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Ralph Abernathy Photograph by Warren K. Leffler, 1968. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (U.S. News and World Report Collection: LC-U9-19265).

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Abernathy, Ralph David (11 March 1926–17 April 1990), civil rights leader and minister, was born David Abernathy in Linden, Alabama, the son of William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell, farmers. A sister’s favorite professor was the inspiration for the nickname “Ralph David,” and although Abernathy never made a legal change, the name remained with him from age twelve....

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A. Bronson Alcott. At age fifty-three. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-54729).

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Alcott, A. Bronson (29 November 1799–04 March 1888), Transcendentalist and reformer, was born Amos Bronson Alcox in Wolcott, Connecticut, the son of Joseph Chatfield Alcox and Anna Bronson, farmers. Farming the rocky Connecticut soil was not lucrative, and Alcott worked hard with his parents to help support seven younger siblings, thereby limiting his opportunities for a formal education. He attended the local district school until age ten, but thereafter his intellectual growth largely depended on his own reading and discussions with friends of a similar scholarly bent, the first being his cousin William Andrus Alcott. William later attended Yale College and established a career as a physician and popular author of health manuals, but continuing poverty prevented Bronson from obtaining a college education. At age fifteen he, like many of his young Connecticut contemporaries, began peddling small manufactured goods, first in Massachusetts and New York, then in Virginia and the Carolinas....

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Anderson, Matthew (25 January 1845–11 January 1928), Presbyterian pastor, educator, and social reformer, was born in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, the son of Timothy Anderson and Mary Croog. One of fourteen children, he was raised in the comforts of a rural, middle-class home, less than thirty miles from historic Gettysburg. On a typical day of his youth, he faced the physical demands of farm life and experienced the movement back and forth between two cultures. One, dominated by commerce and materialism, was uncharacteristically open to the Andersons, who owned lumber mills and real estate at a time when most black Americans were dehumanized and disenfranchised by chattel slavery. The other was a culture defined by close family ties and Presbyterian piety. At home Matthew heard Bible stories and dramatic tales of runaway slaves; indeed, religious piety and the pursuit of racial freedom were dominant themes in his life. These early experiences inspired Anderson so deeply that, by the time he left Greencastle in 1863, he had decided on the ministry as his vocation. Study at Oberlin College was the first step toward serving his religious faith, his racial group, and his vision of social justice....

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Apess, William (31 January 1798–Apr. or May 1839), writer, Methodist minister, and Native-American activist, was born in Colrain, Franklin County, Massachusetts, the son of William Apes, a shoemaker and laborer, and Candace (surname unknown), probably a slave or indentured servant in the house of Captain Joseph Taylor of Colchester, Connecticut. According to Apess’s autobiographical accounts, his father was part Anglo-American and part Pequot and his mother “a female of the [same] tribe, in whose veins a single drop of the white man’s blood never flowed,” although some evidence indicates that she may have been part African American. Only in myth do such beginnings spawn great achievements. At age three, abandoned by his parents, he was nearly beaten to death by his maternal grandmother while she was in a drunken rage, a rage that Apess later understood as an effect of the theft by whites of Native American lands, culture, and pride. Bound out at four, he spent his youth as an indentured servant in three different white households in Connecticut and as an infantryman in a New York State militia company during the War of 1812. He received his only formal education, six winter terms of school, between the ages of six and eleven....

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Ballou, Adin (23 April 1803–05 August 1890), Universalist clergyman, reformer, and founder of Hopedale Community, was born in Cumberland, Rhode Island, the son of Ariel Ballou and Edilda Tower, farmers. A largely self-educated preacher, Ballou’s earliest religious experience was Calvinist in nature, and he later recalled the “very solemnizing effect” of the preaching he heard as a youth. At about age eleven, however, Ballou experienced a religious conversion, and a year later he was baptized into a Christian Connection church that emphasized a more enthusiastic and fundamentalist religiosity. Ballou developed a deep interest in religious matters over the next several years and eventually became a self-proclaimed preacher. At age eighteen, in the autumn of 1821, he was received into the fellowship of the Connecticut Christian Conference, a Christian Connection body. In 1822 he married Abigail Sayles; they had two children before Abigail died in 1829....

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Barrows, Samuel June (26 May 1845–21 April 1909), minister, reformer, and editor, was born in New York City, the son of Richard Barrows, a printer, and Jane Weekes. He was four when his father died and nine when his mother asked her husband’s cousin, printing-press innovator ...

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Blaustein, David (05 May 1866–26 August 1912), rabbi, educator, and social worker, was born in Lida, Russian Poland, the son of Isaiah Blaustein and Sarah Natzkovsky. The family was of humble means, and David was eight years old when his father died. Nine years later he ran away from home to the Prussian town of Memel in order to obtain an education. He then journeyed to Schwerin, the capital of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, where he enrolled in a Jewish teacher’s preparatory school under the leadership of Dr. Fabian Feilchenfeld. His intention was to be a cantor-shochet-teacher to the German Jews, but Bismarck’s ban on Russian Jews in Germany forced him to emigrate to America....

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Bliss, William Dwight Porter (20 August 1856–08 October 1926), clergyman and reformer, was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the son of Edwin Elisha Bliss and Isabella Holmes Porter, Congregationalist missionaries from New England. A graduate of Amherst College (1878) and the Hartford Theological Seminary (1882), he served Congregational churches in Denver, Colorado, and South Natick, Massachusetts, from 1882 until 1885. In 1884 he married Mary Pangalo of Constantinople; they had two children....

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Bourne, George (13 June 1780–20 November 1845), clergyman and abolitionist, was born in Westbury, England, the son of Samuel Bourne, a cloth manufacturer, and Mary Rogers. Bourne attended Homerton College, located in a London suburb, to prepare for the ministry. He first visited the United States in 1802 and in 1804 emigrated to Baltimore, Maryland. Rather than enter the ministry, Bourne became a journalist and established the ...

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Brooks, Walter Henderson (30 August 1851–06 July 1945), clergyman, temperance leader, and poet, was born in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Albert Royal Brooks and Lucy Goode, slaves. Brooks’s father was an enterprising slave who owned his own “snack house” and a livery business that brought him into contact with some of Virginia’s wealthiest citizens, including his wife’s owner, German consul Daniel Von Groning. Albert Brooks purchased his wife’s freedom in 1862 for $800. Still a slave, Walter Brooks at age seven was sold to the Turpin & Yarborough tobacco firm. He woefully recalled his time there, writing: “It was all I could do to perform the task assigned to my little hands. What I do remember is that I stood in mortal fear of ‘the consequences’ of failing to do what was required of me.” When the Richmond manufacturer fell victim to wartime economic decline, Brooks was allowed to reside with his mother and began working in hotels, boardinghouses, and restaurants. In his youth he acquired the doctrines that served as the foundation for his life’s work. He learned temperance from his pastor, the Reverend ...

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Sydney V. James and Gail Fowler Mohanty

Brown, Moses (12 September 1738–06 September 1836), merchant and philanthropist, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of James Brown, merchant, and Hope Power. The father died the next year, leaving a variety of properties and businesses, which indicates that his family was far from poor. Moses Brown had a few years of formal schooling before being apprenticed to his merchant uncle, Obadiah, to learn the intricacies of eighteenth-century commerce and to be adopted as a son and partner. After Obadiah died in 1762, Moses managed the business, and in 1774 married Obadiah’s daughter Anna, who bore three children, two of whom lived to maturity. Moses joined his three surviving brothers in the firm of Nicholas Brown & Co. to operate the family businesses. The profits of trade were diversified by manufacturing and money-lending. The Brown brothers inherited profitable candle and chocolate works and started a plant to smelt and work iron. They also tried at least one ill-fated slaving voyage....

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Cannon, James, Jr. (13 November 1864–06 September 1944), southern Methodist bishop and temperance crusader, was born in Salisbury, Maryland, the son of James Cannon and Lydia Robertson Primrose, merchants. The family was prosperous and prominent in Delaware, where James’s uncle, William Cannon, was governor from 1863 to 1865. Possessed of strong southern sympathies, the Cannons moved to Salisbury, Maryland, at the time of the Civil War, where the family business continued to thrive. Longtime Methodists, the family abandoned the Methodist Episcopal church and helped to found the local congregation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. They were active in this congregation, in the Democratic party, and in the emerging local temperance movement....

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Channing, William Henry (25 May 1810–23 December 1884), Unitarian minister and reformer, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Francis Dana Channing, an attorney, and Susan Higginson. Although his father died in 1810, Channing was well-connected with influential New England families through both parents and was raised in an atmosphere of privilege. He grew up in the household of his maternal grandfather Stephen Higginson, a merchant, and his education was directed to a significant extent by his uncle ...

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Coffin, Charles Fisher (03 April 1823–09 September 1916), banker, Quaker minister, and philanthropist, was born at New Garden, Guilford County, North Carolina, the son of Elijah Coffin, a teacher and banker, and Naomi Hiatt, a Quaker minister. In 1824 his family moved to Milton, Indiana, and in 1833 they went to Cincinnati for a year before moving to Richmond, Indiana, where Charles would live for the next half-century....

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Coffin, William Sloane, Jr. (01 June 1924–12 April 2006), minister and civil rights and peace activist, was born in New York City, the second child of William Sloane Coffin, Sr., a businessman and philanthropist, and Catherine Butterfield. When his father died suddenly in 1933 at the depths of the Great Depression, most of the family fortune evaporated, and the Coffin family’s life at the pinnacle of metropolitan society changed irrevocably. Catherine Coffin took her children to Carmel, California, and young William, who was called Bill, left his duplex penthouse on East Sixty-Eighth Street and the Buckley School for a modest bungalow and public schools. Four years later his uncle, the eminent Presbyterian minister ...

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Conway, Moncure Daniel (17 March 1832–15 November 1907), reformer, minister, and author, was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of Walker Peyton Conway, a planter and judge, and Margaret Eleanor Daniel, a self-taught homeopathic doctor. Born to privilege, Conway was expected to emulate powerful, prominent male relatives. But his desire to please his father was exceeded by the influence of his remarkable mother and other female relatives. Together, these women emphasized sharing over hierarchy, personal fulfillment as well as duty, and encouraged, despite his father’s disapproval, Conway’s love of literature....

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Crummell, Alexander (03 March 1819–10 September 1898), clergyman, activist, and Pan-Africanist, was born in New York City, the son of Charity Hicks, a freeborn woman of Long Island, New York, and Boston Crummell, an African of the Temne people, probably from the region that is now Sierra Leone. Boston Crummell had been captured and brought to the United States as a youth. The circumstances of his emancipation are not clear, but it is said that he simply refused to serve his New York owners any longer after reaching adulthood. Boston Crummell established a small oyster house in the African Quarter of New York. Alexander Crummell received his basic education at the African Free School in Manhattan. In 1835 he traveled to Canaan, New Hampshire, along with his friends Thomas Sidney and ...

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De Baptiste, Richard (11 November 1831–21 April 1901), Baptist leader and race advocate, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to free parents, Eliza (maiden name unknown) and William De Baptiste. Born in a slave state when individuals were fined and incarcerated for teaching blacks, enslaved or free, De Baptiste was fortunate to have parents who earnestly sought to educate their children and some relatives in their home, despite the law and heavy surveillance. In 1846 the De Baptistes moved to Detroit, Michigan. De Baptiste then received additional education and for some time attended classes at the University of Chicago. Having been the leading building and manufacturing contractor in Fredericksburg, the elder De Baptiste, after an unsuccessful partnership in a grocery enterprise, returned to his earlier work. Richard De Baptiste became a partner in the business before his twenty-first birthday and served for some years as its manager. From 1858 to about 1861 he also taught black youth in the public schools of Mount Pleasant, Hamilton County, Ohio....