a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Biographies » Worcester, Noah (1758-1837)

Worcester, Noah (1758-1837)

Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations.  If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate 

Noah Worcester

Noah Worcester. Courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association Archives.

Noah Worcester was born at Hollis, New Hampshire, November 25, 1758. He was a son of Noah Worcester, a man of an active and energetic mind, and one of the framers of the Constitution of the State of New Hampshire. His grandfather was the Rev. Francis Worcester, who was for some time pastor of a church in Sandwich, Massachusetts, and who died in Hollis in 1783. The Rev. Francis Worcester was the great-grandson of the Rev. William Worcester, who came from Salisbury in England, and was the first minister of the church in Salisbury, Massachusetts, which was organized in 1638.

Noah Worcester showed the stock of which he came from his earliest years. From the age of twelve he was accustomed, in the absence of his father, to conduct the morning and evening worship of the family. His opportunities for going to school were limited, and ceased altogether in the winter of 1774-1775, when he was but sixteen years old.

In the spring of 1775 he joined the patriot army as a fifer, and continued in the service about eleven months. He was at the battle of Bunker Hill, where he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner. In the campaign of 1777 he was in the army again for two months, acting as fife-major; and during this period it was his fortune to be in the battle of Bennington. Part of the interval between his two periods of military service he spent in the family of his uncle, Francis Worcester, and then he became attached and engaged to his uncle’s step-daughter, Hannah Brown, a fine girl of sixteen. Here, too, during the winter of 1776-1777 he first engaged in teaching a school; and, though he had had only the most meager opportunities for study, his services gave great satisfaction, and he continued to be thus occupied during nine successive winters. He was himself a diligent student, though his means for acquiring knowledge were very stinted, as may be inferred from the fact that during the first summer he passed at Plymouth he used birch bark to write upon instead of paper, and until then had never had the privilege of looking into a dictionary.

In September, 1778, he purchased of his father what remained of his minority, and removed to Plymouth with the expectation of spending his life in farming and teaching. Here he was married the next year on the day that he reached the age of twenty-one. In February, 1782, he removed from Plymouth to Thornton, a small town a few miles distant. His religious views and feelings now became more decided, and in August following both he and his wife became members of the Congregational church, under the pastoral care of the Rev. Experience Estabrook.

From this time he accustomed himself to a course of rigorous mental discipline, especially in writing dissertations on various theological questions. In order to do this, he was obliged to practice the most rigid economy of time; for he had a growing family to provide for, who were entirely dependent upon his labor. At this period he worked considerably at the business of shoemaking; but, even when he was thus engaged, he always had his pen and ink at hand to note down every thought that occurred to him.

In the year 1785 he wrote a letter to the Rev. John Murray, in reference to a sermon which the latter had published on the “Origin of Evil.” This was printed in a newspaper, and really prepared the way for his being introduced into the ministry. The Rev. Selden Church, minister of the neighboring town of Campton, holding the views of the Hopkinsian school, first proposed to him to become a preacher of the gospel. This led him to converse with other ministers and friends on the subject, and the result was that he offered himself for examination by the Association within whose bounds he lived, and they gave him a license to preach. This was in the year 1786. He preached his first sermon at Boscawen, New Hampshire.

Mr. Worcester’s preaching was from the beginning highly accept-able; and his minister, Mr. Estabrook, of Thornton, recommended him as a suitable person to become his successor. Mr. Worcester, therefore, preached at Thornton as a candidate for several months in the spring and summer, and on the 18th of October following was ordained and installed pastor of the church. He had lived in the town five years and a half, during which time he had been schoolmaster, selectman, town clerk, justice of the peace, and representative to the General Court, and the people were now glad to welcome him in the yet more important relation of a minister of the gospel. His salary being but two hundred dollars, and the whole of that being rarely, if ever, paid, he was obliged to resort to other means for the support of his family; and he made up the deficiency partly by working on his farm and partly by making shoes. He also, in cases in which the provision for the winter school failed, performed gratuitously the service of a teacher to the children in his neighborhood.

In November, 1797, he met with a severe affliction in the death of his wife, which was occasioned by her falling from a horse on Thanksgiving Day. Mr. Worcester being left in charge of a large family of children, many of his friends, and among them the sisters of his wife, advised him to marry again without any unnecessary delay; and, accordingly, on the 22nd of May, 1798, he was married to Hannah Huntington, a native of Norwich, Conn., then residing in Hanover, New Hampshire. This lady contributed greatly to his own happiness and the welfare of his family, and died about five years before him.

In 1802, when the New Hampshire Missionary Society was formed, Mr. Worcester was employed as its first missionary; and in that character he traveled and preached extensively in the northern part of New Hampshire during the autumn of that year and the summer of 1804.

In the autumn of 1809 he received an invitation from Salisbury to remove thither and take charge for a season of the congregation of which his brother Thomas was pastor, though then disabled for active labor by ill-health. He thought it his duty, particularly in consideration of the inadequacy of his support, to accept this invitation; and his people, who were strongly attached to him, reluctantly consented to it, though by their request he still retained his connection with the church, not without some expectation on both sides that he might return to them again. He accordingly removed to Salisbury in February, 1810, and continued there as his brother’s assistant or substitute for about three years.

At the time of his removal to Salisbury he was engaged in writing a work on the doctrine of the Trinity, to which he had devoted much thought and study for several years, and which was destined to bring him into new associations. This was the celebrated book entitled “Bible News of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” This work, as soon as it appeared, produced a strong sensation, not only in Mr. Worcester’s immediate circle, but in almost every part of New England; and it soon became the subject of earnest controversy. The Hopkinton Association, of which he was a member, passed a formal sentence of condemnation against the book, and in November following Oro) published “An Address to the Churches in Connection with the General Association of New Hampshire on the Subject of the Trinity.” He evidently expected that his views would be met with more tolerance, especially as he had communicated them to many of his brethren in private, whose relations with him had nevertheless continued as intimate as ever. He published several pamphlets about this time, designed rather to expose what he deemed the unreasonable opposition that was made to him than to vindicate directly his peculiar theological views.

The attitude thus taken by Mr. Worcester not only attracted the attention, but awakened the sympathy of a number of the leading liberal ministers. It was resolved to establish a new periodical, to be called the Christian Disciple; and Mr. Worcester was invited to become its editor. Being satisfied that he had but little reason to expect employment as a preacher in New Hampshire, and his brother, whose place he had taken, having the prospect of being able to resume his labors, he determined to accept this invitation; and accordingly, in May, 1813, he removed his family to Brighton, Massachusetts, and became editor of the Christian Disctple— a post he held for nearly six years. This work, as conducted by him, though in its general influence favorable to Unitarianism, was remarkably free from controversial tone, and professed to aim more at the cultivation of the Christian temper than the exposition of Christian doctrine.

In 1818 he was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by Harvard College.

In connection with his labors as editor of the Christian Disciple he began a vigorous effort in favor of the cause of Peace. He attained to an undoubting conviction that war, in every form, defensive as well as offensive, is contrary to the spirit and precepts of the gospel. In 1814 he published his celebrated tract, entitled “A Solemn Review of the Custom of War,” which not only passed through many editions, but was translated into several languages. The publication of this tract was followed almost immediately by the formation of the Massachusetts Peace Society; and in 1819 he started the well-known periodical, entitled the Friend of Peace, which continued in quarterly numbers for ten years. Nearly the whole was written by himself.

In 1828, on the completion of his seventieth year, finding it necessary, to lighten somewhat the burden of his labors, he discontinued the publication of the Friend of Peace, and resigned the office of secretary of the Peace Society. His mind was now directed to an examination of the doctrine of the Atonement; and, having reached definite and to himself satisfactory views on the subject, he published them, in 1829, in a small volume, entitled “The Atoning Sacrifice, a Display of Love, not of Wrath,” which passed through several editions. In 1831 he published another small work, entitled “The Causes and Evils of Contention among Christians”; and in 1833 a large volume of more than three hundred pages, under the title of “ Last Thoughts on Important Subjects. In three parts: 1. Man’s Liability to Sin; 2. Supplemental Illustrations; 3. Man’s Capacity to Obey.”

For many years after he went to live at Brighton he was postmaster of the place, the business of the office being transacted chiefly by his daughter; but, when the business of the town had greatly increased, and large sums of money must lie in the office over night, he thought proper to resign his place.

He died on the 31st of October, 1837. His funeral took place at the meeting-house in Brighton at which he had worshipped, the services being conducted by the Rev. Daniel Austin. His body rests at Mount Auburn, where a monument has been erected to his memory.

Dr. Worcester had four sons and six daughters by his first marriage.

First Person Accounts of Noah Worcester

Rev. George W. Blagden wrote:

The old gentleman looked like a patriarch. He was six feet or more in height, with a large frame. His hair was rather long behind, hanging a little over the collar of his coat. And, when he walked in the street, he usually had a roomy black surtout or gown, and bore a staff rather than a cane, with a pretty large-brimmed hat. When any one who loved what was antique and venerable saw him thus, he could not fail to be greatly impressed by his appearance, and to feel that he was in the presence of a dignified yet entirely unassuming man. His habits of living were very simple, partly, I have no doubt, from taste and partly also from necessity; for I have always understood that his means were quite limited. It was alike pleasing and edifying to me to hear him invoke the blessing of God at his table. He placed his hand upon his heart, which had been beating there for some seventy years or more, and which, when only a little excited, I rather think he was in the habit of touching thus—owing to a spasmodic affection of it with which he was often afflicted—and would usually begin with the words, “Indulgent Parent!” I seem to see him and hear him now—an unusually kind and meek and modest but courageous and conscientious old man.

Dr. Worcester’s son, the Rev. Thomas Worcester, D.D., pastor of the New Jerusalem Church, Boston, has put on record the following curious incident about the controversy between the Trinitarians and the Unitarians, in which his uncle, Dr. Samuel Worcester, and Dr. William E. Channing were distinguished antagonists.

I do not suppose that any one who was acquainted with the two men would regard the former as inferior to the latter with respect to Christian temper; and yet he did not, in that point of view, appear quite as some of us had expected. The members of our family knew one thing more than other people did: they knew that the manuscript of Dr. Channing was revised by my father.

One circumstance interested us a good deal. Not long after the battle was over, my uncle visited my father; and, while they were conversing on the subject, the latter expressed his regret that the former had said some things which appeared to him unduly severe. My uncle replied that he did not intend to say any such things, and was sorry if he had, and added that he should have been glad to have my father revise his manuscript before it was printed, and should have requested him to do it if he had had an opportunity. It would have been pleasant to see both parties resorting to the same person for that purpose; and the tone of the controversy might have been the better for it.