John Murray Spear, Universalist and Abolitionist

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is rather long, and is from a sermon preached in 1774 by Elhanan Winchester, one of the earliest Universalist preachers in this country — he was preaching Universalism before John Murray arrived from England.

“There is one abomination… that prevails in this country, that calls aloud not only for sighing and crying, but for a speedy reformation and turning therefrom, if we desire to prevent destruction from coming upon us; I mean, the SLAVE TRADE….

“The very principle upon which it is founded, from which it springs, and by which it is carried on, is one of the most base and ignoble that ever disgraced the human species:

“WHICH is, Avarice. This mean and unworthy passion certainly had has a principal hand in this disgraceful traffic; no one can pretend that benevolence ever had, or ever can have, a hand in such a most infamous commerce. Avarice tends to harden the heart, to render the mind callous to the feelings of humanity, indisposes the soul to every virtue, and renders it prey to every vice. Ought we not to be ashamed of such a commerce, that has it rise from no better principle than mere selfishness or covetousness?…

“HAVING considered the principle from whence it originated, and to which its existence is owing, I pass to mention the horrible manner in which it is carried on. And here almost every vice that blackens and degrades human nature is employed; such as, deceiving, perfidy, decoying, stealing, lying, fomenting feuds and discords among the nations of Africa, robbery, plunder, burning, murder, cruelty of all kinds, and the most savage and unexampled barbarism.

“BLUSH… to think that ye are the supporters of a commerce that employs these, and many other vices to carry it on! Could you but think seriously of the disgraceful and cruel manner in which slaves are obtained, methinks you could not attempt to justify the horrid practice. Numbers are stolen while going out on their lawful business, are never suffered to return home to take leave of their friends; but are gagged and bound, then carried on board the vessels which wait for them, never more to see their native land again, but to drag out a miserable existence in chains, hunger, thirst, cold, nakedness, hard labour, and perpetual slavery.

“THINK, O ye tender mothers, how you would feel, if, when ye should send your little boys or girls to fetch a pitcher, or calabash of water from the spring, you should never see them return again! if some barbarous kidnapper should watch the opportunity, and seize upon your darlings, as the eagle upon its prey! should gag your sweet prattling babes, and force them away! how would your souls refuse to be comforted! such is the pain that many mothers feel in Africa, and God can cause it to come home to yourselves, who contribute to such an abomination as this.”

[From Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith, edited by Ernest Cassara. Capitalized words found in this edition.]


The second reading is quite short, and it comes from an address which John Murray Spear gave to the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. After summarizing Elhanan Winchester’s anti-slavery sermon, Spear said, “[Universalists should] oppose all monopolies, despise all partiality, break down all unnatural distinctions, elevate the despised classes, and introduce a system of perfect equality.”

[Quoted in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870, p. 594.]


This is the first in a series of occasional sermons about the history of our congregation. We are the direct institutional descendants of three congregations:– First Congregational Society (Unitarian) of New Bedford; First Universalist Church of New Bedford; and North Unitarian Church (Unitarian). 2008 will mark the three hundredth anniversary of the oldest of our three antecedent churches, First Congregational Society, later First Unitarian; in honor of that anniversary, this fall I plan to tell you about several unsung heroes and heroines from all three of our antecedent churches.

And I decided to start off with the most remarkable minister who ever was called to serve in one of those three churches. John Murray Spear was the first minister of First Universalist Church, when that congregation was formally incorporated in 1835. John Murray Spear was a remarkable man in many ways, both good and at times not-so-good. On the not-so-good side, later in his life he got so far into eccentric and far-out beliefs that he managed to alienate most of his old friends. But on the good side, he was a staunch Garrisonian abolitionist who advocated an immediate end to slavery as early as the 1830’s, when that was not a popular stance; he attracted African American members to First Universalist Church in a day when integrated churches were almost unimaginable, in a day when the Unitarian church in New Bedford kept a segregated pew for African Americans; and history indicates that he befriended and encouraged Frederick Douglass not long after Douglass escaped slavery and came to New Bedford, before Douglass become famous for his oratory.

But let’s begin at the beginning, and our beginning is to understand a little bit about Universalism. As you probably know, or could figure out, Universalism originally was the belief that all souls get to go to heaven; it was the belief that a benevolent God would be too good to allow the existence of hell.

Once the early Universalists in North America reached that conclusion, they quickly went a step further. They pronounced themselves egalitarians, that is, they asserted their belief in the essential equality of all humankind. This radical egalitarianism has stuck in Universalism, and in Universalists, down to the present day. Those of us who call ourselves Universalists today may or may not believe in God, but we most certainly believe in the infinite value of every human being.

It comes as no surprise, then, that early Universalists became active in cause of liberty during the American Revolution. Caleb Rich, one of the earliest Universalist preachers, fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, became a prominent Universalist. In 1791, Benjamin Rush wrote, “A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures… leads to truths upon all subjects, but especially upon the subject of government. It establishes the equality of mankind.” Historian Ann Lee Bressler tells us that Benjamin Rush’s Universalism was “a rational and ultimately cheerful faith well-suited to a free and democratic society.” [Bressler, p. 19] What was true of Benjamin Rush was no less true of other early Universalists.

And those early Universalists were not afraid to apply their egalitarian principles to difficult subjects like slavery. As we heard in the first reading this morning, the Universalist preacher Elhanan Winchester spoke out against slavery in a strongly worded sermon as early as 1774. Along with John Murray, Winchester was one of the two towering figures of 18th C. Universalism; thus his sermon against slavery had a large influence. The sermon was widely distributed, influenced many of his contemporaries, and wound up influencing later generations as well.

Between the late 1700’s and the 1830’s, however, Universalism lost some of its early egalitarianism. By the mid-1830’s, a fair number of Universalists actively supported slavery. Not surprisingly, many of them lived in the Southern states, but there were plenty of northern Universalists who distanced themselves from applying egalitarian principles to enslaved Africans and African Americans. Even among the Universalists who did oppose slavery, many refused to take the hard-line stance of the abolitionists, saying that they didn’t want to anger the southern Universalists, didn’t want to promote divisiveness in the country or in the denomination. Maybe we can better understand this attitude if we remember that through much of late 18th C. and even into the 19th C., Universalists were reviled by the orthodox Christians; to proclaim yourself a Universalist was to risk being ostracized by friends, community, even your own family; to preach Universalism meant risking bodily harm, for there were orthodox Christians who physically assaulted Universalists to prevent the Universalist doctrine of love from being preached. I don’t mean to excuse them, but by the 1830’s, Universalists had begun to achieve a measure of respectability, and so perhaps some Universalists of that time preferred to avoid controversial topics like abolitionism.

Some Universalists may have preferred to avoid controversy, but not John Murray Spear. John Murray Spear was named after the great Universalist preacher John Murray. In fact, as a baby John Murray Spear was dedicated by no less a person than the great John Murray (remember that because of his Universalist beliefs, John Murray did not baptize children to cleanse them of original sin, instead he dedicated them to the highest purposes in life). The great John Murray was willing to take great risks to proclaim his Universalist faith; and perhaps some of that willingness rubbed off on the little baby John Murray Spear, because when that little baby grew up, he turned into a man who was willing to proclaim abolition of slavery at great risk to himself.

(Since this is the first day of Sunday school, I might add here that those of you who are raising your children in this church should be aware that even today Unitarian Universalist kids wind up being staunch egalitarians, who do things like pass up high-paying jobs in favor of work that pays far less but creates justice for all, and spreads good in the world. Consider yourself duly warned. But I digress….)

When John Murray Spear came to New Bedford in 1835, he discovered that New Bedford was notable for its racial tolerance. I will not say claim that it was a fully tolerant city; there was distinct legal and personal discrimination by white folks against people of color; but for its time, New Bedford was a remarkably tolerant place. People of color could earn a decent living in the whaling industry. People of color were accorded a higher level of freedom and respect by white people than in most other places in the United States. And fugitive slaves discovered that the city was a safe harbor for them, where they could blend in to a racially mixed populace, where they could find friendly help, and where they could find secure work.

Spear was already an abolitionist when he came to New Bedford. But he went further than just being an abolitionist; he got to know prominent members of the African American community in New Bedford. For example, Spear got to know Nathan Johnson. Nathan Johnson was a prominent African American citizen of New Bedford who represented the city for a number of years at the annual convention for free people of color; and his house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Indeed, Nathan Johnson is best known for his role in the Underground Railroad, because in 1838 he took in an escaped slave named Frederick Johnson, and it was Nathan Johnson who helped the now free man to decide to change his name to Frederick Douglass.

The historian John Buescher recently published a biography of John Murray Spear and his brother Charles, and Buescher tells us this about John Murray Spear’s time in New Bedford: “One of Spear’s church members in New Bedford was Nathan Johnson, the gentleman with whom Frederick Douglass lived when he settled in the city after his escape from slavery. In his church one day, Spear found Douglass debating with members of his congregation. They were arguing for universal salvation, and Douglass was arguing for the existence of eternal punishment. Spear was much impressed with Douglass’s abilities and encouraged him to become a public speaker.” [Buescher, p. 171]

This short little anecdote tells us three very important things about this history of our own First Universalist Church. First, we have an important connection to Frederick Douglass, because John Murray Spear was one of those who very early on encouraged Douglass to become a public speaker. Second, Douglass actually came to our First Universalist Church, and although he was misguided enough to insist on the existence of eternal punishment, it is of some interest that he came at all. Third — and this is the most interesting bit of information — Nathan Johnson was at that time a member of First Universalist Church. I’m quite impressed that our own First Universalist Church welcomed African American members that early; to the best of my knowledge, that didn’t happen in First Unitarian until much later.

All this tells us that those early New Bedford Universalists were people of whom we can be proud. They had a religious belief in egalitarianism, and they lived out that belief. Indeed, history tells us that they sometimes became frustrated with other Universalists. By autumn, 1841, the New Bedford church was one of only two Universalist churches in Massachusetts which had adopted official resolutions supporting the abolition of slavery. The New Bedford Universalists publicly expressed their frustration when the local association of Universalists refused to even consider the matter of abolition. And when the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention, of which they were founding members, proceeded more slowly than they liked, they shrewdly invited Frederick Douglass to accompany them to a meeting of the convention in the fall of 1841. When the convention wavered at the thought of voting for a resolution aimed at the Southern Universalist congregations which supported slavery, Douglass spoke up, and the power of his oratory so convinced the delegates that the resolution passed unanimously.

We can only imagine what it must have been like to be a part of that congregation. Universalists in those days were still fairly pugnacious, still willing to speak out loudly and publicly against the doctrine of eternal punishment; and Universalists in New Bedford made no bones about wanting to abolish slavery. And even though First Universalist had a white minister and a majority of white church members, it appears certain the congregation welcomed both black and white people into their church. I think I would have liked to have been a part of that congregation; they sound like my kind of people.

Unfortunately, John Murray Spear was forced to leave New Bedford in 1841 as a direct result of his abolitionist activities. Sometime in the summer of 1841, a southern slave-holder traveled to New Bedford accompanied by an 18 year old slave named Lucy Faggins. Under an 1836 law, Lucy Faggins technically became free the moment she stepped onto Massachusetts soil. So Rev. Thomas James, minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and some other members of the New Bedford Anti-Slavery Society went and attempted to tell her that she was free. Then James and John Murray Spear took out a writ of habeus corpus, with the claim that Lucy Faggins was being unlawfully restrained by her master. The case ended well for Faggins, who achieved her freedom; but it ended badly for John Murray Spear. Susan Taber, who lived in New Bedford at that time, wrote about how once Lucy Faggins had been freed, the pro-slavery faction in New Bedford became determined to ruin John Murray Spear — they threatened Spear with arrest and prosecution, and made his life so difficult that he had to resign his pulpit here and move to the Universalist church in Weymouth. So ended a glorious ministry for First Universalist Church in New Bedford.

After he left New Bedford, Spear continued to work hard for the abolition of slavery. By 1844, Spear was sharing the lecture stage with Frederick Douglass in the “One Hundred Conventions” campaign of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Spear also went on to work with his brother Charles for prison reform. His life embodied the Universalist principle of true egalitarianism.

And so I will end this sermon about John Murray Spear with a quizzical observation: here is a minister from one of our antecedent congregations, a minister who embodied our highest values, and yet his name appears nowhere in this building. We have on our walls here the names of many lesser ministers, and even the names of one or two forgettable ministers. But I would suggest that the story of John Murray Spear as I have told it this morning offers us at least two splendid opportunities as we approach the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of First Unitarian. We could think about how we might celebrate John Murray Spear and the other ministers of First Universalist Church. And we could think about how we might celebrate the fact that Nathan Johnson was an early African American member of First Universalist. I don’t quite know how we will make use of these opportunities. Will we try to get the names of First Universalist’s ministers on the walls of this sanctuary? Will we name one of our rooms after Nathan Johnson? I don’t know how to answer that, but I do know that this congregation is able to come up with amazingly creative ways to take advantage of opportunities like these.