Sarah Farmer, Swamiji, and Green Acre

This was published as a three article series exploring the spiritual heritage of Green Acre, located in Eliot, Maine. The first article summarizes Sarah Farmer’s efforts in establishing Green Acre. The second article addresses Swamiji’s participation in its 1894 summer program. This article cites the growth of Green Acre and the influence of the swamis who participated in the summer programs from 1896 through the early 1900s.

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Part One was published in the Spring 2015 issue of Sri Sarada Society Notes.

When Swami Vivekananda disembarked from the steamboat at Green-Acre-on-the-Piscataqua, he would have sighted first the oversized white flag hovering high over the main tent, with the word PEACE written in large green letters on it. The numerous small tents scattered around on the flatland, above the landing site, and the Inn on the knoll were likewise in his view. It was the summer of 1894 and Green Acre was to host an event of historical significance.

Swami Vivekananda, Sarah Farmer, M. H. Gulisian, and Edward Everett Hale at Green Acre, 1894.

Sarah Farmer had attended Vivekananda’s lectures in New York City earlier that year, extending a speaking invitation to him to the first Green Acre Conference that she was organizing. At the opening ceremony on July 3rd, Sarah dedicated the conference to the dual ideals of world peace and religious harmony. Speakers of various faiths and philosophies were present. Attendees were asked to abandon religious and spiritual prejudices and listen respectfully, with an open mind. From written accounts of the gathering, the word PEACE was not merely symbolic. It described the influence Green Acre exerted on the lives of those present.

Sarah Farmer’s ardent commitment to peace and good will, along with her understanding of the importance of freedom and equality, were attributes exemplified in the lives of her parents. Sarah’s mother, Hannah Farmer, was a philanthropist and humanitarian. In support of the abolitionist movement, their home became a safe house for the underground railroad. When the family moved to Eliot, Maine, Hannah founded Rosemary’s Cottage—a summer retreat for the less fortunate women and chil- dren from the Boston area, affording them a summer respite in the rural countryside.

Sarah’s father, Moses Gerrish Farmer, taught in the field of electrical science; “preeminent inventor of the 1800s” was a title ascribed to him. In 1847 his electric car was operated in an exhibit in Dover, New Hampshire, where the family lived. In 1859 their house was illuminated with a string of electric lights. Thomas Edison was then a young boy. With respect to his inventions, Mr. Farmer’s were informed by his faith. Believing they were “thoughts of God existing in the universe to be picked up by sensitive minds,” not his personal property, patents weren’t initially sought. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 (World’s Fair) in Chicago became the showcase for his numerous life-changing inventions.

The Elliot Hotel, opening in 1890, was renamed Green Acre Inn by Sarah Farmer. Eventually it would be named ofter Sarah herself.

In partnership with others, the Farmers ventured to open a resort hotel in 1890 for summer vacationers, the Eliot Hotel (later named Green Acre Inn). Amelia Thorp, the mother of Sara Bull, advised her friend Sarah to convert the hotel into a spiritual retreat center. Later Sarah was to thank Amelia: “I shall be eternally indebted to you for your brilliant idea.” As early as 1892, Sarah had in fact envisioned a place “under spreading pines, in green pastures, and beside still waters,” where divergent philosophies and all religions could find equal expression.

Sarah Farmer and Sara Bull worked together in sending out formal letters of invitation for the 1894 conference, organizing the program, and printing brochures highlighting Green Acre. Universal peace based on spirituality was a cause they both shared. With the construction of a large lecture hall in 1897, a variety of conferences on topics such as evolution, electricity, psychology, and business were held at Green Acre in subsequent years. The Monsal- vat School for the comparative study of religions was founded in 1896; for years, the organization hosted religious conferences in a grove of pines at Green Acre.

In 1898 Sarah set down her extensive vision for its future, in hopes of giving the school physical form. She planned to have constructed a permanent residence for those “who have risen above all temptations of the lower self” and “have consecrated their lives to the needs of the world.” These individuals of different faiths would serve as teachers to “train missionaries for the work in foreign lands…where they would go, not to quarrel but to meet on the common plane between religions.” By recognizing “the unity of God in every individual,” these students will bring to those they meet “a fuller realization of this unity.”

Interestingly, Marie Louise Burke writes in Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries that Swami Vivekananda had an interest in founding an international university whose faculty was to “include professors selected from all religions.” In an article dated October 14, 1894, the Baltimore Sunday Herald also referred to the university as “one of Mr. Vivekananda’s pet ideas.” Upon the request of clergymen in Baltimore, he delivered a speech on “the university plan,” with the hope of giving practical expression to his exhortations at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions calling for help and not fight, assimilation and not destruction, and harmony and peace and not dissension.

Part Two was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Sri Sarada Society Notes.

The Boston Evening Transcript of July 28, 1894 reported on Swami Vivekananda’s first week at Green Acre:

Each morning [he] may be seen attired in his flowing red robes and yellow turban, sitting cross-legged on the ground under a wide-spreading pine, and surrounded by a group of eager listeners, men and women, to whom he pours out freely his treasurers of knowledge and experience.

The towering Lysekloster pine under which Vivekananda taught stood on a hill a quarter of a mile from the Inn at Green Acre, far removed from all distractions. The pine became known as the Prophet’s Pine or, as some write, the Swami’s Pine. Representatives of other religions also taught, surrounded by their students, under pines in this samevicinity. Others taught in small tents set up near the Inn or in nearby open fields.

Swami Vivekananda at Green Acre, 1894.

The classes under the Prophet’s Pine were the first Vivekananda held in America. Sparse notes from the diary of Miss Emma Thursby, a distinguished vocalist, offer some insight into the nature of his talks. He touched on the following practical and philosophical concepts: learning to play consciously, seeking the highest, freedom of the soul, concentrating the power of the mind, and the deepest meaning of Shivoham, Shivoham, “I am everything!” Since Emma was not regularly at Green Acre that summer due to singing engagements, some or all of these notes were sent to her by Josephine Locke, who would have attended Vivekananda’s classes regularly.

On August 3,1894, Vivekananda spoke on the reality of God to a gathering in the big tent, his only public talk at Green Acre.

Regarding attendees at Green Acre, Vivekananda wrote of a speaker who was thought by some to be “under spirit control,” and another who called himself a “mental healer.” On the surface, the group was a mix, including leading thinkers and scholars of the time as well as practitioners of faith healing, witchcraft, and spiritualism. Vivekananda never operated on the surface, though; to him, the conference illustrated his teaching that religious growth never goes from evil to good but from good to higher realization. His 1895 letter to Sarah Farmer indicates this.

To Sarah, whose vision was the impetus for the conference, he wrote:

There is a mass of thought which is at the present time struggling to get expression…It teaches that no situation is hopeless, and as such accepts every form of mental, moral or spiritual thought where it already stands, and without a word of condemnation tells it that so far it has done good, now it is time to do better..

The Green Acre meetings last summer were so wonderful, simply because you opened yourself fully to that thought…and because you took your stand on the highest teaching of this thought that the kingdom of heaven already exists.

That same year, Sara Bull, who helped Miss Farmer organize the event, offered Vivekananda funds for his work in India. He replied:

I sincerely believe that you ought to turn all your help to Miss Farmer’s Green Acre work this year. India can wait…an immediate work at hand should always have the preference.

In 1896, Vivekananda sent Swami Saradananda to the summer Green Acre conference and later Swami Abhedananda.

In her writings on Vivekananda, Marie Louise Burke suggests that as a result of the Green Acre classes, Vivekananda’s attitude toward his work in the West changed. In letters to various friends and con- fidants, dated from late 1894 into 1895, an unfolding awareness of his world mission is evident. The following snippets have been taken from Swamiji’s letters during this period.

I find [that] I have a mission in this country also…this is a grand field for my classes…truth is my God, the universe is my country… I have a truth to teach, I, the child of God…you must not forget that my interests are international and not Indian alone.

Part Three was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Sri Sarada Society Notes

“You are working for what all founders, reformers of religion have been working, to make men and women feel their divine brotherhood, and bring them to look on earth as but another name for heaven.  The wise people will tell you that this is impossible, but no harm is done by doing what seems impossible.”—Max Müller in a letter to Miss Farmer, 1896

Scanned image of conference program
Conference Program listing Swami Saradananda’s lecture. (1)

Receiving Swami Vivekananda’s request for help in the West, Swami Saradananda sailed for England in March 1896, arriving on April 1st. Within a few months, he departed for New York with J.J. Goodwin, Vivekananda’s stenographer.  A short four days after arrival, under Sara Bull’s tutelage, Saradananda arrived at Green Acre by steamship from Portsmouth, Maine.  On July 7, he gave his first public lecture in the big tent on the grounds to a group of seventy during a session of the Conference of Comparative Religions that was being held there. In a letter to the editor of the Brahmavadin journal, dated July 23, 1896, Goodwin wrote: “[Saradananda] received a thoroughly sympathetic hearing for this, his first lecture in the West, [and] impressed people with the feeling that both from his manner, and the matter of his address, he had much to give them.”  Goodwin notes that an interesting discussion followed, highlighting the principles of his address “with still more telling force.”


Read An Excerpt of Swami Saradananda’s Q & A Session


The years following Vivekananda’s visit to Green Acre in 1894 were marked by growth in the summer school. In 1896, the first summer that Saradananda participated, the Monsalvat School for the Comparative Study of Religions was formalized under the direction of Dr. Lewis Janes, an eminent scholar. In this same year the Green Acre Voice, a weekly newsletter, was first published, announcing news of the programs. Goodwin’s accounts of Saradananda’s lectures appeared regularly in this publication. Children attended a nature school held in the woods and fields, which had been created just for them. And, for the first time, the general lecture courses were divided into conferences of a week’s duration. In addition to the Conference of Comparative Religions, there was the Anthropology Conference, an Evolution Conference, and a Nature Conference, just to name a few. Saradananda attended these lectures, learning about the interests of Americans and thus preparing him for his future work in the West.

Swami Saradananda
Swami Saradananda (1)

Saradananda also conducted a series of classes under the Prophet’s Pine, the same Lysekloster pine under which Swamiji had taught. The topics were Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, and finally Bhakti Yoga. Due to the number of interested individuals, he gave private instructions in Raja Yoga throughout the three-month conference. At the close of the season the Transcendentalists In Transition journal published this account:

This morning was the Swami’s last talk, and as the privileges of the pine tree were not to be had, the group of disciples by the roadside under the trees, presented a unique picture to the passers-by who…paused in unsurprised silence to hear the words of the teacher. The topic, which was the love of God…the scene, and the whole atmosphere of the occasion made one understand as never before how the Master in Galilee went about teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, and how the people heard him gladly.       

By the summer of 1897 Green Acre was known around the world. Some referred to 1897 as the “boom year.” Visitors flocked in to attend lectures and be part of the intellectual atmosphere.  As was the practice, admission to all lectures was free, though voluntary contributions were suggested. Saradananda was once again in residence, most likely in the Sunrise Camp, an encampment of tents on the grounds that accommodated overflow from the Inn.

The Monsalvat School brochure for August 2 through September 2, 1897 specified that the Swami would offer a “special course on the Vedanta Philosophy, Sankhya and Yoga Philosophy of India.”  Interestingly, the program praised “the teachers of Vedanta” for having allied themselves with various nonsectarian movements of the day, asserting the universality of truth. It so happened that sectarian influences were particularly dominant in America at the time. Saradananda gave a second series of lectures on the literature of India on Wednesday mornings. The first lecture in this series was “The Poetry of the Vedas.”

A notable occasion that summer was the Parliament of Religions held on August 30 under the large tent, with its sides open to the field and river in order to accommodate the greater number in attendance. On the platform with Saradananda were Jain, Quaker, Unitarian, Episcopal, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Free Church representatives. Sara Bull as founder of the Cambridge Conference was also  part of the assembly.  Sarah Farmer occupied the center spot. Dr. Jain was seated next to her.

Photo of Joseph Jefferson, Sarah J. Farmer, Swami Abhedananda
Joseph Jefferson, Sarah J. Farmer, and Swami Abhedananda (2)

This same summer of 1897, Swami Abhedananda arrived in New York City.  Unlike Vivekananda and Saradananda, who both taught their first classes at Green Acre, Abhedananda’s first classes were conducted in New York City at Mott’s Memorial Hall. Subsequent accounts place Abhedananda at Green Acre in the summers of 1898, 1899, and 1900. On August 2, 1898, he lectured to a general audience in the large tent on “Religion and Science.” The next morning his open-air platform was a carpet of pine needles under the Prophet’s Pine. The subject was “What is Vedanta?”  He delivered four more lectures in the big tent that summer as part of the Monsalvat School of Comparative Religions. Miss Farmer arranged for a group photograph of Swami Abhedananda, celebrated actor Joseph Jefferson, and herself.

At the close of the classes at Green Acre in 1899, Swami Abhedananda joined Vivekananda  and Turiyananda for a ten-day stay at the Ridgely estate of Frank Leggett.

Photo of Swami Abhedananda and others
Swami Abhedananda (wearing a turban) (1)

In 1900, with 900 in attendance, Abhedananda spoke from the platform in the big tent in one of the limited programs offered during what was referred to as Green Acre’s “sabbatical year.” A worsening financial situation led the founders to consider various approaches to secure the future. In January Sarah Farmer had sailed abroad for a respite, returning in November. During travel to Egypt with friends she met `Abdu’l-Bahá, the eldest son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. The meeting proved to be significant for Sarah, who found his teachings expressed many of her own ideals. Green Acre came under Bahá’í management in 1926 and continues today as the Green Acre Bahá’í School, Retreat, and Conference Center.

Meanwhile, Swami Paramananda provided a continuing Vedanta presence by teaching for several years at the Green Acre summer conferences. A disciple of Swami Vivekananda, Paramananda had sailed for the U.S. with Abhedananda in 1906 to serve as his assistant at the New York Center.

Noting the potential significance and contribution of Green Acre in  American culture, in 1906 The New England Magazine reported:

The most distinctive feature of Green Acre is its noble persistency in the effort to reveal the real unity of religious ideals despite their varying forms of expression and to promote a closer sympathy between such, to give a better appreciation of the peculiar genius of each race…the life of the hopeful movement will doubtless continue through long years to come. 

(1) Phographs used with permission from A Bird’s Eye View: Vivekananda and His Swamis in Boston and Vicinity  by Elva Nelson, Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, 1992. 
(2) Cropped from the Frontispiece image to The Open Court: A Monthly Magazine, March 1931, found online at bahai-library.com/richardson_parliament_religions_greenacre.

 

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