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Joseph Tuckerman, a son of Edward and Elizabeth (Harris) Tuckerman, was born in Boston on the 18th of January, 1778. His father was a man of modest but sterling worth. He was an intimate friend of John Hancock, and was among the early presidents of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association. His house at the South End in Boston was pierced by a cannon-ball during the siege, and the place for many years was designated by a black oval inserted in the wall.
Young Tuckerman seems to have early formed the purpose of entering the ministry, and to have adhered to it steadily until his object was attained. He was fitted for college partly at Phillips Academy, Andover, and partly by the Rev. Thomas Thacher, of Dedham, in whose family he lived. In due time he entered Harvard College, and graduated in the same class with Dr. Channing and Judge Story, in 1798. After devoting the usual time to the study of theology, under the Rev. Mr. Thacher, he was licensed to preach, it is believed, by the Boston Association, and shortly after was invited to become the pastor of the church in Chelsea. Chelsea was at that time a small village, and the people were generally farmers in moderate circumstances. Mr. Tuckerman did not hesitate to accept their call, and he was ordained and installed on the 4th of November, 1801, the Rev. Thomas Thacher preaching the sermon.
On the 5th of July, 1803, Mr. Tuckerman was married to Abigail, daughter of Samuel and Sarah (Rogers) Parkman, and sister of Rev. Dr. Francis Parkman, of Boston. She was a lady of the most attractive qualities, but she survived her marriage only four years, and died the mother of three children. On the 3rd of November, 1808, he was again married to Sarah, daughter of Colonel Cary, of Chelsea.
During his ministry at Chelsea, Mr. Tuckerman’s attention was specially drawn to the temptations and necessities of sea-faring men, and with him originated the first effort that was made in this country for their improvement. In the winter of 1811-1812 he formed the first society that was established for the “Religious and Moral Improvement of Seamen.” He continued in the active discharge of his professional duties till 1826. On the 4th of November, just twenty-five years from the day of his ordination, he preached his farewell sermon at Chelsea. In a book which he published many years later, entitled “Principles and Results of the Ministry-at-large in Boston,” he wrote concerning his work at Chelsea as follows:
In 1824 he was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Harvard College.
Immediately after the resignation of his charge at Chelsea he entered upon his famous work as minister at-large in Boston, a task to which he was invited, and for the early years sustained, by the American Unitarian Association. He began visiting the poor, and, though there was much that was discouraging at the beginning of his enterprise, his prospects of usefulness soon began to brighten. At the end of the first year he had become acquainted with a hundred and seventy families; and at the expiration of another six months he reckoned two hundred and fifty families as belonging to his pastoral charge, and there was scarcely a dark alley or by-place in the city which he had not explored. To this form of benevolent activity Dr. Tuckerman devoted the residue of his life, laboring to improve and elevate the condition of the poor with all the intensity of a ruling passion. He argued for treating alcoholism as a disease rather than as a failure of morals or willpower; he was early in arguing that prisons should include educational programs. The Benevolent Fraternity of Churches in Boston was organized in 1834 to sustain this work.
In 1833 Dr. Tuckerman suffered a severe pulmonary attack, which threatened his life. When he had so far recovered as to be able to travel, he accepted an invitation from his intimate friend, the Hon. Jonathan Phillips, to accompany him on a visit to Europe. Though his immediate object in crossing the ocean was the restoration of his health, yet the great work to which his life was now devoted was always in his thoughts, and, wherever he paused on his journey, he busied himself, so far as his strength would permit, in exploring the retreats of poverty. The “Domestic Missions,” ever since supported by the English Unitarians, are largely the result of his influence and initiative. In London he had the pleasure of becoming personally acquainted with that eminent Hindu, Rammohun Roy, and in France he was treated with great kindness by the Baron Degerando, whose philanthropic labors had taken nearly the same direction with Dr. Tuckerman’s. He returned to this country in the early part of the summer of 1834, with his health less benefited by his tour than he had expected. He was no longer able to engage in the active duties of the ministry, though he was constantly on the alert to introduce into the ministry-at-large as many new laborers as he could. In a letter to a friend in England, written in 1835, he speaks thus of the success of the great enterprise to which he had devoted himself:
“We have now seven ministers-at-large. One is an Episcopalian, one a Baptist, two are Orthodox Congregationalists, three are Unitarians; and on all great general interests we are in perfect unison. Does not this look like Christian advancement? We have the most entire public confidence, and, what is far better, we all feel that we have the blessing of the common Father with us.”
In 1836 Dr. Tuckerman was obliged to seek a milder climate, and accordingly went for several months to the Island of Santa Cruz. He returned in the spring, and was able in the latter part of October, 1837, to attend the ordination of a new colleague, Mr. Sargent, and to give him the charge.
In 1840 he sailed for Cuba, accompanied by his daughter, and died at Havana on the 10th of April, 1840. His remains were conveyed to Boston, and after funeral services at King’s Chapel, conducted by the Rev. Dr. Greenwood, were laid in Mount Auburn Cemetery, where a monument was erected by contributions made by a very large number of persons in different churches, and by many among the poor, who were desirous thus to express their gratitude to their benefactor.
First Person Accounts of Joseph Tuckerman
His nephew, Henry T. Tuckerman, Esq., of Oswego, N.Y., wrote of him:
When I compare his demeanor and aspect with the present race of clergymen, I feel that with him departed a type of the profession almost obsolete. His thin, aquiline face, and hair combed back from the brow, his benevolent manner, and his habit of expressing sentiments made him more distinctly clerical to the most casual observer than is usually the case with ministers now. Indeed, he took both pride and pleasure, and considered it his duty, to assert the principles and extend the sympathies, which, in old times and in early American society, were expected from a preacher of the gospel. He could not be five minutes in the presence of others without expressing, directly or indirectly, what Swedenborgians call his “use,” which was to advocate what he deemed true and right, to act the reformer, the peacemaker, and the Christian brother, sometimes, perhaps, with unwise zeal, but always in sincerity of heart and with ardor. His motions, when in health, were nervously rapid, his flow of words ready and free, his tone usually pleading. He was capable of great cheerfulness, and an excitable temperament lent freshness and cordiality to his address. He was the creature of impulse, and frankly put himself in relation with any one he encountered whom he desired to convince or influence.
He was ready, except when enfeebled by illness, under which in various forms he suffered frequently, to preach, argue, sympathize, counsel, rebuke, be compassionate, or pray, as the occasion demanded; and, if there be such a temperament as the clerical—that is, an instinctive readiness to enter into religious or benevolent action through unlimited emotional capacity— I think he possessed it in an eminent degree; and it was this that made him efficient as a missionary to the poor.
Indeed, the basis of his character was a peculiar ardor of feeling, in which consisted both its strength and weakness. All my recollections exhibit him as an enthusiast; and the reserved manners and somewhat formal tone of mind, which used to prevail in New England, made him a striking contrast to those with whom I came in most frequent contact. So vivid was his example in this respect that, to my young imagination, goodness and emotion, or rather the display of the latter, were long identified. It was a curious speculation to me, even in boyhood, to reconcile the moral superiority I early learned to appreciate in my excellent relative and revered pastor, Dr. Channing, with the total diversity of manner and expression in the two friends. It is impossible to fancy a greater diversity than they presented when engaged in conversation, whether argumentative, serious, or playful, the one all impulse, and the other profoundly calm and self-possessed. Perhaps it was this very contrast in disposition that attached them so strongly. My uncle’s efficiency arose from the zeal with which he engaged in any pursuit. His original force of mind was not remarkable, his natural powers of expression were limited; but few men threw themselves so entirely into an enterprise, a discussion, an intimacy, or even a casual project. From a condition of great physical exhaustion or a mood of entire listlessness I have often seen him suddenly emerge, like one rejuvenated, at the sight of a genial acquaintance, the mention of a benevolent scheme, or the idea of an interesting journey. His self-absorption, incident to all enthusiastic men, occasionally led to amusing results. One evening he entered the house adjoining his own, hung up his hat in the entry, and seeing a fair neighbor in the parlor, welcomed her with unusual cordiality. “This is indeed kind, my dear Madam,” said he. “I am delighted to see you thus sitting at your work, and making yourself at home. It is truly neighborly, just what I like.” He drew a chair to the fire and began to chat, his amused companion perceiving and being determined to humor the mistake. After about half an hour, wishing to write a note, he looked to his accustomed corner, and missed his desk, and then glancing at the wall, wondered what had become of the portrait of his venerable friend—the peace apostle, Noah Worcester; and at last the truth flashed upon him that he was in the wrong house. One morning he sent to the livery stable for the horse and chaise with which he made visits to the poor. Word was brought that they had not been returned the previous evening; and then he remembered having been completely preoccupied the day before with an afflicted family, from whose humble home he had returned on foot. A search was instituted, and the vehicle found at the end of Long Wharf, where the poor animal had passed the whole night under the lee of a cask of molasses!
I do not think any written memorial can give an adequate image of one whose influence was so singularly personal. Impatient for results, he seldom thought out any subject, except for an immediate object. The best things he said, wrote, or did were the direct and instant offspring of his awakened sensibility. His mind was far more active than profound, his language more diffuse than finished. It was through sympathy rather than reflection that he achieved good. Enlist his feelings, and you had his will. Warm in his attachments, fervent and somewhat exclusive in conversation, always engrossed in some affection, experiment, or course of action, it was the living man, and not his gifts or achievements, that best represented all he was. He was more of a social being than a scholar, more of a philanthropist than a thinker. In the denomination to which he belonged, with such pulpit orators as Buckminster, Ware, Dewey, Greenwood, and Channing, whose writings have a standard literary value, he never sought renown as a preacher.
My uncle’s temperament, his physical and moral need of activity, the quickness of his sympathies, his social disposition, and the marked superiority of his parochial labors over those of the pulpit—all indicated a different sphere, as far better adapted to elicit the powers of usefulness. The project of a “ministry-at-large,” to be sustained by the combined aid of the various Unitarian churches, was a precedent the importance of which can hardly be overrated. It was an enterprise precisely fitted to my uncle’s character, tastes, and ability; and this was made evident the moment he entered upon his functions. His whole nature was quickened. He interested the young and the wealthy in behalf of his mission; his services at the Free Chapel were fully attended; at the office of the Association a record was kept of all the poor known to be without employment in the city, with such facts of their history as were needed to their intelligent relief. My uncle became the almoner of the rich and the confidant of the poor. He visited families who had no religious teachers and no regular source of livelihood, collected and reported facts, corresponded with the legislators at home and abroad, and thus opened the way for a more thorough understanding of the condition of the indigent and the means of relieving them, the causes of pauperism, and the duty of Christian communities towards its victims. A work entitled “Principles and Results of the Ministry-at large,” besides a series of Annual Reports to the Association that appointed him to the office, abundantly indicates the indirect value of his labors to the political economist and to the charitable inquirer, as well as the great amount of immediate good effected in the way of physical relief and moral reformation. These labors initiated a new sphere of Protestant charity. They excited much interest in England, and one of the ablest emanations of his pen was an eloquent rebuke to Sir Robert Peel for views advanced by him for the prevention of pauperism in Great Britain, which ignored the highest claims of humanity in order to subdue a material evil. The friendships, correspondence, discussions, and personal ministrations incident to this extensive undertaking absorbed his time, thoughts, and feelings for several years. His craving for usefulness, his need of action, and his love of truth were all gratified. His object met with the highest recognition at home and abroad; and his nature thus found at last, the free scope and ample inspiration required for one to whom sympathetic activity and earnest devotion were alike an instinct of character and a demand of conscience.
No one has ever doubted that Dr. Tuckerman owed his inspiration to take up the work of the ministry at-large to his classmate and intimate friend, Dr. Channing.
Miss Elizabeth P. Peabody wrote the following interesting account of their relation:
I saw much of Dr. Tuckerman while he was in this relation, as I was in the habit of spending my evenings with Dr. Charming, and Dr. Tuckerman was a frequent and familiar visitor. For some seasons he and Mr. Jonathan Phillips and Dr. Charming used to meet once a week to take counsel together in regard to his philanthropic work, in which they all seemed equally engaged, though Dr. Tuckerman was the active and public agent of this great charity.
The effect of it upon himself was very interesting to me. He was naturally self-conscious and sentimental, and, being an invalid, was perhaps a little “sultry” in his manners. Dr. Channing was exceedingly earnest that the sufferers should not be pitied into weakness, and that the poor should not be degraded by the help of those who seemed to be above them. He wanted them to be helped to help themselves, for he believed that to cherish the dignity of human nature into consciousness was to touch the highest spring of energy. And Dr. Tuckerman fully acted in this spirit, and grew more and more to reverence those among whom he ministered. It was wonderful how he was received by even the vicious, and how often he found it possible to awaken in those who seemed at first to be helpless subjects self-respect and hope, leading to the most happy results. He grew every day and hour more real, as he acted in this noble way; and it did indeed seem, when you heard him talk, as if the worldly society of the better classes was stale, flat, and unprofitable in comparison with what he found in what are called the lower walks of life. But he would never let you call them “lower,” he would say “less world-favored.”
As he made progress in his benevolent work—endeavoring to recover the lost, helping the feebleminded, and recognizing the unknown brethren, who were not perhaps sealed with the name of Christ, though they were his in spirit—he grew less speculative and more practical himself. He would say: “Christianity is a life, not a scheme of metaphysical abstractions. Its sphere is rather the heart and will than the brain and imagination. Its fruits are not words, but moral growth, enabling men to work with their hands day after day, and grow meanwhile more sweet, noble, kind, helpful, pure, and high-minded.