Whittemore, Thomas

Thomas WhittemoreThomas Whittemore (January 1, 1800-March 21, 1861) was the most influential Universalist editor of the nineteenth century. The Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, which he established in 1828 as a successor to Hosea Ballou’s Universalist Magazine, was the leading newspaper of the movement for more than thirty years. Whittemore was also one of the earliest historians of Universalism.

Thomas was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 1, 1800, into the family of a baker, the fourth of ten children. His parents were moderate Calvinists, attending the Brattle Church. On moving to Charlestown, they were befriended by the Reverend Jedidiah Morse-the orthodox challenger to the liberals in the Congregational churches, whose efforts were instrumental in forcing the separation of the Unitarians. Morse helped the Whittemores through their financial difficulties, and was at the bedside on the death of the father, when Thomas was fourteen years old.

After he failed in several apprenticeships, Thomas’s mother despaired of settling him in an occupation, the lad preferring to loiter in the streets of the town. However, during his apprenticeship to a bootmaker, one day in 1820 Hosea Ballou, who was negotiating an apartment in a building that Whittemore’s master had purchased, stepped into the shop, and, as a result, changed the course of Whittemore’s life.

Whittemore’s education consisted of time in a common school and a brief course in night school, and, having a passionate love of music, vocal lessons and the study of the cello. Seeking to improve his writing, he requested that Ballou help him with his grammar. Shortly thereafter, he discovered that Ballou had printed one of his poems in the Universalist Magazine.

Ballou encouraged him to study for the ministry, something that had never occurred to the young man, raised a scholarship fund from leading figures in his congregation, and took him into his home as a student. Whittemore, who had heard Ballou preach a few times previously, was hired to play the cello in his Second Universalist Society, where he listened intently to Ballou’s preaching.

Ballou believed that one learned by doing. After a few months of study, and long before Whittemore considered himself ready, Ballou urged him to preach for the first time-which he did in borrowed clothes. Ballou’s humorous reaction was that there were two good things about the young man’s first appearance in the pulpit: the text and the amen! Despite this, he urged him to take the pulpit of the Universalist society in Milford, Massachusetts, in 1821. There Whittemore met Lovice Corbett, who became his wife. They were to become the parents of nine children.

After a year of experience in Milford, Whittemore moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Hosea Ballou and others had held services from time to time for a number of years. Whittemore filled the pulpit of the new meetinghouse of the First Universalist Society in Cambridgeport in 1822.

A contemporary referred to Whittemore as a “Boston rough”; another said that he had “a frame of iron, and lungs of brass,” qualities that stood him in good stead in the rough and tumble of the theological controversy, of which Universalists had their full share. He was direct and plain spoken, orally and in his writing. Despite his combativeness, John G. Adams, a younger contemporary, said of him, “He had a ready wit, a never-failing flow of spirits, and a genial temperament, which drew to him hosts of friends.” Hosea Ballou said that he was “the people’s man above any other in our denominational history.”

Under Ballou’s tutelage, he became a co-editor, along with Hosea Ballou 2d, of the Universalist Magazine in 1822. In 1828, without prior notice to Ballou, who at first resented his action, Whittemore and Russell Streeter established the successor newspaper, the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, purchasing the subscription list from the publisher Henry Bowen. Streeter withdrew after a few months, selling his share to Whittemore, who owned and edited it until illness forced him to surrender it shortly before his death. Over the years the Trumpet absorbed a number of failing Universalist periodicals and gained their subscription lists.

Whittemore gave up the burdens of the pastoral ministry in Cambridge in 1831, to devote himself full time to his editing of the Trumpet, the writing of many books on Universalist theology and history, and to a growing range of political and business activities. He continued to preach, however, often traveling great distances—at one point declining the invitation to move to the Cincinnati church—but remaining a resident of Cambridge for the rest of his life.

Whittemore was a faithful exponent of Ballou’s theology, vigorously defending the so-called ultra-Universalist position in the Restorationist controversy. Later, he would insist that “the doctrine of the final restitution is the main point” of Universalism, and brethren should not be divided. The columns of the Trumpet were filled with controversy, both internal to the Universalist denomination and externally, with Whittemore constantly on the offensive against orthodoxy, and defensive against the animadversions of contending denominations. One of his favorite sayings summed up his approach: “Dead fish float with the tide, live ones swim against it.”

Thomas WhittemoreAmong Whittemore’s most important books are The Modern History of Universalism, 1830, which Hosea Ballou 2d had urged him to undertake as a companion volume to his own Ancient History of Universalism. The book dealt with Universalist developments in Europe, from the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, and in America. Whittemore later expanded the Modern History, projecting it as a two-volume work. The first volume, dealing with European developments, from the time of the Reformation, was published in 1860. The second volume, which was to deal with American developments, was unfinished at the time of his death. Whittemore’s interest in history is seen in his leadership in the founding of the Universalist Historical Society in 1834, he serving as its first treasurer, and, for several terms as its president.

In 1833, Whittemore published a new edition of The Life of Rev. John Murray, adding to the Universalist pioneer’s autobiography notes that supply names of individuals that Murray had omitted, along with other informative notes. Whittemore’s four-volume Life of Rev. Hosea Ballou, 1854-55, is valuable not only for the exhaustive reporting on his mentor’s career, but for its details on his contemporaries and denominational developments, and for his own relationship with his mentor. His own surprisingly frank autobiography, The Early Days of Thomas Whittemore, which deals with his first twenty-five years, was published in 1858. Rich in detail, it contains his mature insights on his own life, his contemporaries, and the Universalist movement.

Because he made it clear in the autobiography that he resented his parents’ insistence that he and his siblings recite the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism every the Sabbath, it is ironic that Whittemore’s first publication was a Universalist catechism for children. He was somewhat apologetic about An Epitome of Scripture Doctrine, Comprised of a Catechism for the Use of Children, 1821, the work of a callow young man. He did not own a copy of it at the time of writing the autobiography. It is notable, however, that at the time of publication, he had sent a copy of it to Thomas Jefferson. The former president responded from Monticello, choosing not to comment on its specific contents. However, he expressed happiness that “the doctrine of Jesus, that there is but one God, is advancing prosperously among our fellow-citizens. Had his doctrines, pure as they came from himself, been never sophisticated for unworthy purposes, the whole civilised world would at this day have formed but a single sect.” Instead, Jefferson wrote, the divisions among Christians had led to a “slaughterhouse.” Whittemore was so pleased with Jefferson’s letter, that he included a facsimile copy in the autobiography.

As he had studied French, to better prepare himself for research in Universalist developments in Europe, so he took lessons in harmony, to prepare himself for the publication of Songs of Zion; or, the Cambridge Collection of Sacred Music, 1836, which among American and European hymn tunes, he included some of his own. He later published the hymn book, the Gospel Harmonist, 1841, which had a large circulation. Among his many publications on biblical and theological themes, his Plain Guide to Universalism, 1840, which went through several editions, is an extensive exposition of his views on the biblical basis of Universalism, and on the denomination and its opponents.

By the third generation of the movement, Universalists had risen on the American socioeconomic ladder, and had become leaders in their respective communities. Whittemore served as a selectman of Cambridge, and as an alderman, when it was incorporated as a city. Elected in 1831 as a representative in the Massachusetts legislature, he served for five years, his most significant contribution as chair of a special House committee that led to the constitutional disestablishment of the Congregational and Unitarian churches. After several votes in the legislature, a popular referendum, overwhelmingly in favor, led it to pass enabling legislation in 1834, Massachusetts at last into conformity with the First Amendment of the federal Bill of Rights. In this struggle, Whittemore’s career-long suspicion of the Unitarians was reinforced by the defense by many of them of the union of church and state.

In the legislature, he was also responsible for squelching the attempt to divide Cambridge in two. In the proposal, “Old Cambridge,” the home of Harvard University, would separate from the balance of the town. Whittemore denounced the attempt as caused by a desire on the part of some to incorporate the wealth in one town and the expenses in the other. Consequently, he advised the town to seek city status, successfully guiding the effort through the legislature. Whittemore’s extensive business involvements included his service as a director, and, then, as president of the Cambridge Bank. His investments also led to his presidency of the Vermont and Massachusetts Railroad.

Whittemore was critical of the Unitarians, for, among other things, their failure to avow belief in universal salvation, and he resisted the inroads on his denomination by Transcendentalism, insisting on the biblical basis of Universalism. Equally objectionable were animal magnetism and spiritualism, with its “arrogant pretensions of clairvoyance,” which was influencing Universalists and other American denominations in his later years. When asked why he did not investigate “spirit rappings,” and visit the young women who were vehicles of the phenomena, he wrote, “For two reasons: 1. We object to running after spirits; and 2. We object to running after the young ladies. The spirits can come to us much easier than we can go to them.” Furthermore, he wrote, “We hope the time will come when the Universalist denomination will not be the receptacle of every strange thing under the heaven.”

Whittemore was a champion of education for all: “We go for a universal education of the people—the poor and the rich—the farmer and the mechanic and the seaman, as well as the lawyer, the physician and the clergyman. Let all the people be educated. The universal diffusion of knowledge, is the only safeguard of our republican institutions.” He was among those striving for the establishment of what was to become Tufts College and served on the Board of Trustees from the year of its founding in 1852 until his death. For his dedication to the institution, and for his scholarship, he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity, in 1858, the first honorary degree awarded by the college. After his death, his wife presented his library to Tufts.

Whittemore was one of the founders of the New England General Reform Association of the denomination, and was an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, an advocate of temperance—although he opposed efforts of orthodox denominations to make it a sectarian issue—and an opponent of slavery. Although not ranked among the abolitionists, he was particularly condemnatory of the slave trade and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Whittemore died on March 21, 1861, having suffered from paralysis in the last year of his life. Like John Murray, and his mentor Hosea Ballou, he was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Thomas Whittemore FamilyThe picture of the Thomas and Lovice Whittemore and their children is courtesy of Heidi Whittemore. Left to right: Abigail Almira, Benjamin Bruce, Lovice Corbett Whittemore, Thomas Whittemore Jr., Thomas Whittemore, Eliza Ann, Lydia Ann, John, Lovice, and Joseph.

The Thomas Whittemore Papers are in the Universalist Special Collection at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Aside from the works mentioned in the article above, Whittemore’s published writings include Notes and Illustrations of the Parables of the New Testament (1832); The Doctrine of Eternal Hell Torments Overthrown (1833); “Memoir of the Universalist Society in Oxford, Mass.,” Universalist Miscellany (1849); Memoir of the Rev. Walter Balfour (1852); The Sunday School Choir and Superintendent’s Assistant (1844); A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (1848); “Universalism Revealed in the Four Gospels,” Universalist Quarterly (1858); and numerous editorials, articles, sermons, and tracts. Ernest Cassara, ed., Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith (1971, 1997; new ed. 1984) provides excerpts from Whittemore’s Plain Guide to Universalism, including a discussion on the question of whether Universalists could face death with equanimity, holding to the belief in the salvation of all souls to the end, or whether they retreated to orthodoxy with their dying breaths. This question also recurred over the years in the Trumpet, Whittemore publishing articles that gave repeated witness to the constancy of Universalists.

A full-length Memoir of Thomas Whittemore (1877) was written by his younger contemporary, John Greenleaf Adams. Adams summarizes briefly the years covered by Whittemore’s autobiography, and then provides a year-by-year account of the balance of his life, including details of his travels for preaching appearances and attendance at Universalist conventions. The book also gives Whittemore’s views on various subjects, and includes extensive quotations from his writings. Adams’s book, Fifty Notable Years: Views of the Ministry of Christian Universalism during the Last Half-Century (1882), describes the personal characteristics of Whittemore. Ernest Cassara, Hosea Ballou: The Challenge to Orthodoxy (1961, 1982) provides details of Whittemore’s relationship with his mentor. In The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870 (1979) Russell Miller goes beyond the autobiography and Adams’s Memoir, drawing on Whittemore’s books and the files of the Trumpet to recount his involvement in the controversies of the day. Details of Whittemore’s role in the establishment and development of Tufts College are found in Russell Miller, Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts College, 1852-1952 (1966) and in Alaric Bertrand Start, ed., History of Tufts College, 1854-1896 (1896).

January 2018 addition. For a recent biography of Whittemore (along with biographies of B. B. Mussey, Abel Tompkins, and James Madison Usher) see Alan Seaburg, Booksellers of Cornhill: 1826-1865 (2017). This 283-page Anne Miniver Press book includes comprehensive listings of each shop’s publications.

Article by Ernest Cassara
Posted April 30, 2001