Tag Archives: John Murray Spear

New book: Liberal Pilgrims

What it says on the back cover:

Liberal Pilgrims chronicles the experiences of Unitarians and Universalists from New Bedford, Massachusetts, offering a window on the sometimes unexpected context and development of liberal religion in North America. New Bedford’s religious liberals viewed the world from diverse perspectives, using different symbols, language, and actions to express their religion as they progressed in their pilgrimages — spiritual and religious journeys that that continue to transform the American liberal religious tradition to this day. Their stories remind us of the rich and sometimes disparate origins of liberal religious practice. And their stories challenge today’s liberal pilgrims to continue to seek out new directions for liberal religion, constantly reinventing contemporary liberal religious experience.

“Some stories have never been told in detail before. There’s the story of Reverend William Jackson, the first African-American minister to declare himself a Unitarian when he addressed a meeting of the American Unitarian Association in New Bedford. There are the stories of North Unitarian Church, a church of immigrants, and Centre Church, which changed its affiliation from the Christian Connection to Unitarianism. Other stories include the story of Reverend John Murray Spear, Universalist and abolitionist, minister of an interracial church in the 1830s, who was driven out of New Bedford when he helped free a slave. There’s the story of Mary Rotch, perhaps the most original Unitarian theologian to come out of New Bedford, and a confidante of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

“Each of the 19 chapters tells about a different liberal religious person, community, or art work. By examining how these people and religious communities of the past lived out their religious ideals in their times, we learn more about our own liberal religion in the present day and its potential for the future.”

Yes, it’s now officially published. Yes, it contains the story of the very first African American minister to declare himself a Unitarian. Yes, it contains additional information about Unitarian and Universalist history, much of which has never before published.

And yes, it could use another round of copy editing, but I’m getting ready to move and I just don’t have enough time to go through the book again. But I promise it’s worth reading even with the typographical errors I’m sure are in it.

Go here to buy it. Cheap: $9.46 + shipping (I make no profit on the book). Cheaper still if you buy three or more.

“Don’t be afraid of being thought ultra abstemious…”

Here’s another mention of Rev. John Murray Spear, the Universalist minister in New Bedford from 1837-1841, in the old Universalist Union, this time from the number for Saturday, April 17, 1841:

We have another letter from our friend “J. C.” of Lebanon. He makes war, without mercy, upon tea and coffee, though we are not prepared to say, without considerable justice. They are no doubt highly pernicious to many constitutions, and injurious to all, when used to excess, as in all other things. But it is very difficult obtaining pledges to a total abstinence from these indulgences. Let those afflicted, however, as Br. Clark has been, try his remedy. It is a simple and cheap prescription.

  [J. C. writes:]

Br. Price — As you saw fit to publish what I wrote you in February last, and having received a letter from Br. J. M. Spear, of New Bedford, who, ascertaining that I have been afflicted with the nervous headache, has very kindly, and in the spirit of true brotherhood, proposed a remedy for that disease, with a request that I should try it, and if it proved salutary to me, let the readers of the Messenger know its character and effects, and thus induce others to come up to the cause of temperance, I am now induced to try my hand in writing you once more.

And, first, I wish to render thanks to our kind brother for the interest he has manifested in my temporal welfare, and assure him that I cordially reciprocate fellow feeling and good will toward him and his; and as he intimates I do not belong to “stand still Universalists,” you may assure him he is right. No, Br. Price, there is too much my hand finds to do in the moral reformation of the world, to allow me to fold my arms, and see the tide of sin and corruption roll rapidly along, and not use any effort to stay its desolating march. Intemperance in the use of ardent spirit, is not the only evil we have to encounter. There are other articles commonly used in our most respectable families, whose influence, though not so deadly hostile to morality and religion, are deleterious to the health and happiness of the rising generation. The use of tea and coffee as a common beverage is fast gaining ground, and if not retarded, will shorten the lives and usefulness of thousands.

Perhaps my readers begin to start, and call me a te-totaler. Well, I can’t help that; truth is truth, and should be told, “whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear.” And as those who have heretofore gone forward as pioneers, in whatever reformation has been brought about, either in science, politics, or religion, have been branded as empyrics, knaves, heretics, infidels, and so on; if I should meet the same fate I ought not to complain. No; nor should I by these means, be deterred from doing what my conscience tells me is duty, through fear of reproach.

Lest I weary the patience of the reader, with a long story about a short thing, I will go directly to my purpose, which is to tell what will cure the nervous headache. And this I wish to do in the language of Br. Spear, who says it has cured him, and given him perfect soundess. He says:

“It is a simple abstinence from narcotics. Among these I name tea and coffee. If you would be delivered from nervous headache, and all nervous diseases, abstain from these drinks entirely. If you love them, you must deny yourself, and ‘take up your cross.’ Try the experiment faithfully, and at the end of three months you will be delivered from this bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of a clear head and sound mind. At first, the disease will seize you with greater power, and will hold on perhaps as long as the prophet was in the belly of the fish; but if you persevere, you will come off more than conqueror. You will ask what I drink?” and he answers, “warm water and milk, morning and evening, and cold water at noon.”

Now Br. Price, what is above recommended, is just the course I have adopted, and is, I think, the reason why I am able to write this (as some may term it foolish) essay. It is now about three months since I commenced, and I fondly hope to be able to read, not only the “Messenger,” but much other good matter, that is published at the present time, and above all, the Bible, our only chart to the haven of eternal life.

Others in this vicinity have tried the remedy with success, and I earnestly recommend others, troubled with nervous difficulties, to “go and do likewise.” — Don’t be afraid of being thought ultra abstemious, but come up to the good work of reformation. Don’t be afraid of appearing singular. It was once thought not genteel to do without ardent sprrits. Now, he who should think to treat a company of ladies and gentlemen with the “good crittur,” would bethought hardly civil. Up! up! ye nervous, lame-sided, weak-stomached! — ye who have feeble limbs, distressed backs, weak and painful heads, disorganized systems, and all ye feeble train! up to the rescue! Why will ye die?

J. C.
Lebanon, Conn., March, 1841.

“Universalism in Death”

Rev. John Murray Spear, the Universalist minister in New Bedford from 1837-1841, publicized the following anecdote (which I found in an online edition of the Universalist Union on Google Books). The Universalist Union for Saturday, December 26, 1840, reported:

“UNIVERSALISM IN DEATH. Br. J. M. Spear, of New Bedford, Mass, notices through the Trumpet, a striking instance of the power of Universalism in death. It was in the person of a Miss Matilda Alden, who died in New Bedford, on the 1st inst. She was in the morning of life — but 22 years of age. At the early age of 15, she joined the Christian society in that place. — Soon after she went to reside with an uncle in Boston. The Sunday before the old Murray meeting house, Br. Streeter’s, was removed to give place to a new house, a year or two since, she heard Br. Streeter pray, which so operated upon her mind that she rested not till she was able to see Christ as the Savior of all. Two years since she was thrown from a carriage and received injuries from which she never recovered, but has lingered, enduring severe pains, till her death as above noted. But she has borne it all with unexampled patience, and died ‘rejoicing in the hope of meeting a ransomed world in the regions of immortal blessedness.’ Br. Spear closes his letter as follows :

“‘The Sunday before she died, I observed to her that it was frequently said that Universalists always renounced their faith on a dying bed. She replied, “I have not a doubt that I shall meet the whole world in peace. I love every body, and my heavenly Father loves them better than I do.” About an hour before she breathed her last, I asked her if her faith remained unchanged? She signified her assent. She was then unable to speak. Afterwards she distinctly said, pointing to her friends who stood weeping around her, “I shall not come back to you, but you will all, all, all come to me.” Indeed, my brother, when standing by her bed-side, I could truly say, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to the house of feasting.” It is “my heart’s desire and prayer to God” that when I leave this world, I may die like Matilda, and that my last end may be like her’s [sic].’  ”

More New Bedford Universalist laypeople…

Itinerants to Freethinkers: Universalist preaching in New Bedford

Part one: 1825 to 1875

During the 1820s and 1830s, at least a few itinerant Universalist preachers visited New Bedford. By tradition, Rev. Hosea Ballou, the greatest of the early Universalist theologians and preachers, came to speak in New Bedford c. 1825. In 1831, one William Morse preached a sermon on Universalism in New Bedford titled “On Revival of Religion. A Sermon delivered in New Bedford, April 17, 1831,” which was printed by Benjamin T. Congdon. In 1836, one Abraham Norwood preached Universalism in New Bedford and Fairhaven, with mixed success.

The first settled Universalist preacher was Rev. John Murray Spear, who preached abolitionism along with his Universalism. While he was minister, from 1836 to 1841, the Universalists built a church building on School Street (since demolished, the site is now the parking lot for Pilgrim UCC Church); they also were one of the few Massachusetts churches of any denomination to unequivocally declare their support for abolition. Nathan Johnson, a prominent African American citizen of New Bedford and conductor on the Underground Railroad, became a member of the Universalist Church. Frederick Douglass is known to have visited the church, but only to argue against the doctrine of universal salvation; Spear met Douglass during this visit, and the two men wound up sharing the lecture platform for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society many times in later years.

In 1841, Spear was hounded out of New Bedford for helping a fugitive slave evade her master. Spears’ biographer John Beuscher writes: “A slave, Lucy Faggins, traveled with the family that owned her to visit New Bedford, which was home to a sizable community of free Negroes. Spear was instrumental in arranging the legal process through which Faggins was able to opt for freedom. For depriving the southern family of their household ‘servant’ Spear was vilified in public as a ‘nigger stealer,’ threatened with legal action, and forced to resign his New Bedford pulpit.”

Following Spear’s sudden departure, Rev. Levi L. Sadler (1806?-1857) served as a supply minister during 1841. Sadler had previously preached in the recently-settled states of Ohio (1833, 1837) and Michigan (1835). Continue reading

Universalism in New Bedford

I’m on study leave this week, and today I’ve been doing a little research on 19th C. Universalism in New Bedford.

There’s some good stories buried in the mass (mess?) of data below: material about the Universalist Hosea Knowlton, who was the prosecutor during the Lizzie Borden trial; about Nathan Johnson, an African American who was a member of the Universalist church in New Bedford c. 1840; about Rev. W. C. Stiles, who converted from Universalism to “orthodox” Congregationalism in 1880; and more.

Since this won’t appeal to everyone, I’ll put the bulk of the material after a jump…. Continue reading

Not-so-new biography

Somehow I missed it. John Buescher published a biography of John Murray Spear, the first minister of First Universalist Church of New Bedford, back in 2006. I had read Buescher’s The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and Nineteenth Century Religious Experience, with its chapter on Spear, and had known then that Buescher was preparing a full-length biography of Spear. But somehow I missed the fact that Buescher had published The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land a year and a half ago.

Spear’s tenure at First Universalist here in New Bedford was remarkable in of itself. Spear was an ardent abolitionist, and managed to attract the prominent African American Nathan Johnson to join the Universalist church — Johnson was active with the Underground Railroad, and is probably most famous for providing shelter and a new name for Frederick Douglass when Douglass finally made it to the safety of New Bedford in 1837.

In midlife, Spear left Universalism to become a spiritualist — and perhaps it because of this that today’s Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about him much. But that doesn’t mean that you have to ignore Spear. You can buy his biography here.