Lydia Maria Child is one of the 19th century's most celebrated intellectuals, abolitionists, and writers. Her commitment to equality and justice resonates in her large body of work. She was a committed scholar of world religions and was dissatisfied with many aspects of the institutional church during her day. She is perhaps best known for her editing of Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and her poem "Over the river and through the wood..." Child is not widely known in the contemporary era, but students of American history, American letters, and Women's Studies rightly regard her as a consequential figure.
Child, née Francis, was born on February 11, 1802 in Medford, Massachusetts into a large family. Her parents were strict Calvinists but she spent time in the local orthodox Congregational Church. As a child she was studious and intellectually curious. She moved to the Maine home of her newly married sister in 1814, the year her mother died. There she became interested in the cause of the local Penobscot Native Americans.
A few years later she became a teacher, and in 1821 she returned to Massachusetts and was baptized at First Parish church. She lived with her beloved older brother, but rather than attend First Parish in Watertown where he was a Unitarian minister, she became a member of the Boston Society of the New Jerusalem in 1822.
In 1824 she published the first historical novel in the United States, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times. This work was a sympathetic account of Native Americans and, although she published it anonymously, it brought her much fame and respect when her authorship became known. She wrote several novels and stories during this period and became the editor of a children's magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany.
Child married Boston lawyer David Child in 1828; he was a good match for her in intellect and idealism, but was financially incompetent and brought debts and poverty into the marriage. Child wrote The Frugal Housewife in 1829, which drew on her experience managing a household with little money. The earnings from this book helped support the Childs.
She also wrote five volumes of the Ladies Family Library, a series that featured biographies of excellent and worthy women. After coming across William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, she felt that her conscience was awakened and began supporting the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. She also began to write for the cause; her most important work was An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), which explicitly condemned slavery and included the north in her criticism. This work, with its strong, clear anti-slavery rhetoric lost her many sales of her books as well as her position as editor of the Juvenile Miscellany.
In 1841 she became editor of the National Anti-Slavery Stanford of New York; she held the post for two years. She did not agree with the evolution of Garrison's political views, which advocated staying out of politics altogether and even refusing to vote. Separating herself from the movement, she remained in New York. There she enjoyed the culture of the city but deplored its virulent poverty. She visited the churches of several Christian denominations but was dissatisfied with each. She published Letters from New York in 1843 and 1845.
Child and her husband returned to Massachusetts and lived with her elderly father. There she wrote The Progress of Religious Ideas through Successive Ages in 1854, a three-volume account intended to remove "the superstitious rubbish from the sublime morality of Christ". It was not financially successful.
The abolitionist movement gained in significance and even notoriety with the event of the raid on Harper's Ferry in the early 1850s. Child lauded John Brown; her support of him gained her praise in the north and criticism in the south. In Massachusetts she threw herself back into activism and helped contraband slaves who had fled across Union lines. She also compiled The Freedmen's Book, a reading primer for slaves and former slaves. She also worked for suffrage for women as well as on behalf of Native Americans.
In 1861 she edited Harriet Jacob's slave narrative. In 1867 she joined the Unitarian Free Religious Association. Her husband died in 1874. In 1878 she published a collection of quotes from world religions, Aspirations of the World.
Lydia Maria Child died on October 20th, 1880. She is buried at North Cemetery in Wayland, Massachusetts.