Adin Ballou was primarily a synthesizer rather than an original thinker.
The name he chose for his program, "Practical Christianity," expressed his
preference for putting principles into action rather than elaborating the
theory behind them. The Practical Christian project grew by accretion,
incorporating the great reforms of the nineteenth century - temperance,
abolition, women's rights - as well as an assortment of attempts to conquer
the perennial sources of human misery: war, poverty, disease, and ignorance.
In time the community developed a distinctive blend of perfectionism and
pragmatism, which saw no incompatibility between a radical dedication of
"all that we are and have ... to the cause of universal righteousness" and
the expectation "for ourselves ... [of] a comfortable subsistence until
Ballou's acceptance of each new cause followed a specific pattern.
An idea would be introduced to him by one of its adherents.
After an initial impulse to resist or ignore it, he would think it through,
and conclude that it ought to be accepted. He would then incorporate it into
his set of principles, vowing to uphold it whatever the personal cost.
His account of his conversion to the temperance cause is typical:
There is, in Ballou's telling of his life story, one striking exception to
this pattern of resisting, investigating, and finally championing causes brought
to his attention by others. This is the cause of educational reform.
In this case, there was no dramatic conversion experience, no anxious
anticipation of having to defend a belief only recently and, perhaps,
imperfectly accepted. It was, as he recognized, "a child of my own begetting
- a creation of my own forming hand"6
- the most personal, the most original, and perhaps the most successful of his
many endeavors to remake his world.
It is not surprising that education should be the most personal of Adin Ballou's
reforms. After all, he had no personal experience of slavery or war, and - for
those hard-drinking times - surprisingly little acquaintance with intemperance.
Education, however, was a life-long passion.
"From that time to the present," he wrote of his early childhood,
"I have hungered and thirsted for knowledge with unsatisfied desire."7
His relationships with his parents, and his experiences as a student
(or would-be student), were reflected in the choices he made when he himself
became a teacher and, later, a parent. All of these experiences and relationships
went into shaping his eventual educational theories and practices.
Ballou's early educational experiences were marked by frustration, deprivation,
and occasional humiliation. He first attended a local schoolhouse in Cumberland,
Rhode Island, three months in summer and three in winter, where "only the
rudimental branches were taught, and these imperfectly."
He recalled that neighbors in Massachusetts, which unlike Rhode Island had a
system of public education (and an established church), "were prone to
reproach us as ignorant and heathenish Rhode Islanders, which begat no very
amiable feelings on our side the line."8
His earliest memories of school were not auspicious:
A few years later, he received "a droll, ignominious kind of punishment, more
mortifying and vexatious than painful" for being overcome by stage fright at the
prospect of reciting in a "dramatic exhibition" in the town meetinghouse.
"It was a mock shaving, after the fashion of a barber, with a wooden razor,
amid the laughter of the whole school."10
Despite such experience, young Adin "soon began to love books, study, and
learning, fondly." But he received little encouragement to pursue this love.
When he was eight, he was taken out of school entirely, to work in a cotton mill,
in which his father was overseer and part owner. The scheme failed after a year
and the family moved back to the farm, but he was thereafter able to attend
school only in the winter term. "And even while attending my usual three months'
school, my time was much broken in upon by a variety of calls at home and
There does not seem to have been any compelling economic reason for the neglect
and interruption of Adin Ballou's education. The Ballous were not struggling
farmers or indigent factory workers; his father was a substantial landowner with
enough cash to invest in a cotton mill. There were hired laborers on the farm,
as well a number of older siblings who, Ballou tells us, "cared little for
Adin was kept out of school not because his work was vital to the family, but
because his father did not value education, and did not intend that his son
should indulge in what he considered a frivolous luxury.
In contrast to the "stern and authoritative" father for whom "work was the
Ballou's mother seems to have had some interest in learning, and did her limited
best to support her sons' intellectual aspirations. In her obituary, Ballou wrote,
"Her mind, gifted with sound native sense and a strong thirst for improvement,
was always restricted to scanty means, and, of course, gathered up only the
fragments of general knowledge. These she employed to the great end for which
she lived, the happiness of those around her."14
Adin clearly felt closer to her than to his father, and there are hints in his
autobiography that she felt more in sympathy with her sons - Adin and his
younger brother Ariel - than with her much older husband and the six children of
his first marriage.
The conflict between father and son intensified as Adin matured.
Among the customers for the Ballous' farm produce was Dr. Asa Messer,
president of Brown University, who
Ballou's formal education ended with a few months at an "academy" in nearby
Franklin, Massachusetts when he was sixteen. He had no formal preparation for
the ministry. He simply began preaching, at eighteen, under the auspices of the
Christian Connexion, an evangelical sect which his family had joined about ten
years earlier. When he later joined the Universalists (whose clergy generally
served an apprenticeship with an experienced minister) and, later in life, the
Unitarians (many of whose clergy were college educated), he was accepted on the
basis of his prior experience. Thus, his ministerial career, while a source of
great personal growth and satisfaction, did little to satisfy his hunger and
thirst after learning.
Ballou's education, despite its limitations, was sufficient to qualify him to
teach in his local district school. At first it appeared that his career as a
teacher would be plagued by the same kind of absurd and humiliating incidents he
had suffered in childhood. Among his first pupils was "a lad of some twelve
years old, of apparently defective organization and subject to half-insane fits
of sullenness and ill-temper." When "tact, ingenuity, and wisdom" failed to
control the boy, the young teacher resorted to "some more distinctively
disciplinary and punitive measures," i.e. corporal punishment. The boy's father,
"an ignorant, intemperate man," vowed revenge.
Despite its triumphant conclusion, however, Ballou recalled the affair of the
schoolboy, the wedding, and the judge with embarrassment and, I think, guilt
over his treatment of the boy. His one recorded attempt to use force to compel
good behavior was not a happy one.18
Certainly he adopted a very different approach when faced with another
disobedient pupil. This incident occurred a few years later, when Ballou was
settled at the Universalist church in Milford, Massachusetts, but continued
teaching in order to make ends meet.
Adin Ballou married twice, and had from each marriage one child who survived
early childhood. With his daughter Abbie (born just three weeks before her
mother's death), he seems always to have enjoyed a warm companionship and
partnership. She entered readily into all of her father's schemes, and was by
all accounts a gifted teacher and scholar. Of the early days at Hopedale, when
she was thirteen, she later recalled, "Being fond of children, another young
girl and I were ordinarily assigned a position in the nursery group, where I
managed at times, three or four cradles... Fortunate was I when the occupants of
the cradles did not all at once demand too much of my attention and left me time
Abbie began teaching in the Hopedale primary school in her early teens.
By the time she was nineteen, she had graduated from the teachers' training
course at the state Normal School and become the head teacher at the Hopedale
school. Her students remembered her as "the one who most of all left a permanent
impress on the minds and hearts of the Hopedale youth ... Mrs. Abbie, our
devoted and beloved teacher and friend," under whose "inspiring teaching ...
all who came under her influence in the old school house must feel that their
lives had a fortunate beginning."21
When she was twenty-two, Abbie married William Heywood, her father's ministerial
student. The couple were Adin Ballou's staunchest disciples and assistants for
the remainder of his life.
The child of Adin Ballou's second marriage was his son, Adin Augustus
(known as Augustus). Like his sister, he was brought up to be a teacher and sent
to the Normal School; where he fell ill and died, at the age of eighteen.
It is impossible to reconstruct, from the story of his short life as told by his
grieving parents, the quality of the relationship between Adin Ballou and the
son he eulogized as "a joyous child, a sprightly, winsome lad, a promising
youth, and a model young man."22
I have the impression, however, that it was a more conflicted relationship than
that with Abbie, and that perhaps Augustus did not have so strong a vocation for
teaching as his sister. He was, at any rate, the focus of a tremendous weight of
parental hopes and dreams.
All children at Hopedale did some work in the community as part of their
education, so it is not remarkable that Augustus began working in the Hopedale
printing office at ten; but it is surely strange that he became foreman at
fourteen. As the boy grew, his father "watched the indications of his maturing
ambition with anxious solicitude lest the temptations of the prevailing
civilization should allure him from the struggling cause of Christian Socialism
so dear to my heart." When at seventeen "he took his stand for what I deemed
right and good" by formally joining the community, immediately "all eyes were
turned to him ... as the leading teacher and manager" of the
soon-to-be-established Hopedale Educational Institute, a proposed boarding
school that would serve students "from the infant group to the highest
It was, in other words, to be a far more ambitious undertaking than the humble
district school that Abbie led.
Since Hopedale was in theory, and to a considerable extent in practice,
committed to equal rights for women, there is no obvious reason why Augustus,
who had never taught or expressed a particular interest in teaching, should have
been chosen for this position over Abbie, who already had several years of
progressively responsible teaching experience and a diploma from the Normal
School. Perhaps the Ballous felt that Abbie was already settled in life, and
that Augustus needed a place. But I suspect that in part, Adin Ballou was
repeating, in his relationship with his son, the pattern of his relationship
with his own father. The content of the expectations was different, but the
intensity was the same. Adin Ballou tried to give his son the upbringing he
wished his father had given him; but it was not necessarily the upbringing his
son would have chosen.
Without the kind of conscious, and conscientious, thought that characterized
other aspects of the Hopedale venture, Adin Ballou improvised an educational
program based on a highly effective combination of entertainment, meaningful
work, high expectations, and the use of moral suasion (some might say emotional
manipulation) to guide the awakening conscience.
Ballou seems to have genuinely enjoyed children and, in their company, relaxed
his usual earnest and humorless demeanor. Where no serious moral issues were at
stake, he would humor and cajole children, for example by making up rhymes to
help them remember their manners. Entertainments - frolics, festivals, games,
picnics, dances, even a trip to Boston to see "trained seals and mice" - were
part of the Hopedale program. Ballou had no desire to duplicate the austerity of
his own upbringing. Though some of the community members protested, he had no
objection to recreation, so long as it was carefully chosen to "exclude all
enervating frivolity, all unseemly vulgarity, all rough and brutal
Meaningful work was a cornerstone of the educational experience at Hopedale.
According to the constitution of 1844, "All children and youth under 18 years of
age ... after leaving the nursery shall be regularly instructed in the useful
arts and sciences four hours per day." That this was primarily for educational
rather than economic reasons is shown by that fact that the practice was
continued even after it was discovered in 1846 that "the services of children
and supernumaries had not been made to accrue as they ought to the financial
advantage of the Community."25
Economically sound or not, the work done by the children was real, responsible
work in which they could take legitimate pride - even if most did not, like
Augustus Ballou, become foremen in their teens.
A crucial aspect of the program was that the children (again, Augustus is
perhaps an exception) were allowed to choose the work they would learn, and to
structure their education around their choices. The 1844 constitution specified
that all community members over the age of ten should be allowed, as far as
possible, to select the branch of industry in which they would work and the work
group or "band" in which they would be enrolled. The report of the Board of
Education in 1854 described the Hopedale district school as one in which "each
pupil will be able to receive the elements at least of that kind of education
adapted to the peculiar calling in life which he or she may select, whether that
of scholar, artist, mechanic, teacher, farmer, or whatever other employment a
man or woman can honorably engage in."26
Students are likely to be highly motivated when their educational program is
linked to a set of personally chosen goals (an educational philosophy which has
recently been rediscovered).27
Both the Hopedale district school and the Hopedale Home School (a scaled-down
version of the Educational Home, presided over from 1856 to 1863 by William and
Abbie Heywood) had ambitious goals for the mental, physical, and moral education
of their students. The Home School was "designed that in connection with [the]
scholastic training the pupil should be taught the laws of health, in order that
a symmetrical development of the body be secured; also the conditions and laws
of moral and spiritual life, so that the roots of selfishness and sin should be
eliminated from the nature of the child." A former student of the Home School
credited it with "stimulat[ing] self-reliance, the habit and power of thought,
patient investigation, dispassionate judgment, freedom of opinion, independence
of character, [and] self-culture."28
At the same time that it cherished these high expectations, the Hopedale
community experienced a surprising amount of misbehavior on the part of its
young members. In the early days of the community, Adin Ballou recalled, the
children were "rude and uncouth in their manners, and unused to self-discipline
and self-regulation." In 1847 there were "frequent complaints of lawless ways
and growing disrespect of proper authority" among the older boys. A statute of
1849 enacted "in the interest of morality, good manners and the truest culture"
established an 8:00 curfew for children and required parents and guardians to
ensure "that those under their care refrain from all profanity, from all
vulgarities in word or action, and from all obscene utterances or writings; that
in their recreations they indulge in no habits of injuring, annoying or vexing
The gap between the lofty goals and the lowly reality is striking, and, I
believe, indicative of one of the secrets of the community's success. Perhaps
the most remarkable thing about Adin Ballou's reporting of the young people's
misbehavior is the utter lack of surprise or dismay. His personal experiences -
his struggle against his father's authority, the lessons he had learned as a
young schoolmaster, and the growth of his own children - had taught him that it
was the nature of young people, especially young men, to be rebellious. It was
normal, it was expected, and it had no bearing on their ability to grow into
highly responsible adults. Hence, he always treated young people with respect
and unfailingly high expectations; and in the end they did not disappoint him.
The "rude and uncouth" children "all seemed to reverence and love me and to have
respect for my wishes and requirements." Ballou's method is clear in his account
of his treatment of the lawless and disrespectful young men:
Girls received the same education as boys in the Hopedale schools, characterized
by the same principles of meaningful work and high expectations. Ballou's
commitment to gender equality reflected his happy experience with the women in
his life. I have the impression that he expected girls to be tractable, but was
pleasantly surprised to find them capable as well. This is apparent in his
growing respect for and reliance upon his daughter. In an age characterized by
the "cult of domesticity," quite a number of Hopedale girls went on to pursue
higher education and careers.31
The final, and in our time, the most controversial, element of the Hopedale
educational program was the use of guilt as a motivator of good behavior.
At the time, of course, this was seen not as emotional manipulation but as the
awakening of the child's conscience, a wholly praiseworthy aim. Still, there is
something distinctly disturbing in the dialogue between father and son, recorded
in the memorial volume which Adin Ballou wrote after the death of his son, in
which ten-year-old Augustus' conscience is awakened to the evil of attending a
Father: My son, you know that I love you, and always desire to gratify your
wishes, when it can be done innocently. But how can I, who abhor War, and am all
the time preaching against it, consent that you should go an be an admirer of
Son: Why, father, they are not going to kill anybody with their guns and
swords today. They are only going to march about in fine uniforms, with bands of
Father: But do they not meet, my son, to learn the art of War - to prepare
themselves to kill their fellow-creatures - so that when War comes they may be
ready for it? The uniforms, and marching, and music, may all be very pleasing
as a show, if we do not consider that wholesale murder is at the end of it.
Son: I never thought of all this, father. It looks wrong. But I cannot tell you
how much I want to see them march and hear their music!
After this, Ballou tells us, "He walked to and fro, and left the room, with his
bosom heaving, his face flushed, and all his soul in a struggle between
inclination and temptation on one side, and reason and conscience on the other.
But within five minutes the matter was settled forever. He returned with a meek,
calm, firm, tearful face, glorious with moral heroism."
Father: Well, my son, I see that you now understand why I cannot approve of
your going. You have reason of your own, and you have a conscience. I should be
very glad to gratify you, if I did not think it would be a sin against our
father in heaven. I cannot see how I should be able to justify myself, either to
God or men, if I should be called in question. But I am going to leave you
entirely to your own reason and conscience. I have said enough. I will not give
my approval of your going to the muster, neither will I forbid you. Go, if you
think it right. I will not hinder you.
Son: But I cannot do so, father; I want your approval, if I go.
Father: I cannot give you that, my son. I can only permit you to go on your
own responsibility, and also assure you, that though I shall be sorry to have
you go, yet I shall still be your loving Father, when you return, and do you all
the good in my power. I can say no more. Make up your mind now for yourself.
The methods used to cure the young of misbehavior were the same that would be
used to cure society of the evils of war, intemperance, and slavery: a reliance
on moral suasion, and an absolute prohibition on physical force. Though he may
have forgotten instructing that boy in the Milford school to beat him,
Ballou never forgot the lesson he had learned on that occasion.
All of Adin Ballou's educational experiences -
his humiliations and triumphs as a student and as a teacher;
his unsuccessful attempt to go to college; his partnerships with his mother,
daughter, and wives; his struggle with his father; his blasted hopes of his
son - formed the background to the educational program that he developed at
Hopedale. The program reflected the personality strengths and weaknesses of the
man himself. He could be rigid, humorless, and self-righteous.
His non-violence could be surprisingly aggressive, and he did not always temper
the weight of his expectations to the capacity of the child who had to bear them.
On the other hand, the program reflected his optimism, born from his Universalist
faith, that everyone could achieve goodness. He loved children, he enjoyed them,
he respected them; he expected each one to succeed, and he rejoiced when they
did. And that, in the end, is what they remembered about their Hopedale education.