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Unitarian inspired popular nursery rhyme

In her childhood, Mary Elizabeth Sawyer Tyler had a little lamb.
By Sonja L. Cohen
Spring 2010 2.15.10

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Illustration from Mary's Little Lamb, 1920. (Trustees of Boston Public Library/Rare Books)

Illustration from Mary's Little Lamb, 1920. (Trustees of Boston Public Library/Rare Books)

When most people think of notable Unitarians they think of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Susan B. Anthony, but one of the most famous Unitarians in the world isn’t known for philosophical essays or civil rights work—or even for being a Unitarian. She is famous for having a lamb, and most people don’t even know that she was real.

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

Mary Elizabeth Sawyer was born in 1806 and raised on a farm in Sterling, Massachusetts. As an adult, she worked for many years as the matron at the McLean Asylum for the Insane, where she met fellow employee Columbus Tyler, whom she married in 1835. The couple built a large home in Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, where they were founding members of the city’s First Unitarian Church (dissolved in 1975).

Mary Tyler was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Women’s Relief Corps, was a founder of the Women’s Industrial Exchange, and in her later years worked for preservation causes. But it was an event from her youth that cemented her place in the public consciousness.

When Tyler was a young girl, a sheep on the family farm gave birth to a small lamb that was struggling to survive. Her father allowed her to care for the lamb, and when it survived she kept it as a beloved pet. One day when she was around 10, the lamb did in fact follow her to school. Mary hid the lamb under her desk beneath a blanket, but, as she recalled years later: “By and by I went forward to recite, leaving the lamb all right; but in a moment there was a clatter, clatter, clatter on the floor, and I knew it was the pattering of the hoofs of my lamb. Oh, how mortified I felt!”

Tyler’s teacher and fellow students had a good laugh, and the lamb was put outside. They weren’t the only ones amused by the incident. According to Tyler, a teenager named John Roulstone, the nephew of a local minister, was visiting the school that morning. As she explained it, “The young man was very much pleased with the incident of the lamb; and the next day he rode across the fields on horseback to the little old schoolhouse and handed me a slip of paper which had written upon it the three original stanzas of the poem.”

The poem was first published, with additional stanzas, in Sarah Josepha Hale’s 1830 book Poems for Our Children. Debate continues about whether she or Roulstone actually wrote the first twelve lines. Roulstone died in 1822 while a freshman at Harvard, and Tyler always maintained that he was the author of the original lines.

In the 1830s, Lowell Mason set the words to a melody and added repetition in the verses. Its popularity grew, and Thomas Edison recited the first stanza to test his phonograph in 1877.

Despite the authorship controversy, the community had little doubt that Tyler and her lamb were the real subjects of the nursery rhyme. Her hometown of Sterling erected a statue of the lamb on its common. Her home there was made a landmark. And when Boston’s historic Old South Meeting House needed preservation money in the 1870s, Tyler donated a pair of socks her mother had knitted from her lamb’s wool. The socks were unraveled and bits of them were sold along with Tyler’s autograph to benefit the Meeting House.

The Tylers never had children. When Columbus died in 1881 he bequeathed their house and property to the First Unitarian Church, effective upon Mary’s death. She died on December 11, 1889, and her home was used as the church parsonage until it was sold in 1921.


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