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

Miller, Russell


The institution that was being constructed on that New England hilltop in 1853 was the first venture into higher education by one of the diverse offshoots of Protestantism. Although, like many American religious groups, the Universalist Church could and did trace its origins back into the European past, it was basically a New World phenomenon. Universalism had appeared as a recognizable sect in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century America and represented a small part of the larger movement of revolt against the Calvinist predestinarianism which the majority of colonists had inherited. It offered, through its teachings of the universal Fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood and ultimate salvation of all men, an optimistic, humane ethic characteristic of the democratic strivings of a new nation in the making. From its American beginnings, usually traced back to John Murray, who arrived from England in 1770 and who served for a time as chaplain of the Rhode Island Revolutionary regiments under George Washington, the sect was suspicious of aristocratic privilege and of a monolithic church or state in any form.[2]  Early Universalists, who


organized their first church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1779, had to do prolonged battle through the courts for recognition of their rights as a separate religious body.

Universalism, as a religious ideal, grew slowly, for it was a movement with theological ideas quite at variance with those of the orthodox Protestant majority represented by American Congregationalism. Much of its early activity, largely in the New England backcountry, was carried on by circuit riders, who delivered their message of a benevolent Deity, and of the hope of salvation for all, in town halls or private homes, or on village greens. Universalists were constrained, like members of many dissident sects, to gain their first numbers and strength by attracting "come-outers" who were dissatisfied with what they found in existing denominations. Many Universalists had Baptist origins, and an occasional Methodist or disgruntled Congregationalist joined the ranks. With their aversion to building up "a mammoth and central power," their emphasis on moral suasion, their professed search for untrammeled truth, and their opposition to the "hellfire and damnation" approach to theology, the Universalists may be compared in many respects with the Quakers. Because of the individualistic character of the early adherents to Universalism, there was even an avoidance of terminology conventionally associated with religious bodies. They labeled the Congregationalists "Orthodox" or "Partialists" and avoided among themselves even the term"church," preferring "parish," "society," and "meeting house." Their spiritual leaders were more often "preachers" than "clergymen." Reluctance to join forces was a chronic weakness of the Universalists, inherent in their very philosophy, and goes far to explain the failure of the sect to take organized form early in its history.

As Societies were formed, informal associations of neighboring parishes did begin to appear late in the eighteenth century. The rigors of isolation and the need to share preachers and meeting places were among the reasons. The Societies followed a strictly congregational form of church government, which meant that each


local group controlled its own destiny. They were accountable to no other body for the choice, settlement, or dismissal of their pastors and in every other way exercised complete autonomy. The first general meeting out of which was born the Universalist Church took place in Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1785. Delegates from seven Societies in New England agreed, somewhat like their forebears in 1620, on a "Charter of Compact," and Universalism became a separate denomination, with a distinctive name and set of beliefs. The Oxford body, originally known as the New England Convention, decided to hold annual meetings. Thereafter, under the rather cumbersome and overly ambitious title adopted in 1804, "The General Convention of Universalists in the New England States and others" met for some thirty years. In 1833 the parent organization became the "United States Convention of Universalists," but only after it was clearly provided that its functions would be advisory only, and that it would in no way attempt to legislate for the local units.

An attempt to organize on a large scale had been made in 1790 in Philadelphia, with the adoption of a Declaration of Faith and a Plan of Church Government. The principal author was Benjamin Rush, talented physician and social reformer, and a convert to Universalism. But the denomination was not yet ready for a national organization, in which all Societies would be united in one body, so the plan came to naught. Instead, local and regional groupings reflecting the atomistic character of Universalism began to appear, and New England became the focal point for the denomination. Boston was eventually a sort of headquarters, but the historical strength of the group always remained in the rural areas. A Union Association which included central and western Massachusetts was organized in 1816. The Old Colony Association, created in 1827, embraced southeastern Massachusetts. And in 1829 the Boston Association came into being, representing four counties and fifty-one Societies and including originally some thirty-seven preachers. Similar organizations appeared in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, as well as in New York State.

Not until the 1830's were state-wide associations formed, such as the one organized in Massachusetts in 1834. It was the Boston Association that assumed the leadership in organizing the State


Convention. Even then the various local groups continued to lead quite separate lives. The annual meetings, operating through the Universalist General Convention, were little more than periodic gatherings for clergy and interested laity, who renewed acquaintances, exchanged experiences, and heard sermons. Seldom was any significant business transacted, for the sovereignty of the local Societies and organizations was too jealously guarded.[3]  This reluctance to countenance a centralized authority helps explain the chronic delay in launching any movement requiring united denominational effort. Tufts College might have been created much sooner under other circumstances.

Until the 1830's and 1840's the Universalists remained very much on the defensive as an "heretical" Protestant sect. In 1795 there were probably no more than twenty professed Universalist preachers in the country; in 1820, no more than fifty. The Societies remained small, scattered, largely uncoordinated, and often "spoken against." Committed as they were to liberal religious views, Universalists were often lumped together with "Sceptics, Deists, Atheists and other libertines" but, with a hint of Christian martyrdom, felt that they "must reconcile themselves to bear every species of reproach." As late as 1829, because of their religious convictions, they were barred in several states (including Massachusetts and Connecticut) from testifying under oath in court proceedings. Because they were for many decades a minority group, and most of their energies and resources were devoted to assuring their survival as a denomination, they paid scant attention at first to most social issues. However, on one matter they were outspoken and uncompromising from the beginning: they championed separation of church and state in season and out, and challenged the preferential position of Congregationalism in Massachusetts. As they matured as an organization and attracted larger numbers and gained greater respectability, Universalists became more socially conscious than in their formative days. They took a strong stand against slavery, advocated temperance, and even organized a General Reform Association in the 1840's through which they could express themselves


and act on the various movements permeating the Jacksonian era that were intended to better the lot of mankind. Rather to the embarrassment of Universalists who deplored some of the extreme "enthusiasms" of the period, one of their own number, Adin Ballou, became a Christian pacifist and believer in "the fraternization of property." It was Ballou who in 1842 launched the utopian experiment of the Hopedale Community in Massachusetts, which lasted some fourteen years. It attracted the attention both of his contemporaries and of scholars of a later day who have been interested in the various blueprints for making over American society a century or more ago.

Universalists were by no means pioneers in establishing institutions of learning, at any level. They were finally forced by their convictions into establishing academies, seminaries, theological schools, and even colleges, to counteract the alleged sectarianism that they found in other educational establishments. They delayed their educational efforts partly because for many years they were concerned with what in their view were more pressing matters. In their origins, furthermore, the bulk of Universalist preachers and parishioners were thrifty, hard-working farmers and small businessmen who considered formal education, beyond minimum literacy, a luxury or downright dangerous. Typical of the older generation of preachers who distrusted book learning was the elder Hosea Ballou. Ballou, great-uncle of the first president of Tufts (and often confused with him), has often been considered "the father of Universalism in America." With less than three years of formal schooling, he was largely self-educated and was especially suspicious of training obtained in theological schools. The call of the Spirit, a Bible, and a group of listeners were all that were needed to spread the glad tidings of Universalism. It was the proselyting sectarianism characteristic of nineteenth-century American education that Universalists deplored and eventually tried to remedy.[4] 

The first experiments in Universalist-sponsored education were at the secondary school level. The greatest debates and, correspondingly, the longest delays in taking concrete action occurred in the realm of collegiate education and the professional training of the


Universalist clergy. The story, in spite of interruptions, struggles, disagreements, and even failures, and in spite of long-standing indecision as to what type of schools should be established and supported, was one of growing momentum. The result, by the time Tufts College was chartered in 1852, was the establishment of over a dozen academies. Not all prospered, or even survived, but more succeeded than failed.

Nichols Academy, in Dudley, Massachusetts, was the first educational enterprise established wholly under Universalist auspices. The idea was planted by a circular issued in 1814 calling for the establishment of a seminary "embracing the united interests of Literature and Religion." In the following year, the Universalist General Convention agreed to direct and patronize the proposed school and undertook to raise a subscription of $5,000. The project was thought likely to succeed, for Amasa Nichols, a local merchant, had erected an academy building at his own expense in 1815. Unfortunately, it had been destroyed by fire soon after the school began operation, but he wanted to rebuild. In order to reopen the school, he proposed that his fellow Universalists take over its sponsorship. A charter was obtained in 1819, and the academy was opened as a coeducational school (as was every secondary school founded under Universalist auspices), and without any religious instruction included in the curriculum (also true of all other Universalist-sponsored academies and preparatory schools).

But Nichols Academy was a failure, so far as the Universalists were concerned, in spite of the fact that it opened auspiciously with over sixty students and had the support of a wealthy Universalist. The Convention was unable to support the school after Nichols turned it over to the fifteen Trustees and left it as their responsibility. Only $1,000 of the $5,000 subscription was ever raised, and the school was opened even before the building was completed. Without funds, and supported only by inadequate tuition fees and the personal contributions of the Trustees, the school almost foundered before being rescued by state aid. More fundamental than this, perhaps, as a problem was the philosophy under which the Trustees operated. When the Convention voted in 1819 "to receive the Nichols' Academy under their patronage," it was with the proviso that the Trustees be Universalists. But a majority of that body were so intent on making the school truly non-sectarian that they


disregarded the mandate of the Convention and voted to open their ranks to other denominations. When two non-Universalists were elected to fill vacancies, Nichols withdrew his support, resigned as a Trustee, and lost all interest in the academy. In consequence, the school fell into Congregational hands, which meant, in Universalist eyes, that it had fallen victim to "sectarian maneuvering."[5] The brief experience with Nichols Academy taught the supporters of the idea of Universalist schools more than a lesson about the principle of permissiveness in the administration of an educational institution. It indicated that, from a practical standpoint, Universalists were not yet ready to support their own schools. Over a decade passed before another attempt was made, and it was much more successful.

The second school established by Universalists was the product of their growing strength in upstate New York. The movement that resulted in Clinton Liberal Institute was spearheaded by Rev. Dolphus Skinner, through the columns of the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, one of the numerous denominational newspapers that appeared in the 1820's and 1830's. With the endorsement and aid of various local and regional associations, the school opened in the fall of 1831 after subscriptions of between $7,000 and $8,000 had been raised. Accommodations were provided for 100 boys and girls, and by 1833 ninety students were already enrolled. The number exceeded 100 the next year, and within a short time consideration had to be given to expanding facilities to provide for even more students. Following in rapid succession the establishment of Clinton Liberal Institute were three schools in the Midwest (none of which had an independent existence for very long) and a large number in New England.[6] 

Among the academies, seminaries, and institutes appearing in


the 1830's and 1840's which survived long enough to exert some influence, and in some cases to provide both students and faculty for Tufts College, were Westbrook Seminary, Westbrook, Maine (1834); Waterville Liberal Institute, Waterville, Maine (1836); and Green Mountain Liberal Institute (later Perkins), South Woodstock, Vermont (1848).[7]  Two of the most important Universalist preparatory schools which served as "feeders" for Tufts and in which, for decades, Tufts maintained a proprietary interest were Green Mountain Central Institute (later Goddard Seminary and now Goddard College), Barre, Vermont (1836), and Dean Academy (later Dean Junior College), Franklin, Massachusetts (1866). Oddly enough, Massachusetts, which contained a comparatively large number of Universalists in the pre-Civil War period, was the only New England state in which Universalist schools did not flourish. Several attempts were made to establish schools, such as the ill-fated Methuen Liberal Institute (1839), but during the 1840's and 1850's an academy in Reading was the only school at all in the state that could claim any direct Universalist connection. One reason for this peculiar situation was the rapid expansion of the public school system, in which Massachusetts was a pioneer.

In respect to curriculum, the "literary and scientific institutions," as the academies were frequently called, followed very much the same pattern both among themselves and as compared with other private schools. The academic year was usually divided into four twelve-week terms, and the course might extend from one to four years, depending on the facilities offered by the school and the goals of the students. A typical Universalist academy which offered college preparatory subjects as well as a general secondary education would list "the common English branches" (including arithmetic, grammar, geometry, and rhetoric); Latin and Greek; several modern languages (French, German, Italian, and Spanish were frequently available and were often taught by the same person); and certain "ornamental" subjects, such as piano, voice and diction (both elocution and singing), freehand drawing, penmanship, and


art (both oil and watercolor). Curricula changed slowly, and the "English branches," in spite of occasional variations, were very much standardized. Languages were particularly emphasized for those planning to enter teaching, college, or the ministry. English literature was usually included in some form in the college preparatory course, as were algebra and geography (especially ancient). The classical period of Greco-Roman history always received prominence.[8] 

The one feature which both bound Universalist academies together and set them apart from most other church-related schools established before the Civil War was their conscious attempt to maintain a non-sectarian character. This did not mean that they were anti-religious; in fact, Universalists were as sure as any nineteenth-century Christians that religion could and should be "taught." It was "something inseparable from our nature, being derived immediately from the laws which govern our being." More specifically, "the religion of the Bible, revealed in all its beauty in the New Testament, must be, from the constitution of man, the great perfecting principle of human nature." Probably few Universalists were aware of the dilemma they posed for themselves in trying to distinguish between religious instruction and sectarianism per se. They themselves were merely expressing one variation of Protestant Christianity. But somehow they believed that their principles were more liberal than those of other denominations. They insisted that, by contrast, other religious bodies propagandized so blatantly that Universalist children were unable to receive an education not colored with some form of religious prejudice. A comprehensive public school system was established in Massachusetts in 1827 which included the famous "Textbook Law" forbidding the use of schoolbooks favoring any particular religious sect or tenet. Horace Mann, beginning in 1837, worked unceasingly to separate education and religious indoctrination in the common schools. But even these steps did not completely satisfy Universalists, much as they approved of both. So they believed that setting up their own schools was one of the answers. Meanwhile, they watched with an eagle eye for any indication of sectarianism in the public schools.

Universalists never regarded their academic and "literary institutions" as competitors of the public schools. In a way, they considered themselves trustees of education, as it were, contributing in a modest way to the non-sectarian training of youth until the public school system could be firmly established. When a southern newspaper took occasion in the 1830's to praise the New England public school system, the leading Universalist newspaper enthusiastically agreed: "Of her public schools, above all her other admirable institutions, her people have just cause to be proud." Universalists lavished praise on Mann's efforts as secretary of the state Board of Education and referred repeatedly to the public schools as one of "the glories of the Commonwealth." They reiterated with almost tiresome regularity the idea that the schools were for gaining knowledge and not for adding to the ranks of the Methodists, Baptists, or any other religious group. As one Universalist expressed it, schools "are to educate children for time, not for eternity; children are sent to these useful Seminaries not to experience religion, but to fill their minds with the elements of worldly sciences."

From the evidence available, it seems clear that the Universalists attempted to practice what they preached about keeping sectarian religion out of their own schools. This naturally reduced potential school enrollments, for few non-Universalists would subscribe to such a radical departure from accepted educational practice. But Universalists stuck to their principles in this respect and published their views for all to read and to ponder. Clinton Liberal Institute was advertised as "an unsectarian English and Classical Seminary of education." The school was debarred by its charter from holding any religious services in the buildings during class hours or interfering with the religious opinions of the pupils. No minister of any sect was allowed to hold meetings at the school. The Institute carried its non-sectarian practices even further: it rejected the well-nigh universal practice of church-related schools of employing only those who professed the same religious faith as the sponsors of the school. The first principal of Clinton Liberal Institute was a German Lutheran; in the "Female Department," the first teacher was a Presbyterian, "in habits, prejudices and association," if not in membership. Her successor had been educated under Episcopalian supervision; and the next teacher was in fact an Episcopalian. The 1850 catalogue of Green Mountain Liberal


Institute in Vermont stated explicitly that "one object of this Institution is to secure to the youth who come to it, perfect freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion which some institutions fail to do. Non-conformity in religious sentiments is not made the unpardonable sin of the student."

Whether or not members of other denominations looked askance at this unorthodox approach, the Universalists continued to maintain that religion and education were separate spheres, at least for instructional purposes. This is why no religious indoctrination as such was ever included in Universalist curricula. Even at the college level, theological training was kept separate from instruction in the arts and sciences. Tufts College offered no theological courses for almost twenty years after it was chartered, and when a divinity school was finally established, its faculty, and to a large extent its student body, maintained a separate existence from the rest of the College despite their location on the same campus. When St. Lawrence University was created in 1856, Universalists went so far as to provide separate Boards of Trustees for the liberal arts college and the theological school.

The statistical evidence makes it clear that both the denomination and its educational efforts grew apace after 1830. Over twenty schools of various kinds had come into existence as a result of Universalist activities by 1870. One reason for the flurry of educational enthusiasm, slow as it was in coming, can be found in the faith in the efficacy of education which an increasing number of Universalists were beginning to share with their fellow Americans, regardless of religious persuasion. There was a firm belief both in its value and in the need of extending opportunity for it. When the opening of a "People's Literary Institute and Gymnasium" (not under Universalist supervision) in Pembroke, New Hampshire, was announced, for the particular benefit of the "laboring classes," the largely self-educated Thomas Whittemore, editor of the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, greeted the new school with enthusiasm. "We go for a universal education of the people - the poor and the rich - the farmer and the mechanic and the seaman, as well as the lawyer, the physician and the clergyman. Let all the people be educated. The universal diffusion of knowledge, is the only safeguard of our republican institutions."


[2] The definitive history of Universalism has yet to be written. The most recent summary is a sketch by Clinton Lee Scott, The Universalist Chuch of America (Boston: Universalist Historical Society, 1957), from which considerable background material has been drawn by this writer. The European origins of Universalism are traced in Hosea Ballou 2d's Ancient History of Universalism (Boston: Marsh and Capen, 1829), which commences the story at the time of the Christian apostles and carries it to the condemnation of Universalism at the Fifth General Council of the Western Church in 553; there is an appendix tracing the doctrine down to the era of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The narrative was continued, but never completed, by Thomas Whittemore's Modern History of Universalism(Boston: A. Tompkins, 1860), of which only three chapters deal with America. The most comprehensive and detailed coverage, now over seventy-five years old, is Richard Eddy's Universalism in America (2 vols., Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1884-1886).

[3] It was not until 1942 that the Universalist General Convention officially became "The Universalist Church of America," which in turn merged with the American Unitarian Association in May 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

[4] The present writer has dealt with this general subject at some length in "Universalism and Sectarian Education before 1860," Annual Journal, Universalist Historical Society, Vol. III (1962), pp. 30-53.

[5] In 1931, long after losing any denominational connection it might have had, Nichols Academy became a junior college, restricted to men, with a business administration curriculum. It was awarded degree-granting privileges in 1938 and, after being closed during the Second World War, reopened in 1946 as Nichols College of Business Administration, with a four-year degree program for men.

[6] No attempt is made here to detail the complex history of each of these academies. Only those that related directly to Tufts College are included. The mortality rate was high, for many were opened with insufficient endowment or none at all; several were combined, renamed, or fell into other hands.

[7] The actual dates for many schools in this period of the nineteenth century, regardless of sponsorship, are difficult to determine. In every case possible, the date indicates actual opening rather than chartering, for often many years elapsed before the school came into existence, or the school changed hands.

[8] The collegiate curricula, which often overlapped the preparatory school work, are dealt with at some length in Chapter 3.

  • 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.
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