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Whittemore, Thomas (1800-1861)

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A man with a remarkably varied career as minister, publisher, musician, politician and bank president, Whittemore was born the fourth of ten children on January 1, 1800 in Boston. When he was five the family moved to Charlestown. His father died when he was fourteen, and the boy was apprenticed to a leather maker. He tried a number of different trades, but none of them proved successful. In 1820 he was singing in a choir in a Baptist church in Boston, but was offered in May a position to play bass viol at the Second Universalist Society for $1 a service. Hosea Ballou’s preaching convinced him of the truth of Universalism, and soon Ballou was encouraging him to train for the ministry. Whittemore undertook this study with Ballou, and was called to serve the Universalist society in Milford, Massachusetts where he remained for only a year. He was ordained on June 13, 1821 by the Southern Association of Universalists in Stoughton, Massachusetts. On the 17th of September in that same year he married Lovice Corbett of Milford, and eventually they had eight children. He moved on to serve Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, and was for a time also preaching in West Cambridge. Whittemore’s writing career began almost immediately. In 1821 he prepared a catechism for children, and then in 1823 he began a major project which culminated in the 1830 publication of Modern History of Universalism.

Beginning in 1822 Whittemore became one of three editors of the Universalist Magazine. He thought for a time he would move the paper to Cincinnati, but then in 1828 he approached Russell Streeter about expanding the paper, and together they bought theUniversalist Magazine and re-established it as The Trumpet and Universalist Magazine. After Streeter transferred his interest, Whittemore found that all of his time was swallowed up by engaging in the needed tasks of running the paper, and he found it necessary to resign his pastorate in Cambridgeport after nine years. He stayed on as editor of the paper for 33 years, and was also its owner and chief clerk. The paper alone could not keep him occupied, and so he made his debut in politics. He ran for the Massachusetts legislature in 1831, and served for five years as a representative from Cambridge. Here he worked hard for the separation of church and state, long a Universalist concern, and helped achieve disestablishment in 1833. He was a frequent speaker around the state, especially on the topic of temperance.

Whittemore’s interest in music resulted in the production of five different collections by 1844. The first was Songs of Zion (1836), followed by Gospel Harmonist in 1841. He also published an instructional manual for the Sunday School choir, and a popular guide to Universalism (1838). He was an advocate of denominational education efforts, and was rewarded for his support when Tufts College granted him its first honorary degree (D.D.) in 1858. Whittemore was an outspoken advocate for Universalism and frequently found himself in newspaper battles over religious issues. Russell Miller, the historian, says that his writing was as blunt and direct as his personality. His bluntness showed up in a number of ways. He would name those writers who he felt were not brief enough, and he even published the list of subscribers who had not paid their bill. Subscribers seemed to like his controversial approach to religious issues, as he had 5,000 of them by 1836, and his paper was consistently the most important Universalist publication before the Civil War. Although he tried to avoid speaking out on reform issues, Whittemore became more forcefully antislavery by the end of the 1830’s. As editor he feuded constantly with other religious groups. He was especially inclined to be critical of Unitarians, whose clergy he called clerical dandies, finally concluding that their theology had no grand design but left everything uncertain. He once referred to the Unitarians as those who “preach as near nothing as a man can who preaches at all.” One ongoing debate in the Universalist denomination that surfaced on a regular basis was that over Restorationism. For years Whittemore fought with those who advocated some form of future punishment, especially Adin Ballou. Near the end of his life Whittemore admitted that he sometimes spoke out of turn, and was not fair, but that he wanted to keep the denomination unified.

As he grew older Whittemore tried other sideline careers such as president of the Cambridge Bank, which was fortuitous when he was appointed president of the Vermont and Massachusetts Railroad in the 1840’s and used his bank position to save the railroad from bankruptcy. He also served as a selectman in Cambridge, and then was an alderman after it became a city. Whittemore followed his history of Universalism with a commitment to establishing the Universalist Historical Society in 1834, and he became its first treasurer. He also wrote a four-volume biography of his mentor, Life of Rev. Hosea Ballou (1854-1855). He died on March 21, 1861 in Cambridge.