Categorized | Expat, Travel Feature

David Trumbull: A Yankee Reformer in Chile


Upon announcing my upcoming trip to Chile to my mother, she had offhandedly mentioned that my great-great-grandmother and namesake, Anita Trumbull, had lived in Chile as a child. “I think her father was a pastor or something.”

It turns out that he was a little more than that. Due to his contributions to the country, the Chilean national congress had held a moment of silence when Reverend David Trumbull died. “They bestowed Chilean citizenship upon him out of thanks,” says Ricardo Vasquéz, director of the David Trumbull School in Valparaíso.

While in the city, I visited the sites of his missionary work including the school and church that he founded at the end of the 19th century. I reached out to those living in Valparaíso who have been touched by Trumbull’s legacy to better comprehend the magnitude of this man’s contributions to Chile’s past and present.

The Man

Portrait of David Trumbull in Valparaíso, Chile (Photo: Victor Polanco; Edited by: Katie McCutcheon)

Portrait of Rev. David Trumbull (Photo: Victor Polanco)

The family’s name was written in American history long before Trumbull brought his family to Valparaíso.

John Trumbull (1756-1843), David Trumbull’s great-uncle, was described as “the finest American history painter of the late Georgian era, excepting Benjamin West.” He is best known for his Declaration of Independence painting, which hangs in the United States Capital Rotunda and adorns the backside of the two dollar bill. Other members of the family include painter John’s father, Jonathan Trumbull, who served as Governor of Connecticut during the American Revolution, and was a friend of and advisor to George Washington during the war.

The family’s South American story began when David Trumbull finished his studies at Yale University and the Princeton Theological Seminary and aged 26 travelled to Valparaiso on the part of the American and Foreign Evangelical Union.

“If you look at it from another point of view, when you think about 1845, for them, it was as if one of our missionaries were to go to Africa,” Vazquéz laughs. “Going to another place in which there’s a different language—so it was a challenge, he faced a huge challenge.

“He was contracted by the foreign mission of the Presbyterian Church of New York. And he took on the missionary spirit.” So much so that on 2nd August 1850, after spending five years working in Chile, Trumbull returned to New Jersey to bring his new wife, Jane Wales Fitch, with him to form their home in Valparaíso.

He organised the Union Church in 1847, although the physical church building was not finished until 1871, as before 1855 chapels for non-Catholic services could only be constructed “if the construction was behind a tall wall and without towers or bells,” according to Trumbull’s magazine The Record.

It wasn’t until 1865 that those not adhering to the national religion were able to “practise what religion they may within the confines of privately-owned buildings”. This allowed non-Catholic foreigners to “maintain private schools for the teaching of their own children in the doctrine of their religions.” Until that year, article 5 of the constitution had dictated: “The religion of the Republic of Chile is the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion, to the exclusion of public exercise by any other.”

Later, Trumbull founded the Colegio David Trumbull in 1869. The school’s main objective was to provide primary education to children of Chilean Protestants “who object religious errors taught in the public schools of the city”.

Trumbull descendant Annie Bacher tours school he founded in Valparaíso (Photo: Victor Polanco; Edited by: Katie McCutcheon)

David Trumbull  Presbyterian School  in Valparaíso (Photo: Victor Polanco)

Apart from the church and school that bear his name, perhaps the greatest part of Trumbull’s work in Valparaíso was his influence on laws regulating marriage and education of Chile.

“Thanks to his contribution, secular laws in Chile were brought in – the civil register and the civil matrimony were created,” explains Vasquéz. The push for civil laws were in large part due to the influx of foreigners from the United States and Europe in Chile in those years,

In 1877, Trumbull wrote a four-chapter defence of mixed marriages, which was published in the newspaper “La Voz de Chile.”

As an example of the way in which the prohibition of mixed marriages punished Chilean women, Trumbull described the story of a young man from the United States who had a child with a young Chilean woman, and when the man inevitably returned to his country, he “didn’t hesitate in abandoning the mother and child.” Although it can’t be known whether the man would have stayed with the woman had the law permitted it, but Trumbull asserts, “the law left them no other choice than abandonment, or to continue illicit and immoral relations.” By permitting mixed marriages, these situations of illicit relations and abandonment could be avoided.

Trumbull questioned if it was possible “to initiate a legislation different than that which reigns, without invading the sacred limits of the church”.

Trumbull Church interior in Valparaíso, Chile (Photo: Victor Polanco)

Trumbull Church interior (Photo: Victor Polanco)

Shortly before the passing of the bill allowing civil marriage, in 1883 Trumbull referred to those who were forced to choose between their religious beliefs and civil rights in a lecture for the Young Men’s Christian Association. He said that Protestants could only enjoy the experience of wedding and the formation of families “in the sacrifice of personal convictions and in the avowal of repugnant opinions”.

The pamphlet with the lecture’s transcript, which remains in the Rare Book Room of the US Library of Congress, quotes Trumbull saying, “this has led to untold measures of shame, sorrow, and pain.”

Finally, on 16th January 1884, Chile’s congress passed the Law of Civil Marriage, and the law creating the Civil Register became part of the constitution. “This means that the church lost the traditional authority to legally establish the family,” writes Irven Paul, author of ‘A Yankee Reformer in Chile, Life and Work of David Trumbull’.

“This law rescinded the authority of the Church to register births, marriages, and deaths of all inhabitants of the nation.” According to Paul, Senator Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna is said to have commented that the passing of the law “was a declaration of the second independence of the nation”.

Trumbull’s commitment to the success of this law was clear in his reaction.

According to Paul, Trumbull had promised, “if these laws were approved by Congress, he would become a Chilean citizen.” This was doubly impactful, given the fact that only three generations earlier, his great-grandfather had played a central role in the American Revolution alongside George Washington. Despite being “a loyal United States citizen until his last drop of blood,” Trumbull sacrificed his US citizenship to give himself over to the country to which he devoted much of his life and work.

Trumbull died in Valparaíso on 1st February 1889. The city’s newspaper, El Heraldo reported: “It was a complete revolution that which he forged in our country; he himself was a proper revolutionary, and even before his life ended he couldn’t walk through our streets without being greeted by everyone with shows of respect, love, and appreciation by all for being a good man, in all sense of the word.”

After Reverend Trumbull

The Trumbull family remains sprinkled throughout the United States and Chile. Though I was unable to determine the whereabouts of all of nine of the Trumbull children, I followed the journey of his eighth daughter – my great-great grandmother – Anita, from Chile to New Jersey through the diary she wrote almost every day.

Trumbull descendant Annie Bacher in Valparaíso, Chile (Photo: Victor Polanco; Edited by: Katie McCutcheon)

Trumbull descendants Annie Bacher and Pauline Reed in Valparaíso, Chile (Photo: Victor Polanco)

At the age of 26, the same age at which her father had set off for his mission in Chile, she constantly questioned her privilege, whilst highly valuing her parents’ work in Valparaíso. “In Father’s memory I would like to do some good work, worthy of a child of his and mother’s,” she wrote in her diary. “My life seems so selfish – so lacking in strong and lasting influences. I ought to strive to help those about me more than I do – not seek admiration, but means of helping others.”

An anecdote from Paul’s book brings light to the meaning David Trumbull brought to people’s lives. He tells a story from Anita and her sister Julia’s vacation to Nantucket Island, Massachusetts in 1886: “They were surprised to notice the name of their native city painted on the door of a cottage. With trepidation they inquired of the owner—a retired sailor, why he painted the word ‘Valparaíso’ on his door?”

The story goes that by saving him from black smallpox and bringing him back to life, Trumbull and his wife changed the whole course of his life. He explained to the youngest Trumbull sisters: “That town is just like it sounds—a Valley of Paradise.”

The Legacy

The tomb remembering Trumbull’s death “raised by his friends in this community and by citizens of his adopted country” remains in the Dissidents Cemetery of Valparaíso, which stands in front of the imposing Catholic Cemetery No. 1. The tomb reads: “This country has a gifted and faithful minister and friend. He was honoured and loved by foreign residents on this coast. In his public life he was the counsellor and statesman, the supporter of the poor and the consoler of the afflicted memory of his permanent services, fidelity, charity, and sympathy.”

An article in the New York Times from Trumbull’s lifetime remembers him as “The Rev. David Trumbull, who is to this country something of what Luther was to Germany,” comparing Trumbull to the German priest credited with starting the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The article noted his humanity, commenting that he “is a good controversialist, and is as bold as he is talented”.

His legacy remains alive in Valparaíso, where the school and church bearing his name continue to flourish.

Original exterior of Trumbull Church (Photo: Victor Polanco; Edited by: Katie McCutcheon)

Original exterior of Trumbull Church (Photo: Victor Polanco)

The original school has been renamed the David Trumbull Presbyterian School, and still stands up high in the hills of Valparaíso today. It “is maintained with energy and enthusiasm, carrying the name of its founders and the oldest of all missionaries who arrived to these lands,” according to Vasquéz.

The original Union Church still stands today in Valparaíso’s centre, despite four significant earthquakes since its construction. The organisation of the Union Church moved to neighbouring Viña del Mar, and the Presbyterian Church of Chile now uses the original building, but the original wooden pews and New England-style floors are reminiscent.

Materials documenting the family legacy remain scattered across the United States and Chile. Trumbull’s journals, meeting minutes, and attendance records rest on shelves in the pastor’s office in the Union Church in neighbouring Viña del Mar, where the church moved in the early 20th century. The ‘David and Jane Wales Trumbull Manuscript Collection’ is contained in 12 boxes in the Princeton Theological Seminary Library, and remains of the family’s library wait in moving boxes in Trumbull’s great-great granddaughter Pauline Reed’s house in Santiago.

Perhaps the most telling signs of Trumbull’s legacy living on in Valparaíso today were the warm, familiar hugs, the broad smiles, and the looks of wonder and amazement I received when I was introduced to members of the church and school as his great-great-great granddaughter. He may be long gone, but Trumbull is far from forgotten in this faraway city he came to call home. `

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