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

Miller, Russell


The movement out of which Tufts College, as a liberal arts institution, was born, actually arose out of a demand for a theological school, although the two aims were often intertwined. In fact, Universalists were originally divided among themselves as to what kind of higher education to sponsor - literary or theological, or a combination. When the patronage of the denomination had been requested in 1819 for Nichols Academy, which was described as a "Seminary of Science" and a purely "Literary Institution," the hope was expressed that "whenever there shall arise a surplus income, it [would] be expended in the free education of young men, of indigent circumstances, but moral and pious habits, designing to enter the gospel ministry." But objections were immediately raised to such a proposal, and for over a quarter of a century Universalists debated the merits of providing formal theological training. The idea of a free education for ministerial candidates was thought undesirable for reasons of principle as well as economy, for it might attract unworthy candidates - those who lacked sincere religious convictions and were merely intrigued by the possibility of "getting something for nothing." But the obstacles persistently encountered were the apathy of the denomination and the stubborn prejudice against theological schools. The latter was particularly evident among the older generation, who were sensitive about sectarianism anyway, and who were sure that no formal theological training, Universalist or otherwise, could result in other than indoctrination in more or less undesirable dogmas.


At the 1833 meeting of the Connecticut State Convention, the Executive Committee unanimously disapproved the suggestion of establishing a theological school, on the grounds that such was "unnecessary, uncalled for, and useless-yea worse-opposed to the spirit and genius of the Gospel, at variance with the principles of our faith and most highly deleterious in its influence." Theological schools were condemned by one Universalist because the preachers thus trained "would not precisely resemble the Apostles" because they would not be coming directly from the workshops and the fields. Others were convinced that theological schools would probably be mismanaged anyway and would fall prey to the aggrandizing tendencies of self-seeking individuals; that they would somehow produce "clerical domination"; that they would make preaching a "trade." When the Southern Convention of Universalists met in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1836, one of its principal accomplishments was to pass a resolution declaring that theological seminaries were "alike dangerous, inconsistent and inexpedient; equally injurious to the cause of pure religion, and destructive of Christian liberty."

No wonder Thomas Whittemore, outspoken champion of education in all its forms, wrote that getting Universalists to see the light was "almost altogether an uphill business." In his view the age of miracles had passed, whereby men were prepared for the ministry solely "by immediate communication from heaven"; in a later day it was recognized that "we must use human means, in hope that the divine blessing will render them successful." Hosea 2d was in favor of establishing theological institutions as necessary elements in professional preparation, but he sensed the strength of the opposition and tried to play the part of mediator and peacemaker in a situation which threatened to split the denomination. Although he could not help feeling "that the fears which many of our brethren entertain on this point are, to a great degree, unfounded in the nature of the case, and in the matter of historical fact," he cautioned the supporters not to "urge the measure in opposition to the wishes of others." Whatever other arguments may have been used to discourage the founding of theological schools, the recurrent theme, and probably the most telling criticism of the proposal, was that such institutions might develop a sophisticated intellectual aristocracy who would "become ashamed of the


simple yet profound teachings of Jesus, and would become vain speculative philosophers." It was arguments like these that Universalist supporters of both theological and secular education had to overcome.

At first, it appeared that the opponents of theological schools, on one ground or another, would win the day, for efforts to establish such a school were halting and largely unsuccessful for many decades. Yet a start had to be made, and it came in 1826 with the recognition that some kind of formal education was requisite for the clergy. It took the form of a resolution offered by the General Convention "that no candidate for the ministry shall be entitled to a letter of fellowship, from any association in this connexion, until he shall have obtained a competent knowledge of the common branches of English Literature, and devoted, at least one year, exclusively, to the study of Theology." At the 1827 Convention, Hosea 2d was selected to head a committee to examine ministerial applicants "in secular and sacred learning . . . with special regard to their literary and theological requirements." This was an important step forward. But the next step turned out to have been manifestly premature, and it came to grief. A committee (of which Hosea 2d was a member) was appointed to report at the next session "the most practicable plan for establishing a Theological Seminary." Its report, made in 1828, was still to have a familiar ring ten years later: "An interesting discussion took place on this subject, which was discontinued without any resolution."

After three years of silence on the subject, the editor of the Trumpet raised the question again. He admitted that opposition was strong, and that the minimum sum needed to establish a theological school (first set at $20,000) was too great to be raised by a single individual. So, estimating that forty contributors were necessary, he offered to be one of the forty, provided thirty-nine others could be found. He recommended that tuition be charged and that "an academical department" might be opened to help defray expenses. He pointed out that young men who wished to prepare for the ministry were obliged to do so "under great disadvantage" and was positive that many were discouraged or actually prevented from "coming forward" because no training institution existed. Further, Whittemore felt that it would be much better to invest money permanently "in land, and brick walls, and a library for the benefit of


the ministry than to contribute to the thousand schemes for raising money to be sent to Asia for the propagation of orthodoxy."

At this point a leader in the movement to establish a theological school stepped forward in the person of Thomas Jefferson Sawyer, dedicated Universalist clergyman and educator, destined to be the longtime head of the Clinton Liberal Institute, operator of a small theological school of his own, and finally a professor in the Tufts Divinity School. At the General Convention in 1835 he offered a resolution that "the propriety and expediency of establishing a Theological Seminary" be recommended to the consideration of the denomination at large. As a result, the various local and regional associations were requested to instruct their delegates to the next General Convention as to "the views and wishes of our brethren throughout the Union." A lively discussion ensued at the 1835 Convention before Sawyer's resolution was finally adopted, and there was considerable "disapprobation" of the whole scheme. The Boston Association and numerous other lay and clerical bodies acceded to the request and debated the issue with more or less enthusiasm. Consent was considerably short of unanimous, for opponents raised their voices in almost every organization. The best the General Convention could do in 1836 was recommend "a continued consideration of the subject" and urge that some means of raising the standards of ministerial qualifications be found so that an "enlightened and educated" as well as a "virtuous" clergy could be assured. The Boston Association, under Hosea 2d's leadership, cautiously approved the idea of one or more theological schools, and the wording of their resolution - ambivalent to say the least - was adopted substantially by the Massachusetts State Convention in 1837 but only after "much discussion." The resolution acknowledged that "schools for instruction in those branches of learning proper for young men entering the ministry" were desirable but would be established only if, when, and where "circumstances render it convenient."

After this inconclusive result, Thomas Whittemore became increasingly irritated with the do-nothing policies of his denomination and used the columns of his Trumpet for the next two years to prod his co-religionists. He argued that the Universalists had fallen behind the times, and tried to shame them into action by pointing out that "almost all denominations . . . are awake to this


subject, except Universalists. It is a deep disgrace to us, that we are doing nothing, just nothing, on this important matter." The Methodists, for example, were forging ahead with dramatic rapidity. They had already established four literary institutions in New England and had announced a plan to establish a Wesleyan Institute in Massachusetts for clerical training to supplement their other schools. He also pointed to the success of the Baptist theological school in Newton, Massachusetts. The time had long since passed, wrote Whittemore, when Universalists need be deluded into believing that one or more theological schools would mean the creation of "a whole host of Universalist professors, - then . . . synods, and at last Universalist bishops, and a Universalist Pope." Universalists in the 1830's were living "in another age,-a different age, - an age of more light, - of greater literature, - of a higher standard of preaching."

Whittemore's agitation began to bear fruit. Letters trickled into the Trumpet office agreeing with his contentions. But even though more Universalists came to support the idea of theological seminaries in principle, there were serious differences of opinion over the optimum number, location, and endowment. He optimistically suggested that $10,000 would be sufficient to establish such a school, but many felt that even that modest figure was excessive. One Universalist suggested that the training facilities of other denominations be used, in order to save money. The Congregational school at Andover, Massachusetts, and the Unitarian school in Cambridge were proposed as possibilities. After all, the fact that most were "orthodox" was of no moment, for "the student must learn those very doctrines and come in daily contact with men professing them; he may as well learn them there as elsewhere. And if a student cannot pass that ordeal and come out unscorched, he can poorly defend the faith when he mingles with the world." But Whittemore discarded this plan immediately; it was a "wild scheme," fraught with danger. "If it be necessary for us to have our own Sunday Schools for our children, it is no less necessary to have our own Institution for the preparation of candidates for the ministry."

Another alternative was to establish a theological school, or at least endow a professorship of theology at an existing school such as Westbrook Seminary or Clinton Liberal Institute. The


non-religious character of Clinton did not preclude the founding of a separate school there, specifically for preparation of clergymen. Many Universalists saw nothing wrong in continuing the longstanding system of apprenticeship under an ordained minister who could supplement informal teaching with classes conducted in his home. Sawyer replied to this by arguing that both self-education and the apprenticeship system were clearly inadequate. Not only was the pastor unable to spend sufficient time in systematic instruction, but he did not have the library resources indispensable to a well-educated minister. Universalists must realize that "theological knowledge is to be attained by laborious and painstaking study like all other kinds of knowledge.... A clergyman needs a good general education, and besides, a thorough professional one." Even with all the advantages of a liberal education as a base, and under the most favorable circumstances, three years was not too long to devote to formal theological training. Although Sawyer set his sights high, he recognized the practical limitations under which the denomination would be working and so was willing to start anywhere-so long as a start was made. To those who complained of the long preparatory period needed and of the great expense entailed in formal instruction, the reply was that, even though only ten out of one hundred might be able to attend, the school would still be worthwhile in view of the long-run advantage of having it. Further, if subscriptions could be raised, with pledges of $5.00 and up, a theological school would in no way saddle the denomination with a great burden.

In the meantime, the need for some kind of facilities became more and more pressing. So many young men wished to receive instruction under Hosea 2d that in 1840 he was forced to establish stated times throughout the year when persons could be admitted and taught in classes rather than individually. He required formal application and testimonials of satisfactory moral and religious character. He offered Biblical training, with either a Greek or English basis. Tuition, board, and washing in Medford were set at $3.25 a week, payable at the end of each quarter.

As the discussions continued, and as it became clearer than ever that the leaders in the movement were determined to set up a theological school of some sort, somewhere, upstate New York and the Boston area became the two logical choices. It was the


Massachusetts State Convention that took the first step to bring a school nearer reality. Calvin Gardiner of Waterville, Maine, had proposed early in 1839 that a special meeting be called in Boston to consider setting up a school. The result was a meeting of the Convention in June of that year which was attended by approximately one-half of the one hundred Universalist clergy in the state and made such a school its principal item of business. The outcome was not only a resolution favoring a theological school in Massachusetts but the appointment of a committee to report a concrete plan at the next session. Quite appropriately, Thomas Whittemore was one of the committee.

The 1840 State Convention took a further step forward. It followed the recommendation of the committee previously appointed, and it authorized the creation of a Board of Trustees, which was to select a site, raise funds, erect a suitable building, appoint a principal and other officers, hold the property in trust, and generally take charge of the school.[14]  The committee chosen to appoint the Trustees included the two well-known BallousHosea the elder and Hosea 2d. The latter served as clerk of the committee and was probably responsible for the set of rules drawn up to govern the school. But even before that had been done, a prominent Universalist in Charlestown came forward with an offer to make a gift of ten acres of land which he held in Medford and Somerville. Because of the site selected, the institution was to be known as the "Walnut Hill Evangelical Seminary." The Board of Trustees was to consist only of men who subscribed to the Universalist Profession of Faith adopted in 1803 and known as the Winchester Confession. Five of the nine Trustees reappeared on the Tufts Board of Trustees some ten years later; Oliver Dean, president of the Walnut Hill Trustees, was also the first president of the Tufts Trustees. There was no requirement that the Trustees be clergymen. The Board was to be self-perpetuating, and its members were to hold office for life except in cases of "voluntary resignation, immoral conduct, mental imbecility, or want of belief, or interest" in Universalist principles. All financial affairs were to be audited by a committee of the State Convention.

The Trustees held their first meeting in January 1841, and within the next few weeks had committed themselves to raising $50,000 by subscription. Calvin Gardiner, strong advocate of Universalist education, agreed to act as agent to obtain subscriptions. In order to assure as broad a patronage as possible, provisions were made for Trustee representation from every state in New England, and two from New York. At the last meeting the Board held, in May 1841, Trustees had been nominated from every state. Sawyer had been asked to serve as a representative from New York and to recommend one other. He managed to find one individual who would accept, but declined himself to serve because, among other reasons, he was "about to embark on a grand enterprise in our own state - the establishment of a College or University that will successfully compete with any institution in this Empire State." (Sawyer was referring to a plan to turn Clinton Liberal Institute into a collegiate institution. The plan never materialized.) This, he thought, would require all of his time and energy to carry through.

Gardiner, who had had no experience in fund-raising, undertook his task with some trepidation. Long before the summer of 1841 was over, he was discouraged. He wrote Whittemore, secretary of the Trustees, that "I do not see the interest manifested in the subject, which the circumstances of the case seem to me to require." In October the same report was made; Gardiner was sure that "the public mind did not seem to be properly prepared" for his services. Because there was "too much indifference among the great mass of the people," he requested that he be relieved of his assignment. Gardiner and the Trustees had cause for discouragement, for the previous month the support hoped for from the General Convention had not been forthcoming. The best the delegates would do was pass a vague and noncommittal resolution "that the interests of the denomination seem to render it important that Institutions be established for the purpose of assisting young men, who contemplate entering the gospel ministry...."

The active little band of supporters and Trustees, with one notable exception, worked hard to get the institution off the drawing board and onto Walnut Hill. Each of the officers of the Trustees pledged $1,000. B. B. Mussey, a Boston publisher, also pledged $1,000. Whittemore kept the readers of the Trumpet posted


on every development and pushed the project as much as possible. With one eye on the proposed seminary and the other on good business, he pledged an additional $1,000. He announced that if interested individuals would increase the subscription list of his newspaper by six hundred after January 1, 1841, the Trumpet would donate the fees from the new subscribers. When a pledge of $100 was made by "a young man of modest circumstances" in Philadelphia who averred that he would pay it, if necessary, "by abstaining from a portion of my daily food, and clothing myself with homespun," Whittemore lauded his zeal and indicated that if all showed the same enthusiasm, the subscription would be raised in no time at all. Whittemore considered the very honor of the denomination at stake and insisted that, if the seminary were not established, Universalists would be forced to blush with shame and would lay themselves open to "reproach and sarcasm" heaped on them by their critics. Although Hosea 2d served in no official capacity after he had helped select the Trustees and had drawn up the rules and regulations, he undertook to raise subscriptions in Medford. He could contribute little if any himself, for his salary was only $600 a year, but he managed to solicit $1,200 in a few days. Whittemore pointedly remarked that three Universalist Societies in Boston paid their ministers $1,200 apiece, and each should easily be able to raise $4,000. There is no evidence that any of them contributed to the subscription.

There were scattered expressions of approval of the project from various Societies. Circulars (some of them written by Hosea 2d) were published in Universalist newspapers, and the supporters organized meetings in a few towns. Hosea 2d and others addressed a group in Worcester, where $700 was subscribed. Supporters were also urged to hold "auxiliary meetings" in adjoining states to awaken interest. It was at the Worcester meeting that the first (and only) references were made to the curriculum and conduct of the proposed school. The audience was assured that complete academic freedom for the student would prevail, and that, while he would be given assistance in the acquisition of knowledge of the Scriptures, "no student shall be bound to receive the opinions of his teacher without a solemn conviction of their truth; nor held under obligation to adopt any creed of human origin which may be offered for his consideration." The course of study was to include


"Moral Philosophy, the art of Composition and of Speaking, and every branch of study which may be deemed necessary to the student, that he may be a man thoroughly furnished for the work of a Christian minister."

Throughout the campaign, one powerful dissenting voice was heard. Although Hosea Ballou the elder was on the Walnut Hill Board of Trustees, he remained dubious to the very end about the merits of the whole idea. He insisted on dredging up all the well-worn objections that had been heard from the very first time a theological school had been proposed. He engaged in a prolonged newspaper debate with Calvin Gardiner in the columns of the Trumpet and certainly did the cause no good. What was wrong, asked "Father" Ballou, as he was-solemnly and affectionately called by his many disciples, with the preaching of the so-called unlettered earlier generations of Universalist preachers? What evidence was there that formal theological training would produce better Christians than the old apprenticeship system? It might be conceded that "solid learning" was an advantage to the minister, but this was likely to be overbalanced by the danger inherent in all theological schools--that they were likely to inculcate false doctrines, and by their very existence impose a rigidity on theological training that was not consonant with Universalist permissiveness and freedom of conscience. Gardiner's well-reasoned argument that nearly all existing institutions to which Universalists could go were under religious influences unacceptable to Universalist sentiments apparently made no impression on the venerable Ballou; neither did Gardiner's argument that undue reliance on past tradition would make the denomination static and out of tune with the times. At the last meeting held to drum up interest in the seminary, in Boston in October 1841, Hosea 2d spoke fervently in favor. His great-uncle, on the other hand, "suggested certain queries, which will doubtless be profitable to reflect upon." When at the same meeting E. H. Chapin, a strong advocate of the school, gave the principal address and called for general donations to the cause, the elder Ballou rose to say that times were hard and that it was "an unfavorable period to commence the undertaking."

There is no way, of course, of knowing how influential Ballou the elder was in killing the plan for the Walnut Hill Evangelical


Seminary. But there can be no doubt that many shared his reluctance to embark on such an experiment. Heard again and again was the argument that the setting up of a theological school would be undemocratic, for it would create an overweening clerical class elevated above the laity. "Give the people the New Testament and they can learn from that all theology necessary for them to know without having to pay a self-created aristocratic priesthood." Certainly the views of the beloved "elder statesman" in the denomination were not to be taken lightly. The State Convention in 1841 was made so aware of the strength of his opposition that it adopted a resolution insisting that the arguments would not deter the proponents of a theological school from pursuing their goal.

In any case, after more than three years of travail, the infant refused to be born. Less than one-fifth of the subscription was ever pledged. The Universalist Register in 1842, and again in 1843, reported that "measures are still pursued to establish a Theological School, at Walnut Hill, in Medford," but no evidence was presented that any progress was really being made. When a report was submitted on the state of Universalism in Massachusetts in 1844, the academy in Reading was its only educational institution, and "our Theological Seminary is not yet."

When Gardiner had agreed to serve as agent for the seminary, he had asked the Trustees to take a long, hard look at the project, to be sure that the "signs of the times" were favorable for such an enterprise. If it were to be successful, it would have to represent the prompt, energetic, and united effort of its supporters. The work must not be left solely to the agent. Ministers throughout the denomination would have to be "active and persevering in the business of endeavor to prepare the minds of the community." The Universalist public was obviously not yet prepared. Indifference and apathy, skepticism and absolute opposition, had taken their toll, at least in Massachusetts. It appeared that if a theological school were ever to be established, the next move would have to come from the New York Universalists.

Sawyer left New York City in the summer of 1845 to take over the principalship of Clinton Liberal Institute. At the same time, he announced the opening of a theological school on his own responsibility. It was to be operated under his supervision by four clergymen and was to be separate from Clinton and not a


department of the Institute. At the General Convention in 1845, the usual resolutions were adopted favoring the idea of a theological school, but this time they called specifically for support of Sawyer's undertaking. An endowment of $10,000 was sought. Simultaneously the decision was made to turn Clinton into a college, with an endowment of $50,000. Hosea 2d found himself deeply involved in all this activity. It was he who drew up the resolutions for the 1845 Convention and chaired a committee which recommended that an agent be appointed to raise funds for both projects. A fourteen-man Board of Trustees (seven laymen and seven clergymen) was selected for the theological school at the New York State Convention. All were from New York State. Sawyer explained that this situation had come about for two reasons: the practical problem of distance, when it became necessary to convene; and the failure of the New England Universalists to do anything about a school. New Yorkers had to take the initiative.

Sawyer soon realized (by the fall of 1846) that he had taken on too much; the duties of supervising both the Institute and the theological school were more than one man could handle. He saw no course but to resign the principalship of the theological school as soon as a successor could be found. The Trustees immediately selected Hosea 2d; if he accepted, he was to take office as soon as the funds could be raised for his support. Otis A. Skinner was to be in charge of money-raising.

In the midst of this renewed effort to get a theological school under way, preparations were being made for the General Convention to be held in New York City in the fall of 1847. A mass meeting was announced, to be held in Boston in May to stir up enthusiasm for the Clinton Theological School. Hosea 2d had declined to serve as its principal; after using his greatest persuasive powers, he was able to get Sawyer to continue, at least temporarily. In the face of the incessant talk about the problems of the theological school, many feared that what to them was the equally important task of establishing a college might be neglected. It was such men as Calvin Gardiner and Hosea Ballou 2d who were instrumental in keeping the idea of a college alive. And one of the most important accomplishments of the 1847 General Convention was to make the creation of a theological school and of a college separate projects. The question of whether the two endeavors should be combined had


agitated and divided Universalists for years. Perhaps, however, some lessons had been learned from the abortive attempts to establish a theological school that would make the project of launching a college more of a certainty.


[14] Unless otherwise noted, the material about the proposed seminary is derived from the Trustee records in the possession of the Universalist Historical Society.

  • 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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