Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


A review of the Tufts undergraduate population, particularly in the nineteenth century, reveals a set of rather well-defined characteristics. The great majority of students lived in New England, came preponderantly from middle-class rather than wealthy homes, and reflected a religious diversity uncommon for the time. In 1865 Tufts published its first separate directory of officers and students (with all names more or less awkwardly transposed into Latin). It revealed that of the first eighty-five degree recipients the number of students from Massachusetts about equaled those from the other New England states. There was only a handful from New York State, and one graduate each from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Of the 224 students connected with the College since its


opening, only 59 came from outside New England. Tufts was destined to retain its basically regional character until the Second World War worked a major revolution in the geographical origins of the student body.

Most of the Tufts clientele in the nineteenth century were modest in circumstances. In the course of seeking reasons for the relative decline of enrollment in liberal arts in the decade preceding the First World War, President Hamilton found part of the explanation in the nature of the student body. Students tended to be drawn from families of "very moderate means." Tufts had "many poor, very few rich." Consequently, most of the students came from a stratum of society that was particularly sensitive to fluctuations in economic conditions. Hamilton believed that all of the engineering students and "very many" of the other students came to college from purely economic motives. They were at Tufts mainly, if not solely, because they thought a college education would bring in a sure and quick financial return, for the sake of which they and their parents were willing to make a considerable investment or even sacrifice in money, time, and effort. The dullness evident in the business world when he made his analysis was immediately reflected in the size of the Tufts student body. The hesitancy to make the financial commitments necessary for a college education, the decreasing ability of parents to furnish the assistance and of the students to obtain summer employment - all had an adverse effect on enrollment.

Although the College was open to all young men who could meet its admission requirements, the expectation was that most of them would come from preparatory schools under Universalist auspices. This was not to be uniformly the case. Universalist academies had furnished a high proportion of the students during the first decade or so, but as the public high school movement gathered strength and as the Universalist-sponsored schools declined relatively in numbers and output of graduates, the College drew from an ever-widening circle of secondary schools outside of denominational influence. A scant one-third of the students entering between 1870 and 1875 came from Universalist preparatory schools.[1] 



An important factor making for a religiously heterogeneous student body at a time when "orthodoxy" of some kind was the rule rather than the exception in private colleges was the insistence that the article in the Tufts charter prohibiting any religious test for admission be strictly adhered to. At first, by the nature of things, the students tended to be overwhelmingly Protestant. The required attendance at chapel - a feature of every nineteenth-century college - probably acted as something of a deterrent to those of some faiths, but it served as a block in only rare instances.[2]  President Capen reaffirmed the College's stand in an article reprinted in the Boston papers: "We have never been narrowly sectarian -we have students of all sects, including Roman Catholics." He was expressing both the spirit and the letter of Tufts policy then and later. Neither the race nor the national origin of either students or faculty was ever a primary concern; students from Puerto Rico and China, for instance, attended Tufts long before the First World War. Non-whites were always a small minority of the student population, but that was more a reflection of the social milieu in which the institution found itself than the result of a deliberate policy of the College.

The student body by the opening decade of the twentieth century was clearly reflecting the liberal principles of Tufts' founders. It was attracting men and women from virtually all religious backgrounds. At the same time, however, the College continued to consider itself a Universalist institution by looking to that denomination for financial aid as well as for at least a portion of its students.


Tufts was still being referred to in the late 1880's as "one of the leading educational forces in sympathy with and under the control of the Universalist denomination." The idea of maintaining a "community of interest" was also continued by the Trustees for a considerable time.[3] 

When financial difficulties threatened to require a curtailment of the divinity school, a special Trustee committee in 1902 urged that "we do everything to hold and strengthen our Universalist support."

Most of us probably would welcome the day when Tufts shallhave become a prosperous non-sectarian college which no one willconfound with the theological school or refuse a gift because hebelieves it strongly denominational. That day however is not yetcome, nor is it even in sight. Those who are now showing their loveand loyalty to Tufts by making it the recipient of gifts and legaciesare doing so because they are Universalists and because they believe that it is a Universalist College, standing for and carrying outthe purposes of its founders. The number of great donors who havegiven to it, not because it was a Universalist institution but whollybecause it was a progressive, promising college can be counted onthe fingers of one hand. The time has not come to cut away fromdenominational support. We should rather if we are to be guidedby experience, do everything to make the denomination feel thatTufts is today, as in the past she has been, its principal intellectualstronghold and object of denominational pride.

In succeeding decades both the support and the direction of Tufts gradually broadened and shifted to include others along the religious spectrum. Methodists and Jews, Unitarians and Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and Congregationalists, contributed their patronage, their money, and their talents. Universalists continued to have a special affection for the College; they sent generation


after generation of their sons and daughters to Tufts and supported the institution in innumerable ways. But after the First World War they found themselves more and more in the minority and seemed to mind it very little. Their open-ended and unusually tolerant philosophy of letting each man be the keeper of his own conscience was translated into reality time and time again.


[1] Nine of the thirteen students who had entered Tufts in August 1855 (out of the thirty enrolled) came from Green Mountain Liberal Institute (later Perkins Academy). Dean Academy and Goddard Seminary furnished the largest numbers of any of the Universalist schools in the 1870's, followed by Westbrook Seminary, Clinton Liberal Institute, and Perkins Academy. There were also several transfers from Buchtel College in Ohio. In his first annual report to the Trustees (1875-76), President Capen recommended that a special "fitting school," in the neighborhood of the College but not organically connected with it, be established by some alumnus, but no one came forward.

[2] One student in 1880 asked "to be excused from attendance upon Morning Chapel on the ground that it was contrary to the rules of his Church for him to attend any religious services other than those of his own communion." His petition was denied, and was denied a second time when he returned the following year. He thereupon dropped out of Tufts. Two things should be noted about his case: it was the only such instance of record in the history of the College, and the faculty was not unanimous in its vote to deny either petition.

[3] Typical were the proposals in 1906 to fill vacancies. William Fuller, a master in the Mechanic Arts High School in Boston, was a graduate of the Class of 1879. Mayor Charles Neal Barney of Lynn, Massachusetts, was a lawyer and alumnus of the Class of 1895. Rosewell Bigelow Lawrence, a lawyer and resident of Medford, was a Harvard graduate but was " prominent member of the Universalist Society in that city, and interested in Tufts College." William Lewis Douglas of Brockton, ex-governor of Massachusetts, was not a college graduate, but he had received an LL.D. from Tufts and was "an earnest and active Universalist."

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
This object is in collection Subject Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
TARC Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights