Pierce, Richard

Richard PierceRichard Donald Pierce (February 5, 1915-August 1, 1973) was a minister, librarian, scholar, editor, Professor of History and Religion, and Dean of Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.

Richard was born in Manchester, New Hampshire, the only son of Lewis Herbert, a bookbinder, and Eliza Ann Bradley. When his mother died shortly after giving birth, his father arranged for his two maiden sisters in the nearby community of Goffstown to take care of the new baby and his older sister. As the aunts were members of its Congregational church he was brought up in that faith. Years later, in 1941 when the church celebrated its 200th anniversary, Pierce was chosen to deliver the historical address. After high school he attended the University of New Hampshire, graduating with an A.B. in 1935.

Pierce went to Andover Theological Seminary to train for the Congregational ministry. In 1938 he received his B.D. and the next year was ordained by the Franklin Association of Congregational Ministers and Churches at his student churches, the Congregational and Free Baptist churches in Temple, Maine. He was given affiliated Unitarian standing in 1944 and, in 1951, joined the ministerial ranks of the American Unitarian Association. He remained at Temple until May 1940. Although his career then took a more scholarly direction, he did not end his association with these churches, serving as their acting minister until 1952, and minister emeritus until his death. Although he never held another parish, he continued to preach throughout New England, New York, and the British Isles the rest of his life. As he believed in Ecumenism, he preached in churches of many denominations. In Boston he belonged to First and Second Church (Unitarian), where he served for many years as moderator.

“I am convinced that liberal religion is the only valid religious philosophy for educated persons in a scientific age,” wrote Pierce. He wished to “face squarely and candidly the findings of science and scholarship without the impediment of creed or dogma.”

In 1938 Pierce accepted the position of Assistant Librarian of the Andover-Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. That school had been formed in 1931 when Andover Theological Seminary affiliated with Newton Theological Institution. Two years later he was made Associate Librarian and served in that capacity until 1947. In addition, he taught courses in church history, 1944-72.

During these years Pierce studied Library Science at Simmons College (S.B., 1946) and history at Boston University (Ph.D., 1946). For his doctoral dissertation he made an extensive historical study of Temple, Maine, focusing particularly on the development of its churches. Two years later he earned an S.T.M. from Harvard. During this period he edited the 13th edition of the General Catalogue of the Newton Theological Institution, 1826-1943; with biographical sketches of professors and students in Andover Theological Seminary, 1931-1943, 1943.

In 1947 Pierce was appointed to the history faculty of Emerson College in Boston and here he made the major contributions of his life. He was soon recognized as both an able administrator and a fine teacher. He served the college in many ways: as Professor and Chair of History and Religion, 1947-73; Dean of the Chapel, 1947-73; Chair of the Faculty, 1952-58; and Dean of the College, 1958-73. In addition, he was a Trustee of the College, its Vice-President in 1969, and four times its Acting President. Although asked to be President, Pierce always refused. In his various roles he kept Emerson functioning as a school when no one else could. Emerson awarded him in 1955 the honorary Doctor of Laws degree; later, in 1966, Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, New York gave him the honorary Doctor of Literature degree.

Pierce’s two most significant publications combined his abilities as librarian and editor. In 1953 the Trustees and Proprietors of the First Church in Boston invited him to prepare its records from 1630-1868 for publication. He completed this laborious and demanding task in 1961. The three volumes were published by The Colonial Society of Massachusetts. Sidney E. Mead said in the American Historical Review that the editor had done “an excellent job . . . maintaining throughout a high level of accuracy.” Pierce next turned to editing the records of the First Church in Salem between 1629-1736. At his death the work was almost complete. After an associate in the project finished the book, in 1974 the Essex Institute published it.

Pierce was a member, indeed often the President, chaplain or trustee, of many of the most important historical, philanthropic, and religious organizations associated with New England Congregationalism and Unitarianism. These included the Society of the Sons of the Revolution, the Society of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy, the Society of the Cincinnati, the Huguenot Society of Massachusetts, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Gibson House, a Victorian Museum. The organizations to which he belonged, connected more directly to religion, included the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches, the Edward Everett Hale House, the Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians and Others in North America, the American Society of Church History, the Society for the Promoting of Theological Education, and the Evangelical Missionary Society. He was also either president or director of the Unitarian Historical Society, the Massachusetts Congregational Convention, and the Lend-a-Hand Society; and Clerk of the Proprietors and Trustees of the First and Second Church in Boston. In England he was a Life Governor of Manchester College in Oxford. The fact that he never married made it possible for him to serve so many different organizations.

Pierce’s attire and appearance reflected his professorial role at the college. There he always wore a dark suit, white shirt, tie, and vest—and of course a gold chain to his pocket watch. But when he traveled from Boston, and traveling was both his hobby and relaxation, he dressed down: his shirts were bright and often wild. These travels took him to Europe, Central and South America, and once around the world. Although some trips were taken in connection with Emerson summer courses, most were with friends to places that interested him—for example, the Amazon River and the oasis Ghadames in Libya. He also enjoyed playing the piano and kept one in his Boston flat. But as a friend said, “While he could read music he played the piano as if it were a harmonium.” In addition, he enjoyed fine dining and was a member of many clubs such as the Union Club of Boston, the United Oxford and Cambridge University Club in London, and the Union Interalliee in Paris.

Returning to his interests in history, genealogy, and library administration, in the spring of 1973 Pierce accepted appointment as Director and Librarian of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Unfortunately, in August, before he started his new position, he suffered a fatal heart attack. His colleague and friend Dr. Rhys Williams conducted his funeral service at First and Second Church in Boston. His ashes were interred in the family plot at Goffstown.

The Emerson College Library holds in its Archives Collection the administrative papers connected with the various positions Pierce held at Emerson. The New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston has his typescript sermons, his manuscript “A History of Temple, Maine: Its Rise and Decline” (1946), as well as his genealogical records of the families of Temple, Maine. In addition to the books mentioned above, Pierce edited the Handbook of the Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians and others in North America, 1787-1964 (1964); compiled “A Catalogue of the Portraits in the possession of Andover Theological Seminary and the Newton Theological Institution at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts” (1950); and wrote “A History of the Society of Inquiry in the Andover Theological Seminary, 1811-1920: together with some account of missions in America before 1810 and a brief history of the Brethren, 1808-1873,” Andover Theological Seminary Thesis (1938); “An Historical Address given at Temple, Maine, on old Homeday; a paper on the beginnings of town and Congregational Church,” The Franklin Journal and Farmington Chronicle (August 2, 1938); and “The Legal Aspects of the Andover Creed,” Church History (March 1946). He also wrote a few book reviews for the Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society and Church History. There is an entry on Pierce in Who Was Who (1974). See also George R. Ursul, “Richard D. Pierce: A Personal Reminiscence,” in John Main Coffee, Jr. and Richard Lewis Wentworth, A Century of Eloquence: The History of Emerson College 1880-1980, (1982).

Article by Alan Seaburg and Thomas Dahill, Jr.
Posted June 16, 2003