Unitarian Philanthropy and Cultural Hegemony in Comparative Perspective: Manchester and Boston, 1827-1848

By Wach, Howard M. | Journal of Social History, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Unitarian Philanthropy and Cultural Hegemony in Comparative Perspective: Manchester and Boston, 1827-1848


Wach, Howard M., Journal of Social History


In the summer of 1816, Reverend Joseph Tuckerman, pastor to a small Unitarian congregation in Chelsea, Massachusetts, journeyed to England and formed a set of lasting impressions about urban life and economic change. London's beggars and destitute children unnerved him, but greater shocks awaited in England's industrializing regions. As he traveled northward his journal recorded a steadily mounting sense of fear and loathing. In Birmingham's brass foundries and china workshops he found dangerously unhealthy conditions, overspecialized labor, and most disturbing of all, a preponderance of women and children in the workforce.(1) He soon moved on to Manchester, where his hosts assured him that children employed in cotton spinning factories were well cared for, their education provided and their morals protected. Told that factory children must either work in the mill or seek out "precarious labor" and live in "real indolence" under the presumably suspect guidance of their parents, Tuckerman reacted with deep skepticism. "All this seems to me more specious than true," he remarked in his journal. The New England minister deduced grim social consequences. He took no apparent notice of differences between Birmingham's relatively small workshops and Manchester's spinning factories, but concluded that industrialism of all kinds threatened the family, bedrock of social relations. Dependence on the labor of women and children made the industrial system a recipe for producing "a feeble, diseased, and short-lived race."(2)

Of course, New England in 1816 had nothing remotely comparable to the industrialization already evident in Lancashire and the Midlands. And when factory industry appeared in the following decades, some of its founders, motivated by similar convictions, carefully constructed workplace communities designed to avoid English conditions.(3) As it did for many Americans of the time, urban England confirmed Jeffersonian fears Tuckerman had carried across the Atlantic and provoked an urgent American question: "Shall we, or shall we not, give encouragement to great domestick manufactures?"(4) The misery so conspicuous in English cities magnified his foreboding that a similar prospect lay in the near American future. He was certain of the price "the spirit of manufacture" would exact: uneducated children, women "of the lowest condition of society" wrenched from their families, their character rendered "impure," and an unhealthy, unskilled laboring class.(5)

Eleven years later, in 1827, the Executive Committee of the American Unitarian Association, alarmed by the growing visibility of poverty in Boston, authorized the establishment of the Boston Ministry to the Poor and appointed Tuckerman to the post of Minister at Large to the Poor of Boston. He plunged into his avowed task of rehabilitating souls lost to poverty and moral depravity through personal contact, counsel, and judiciously distributed material aid. In 1833, after five years of physically and emotionally exhausting effort, and with other pastors now enlisted in the work, Tuckerman visited England again. His reputation as minister to the urban poor preceded him and he was warmly received. Inspired by his visit, Unitarians set up similar organizations, known as Domestic Missions, in Bristol, Liverpool, and Birmingham, as well as in Manchester and the East End of London. The English organizers of Domestic Missions lauded Tuckerman and acknowledged their debt to the Boston minister. In 1835, Rev. John Relly Beard, one of the Manchester mission's key organizers, publicly credited "the idea and impulse" to his Boston colleague.(6)

William Ellery Channing was Joseph Tuckerman's closest friend. Probably the best-known American Unitarian of his time, and certainly the pre-eminent spokesman for Boston Unitarianism, Channing reawakened early nineteenth-century Unitarian theology with a deepened spirituality which spoke eloquently to contemporaries in Europe and North America. …

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