brook Farm who converted to Catholicism in 1846, Isaac Hecker, and Charles Newcombe.

That many transcendentalists should go on to convert to Catholicism may seem surprising, and even counterintuitive. Yet, as the minister and theologian William Ellery Channing would write in 1846, for those drawn to the unity promised by transcendentalist utopian communities, Catholicism had a natural allure: "Advocates (of associationism) must regard with respect and sympathy the Catholic Church, as the most successful attempt in the history of the world to bring the race into unity, however mistaken they may deem its measures." While some, like Channing himself, remained skeptical of the hierarchical nature of Catholicism and loyal to associationism, others presented themselves to the archbishop for baptism.

After his conversion to Catholicism, George Leach remained involved in social and political causes that did not conflict with his new faith, including abolitionism. It is believed that the Leach family harbored runaway slaves, turning their home into a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Finally, it must be mentioned, almost a decade after his conversion, George C. Leach became an agent of The Pilot. In August 1857, the newspaper ran the following announcement: "Mr. George C. Leach -- A new travelling Agent. We are pleased to announce to our numerous friends . . . That Mr. George C. Leach has, after urgent solicitation, undertaken the agency of the Pilot in the Empire State. Mr. L. was formerly a preacher of error, but through the grace of God, and after due deliberation, became a convert to our Faith. We cheerfully recommend Mr. L. to the kind consideration of our patrons."