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Board of Trustees - Former Trustees

James Freeman Clarke

James Clarke Spacer graphic

Trustee of the Library, 1879-1888. Born 1810 in Hanover, NH, and died 1888 in Jamaica Plain/Boston. Clergyman, social reformer, scholar and author. James Freeman Clarke’s family lived for a time in the home of his grandfather, the Rev. James Freeman of Boston’s King’s Chapel, who tutored him daily and allow him the use of his considerable library. He went on to receive his formal education at Boston Latin School and at Harvard University. The rote style of education at the time in these schools kindled his lifelong work for educational reform. Inspired by his grandfather and by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mr. Clarke entered Harvard Divinity School, graduating and ordained a Unitarian minister in 1833. His preaching experiences in Louisville, KY—then a rural river town—led him to study other faiths and to develop his ability to communicate with peoples of differing religious thoughts. With his friend the Reverend Ephraim Peabody, Rev. Clarke founded the Unitarian magazine, The Western Messenger, of which he later became the sole editor. On returning to the Boston area in 1841, he set about gathering a church that would become the Church of the Disciples, a Unitarian congregation drawn from all parts of the city rather than from one specific geographic area as was common in New England. Rev. Clarke wrote articles and poems for his church’s weekly newsletter, The Christian World; gathered and published its orders of services and hymns; and participated in many social movements for temperance, woman’s suffrage, prison and educational reforms and against slavery. By 1849 he was exhausted from overwork and grieving the death of his firstborn son. During his time away from Boston, he studied non-Christian or “ethnic” religions and lectured on them. After returning to pastorate life and his social and reform activities, Rev. Clarke purchased Brook Farm in an attempt to bring back communal life but later offered its use to the Union Army as a training ground. During the Civil War he visited and preached at the army camps as well as raised funds for supporting the wounded; the church sent teachers and supplies to help freed slaves. After the war, Dr. Clarke was appointed to the Harvard Divinity faculty and influenced the School to offer courses on non-Christian religions and to emphasize requirements on modern, rather than ancient, languages and literature. Drawing on his studies and researches, he gave lectures on comparative religions at the Lowell Institute which were later published in three volumes. Although active and in good health, Rev. Clarke experienced increasing fatigue starting in early 1887; he preached for the last time in the spring of 1888 and soon died peacefully, surrounded by family. In honor of his religious and social influences and efforts in Boston and New England, donations were made to the Library in his memory: a portrait of Rev. Clarke by Edwin T. Billings given by William H. Reed and others now hangs in the Fine Arts Department reading area, and the statue of Sir Henry Vane by Frederick MacMonnies given by Dr. Charles G. Weld and others now stands in the vestibule of the McKim Building.

McGonigle, Gregory. “James Freeman Clarke” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography (electronic database) at <>

Wadlin, Horace G. The Public Library of the City of Boston: A History. Boston: Trustees of the Boston Public Library, 1911.

Whitehill, Walter Muir. Boston Public Library: A Centennial History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.

“James Freeman Clarke”, engraving by J.A.J. Wilcox, early 1900’s, Print Dept.