Richard Cary Morse was born into a religiously and socially conservative New England family well known for its intellectual contributions to American life. His grandfather, Jedediah Morse (1761-1826), was the first of many Morse men to attend Yale, helped to found Andover Theological Seminary, and authored the earliest American geography. He was a staunchly orthodox Congregational minister, ardent Federalist, and active evangelist, and advanced his views by writing and editing conservative religious and political periodicals and helping to establish the American Tract Society and American Bible Society.
Jedediah Morse's three sons, Samuel Finley Breese, Sidney Edwards, and Richard Cary, followed their father's lead, but emphasized different aspects of the Morse intellectual and religious tradition in their individual careers. With his work in telegraphy and photography and his career as a painter and advocate of the arts, Samuel F.B. Morse pioneered in both the scientific and artistic fields. He perpetuated the family's aggressively conservative political and religious tradition with his involvement in anti-Catholic and nativist movements. Samuel Morse's eminent career overshadows the achievements of his two brothers, though each was successful in his own right. Sidney Edwards Morse was also an accomplished scientist and inventor, collaborating with Samuel on a pump design, working with Henry Munson in the development of a color printing process, and inventing the bathometer for sea exploration. He continued Jedediah Morse's geographical work and, at his father's suggestion, furthered the cause of conservative Protestantism by establishing religious newspapers in Boston and New York.
Third brother Richard pursued no scientific endeavors. After attending Yale and the Andover Theological Seminary he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, but occupied the pulpit for only a few years before joining his father to help with geographical texts. In 1823 he moved to New York to join brother Sidney in founding the New York Observer, where he specialized in editing, writing, and translating French and German contributions. Richard Morse's more modest career may be explained in part by the early death of his wife, the former Sarah Louisa Davis, and the responsibility of raising nine children. He remarried in 1856, but one senses from family correspondence that his second wife, Harriott Messinger Morse, did not take a central role in child-raising. Morse was a nervous, worry-driven man, and suffered from depression and stomach ailments all his adult life. His symptoms were eased by ocean travel, so he made frequent business and pleasure trips to Europe and occasionally took voyages solely for health reasons. Regret that he had been unable to pursue a career of theological scholarship seems to have been a central factor in his unhappiness. In his later years, after retiring from the Observer, Morse concentrated on a biography of his father, working in conjunction with William Buell Sprague, the noted biographer of American clergymen. Unable to resolve questions over interpretation of incidents in his father's life, Morse never brought the project to completion.
Richard Cary Morse, the second, appears to have been marked early on as the scholar of the family. He started school at age four and was sent to a boarding school in New Jersey at six. The boy's precocious intellectual bent was encouraged by Morse senior, who took his son to France with him on Observer business in 1851, the year after Mrs. Morse's death. Here they stayed with religious historian Guy de Felice, a regular contributor to the newspaper and co-author with Morse of publications on French literary and religious history, and young Richard studied the French language. Taking note of the difficulties brother Sidney had had at Yale after a public school education, Richard persuaded his father to send him to Andover Academy in 1853. He remained one term, then joined three sisters and a brother at boarding school in Connecticut for two years while Morse senior was abroad on business. Returning to Andover, he graduated in 1858, then entered Yale. Young Morse was a strong student and an avid participant in debate and athletics at Andover and Yale, and at both schools formed a strong, close circle of friends.
Religious activities were also a central part of Morse's school years, for his father insisted on regular church attendance and encouraged religious reading. He also expected his son to choose his friends carefully and to seek the company and advice of good Christians. As an adult Morse wrote that he had wanted to become a minister since childhood (a desire no doubt fostered by awareness that this would please his father), but that "my Christian life for some years was not a very happy one." The boy lacked faith in his vocation and felt ill-equipped in the writing and speaking skills he deemed necessary for a minister. At Yale he actively set out to address these weaknesses, engaging in debate and oratory, taking part in prayer meetings and Sunday School teaching. Once Richard had decided upon a religious calling, it became a settled matter in the eyes of his father and stepmother. When the Civil War began, the young man's religious convictions took a back seat to patriotic fervor, and he ardently desired to join Yale classmates who were enlisting. His parents firmly forbade it, insisting that he was meant for a higher purpose, and eventually, after heated interchanges, their views prevailed. The angry tenor of the correspondence indicates that relations between the two Richards became strained, and were perhaps permanently altered. In his autobiography Morse terms the decision "one of the most serious disappointments of my life," although he maintains that he eventually came to see it as "providential." The published version of Morse's life smoothes over stresses and strains expressed more openly in his letters, so an admission of disappointment in print indicates that it must have been a heavy blow indeed.
After graduating from Yale in 1862 Richard joined his father (with some reluctance, based on the evidence of correspondence) for a year of research on a Jedediah Morse biography which was to be written by William Buell Sprague. He then spent two years in Auburn, New York as private tutor for the family of Throop Martin, followed by two years of study at the Princeton and Union theological seminaries. He received degrees from both institutions in 1867. Meanwhile, ownership of the New York Observer had passed from the elder Morse brothers to Richard Cary Morse's son, the second Sidney Edwards Morse, and to Samuel Iranaeus Prine. Richard was offered an assistant editorship, and decided that religious journalism would serve as a fit beginning for his ministerial career. In October, 1867, Morse was sent to cover a YMCA convention for the Observer, and was much impressed by the "evangelistic enthusiasm" of the speakers, especially Dwight Moody. Soon afterward he joined the association, and in 1869 was asked to take a new position as YMCA secretary and editor, taking charge of a quarterly magazine. This began a 47-year career which culminated in the position of national YMCA general secretary. In this capacity Morse traveled the world to help extend YMCA influence and prepared works on the organization's history. Though ordained in 1869, Richard Morse never served as a minister. The YMCA was to be his calling and the central activity of his life. He married Jane Elizabeth Van Cott at 42, had no children, and died in Brooklyn, New York in 1926.
Probably in response to the early death of their mother, the Morse children -- Elizabeth, Charlotte, Louisa, Sidney, Mary, Richard, Rebecca, William, and Oliver -- became a close-knit brood, and the eldest took it upon themselves to act as guardians and advisers for younger siblings. Elizabeth Morse Colgate, the oldest, was especially influential; her brother lovingly refers to her as our "mother-sister" in his autobiography, and notes that for 42 years "her home was the home of all of us." This was the case despite their father's remarriage (which is not even mentioned in Morse junior's autobiography), for relations between children and stepmother appear to have been less than fond, in turn affecting the ties between the younger Morses and their father. Being sent away to boarding school probably also strengthened sibling ties. The elder Morse believed that New York City, though he was bound to live there for business reasons, was an unhealthy place for children, and that they could attain a superior education only in private schools. (He reneged somewhat on this practice with the two youngest boys, pulling them out of boarding school in favor of public school in New York; poor financial conditions probably had as much to do with this decision as educational concerns.) They attended a school in Hartford, Connecticut run by Miss E.D. Apthorp, a sister-in-law of Horace Bushnell. This was evidently a progressive educational institution, for its curriculum combined elements of an English and a classical education along with an emphasis on the practical and the healthful, such as gardening and working with tools. The Morse girls' education seems to have ended after graduation from Miss Apthorp's school in the early teens, while the boys, following family tradition, went on to Andover Academy for a full college preparatory education, and then to Yale. The political liberalism of these New England institutions concerned, and often downright irritated, the conservative elder Morse -- he was later to express regret that he had sent his children away to be educated in a way which would lead to disrespect for him. Son Richard, however, appears to have passed through his rebellious stage and settled back into the essential Morse respectability and conservatism.