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Francis Greenwood Peabody (1847–1936)

Francis Greenwood Peabody, cabinet card photograph (detail), ca. 1869, A526, Harvard University Archives.
Francis Greenwood Peabody, cabinet card photograph (detail), ca. 1869, A526, Harvard University Archives.

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 former 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 in Cambridge, a Unitarian church. In 1880, Peabody became a lecturer on ethics and homiletics at Harvard Divinity School. He subsequently served as the 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 the University Preacher and Plummer Professor, his most enduring achievement was his introduction of the study of social ethics to the Divinity School and Harvard College. Peabody's social ethics courses stressed the need to study the religious and social implications stimulated by industrialization, and he championed social-science methodology, the case study method, and liberal interpretations 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, de-emphasizing personal salvation in favor of social action. He also used photography to document social problems and 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 the 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 a Unitarian-dominated college into a nonsectarian university. His biggest success was in persuading 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.

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