This is the final article in a series by Joan Shack exploring the spiritual heritage of Green Acre, located in Eliot, Maine. In the first article, Sarah Farmer’s efforts in establishing Green Acre were summarized. The second article addressed 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. (You can read Parts 1 and 2 is the PDF version of Sri Sarada Society Notes Spring 2015 and Fall 2016 issues.)
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.