The facts of Dr. Peabody’s career may be briefly set forth. He was born at Beverly, March 19, 1811 1. A.B., Harvard, 1826; A.M., 1829; S.T.D., 1852; LL.D., University of Rochester, New York, 1863. Tutor in mathematics at Harvard, 1832-33. Ordained over the South Parish, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, October 24, 1833, and remained its minister until August 3r, 1860. Harvard University: Preacher to the University and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, 1860-81; Emeritus after 1881-March 10, 1883; Acting President of the University, February 28, 1862-November 28, 1862, September 30, 1868-May 18, 1869. Died at Cambridge March 10, 1883. A classical scholar, a voluminous writer, a thoughtful and weighty lecturer, a fervent preacher, a wise and beloved teacher, a fatherly and spiritual guide—as the apostle Eliot says of his saints, “he died leaving a good savior.”
Andrew Preston Peabody was born at Beverly, Massachusetts, March 18, 1811. His father died in 1813, of whom the son writes in after-years:
My profession as a clergyman was determined for me from my birth. My father, the only son of a prosperous farmer, was fitted for college with the purpose of pursuing the regular curriculum and then studying for the ministry. A failure of health so entire that he was never afterwards a strong man arrested his plans, and he became a teacher. I was his only son, and he destined me for the profession it was his lifelong grief that he had been compelled to abandon. He died before I was three years old, and on his death-bed he charged my mother to fulfill his wish concerning me, should I be fit for such a calling. I was present in my mother’s arms when the charge was given, and have a distinct remembrance of the scene; and, though I can have understood nothing of it, I recollect no uttered words earlier than my mother’s rehearsal of what was then said.
In the dame school where his education began, as the youngest pupil he was pinned by his sleeve to her clothing while the older pupils were reciting their tasks; and, the book lying open in her lap, he learned to read the inverted type, as all printers do, and quite as readily as in the normal position, and could do so all through life. But the daily sessions of the school were not enough for a mind, even at that age, grasping for all knowledge. So on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons he betook himself to another dame teacher, who instructed him in botany, French, and German, so that, when he entered the junior Class at the age of thirteen, French was to him as easy as English, and he was one of eight who formed the first class in Harvard that ever studied German. While the curriculum seventy years ago was much more elementary than at present, so that the last time Dr. Peabody came to the graduating exercises of our Roxbury Latin School he remarked to me, “Those boys have a much better education than I had when I graduated from college,” there is nothing to be said in disparagement of that remarkable proficiency which enabled him to be one of the two youngest upon whom Harvard has conferred its Bachelor’s degree.
Immediately upon leaving Harvard, and for seven ensuing years, Dr. Peabody taught in two or three schools, and one of these was at Portsmouth. With all his attainments he could not escape the trials boys always have in store for the master, and a gentleman still living in that city has frequently told me that he was one who helped to make the way of the young teacher as difficult as it could be, and, when in after-years all came to love and reverence the minister, he ventured to ask Dr. Peabody how he liked teaching; and there came the quiet reply, with a touch of humor that was no stranger to that benignant countenance, “I enjoy my vacation very much.”
The apostle Eliot writes of his early home life that “his first years were seasoned with the fear of God, the word of prayer”; and, when he became an inmate of the home of Thomas Hooker, the founder of the State of Connecticut, he says, “When I came to this blessed family, I then saw, as never before, the power of godliness in its lovely vigor and efficacy.” It was so true of England then, as it has been here since, that, when godliness is plainly manifest in the busy marts of trade, in the councils of the nation, in the halls of learning, or at the altar of God, you go back and back until you find its spring in some dear home of piety nestling among these New England hills. It was in such a home, and afterwards in the family of Dr. Abiel Abbot, the estimable preacher at Beverly, that Dr. Peabody’s early parental consecration to the ministry received a constant renewal and development.
The times were full of interest and excitement for any young person, both in civil and in ecclesiastical affairs. The War of 1812 must have filled his boyhood in that seaport town with stories of the daring adventures of our small but victorious navy, while the churches everywhere were stirred by a theological controversy which promised serious divisions. Dr. Freeman at King’s Chapel in 1782, Dr. Bentley in Salem in 1783, and Dr. Priestley in Philadelphia in 1784, all three distinctly humanitarians, were rapidly helping on the movement, whispers of which had been heard for some time here and there in the New England churches, and which, after the sermon by Dr. Channing at Baltimore in 1818, brought a separation in the Congregational churches. Dr. Abbot had openly espoused the liberal movement, so that his young parishioner, upon graduating at the Divinity School, was naturally prepared to accept an invitation to be the colleague, at the age of twenty-two, of Dr. Nathan Parker, who had led the Portsmouth church into the same movement. In the judgment of Henry Ware, Jr., Dr. Parker was the ideal minister of New England, and fifty years ago a whole generation of devoted admirers in Portsmouth surely shared in that opinion. In two weeks after the ordination Dr. Parker died, and Dr. Peabody was left in entire charge of the parish. Portsmouth, in its early days, was in marked contrast to the colony at the Bay. It was a Church of England settlement, and for a long time showed its opposition to Puritanism. And the South Parish, established in 1638, was an Episcopal church. With increasing prosperity, with several generations of most successful sea captains, and as a naval station of importance, it became a center of exceptional wealth and culture. In law it had Daniel Webster, Jeremiah Mason, Ichabod Bartlett, and Nathaniel Appleton Haven; in the ministry, Dr. Buckminster and Dr. Parker; in business, merchants who were honored everywhere; in the navy, a number of leading officers who always regarded this as a favorite station for residence. Here, for twenty-eight years, with the ever-increasing love and honor of the historical and distinguished church which was so large a part of the town, an example and standard among all the New England churches, with few remarkable events, but with a growing reputation as a writer and preacher, with an energy which never paused and a love for his work which never grew cold, Dr. Peabody fulfilled with rare fidelity the duties of the only parish charge he had until in 1860 he came to the university. There was but one voice of respect and affection from that united parish, and most unreasonable indeed would it have been to have any other feeling toward such a distinguished ministry, which for nearly a generation it was its privilege to enjoy.
The work which Dr. Peabody did in those years can be explained only by a physical strength which knew no limitations, by a never-remitted industry, and by a classical style formed very early and requiring no tedious revision. What stories I used to hear in homes where, upon exchanges, he had been an honored guest of his gracious conversation, with no restlessness nor haste, waiting until the last one was ready to retire, then modestly asking for a light which would burn for some time, as he had writing to do, he would go to his room and write an article for one of the magazines or one of the multitude of essays upon some literary, social, educational, or theological subject which came from his busy pen, the tell-tale lamp revealing what hours he had written without any apparent weariness, while in the morning he was ready for all the services the day might offer, with that enthusiasm for the ministry which never left him! He was always ready to bear his gospel message. No heat of summer, no storm of winter, no distance, no humble chapel, abated his zeal.
There was not a trace of the ascetic type of religion which has so dominated the Church about this man, nothing of voice or manner or dress which made his office prominent. He did not need this. He had no thought of renouncing the world or asking any other person to do so. The world he held to be God’s world, to be enjoyed, to be used, to be ruled by the spirit.
It was a wholesome, manly life, which gave to all who came within its gracious, sympathizing influence a respect for religion as something which called for the strongest powers of the truest man. Its distinguishing feature, its secret, was its unworldliness. It left the impression that here was one who lived on the heights, to whom the things of the spirit were constant, familiar, supreme.
Chaucer’s ideal clerk and priest, who “Cristes lore, and his apostles twelve, He taught, but first he followed it himselve,” found in Dr. Peabody a literal fulfilment, and never in his long life seemed there to be a moment when he did not manifest the beauty and power of the religion of which he was so earnest and devoted a minister.
Dr. Peabody’s preaching had a happy union of the doctrinal and practical. There can be no good preaching which is not doctrinal, and no good doctrinal preaching which is not practical. We mean by doctrinal the strongest, plainest statement of great religious truths; and in this sense all the epochs of interest or revival in religion have been doctrinal. Duty, sin, faith, repentance, human brotherhood, the divine fatherhood, the spirit—these subjects are few and old, but fresh as the springs from the everlasting hills, and every time they are treated by an earnest life every other life in its great need responds.
By those classical studies which he never discontinued, and which were the enjoyment and ornament of his old age, he entered into the highest religious thoughts of those whom we generally call pagans, and he says of Plutarch, “That he had a serious, earnest, and efficient faith in the one supreme God, in the wise and eternal Providence, and in the divine wisdom, purity, and holiness, we have in his writings an absolute certainty, nor can we find even in Christian literature the records of a firmer belief than his in human immortality and in a righteous retribution, beginning in this world and reaching on into the world beyond death.” And where would you find a broader religious spirit than in these words from a sermon which aroused much enthusiasm when it was first preached, and which had a wide circulation as a tract, entitled “Fidelity in Duty, not Accuracy in Belief, our Test of the Christian Character”?
If in any heathen land there be one who has turned away from fraud and violence, who has done justice and loved mercy, and walked humbly before the God whom he had heard in the evening breeze, or beheld in the glow of nature, or felt in the deep workings of his own spirit, he has done the will of his Father in heaven, and belongs to the Christian family. If there be a Jew who with contrite heart mourns for the desolation of Zion and prays for the peace of Jerusalem, and serves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he, too, as a doer of God’s will, belongs to the household of the Saviour whom his brethren set at naught.
The joy of religion was everywhere visible in this life, the sense of rejoicing in the Lord, which bears up all holy lives, a joyful surrender to God’s will. He belonged to that company of noble souls, rapidly growing in these latter days, who hold sectarian ties as nothing before the opening glories of the Church Universal; and he could say with Angélique Arnould, “I am of the church of all the saints, and all the saints are of my church.” The aged tree ceased not to bear fruit because it began at so tender an age. The beatitude of the peacemaker was ever upon him, and the willing testimony of his generations is that he was a messenger of the Most High.
— Abridged from James de Normandie, Heralds of a Liberal Faith, Volume 3, edited by Samuel A. Eliot, 1910.