Embedded quotes, except where noted, are from Joseph Tuckerman, Principles and Results of the Ministry-at-large in Boston (1838).
In his 1838 book about his street ministry, Principles and Results of the Ministry-at-large in Boston, Joseph Tuckerman wrote about how a stranger from a land where Christianity was unknown might perceive Sunday in an American city. His description tells about 19th-century American class distinctions as he saw them.
We can but very inadequately conceive of the overpowering interest with which such a stranger would witness this change. Worldly cares and occupations, he is told, are to be suspended on this day. The master and servant, the employer and the employed, the rich and the poor are to unite in the worship of the common Father of them all. He is told that the Author and Finisher of our faith came to bring to us, and to the world, a religion, which reveals one God and Father of all; which proposes to extend all its blessings to the poor and the poorest, the lowest and most debased; which recognises [sic] enduring distinction, but of the just and the unjust; which addresses all as children, and brothers of one family; and which calls all to live by one law, and to look for one eternal inheritance. Here, then, is a spectacle for the admiration of angels. The ministers of our religion are at their respective altars. The assemblies are gathered for worship; and the stranger there looks about him for representatives of all classes of the busy multitudes, amidst which he had passed the preceding days of the week. But are representatives of all classes to be found there? Alas, how saddening the illusion! From a quarter, to a third of the population of this city, who might be there, do not enter one of these churches. The poor are even excluded from them, except upon the condition of taking their place there as the poor. These are churches for those who can own, or who at least can rent, pews in them. And the laborers who had toiled from Monday morning till Saturday night are, — where?
Tuckerman felt the class distinctions in cities keenly. In his first ministry (1801-1826) in Rumney Marsh (later Chelsea and now Revere), Massachusetts, he had founded the first religious mission to seamen, ministering to a wider community than the members of his church. After resigning his pastorate, Tuckerman became minister-at-large in Boston, ministering primarily to the poor, first under the sponsorship of an ad hoc group of Boston ministers including his friend William Ellery Channing, but soon under the administration of the fledgling American Unitarian Association.
Tuckerman believed poverty was an intended condition of human existence, that there would always be those who depended upon alms for survival, and this in itself was not a degraded or degrading condition. It was poverty coupled with debasement of the human spirit that was unacceptable, and this Tuckerman held to be an unnatural condition imposed by humanity itself.
I have said that I regard poverty as one of the intended conditions of man in this world. So I think Christianity regards it. But so it regards not sin in any of its forms; or in any one whom it holds, or will finally hold accountable for his conduct. Poverty may consist, and is to be found in connexion [sic] the highest religious and moral excellence to be attained in this world. But poverty, as we see it connected with filth, and ignorance, and recklessness, and sin, not only is not an intended condition of humanity, but it is a condition from which it is a most plainly expressed intention of Christianity to redeem every individual who has fallen into it. God intended that there should be trade and commerce among men; and therefore that there should be capitalists, as well as laborers. But did God intend the pride, and the oppression of wealth? Did he intend that the laborer should be as a mere machine of his superior in condition? Did he intend that a few should enrich themselves by the toils of the many, and live in luxury and at ease, while the many should but obtain a bare subsistence, and be considered as much below their employers in worth, as in their outward circumstances?
Tuckerman frequently took the upper classes to task for their role in creating and maintaining the system that kept some in want while others prospered. More, he criticized them for an attitude that poverty was the fault of the impoverished and their due lot, an attitude that dehumanized the poor and made them lesser in the eyes of even those who gave them charity.
Not unfrequently, however, we are brought into connection with these families, primarily through their physical wants. These I have said, are real and great; and great are their sufferings under these wants. Aye, very far greater often are these sufferings than they are supposed to be by the casual observer; of by those who, reasoning of them as abstractions, and referring them to the laws of habit, sagely conclude that, intolerable as the condition would be to themselves, it is yet no very great evil to them who are accustomed to it. May God have more mercy upon these self-complacent arbitrators upon the sensibilities and sufferings of their fellow-beings, than they have toward those against whom they thus shut out their sympathy and compassion!
Tuckerman believed the situation could be addressed in two ways. For one, people of means needed to change their attitudes and behaviors—to improve themselves in Christian character. Without this foundation of sincere goodwill, attempts to help the poor better their own condition would continue to fail.
We all need greater disinterestedness, and greater wisdom. We all need, for our own soul's good, a closer connection with the less favored, and even the lowest in condition of our fellow-beings. I believe that by no means could those in the prospered classes be so advanced in the best qualities of the Christian character, as by a more Christian connection than they have ever had with the laboring classes, and the poor. Seek then connection, and maintain it. Learn to see in the poorest, and the lowest, a fellow-being, and a child of God... From the absence of this conviction in the prospered, and from its feebleness where it is felt, arise far the greatest obstacles to the success of moral enterprises.
The second way Tuckerman felt the condition of degraded poverty could be ameliorated was by bringing Christianity, and thereby moral and spiritual improvement, to the poor. He recognized the very real needs for food, clothing, shelter, education and employment, but he believed that if those who were poor were provided with a moral basis for living, their lives would be permanently changed for the better.
Let us not neglect the physical wants of these sufferers, for they are real, and many, and great. But listen I pray you to the cry which comes up from the depths of their souls, and which would find its way to the depths of your soul. This is the voice to which I would peculiarly give my ear, and my heart, and for which I would obtain your ear, and your heart. Let it never be unheeded, that these are men; human beings; and if to be saved, to be raised, to be improved, to be what God intends that men shall be, we must look to their whole nature, and act in regard to them in accordance with their whole nature. Let it never be forgotten, that by wisely directed aids, these sufferers may do for themselves what the united benevolence of the world, without their own co-operation, can never do for them. They are men, and yet have hardly the slightest comprehension of what it is to be men. They are immortals, and have yet hardly a sensibility of their immortality. They are sinners, yet with few and feeble convictions of sin. Christ died to redeem them. Yet what do they know of Christ, or of his redemption, or of their need of it? They are not however, thank God, even the lowest and most depraved among them, wholly without knowledge and sensibility of good and of evil. God has not left himself without a witness in their souls... Would you then be a Christian friend, a minister of God for the objects of the gospel to any of this class? I would say in the first place, look then to the whole of their condition.
In 1834, Tuckerman helped found the Benevolent Fraternity of Christian (later Unitarian) Churches, a consortium of nine Boston Unitarian churches partnering to bring Christianity to the poor. The "Ben Frat," as it was known, founded chapels throughout Boston to serve the poor and by 1835 employed seven ministers. Some have suggested that by founding these chapels, Tuckerman's elite Unitarian backers aimed to bring Christianity to the poor while not suffering to share a pew with them. In the same year the Benevolent Fraternity was founded, Tuckerman also organized an association to coordinate the services of 21 Boston charities. Elizabeth Peabody, a prominent reformer and educator of the time, wrote of Tuckerman.
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.
Although the chapels of the "Ben Frat" did not last, some still live in new ways. One chapel became the basis of today's Goodwill Industries. The "Ben Frat" itself became, in 1990, the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry. In an effort to restore his health after a decade of decline, Tuckerman sailed for Havana, Cuba, with his daughter in 1840. He died there on April 20, 1840.
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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.
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