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Theodore Thornton Munger papers

Call Number: MS 362

Scope and Contents

The Theodore Thornton Munger Papers consists of the papers of various members of the Munger and Selden families, but primarily those of Theodore Thornton Munger. A Congregational minister, a writer, and an advocate of the "new theology," Munger was born in 1830 in Bainbridge, New York, the son of Dr. Ebenezer and Cynthia Selden Munger. He was educated at Cortland Academy in Homer, New York, where the family had moved in 1836, and entered Western Reserve College at Hudson, Ohio in 1846. The following year he enrolled in Yale College, class of 1851. Upon graduation he entered Yale Divinity School, studying briefly also at Andover Theological Seminary, and was ordained in 1856 at the Village Church, Dorchester, Massachusetts. As a result of his growing disenchantment with both the rigidities of the New England Theology and the current enthusiasm for revivals, Munger withdrew in 1860 from the Dorchester Church with the expectation that he would follow his friend Elisha Mulford into the Episcopal Church. Instead he preached on invitation at various churches in and around Boston while he read and reconsidered his theological beliefs. By 1864, however, he had decided to remain within the Congregational fold and accepted a call from Centre Church in Haverhill, Massachusetts. But his liberal theology again came into conflict with that of his congregation and in 1869 he resigned his pulpit in Haverhill and accepted a temporary appointment in Providence, Rhode Island (1869-1871), followed by three years at the Eliot Street Church in Lawrence, Massachusetts. As a result of the failing health of both Munger and his family, later discovered to have been caused by defective plumbing, he sought a more healthful climate in San Jose, California (1875-1877), where he organized a new congregation. He returned to New England in 1877 accepting the call from the Congregational Church of North Adams, Massachusetts, where Washington Gladden and Lewellyn Pratt had previously paved the way for a less traditional ministry. But because of the recent refusal of the Indian Orchard Council to install the Reverend James F. Merriam for what they considered wayward views on the question of the eternal punishment, there was an inordinate interest in the fate of Munger whose regard for the teachings of Horace Bushnell was widely known.

Thanks to the weighty words of Noah Porter of Yale, the council, presided over by Mark Hopkins, approved what the council at Indian Orchard had just rejected. Munger served North Adams until 1885, when he accepted a call from the United Church in New Haven, a position which he held until his retirement in 1901.

Munger was married in 1864 to Elizabeth Kinsman Duncan and, after her death, to Harriet King Osgood in 1889. Munger died in New Haven on January 10, 1910.

Though Munger was not an original thinker, he is remembered for his attempts to accomodate Christianity to Darwin's theory of evolution and for his open mindedness toward the critical methods of biblical scholarship which caused such a controversy at the end of the nineteenth century. Following Horace Bushnell and the English Broadchurchmen, Frederick Denison Maurice and especially John W. Robertson, Munger attempted to break through the sectarian adherence to the letter of dogma and creed, exemplified by the action of the Indian Orchard Council of 1877, and return to the more catholic spirit of early Congregationalism. This "new theology" made the covenant, not the creed, the individual conscience, not conformity to the letter of Scripture, the basis of Christian fellowship. These views gained a wide hearing in his book of sermons, The Freedom of Faith, published in 1883.

Munger's chief distinction was as a writer and preacher. Possessed an exceptionally graceful literary style, he was an eloquent spokesman for "liberal" Christianity. His rapport with the young and his ability to give fresh expression to traditioanl ideas is demonstrated by the remarkable success of On the Threshold (1880) and a companion volume, Lamps and Paths (1883). The former, in fact, was chosen as one of the twenty volumes selected from the best English and American authors for the Cambridge Classics. Other books by Munger include the Appeal to Life (1887), Character Through Inspiration (1897), Horace Bushnell, Preacher and Theologian (1899), and Essays for the Day (1904).

The Theodore Thornton Munger Papers provide important information on Congregational polity, the influence of the English Broad-church movement upon New England Calvinism and the concommitant move by some toward the Episcopal Church, and the issues raised by the "new theology." The collection is arranged into four series: CORRESPONDENCE; WRITINGS, SPEECHES & RESEARCH MATERIALS; SERMONS; and SPECIAL FILES. The first series, CORRESPONDENCE, contains letters to and from many persons prominent in nineteenth century religion and education including: Lyman Abbot, Felix Adler, Horace Bushnell, Timothy Dwight, Daniel Coit Gilman, Washington Gladden, Elisha Mulford (78 letters), Noah Porter, and Horace Scudder (35 letters). The correspondence with Scudder pertains to Munger's literary work and their mutual friend, Elisha Mulford. The letters of Mulford and Andrew Dickson White focus heavily upon church matters and theology. (For Munger's letters to Mulford, see the Mulford Family Papers, Historical Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library). In addition, there is some correspondence between White and Munger's biographer, Benjamin W. Bacon, about Munger, and some important correspondence between Bacon and Munger's daughter, Rosa Munger, also about Munger's life and work. Also of interest are the letters to Munger from his brother, John H. Munger about his service in the army during the Civil War, his business ventures, and politics in general.

WRITINGS, SPEECHES & RESEARCH MATERIALS contains both printed and manuscript copies of Munger's books, essays and speeches. Of special interest is the draft of a collection of sermons for an unpublished book, The Heart of Things and a scrapbook containing printed articles (many by Munger) on the "new theology." In addition, there are several "reminiscenses" by Munger of his early life and an interesting copy of a letter his father received at Yale (1814) from his own father.

SPECIAL FILES consists primarily of personal and family papers and memorabilia, including various honors and tributes by friends and parishioners as well as a folder of material pertaining to the Robert Hume Controversy.

For additional biographical materials see Theodore Thornton Munger: New England Minister by Benjamin Wisner Bacon.


  • 1806-1947


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by the creator(s) of this collection are in the public domain. There are no restrictions on use. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of the estate of Rose Munger, 1947. Gift of the United Church on the Green, UCC, 2014.


Arranged in four series: I. Correspondence. II. Writings, Speeches, and Research Materials. III. Sermons. IV. Special Files.


9 Linear Feet (24 boxes, 1 folio)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Correspondence, writings, speeches, sermons, and other papers of Theodore Thornton Munger, author, preacher, and spokesman for liberal theology. Also included are papers relating to the Munger and Selden families. Of special interest are the papers throughout the collection which reflect on the many religious controversies in New England between 1870 and 1900 in which Munger became embroiled, particularly Congregational polity. Important correspondents include Elisha Mulford, Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Washington Gladden, Andrew Dickson White, and Horace Scudder.

Biographical / Historical

Theodore Thornton Munger: ordained in 1856, and served in Dorchester, Mass., until 1860; from 1864-1869 served in Haverhill, Mass., then resigned due to conflicts over his liberal theology; from 1869-1871 served in Providence, R. I., and from 1872-1875 in Lawrence, Mass.; moved to San Jose, Cal., in 1875; from 1877-1885 served in North Adams, Mass.; from 1885-1901 served in New Haven, Ct.; advocate of the "new theology" and author of numerous books.

Guide to the Theodore Thornton Munger Papers
Under Revision
compiled by Staff of Manuscripts and Archives
August 1971
Description rules
Finding Aid Created In Accordance With Manuscripts And Archives Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

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