Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History
Sawyer, Thomas Jefferson, 1804-1899
|Thomas Jefferson Sawyer (1804-1899), H1895, successfully advocated for the establishment of a Universalist institution of higher education and theology in 1847.He served as Tufts' first president of the Board of Trustees, the first dean of the Tufts Divinity School, and Packard Professor of Theology.|
Sawyer was born in Reading, Vermont, on January 9, 1804. At nineteen, he attended Chester Academy and then Middlebury College, teaching school while finishing his studies. Following his graduation in 1829, Sawyer, determined to enter the Universalist ministry, began studying theology with a Reverend Balch in Winchester, New Hampshire. Due to considerable previous preparation, Sawyer was ordained within a month by the General Convention of New England. During this time he first expressed his determination in the building of a denominational school.
In 1830, Sawyer took charge of a small congregation in New York City. The following year he married Caroline M. Fisher, with whom he had seven children. In 1831, he also became editor of the "Christian Messenger."Sawyercontinued to preach in New York City, keeping his church open during the cholera epidemic of 1832, until 1845 when he accepted the position of principal of the Clinton Liberal Institute in Oneida County. Sawyer helped organize the Universalist Historical Society, of which he served as secretary and librarian, collecting over three thousand volumes for its collection.
Sawyer, citing the educational needs of the denomination, called for a convention in New York City in 1847. The outcome of this Universalist meeting was the founding of Tufts College, along with the Canton Theological School and St. Lawrence University. Sawyer served as the president of the first board of Trustees of each of these institutions.
He continued his work and preaching in New York until 1869 when hewas called to take charge of the newly established Tufts Divinity School as the Packard Professor of Theology. He was formally made dean of the school in 1882.He retired from active work as an instructor, as a result of failing eyesight in 1884, and in 1892, was made professor emeritus.
Sawyer was twice elected president of Tufts, but declined both times. In 1895, the college conferred a degree of LL.D. on Sawyer. He was also made an honorary member of the college's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Sawyer died at his home on Professors Row on August 5, 1899, as a result of old age.