Henry Whitney Bellows

Henry Whitney Bellows (1814-1882) was an American Unitarian minister and the founder of the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War.

Henry Bellows was born in Boston on June 11, 1814, the son of a wealthy merchant. He attended the progressive Round Hill School, which was run by the historian George Bancroft. Bellows was an outstanding student at Harvard College, graduating in 1832. Meanwhile, his father had lost his fortune, and Bellows, seeking work, taught school at Cooperstown, N.Y., then became a tutor to rich Louisianians. He returned north to enter the Harvard Divinity School. He accepted a pastorate in Mobile, Ala., but left because of distaste for slavery. His next charge was the First Unitarian Church (later All-Souls) in New York City, and though he was only 24 years old, he was instantly successful as a minister and in civic affairs.

Bellows had great energy, fluent and clear expression, and a desire to mediate rather than confound. Though he was no scholar, he kept abreast of social and theological controversies and reached solutions intended to serve all partisans. A good family man and a sincere friend, he helped establish several of the city's most famous clubs, including the Century and Harvard clubs. In 1847 he began publishing the Christian Inquirer (later the Boston Christian Register). During the 1850s he spent time and money freely to help Antioch College in Ohio. Typical of his conciliatory approach was his lecture in 1857, "The Relation of Public Amusements to Public Morality, " in which, in an era that readily accepted the view that the theater was evil, he justified its positive values.

The Civil War found the U.S. War Department illequipped to meet the unprecedented needs of its soldiers and unprepared to use properly the services of the numerous women who were eager to help. Low morale and the danger of epidemics threatened the armed forces. Women's aid committees were unorganized and frustrated. Bellows led a party of citizens to Washington to win the sanction and cooperation of the government in the creation of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a national organization to supervise nurse, supplies, and personal services in camps and on the battlefields. Bellows's eloquent appeals to individuals and communities brought millions of dollars to the Commission, and his leadership gave authority to its work, making it inseparable from the military effort. Reports of the Commissions's achievements affected developments abroad, notably in the operations of the International Red Cross.

Following the war Bellows continued to exercise his abilities as an editor, an organizer (for example, of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches), and a civil service advocate. His visit to Europe in 1867-1868 resulted in his two-volume The Old World in Its New Face (1868). He died in 1882.


Further Reading on Henry Whitney Bellows

Bellows rated kindly estimates rather than formal biographies, for example, J. W. Chadwick, Henry W. Bellows, His Life and Character: A Sermon (1882). For his major achievements see Charles J. Stillé, History of the United States Sanitary Commission (1886), and William Q. Maxwell, Lincoln's Fifth Wheel: A Political History of the United States Sanitary Commission (1956). Conrad Wright, The Liberal Christians: Essays on American Unitarian History (1970), includes a chapter on Bellows's church work after the Civil War. Clinton Lee Scott, These Live Tomorrow: Twenty Unitarian Universalist Biographies (1964), contains a detailed though uncritical biography. See also Francis Phelps Weisenburger, Ordeal of Faith: The Crisis of Church-going America, 1865-1900 (1959).


Additional Biography Sources

Kring, Walter Donald, Henry Whitney Bellows, Boston: Skinner House, 1979.