Home » Season 3 » William Peck and Nativist Fears

William Peck and Nativist Fears

By Jack Foley, VI Form

William Peck and Nativist Fears

From 1883 to 1894, William E. Peck was the first layman to be Head of St. Mark’s, a conservative, Episcopalian school. Many Trustees at the school believed that Peck was leading the school away from its religious roots. At the same time, in the late nineteenth century, Catholic immigrants came to the U.S. in huge numbers and threatened its Protestant elites. The changing nature of St. Mark’s and the U.S. threatened the Board of Trustees, which led to Peck’s dismissal.

St. Mark’s School hired Peck to teach Latin and French after he graduated from Trinity College in 1871. Rev. Dr. Coolidge, Headmaster before Peck, and the students loved Peck.[1] In 1877, Coolidge awarded Mr. Peck with the position of Senior Master, held by the tutor who was at St. Mark’s for the longest amount of time. Together, Dr. Coolidge and Mr. Peck worked to improve the school. From 1876 through 1881, they increased the number of tutors in the school by twelve and raised the academic standard at St. Mark’s. They were also very involved in foundation of the St. Mark’s Athletic Association, creating the first organized athletic activity at the school.[2] In 1879, while Dr. Coolidge mourned his daughter’s death of a childhood disease, Peck ran the school in Coolidge’s place. Dr. Coolidge became dependent on William Peck over the years they worked together.[3]

In 1882, Dr. Coolidge retired from St. Mark’s, which surprised the Board. The Trustees rushed to find another clergyman, like Coolidge, to take over as Head of School. However, they had trouble finding anyone who could start at the beginning of the next school year. Coolidge recommended that the Board promote Peck to Headmaster. Mr. Peck would be the first Head of School that the Episcopal church did not ordain. Dr. Coolidge previously believed that the Head of School must be a clergyman, but Mr. Peck’s work ethic and love of St. Mark’s changed his opinion.[4] Coolidge’s recommendation started a debate that would dominate Trustee Meetings for over a decade.

The Trustees lived in a time when Protestantism was becoming less central to American culture. Many of the Trustees were Episcopalian clergymen. All of the Board Members who were not clergymen were deeply religious.[5] In the late nineteenth century, Catholic immigrants came to the U.S. in huge numbers and began to change the country. Two million eight hundred thousand immigrants came to the U.S. between 1871 and 1880. During the following decade, 5.2 million immigrants came to the U.S.[6] A significant number of Americans reacted to the large Catholic immigrant influx by starting anti-Catholic movements.[7] In the middle of the same decade, Coolidge recommended William Peck as the first unordained Head of School. Many of the Trustees reacted to Coolidge’s proposal the same way people reacted throughout the country to the deterioration of Protestant dominance.

During this time, people associated the new wave of Catholic immigrants with the trend of declining morals in American cities. Eighty percent of the immigrants during this wave settled in large, urban environments with exploding populations.[8] At the same time, problems like prostitution, overcrowding, alcoholism, corruption, and crime were rampant in U.S. cities. Many Americans did not see this as a coincidence. They blamed immigrants for what they saw as a decline in American morals.[9] A significant number of the Trustees believed that a goal of St. Mark’s was to teach its students to have strong moral character through the Episcopal religion, which had been the school’s mission from its beginning.[10] These Board Members wanted to teach their students the opposite of the immorality associated with Catholic immigrants. Therefore, they tried to emphasize the Episcopal nature of the school to accomplish this task. They felt that a layman could not instill Episcopal teachings in the students.[11]

Catholic immigrants became involved in American politics after immigrating to the U.S.[12] They took political action by objecting to the use of the King James Bible in public schools. The King James Bible was a strictly Protestant Bible. Catholics objected to paying taxes for public schools that were used to teach a Protestant Bible, which made Protestants think that they were trying to take over the U.S.[13] The immigrants were getting involved in politics and trying to change school curriculums. With an unordained Head of School, St. Mark’s would be rejecting its Episcopal roots.[14] The Trustees wanted to maintain the religious traditions at St. Mark’s and not lose them like many public schools around the country.

Despite the objections and misgivings of some Board Members, the Board elected William Peck to the position of Acting Head in 1882. Francis C. Foster, one of few laymen among the Trustees, convinced the Board that, on a temporary basis, no one would do a better job than Peck. More traditional members of the Board, led by Reverend Albert Chambre, were not happy. Foster could not even try to convince the other Trustees to give Peck the title of Head of School. He had to settle for Acting Head of School.[15] The trustees decided to restrict Peck in unprecedented ways. They chose Reverend John Rice to run the religious instruction at St. Mark’s School and St. Mark’s church. Both of these positions were previously held by Rev. Coolidge. The Trustees also chose a matron, Mrs. Louisa Clark, for Peck. She performed duties that Dr. Coolidge’s wife used to perform and had nothing to do with the religious side of St. Mark’s. Even after William Peck got married, Clark remained the matron of St. Mark’s. The Trustees gave Peck no input on either one of these new faculty members.[16] The position was temporary and the search for an ordained Head of School began immediately.[17]

Peck did an excellent job in his first year as Headmaster and there was a motion to make him the permanent Headmaster. On May 4, 1883, the Board of Trustees elected William Peck to the position of Head of School and changed the bylaws of the school to allow a layman to have this title. The vote to elect him was not unanimous and was not written into the Trustee Meetings’ notes as unanimous.[18] Normally, during past Trustee Meetings, when votes were not unanimous, the people on the winning side asked the others to change their vote, so the motion could go into the records as a unanimous decision. Some members of the Board were so angry that a layman ran the school that they refused to be on record as voting for Peck.

At another meeting around this time, the Board elected Waldo Burnett, the son of St. Mark’s founder, as Reverend at St. Mark’s Church. Before Peck’s administration, the Head of School and Head of Church were the same person. After Peck’s promotion, the Reverend of St. Mark’s Church was still involved in the school on a day to day basis. The previous two Reverends had resigned because of the confusing nature of their role at the school with a layman Headmaster and tensions with the Board over this issue, which remained a problem with Burnett.[19] It was not clear whether Peck, the Head of School, or Burnett, the Reverend, had more power at St. Mark’s School. Burnett was a tutor at a school led by Peck. On the other hand, Waldo Burnett’s father started the school, which was part of the Episcopal church.[20] Throughout Peck’s time as Head of School, the board was constantly divided over which one of these men had more authority.

Throughout Peck’s administration, Waldo Burnett tried to assert himself over Mr. Peck as the religious leader of the school. Burnett also wanted to be Head of School and Peck stood in his way.[21] Burnett constantly tried to undermine William Peck’s authority. On August 7, 1889, there was a ceremony to bless the new chapel and begin construction of the new school. Burnett ran the ceremony and did not give Peck, who was a driving force in the building’s construction, the opportunity to speak because he believed that Peck had no place at the religious event.[22] Waldo Burnett also started several, selective clubs at the school. These clubs were the choir, a poetry club, and the Jam Club, which was a tennis club. All of these clubs, especially the Jam Club, created a feeling of exclusivity among its members that Burnett knew Peck hated. When Peck tried to change the nature of these clubs, Rev. Burnett said that only he had the authority to be involved in the moral instruction of the students. He viewed his clubs as a way to make selected students better men. [23]

In response, William Peck tried to assert his control over Belmont Chapel, the school chapel, and the religious education of the St. Markers. In 1890, Peck cut back on choir practice time and established time for all school singing instruction. Thus, he established his control of Burnett’s choir and tried to open up one of Burnett’s exclusive clubs.[24] In 1891, Waldo Burnett got candlesticks for Belmont chapel. Peck kept these candlesticks from being used for two years. The dislike between these men was so great that Peck demonstrated his power by controlling something as petty as what candlesticks were used in the chapel.[25]

On January 5, 1892, the Board Meetings became more contentious than ever before. Reverend Chambre led a faction on the board demanding that the trustees give Waldo Burnett more power over Peck at St. Mark’s School. These trustees also demanded that a clergyman be the Head of School. William Peck was tired of the constant challenges to his authority by some of the Trustees. He offered his resignation to the board. The Board of Trustees voted to reject Peck’s resignation. The Board also decided that the Head of School was the chaplain of the school. Technically, William Peck became the chaplain of St. Mark’s because he was the Headmaster. [26] The implications of this were that Peck was in charge of religious instruction and leading morning and evening prayers at the school.[27] Both factions on the Board, the Trustees that supported Peck and the Trustees who wanted a clergyman to be the Head of School, supported this decision. Chambre and his supporters on the Board thought this decision would make Peck incapable of being Headmaster because a layman could not be a chaplain. Foster and other supporters of Mr. Peck on the Board thought that this decision would limit the influence of Rev. Burnett because the Board recognized the chaplain’s authority on religious affairs at the school over the local Reverend’s authority. [28]

Throughout all this tension, Peck was able to accomplish a lot as Head of St. Mark’s School. He created the position of Monitor, which were seniors he chose to be school leaders.[29] He grew the size of the school significantly. A higher percentage of graduates went to college and more graduates went to college than went during the leadership of the three, previous heads combined.[30] William Peck was also a driving force in the construction of the new building for St. Mark’s School, which is currently the main building.[31] The new building was something else with which Burnett took issue.

Reverend Burnett’s complaint with the new building was that it had its own chapel. In a public address at graduation in 1888, he said that the new chapel would require a clergyman to be Head of School or for the school to give Burnett more authority over the chapel services and St. Mark’s religious affairs in general.[32] Burnett refused to give in on his opinion. Four years later, he went before the Board and said that the church was losing money because St. Marker’s no longer attended its services as often with the new building.[33] Previously, all the boys had to donate at every St. Mark’s Church service. Then it was optional, but recommended to donate.[34] After the school’s chapel was built, St. Marker’s did not even go to most of St. Mark’s Church’s services. Many on the Board, like Francis C. Foster, thought that Burnett was just complaining to reignite the debate about having a Head of School who was not ordained. If this was Reverend Burnett’s goal, he accomplished it. Waldo’s allies on the Board argued that St. Mark’s needed to start the search for a clergyman to lead the school. A heated, unresolved debate broke out, at the end of the meeting, the Trustees tabled the conversation for a later meeting. [35]

Some of the Trustees’ desire to have a clergyman as Headmaster came to fruition at a meeting on April 25, 1894. Peck had tried to make Joseph Allen, a prestigious mathematician and scientist, a tutor at St. Mark’s. Chambre and numerous others of on the board vehemently objected because Allen was not part of the Episcopal church.[36] Chambre’s motion to deny Allen his position passed, once again not unanimously. Another motion by Chambre to only hire members of the Episcopal church as tutors also passed. Chambre used this momentum to get the bylaws rewritten to only allow clergymen to be the Head of School. This was the end of Mr. Peck. By the end of the school year, Peck was forced to resign, and Joseph Burnett, the founder of St. Mark’s, wrote a letter to the board saying that the parish had authority over the Head of School. William Peck made the Board too uncomfortable with the hiring of Allen. Chambre was able to convince the trustees that Allen’s employment would cause the end of the Episcopal tradition at St. Mark’s. This time, the majority of the Trustees agreed with Chambre. The majority of the Trustees were willing to have Peck run the school for over a decade because they were not convinced that the school’s religious tradition was under attack. Chambre was finally able to convince the majority of the Board that St. Mark’s was losing its Episcopalian nature with the hiring of the non-Episcopal Allen. The Board reacted by trying to make the school more Episcopal and started with getting rid of the Head of School. [37]

William Peck was the first layman to lead St. Mark’s, which was a difficult transition for the school and its religiously conservative Board. The large influx of Catholic immigrants in the late nineteenth century made people throughout the country and on the Board of St. Mark’s feel that the immigrants threatened the Protestant nature of the U.S. In the end, the Board was not ready for a layman to be Head of School and Peck was driven out because of this.

IMG_7410Jack Foley is a VI Form boarding student from Sea Cliff, N.Y. He is on the cross country, wrestling, and crew teams.







1) Benson, Albert E. History Of St. Mark’s School. Southborough, Massachusetts: St. Mark’s School, 1925.


2) Board Of Trustees’ Meeting Minutes, St. Mark’s School Archives, Southborough, Massachusetts.


3) Cayton, Mary Kupiec. Encyclopedia of American Social History. New York: Scribner, 1993.


4) Glazier, Michael. The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1997.


5) Ness, Immanuel. Encyclopedia of American Social Movements. Vol. 4. Armonk, New York: Sharpe Reference, 2004.


6) Noble, Richard E. The Echo Of Their Voices. Southborough, Massachusetts: Hollis Publishing, 2015.






[1] Noble, Richard E. The Echo Of Their Voices. Southborough, Massachusetts: Hollis Publishing, 2015, 25.

[2]Ibid., 33-35.

[3]Ibid., 33-35.

[4]Ibid., 37.

[5]Ibid., 5, 36.

[6] Ness, Immanuel. Encyclopedia of American Social Movements. Vol. 4. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2004, 1417.

[7]Glazier, Michael. The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1997, 94.

[8] Ness, American Social Movements, 1417.

[9] Ibid.,1417.

[10] Noble, Echo Of Their Voices, 3.

[11]Ibid., 5-6, 62.

[12] Ness, American Social Movements, 1416.

[13] Cayton, Mary Kupiec. Encyclopedia of American Social History. New York: Scribner, 1993, 2104.

[14] Noble, Echo Of Their Voices, 57.

[15]Ibid., 37.

[16] Board Of Trustees’ Meeting Minutes, St. Mark’s School Archives, Southborough, Massachusetts, May 4, 1883.

[17]Ibid., May 4, 1883.

[18]Ibid., May 4, 1883.

[19] Noble, Echo Of Their Voices, 41.

[20]Ibid., 47.

[21]Ibid., 47.

[22] Noble, Echo Of Their Voices, 56.

[23]Ibid., 47.

[24]Ibid., 59.

[25]Ibid., 61.

[26] Benson, Albert E. History Of St. Mark’s School. Southborough, Massachusetts: St. Mark’s School, 1925, 120.

[27]Ibid., 107.

[28] Noble, Echo Of Their Voices, 61.

[29] Ibid.53.

[30]Ibid., 67.

[31]Ibid., 62.

[32] Noble, Echo Of Their Voices, 62.

[33]Ibid., 64.

[34] Benson, History Of St. Mark’s, 81.

[35] Noble, Echo Of Their Voices, 64.

[36]Ibid., 64.

[37] Noble, Echo Of Their Voices, 65.


Search Volumes