Thomas Jefferson Sawyer (January 9, 1804-July 24, 1899), Universalist minister and educator, is best known for successfully promoting the establishment of Universalist colleges and seminaries. Tufts College and its Divinity School, and St. Lawrence University and Theological School, were largely established as a result of his persistent efforts. In addition, he taught and served as principal of the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York, taught at the Divinity School at Tufts, and served as a parish minister in New York City. Sawyer was highly regarded in all three chief fields of his endeavor—as organizer, teacher, and minister.
Thomas was born in Reading, Vermont, the seventh of ten children of Benjamin and Sally (York) Sawyer, a poor farming couple. He was educated at the local district school, at Chester Academy, and then at Middlebury College, where in 1829 he received a B.A. and in 1833 an M.A. While a student he supported himself by teaching at district schools.
Sawyer later claimed that before age 16 he had not given “any special attention to religion or religious affairs.” Two years later, however, probably under the influence of Samuel Loveland, the Universalist minister in Reading, he became a Universalist, and in 1826, at the end of his first year at Middlebury, he was baptized by Warren Skinner of Plymouth. Soon after, he decided to pursue a ministerial career, preaching his first sermon “the Sunday after graduating” in August 1829. He received fellowship from the Franklin Association in early September, and was ordained by the Universalist General Convention at Winchester, New Hampshire a week later. Other than studying briefly under William S. Balch of Winchester, Sawyer received no theological education. Consciousness of his own inadequate preparation inspired him to become a champion of theological education for others entering the Universalist ministry.
In 1830 Sawyer was called to the Grand Street Universalist Society in New York City, which, like the other Universalist societies in the city, was in a state of decline. “It was extremely fortunate both for the society and myself, that I came to New York,” he was to recall later. “Fortunate for the society because its only chance for life consisted in finding some young man in the condition I was then in, without money, without influence and reputation. . . . It was fortunate for me, because there was no other place in creation, I believe, where I was wanted, or would have been engaged.”
Despite its minister’s lack of training the society began to prosper. Sawyer’s strong defense of Universalism, through sermons, lectures, debates and writing, attracted people to the church. After two years it had outgrown its quarters and relocated to Orchard Street. In 1831 Sawyer founded, and from 1831 to 1845 edited, The Christian Messenger, a weekly newspaper which in 1835 merged with several other Universalist newspapers to form The Universalist Union (which in 1848 became The Christian Ambassador). The Universalist Historical Society was organized in 1834 upon his suggestion. He served as its secretary and librarian from its founding until his death in 1899. His principal contribution to Universalist historical literature is Memoir of Rev. Stephen R. Smith, 1852. In 1844 he drafted and presented a detailed plan of organization for the Universalist United States General Convention, defining the relationships between it, the state conventions, and associations. He tried to allocate the General Convention powers beyond the merely advisory ones that it currently possessed. To his disappointed, the plan was not effectively implemented. Needed reforms to the constitution were not adopted until 25 years later.
In 1831 Sawyer married Caroline Mehitable Fisher of Newton, Massachusetts, thus beginning a strong, cooperative union. Caroline was an ardent, well-educated Universalist who became widely known through her writing, contributing poetry and prose regularly to Universalist periodicals as well as writing several books. Her influence in promoting Universalism among women and children was substantial. The couple had five children, all born in New York City between 1834 and 1841.
In 1845 the Sawyer family moved to Clinton, New York where Thomas had accepted the position of principal at the Clinton Liberal Institute, a coeducational academy founded by Universalists in 1831. He hoped to expand the academy into a non-sectarian four year college with a separate Universalist theological school. To this end he issued a call in 1847 for an Educational Convention in New York City. The convention unanimously voted, without debate, that “Universalists need a well endowed College.” Implementation, however, went slowly, and was faced with much opposition. Meanwhile, Sawyer started a theological program at Clinton, separate from the academy. He administered and taught at both. To Sawyer’s disappointment, a decision was made in 1852 to locate the college in Medford, Massachusetts, and not to include a theological school. He was offered its presidency, but when his salary demands were rejected, Hosea Ballou 2nd was elected as Tufts College’s first president.
As chairman of the state convention’s “New York Universalist Education Society” Sawyer led a campaign to establish a Universalist college and seminary in the state. In 1855 the Education Society invited competition throughout the state for offers of a site and building. The bid from the village of Canton was chosen from more than ten submitted. The following year “The St. Lawrence University and Theological School” was chartered, the college as non-sectarian and the theological school “especially intended and organized for the preparation and training of persons for the ministry of the Universalist Church.” Sawyer, feeling his main goal to have been accomplished, refused an offer of the presidency and also resigned as chairman of its board of trustees.
Having resigned his positions at Clinton, in 1852 Sawyer returned to New York City and was called for the second time by the Orchard Street congregation. As before his ministry went well, with the help of Caroline, who led Bible study in the Sunday school. Horace Greeley, founding editor of the New York Tribune, was among his active parishioners, and the society made a significant impact on the larger community. In 1859, however, due to changes in the neighborhood, the congregation reluctantly voted to relocate, holding services at the Historical Society building at the corner of Second Avenue and Eleventh Street. Less than two years later Sawyer resigned his position and moved back to run the family farm near Clinton, his oldest son Thomas, Jr. having left to serve in the Union army. There, in addition to farming, he served as pastor of the local church. He returned to New York City to serve as a contributing editor to The Christian Ambassador, 1863-65. After the war he moved his family to a farm at Star Landing, New Jersey. He did occasional preaching there.
In 1869 Sawyer accepted the position of Packard Professor of Systematic Theology at the new Divinity School at Tufts, the opening of which gladdened his heart. He remained in that position until he retired in 1892. He lived in Medford for the rest of his life. A Biblical Christian Universalist who was a unitarian theologically, he held a lofty view of Christ and a disdain for Transcendentalism. His installation address was a strong affirmation of Christianity as a revealed religion and not a philosophy, and a proclamation that the divinity school was to be a school of Christian and not of Natural theology: “Is this New England Seminary to hold fast the traditional faith of our fathers, firm as the rocks that bound her coast? or is it, without chart or compass, to float out into a limitless sea of wild and cheerless conjecture? To answer this question . . . let me say, that we accept Christianity not only as a religion, in contradistinction from a philosophy, but also maintain that it is the religion—the only full and perfect religion of the world. We believe it to be from God, revealed by his will through his Son, Jesus Christ, whose divine mission was fully attested by prophecy and miracle.”
Many honors came to Sawyer during his long life, including an STD degree from Harvard in 1850—probably at the suggestion of Hosea Ballou 2nd, who was on the Harvard Board of Overseers—and an LLD from Tufts in 1894.
His funeral service, led by President Elmer Hewitt Capen and John Coleman Adams, was held in Tufts’ Goddard Chapel. Interment was in Mount Auburn Cemetery beside the grave of Caroline, who had died five years earlier. Memorial services were held later at Goddard Chapel and at the Church of the Divine Paternity in New York City.
There are letters of Thomas J. Sawyer in various collections at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, including the Medford Mass Walnut Hill Seminary, Hosea Ballou and Hosea Ballou 2d. He wrote articles for Universalist periodicals, especially those he edited, and published a number of sermons. His books include Letters to the Rev. Stephen Remington in Review of His Lectures on Universalism (1839), A Discussion of the Doctrine of Universal Salvation (with Isaac Wescott) (1854), and Endless Punishment: In the Very Words of Its Advocates (1880). Richard Eddy wrote a substantial memoir, The Life of Thomas J. Sawyer, S.T.D., LL.D. and of Caroline M. Sawyer (1900). There are short biographical articles in John G. Adams, Fifty Notable Years (1882); the Dictionary of American Biography; David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985); and Mark Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (2004). See also Abel C. Thomas, A Century of Universalism in Philadelphia and New York (1872), Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, Vol. II, 1801-1886 (1886), and Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, volume 1 (1979). Sawyer’s work for institutions of higher education is mentioned in Lewis H. Pink and Rutherford E. Delmage, editors, Candle in the Wilderness, a Centennial History of the St. Lawrence University (1957); “Report of Appreciation,” St. Lawrence University Magazine (2002-2003); and Russell Miller, Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts College, 1852-1952 (1966).
Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted August 18, 2004