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

Miller, Russell



IN THE DECADE OF THE 1860's, Tufts College embarked on three new degree programs. Two of them, the philosophical course and the engineering curriculum, were intended to meet the growing needs of the College and of the student body. The third, a theological department which became the divinity school and eventually Crane Theological School, was the outgrowth of several impulses that had been felt long before the College was founded.

But Hosea 2d was not to see any of these come into being during his lifetime. In the fall of 1859 his health began to fail. When one reviews the extent and strenuousness of his activities on behalf of the College, it was no wonder. He sensed that his association with Tufts would soon be over when he wrote his brother Levi, after a particularly arduous term of school work, that his "labors here might come to their end ere long." In 1860 his loyal and understanding faculty readjusted and reduced his teaching and administrative load by taking over some of his duties. Little more than a month before a kidney ailment cut short his career at the age of sixty-four, Hosea 2d wrote his devoted friend Sawyer that his life was wearing away, his energies were failing, and so much remained to be done. His passing was a blow to all, and the resolutions on his death, which occurred at his College home on May 27, 1861, elicited simple and moving tributes from faculty, students, and Trustees, and from the denomination at large. The day following President Ballou's death, the Trustees held their regular meeting scheduled long before. The usual reports had already been prepared, and that of the Executive Committee seemed a fitting epitaph for the man who had labored so diligently. They found the progress and conduct of the students, and student relations with the faculty,


never better. The general state of the College, even with many unfinished tasks at hand, was "eminently satisfactory."

But the business of the College had to go on. The fifth Commencement had to be planned, diplomas had to be signed, and examining committees had to be appointed to select an entering class for the next term. Professor Tweed was selected to preside on Commencement Day and confer the degrees, and Professor Marshall was made acting president until a successor could be found.

The Trustees immediately set about finding a head for their institution, but over a year went by before any success was achieved.


The first committee appointed to make a selection failed to nominate a candidate, and another committee had the same results. The problem was finally referred to the Executive Committee, which contacted "several gentlemen," none of whom was willing to accept the office. Rev. James P. Weston, president of Lombard University, Galesburg, Illinois, from 1860 to 1872, was suggested by Sylvanus Packard, but Weston preferred to stay where he was.[1]  Both the faculty and students suggested T. J. Sawyer, who had declined the presidency in 1853. After extended discussion, Sawyer declined a second time. He argued "pressure of other duties," including management of a large farm for which he had recently assumed responsibility. But in the last analysis, the old question of salary was the real stumbling block. The Trustees were unable to meet his request for $1,200, for it would increase the existing annual deficiency to over $5,000. One alternative was to "dispense with one of the Professors or the Tutor now employed."[1]  However, this would only create new complications. In view of "all the circumstances, the state of our country, the limited means at our command, and the little probability of any immediate increase in our income," the Executive Committee had a real problem on its hands. To continue indefinitely with an interim president solved nothing; selecting a president from the faculty would solve one manpower dilemma, only to create another. The final decision was to select "some gentleman of established reputation, whose interest in the College would lead him to devote a portion of his time to it without salary, the College paying his expenses and disbursements."

The Trustees were as fortunate in 1862 as they had been a decade earlier in having qualified presidential material within their own ranks. The man unanimously selected was Alonzo Ames Miner, associate of and later successor to Hosea Ballou the elder as pastor of the School Street Universalist Society in Boston, and a man active in the denomination from the time he preached his first sermon in 1838. He had held pastorates in Vermont,


New Hampshire, and two towns in Massachusetts before his arrival in Boston in 1848, and very soon achieved a considerable reputation not only as an eloquent preacher but as an able polemicist. He was probably as conservative religiously as a Universalist could be and still stay within the denomination, and he expended much ink, paper, and effort in challenging what he considered to be the non-Christian teachings of the brilliant Unitarian social reformer Theodore Parker. Miner was an uncompromising opponent of the use of alcohol, served as president of the Massachusetts Temperance Alliance for some twenty years, and at one time was a gubernatorial candidate on the Prohibition ticket. He loved a good fight on the issues of the


day and had an excellent opportunity to demonstrate both his ideas and his eloquence when he was called upon in 1884 to deliver the annual Election Sermon before the state legislature. This sermon was a tradition established in colonial times; a clergyman was selected to deliver what usually turned out to be a mildly inspirational and platitudinous address before the incoming and outgoing public officers. Miner's peroration comprised such a scathing attack on the consumption of alcoholic beverages and on the "liquor interests" in general that the annoyed legislators soon thereafter dispensed with the Election Sermon entirely.

Miner's experience as an educator was already impressive when the Trustees, as a measure of desperation, asked him to take over the presidency of Tufts. Like Hosea 2d, Miner was a self-educated man whose college degrees were all honorary but whose devotion to the cause of education was unswerving. He had taught school as a youth in Vermont and New Hampshire and subsequently served on the school boards of Methuen, Lowell, and Boston. He too was a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, and of the state Board of Education. For twenty years he was chairman of the Board of Visitors of the State Normal Art School. Miner was one of the numerous Universalists in the 1850's and 1860's on whom Harvard University conferred an honorary Divinity degree. His range of activities on behalf of the denomination was second only to that of Hosea 2d. His activities in the organization and social reform efforts of the Universalists made his name a familiar one. He was one of the founders of the Universalist Publishing House, incorporated in Massachusetts in 1872. He was also president of the Trustees of the Bromfield School at Harvard, Massachusetts. Miner served as trustee of the estate of Henry Bromfield Pearson that made possible the establishment of a preparatory school for engineering at Tufts. His efforts on behalf of Universalist academies were equally important. He was both a benefactor and Trustee of Dean Academy and a donor to other Universalist preparatory schools. It might be added that most of these activities (only a partial listing) were carried on simultaneously with ministering to a parish and guiding the College.[3] 

Miner's direct connection with Tufts began when he was


elected a Trustee in 1855. He was immediately placed on the Executive Committee, served on numerous special committees, and was secretary and also treasurer of the Corporation for many years. The Trustees selected from their number the man most intimately associated with the College and probably the man most aware of its needs. They were obviously pleased that Miner accepted the presidency, but there was concern expressed immediately that his clerical post might take a disproportionate share of his time and energies, and that the two jobs would prove too demanding. This problem of "divided allegiance," as it were, was to plague him for most of his thirteen years as Tufts' chief executive, but he accepted the office on the terms outlined by his fellow Trustees and became the first (and only) non-resident, non-salaried president in the history of the institution.

The Executive Committee recognized the obligations Miner had undertaken but explained that the facts had to be faced: the question was "not what would be best under other circumstances, but what is best under existing circumstances." If the Second Universalist Society had not paid Miner a full salary, it is difficult to imagine what the fate of the College might have been. When he assumed office in the late summer of 1862, after having been duly inaugurated on July 9, the country was already rent asunder by its most tragic internecine conflict, and Tufts was in a precarious, if not desperate, financial condition. It was already burdened with an indebtedness of $18,000, and annual operating deficits were far outrunning income. The treasury was so low in the summer of 1862 that Sylvanus Packard and Charles Tufts volunteered to make up out of their own pockets any deficit arising from the dinner held in connection with Miner's inauguration. It was a tribute to Miner's abilities as an executive that when he tendered his resignation in 1874 the assets of the institution were nearly $1,000,000.

There was one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy picture in 1862. The faculty and the students shared the Trustees' enthusiasm for Miner. When the students were informed that Sawyer had declined the post, a petition bearing the name of every student in the College present the day it was circulated was transmitted to the Trustees asking them to select Miner. A Trustee subcommittee had solicited faculty reaction, and the result was "hearty approbation," backed up with a letter from the faculty informing the Trustees


that the instructional staff had unanimously voted that they would "receive with great pleasure" the announcement of Miner's election. The considerable evidence available indicates that both faculty and students were aware of the stresses and strains under which the College was operating in 1861-62 and expressed what the Trustees considered a commendable and truly heartwarming loyalty to the young institution.


[1] Lombard University, chartered as a collegiate institution in 1853, was founded as a Universalist academy in 1831. After many vicissitudes, Knox College absorbed all but Lombard's Ryder Divinity School, which was united with the Meadville Theological School in Chicago.

[1] Benjamin Graves Brown, Tutor in Mathematics from 1861 to 1865. He continued as a permanent member of the faculty.

[3] The standard biography is George H. Emerson, Life of Alonzo Ames Miner (Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1896).

  • 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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