Peabody, Ephraim

Ephraim Peabody
Ephraim Peabody

Ephraim Peabody (March 22, 1807-November 28, 1856), an early Unitarian missionary to the (then) western United States and later a prominent and beloved minister of King’s Chapel in Boston, was widely recognized as an insightful and inspiring preacher. His theology of character was a central concept for antebellum Unitarian moralists. His own sensitivity and compassion won him great respect and affection. As part of his ministry in helping others build their character, he became a pioneer in social work, which for him encompassed everything from pastoral care to social justice.

Peabody was part of a close-knit family of Unitarian leaders. His daughter, Ellen Derby Peabody, married the president of Harvard University, Charles W. Eliot. Daughter Anna Huidekoper Peabody married the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows who organized the National Conference of Unitarians. His son Francis Greenwood Peabody, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard, wrote Reminiscences of Present-Day Saints, which he opened with a portrait of his father. His grandson, Samuel A. Eliot, was the first president of the American Unitarian Association. Francis Ellingwood Abbot, the radical empiricist and a founder of the Free Religious Association, was a cousin.

Born in 1807 in Wilton, New Hampshire, Ephraim was the only son of blacksmith Ephraim Peabody and Ruth Abbot. He was tutored by the Rev. Thomas Beede who had guided a number of young men into the Unitarian ministry. Upon the death of his father in 1816, Ephraim came under the influence of his mother’s brothers, Ezra, Samuel and Abiel Abbot. In 1811 Abiel Abbot had been dismissed from Congregationalist ministry in Coventry, Connecticut for his Unitarian views, a case publicized in The Panoplist by Jedidiah Morse, leading opponent of the liberals. When the Unitarian controversy came to Wilton, New Hampshire in 1818, it divided several Abbot households. While Ephraim’s uncle Ezra took the liberal side in the controversy, Aunt Rebekah opposed her husband. According to a family record, “There were great feelings on both sides.”

Upon his departure from Coventry, Abiel Abbot became headmaster of the Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. Ephraim attended the Academy and lived in his uncle Abiel’s home. He later attended Phillips Academy in Exeter, where a cousin, Benjamin Abbot, was headmaster. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1827. As a student of the Divinity School in Cambridge, his studies were shaped by the missionary zeal of Andrews Norton, the Unitarian Bible scholar, one of the founders of the American Unitarian Association, and determined defender of the liberal party’s rational Christianity.

After graduation from the Divinity School in 1830, Peabody first went to Meadville, Pennsylvania where he preached and tutored the family of Harm Jan Huidekoper. In 1832 Peabody accepted a call to the First Congregational Church of Cincinnati. Here began his long association with James Freeman Clarke, then minister in Louisville, with whom he worked in editing a new Unitarian periodical, the Western Messenger. In the first issue, June 1835, Peabody declared that the Messenger would be “devoted to a rational and liberal religion” and that “a primary object of this work is to set forth and define correct views of Christianity.” Clarke took over sole editorship the following year after Peabody’s health declined. The Messenger afterwards became less specifically Unitarian, increasingly Transcendentalist, and more of a literary magazine.

In 1833 Peabody married Mary Ellen Derby, granddaughter of Elias Haskett Derby, a Salem merchant and America’s first millionaire. Their son, Francis Greenwood Peabody, in his book about them, A New England Romance, 1920, represented their contrasting, yet complementary natures. Ephraim was “an unworldly and spiritual seer,” Mary “a cultivated and masterful woman, of worldly experience and charm.” In their son’s view his parents, “happily joined in the common desire for service,” represented “the two traditions of New England, the idealism of the hills and the commercialism of the cities.”

On a family visit to Boston in the summer of 1835, Peabody became ill with tuberculosis and his young son died. Unable to meet the strain of continuing his work in Cincinnati, he spent the next two winters preaching in Mobile, Alabama. In 1836 he resigned from his ministry in Cincinnati. Still convalescing, in 1837 Peabody accepted the call to the church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, jointly with John Morison, another minister in poor health. The two men became life-long friends. Years later, at his friend’s request, Morison prepared a memorial edition of Peabody’s best known book, Christian Days and Thoughts, 1858, a devotional work with meditations to be read during the year.

Another of his close friends was the Rev. Frederick Turell Gray, whom Peabody got to know well in 1837 while substituting in Boston for William Ellery Channing‘s associate, Ezra Stiles Gannett. Since his seminary days Gray had been committed to Joseph Tuckerman’s vision of a ministry-at-large to the poor in Boston. Peabody and Gray often discussed the effects of New England commercialism on the spiritual landscape. His association with Gray strengthened Peabody’s concern for the poor and his own devotion to the work of Tuckerman’s Benevolent Fraternity. In a sermon before the Fraternity, Peabody said that “from the Chapel in which Tuckerman first ministered dates a new era in the moral history of large cities.”

The modern city, Peabody thought, added something new to the history of poverty, beyond such elements as alcoholism and mental disorders, found in earlier times. The city had acquired its own complicating force as a moral agency, at once abetting and opposing culture. “It awakens the sensibilities,” he wrote. “It gives them a keener edge, it multiplies their demands, it carries a man out of himself, and connects his well-being with a constantly enlarging circle of influences external to himself-making him at the same time more self-subsistent and more dependent.”

The increasing frenzy of urban life emphasized for Peabody the need for revealed religion. “There is but one conceivable way in which we can have any sufficient and reliable assurance of a future life, and this is through revelation.”

In January, 1846, Peabody was installed as the minister of King’s Chapel in Boston. Over the years Peabody greatly increased the Chapel’s support for the Benevolent Fraternity’s ministry-at-large and started other programs for the poor. He divided the city of Boston into districts and organized the delegation of poor-relief to local administrators. With Frederick Gray he founded a school for adult education and helped plan the Boston public school system. He was also one of the founders of the Provident Institution for Savings, model for later savings banks.

Character development was a central theme of both Peabody’s preaching and his work among the poor. In his theology of salvation, “Christ saves men by every better thought which his words put into their hearts, by the holier purposes which he awakens, by the benignity of his example, by the power of self-sacrifice, by the divinity of his death, by encouragements and by warnings.”

In his sermon, Personality, Peabody associated “the personality of God” and “the essential, permanent personality of man.” In his social work for the downtrodden, he insisted that improvement of character must go beyond education in reading and writing to include development of manners and appearance and “furthering their self-respect.” Sin, he said, is “the debasement of one’s essential self, the greatest of woes, the only hopeless evil.”

The doctrine of immortality was crucial to Peabody. To him, immortality was the culmination and goal of the lifelong development of personality. According to his son Francis Greenwood Peabody, he had a talent for an appealing depiction of the afterlife, which cast “the softening glories of heaven over the dull, hard labors and cares of their earthly condition.”

Peabody was known and respected for his deep understanding of others. His ability to draw character portraits was widely remarked. In a sermon preached in New Bedford shortly after Peabody’s death, colleague John Weiss said, “To hear him bring forth with a few easy strokes some person’s nature into a sculptured precision, was one of the delights of his society. The strokes were easy, but they were minute and careful, and never omitted an essential line, however delicate.”

In 1855, Peabody, again suffering from an acute attack of tuberculosis, gave up preaching. He died the following year.

Letters and papers of Ephraim Peabody are at Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Archives of King’s Chapel, Boston; and the Derby-Peabody Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. Aside from many individual sermons and addresses printed as pamphlets and tracts, Peabody’s published works include A scripture catechism (1845); Slavery in the United States: Its Evils, Alleviations, and Remedies (1851); Italy (1854); On Mystery, Reason and Faith (1855), an AUA tract; Sermons (1857), edited by Samuel A. Eliot I; Christian days and thoughts (1858), edited by John H. Morison; and Lessons on the Old Testament (1867). He also edited and contributed to the Western Messenger and the Christian Register. There is a letter by Peabody, dated June 15, 1852, on William Ellery Channing in William B. Sprague, Annals Of The American Unitarian Pulpit (1865). It is one of the character portraits for which Peabody was well known.


There is a biography of Peabody in Samuel A. Eliot II, Heralds Of A Liberal Faith (1910), vol. 3. Peabody’s Sermons contains a memoir by Samuel A. Eliot I. John H. Morison wrote “A Memorial of Rev. Ephraim Peabody” for the Christian Examiner, March 1857. John Weiss’s memorial sermon was published as A Discourse Occasioned by the Death of Ephraim Peabody (1856). Francis Greenwood Peabody wrote about his father in A New England Romance (1920) and Reminiscences Of Present-Day Saints (1927). There is information about Peabody’s Cincinnati years in First Congregational Church (Cincinnati, Ohio: Unitarian), Memorials of the Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary (1880). Also helpful are George Willis Cooke, Unitarianism In America (1910) and Charles H. Lyttle, Freedom Moves West (1952).

Article by Frank Carpenter
Posted July 20, 2001