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Francis Greenwood Peabody (1847–1936)

Francis Greenwood Peabody [photographic portrait, ca. 1900], HUV 51 (1-8), Item 10411, Harvard University Archives
Francis Greenwood Peabody [photographic portrait, ca. 1900], HUV 51 (1-8), Item 10411, Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Mass.

Francis Greenwood Peabody was born in Boston on December 4, 1847, to Mary Jane Derby and Ephraim Peabody, a Unitarian minister. After Ephraim Peabody's untimely death in 1856, his congregation provided the funds for his son's education. Francis graduated from Harvard College (1869) and received degrees from the Divinity School (1872) and from the Graduate School (1872).

After a brief time as chaplain and teacher at Antioch College in Ohio, Peabody served as minister at the First Parish Church (Unitarian), in Cambridge. In 1880, Peabody became a lecturer on ethics and homiletics at the Harvard Divinity School. Peabody subsequently served as Parkman Professor of Theology (1881–1886), Preacher to the University (1886–1906), Plummer Professor of Christian Morals (1886–1912), and Dean of the Divinity School (1901–1906).

Although Peabody strongly influenced the religious, moral, and philosophical climate of Harvard as University Preacher and Plummer Professor, his most enduring achievement was his introduction of the study of social ethics to the Divinity School and to Harvard College. Peabody's social ethics courses stressed the need to study the religious and social implications stimulated by industrialization. He also championed social science methodology, the case study method, and the liberal interpretation of the New Testament. In his teaching, preaching, and writing, Peabody characterized Christianity as a religion that required Christians to act as agents of social change, deemphasizing personal salvation in favor of social action. He also used photography to document social problems and to strengthen support for social reform. Peabody himself lived up to his philosophy by founding the Social Museum and the Department of Social Ethics. In addition, he was influential in founding Harvard's Phillips Brooks House, an organization that embodied the spirit of social ethics by promoting public service in the community.

Peabody's overarching goal was grand in scale: to promote social reform across the United States by drawing on the social sciences, photography, and organized religion. Besides his pioneering efforts in the discipline of social ethics, Peabody spearheaded the campaign to transform Harvard from an essentially Unitarian college into a nonsectarian one. He persuaded Harvard to make attendance at chapel optional, making Harvard the first traditional college in the nation to give students the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in university-organized religious worship. Some critics complained that Peabody's campaign meant that "God has become an elective at Harvard," but Peabody remained a highly respected Unitarian preacher. Peabody authored many books, including Jesus Christ and the Social Questions (1900) and Jesus Christ and the Christian Character (1905).

In 1872 Peabody married Cora Weld (1848–1914). He died in 1936 at the age of 89.

Some biographical material reprinted with permission from the Harvard Divinity School.

Immigration to the US Resources

Archival Materials

The Social Museum Collection, Department of Photographs, Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museum.

Electronic Finding Aids

Peabody, Francis Greenwood. Addresses and Lectures, 1915–1923. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA.

Peabody, Ephraim. Papers, 1831–1884. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA.

Harvard Divinity School Faculty Writings File. bMS 13001 single files/3 (19): Writings of Francis Greenwood Peabody. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA.

Publications

Peabody, Francis Greenwood. The German Labor-Colonies for Tramps. New York: Forum Publishing, 1892.

Peabody, Francis Greenwood. The Approach to the Social Question: An Introduction to the Study of Social Ethics. New York: Macmillan, 1909.

Peabody, Francis Greenwood. The Social Museum as an Instrument of University Teaching; A Classified List of Collections in the Social Museum of Harvard University to January, 1908. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1908.

Peabody, Francis Greenwood. The Social Museum as an Instrument of University Teaching; A Classified List of the Collections in the Social Museum of Harvard University in February, 1911. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1911.

Other Resources

The manuscript and archival materials selected for Immigration to the US can be used for research, for the creation of class projects, or to provide a deeper context for exploring topics documented in published works. In some cases the items are drawn from larger collections at Harvard. Most of the digitized selections from collections contain a range of materials providing a broader context for understanding the subject.