Distant Vision

How Thomas Lamb Eliot shaped a college—and a city.

By Romel Hernandez
Reed magazine cover, June 2014

Cover of Reed magazine, June 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.

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

Conscience of a city. Eliot, c. 1869.
Photos courtesy of Special Collections, Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College and Oregon Historical Society

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.

Eliot believed faith must be grounded in service.
Eliot (c. 1865) believed faith must be grounded in service.

Eliot (c. 1865) believed faith must be grounded in service. Courtesy of Special Collections, Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

“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.