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Peabody, Francis Greenwood (1847-1936)

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Francis Greenwood Peabody
Courtesy of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library.

Francis Greenwood Peabody was one of the most widely known and honored of Unitarian ministers. He was born in Boston on December 4, 1847, the youngest child of the Rev. Ephraim Peabody, the minister of King’s Chapel, and his wife, Mary Jane Derby. Late in life Professor Peabody wrote with loving care a charming account of his parents in his little book “A New England Romance.”

He entered Harvard with the class of 1869, and took a happy part in college activities. In 1968, when a junior, he was first baseman in the first Harvard nine to play against Yale. From college he went to the Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 1872 with the degrees of A.M. and S.T.B. The same spring he married Miss Cora Weld of Boston. A year and a half of travel in Europe followed, the greater part of which was spent at the University of Halle in Germany, where he worked under Tholuck, and laid the foundation of an acquaintance with German scholarship which became a permanent influence in his career.

When he returned home early in 1974 he accepted a call to the First Parish in Cambridge, and was ordained minister of that church on March 31, 1874. He served the church for five years, resigning in 1870 on account of ill-health. His appointment to the Divinity School was the result of a request addressed to him by Dean Everett who asked him, after his resignation from his parish, to lecture on homiletics. President Eliot, whose first wife was Peabody’s eldest sister, opposed the appointment on the ground that it was unsuitable for him to give his own brother-in-law a place on the faculty. President Eliot’s scruples were eventually overcome and Mr. Peabody was appointed lecturer on ethics and homiletics for the year 1880–1891, and Parkman Professor of Theology the next year. In 1886 he became Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, with charge of the college chapel, filling the position which Dr. Andrew P. Peabody had held up to 1881. In this office he remained until January, 1913, when he became professor emeritus. He also was Acting Dean of the Divinity School on two occasions during the absence of Dean Everett, and was Dean from 1901 to 1905. In all these fields of work, as a preacher, teacher, author, administrator, he was a master, and most of all in the art of contentful and beneficent living.

Professor Peabody, in addition to occasional brief vacation journeys to study methods of social amelioration, used his recurring sabbatical leaves of absence as opportunities for travel. In 1891–1892 he spent most of the winter with his family in Germany, going to Palestine and Italy in the spring. In 1898–1899 he was again in Germany and Italy, and during his absence wrote his Jesus Christ and the Social Question, which was published the following year. In 1905–1906 he went to Berlin as the first exchange professor from America at the University of Berlin. Again President Eliot, on account of the family connection, was reluctant to nominate him. His selection was due, no doubt, in part to Professor Francke’s recommendation, in part to the special invitation of the Emperor Wilhelm, and in part to the novelty of his teaching in social ethics, a field of study which was without counterpart in European universities. After his resignation in 1913, Professor Peabody also visited Japan, as Commissioner for the American Unitarian Association.

Professor Peabody’s service at the Divinity School was distinguished both for his skill as a teacher of homiletics, and for his development of the department of social ethics. The students who studied pastoral care and the art of preaching under his guidance found in him a keen but sympathetic critic who was himself a thorough master of the art which he taught. No divinity student who took “Hom. 2” under him ever forgot the experience.

Dr. Peabody early established a reputation as a singularly felicitous and persuasive preacher. He developed with great skill the art of making brief addresses at morning prayers in Appleton Chapel, a task which many visiting preachers found a difficult one. Two volumes of these sermonettes appeared, called Mornings in the College Chapel, the first in 1896, the second in 1907. These addresses reveal how much it is possible to say, and to say well, in the space of six minutes. Dr. Peabody also published two volumes of longer sermons, Afternoons in the College Chapel (1898) and Evenings in the College Chapel (1911). These chapel addresses represent the highest level of college preaching.

The felicity of the literary style remains on the printed page, but the cold type cannot convey the grace of the clear and persuasive utterance and the quiet dignity of the speaker. He was in no sense a “fiery orator, or a cyclonic master of assemblies.” He searched hearts, but with a healing, not a scorching, touch. There was no showy rhetoric but an abundance of epigrams that clung to a hearer’s memory. There was balance in the sentences and a revelation of the beauty and music and cogency of the English tongue. He was fond of paradoxes and contrasting phrases and his illustrations were wonderfully apt and graphic. He was a preacher of power because of the sanity and vitality of his ideas, the clarity of his vision, the beauty and symmetry of the form in which the ideas were expressed, and above all because of the high and tender humanity of the man himself. He was at once the scholar in thought and the artist in words.

He was always approachable and hospitable. He had none of the scholar’s aloofness. He was entirely free from insularity. He was unconscious of intellectual or racial barriers. He was equally at home in the fisherman’s cottage or the king’s palace. He could preach with the same finish and poignancy in the country schoolhouse or the great cathedral. Anyone could go to him with a personal problem or difficulty, sure of his understanding sympathy and confident of wise counsel. He knew his St. Thomas Aquinas and also his “Alice in Wonderland.” He was an astute teacher of the philosophy of religion and at the same time had a firm hand on the tiller of his boat and a quick eye for the trim of a sail.

In another field of service Dr. Peabody played an unforgettable part. From their founding all the endowed American colleges had required the attendance of undergraduates at daily morning prayers and at Sunday Services. In 1880 Harvard pioneered the change from the compulsory system of religious instruction to a voluntary system. The experiment was denounced by many graduates and parents. The president of another college wrote that “the abandonment of a custom so salutary as well as time-honored would be fraught with most serious consequences to the whole fabric of our civilization.” It fell to Dr. Peabody, as the administrator of the College Chapel and Chairman of the newly established Board of Preachers, to put the optional system into operation, and he did so with such success that the critics were gradually disarmed and the new system confirmed in the confidence and adopted in the practice of many academic communities.

A yet wider reputation, however, came to him from his work in social ethics. In 1881–1882 he lectured in the Divinity School on “The History of Ethics,” and also, once a week, on “Practical Ethics.” The latter was a course on the application of Christian principles to social problems, and never before, save for an isolated and unrepeated course of lectures given at Andover a year earlier, had instruction of this particular type been offered in any American theological school. In 1883–1884 he first offered a course in “Ethical Theories and Social Problems: a practical examination of the questions of charity, temperance, labor, prisons, divorce, etc.” This was open to college unergraduates—among whom it became popularly known as “Peabo’s drainage, drunkenness and divorce”—and it contributed much to open the eyes of young men at Harvard to the existence of grave social problems. Such was his purpose, for he particularly sought to encourage young men, for the most part from sheltered and favored homes, to take an active part in the promotion of the social welfare of the less fortunate. He stimulated scores to activity along these lines, and contributed much to the development of social service as a profession. For divinity students there were advanced courses which supplied a solid foundation for th awakening interest of the churches in the “social gospel.” Teachers of the older academic disciplines sometimes looked askance on the new subject as something not quite within the range of scholarship, but Professor Peabody viewed it as an opportunity for a great contribution to life and though, and made himself a master of the subject. Before he resigned he had secured from his friend, Mr. Alfred T. White of Brooklyn, an endowment for the department of social ethics, gathered a first-rate library on the subject, and so enlarged the field on instruction that ten courses or half-courses were offered by three other lecturers besides himself. The substance of his teacher eventually appeared in a series of volumes Jesus Christ and the Social Question (1900), Jesus Christ and the Christian Character (1904), The Approach to the Social Question (1909) and The Christian Life in the Modern World (1914). These books brought Professor Peabody wide recognition in this country and Europe.

His writings, however, were not limited to the field of social ethics and to sermons. In 1903 he translated Professor Hilty’s Happiness, and the same year wrote The Religion of an Educated Man. His literary work went steadily on after his retirement from active teaching. In 1918 he published Education for Life, a deeply interesting and accurate record of the development of Hampton Institute, and an important source book in the history of Negro education in this country. Professor Peabody’s connection with Hampton was long and intimate, for he was a trustee of the Institute for forty years, and none of his activities brought him greater pleasure than this association with one of the noblest and most successful enterprises for the advancement of the American Negro. His New England Romance, already referred to, appeared in 1920, and his The Apostle Paul and the Modern World in 1923. His book The Church of the Spirit (1925) is worthy to be classed with Sabatier’s Religion of the Spirit as a noble interpretation of pure Christianity and its practice in serviceable living. In 1927 he published a delightful collection of biographical sketches of fifteen personal friends, under the title Reminiscences of Present-Day Saints. In 1830 came a little collection of Prayers for Various Occasions and Needs and in 1931 he printed privately and sent to his friends at Christmastide, just after his eighty-fourth birthday, a charming and cheerful essay on old age. He himself gave his friends a beautiful example of the serenity of old age, filled with high interests and fruitful labors. Increasing deafness shut him off from much of the social intercourse he had enjoyed but he retained keen interest in persons and events, his genial humor and his capacity to speak the seasonable and satisfying word.

Professor Peabody’s life was an exceptionally well-rounded one. He was a lover of books and of travel, of the sea and of the ships that sail thereon, a man of many and varied friendships. From his earliest childhood he was bred in the finest tradition of New England Unitarianism, and to its principles he always remained deeply attached. But his wide culture and experience of life also bred in him a catholicity of spirit. His friends were all of religious communions—and of none. His position at Harvard brought to him many sympathetic contacts with the leaders of other denominations, and in their eyes he was an outstanding interpreter of the best thought and tradition of Unitarian Christianity. The secret of his activity and his influence was in his firm assurance of the life of God in the soul of man. What he said of another may be repeated of him:

The supreme lesson of his beautiful life was that of wordly wisdom derived from unwordly consecration. It was the wisdom which is from above, full of mercy and good fruits. Behind the kindliness which made him a delightful companion were the firmness and serenity derived from an uncomplicated and undisturbed religious life. It was the habit of faith which led him to works of love.

He was given an honorary D.D. by Yale in 1887; the degree of LL.D. by Western Reserve in 1907; and the degree of S.T.D. by Harvard in 1909. Mrs. Peabody died in September, 1914. Of their four children one died in Italy as a youth, and a second, the distinguished physician Dr. Francis W. Peabody, died in middle life. Dr. Peabody died December 28, 1936, in his ninetieth year.

— In this biographical sketch prepared by Dr. Foote, the editor, who was Dr. Peabody’s nephew, has inserted sundry phrases from his own memorial address.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Prayers for Today: Francis Greenwood Peabody

The Biography of Ephraim Peabody

The Church in Harvard Square: Defining Social Ethics

James Luther Adams: A Biographical and Intellectual Sketch