Nathaniel Sheldon Wheaton (1792-1862): Trustee, President, and Professor at Washington (then Trinity) College. A dormitory named for him in 1966 was renamed in 2021.
Nathaniel Sheldon Wheaton was a key figure in the early history of Washington College and the city of Hartford, where he served for ten years as the rector of Christ Church. An early organizer and fundraiser, Wheaton travelled to Great Britain to secure monies and books for the founding of the college. He served in the inaugural group of college trustees and, from 1831-1837, was the second president of Washington College. Wheaton returned to Trinity College as a professor in the 1850s.
Wheaton, like many prominent Washington College members, delivered funding and messages of religious responsibility to sustain the colonization movement in the United States. As a colonizationist, Wheaton believed that human slavery was wrong and that Black and White people could not coexist in one nation. In Wheaton’s words, “I am unable to separate the idea of colonization from emancipation on an extended scale. Dwell together as equals the two races never can, at least in this country…All attempts hitherto to force the two races into an equal social position have only served to exhibit the amiable folly of their authors. The repugnance remains, unconquered and unconquerable; and the inferior race must, by a law which we can-not controul, remain under some kind of subordination to the higher intellect of the Anglo Saxon.”1 As they strove for a White society, colonizationists like Wheaton upheld that the freeing of slaves must be accompanied by the removal of freed Blacks to Africa.
Throughout his career, Wheaton was an active colonizationist. He served as the first and only rector of the African Mission School in Hartford. He was also a director and member of that society’s executive committee. Founded in 1828 under the auspices of Bishop Brownell, the African Mission School Society was charged with establishing “a School for the instruction of suitable persons of African extraction, with reference to their becoming Missionaries, Catechists and Schoolmasters in Africa.”2 Hartford was an ideal location for such a school, the executive committee explained, “It is healthful—the means of living are cheap; and the vicinity of Washington College offers many facilities for education, which can be found only in the neighborhood of a college.”3 Beyond Wheaton and Brownell (who served as the president), Washington College was well represented within the ranks of the African Mission School Society. Trustee Harry Croswell was a director; Trustees and major donors William H. Imlay, Charles Sigourney, and Samuel Tudor were members of the executive committee; Professor George W. Doane was a director and executive committee member; and Professor Hector Humphreys served on the executive committee.4
The African Mission School linked to the greater colonization mission effort of the Episcopal Church. This effort highlighted a climate theory of race. White missionaries, leaders of the movement believed, were unable to labor in the hot, humid environments of Africa. They bolstered such belief with evidence that many White missionaries died from disease when sent to Africa. When many Black persons, as missionaries and colonists, also died from disease in Africa, the Episcopal leaders did not relent in their racist beliefs. “The constitution of the white man cannot endure long in that country,” explained the executive committee of the African Mission School.5
Trained Black missionaries were to open the way for an exodus of freed Blacks out of the United States. In a speech honoring the formation of the African Mission School Society, former Columbia University trustee and vice president of the society Jonathan Wainwright said, “You know, better than I can declare to you, that civilization without christianity is valueless–nay, you know that the former cannot subsist without the latter. To be civilized, a country must have religion, and this religion must be christianity. Now where is Africa, dark, degraded, ignorant Africa; where is it to obtain this blessed gift? How shall they hear without a preacher, and how shall they preach except they be sent, and how shall they be sent except by our exertions?” In this speech in Wheaton’s Christ Church, Wainwright made apparent the link between the African Mission School and the removal of Blacks from the United States: “The colonizing of Africa is our only hope. It is the only means by which a drain is to be made to carry off our surplus coloured population.”6
As the rector of the African Mission School, Wheaton was required to “visit the School once a week” and “to enquire into the literary progress, and the religious character and conversation of the pupils.”7 Six Black men attended the school and three would graduate in 1830. Though the graduates failed to meet the standards of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Committee of the Episcopal Church, they traveled to Africa nonetheless. One, William Johnson, died after no more than two weeks in Liberia from “acclimating fever.”8 After the class of 1830, the African Mission School in Hartford soon closed. Bishop Brownell, however, continued to encourage and advise Episcopalians to develop African mission schools in other places.9
After his presidency at Washington College, Nathaniel Wheaton moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, to serve as rector of Christ Church. The 1840 census lists one enslaved Black man residing in Wheaton’s residence. The most likely explanation is that Wheaton owned this individual either directly or through the church that he now headed. Research is ongoing to more fully understand the enslavement. When Wheaton returned to Trinity College in the 1850s, he continued as an ardent colonizationist—listed as a lifetime member of the American Colonization Society in 1853.10 Wheaton died in 1862. He is buried in Northville Cemetery in New Milford, CT.
Links to Cited Resources
Proceedings of the Board of Missions of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America at their First Annual Meeting (New-York: Protestant Episcopal Press, 1836).