Thomas Lamb Eliot (far right) on a picnic with friends fom the church, ca. 1865
If you want a different take on dead white men, this book is for you. No Silent Witness is a historical account of the Eliot family, enormously influential in the founding and growth of Unitarianism, through the eyes of the family’s women. The book profiles each generation’s major female figure, beginning with matriarch Abigail Adams Cranch Eliot, the wife of William Greenleaf Eliot, who founded St. Louis’ Unitarian Church and Washington University. Another figure is Henrietta Macks Eliot, wife of Thomas Lamb Eliot, who similarly established a Unitarian presence in Portland, and first urged parishioners Simeon and Amanda Reed to use their fortune philanthropically (he later served as first director of Reed’s board of regents).
The book is the first comprehensive examination of the women’s letters and diaries. Confined in public by their nineteenth- and early twentieth-century female roles, these headstrong, fiercely intelligent, and sophisticated women were set loose through private correspondence, revealing they were as involved in Unitarianism’s success as their minister husbands. “This was no idle talk,” Tucker writes.
We are thus brought into drawing rooms and other private spaces to learn of struggling parsonages, financial troubles, and squabbles between Unitarian factions. Also given is an intimate account of family life—the impact of the untimely deaths of children, the suffering and strain brought on by the pressure to set an example for the parsonage, etc. Sometimes suffering from the dryness of an academic historical text, the book, in many places, paints such a vivid picture of these women’s lives that you could be watching a film.