Isaac Morgan Atwood (March 24, 1838-October 26, 1917) was a Universalist minister, journalist, educator, and denominational leader. During the four decades spanning the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth he served successively as president of the Canton Theological School, the first General Superintendent of the Universalist General Convention, the Convention’s secretary, and professor of theology and philosophy at St. Lawrence University.
Shortly after Isaac was born in rural Pembroke, New York, not far from Buffalo, his parents, Nancy Shearer and Orasmus Isaac Atwood, moved their family to Lockport, about 20 miles away. At eleven he was “bound out” to work for another farmer in exchange for a load of potatoes. He fled the farm and found work driving the mules that hauled barges on the Erie Canal. While he was working in a tavern, as a bar-keeper and stable-boy, a local teacher stimulated his desire for education. He studied at Lockport Academy and did extensive reading by candlelight, injuring his eyesight. From age 16 to 18 he supported himself at the Academy by teaching. Although he qualified himself for admission to the “classical course” at Yale, because of the immediate needs of his family he abandoned his university plans. He gave parents his tuition money and went to work to help support them.
Isaac taught a private school in Corfu, New York, where he lived with the Henry P. Porter family. The Porters were prosperous local merchants and prominent Universalists who later used their money to benefit the Universalist-founded educational institutions, Clinton Liberal Institute and St. Lawrence University. This household was a stopping place for itinerant Universalist ministers. Although Isaac had been brought up Baptist, under the Porters’ influence and that of visiting clergy he soon embraced Universalism, a faith to which he remained loyal for the rest of his life.
At 19 Isaac told his family that he had decided to become a Universalist minister. “Isaac,” his mother vainly warned, “do you know that Universalists are the scum of the earth?” By the time he was twenty-one, with little training, and perhaps without formal certification, Isaac had become a Universalist minister. He first served a church in Churchville, New York, 1859-61. He was ordained in 1861 at Clifton Springs, west of Rochester, New York, and, a month later, married Almira C. Church, whom he had met while preaching in Clarendon, New York. They had four daughters and a son, John Murray Atwood.
After Clifton Springs, 1861-65, Atwood served churches Watertown, New York, 1865; Portland, Maine, 1865-66; and North Bridgewater, Massachusetts, 1867-72. His pastorate in Portland was cut short by a fire which destroyed the church and reduced the ability of the congregation to support it. While at North Bridgewater (where he also served the church in Chelsea, Massachusetts) he derived half of his income from editing the Universalist, published in Boston. While editing the New York Christian Leader, 1873-74, he served Fifth Universalist Church in New York City. Then from 1874 to 1879 he was the minister in North Cambridge (Third Cambridge), Massachusetts.
In 1879 Atwood, without an academic degree but with a growing reputation as a leader and scholar, was appointed president of the Canton Theological School at St. Lawrence University, a position he held for nineteen years. Surprised to have been chosen, he at first demurred. During his tenure some two hundred students studied at the school, more than half of whom graduated. Although respected for his standard of scholarship and attention to students, he was lampooned by some, who thought him over-conscious of his own dignity, as “the Great I M.” In addition to carrying a substantial teaching load, he worked closely with Absalom G. Gaines, president of the College of Letters and Science, in an ongoing fund-raising struggle to keep the university from closing its doors. In 1880 he was elected to the university’s board of trustees, on which he remained for the rest of his life.
In 1898 the Universalist General Convention, recognizing the need for focused leadership, appointed Atwood its first general superintendent. Although he was not a gifted administrator, he was an inspiring speaker and able writer. For the next nine years he worked hard, corresponding and traveling extensively while carrying on extension work and bringing aid to existing churches. During his first year in office he traveled 32,000 miles. A few years later he traveled over 85,000. Speaking for the whole church at denominational gatherings, he gave what he thought of as an “apostolic blessing.” In his first report he deplored the churches’ “disposition to cut down expenses, and ‘get along with a cheaper minister.'” He also consulted with troubled churches. He wrote, “He who would handle that sore [church quarrels] should have expert fingers, rendered innocuous by frequent familiarity with an approved spiritual antiseptic. If the good reputation I have earned in other fields should be frayed and finally rent into tatters in these trying exigencies, I hope the brethren who have persuaded me into this service will be on hand with an epitaph prepared before my era of ‘looped and windowed raggedness’ began.”
Self-deprecatingly and humorously, Atwood probably underestimated his effectiveness as a mediator. In 1901, during a floor battle at the General Convention over jurisdiction between proponents of his office and those of the Universalist Missionary, Quillen Shinn, he stood up and announced, “I have just come here from a visit with Dr. Shinn. During that visit, we discussed our work; we even slept in the same bed. Between us, there is nothing but good will.”
In 1905 Atwood resigned as General Superintendent, but carried on as an interim until 1907. In the meantime he became secretary of the Convention, serving 1906-12. His son, John Murray Atwood, described his father as carrying “in the band of his hat the business of the Universalist Church.”
Atwood served as an associate editor of the Universalist Leader, 1894-1908. He received honorary degrees from St. Lawrence University; Tufts College, 1879; and Buchtel College. He represented Universalists at the 1910 Congress of Liberal Religions meeting in Berlin, Germany.
In 1912 Atwood returned to Canton to become professor of theology and philosophy at St. Lawrence University and minister of the local Universalist church, positions he held until shortly before his death. By that time his son had become dean of the theological school. In 1917 he retired to Washington, D.C. to live with his daughter, Alice. He died soon after. His body was returned to Canton for burial in Fairview Cemetery.
After the Canton school’s Fisher Hall was destroyed by fire in 1951, a new building, Atwood Hall, was dedicated in 1955, a memorial to Atwood and his son.
Atwood was the author of a number of books and articles, among them Have We Outgrown Christianity? (1871), “A Glance at the Religious Progress of the United States” (1874), Latest Words of Universalism (1878), Walks about Zion: Ten Lectures (1882), The Apostolic Ministry (1885), Revelation (1889), The Balance Sheet of Biblical Criticism (1895), and A System of Christian Doctrine (1900). There are entries on Atwood in David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985) and Mark W. Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (2004). Robert Cummings, “The General Superintendency of the Universalist Church,” The Annual Journal of the Universalist Historical Society (1962) deals largely with Atwood’s career. See also Russell Miller, “A History of Universalist Theological Education,” Proceedings of the Universalist Historical Society (1984) and Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 2 (1985). The photo of Atwood is courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted March 17, 2007