Ebenezer Fisher (February 6, 1815-February 21, 1879), Universalist minister and educator, was the first president of the Theological School at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He led the school through its difficult formative years.
The second of eight children of Ebenezer and Sally Johnson Fisher, Ebenezer was born in Plantation Number Three (later known as Charlotte, Washington County, Maine), 14 miles from the coastal town of Eastport. This isolated and relatively inaccessible area, where farming was extremely difficult, was inhabited by bears and adjoined a village of Passamaquoddy Indians. His earliest memory was of a bear attack upon the family livestock. Besides farming, his father kept an inn and served as local magistrate and postmaster. His mother educated herself reading the literature that passed through the post office. She had a reputation for ability in political debate. Young Ebenezer attended district schools in the winter, when not needed on the farm. A voracious reader as a boy and largely self-educated, he was known as “the scholar of the Plantation.” At around age 18, he briefly attended the Wesleyan Academy at Readfield, Maine.
Although his father was either a Unitarian or a Universalist, Ebenezer was brought up by his mother as a Calvinist Baptist. Later in life he recounted that, in youth, “he used to go out into the fields alone, and give vent to his indignation that God had decreed the damnation of souls.” As a young man, prior to his enrolment at the Academy, he worked at his brother-in-law’s furniture store in Canton, Massachusetts. His sister and other relatives encouraged him to study for the Baptist ministry and even offered to pay his expenses. He declined as he had already come to doubt the doctrine of eternal damnation. Two Canton Universalists, Samuel Chandler and his sister, lent him some of the writings of Hosea Ballou, Thomas Whittemore, and Walter Balfour. By the time he returned to his home in Maine, he had embraced Universalism.
Fisher taught school near his family’s home, 1834-38. In 1836, while still teaching, he felt himself called to the ministry. He first preached in 1839. In 1840 he was elected to the Maine state legislature as a Whig. While attending his duties at the state capital in Augusta, he met two Universalist ministers, Darius Forbes and William A. Drew, the latter the former editor of the Maine Universalist paper, the Gospel Banner. Taken under their wing, he was that year granted ministerial fellowship by the Maine Universalist Convention. He served a small society in Milltown (part of Calais), Maine, 1840-41. His first salaried settlement was at Addison Point, 1841-47, not far from where he had grown up. While there, he also preached in adjoining communities.
In 1841 Fisher married Amy W. Leighton of Pembroke, Maine. They eventually had three children: Ebenezer Everett, a physician; Amy L. Bigelow; and Ellen Estelle, who died as a child. When Fisher preached in his home town, the Baptists in his family came to hear him preach. His mother soon afterward became a Universalist.
In 1847 Fisher was called to succeed Linus Everett at the church in Salem, Massachusetts. He was not a popular preacher, but was a hard-working institutionalist and pastor. While there he became interested in church missions, denominational organization, and Universalist education. He was an officer of the Boston Association of Universalist Ministers’ Home Mission. A teetotaler, he was a leader in all local temperance activities. Although he was a solid antislavery advocate, he did not make it a defining issue of his ministry. He was temperate in pushing his views upon others. He said, “No man is a Christian who makes a business of breaking up churches.”
At Salem, Fisher was an active member of the Essex Ministerial Circle, a discussion group where Universalist ministers refined their ideas through debate and mutual criticism. In that educational and competitive atmosphere he developed a reputation as a sharp critic and developed the skills that later made him a fine teacher of seminarians. The group discussed both issues of current interest and perennial theological questions. When asked whether good might result from an evil act “ordained” by God, he said, “In physics you may strike here in order to get an effect there; but in morals that method is suicidal. The very act is destructive of morals.”
In 1853, hampered by a severe throat illness, Fisher resigned his Salem ministry and, after recuperating at his family’s home in Maine, sought a call from a smaller church. He served South Dedham (now Norwood), 1853-58.
Fisher then accepted the presidency of the new Universalist seminary in Canton, New York. He was the institution’s second choice. Thomas Jefferson Sawyer, who had been Principal of the Clinton Liberal Institute, had declined the position, partly because of the school’s geographic isolation. Given Fisher’s lack of published writings, meager educational credentials, and his then relative obscurity, his selection to head the Canton school might seem surprising. His name, however, was put forward both by Hosea Ballou 2d, president of Tufts College, who had seen him in action in the Boston Association and in the Essex Ministerial Circle, and by Day K. Lee, the minister in Ogdensburg, New York, who had known him when they had both been ministers in Salem.
Fisher was inaugurated in the spring of 1858. By then, only four students had enrolled in the Theological School. Fisher, the sole faculty member, taught all of the courses. He had to compose his own text books and to manufacture the copies needed by his students. In addition he spent a great deal of effort recruiting faculty and trying to raise the money to pay the salaries of new staff. During 1860-62 he was assisted by Massena Goodrich, who taught Biblical languages, although financial support for this position could not be sustained until several years later. In 1861 the school held its first graduation. The following year Fisher was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by Lombard College, the only degree he ever held. The Civil War hindered the retention and recruitment of students. At the end of the war there were so few students that none graduated during 1866-67. “At that time,” Fisher later wrote, “the whole school, including the faculty, could walk under one umbrella!”
Under Fisher’s leadership the faculty increased from one to three members, with the addition of Orello Cone and John Stebbins Lee. Their assistance permitted Fisher to concentrate on teaching theology and ethics. He tested his students’ answers in his classes and criticized their preaching efforts in chapel with the same rigor he had developed years before amongst his colleagues in the Essex Ministerial Circle. His wife, Amy, served as the students’ nurse and confidante, and was their hostess for Thanksgiving and other seasonal events.
113 ministerial degrees, including five to women, were granted during Fisher’s presidency. Almost one hundred other students spent some time under Fisher’s instruction at Canton without receiving a degree. Among the distinguished graduates during his tenure were James M. Pullman, Olympia Brown, Herman Bisbee, Almon Gunnison, Quillen Shinn, Henry Prentiss Forbes, and Florence Kollock Crooker. Fisher had initially been opposed to Olympia Brown’s ordination, but, influenced by his wife, had relented and taken part in the ceremony.
Fisher died of a heart attack one morning while on his way to work. His funeral and interment were in Canton. Colleagues, students, alumni, townspeople, and faculty from the normal school at Potsdam joined in the processions. Memorial services were held in Norwood, Salem, Buffalo, and Boston. In 1883 Fisher Hall, constructed as the school’s permanent home, was dedicated as a memorial to its first president.
For archival materials and other information on Fisher at St. Lawrence, see the entry on the Theological School of St. Lawrence University. In addition to writing articles for Universalist periodicals like the Christian Leader, Fisher participated in a debate, recorded in The Christian Doctrine of Salvation (1869), and wrote one of the sermons collected in Twelve Sermons Delivered During the Session of the United States Convention of Universalists (1853). The greatest source of information on his early life is George H. Emerson, Memoir of Ebenezer Fisher, D.D. (1880). See also Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 2 (1985).
Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted November 30, 2006