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

Miller, Russell


While Tufts was coming into being as a liberal arts college, there was still a very vocal contingent who continued to work for the establishment of a separate theological school. The gestures toward establishing such a school made at the 1847 Convention lay fallow for two years, until the New York State Universalists took the leadership in the movement. The effort made by Sawyer to provide theological training as an extracurricular activity had become too great a burden for him and he had been forced to close up shop. When the New York Convention in 1850 called on Universalists to support both Clinton Liberal Institute and the proposed college which became Tufts, they simultaneously urged the reestablishment of the theological school operated by Sawyer. They were even willing to recommend the charging of $30 a year tuition if it would


guarantee the existence of the school. Sawyer was requested to draw up a circular on education to be distributed in the state, and Societies were urged to take up special collections to support the project. But nothing happened, in spite of constant urging. It was estimated that there was a shortage of fifty clergymen in New York State alone, and the Midwest - notably Ohio - was desperately lacking in Universalist clergymen. An eloquent plea for a Universalist school was made by a student attending the theological school in Meadville, Pennsylvania, which had been established by the sect known as Christians but had had to accept aid from Unitarians in order to keep their school open. The continued shortage of clergy in the denomination finally prompted the New York State Convention to form an Education Society to solicit donations, and Sawyer agreed to train ministers without charge under its patronage.

For the next three years the New York representatives at the General Convention managed to get the problem of a theological school on the agenda and to get resolutions adopted supporting the idea. The New York group did obtain pledges of $2,100 at one of its meetings in 1853, but it was not until two years later that anything tangible was accomplished. In 1855 the town of Canton offered $15,000 if the school would locate there. The result was the chartering of St. Lawrence University in April 1856.[8]  The establishment of a liberal arts college beside the theological school was not the intention of the Universalist founders, but the residents of Canton made this a quid pro quo for raising the $15,000. If Sawyer and his colleagues wanted a theological school at all, they had no alternative but to accept the offer. Sawyer found himself elected president of the St. Lawrence University Corporation; he reluctantly held the post until 1868, positive throughout that the denomination had overextended itself. Further, Sawyer was certain that by establishing two colleges within the same decade, without really adequate endowment for either, the denomination had endangered the existence of both and had set into motion an unfortunate rivalry within its own household that would create conflicts of


loyalties and disperse desperately needed funds. Many New York Universalists resented the failure of their New England counterparts to support the proposition of the theological school, while many New England supporters of Tufts resented equally the establishment of another liberal arts college in New York State. One result was the insistence in the East that Tufts, even without a theological curriculum, could serve the needs of both the ministerial and the general student. It was this possibly misplaced emphasis on Tufts' role in preparing clergy for the denomination that for several decades was to plague the liberal arts students, who time and time again tried to disabuse the public of the idea that the college was a theological institution. The problem was aggravated after a divinity school was actually created at Tufts in the late 1860's.

One of the Universalists responsible for defending Tufts as an institution capable of producing clergymen was Thomas Whittemore. The editor of the Trumpet insisted that "one of the principal objects in establishing Tufts College was to give aspirants to the ministry an opportunity to obtain a competent education." He pointed to the fact that, only a year after the institution had been formally opened, six Tufts students were holding part-time pastorates while engaged in their college studies. There were, said Whittemore, two classes of young men seeking an education at Tufts: prospective clergy and "those who design to follow other pursuits." The College was thus "a great blessing to the Universalist community and ministry." It seems clear that Whittemore was not particularly enthusiastic about seeing potential denominational funds sorely needed by Tufts diverted to the theological school and college at Canton.

It was certainly unfair to place all the blame for financial stringencies on the establishment of St. Lawrence University. Yet economics were uppermost in the minds of a good many people associated with Tufts. Even before the College was a year old, the specter of financial crisis hovered over it. It was estimated that current operating expenses would exceed receipts from fees by $3,500 a year for the period 1856-61, of which only $1,000 could be counted on from the permanent fund. To raise the remaining $2,500 annually a fund-raising committee, headed by John D. W. Joy, was appointed at the meeting in August 1856 celebrating the first anniversary of the College. One result was the taking up of


collections in behalf of the College at the Sunday services of several Universalist churches in the Boston area. The General Convention of 1856 solicited material aid for all Universalist educational enterprises but probably strengthened no friendships it might have had at Tufts, for it singled out for "the special regard of our Brotherhood . . . our Theological Seminary, now in progress of establishment in Canton, St. Lawrence Co., N.Y."

Finances were a vital consideration in the early years of Tufts, as of most privately endowed institutions, but getting the College actually under way was also an immediate concern of the Trustees. In May 1853, on the same day that Hosea 2d had been elected to fill the vacancy in the presidency created by Sawyer's refusal to accept the position, Hosea 2d was placed on a committee to arrange the course of studies and report what professorships were necessary and what persons were suitable to fill them. And how does one prepare to be a college president? What are his duties and responsibilities? How did one go about running a college? Hosea 2d had all of these questions to answer, and many more. In spite of his academic turn of mind, his scholarly accomplishments, his ten years on the Harvard Board of Overseers, and his two honorary degrees, there is nothing to indicate that he had even seen the inside of a college classroom. Promptly and methodically he set about gaining as much knowledge as possible. The College was far from ready to receive students in the summer of 1853, for its main building was still under construction. So, at his request, Hosea 2d received a year's leave of absence to prepare himself for his new responsibilities. Between September and December 1853, he visited "the principal Colleges of New England, in order that he might combine in the system of Instruction and Government of Tufts College, as many of the excellencies of the different Colleges, as possible." The remainder of his leave was spent in Europe.

Hosea 2d covered an amazing amount of academic ground in four months. He visited Harvard, Williams, Yale, and Brown. He attended classes in mathematics, history, English and declamation, foreign languages, and the sciences; he conferred with instructors on teaching techniques and problems, noted texts used and subjects discussed in the classroom. At Providence he spent considerable time with Brown's notable president, Francis Wayland. He attended President Walker's class in Evidences of Revealed Religion


at Harvard. He inquired about grading systems, the handling of disciplinary cases. What, he asked Williams' president, Mark Hopkins, should the teacher do if he disagreed with the textbook? The answer: "Say so, & vindicate." He attended prayers at chapel at Williams at 6:30 A.M. and a few hours later was discussing instructional salaries. He asked the president of Yale how often faculty meetings were held and was apparently relieved to discover that there was "not so much machinery in the Gov't. of Yale as in that of Harvard." He found out how examinations for admission and for courses were conducted. In short, Hosea 2d discovered as much as he could about administering a college.

Returned from Europe the last week in September 1854, he found the College already in operation, although not yet formally opened. An Executive Committee of the Trustees had been created in the summer of 1854. Their first act had been to authorize William P. Drew to use the recently completed building, "known as Tufts College," for one year, beginning after September 1, 1854. The purpose was "to give instruction in the Latin and Greek languages and in Mathematics to such young men as desire to pursue those studies." In October four students appeared - two freshmen and two sophomores. The College had finally acquired a student body, and by the end of the academic year three more freshmen had been enrolled. The original intention of the Trustees had been to postpone the actual opening until the fall of 1855, for the funds raised by the agent had long since been exhausted in building the College Edifice. But Benjamin Mussey, the treasurer, and Otis Skinner, the secretary of the Board, had agreed to assume all responsibility, Mussey guaranteeing the payment of the salaries of the instructors. Accordingly, a notice had appeared in the Trumpet that the College would receive students in September 1854, and that professors would be provided to give instruction "in all the studies usually pursued by Freshman and Sophomore classes of the principal colleges of our country."

The next step was to arrange a formal opening, and at the suggestion of the faculty, the Trustee Executive Committee voted to hold "appropriate exercises at the commencement of the College year--August 22, 1855," provided such arrangements could be made "without any expense to the College." The occasion was a great success. It is true that the special train from Boston, carrying


Mr. and Mrs. Tufts among its passengers, either overshot the depot in Somerville or failed to stop as scheduled. Proceedings had to be delayed until a fast horse and carriage could be dispatched to retrieve these important guests. It also happened that there was an unexpectedly large attendance. The formal program was scheduled to take place in the chapel on the second floor of the College Edifice, but the number of people was so great that they overflowed the stairways, hallways, and adjacent rooms, and many were unable to either see or hear the speakers. Only 900 plates had been set for the dinner following the exercises, and many of the over 1,000 who appeared could not be served. But these were minor matters. The addresses were eloquent, the toasts were appropriate, and a dramatic appeal for funds by Sylvanus Packard, accompanied by a pledge of $5,000 beyond what he had already given, brought an additional $4,000 on the spot. The formal installation of the president and faculty was duly conducted by Thomas Whittemore, vice-president of the Trustees.

President Ballou's Inaugural Address was brief, general, and simply stated.[9]  He called attention first to the fact that the new College was entering a field already occupied by other institutions; it was their very success that prompted another. "It was the manifest good which they have achieved, it was the powerful influences which they have so widely exerted, and the satisfaction they have given to all competent judges, that moved us to emulate their example, at humble distance." He then proceeded to outline the function of a college, which was more than imparting "a given amount of knowledge and accomplishments to any select number of persons . . . the College works out abroad from itself, beyond the circle of its graduates, sending its energies forth through all other institutions, and down through all classes, even the most unlettered." In short, a college is a leavening force in society - from the common school through public affairs and the professions, and down to the lives of the everyday citizen.

He acknowledged the labor and sacrifice that his co-religionists had already put into their educational effort; he also recognized that "under the present condition of public sentiment in this


country, all institutions of the kind are virtually in charge of some specific denomination, or classes of men, who feel that their own success and reputation are identified with the success and reputation of their respective seats of learning." Ballou never once mentioned the Universalist Church in his address; the closest he came was to refer to "that class of Christians, at whose desire this institution arose." But he suggested that the College might also "reasonably hope for a degree of patronage from all quarters, if it have the requisite merit." Founded under religious auspices or not, no colleges professing to offer a liberal education in the true sense could afford to be "sectarian in their regulations and conduct; they cannot very well be so, for any long period; there is something, in the very tendency of liberal studies, opposed to a narrow bigotry. Narrow, clannish prejudices, exclusiveness, - and a liberal course of learning will always be found irreconcilable." Universalists, in founding a college, were serving more than themselves: they were elevating the whole tone of society and fostering "general improvement in intellect and taste." Their contributions were likely to be modest, particularly until their new creation had gotten itself established. But the task of the College for all time could, said Ballou, be summed up this way: "We consecrate it to the work of instruction in sound learning and science, under the influence of Christian principles."

The first formal term of the infant institution opened the next day, with over thirty students in attendance. Its prospects for survival looked promising, on that "bleak hill over in Medford."


[8] See Andrew K. Peters, "The Founding of the University," in L. H. Pink and R. E. Delmage (eds.), Candle in the Wilderness: A Centennial History of the St. Lawrence University, 1856-1956 (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957), Chapter 2.

[9] It was published in the Universalist Quarterly, Vol. 12 (October 1855), pp. 329-344. He made over twenty editorial changes in the page proofs, but for some reason the original version was printed.

  • 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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