Tuckerman, Joseph

Joseph Tuckerman
Joseph Tuckerman

Joseph Tuckerman (January 18, 1778-April 20, 1840) was a Unitarian minister widely known in his time for his labor of love with Boston’s poor and for his advocacy of social and political reforms on their behalf. He founded and led the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian churches. Because of his remarkably innovative ministry-at-large, he became known as the “father of American social work.” Tuckerman best exemplifies American Unitarian philanthropy at the beginning of the 19th century.

Joseph was born in 1778, the son of Edward Tuckerman, a prominent land owner and builder in the Colonial period and a founder of the first fire insurance company in America. After a normal childhood for revolutionary times, Tuckerman attended Harvard College. He roomed at Harvard with his lifelong friends William Ellery Channing and Joseph Story, later Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

An indifferent student, Tuckerman, according to Channing, “had no serious view of life. Three years he passed as a holiday.” He graduated in 1798 and, after some additional study, was called to a ministry in Rumney Marsh (now Chelsea), a quiet farming village where he served faithfully for twenty-five years.

In 1824 Harvard awarded him a D.D. degree in recognition of his long service in Chelsea. Few of his sermons from the period have survived. His pastorate was probably undistinguished except for his enthusiasm for pastoral work, especially with sailors who stayed in Chelsea between voyages. He carried his concern for sailors and their migrant families to his later social work ministry. His throat overtaxed by the delivery of two sermons every Sunday, Tuckerman resigned his pulpit in 1826. He had accepted an invitation from the Association for Mutual Improvement, an ad hoc group of Boston ministers led by Channing, to undertake a ministry to the poor.

The new American Unitarian Association, a non-profit corporation organized in 1825 to promote Unitarian missionary work, soon assumed responsibility for the ministry-at-large in Boston. The AUA paid Tuckerman an annual salary of $600. Fortunately, he twice married well. His wives’ and his father’s wealth was more than sufficient to carry him through the early years of his new ministry. Indeed, Tuckerman largely met its early expenses himself.

As Tuckerman began his ministry-at-large, Boston was rapidly changing from a commercial and trading town to a small city of growing industries. The resulting influx of the rural poor and of poor immigrants from other countries both substantially increased and changed the character of Boston’s lowest class. The churches of the Massachusetts Standing Order (the Congregationalists and the Unitarians) were ill-prepared and, in any event, not disposed to provide assistance to people whose poverty was generally attributed to sin, dissipation and other vices.

Tuckerman intended to implement the moral principles of liberal, Unitarian Christianity. These included the perfectibility of human beings, no matter their circumstances; the moral responsibility of the privileged to address and solve civic problems; the creation of all persons in the image of God; and love of others as the highest expression of Christian life. “There is no human being, however, depraved, who is yet totally depraved,” he wrote, “no one for whom moral efforts are not to be made as long as God shall uphold him in being.”

“Christianity,” Tuckerman taught, “would remove, or enable every individual to surmount, every obstacle in the way to the highest moral completeness within his attainment. It would make the hewer of wood and the drawer of water, the mere drain digger and the scavenger, morally as complete a being as it would make the most exalted [minister of religion]. It would make the servant morally as perfect as his master.”

Tuckerman also believed in the “scientific study” of poverty, and intended to conduct his ministry in accordance with its results. Before he began his work, he read extensively in the works of European social philosophers, particularly Thomas Chalmers and Baron Degerando, and studied the public and private programs in England and on the Continent. He continued his disciplined study of such programs throughout his ministry.

Tuckerman apparently had, at first, little notion what form his ministry should take. He simply went onto the streets of Boston, particularly in the neighborhood of the docks where the Fleet Center now stands. He introduced himself to people he identified as poor by their dress and conversation, invited himself into their homes and talked with husbands, wives and children. He sometimes offered assistance—a cord of wood, some money or clothes—and returned over and again, establishing affection and trust. He asked all he met to send the children to his Sunday school, and to attend his Sunday evening lectures in a small rented room over a paint shop in the Circular Building at the corner of Portland and Friend Streets. He observed the immigrants’ grinding poverty and the ravages of alcohol in family life. He met young children sent out to steal and prostitute themselves, as well as the starving widowed and elderly invalids.

The number of families whom Tuckerman visited and helped grew rapidly. The AUA raised $2,000 for a new chapel, built on Friend Street in 1828. By 1834 a second chapel had been built on Pitts Street. The Sunday School also flourished. Charles Barnard founded a new chapel, primarily for children. When it opened in 1836, it already had a subscribed membership of more than 730 children.

Tuckerman soon was convinced that the often duplicated, overlapping and inefficient programs of various Boston churches required central administration, record keeping and reporting. Accordingly, in 1834 the Benevolent Fraternity, a consortium of Unitarian churches, took over responsibility for the ministry-at-large from the AUA. The ministry thrived under the guidance of the “Ben Frat’s” board. At its peak at the end of the 19th century, its programs embraced five chapels, each with its own minister, and many other missions, schools, summer camps and opportunities for vocational training.

Tuckerman’s health, never robust, began to decline under the strain of his work. In 1832 two associate ministers, the Revs. Frederick T. Gray and Charles Barnard relieved him of some duties, but his condition remained fragile. In 1833 he traveled to England for respite and there formed friendships with Lady Byron, Joanna Baillie, and Raja Rammohun Roy, Hindu reformer and founder of Brahmo Samaj.

Tuckerman’s ministry-at-large included public advocacy for an extraordinary array of social and political reforms. He considered alcoholism a disease, not a moral failing; he promoted as treatment education and the regulation of excess, rather than punishment. He urged employment of school officials—the forerunners of truant officers—to ensure children’s school attendance. He urged that delinquent children not be dealt with by the courts, but on farms and in vocational training schools, to be designed and established to meet their needs. He lobbied for the reform of prisons and for the inclusion of educational programs in penal institutions. He helped establish the Farm School at Thompson’s Island.

Tuckerman regularly and often visited the House of Correction, the Common Jail, the School for Juveniles and the House of Industry at South Boston, and he concerned himself with ex-prisoners’ problems after their release.

He believed that only Christian charity, by necessity a voluntary and private endeavor, could adequately address all of the problems of the poor in Boston. He had concluded from his study of government programs in England and France that they would only increase the degree and intensity of poverty. Thus he lobbied forcefully against and would like to have seen abolished municipal and state-run charity programs. In this campaign he was largely unsuccessful.

Although Tuckerman published numerous discourses and tracts, chiefly of a political nature, his important writing was in his reports to those funding his work. In writing these reports, Tuckerman created a detailed record of his ministry, the problems he sought to address and the results of his labor. Excerpts were printed in 1874 as “Joseph Tuckerman on the Elevation of the Poor.” His great work, “The Principles and Results of the Ministry-at-Large in Boston,” a summation of his work, was written at the end of his ministry in 1838.


Throughout the 1830s his health had grown worse. Friends prescribed a boat trip to sunny Cuba with his daughter. Tuckerman’s spirits were high when they departed, but his condition worsened dramatically soon after their arrival. He died in Havana.


Tuckerman’s papers are at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston and at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Also at Andover-Harvard, in the Christopher Rhodes Eliot Papers, is Eliot’s unpublished “Chapters in a Biography of Joseph Tuckerman.” Many of Tuckerman’s sermons and addresses were published. Among these are ordination sermons for Samuel Gilman (1820), Orville Dewey (1824), Charles Barnard (1834) and Frederick T. Gray (1834). Tuckerman’s writings also include A Funeral Oration Occasioned by the Death of General George Washington (1800); Letter on the Principle of the Missionary Enterprise (1826); A Word to Fathers and Mothers (1828); An Essay on the Wages Paid to Females for Their Labour (1830); Mr. Tuckerman’s Quarterly Reports on His Service as Minister at Large in Boston (1832); Mr. Tuckerman’s Semiannual Reports on His Service as Minister at Large in Boston (1833-6); First Annual Report of the Association of Delegates from the Benevolent Societies of Boston (1835); Gleams of Truth, or Scenes from Real Life (1835); Principles and Results of Ministry-at-Large (1838); and On the Elevation of the Poor: A Selection From His Reports as Minister at Large in Boston (1874).

The standard biography of Tuckerman is Daniel T. McColgan, Joseph Tuckerman: Pioneer in American Social Work (1940). Other biographical treatments include William Ellery Channing, A discourse on the life of the Rev. Joseph Tuckerman, D.D. (1841); A Memorial of Rev. Joseph Tuckerman (1888); and the entry by Conrad Edick Wright in American National Biography (1999). Christopher Rhodes Eliot also wrote The Story of the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches: A Chapter in Religious and Social Service (1930). For discussion of Tuckerman in two different contexts see Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861 (1988) and Spencer Lavan, Unitarians and India: A Study in Encounter and Response (1977).

Article by Jedediah Mannis
Posted June 17, 2002