With all due respect, Jane Adams,
move over. Adams, the legendary founder of Hull House in Chicago is popularly
credited as the 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 our 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 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 ministers, 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
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 turned 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 of 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 a way 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 for the slightest bit of information on their wretched lives. He began to win trust with small acts of
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 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
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 workhouses—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
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 calling 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 textbook 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.