Knowing nothing of Sylvanus Cobb Jr’s work, let alone of the writer himself, Emerson did not realize the offense his remarks would have caused Cobb’s brother (see “Cobb Biosnip: No Yellowbacks”). In her memoir, Sylvanus’ daughter Ella Waite Cobb omits to mention which brother it was. Sylvanus Jr., the eldest, had six (one of whom had died at ten years of age) as well as two sisters.
Cobb’s immediate family was definitely among the most righteous and upstanding in the United States, and would have taken great umbrage at the idea that Cobb’s writing was mere vulgar sensationalism.
The novelist’s father, Reverend Sylvanus Cobb, D.D. (1799-1866), a Massachusetts clergyman, is described as “the most important Universalist reformer before the Civil War” (Harris 117). In 1839 he founded the Christian Freeman, an influential anti-slavery, pro-temperance religious publication, and was active in seeking reform.
His wife, Eunice Hale Waite Cobb (1803-80) was a public speaker in support of temperance and social welfare. She contributed articles and poetry to Universalist publications, and was the first woman ever to do so. In Boston, she founded the first woman’s club in America, one dedicated to health and fitness, the Ladies’ Physiological Institute (1848-1996).
The prodigious Cobb twins were as industrious. Cyrus Cobb was an accomplished mathematician, lawyer, writer, poet, sculptor and musician. Darius Cobb achieved fame as a painter, and was, as well, a noted “musician, singer, poet, lecturer, lithographer, and art critic” (“Darius Cobb“, Wikipedia).
Virtual doppelgangers, the two were not only identical in appearance, but also in intellect, personality, tastes and abilities. Darius said, after Cyrus’ death that:
No person could tell the difference between our photographs, and very few between our persons. If he were to deliver a lecture, I could step in and fill his place exactly. If I were conducting music, he could take up my baton at any point and carry it out to the end, and no one could see the difference. If either were to play the violin, the other could substitute for him absolutely.“The Cobb Brothers,” Cambridge Tribune, 18 April, 1903
Reverend Cobb’s adherence to Freemasonry was concomitant with his family’s extraordinary allegiance to hard work, if not fundamental to it. He was the founding chaplain of the first lodge instituted in Boston, after a period of anti-Masonic agitation, against which he worked vehemently, and of course, tirelessly. In his capacity as a member of State Legislature, he saved the Freemasons from abolition in Massachusetts.
Of the sons who followed him into the organization, including the twins, Sylvanus Jr. is the best remembered by the fraternity:
He served as Worshipful Master of the Lodge for five years. He was also a member of Norfolk Chapter, Royal Arch Mason and served as High Priest, a member of Hyde Park Council Royal & Select Masters serving as Thrice Illustrious Master and Cyprus Commandery Knights Templar where he was the Eminent Commander.“Today in Masonic History: Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. passes away,” Masonrytoday.com
It is a tenet of Freemasonry that, in emulating the example of God as the grand architect of the universe, men are the makers of themselves, and that
to labor well and truly, to labor honestly and persistently, is the object and chief end of all humanity.Mackey
Laborare est orare. After the wisdom of the monks of the Middle Ages, Freemasons hold that labour is itself a mode of worship (Mackey).
Cast in this mould, Cobb and his family would have considered his writing as humanitarian service, far from the low realm of the yellowback; rather, a manifestation of uplifting and formative moral values. And prime among these values, the noble aim of living by the sweat of one’s brow.
Cobb uses Masonic symbolism overtly in some works. The Caliph of Baghdad is listed in the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry as “the most widely read of Masonic novels” and is reputedly a vault of Masonic symbolism, “all of which is instantly recognisable to Masons who have been exalted to the Royal Arch Degree.” The novels Alaric, The Mystic Tie of the Temple (evidently an earlier title of the Caliph of Baghdad) and The Keystone were published in the New York Ledger, from 1858 to 1874 (Mackey).
Following the examples of his mother and father, Cobb actively supported social reform in the areas of slavery, suffrage and temperance. He first addressed anti-slavery meetings in 1852, and in 1864 was elected president of a Union League he had helped establish. After the commencement of the civil war, he was made Captain of a light infantry company of the Maine Volunteer Militia, but saw no active service (Ella Waite Cobb, A Memoir…).
In the temperance publication The Rechabite, of which he was editor, he draws on his recent experience on an American man-of-war:
The very foundation upon which rests its present mode of operation, is RUM! This may be deemed, by some, an unwarrantable assertion; but we say it calmly and understandingly — we have been there, and we know.Rechabite 1846-7; qtd. A Memoir…
Cobb’s quiet subtext, by which he seems to acknowledge a demon of his own, is borne out subtly in his daughter’s memoir. She records how in 1869, he became a member of the Sons of Temperance, an organization for temperance and mutual support, for whom he lectured:
He cherished a warm admiration for the man who could stand firm in the face of temptation and say No; and he had reason to do so; but also, from the depths of his heart, he had reason to sympathize with the man who could not always resist temptation. His own struggle extended from boyhood to death. One enemy ever hovered near him, and was ever ready for the fray. At times the battle turned against him, and a cloud, black and ominous, enshrouded him: but he never failed to rise to the light.A Memoir…
Notes and References
- Cobb’s immediate family: “The Cobb family was a large and important New England clan (see Philip Cobb’s A History of the Cobb Family, Cleveland:1907). The main branch of the Cobb family descended from Ebenezer and Elizabeth Cobb, both of whom were descended from Elder Henry Cobb who arrived in America on the second voyage of the Mayflower.” “Cobb Family Papers“. Syracuse University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.
- saved the Freemasons from abolition: See, for example, Cobb, Autobiography
- Union League: “…also called Loyal League, in U.S. history, any of the associations originally organized in the North to inspire loyalty to the Union cause during the American Civil War. During Reconstruction, they spread to the South to ensure Republicans of support among newly enfranchised blacks.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Rechabite: “(in the Bible) a member of an Israelite family, descended from Rechab, who refused to drink wine or live in houses (Jer. 35). /
a member of the Independent Order of Rechabites, a benefit society of teetotallers, founded in 1835″ (Lexico.com)
Cobb, Ella Waite. A Memoir of Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. (Boston: C.L. Peters and Son, 1891).
Cobb, Sylvanus. Autobiography of the first forty-one years of the life of Sylvanus Cobb, D. D., to which is added a memoir, by his eldest son, Sylvanus Cobb, jr. (Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1867). Jump to file at Internet Archive.
Harris, Mark W. The A to Z of Unitarian Universalism (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009).
Heimbichner, C. and Adam Parfrey. Ritual America: Secret Brotherhoods and their Influence on American Society: a Visual Guide. (n.p.: Feral House, 2012). Entry on Caliph of Baghdad.
Mackey, Albert G. The Symbolism of Freemasonry Illustrating and Explaining its Science and Philosophy, its Legends, Myths and Symbols (South Carolina: Albert G. Mackey, 1882). Available at guttenberg.org. Jump to file.
“Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and its Kindred Sciences.” phoenixmasonry.org. Jump to page.
“Records of the Ladies’ Physiological Institute, 1848-1996.” Hollis Archives, Harvard U.
Further reading, reference
- Complete list of Freemasonry Degrees
- Rushdoony, R.J., Nature of the American System [Cobb note]
- Sutherland, J., Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives [Cobb entry]
- Mount Tabor Lodge [Cobb, D.D., refs.]
- Albert Johannsen, The House of Beadle and Adams and its Dime and Nickel Novels: Story of a Vanished Literature (online). Northern Illinois Univ Libraries
- Freemason’s Compendium: The Builder Magazine [Mystic Tie; Caliph of Baghdad]
- The Builder Magazine 1896, 2.11b (summary of Cobb Jr’s degrees)
- “Today in Masonic History: Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. passes away,” Masonrytoday.com [refs. Cobb’s membership of the Scottish Rite.