Reverend Eli Thurston, first Commencement speaker
The Reverend Eli Thurston, D.D., gave the first recorded Commencement address at Wheaton's graduation ceremonies; he spoke again in 1865. He was the second Pastor of the Second (later Central) Congregational Church of Fall River, MA, from 1849 until his death in December 1869. No doubt his associate, the Rev. Orin Fowler, also of Fall River and a Wheaton Trustee, was instrumental in bringing Rev. Thurston to campus, and for recruiting him to join the Trustees. Thurston served on Wheaton's Board of Trustees from 1864 to 1869, and spoke at Commencement on several occasions.
Eighty new members joined the Rev. Thurston's church during his first year as pastor, part of the revivalist Second Great Awakening. During Rev. Thurston's tenure in Fall River, his church contributed to many local causes, including education, foreign and home missions, the Seaman's Friend Society, and Bible, Sabbath-school and Tract societies. The congregation opposed the running of steamboats and rail-cars on Sundays, as well as dancing, but favored congregational singing and "mutual watchfulness and mutual exhortation."
In the spring of 1858, in an attempt to encourage church attendance, Rev. Thurston preached one of his "most powerful and characteristic" sermons, from Proverbs 28:7, "As a bird wandereth from her nest, so is a man who wandereth from his place." In 1859, Thurston founded a series of union morning prayer-meetings, which,
stirred the whole town, merchants closing their stores, mechanics suspending their work, hackmen hastening back from the depots to attend. The numbers were so large that the main auditoriums of the churches had to be opened; the floor and gallery seats were crowded; and the Spirit's presence and power was notably manifest in the confession of sin and the fervor of prayer and praise.
In 1863, Thurston instituted a course of lectures to the young men of Fall River. Given on Sunday evenings, they required him to give up his afternoon sermons, and his church obtained the services of a second minister. The following year, he divided the parish into six districts, each under the care of a committee of church members, one male and two female. This successful project is an example of the movement of women into the public sphere of charitable work formerly occupied by men.
When the Central Church moved to a new building in 1875, the congregation installed a memorial tablet to its first two pastors. Of Rev. Thurston it says,
As a preacher able and bold,
As a pastor faithful and devoted,
In the community
Fearless to expose evil,
And a power for good.
Much of this information derived from: Henry Hilliard Earl, ed., History, Annals and Sketches of the Central Church of Fall River, Massachusetts, 1842-1905, Fall River: 1905.