He was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He was apprenticed to a shoemaker early in life, but decided to further his academic learning, and entered the Massachusetts normal school at Bridgewater in 1857. He decided to become a minister, and graduated in 1864 from Harvard Divinity School. That year he also became pastor of Second Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, New York. His sermons attracted attention, and he became known as a radical teacher of the doctrines of his church. He was elected Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1885, and in the following year preached the alumni sermon at the Divinity School. He remained at the Second Unitarian Church until his death in Brooklyn.