Clapp, Theodore

Theodore ClappTheodore Clapp (March 29, 1792-May 17, 1866), an early Unitarian preacher in the southern United States who established an outpost of liberal religion in New Orleans and built it into a beacon of religious moderation, was born in Easthampton, Massachusetts. His childhood memories, he wrote, were laced with the pain he felt at the Calvinist preaching he heard about God’s “hatred of man.” This went against the grain of the boy’s affectionate and buoyant nature. His younger brother had died in infancy. Young Theodore Clapp was disturbed and frightened by the idea that the poor babe could be damned for all eternity.

Despite his early aversion to doctrinaire Calvinism, as a son of the Connecticut Valley, he was graduated from Yale and entered the Andover (Calvinist) Theological Seminary near Boston in 1816. After finishing, he traveled to Lexington, Kentucky and then to Louisville, where he taught school and occasionally preached. In 1822 Clapp was invited to New Orleans to become pastor of the Congregational Church, only the second Protestant church in the city. He brought with him his new wife, a Boston native whom he had met in Louisville. Unlike other contemporary Protestant clerics, who found the city a sinkhole of vice, Clapp found the beauty, liberal mores, and cultural mix of the predominantly Catholic city to his liking and embraced its unique character.

In 1823, his church established itself as the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans and associated with the Mississippi Presbytery. The financially troubled College of Orleans made him its President in 1824, but was able to keep its doors open only long enough for Clapp to create a scandal by holding balls at the school for free people of color and slaves.

As part of his conversion to his newly adopted city, however, he also became an enthusiastic apologist for slavery, which he regarded as less pernicious than Northern industrial “wage slavery.” Slavery, he preached in 1838, had Biblical warrant in God’s covenantal gifts to Abraham. “Here we see God dealing in slaves,” he preached, “giving them to his own favourite child, a man of superlative worth, and as a reward for his eminent goodness.” At this same time, however, he was aware of slavery’s pernicious effects on slaveholders; passages from his autobiography show he was aware, as a pastor, of male slaveholders within his own congregation sexually abusing slave women. He understood this human behavior as sinful and discussed it from the pulpit in theological terms.

By 1849, Clapp had shifted his position. He had decided that “the essence of Christianity”—the Golden Rule—was “at war with slavery.” Still, he did not agree with Northern abolitionists. They “intermeddled” with politics, whereas Christ and his Apostles “said nothing about any kind of emancipation except that which consists in deliverance from the bondage of sin.” Citizens of Louisiana, he believed, were bound to submit to its laws on slavery, although they were also within their rights to say they were opposed to slavery and to do what they could to have the law altered.

As early as 1824, Clapp shared with his congregation his growing reservations about Calvinist doctrines. Their passage together to beliefs they came to recognize as Unitarian and Universalist occurred during seven stormy years confronting the Mississippi Presbytery, which finally convicted Clapp of heresy and expelled him in 1832. The large majority of the congregation stayed with their pastor, however. They were able to hold onto him, their church building, and even their church silver, while the minority set up a congregation across the street taking the name First Presbyterian with it.

Clapp’s church took the name the First Congregational Society in 1833, and in 1837 affiliated with the American Unitarian Association, changing its name to the First Congregational Unitarian Society. The church, however, was generally known as Parson Clapp’s Church or the Stranger’s Church because its strong-willed and ebullient pastor’s preaching drew a thousand or more into its pews every Sunday, with many visitors from all over America and Europe. They singled out the church as one of the few places they felt obliged to visit in the port city, in order to hear its eloquent pastor. One church member later remembered that there was “No Bible class, no Sunday school, no prayer meeting, no missionary board, no church committee, no Donor’s Society, no sewing circle, no donation party, no fairs, no organ recital, absolutely ‘no nothing,’ but Dr. Clapp and his weekly sermon.”

One of the first of his many sermons published in the New Orleans Picayune was directed against the doctrine of eternal damnation, but it was answered by the city’s Presbyterian minister, who said that “Universalism, as it exists in New Orleans, is not only at war with the Bible, but with philosophy; with morality and commonsense.”

Clapp was self-assured, but also hostile to “illiberality.” Although the church revolved tightly around him, he opened it to visiting preachers and lecturers on various subjects, even astronomy and phrenology. On at least one occasion he opened the pulpit to an abolitionist.

He also offered his church to the young physicians who founded the Medical College of New Orleans to use for its first year of classes, and he served on the school’s Board of Trustees. The College, which evolved into Tulane Medical School, held its first graduation in the church, and Clapp was appointed an adjunct professor of anatomy.

Clapp served his congregation and the city for 35 years. He is well remembered for his unstinting work during the several epidemics of cholera and yellow fever that ravaged New Orleans during the 1830s and the early 1850s. He moved through the city from house to house, with almost no rest, comforting the sick and dying, burying the dead, performing thousands of funerals, and doing what he could for those left behind. Clapp also wrote in his autobiography of the courageous deaths of atheists and freethinkers, as compared to the craven fear he noted in many of the orthodox. His poignant remembrances of those times, detailed in his autobiography, are unique in their personal and horrifying description of the devastation and suffering. At one time, Tulane Medical School used to assign passages from his autobiography to the epidemiology classes. When Clapp’s two young daughters died in one of the plagues, he had to carry their small coffins out to the graveyard in a cart alone and bury them. People feared contagion so much that bodies were sometimes dumped on the streets. The poorest workers, who might have had the job of clearing the streets, were among the first to succumb, so city services were virtually nonexistent at this time.

In 1851, the Stranger’s Church was destroyed in an accidental fire, the same fire that swept downtown and burned the St. Charles Hotel. Clapp oversaw the building of a new church named the Church of the Messiah.

Clapp retired in 1856 and moved with his wife back to her family home in Kentucky. During the Civil War, the Church of the Messiah remained opened through the dedicated work of lay leaders—one of only two Unitarian churches in the South at the end of the War. One of those lay leaders was Clapp’s own son, a doctor, who acted as the church’s minister during the War.

When Clapp died in Louisville in May 1866 he was quietly buried there, but his body was soon brought back to New Orleans, where many thousands attended a funeral service held for him in March 1867. His final burial was in New Orleans’ Cypress Grove Cemetery.

Among Clapp’s publications are Theological Views, comprising the substance of teachings during a ministry of thirty-five years, in New Orleans (1859); Slavery; A Sermon, Delivered in the First Congregational Church in New Orleans, April 15, 1838 (1838), which was a defense of slavery; and A Report of the Trial of the Rev. Theodore Clapp before the Mississippi Presbytery, at Their Sessions in May and December, 1832 (1833), his apologia after he was convicted of heresy. Clapp wrote a memoir, Autobiographical Sketches and Recollections, during a thirty-five years’ residence in New Orleans (1857), which was republished as Parson Clapp of the Strangers’ Church of New Orleans (1957), edited and given a biographical introduction by John Duffy. On the history of the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans there is John F. C. Waldo, Historical Sketch of the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans, Louisiana. Address Delivered March 31, 1907 in Honor of Rev. Theodore Clapp (1907) and Henry W. Foote, Theodore Clapp; A Discourse Delivered at the One Hundredth Anniversary of the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans, February 26, 1933. Thomas Whittemore wrote and published a long biographical article about Clapp in The Trumpet and Universalist Magazine (September 8, 1849).

Article by John Buescher
Posted November 11, 2000 – revised June 13, 2002