Conscience of a city. Eliot, c. 1869.
Conscience of a city. Eliot, c. 1869.

The Minister Who Shaped a College—And a City

Thomas Lamb Eliot may have been the most influential resident Portland ever had.

By Romel Hernandez | June 1, 2014

In the small hours of Christmas Eve, 1867, a young preacher, his wife, and their sick baby son stepped onto the Willamette River wharf of a dank, dark Portland. The waterlogged trio had just endured what the man described in his diary as “the misery, stench and consummate horror” of a storm-tossed, five-day steamer journey up the coast from San Francisco. He was anxious to start his first real job as the minister of the new Unitarian Church in a raw frontier town of some 7,000 souls—many of them lost.

Standing five foot six and weighing 135 pounds, Thomas Lamb Eliot did not cut a particularly impressive figure. His health was less than vigorous, his eyesight wretched. His dark, wavy hair and smooth-shaved chin soon earned him the moniker “boy preacher” among the rugged inhabitants of his new home. The Portland of the time was a muddy, rough-hewn settlement, pockmarked with tree stumps, said to have more brothels, taverns, and gambling parlors than any other city on the West Coast. Eliot wasn’t even the congregation’s first choice. He was only offered the post after two other men had turned the job down. Watching Eliot step ashore, a gambling man—and there were many in Portland—would certainly have given tall odds that the greenhorn preacher wouldn’t last long.

Eliot hailed from a branch of a prominent family of Boston Brahmins that had settled in St. Louis. There, his father, William Greenleaf Eliot, also a Unitarian minister, established himself as a religious and civic paragon, a veritable pillar of society. Fellow Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson even dubbed the elder Eliot the “Saint of the West”—no mean standard for young Thomas to live up to. 

But Thomas was not content to dwell in his father’s shadow. He was determined to make his own mark—and he had his work cut out for him.

 “The significance of the life of Thomas Lamb Eliot lies in the fact that coming to such a frontier town, whose character in almost all respects relating to the higher interests of man was yet to be determined, he remained here,” wrote his biographer, Earl Morse Wilbur.

Eliot not only stayed—he thrived, becoming “The most influential individual who lived in Portland, bar none,” according to city historian Chet Orloff. Wielding a grand vision and a relentless drive to get things done, he played a central role in creating and shaping the educational, cultural, and civic landscape of Portland. He had a hand in steering virtually every major public institution in the city, crowning his career with an achievement that would have made his father proud: the founding of Reed College.

Despite his achievements, there is a certain quality of restlessness to Eliot. He was a man of contradictions—contradictions that are woven deep into the fabric of the college he created. He was born to a privileged family but felt that he had to prove himself. He was an insider and an outsider, a visionary and a canny political infighter, a big-picture guy who obsessed over details. He had a boundless thirst for social justice but suffered no fools. Insomniac, iconoclast, voracious reader, intrepid outdoorsman, he was, in a sense, the first true Reedie.

Eliot was born in St. Louis in 1841, and graduated from Washington University (which had been founded by his father). He was an unexceptional youth, an average scholar with a weedy constitution. As a teenager he came down with a mysterious condition that impaired his eyesight so much he found it difficult to read more than 15 minutes at a time without excruciating headaches. At 19, he booked passage on a ship to China in the hope that an ocean voyage might improve his eyesight. It didn’t work. Discouraged, he quit the trip in San Francisco and returned home to St. Louis. He enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War but never saw a battlefield. The only time he fired his musket was under orders to shoot at a deserter trying to run away from camp. (He missed.)

Eliot dreamed of becoming a minister like his father. He attended Harvard Divinity School with a plan embraced by many young men of the time: to go West. 

During his sojourn in San Francisco, Eliot had been advised by a minister in that city: “The Pacific Coast claims every man who has ever seen it and is willing to sacrifice himself to it.” And so it would be. Eliot was determined to follow in the footsteps of his formidable father, writing to him: “I long for an experience such as yours in some way off point, where I may grow with the people. As a young man, with peculiar advantages and facilities, it seems as if I am suited for this and no other work.”

After the war Eliot bided his time in St. Louis as a tutor and an associate minister in his father’s church. In 1867 he received job offers the very same day from two Portland churches: one in Maine, the other in Oregon. The choice was easy.

“Oregon settled,” he scribbled in his diary the next day.

After taking charge of the First Unitarian Church, Eliot noticed that his Sunday services drew the same small group of congregants every week. Determined to reach a wider audience, he rented the Oro Fino Theatre downtown to preach to the “unchurched.”

As a Unitarian, Eliot would have automatically come under suspicion by the other churches in the city. Unitarians believe that God is a single entity, and that Jesus Christ is not divine—unlike most Christians, who believe in the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Unitarians in the 19th century were freethinkers who believed that reason and science could coexist with faith in God. They had a reputation as social do-gooders, and were deeply involved with the abolitionist, suffrage, and temperance movements of the era.

Eliot was no firebrand orator (the Oregonian described him as speaking “gently, with almost childlike simplicity”), but his ideas were new and, to some, dangerous. He did not care about fitting in with the city’s religious establishment; he spoke his heart and his mind. Nevertheless, Portlanders crowded the Oro Fino to hear Eliot’s sermons, such as “On Retribution,” in which he argued against the dogma of everlasting damnation. He avowed that while he was certain of divine judgment and punishment of sinners, “it did not take the form of eternal suffering.” He called on his listeners—many of whom had not set foot inside a church in years—to make a break from such dogmatic, fire-and-brimstone teachings and embrace a more loving God. 

No such thing as Hell? conservatives crowed. Heresy!

Many also questioned the propriety of holding a religious service in a theatre, especially since it stood next door to a notorious drinking establishment called the Gem Saloon. Some even speculated the entire undertaking was nothing but a ploy “to make theatre-going reputable, and to encourage loose morals,” Wilbur wrote. The leading ministers in town disdained Eliot’s liberal theology so much that they tapped a Baptist minister to rebut Eliot in a public debate. 

The dueling ministers caused quite a stir—“town all agog,” Eliot wrote in his diary, sounding pleased with himself. He was making the impact he had sought. Taking once again to the stage at the Oro Fino, which was packed to the rafters, Eliot dismantled his rival’s case point by point. “It is often necessary,” he preached, scolding his critics a touch sanctimoniously, “for one who craves the spirit of the Cross to pray, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they say.’” 

Eliot’s sermons, hundreds of which are stored in the Reed archives, provide insights into his thinking not only about faith, but also about the pressing issues of the time, including temperance, suffrage, and immigration. He denounced greed and corruption—both moral and political. Over his career he returned again and again to what might be seen as the central message of his ministry: that faith must be grounded in service to community and God.

In an 1867 sermon, “Ambition and Aspiration,” he established the theme that defined his own career. Drawing a distinction between ambition, which he believed was rooted in selfishness, and aspiration, which he saw as essentially selfless, he challenged his congregation: “Shall life’s work be taken up for the prizes which it holds out, of wealth or power or reputation, or for service?” Every man, he said, must consider whether “he is doing the work of God or the work of the Devil—there can be no compromise.”

As Portland grew from a ramshackle river port to a bustling city, Eliot became increasingly prominent as a champion for the poor and dispossessed. He founded the Children’s Home and the Boys and Girls Aid Society, and was the longtime president of the Ladies’ Relief Society. He founded the Oregon Humane Society, after witnessing a carriage horse whipped in the street.

He pushed for reform of the deplorable conditions at the county jail and insane asylum, which he visited frequently and where he also established libraries. He won election as superintendent of the county schools and instituted major reforms in the shambolic public education system, imposing stricter licensing requirements for teachers. Twice a week, he would drive in his carriage to visit classrooms, where he “observed and counseled, encouraged or admonished the teachers as the case might be,” Wilbur noted. He helped lead a campaign to create free kindergartens for children from impoverished families.

“We would have called him ‘pushy’ today,” Orloff notes. “He wasn’t arrogant, but he was very demanding of himself and of everyone around him . . . He would have been difficult to be around, but he was the type of person that got things done.”

Eliot was everywhere. When Portland suffered a devastating fire, he served on the relief committee. When the city put together a parks plan, he brought in the Olmsted Brothers, famed for creating New York’s Central Park. When Portland wanted a new library, he recruited a young A.E. Doyle, whom he had met on a trip abroad to Italy, to be its architect. (Doyle would go on to design Reed’s campus and its early buildings, including the one that would later bear his patron’s name—Eliot Hall.)

Eliot also served on the boards of the Portland Art Association and the Library Association of Portland, steering those organizations toward the founding of the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Public Library (now the Multnomah County Library).

It is a measure of Eliot’s vision that many of these institutions endure to this day, notes Orloff. “Almost without exception, these institutions have not only lasted—they have thrived,” he says. “You can say his influence grows even today.”

Despite his growing prominence, Eliot never forgot his duty to society’s outcasts. “He was tolerant, patient, and sympathetic with odd people, cranks, fanatics, and waifs,” Wilbur wrote.

This torrent of energy took a toll on his health. In addition to his poor eyesight, Eliot was an insomniac who worked himself to the point of nervous exhaustion. Ill health forced him to take several sabbaticals over the years. Eliot was nevertheless an avid outdoorsman who loved exploring Mount Hood (Eliot Glacier was named for him). He was part of the hiking party that “discovered” Lost Lake near Hood River, where he built a summer house. He also found the time to raise eight children with his wife, Henrietta. (He was by some accounts a rather strict father, often absent due to his many professional obligations.)

All the while, Eliot took care of his Unitarian congregation. In 1879, his flock erected a new chapel called the Church of Our Father. And it was in the church—among the choir, in fact—that he first glimpsed the tantalizing possibility of fulfilling a lifelong dream.  

Eliot and Simeon Reed made strange bedfellows. 

Eliot was a slight, courtly gentleman, scion of an eminent New England family (T.S. Eliot was his nephew). He was a family man, a teetotaler who liked nothing better than to wind down reading Dante, Cervantes, or Homer (he considered the Iliad the greatest book written and read it aloud to his children), even if it brought on headaches. He was “by natural instinct, aristocratic,” Wilbur wrote, noting that he was “scholarly in his tastes, and of a poetic temperament.”

Reed, on the other hand, was a burly, blustery swell who dressed in fancy suits, smoked big cigars, and sipped expensive whiskey. A self-made man who rose from lowly store clerk to control the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which monopolized shipping traffic on the Columbia and Willamette for the most of the 1860s and ’70s, he was one of the most successful businessmen in the West. He held investments in an array of business interests, from cattle to steel to racehorses. He never attended high school, let alone college.

Eliot was a high-minded social reformer, while Reed was a ruthless capitalist. But fortune had brought them together in the Unitarian Church, where Reed and his wife, Amanda, sang in the choir. Before long, as Orloff says, “They saw something in each other.”

Reed would have admired Eliot’s sense of purpose, Orloff suggests. And Eliot would have appreciated Reed’s acumen.

Both men were brilliant in their own spheres, hardworking to the extreme, and obsessive about details. Neither minced words when it came to money. Eliot himself invested in real estate and owned several properties.

Over the years Reed occasionally sent Eliot checks for $100 or so to spend at his discretion on charitable causes. Eliot had bigger things in mind.

In 1887, Eliot wrote to Reed thanking him for a birthday gift and planted a seed: “There is always something to busy us, always something to develop. I want you to celebrate some of these birthdays by founding a Reed Institute of lectures and art and music and museum. It will need a mine to run it.” Later he wrote again to Reed, urging him to consider “some noble and wise philanthropies or services of your time and country, especially of the city and people among whom you live.”

Eliot was diligent in keeping up his courtship. When the Reeds moved to California, Eliot continued to visit. Simeon Reed died in 1895, Amanda Reed in 1904. When her will—providing the fantastic sum of $2 million for “an institution of learning”—was finally revealed, it caused a sensation up and down the West Coast. (The bequest was challenged in court by 11 of Amanda’s heirs, who would almost certainly have succeeded were it not for the efforts of her devoted nephew, Martin Winch.) In 1906, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld Amanda’s will and set the stage for the founding of Reed College.

But Eliot’s work was not yet done.

Amanda’s will stated that the college should have “for its object the increase and diffusion of practical knowledge among the citizens of Portland.” But it also stipulated her gift should be dedicated to “general enlightenment, intellectual and moral culture, the cultivation and development of fine arts, and manual training and education.” Depending on how one read the will, this directive was either ambiguous or contradictory. 

John Sheehy ’82, author of Comrades of the Quest, believes that Eliot, on his visits to California, persuaded Amanda to expand the possibilities for how the money might be used.

“Eliot had an invisible hand in Amanda’s will,” Sheehy says. “He really got her ear, and got her to put in some language that opened up the question.”

Winch, who fought his own relatives to uphold Amanda’s will, was convinced that the Reeds had envisioned a vocational school focused on “manual training.” Eliot, however, was determined to shape Reed into a college of liberal arts and sciences in the mold of Harvard.

Sheehy is certain that Simeon Reed would have endorsed Winch’s plan. 

“The Reeds would have had a vocational school—there’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. “Simeon Reed dropped out of school at 13. He was opposed to public education and didn’t necessarily believe going to college was that useful.”

That wasn’t going to stop Eliot. A shrewd political operator with years of experience in the public eye, Eliot outmaneuvered his rival. Winch didn’t stand a chance. 

Eliot recruited like-minded higher education experts from the East Coast, including his own cousin, Harvard president Charles Eliot, to bolster his case before the board of trustees, who approved the liberal arts concept. Bitter in defeat, Winch resigned from the board. One wonders if Eliot suffered any twinge of regret. As he had preached so many years before, either you do the work of God or the work of the Devil—”there can be no compromise.”

Reed College finally opened its doors in 1911. Eliot, by then 70 years old, was named president of the board of trustees. Ever mindful of details, he had a hand in everything from the hiring of the college’s first president, William T. Foster [1910–19], to designing the college seal to proposing a Latin motto—ut luceat omnibus, “light to all”—that was somehow never officially adopted (which may explain why the tongue-in-cheek parody “atheism, communism, and free love” is still around).

Eliot dropped into classes regularly to engage professors and students, though he left the day-to-day management of the college to Foster and, later, President Richard Scholz [1921–24]. He served on the board until 1924, when his health, always fragile, began to fail. For several years he retreated from public life, spending time at his homes in Hood River and Neah-Kah-Nie on the Oregon coast.

In June 1931, Eliot was persuaded to deliver Reed’s Commencement address. The Oregonian reported on the event with a photograph of a white-whiskered gentleman dressed in academic robes and resting his hand on a walking stick. Eliot told the 40 members of the Class of ’31 that he remembered the ups and downs of student life, empathizing with “the floundering proportionate to the seriousness with which they enter upon college work.” After all, he had done some floundering himself as a young man.

In the midst of the Great Depression, he urged the graduates to persevere through hard times and to stay true to themselves, noting the importance of “concentration which becomes consecration and a sense of vocation.”

The effort of speaking in public left the 90-year-old depleted. “I must not do it again,” he told his family afterward. Several years later he suffered a severe coronary thrombosis, which rendered him an invalid until his death on April 26, 1936.

Thomas Lamb Eliot’s legacy abides across Portland, and nowhere more so than at Reed.

Orloff sees his imprint on the college today, “in the sense of it being independent, of being different by sheer dint of energy and intellect.”

As Sheehy says, “Eliot’s vision is what puts everything into motion. He’s really the intellectual founder of Reed.”

Eliot himself set out his vision in an essay for the Oregonian in 1910: “[Reed’s] service will be for every citizen; its influence is not for a day, nor year, nor for decades only, but for centuries, as a source, a promoter of high intelligence, an inspiration to the body politic, a provider of the highest forces of civilization, it ought to be and will be the crowning pride of this great metropolis. Its promise should be, and is, that the poorest boy or girl within our gates shall have an equal opportunity with the richest to gain the very best education, equipping them for efficiency, leadership among men and a realization of highest manhood and womanhood.”

Henrietta Eliot image

Partner in Faith: Henrietta Eliot

Thomas Lamb Eliot fell in love at first sight with Henrietta Robins Mack in 1861. Her Congregationalist family, however, was opposed to Eliot’s more liberal Unitarianism. Etta, as she was known, set out to bring Tom around. Instead, he got her to become a Unitarian.

Theirs was a strong partnership, and although Thomas, as a man, inevitably got much of the credit, Etta’s role cannot be overstated.

First, she was willing to join him on his venture to Oregon—no easy undertaking. She took dictation of his sermons when his headaches made writing impossible. She was such an excellent writer that some even wondered whether she wrote her husband’s sermons. She later published poetry, as well as two novels. She joined him in the many social causes he championed and was friendly with prominent figures such as women’s suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway and mental-health advocate Dorothea Dix.

By all accounts, she was deeply devoted to her husband, and protective of him, too. Matthew Paul Deady, Oregon’s first federal judge, described a lecture given by Eliot: “The little man was quite ambitious in some passages. His strong, resolute, nervous wife sat near me and I had a good opportunity to observe her. She never took her eyes off him during the hour of the lecture, and looked as if she was in labor every line of it.”

Every day of his life, Thomas carried with him a scrap of fabric from a gingham dress Etta wore when they were courting. Throughout their lives together, he would surprise her with myrtle blossoms, a gesture that carried a secret significance.

Although there is no direct evidence, the friendship between Etta and Amanda Reed must have played an important role in Amanda’s bequest. The two women sang together in the choir and exchanged regular letters after the Reeds moved to California. Both were intelligent, strong-willed women who were steadfast supporters of intelligent, strong-willed husbands.

“His sphere of activity was largely in the public eye, hers was largely behind the scenes,” wrote Wilbur. “But in either case there was the fullest cooperation of the one with the other.”

Tags: Reed History