William Jewett Tucker & The Andover Controversy

Rev. William Tucker, as he appeared around the time of the Andover Controversy, c. 1870. (Image courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library)By Coleman E. Shear 

Throughout the nineteenth century, New England’s brand of Puritan Calvinist Protestantism was split between two distinct sides. On one side were the reformers who wanted a more liberalized form of Calvinism with less stress on doctrines such as predestination, and on the other side were the orthodox Calvinists who wanted the doctrines to be maintained. Orthodox partisans at Harvard College founded the Andover Theological Seminary in 1807 in response to reform movements then sweeping through Cambridge. Eventually even the Andover Theological Seminary could not keep the reforming factions out; William Jewett Tucker along with four other reforming professors of theology ran dramatically afoul of the administration with their “new theology” between 1886 and 1892 in an episode that would come to be called the Andover Controversy.

Even before the advent of “new theology,” Calvinism was rocked by various secession movements; the Unitarians advocated greater focus on the current life than the next, wanted to shy away from the doctrine of predestination, and even questioned the divinity of Christ.  The Andover Theological Seminary was founded as the anchor for the conservative side of Calvinism. Its message was clear: the religion would not change with the times and “evolve”, as the reforming faction wanted. In order to insure this, they would make it mandatory that all professors would have to recite the Westminster Creed, which stated the basic principles of Calvinist Protestantism.

 In the midst of these theological arguments stood William Jewett Tucker, then the Bartlet Professor of Sacred Rhetoric at the Seminary. Tucker and his allies believed that Orthodoxy could be maintained while better serving the lives of those on earth. Tucker’s pioneering concern for social justice was unique in his day.  Many Protestant ministers during his time preached an ever-popular “gospel of wealth,” which stated that those who were wealthy were more moral people and had been blessed by God with their wealth. The view that the wealthy are rich because they are morally better is a common one in traditional Calvinist theology. During the Gilded Age, this theory proved to be very popular with American industrialists and those who were anti-immigrant. Many with nativist sentiments claimed that many largely non-Protestant newcomers to America were poor because they were inherently lazy and had not accepted Protestantism. Tucker challenged these views and was a staunch opponent of the “gospel of wealth.” His message of social justice and a focus on life on earth was revealed in his actions as well as his sermons: Tucker promoted charity in poor neighborhoods throughout Boston, and became renowned for his support of the South End House for the indigent poor.

Tucker’s rejection of the gospel of wealth was not even the most controversial of his disagreements with many at the Andover Theological Seminary. Tucker and four other faculty members preached the theory of future probation, which claimed that those who had not been able to hear the Gospel in their lifetime and had not been preached to would be given the chance to receive the Gospel in the next life and still reach heaven. The claim that those who had not been converted might still have the chance to reach heaven outraged many Calvinist ministers, casting doubt as it did on the importance of their missionary activity. In an age of great missionary zeal, Tucker and his compatriots were running against the grain.

Tucker and the others published their “new Orthodoxy” views in the Andover Review in 1884. What earned them condemnation was not only their controversial view of salvation, but also the general approach that they took towards Christianity. Rather than emphasizing damnation and traditional puritan thought, they emphasized the human soul’s capability to repent and seek redemption. In 1886, the members of the Board of Visitors of Andover Theological Seminary were horrified that these liberal theological views had entered the seminary. The Board filed a complaint against one of the editors of the Andover Review, Egbert Smyth. And, in fairness to the Board, most in the Calvinist movement disagreed with wholeheartedly with the Review. They felt that Tucker’s “new theology” misled worshippers by making the path to heaven seem too easy. The complaint the Board filed against Smyth zeroed in on the Review’s controversial stance on salvation, accused him and the others of undermining missionary efforts.

A legal battle subsequently took place over control of the Andover Theological Seminary. The five professors in question, Tucker included, refused to leave the seminary quietly, instead taking the battle with the Board all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The Andover Controversy would last until 1892, when all five professors were acquitted. When it was finally resolved, Smyth, Tucker and their fellow professors had successfully defended their positions at the seminary, and would even manage to take over the institution. The case had attracted a lot of bad publicity, however, so although Tucker’s “new theology” had won, the seminary found itself in dire straits; attracting new divinity students in future years proved difficult.

Upon leaving the seminary, Tucker took up the presidency of Dartmouth College in 1893, where he would embark on a course of modernization the likes of which had not before been seen at Dartmouth.. The reforming zeal he evinced in Andover proved portable to Hanover, where he his progressive values drove the school’s new direction. 

Tucker was a brilliant theologian and a great administrator who stressed social justice and a caring for humanity, whether working amongst Calvinist faithful or Dartmouth undergraduates.