Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
College History



Reverend Alfred Emerson

The Rev. Alfred Emerson (1812-1896) served as Wheaton Seminary Trustee from 1872 to 1893 and Treasurer from 1880 to 1891. He and his wife were among Eliza Baylies Wheaton's closest friends and advisors. With Mrs. Wheaton and Trustee Rev. Albert Plumb, Emerson provided fundamental leadership for the Seminary during the later part of the nineteenth century.

Emerson supervised major construction projects, overseeing the 1878/79 additions to Seminary (Mary Lyon) Hall. After the national Panic of 1873 and Long Depression lasting until 1879 (or, some economists believe, until 1896), Emerson agreed to become the Seminary Treasurer, and safeguarded Seminary finances through the recessions of 1882-85, 1887-88, and 1890-91.

Born in 1812 in Beverly, MA, Emerson graduated from Yale University in 1834, received his A.M. from Andover Theological Seminary, and tutored at Yale from 1837 to 1840.  He served as Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Western Reserve College, a strongly abolitionist institution, in Hudson, OH, from 1853 to 1856. Emerson and his family returned East, and he served as pastor of the Congregational church in South Berwick, ME, from Feb. 15, 1857 to May 12, 1858, when he was called to the C.C. church of Fitchburg, MA.

The Rev. Alfred's wife, Martha Vose Emerson was principal from 1840 to 1842. One of the Emersons' daughters, Frances Vose Emerson, Class of 1872 (1855-1950), taught literature and history at Wheaton from 1881 to 1886, and was a Trustee from 1922 to 1941, when she was voted Trustee Emerita. Another Emerson daughter, Annie Austin Emerson, Class of 1871, taught mathematics and English branches at Wheaton in 1873 and 1875-76.

Alfred Emerson's grandfather, the Rev. Joseph Emerson (1777–1833), was a clergyman and champion of women's education. He was an early advocate of expanding women’s academic education beyond the traditional “ornamental” and “domestic” arts. Born in New Hampshire to a long line of clergymen, he graduated from Harvard in 1801 and served as a minister in Beverly, Massachusetts, until ill health forced his retirement in 1816. Apparently sympathetic to the women’s rights movement that emerged following the publication in 1792 of Mary Wollstonecroft’s widely read Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Emerson opened a secondary school for young women in Byfield, near Newburyport, Massachusetts. From its beginnings, Byfield Female Seminary offered extensive studies in literature, history and other academic subjects previously reserved for men. Mary Lyon attended Byfield Seminary, where she was befriended by Emerson, and his assistant, Zilpah Polly Grant. Byfield's ethos of rigorous academic education infused with Christian commitment guided her recommendations to the Wheaton family for establishing the seminary in Norton, and influenced her later founding of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

The Rev. Alfred Emerson died in Dorchester, MA, in 1896 (some sources report 1897). Emerson Dining Hall was dedicated in 1908 to the Emerson family.

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