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William Henry Fish Jr.

1889 - 1897


William Henry Fish Jr. was born in Millville, Massachusetts on March 1, 1844, son of William Henry Fish Sr. and Anne E. (Wright) Fish. At the time of William Jr.’s birth his father was minister to the Millville Restorationist Church where he became interested in Transcendentalism, sharing his pulpit with eminent Unitarian orators, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Starr King, Horace Mann and Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, Theodore Parker, and Samuel J. May and later joining Adin Ballou’s utopian Hopedale Community for 9 years.  William Jr. thus had formative contacts in his childhood with some of the America’s leading philosophers, abolitionists, philanthropists, and social reformers that were to shape his later career as a Unitarian minister. As biographer Francis Christie observed about William Jr.’s upbringing. “He had been reared among moral idealists and reformers and he united their firm rectitude with his richer culture and general reasonableness of method…. Zeal of the reformer was no abstract enthusiasm and his warm heart found everywhere present duties.” 


William’s education began at Hopedale where his teacher was Abbie Ballou Haywood, the founder’s daughter. After the collapse of the Hopedale experiment in 1856, the Fish family moved to Cortland, N.Y. where William Sr. became minister at the Old Cobblestone Universalist Church and William Jr. distinguished himself at New York Central College. In 1860 William Jr. taught district school and then entered Harvard, graduating in 1865. William decided to forsake the teacher’s lot in preference for the ministry, matriculating and graduating from Harvard Divinity School in 1869. At this point the elder Fish committed to send his scholarly son to the University of Berlin for 6 months in 1869-1870 where at American Legation soirees he met such luminaries as Otto von Bismarck and George Eliot. William Jr.’s subsequent European Grand Tour included stops in Rome, Athens, Constantinople, Paris and London in the spring and summer of 1870. 


Upon his return to the United States, William Jr. accepted ordination in 1871 from the Northampton Unitarian Church whereupon he met and married Helen Case, a congregant at his father’s Vernon, N.Y. church. In 1873 William Jr.’s peripatetic travels recommenced when he and his bride moved to London where William Jr. became minister-at-large for the Carter Lane Mission to the Poor. At this early proto settlement house animated by the British Unitarian belief that pauperism and crime could be ameliorated by establishment of a cooperative Christian community, Fish led two Sunday services and oversaw two Sunday School sessions as well. On weekdays there was day and night school taught by William Jr., all sorts of clubs that needed his facilitation, as well as “the daily struggle to relieve cases of poverty.” The Carter Lane method thus coupled pastoral engagement and community building with systematic “scientific” philanthropy. which Fish referred to as “Associated Charities”.  Carter Lane offered a comprehensive approach to the problems of poverty by providing targeted support for childcare, health, housing, and nourishment, rather than indiscriminate alms-giving, all the while promoting self-help by restoring as much self-sufficiency and responsibility as a needy individual could manage. Carefully monitoring by professionalized charities would also root out free-riding “scroungers” and assure that benefits went to the “deserving poor”.  However, after a year of this engaging, but exhausting work, Fish found it necessary to resign due to his wife’s delicate health and instead took on the ministry of the Kidderminster Church in Old Meeting, England for two years.


Returning to the United States in 1877, Fish was called to minister first to the Unitarian Church in Troy, New York where he stayed till 1885 and then to the Unitarian Church in Lebanon, New Hampshire. His biographer reports he introduced the Carter Lane program to both congregations. After serving for 2 years in Lebanon, he accepted the call of First Church Dedham in April 1889.  Fish drew upon his Carter Lane experience to build on the Beach pastorate’s efforts to foster church community, Women’s Alliance-driven philanthropy, and support for missionizing. To begin with, Fish founded multiple clubs that engaged in social bonding, education, artistic performance, and charity fundraising; for example, the Young Man’s Chess Club, Unity Club, Church Quarterly Meeting, Saturday Club, Junior Benevolent Society, King’s Daughter, Lend a Hand Club, and What She Could Circle.  Next, Fish encouraged church groups to subsidized numerous legitimate self-help-oriented philanthropies, such as the Parker Memorial which later became the UU Urban Ministries, Baldwinsville Hospital Cottage for developmentally challenged children, Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, Children’s Floating Hospital, Massachusetts Prison Reform Association, Boys’ Republic, Temporary Asylum for Discharged Female Prisoners,  Boston’s Denison Settlement House, Children’s Missions (which is now the Home for Little Wanderers), and several schools for African and Native Americans (Calhoun School, Tuskegee Institute, Montana Industrial School for Crow Indians, and Lower Manassas Industrial School in Virginia). Lastly, Fish introduced First Church parishioners to the prospect of funding various international missionary endeavors, including India’s Anando Chunder Mozumdar Christian missions and Pandita Ramabai’s shelters for destitute widows, the Unitarian Mission in Tokyo (which founded the Japanese labor movement), and Red Cross president Clara Barton’s appeal to assist the Armenian survivors of the 1896 genocide in the Ottoman Empire. 


In 1897 Fish resigned as minister of First Church Dedham, where, according to his obituary, “his labors won him the confidence and affection of his people and the esteem of his brethren in the New England ministry.” His wife’s health issues again dictated a change, this time a move to Colorado from 1897-1901 where he employed by Associated Charities of Colorado Springs and taught German at Colorado College. Fish’s final 1903 ministerial call was to restore the fortunes of the Salt Lake City Unitarian Church.  The talented pastoral community builder promptly put that church on a fiscally sound basis by December 1904. Fish’s last position was a professorship at the Theological School in Meadville, Pennsylvania. There among his other duties he compiled and composed  the collection of sermons and lectures that comprise The Eternal Presence, which was published shortly after his death in 1911. Significantly, in the final two chapters of this book “Unitarianism and Philanthropy I and II”, Fish recounted the history of the philanthropic efforts of American Unitarians, like William Ellery Channing. Dorothea Dix, Joseph Tuckerman, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Theodore Parker, who had been at the forefront of every significant social reform movement of the preceding century. Fish went on to detail the ways specific Unitarian churches had contributed to these philanthropic Associated Charities reform efforts, citing Dedham’s donations to Tuskegee Institute and the Children’s Floating Hospital. He ended the second lecture by, perhaps, reflecting on his own life work of pastoral care, community building, and church philanthropy with “It is because the Unitarian gospel, which is a gospel of pure and practical Christianity, has been faithfully preached, it is because it has been received into open minds and hearts and translated into beneficent lives, that all these things which I have been relating, and many more like them, have been accomplished.”


William Henry Fish (born March 1, 1844), American clergyman | World Biographical Encyclopedia (
Filing Cabinet: Ministers-1688-1897: First Church Papers- 1627-1965; Dedham Museum and Archive
Parish Record, November 1890-May 1897

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