Who Was Charles Wesley Emerson?

Contrary to popular belief, Emerson College was not founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the prominent American essayist. It was founded by another Emerson, Charles Wesley, who was a writer and part of the 19th-century Boston intellectual elite in his own right.

Charles Wesley Emerson was a descendent of Thomas Emerson, who settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in 1638. Charles was born on November 30, 1837, in Pittsfield, Vermont. Both of his grandfathers were Methodist clergymen, and, with such a background, it seemed like a natural path for Emerson to pursue the ministry. He preached his first sermon at 19, was ordained in 1860, and served many Unitarian churches in New England until 1875.

During that year, Emerson began attending the Boston University School of Law, although he continued to serve as minister at the Unitarian church in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Soon afterward, he added to his workload by enrolling at the School of Oratory at Boston University.

Juggling his many activities soon became a burden, so Emerson decided to discontinue his education at the law school. This enabled him to focus his energies on oratory work as well as preaching in Congregational and Unitarian parishes throughout New England.

It was during his studies at the School of Oratory that Emerson was taken under the wing of Lewis B. Monroe. Emerson’s studies at the School of Oratory provided the groundwork and impetus for free lecture courses on practical physiology, which he gave in his church in Chelsea. When he completed his work at Boston University, he moved to Philadelphia, where in 1879 he obtained a medical degree from the Eclectic Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Upon the death of Lewis B. Monroe, the School of Oratory at Boston University closed. Emerson therefore opened his own school, the Boston Conservatory of Elocution, Oratory, and Dramatic Art, in 1880. The conservatory was located at 13 Pemberton Square in Boston, where the Suffolk County Courthouse now stands. Ten students enrolled in the first class. In 1881, the name was changed to the Monroe Conservatory of Oratory, in honor of Emerson’s mentor, Lewis Monroe. In 1890, students and alumni called on Emerson to change the name of the school to honor its founder, and the College was renamed Emerson College of Oratory. During his time at the College, he published a number of books, including four volumes of The Evolution of Expression, which became the core text in the College’s curriculum.

In 1902, Emerson’s health began to rapidly decline, and, by 1903, he decided to step down from the presidency. William James Rolfe became the second president of the College that year and inspired its students with the same enthusiasm as his predecessor. A few months after Rolfe’s retirement in 1908, Emerson passed away at his home in Millis, Massachusetts. In 1909, a meeting was held to discuss Emerson’s accomplishments and allow community members to offer remembrances of him. The meeting concluded with the announcement of the creation of Founder’s Day, a day to memorialize the life of Charles W. Emerson.

For more information:
A Century of Eloquence: The History of Emerson College, 1880–1980 by John M. Coffee Jr. and Richard L. Wentworth, 1982.

A History of Emerson College During the Administration of Charles Wesley Emerson, 1880–1903; thesis by Michael L. Woodnick, 1962.


Hannah Yetwin (Archives Intern)