Presentation on Orville Dewey
130th Anniversary of Dewey Hall
June 15, 2017
Catherine B. Miller
Born March 28, 1794 Sheffield, MA
Died March 21, 1882 Sheffield, MA
Son of Silas Dewey & Joanna Taylor
Grandson of Captain Stephen Dewey & Elizabeth Ashley
Grandson of Aaron Root
Welsh Origin- visited Wales in 1832; Welsh spelling of Dewey –Dewi; origin St. David, the patron
saint of Wales. Dewey named his home on Main Street, St. David.
Early years in Sheffield on Family Farm (St. David’s)
Naturally thoughtful; father encouraged reading
Mother’s piety heavily influenced early life & formation of his character
Calvinism heavily colored his religious life; tempered to large extent by Cousin Paul
Dewey, a mathematician and a skeptic with respect to prevailing theology
Worked on father’s farm; attended school in Sheffield.
“Those who love the study of human nature may follow with pleasure the development of a
New England school boy, with a character of great strength, simplicity, reverence, and honesty,
with scanty opportunities for culture, and heavily handicapped... by both poverty and Calvinism,
but possessed from the first by the love of truth and knowledge...”
“In taking leave of my childhood... I was happy, I suppose as most children. I had good health; I
had companions, sports; school was not a hardship for me – always eager for it... remember
looking back at childhood as the blissful period of my life, I find that I have been growing
happier every year up to this point... I have had inward struggles with doubt...temptation –
sorrows and fears, strife enough but I think I have been gradually, though too slowly, gaining
the victory over them.”
“Truth, art, religion – the true, the beautiful, the divine –have constantly risen clearer and
brighter before me; my family bonds have grown stronger, friends dearer, the world and nature
fuller of goodness and beauty, and I have every day grown a happier man.”
“....persons, circumstances that influenced my culture and character in youth ...”
“My father...did all he could for me...sent me to college when he could ill afford it... highest desire
and ambition for me to succeed in some professional career, I think a lawyer.”
“Father admired eloquence most of all.
“…was fond of reading – indeed spent most of my evenings of my boyhood that way. “.
The Sheffield Library was another strong influence. It was the main resource for the books
Dewey read He considered the 200 books at his disposal a great treasure and read many several
times often by torchlight, sitting on the floor. “To this library I owe more than to anything that
helped me in my boyhood”.
Well prepared for college, Dewey entered the sophomore class at Williams rather than
entering Charles Dewey’s law practice as an apprentice ; he graduated at 20, but not without
significant challenges; after an attack of the measles in his junior year, Dewey went nearly
blind, able to use his eyes for about one hour a day. He was obliged to rely upon others in order
to pursue his studies for the remainder of his college career. At his college commencement
Dewey was “assigned the highest part” (top honors) to which his father responded, “Pretty well
for a blind boy”. Dewey’s sight returned after about two years, an affliction of the optic nerve.
After that he was able to read as much as he wished for as long as he wished.
The other event that affected Dewey during his college years was religion. “It is lamentable
that it ever should be an event in any human life.”
“The sense of religion should be breathed into our childhood, into our youth, along with all its
earliest and freshest inspirations; but it was not so with me”
“Religion had never been a delight to me before; now it became the highest”.
“A new day rose upon me. It was if another sun had risen into the sky; the heavens were
indescribably brighter and the earth fairer; and that day has gone on brightening to the present
hour. I have known other joys in life...friendship, love, family ties... but it is certain that til we see
God in the world – God in the bright and boundless universe ---we never know the highest joy.”
“...the one thing that is especially signalized in my experience is this – the Infinite Goodness and
Loveliness began to be revealed to me and tis made for me a “new heaven and a new earth”.
“The sense of religion comes to men under difference aspects...consoler of grief...deliverance
from terror and wrath. To me it came as filling an infinite void as the supply of a boundless
want, and ultimately as the enhancement of all joy”.
“As my whole view of religion was changed from indifference or aversion to a profound interest
in it, a change very naturally followed in my plan for future life... my choice of a profession.”
He had expected to be a lawyer and at times wondered if he might have not enjoyed the court of
law. But later concluded that a lawyer or physician’s profession might not be as noble and holy
as a clergyman’s.
Uncertain as to how to carry out preparatory studies for the ministry, he returned to Sheffield
to teach school for a year and then travelled to New York to work in a dry goods store for
Finally Dewey’s desire for his chosen profession became so strong that he entered the
Theological School at Andover. Spent three years in his studies which included Hebrew and
Greek. Liked and disliked Andover. Liked opportunities for studies, the teachers, other students.
Disliked the monastic seclusion. The more Dewey studied, the more he doubted. “I found that
the more I believed in the doctrine of literally eternal punishments, (Calvinism) the more I
doubted it.” “All the joyous life seen in the light of this doctrine seemed to me but a horrible
It should be noted that Dewey’s unrest related to his strong sense/belief that people were
inherently good and that and open, caring community with support for all was far preferable
and that people should be free and responsible in their search for truth and meaning in life. He
was not comfortable with the Calvinistic teachings of predestination, eternal damnation, and
the belief that there was damnation for some and salvation for others.
A lecture by Dr. William Ellery Channing, the “apostle of Unitarianism” secured those doubts and suggested further examination so Dewey left Andover in the summer of 1819 in a state of mind which he said did not permit him to be a candidate for settlement in any church.
The new sect promoted by Channing was considered heretical by the established church
of New England (Congregationalists) but the free thinking Dewey slowly changed his beliefs
during an eight month association with the American Education Society. He then was invited to
spend a year as a pastor of a small Congregational Church in Gloucester and came to embrace
Unitarianism – free and responsible search for truth and meaning; control by each
congregation; open and caring support for all in the community.
This proved to be precisely what Dewey needed as he spent the year examining the many
questions that had arisen in his mind.
He embraced and endorsed Unitarianism.
However, his friends deserted him; members of the Establishment shunned him; his church in
Sheffield refused to admit him; he was never allowed to make an address until the centennial in
1876 when he was 82 years old.
Interestingly, he never mentioned this incident although the outraged orthodox in Sheffield
removed the galleries, tore out the box pews and chopped up the high pulpit in their lovely
meeting house. They welcomed a new style in pews, but not in human thinking.
His only local friend was Catharine Sedgwick, a courageous defector from the faith of her family
though she risked ostracism. Her father Theodore Sedgwick confessed to Dr. Channing that he
too had liberal thoughts on theology.
After the year Dewey and the congregation in Gloucester were equally divided on the question
of retaining him as the pastor, so he left for Boston to assist Dr. William Ellery Channing at the
Federal Street Church. Channing was the founder of the American Unitarian Association, of which Dewey was later the fourth president. Dewey filled in for Channing for two years while the latter was on leave.
Before leaving Gloucester however, Dewey married Louisa Farnam in December 1820 – an
event – “the greatest and happiest of my life.”
(Both were 26 years old)
Children: Mary Elizabeth (1821)
William Farnham Dewey (1829)
Katherine Sedgwick Dewey (1838)
Dewey left Boston in 1823 and went to New Bedford to preach in the Congregational Church.
He was invited to be the pastor and was ordained An incident occurred that moved Dewey
into a new latitude of religious thought.
In the silence following the sermon a voice of prayer was heard in the congregation. The prayer
was short and “so simple, so sincere, so evidently unostentatious and indeed beautiful, so in
hearty sympathy with the occasion, and in the desire for a blessing on it that when it closed, all
said, “Amen, Amen” “It was a pretty remarkable conquest over prejudice and usage achieved
by simple and self-forgetting earnestness.”
Dewey spent ten happy years at the New Bedford church. It grew from a tiny parish and
families from the Society of Friends connected and the church soon rose to be one of the
wealthiest and most liberal societies in the country. Dewey’s duties were arduous and relief from preaching difficult, almost impossible to find. He worked hundreds of hours, wrote for the “Christian Examiner”, studied, preached, ministered to the parishioners and eventually
exhausted himself to the point that he needed to take a break.
He returned to St. David’s in his native Sheffield to restore his health with country air and living
and exercise. Then he and his family spent two years in Europe.
Dewey said of his time in New Bedford, “It was in the main, very happy. I thought I was doing
good there; I certainly was thoroughly interested in what I was doing. I found cultivated and
interesting society there. I made friends who are such to me still. In the pastoral relation, New
Bedford was, and long continued to be, the very home of my heart; it was my first love.”
Invited in 1827 to go to the Second Church New York, but after few brief years determined he
could no longer do the work and decided to go abroad again to recover. That was 1833. He
consulted with a Sir James Clarke in London who told Dewey that he had a disease of the brain
which would take three or four years of rest in order to recover. This seemed preposterous to
Dewey. The doctor said, “Well you may go home in a year, and think yourself well; but if you go
about your studies you will probably bring on the same trouble again, and if you do, in all probability you will never get rid of it.”
The doctor’s counsel proved correct for within a month of returning home Dewey was afflicted
again. Unable to write sermons or preach, Dewey retired with his family to the home in Sheffield expecting to spend years in the quiet of his native village.
Shortly later he was offered a position at the Second Congregational Church in New York;
initially the agreement was for preaching only, but as time went on Dewey took full charge of
the church. Located on the corner of Mercer and Prince Streets, a poor location due to noise,
but very charming inside. Dewey felt preaching was the principal ministration of religion.
In 1837 the church burned to the ground. Nothing but Dewey’s library, thrown out the vestry
window and a pulpit bible, a present from the trustees was saved.
After much discussion a new church was built on Broadway for the sum of $90,000. It was
completed in a little more than a year and dedicated Church of the Messiah.
The new church opened with a congregation one third larger than that which had left old
church. The question of how to pay for the new structure was answered when two hours after the
auction opened for the sale of the pews, $70,000 was realized.
He continued preaching and writing until his health failed again.
In 1839, he was awarded a doctorate of divinity by Harvard
In October of 1841, he sailed with family for Havre; wintered in Paris; summered in Switzerland; winter in Italy; returned through Germany; two months in England; home in August 1843. “What a joy to return home!” The railroad across Massachusetts had been completed so the trip to
Sheffield brought the Dewey’s home in six or seven hours; previously it would have been three
days by coach or a weary week with a horse. After a few days rest in Sheffield, the family
traveled to New York.
Spent three more years at his church in New York and then three years in Washington.
Returned to NY and struggled with his duties for another year and then sold his house in New
York and returned to Sheffield. Continued to preach occasionally at the Church of the Messiah,
but retired in 1849. He willingly remained with a colleague to assist him in order to continue his profession, but church was unable to find a suitable replacement/colleague. 55 years old
Dewey felt a great moral relief when he laid down the burden of parochial charge. He regretted
having to leave New York, wishing he could have lived and died among his many friends, but it
was not to be.
Now back in Sheffield and unemployed “a condition always irksome to me. Hard work, I am
persuaded is the highest pleasure in the world, and from the day when I was in college,
vacations always proved tome the most tedious times of my life.”
Fortunately Dewey “saved for a rainy day” by escrowing a portion of his salary on a regular
basis and as such he was able to provide for the family’s modest wants following retirement.
Received an invitation from John A. Lowell to deliver some lectures at the Lowell Institute.
Wrote and gave in the fall of 1851 “Lectures on the Problem of Human Destiny”. Was invited to
repeat the lectures throughout the country. A second set of lectures, “Education of the Human
Race” was also repeated in several cities.
Invited to Washington in 1851 to become the chaplain of the US Navy. Found there was already
a chaplain at the Navy yard, and thus resigned the commission. At this time he became acquainted with John C. Calhoun, vice –president of the United States under John Quincy Adams. Had several conversations with Calhoun at his home during which they discussed the necessity of opposition in government - the greatest thing a man can do?
He also met Thomas Corwin, Senator from Ohio was during this time and there was a bond
between the two – each a great orator in his own right and opposed to slavery. Corwin was about to deliver a speech in the Senate against the war with Mexico and asked Dewey if he thought he, Corwin could say it and not be politically ruined.
“The day came...I never saw the Senate chamber so densely packed. He told me he would not
speak more than half an hour; but he did speak three hours not only against the Mexican War,
but against the system of slavery, in the bitterest language. He told me years later that it did
ruin him. But for that he would have been President of the United States”
Spent part of the winter of 1856-57 in Charleston, S.C. preaching .Established very good
relations with the people. That all disintegrated following a lecture under the Big Elm in
Sheffield the following summer.
“I made some observations upon the threatened extension of the slave-system that dashed
nearly all my agreeable relations with Charleston. I am not a person to regard such a breach
with indifference: it pained me deeply. My only comfort was, that what I said was honestly said;
that no honorable man can desire to be respected or loved through ignorance of his character
or opinions; and that the ground then recently taken at the South – that the institution of
human slavery is intrinsically right, just and good – seems to me to involve such a wrong to humanity,
such evil to the South and such peril to the Union of the States, that it was a proper occasion for speaking earnestly and decidedly”.
“...what is it in my style or manner of writing that has called forth such a hard feeling towards
me from extremists both North and South upon this slavery question... I cannot
understand. In every instance in which I have spoken of it, I have done out by a sense of duty –
there certainly was no pleasure in it. I have never assailed the motives of any man or party; I
have spoken in no feeling of unkindness to anybody; there can have been no bitterness in my speech.
Any yet something, I suppose, there must have been in my way of expressing myself, to offend. It may have been my fault, it may have been a merit for aught I know; for truly I do not know what it was.”
Letter to Rev. William Ware, September 30, 1847
“.... You will see in a sermon “On the Slavery Question” how entirely I agree with you that this is
the great trial question of the country.... I suppose there is not a man in New England who does
not wish for the extinction of Slavery. I suppose there is hardly a man in the north who does not
feel the system is wrong, that it ought to be abolished... must ... be abolished; and that the only question about its abolition is the question of time. But here is the peril – that a good many persons in the Congress and out of Congress will falter in their conviction before the determined stand of the South – that is the determination to break off from the Union... I do most seriously fear that they would hold that determination.
But I am prepared for myself, to say that, rather than yield the national sanction to this huge
monstrous wrong, I would take the risk of any consequences whatever. I reason for the nation
as I would for myself. I say, rather than tell a lie, I would die. I cannot deliberately do wrong, and
I cannot consent that my people shall. I would rather consent to the dismemberment of my right hand than to lay it in solemn mockery on the altar of injustice.
1861 retired permanently to Sheffield; Age 67
Dewey spent his remaining years in Sheffield at St. David’s entertaining colleagues with
intellectual discourse, music, poetry and the like. He gave occasional lectures and preached
elsewhere upon occasion. He died in 1882 just 7 days short of his 88th birthday.
Tribute by Dr. Bellows at the 54th Anniversary of the founding of the Church of the Messiah in
“reared in the country among plain, but not common people, squarely built.... a massive dignity
of person; strong features, a magnificent height...carriage, almost royal...deep an solemn voice..
face capable of utmost expression... an intellect of the first class. Awe and reverence native...
poetic imagination...diligent scholar...careful thinker....test own impressions by patient meditation... every qualification for a great preacher...... from the beginning the most truly human of our
Memorial service held at the Congregational Church in Sheffield
Church of his childhood
Church he himself joined in the religious fervor of his youth
Church from which he had been thrust as a heretic
Church he was not permitted to speak within its walls until
1876 when Town celebrated its 100th
Dewey’s father helped planted elms along main street; Dewey himself a founder of the Elm
Tree Association; Dewey along with William Cullen Bryant planted the Seven Pines (stood at
intersection Route 7 & Berkshire School Road)
SHEFFIELD FRIENDLY UNION LIBRARY ASSOCIATION
“to increase good and kindly feelings and to promote intelligence and clear thinking”
Founded in 1871 for purposes of “social entertainment and culture; met one evening a week in
the winter in a hall in town to enjoy music, lectures, reading dramas, or whatever diversion
its managers can procure or members offer” Dancing & cards forbidden, but games allowed.
Dewey took a great interest in it from the beginning and provided its name. Often present and
offered a lecture or a reading of a Shakespearian play two or three times a winter.
DEWEY HALL we are here this evening to begin a celebration of 130 years of this wonderful
Friends of Dewey and his daughter Mary, mostly from Boston raised $10,000 (only $1,500 from
Sheffield) to build Dewey Memorial Hall to perpetuate the memory of Orville Dewey. His
daughter was the primary mover and shaker behind this effort.
The hall, designed by noted Boston architect William Ralph Emerson (1833-1917). The stone is
local, out of the Taconic range; the blue dolomite from a local farm; an opening the belfry is
available for a bell, should one be donated.
The inside is southern pine and the library holds 1000 books. The total cost was $10,000
contributed by Dr.Dewey’s friends from Boston, New Bedford, Baltimore and New York.
Two gifts - $1,000 and $500 came from Sheffield.
The bronzed tablet inscribed with words chosen by his daughter, Mary was designed by T.
Randolf Marien, a decorative artist and son of a former Methodist clergyman in Sheffield.