by James Buckley

The story of Thomas Whittemore sounds like one of Horatio Alger's potboiler novels about a boy who lives in rags and poverty and yet somehow rises above his desperate situation and miraculously succeeds in life.  But unlike Alger's writings, Whittemore's story is completely true.

Born in January of 1800, Thomas was one of ten children of a baker. His father's efforts to put food on the table and to provide adequate clothing and shelter for his brood eventually took its toll. When Thomas was 14 his father died.

Clearly it was up to Thomas and the rest of the boys in that family to earn money so that his mother and his siblings would not starve and be thrown out on the street.  Without any of the agencies available today to help a family in such a situation, it was surely possible that in 1814 in our young nation's history the Whittemore clan could have easily become a band of beggars. Fully cognizant of that possibility, Mrs. Whittemore tried to secure apprenticeships for her sons that she hoped would lead to jobs in secure trades. The other boys in the family cooperated with her.

Thomas did not.  He enjoyed loitering on the streets of Boston and his mother's several attempts over a period of years to get Thomas an apprenticeship failed miserably.

As a result, unlike his brothers, he reached the age of twenty without having successfully completed any training and apparently was not upset about his lack of employment.  Instead, he spent some of his idle time writing poetry, an activity that in those days was considered to be a flagrant waste of time. In despair his mother agreed that he should learn to be a boot-maker.   It was not an occupation she wanted for any of her sons but she gladly agreed to have Thomas try his hand at that trade. But soon it became clear Thomas was once again not going to succeed.

And then happenstance intervened.  An illustrious clergyman named Hosea Ballou went into the shop where Thomas worked and shortly thereafter engaged Thomas in a conversation. No one has recorded that conversation.  But whatever was said, Thomas suddenly became enlivened and fervently desired to acquire an education and become successful. Many adults living in 1820 would have considered such a goal to be totally unrealistic. At age 20, Thomas had spent but a few years in a common school and had taken exactly one course at a night school.

But taking advantage of his association with Ballou, Thomas asked if the clergyman would help him improve his writing and especially his grammar. Ballou agreed and in order to encourage the young man, he had one of Thomas' poems printed in a magazine of that day. Before long, Ballou had convinced Thomas that he too could become a clergyman, an idea that had never before occurred to the young bookmaker. The minister was able to solicit enough scholarship aid from members of his own congregation so that Thomas could start studying to be a minister.

Ballou believed that one learned by doing.  So after months of having Thomas observe and listen to his mentor's sermons, he decided Thomas was ready to deliver a sermon. His first effort was a disaster.   Ballou said that the best parts of that sermon was when Thomas announced his topic and then when the congregation said "Amen." But far from being discouraged about his new pupil's progress, Ballou insisted that Whittemore go to Milford, Massachusetts, and become the minister of the Universalist congregation there.

Happily, it was at Milford that he met Lovice Corbett of the then illustrious Corbett clan. It was soon clear to the Milford congregation that Thomas was what was then called a "Boston Tough." whose best features were his "frame of iron and his lungs of brass." But Lovice Corbett saw something in Thomas that escaped most observers.  She agreed to become his wife; eventually they became the parents of nine children. Gradually, due in part to Lovice's moral support and Hosea Ballou's determination and guidance, the tide of public opinion turned in favor of Thomas.   Soon his contemporaries were quoted as saying, "He has a ready wit, a never-failing flow of spirit and a genial temperament that draws a host of friends to him."

Thomas Whittemore eventually became the most influential Universalist editor in the U.S. during the nineteenth century.  He wrote a large number of theological books as well as many about Universalist history.   Indeed, his History of Universalism, published in 1830,was considered one of his most important books. His was indeed a meteoric rise. Only ten years elapsed between the time he was struggling to keep an apprenticeship in 1820 and the beginnings of his successful writing career in 1830.   Indeed, Horatio Alger himself would have had difficulty persuading his publisher to print such a far-fetched story.

And yet, in another case of Truth being stranger than Fiction, Thomas Whittemore's rise from rags to social and theological prominence is all true.

James J. Buckley is the author of over 1300 articles in the field of history, and also serves as chairman of the Massachusetts Commission on Special Education.

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