With all due respect, Jane Adams, move over. Adams, the legendary founder of Hull House in Chicago is popularly credited as original American social worker. That was never quite true, although she did help make it a profession. Nor did she quite “invent” the settlement house concept for serving the needs of immigrants, although Hull House certainly set the standard.
Decades earlier a Unitarian minister was doing similar work in the slums of Boston. Although nearly forgotten today the Rev. Joseph Tuckerman probably deserves the title of the First Social Worker.
It did not seem a likely career path. Tuckerman was born to a very comfortable family, a part of the Boston elite, on January 18, 1778. His father was a successful merchant and the founder of America’s first fire insurance company. As expected of a young man of his class and prospects, he entered Harvard where he shared rooms with young William Ellery Channing, who would go on to be viewed as the “founder” of Unitarianism as a distinct denomination, and Joseph Story, later the very distinguished Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and revered legal scholar.
Tuckerman did not seem destined for such lofty accomplishments. Channing later recalled that his dear friend was at best an “indifferent scholar” who used his three years at Harvard as “a holiday.” In some ways a typical rich man’s son.
After graduation in 1798 he eventually turned to the ministry, a respectable occupation that probably seemed to him to be less arduous than the law or business. With an independent income from his family, he could live comfortably, if modestly, on the sometimes meager pay of a small town pastor.
After studying with some other preachers, Tuckerman accepted the not terribly desirable pulpit of the church in Rumney Marsh—renamed Chelsea—a quiet farming community and fishing port. He served the congregation there faithfully for 25 undistinguished years. Unlike ambitious ministers, he did not publish volumes of his sermons or angle for a call to the more prestigious pulpits in Boston and its immediate environs.
He did seem extraordinarily interested in the ordinary seamen who called at the port and the struggling families of those who made their homes there. This population, thought to be incorrigible drunkards and including aliens and Papists, were not usually either sought out by or served by respectable pastors and their congregations.
In 1824, probably at Channing’s urging, Harvard bestowed a Doctor of Divinity degree on Tuckerman for his long service in Chelsea. Two years later, his voice ravaged by the demands of two long sermons every Sunday and mid-week lessons and lectures, he had to resign his pulpit and retire from active preaching.
In 1826 Channing, on behalf of an ad hoc group of Boston ministers operating as the Association for Mutual Improvement, invited the newly unemployed Tuckerman to assume direction of a new mission to the poor of Boston.
In 1825 Channing and most of the Boston ministers had recognized that the split between the orthodox and liberals in the New England Standing Order was irreconcilable and formed the American Unitarian Association (AUA) to promote Unitarian missionary work. It was soon, de facto, the uniting and organizing force behind the liberal Boston area preachers. The AUA soon took responsibility for Tucker’s new mission.
Money was raised from contributions by wealthy Unitarians and by appeals to local congregations to pay Tuckerman $600 a year. Not a princely sum, but not out of line with the poorer pulpits. Fortunately in addition to his own family income he had inherited from his wealthy first wife and his current wife also brought income to the family. Not only could Tuckerman and his wife live in proper style in Boston, it would turn out that he had enough money to self-fund many of the ambitious projects he soon undertook.
If Channing and his friends thought that Tuckerman would be a place keeper and that the job was a form a charity for him they were wrong. The suddenly energized clergyman had found his calling and meant to do it right.
Boston at the time was undergoing a transformation from a mercantile center populated mostly by the decedents of Puritan colonists, to a bustling commercial and manufacturing hub. The first waves of largely impoverished immigrants were filling the poorer neighborhoods. They were shabby, ignorant, noisy, riotous, drunken, and Catholic, all traits that made them unwelcome in respectable Congregations. But the ministers of those congregations and the leaders of local society feared that if not in some way “tamed” by a dose of proper religion, they would infect society as a whole. They wanted their Minister-at-Large to find away to instruct them without having to admit them to their own congregations.
Tuckerman studied the most advanced European social philosophers and familiarized himself with experiments in social services in England and on the Continent. He also took seriously the prevailing Unitarian idea of salvation through self improvement. But he came to realize that the immediate needs of people would have to be met before they had the time and inclination for it. He began a “scientific” study by observation of the conditions of their lives.
Neither his sponsors nor Tuckerman at first had a good idea of how to proceed. He began roaming the streets in the port districts where most of the poor were crowded. He walked up to folks whose shabby dress identified them as targets, introduced himself, and began talking. He invited himself into their homes, asked questions and took notes. Some of his targets were flattered that any of the gentle class paid the slightest bit of attention to their wretched lives. He began to win trust with small acts of charity like the purchase of cord wood to warm a frigid hovel, warm clothes, or a meal. As confidence in him grew, he began to invite the children of immigrants to attend a Sunday School with him. He rented a small room over a paint shop in the Circular Building at the corner of Portland and Friend Streets for those classes and Sunday evening lectures for the parents—often concentrating on the evils of alcohol.
By 1828 the response was so good that he was outgrowing the rented rooms. Encouraged that Tuckerman might have found a way to taming the beasts of the slums the AUA raised $2000 to build a new chapel on Friend Street. A second one was built on Pitts Street in 1834, and Tuckerman’s associate Charles Barnard opened a third one aimed mostly at children in 1837.
By that time hundreds of children were enrolled in Sunday schools and hundreds of adults regularly worshiped at the Chapels. Some even came to think of themselves as Unitarians. But despite this success, AUA ministers were unwilling to trust these new faithful to be admitted to membership in their congregations, and were not even willing to turn over the chapels to them so that they could have their own self-governing congregations. Despite Tuckerman’s occasional protests, the AUA was determined to do “good work” while treating the unwashed as virtual colonies.
In the early years each local congregation offered some sort of help to the poor, however meager. Some congregations did more than others. Sometimes there were duplications. Tuckerman campaigned to unite all of these efforts under a central administration for record keeping and fair allotment of resources. In 1834 the new Benevolent Fraternity, a consortium of Unitarian churches, took over responsibility for the ministry-at-large from the AUA and Tuckerman added the administrative tasks to his responsibilities.
Known as the Ben-Frat, the new organization grew to five chapels and a full array of social services over the balance of the Century. In fact it survives to this day, now known as Boston’s UU Urban Ministry.
In addition to charity, education, and missionary work Tuckerman used his position to publicly espouse numerous reform proposals. Like many of his colleagues he was a strong Temperance advocate, but unlike them did not consider drunkenness to be a moral failing, but recognized it as a disease. In addition to campaigning to reduce the opportunities to drink, he sought ways to medically treat alcoholics. He campaigned for public education and urged the creation of what would become truant officers to compel parents to send their children to school. And in those schools he opposed corporal punishment and harsh discipline which he recognized would only encourage truancy. He urged that chronic truants and delinquents be sent to farms for rehabilitation rather to jails to learn to be hardened criminals.
In fact Tuckerman spent a lot of time visiting jails and juvenile detention centers ministering to the inmates and trying to find them safe and productive places when they got out.
Throughout the 1830’s the strain of his work took a toll on Tuckerman even after he was relieved of some duties with the support of Bernard and another minister, Frederick T. Gray. He went to England and to regain his strength in 1833 where he formed friendships with Lady Byron, Joanna Baillie, and Raja Rammohun Roy, Hindu reformer and founder of the liberal Brahmo Samaj sect.
His examination of British public charities for the poor—debtor’s prisons and work houses—houses of horror well documented by Charles Dickens, convinced him that government run charity was inherently miserly, cruel, and punitive. He believed that only Christian charity and private relief efforts could effectively and justly service the poor, so he publicly campaigned to end what few public charities there were in Boston.
Tuckerman wrote extensively. His reports to the AUA and Ben-Frat boards are detailed treasure troves of information on urban life of the period. He regularly published articles in the press, mostly calls for various reforms. In 1838 he published his great summary of his work, The Principles and Results of the Ministry-at-Large in Boston which became a kind of text book for social workers of future generations, including Jane Adams herself.
His health now completely broken, Tuckerman had to retire from the Ministry-at-Large that year. In 1840 friends convinced him to make a trip to Cuba with one of his daughters for the Cure. The Cure, as it often was, was more dangerous than the disease. Havana was a hot bed of tropical illness including Yellow Fever and Malaria. Soon after arriving there in relatively good health, he fell ill and quickly died.
His great and good friend Channing elegized him.