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Joseph Tuckerman's Revolution

By Janeen K. Grohsmeyer.

On a cold January day in 1778, more than 200 years ago, while the United States was still fighting its War for Independence against Great Britain, a baby boy was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents named him Joseph.

"What will he be when he grows up?" wondered Joseph's father. "A lawyer? A soldier? A merchant?"

"He might choose to be any of those," answered Joseph's mother. "We must wait and see."

Sixteen years later, his parents got their answer. Joseph decided to become a minister. He went to Harvard College, but he didn't do a very good job at school.

"You should study harder," said his roommate, whose name was William Ellery Channing and who studied a lot. "It's an important job, leading a church and helping people." Joseph knew it was important, but he did not want to study all the time. "What do you want?" asked his roommate.

"To learn, but not just from books," Joseph said. So he would talk with people and go on walks, and he did study his books some of the time. Eventually, he and his roommate both finished at Harvard and became ministers.

"Would you like to be our minister, Mr. Tuckerman?" asked people in the town of Chelsea in 1801, when Joseph was 23 years old.

"Yes," said Joseph. "Thank you for asking." He became the minister at the church in Chelsea. He preached on Sundays—twice a day—and he helped the people in his congregation.

He also helped people who were not in his congregation. The town of Chelsea was near the ocean, and many sailors and their families lived there. Sometimes the men were away at sea for months or years, and their families had little money. Joseph would help them get food or clothes or whatever they needed.

After 25 years of preaching twice on Sundays, Joseph Tuckerman resigned from his job at the church. But he didn't stop helping people. Instead, he went to the city of Boston to help people there—hundreds and hundreds of people.

In 1826, Boston had many sailors and factory workers. There were also new immigrants from many different nations, and farmers who had just come to Boston from the countryside. Almost all of them were poor. Their jobs—if they had them—did not pay very much. Many people could not afford enough food to eat. They couldn't afford to buy fuel to cook with or keep warm. They couldn't afford shoes or clothes, for themselves or their children.

Joseph's college roommate, who was now the Reverend William Ellery Channing, had just helped to create the American Unitarian Association. An important belief of the Unitarian religion is to do service by helping people, and so the Association hired Joseph Tuckerman as the minister-at-large in Boston, to work with the poor.

First, Joseph followed his roommate's advice from all those years ago: He studied books. He learned what other religious organizations had done to help poor people—what had worked and what had not. He learned what governments had done—or had not.

Then, he listened to what rich people in Boston had to say about poor people. "People are poor because they are lazy," said one man. "And they are all thieves."

"They're poor because they drink too much alcohol," said another person. "If we give them money, they'll just spend it to buy more drink."

"We shouldn't help them," said another. "The poor will always be with us. Jesus said so in the Bible."

Now Joseph was a minister, and he had read the Bible. He knew Jesus had also said we should help one another, especially the hungry, the sick, and the poor. He knew Jesus had been kind to everyone, even thieves and people who drank too much alcohol, and had preached that we must do likewise. Joseph Tuckerman believed in that message of Jesus, and he believed it is our duty to create a just society, a society that treats everyone fairly. He believed everyone should be encouraged to become the best person they can be.

Joseph Tuckerman knew he needed more information about how to help the poor. So he walked up and down the streets of Boston and along its waterfront, and talked to the poor people themselves. "What do you need?" he asked.

"Food," they would answer. Or sometimes clothes, blankets, shoes, medicine, a crutch for their brother who had lost a leg in a factory accident, wood to burn to keep warm and cook, or even a stove to cook on and a pot to cook in. They needed almost everything. Joseph tried to bring them what they asked for. "Thank you," they said. "And thank you for asking. No one ever asks us what we need. They give us what they think we need instead."

So Joseph Tuckerman listened some more. He heard stories of fathers who had gotten hurt at work and died, for there was no money for a doctor, and then the families had been told to leave their homes, because they had no money for rent. He heard stories of blind people slowly starving to death in their rooms. He heard stories of children, four and five years old, working long hours every day, and of old people left all alone.

Yes, he heard stories of people stealing, and people drinking too much alcohol, just as the rich people had said. But Joseph Tuckerman learned that mostly the poor people stole because they were hungry, and he believed drinking too much was a sickness, not a sin. Everyone still deserved help.

Helping hundreds of poor people was a service that could use many hands. Joseph was glad to work with friends, such as other ministers and congregations in Boston that had also been helping poor people. In 1834 Joseph and the American Unitarian Association started an organization called the Benevolent Fraternity. The Ben Frat (that was its nickname) helped the churches work together, so each neighborhood in Boston had a place for people to get food and clothes.

As the years went by, the Ben Frat provided more than food and clothes. The Ben Frat listened to what people said they needed to help themselves. Its volunteers offered schools for the children, summer camps away from the city, and five chapels where people could worship on Sundays.

Joseph Tuckerman died in 1840, when he was 62 years old. But his social service lives on. Boston still has the Ben Frat, though it's now called the UU Urban Ministry. And Joseph Tuckerman's ideas—of treating everyone with respect, of seeing alcoholism as a disease instead of a sin, and of accepting our responsibility to stop poverty—are shared and acted on by people all around the world. Unitarian Universalists have placed his ideas in our seven Principles, and we still remember and honor the Unitarian minister Joseph Tuckerman for the way he made service his law.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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