Francis Greenwood Peabody was born in Boston on December 4, 1847, to Mary Jane Derby and Ephraim Peabody, a Unitarian minister. After Ephraim Peabody's untimely death, his former congregation provided the funds for his son's education. The younger Peabody graduated from Harvard College (1869) and received degrees from the Divinity School (1872) and from the Graduate School (1872). Peabody's studies at Harvard were but the beginning of a long relationship.
After a brief time as chaplain and teacher at Antioch College in Ohio, Peabody served as minister at the First Parish in Cambridge (Unitarian). In 1880, Peabody became a lecturer on ethics and homiletics; while at Harvard, he also served as the Parkman Professor of Theology (1881-86), Preacher to the University (1886-1906), Plummer Professor of Christian Morals (1886-1912) and the Dean of the Divinity School (1901-06).
Peabody's work at Harvard was spread over many areas of University life, though his most lasting influence lies in his introduction of social ethics at the Divinity School and, later, through a University Department of Social Ethics. Among students his course was better known as "Peabo's drainage, drunkenness, and divorce." He stressed the need to study the religious and social implications of the changes brought about by the industrialization process. He championed social science methodology and the case method and offered liberal interpretations of the New Testament that reflected a call to ameliorate the dislocation of industrialization. In his teaching, preaching and writing, he portrayed a religious tradition that stressed members as agents of social change, de-emphasizing personal salvation in favor of social action.
Peabody led the successful effort at Harvard to have daily religious service attendance be optional (the first traditional U.S. college to do so) and nonsectarian. Though criticized by some for this effort ("God has become an elective at Harvard," his critics cried), Peabody was a respected preacher, having his university sermons published in five volumes. Peabody also authored many books, including Jesus Christ and the Social Questions (1900) and Jesus Christ and the Christian Character (1905).
He was instrumental in the foundation of Phillips Brooks House at Harvard and the Prospect Union in Cambridge.
In 1872 Peabody married Cora Weld (1848-1914).
Additional source of information:
American National Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.