Tag Archives: Universalist history

Early documentary history of Palo Alto Unitarians and Eliza Tupper Wilkes

From The Unitarian, a periodical edited by Frederick B. Mott (Boston: George Ellis), Volume XI.

January, 1896, p. 48:

Woodland, Cal.— Rev. Mrs. E. T. Wilkes has been continuing her missionary work here and at Palo Alto, under the joint auspices of the American Unitarian Association and the Pacific Women’s Unitarian Conference. She has also visited Santa Cruz and Sacramento in the interests of our cause.

February, 1896, p. 95:

Palo Alto, Cal.—A correspondent writes: “There has recently been organized the Unity Society of Palo Alto, of which Prof. Hoskins of Stanford University is president. Meetings have been directed by Mrs. Wilkes for some time past, and it in sincerely hoped by all the members that she may remain here. A building lot will soon be owned by the society, and on it a suitable chapel will be erected. The society will surely prosper, and be a help and benefit, not only to its members, but also to all that come under its influence.”

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Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

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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.

Yet another Universalist: Charles Bierstadt, photographer

The Universalist Charles Bierstadt was a photographer best known for his stereoscopic views of the American landscape. He was also the brother of the famous painter, Albert Bierstadt.

Charles was born in Prussia in 1819. His parents emigrated to New Bedford in 1831, bringing their three sons with them. Charles was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker when he was fifteen; the apprenticeship lasted six years. He and his brother Edward began experimenting with photography during the 1850s. (1)

Charles and Edward had a woodworking shop together at 147 North Water St., where they specialized in “plain and fancy turning and sawing.” (2) Their shop burned in 1859. At about the same time, Albert Beirstadt, their brother, who had already established himself as an artist, returned from a trip to the Rocky Mountains, where he had, among other things, taken landscape photographs. Albert helped Charles and Edward to establish “Bierstadt Brothers Photographic Gallery.” In 1860, Albert took Charles and Edward on a trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, where they took landscape photographs which they later printed and sold. (3)

By 1863, Charles had relocated to Niagra Falls, where he remained in business for many years. A contemporary account said of his Niagra Falls business: “He is an expert in stereoscopic views and has in connection with his manufactory a large bazaar where his views and many relics and curios are displayed to advantage.” (4) Over the years, he undertook a number of extended trips to take photographs, including to Colorado, Yosemite in California, and Yellowstone in Wyoming. His wife Lucy C. Bierstadt filed successfully for separation from Charles in 1898. (5)

Charles Bierstadt became a member of the Universalist Church (but not the Universalist Society) in 1858. He was removed from membership in 1867 because he had permanently left New Bedford. (6) He died in Niagra Falls, New York, in 1903.

Works by Bierstadt in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


1. Landmarks of Niagra County, ed. William Pool, Syracuse, New York: D. Mason & Co., 1897, p. 24.
2. 1859 New Bedford Directory.
3. Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865, by Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 110.
4. Pool, p. 24.
5. Reports of Cases Heard and Determined in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, 1898, v. 29, pp. 210ff.
6. Record book of the Universalist Church, bMS 214/1 (2), in the Andover Harvard Theological Library. Oddly, Charles signed the church roll with a pencil rather than a pen, the only person ever to do so.

An eco-universalist prayer

Yesterday’s post has the story of how the great Universalist Hosea Ballou did a preaching tour of the New Bedford region in May, 1820 — including an anecdote of how Rev. Le Baron of Mattapoisett unsuccessfully tried to keep Ballou from preaching. Never one to miss out on provoking a good controversy, Ballou wrote a letter to Le Baron the next day, which apparently had some kind of wider distribution. This letter is probably the first Universalist tract ever written in the New Bedford area.

Ballou’s letter contains one almost poetic passage, which could almost be a proto-eco-universalist prayer. I added snippets from elsewhere in the letter to make conclusion for it, and here it is:


     Does not the sun shine universally,
     and the moon likewise?

     Do not the clouds give rain to all,
     and the fruits of the earth grow
     for the benefit of all?

     Is not the vital air for the life of all;
     and are not all equally entitled to the waters?

     All people, every person,
     and the whole world are universal.
     This testimony, I believe, is Universalism.


For those of you who love to watch early 19th C. Universalists picking fights, I’ve included the full text of the letter below. Continue reading

Hosea Ballou in New Bedford

I’ve been tracing out the history of Universalist preaching in New Bedford, and finally tracked down the date when Hosea Ballou, the greatest of the early Universalist preachers, visited here — it’s in the second volume of Thomas Whittemore’s sprawling 1854/5 biography of Ballou. Ballou did a tour of the region, preaching at New Bedford, Fairhaven, Mattapoisett (then part of Rochester), Acushnet and Long Plains (then parts of Fairhaven).

Whittemore includes an anecdote of one of Ballou’s encounters with more orthodox clergy. It is such a classic story that I have included it in its entirety, along with the entire story of Ballou’s preaching tour in this area. (I’ve added a few numbered footnotes; Whittemore’s own footnote is marked with an asterisk.)


[p. 101] “In May, 1820, he [Ballou] made a journey to New Bedford, at the call of a few friends there, and preached the word of the Lord, as he understood it, at a private house, [1] there being, as he said, ‘no meeting-house in the town whose owners were willing to have the doctrine of God’s universal, impartial, unchangeable goodness preached within its consecrated walls.’ Thence he crossed the river to Fairhaven, where he addressed an assembly in the academy, and also at the head of the river, so called, in the meeting-house formerly occupied by the memorable Dr. West. [2] In the precinct called Mattapoiset, in the town of Rochester, he was invited to preach, by a physician, who was a large owner in the meeting-house. The house was opened by proper authority; but when Mr. B. came to the door, he was confronted by the settled pastor, Rev. Lemuel Le Baron, who forbid his going into the house. Mr. Ballou was very sorry to wound the feelings of the gentleman; but the house had been opened by proper authority, and there was no good reason why the people who had assembled should be disappointed. The principal reason assigned by Mr. Le Baron for his opposition was, that Mr. Ballou was a Universalist, and that Universalism was subversive of Christianity. Mr. B. invited the clergyman to go in with him, and hear what he had to deliver, and then he [p. 102] could the better judge whether the doctrine preached was the truth or not. But Mr. Le Baron refused to do this, and insisted that he had a right to control the pulpit, and to say who should preach in it. Mr. B. told him that the gentlemen who had given their consent for him to preach in the house were of respectable standing, and proprietors of the house; and, if they had violated his privileges, they must be accountable. He further added, that, however Mr. Le Baron might think it his duty to forbid his preaching, he himself could not see how a man who did not own the house could prevent those from the free use of it who did own it, when they desired to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. [3] Mr. B. accordingly passed in, and ‘a goodly number (said he) attended to the word.’ * He preached again in the same place in the evening. Before leaving the place, he addressed Mr. Le Baron a long letter, in which he called on him to show wherein Universalism was subversive of Christianity. Mr. B. quoted many passages from the Scriptures, and then wished his antagonist to show either that these passages did not prove Universalism, or else show how they were subversive of Christianity. This being done, Mr. B. proceeded to a meetinghouse at Long Plains, at the upper part of Fairhaven, where he preached, after which he returned home.”


* “On Mr. Le Baron being told that Mr. Ballou was going to preach in the house, he said to one of his friends, ‘Had I not better go into the house, and be sacrificed at the foot of the pulpit-stairs?’ On the remark being repeated to Mr. Ballou, he asked, ‘Who did the poor man think was going to harm him?'”

[1] According to the 1869 History of Churches in New Bedford, this “private house” was Dudley Davenport’s carpenter’s shop.

[2] Dr. Samuel West was the liberal minister of the congregation which in 1795 moved to the growing Bedford Precinct, later New Bedford; that congregation became First Congregational Society of New Bedford (Unitarian), now First Unitarian Church in New Bedford.

[3] The argument between Ballou and Le Baron turns on a touchy point. In 1820, most Massachusetts churches were composed of two somewhat separate organizations, the church and the society. The division of responsibilities was something like this: the church, controlled by the minister and the deacons, was the arbiter of who would be admitted as a full church member, such admission possibly including doctrinal tests; — the society, controlled by the proprietors (that is, those who provided the funding to build and maintain the meetinghouse), owned the building and most of the furnishings. Thus both Ballou and Le Baron had compelling arguemnts — Ballou arguing that the proprietors had the right to decide who got access to the building; Le Baron arguing that Ballou would injure the doctrinal purity of the church.

Reference: Life of Rev. Hosea Ballou: With Accounts of His Writings, and Biographical Sketches of His Seniors and Contemporaries in the Universalist Ministry by Thomas Whittemore, Boston: James M. Usher, 1854, vol II., pp. 101-102.

A second half-century of Universalist preaching in New Bedford: 1875-1825

Part one, 1825-1875.

After William Bell preached his sermon excoriating Christianity in December, 1874, First Universalist Church in New Bedford called an experienced minister. Rev. Jeremy Hoadly Farnsworth had been a Universalist minister for 30 years when he arrived in New Bedford, having served congregations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Iowa. He supported various reform movements, including temperance, women’s rights, and peace; before becoming a minister, he had worked in a cotton mill, and he was said to support workers’ rights. His obituary in the 1900 edition of the Universalist Register stated: “His home was happy. His churches peaceful and prosperous”; but there was no mention of the quality of his preaching.

Farnsworth was followed by Rev. William Curtis Stiles, who preached from 1878 to 1880. After the Pocasset Tragedy of 1879, where two parents murdered their child in an act of religious fanaticism while trying to re-enact the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, Stiles had a brief moment of fame. His sermon on the subject was published in a booklet titled History of the Pocasset Tragedy, with Three Sermons Preached in New Bedford. One of the other sermons was by William Potter, the older and better-known minister of the Unitarian church in New Bedford.

After having served two years as the Universalist minister in New Bedford, Stiles renounced Universalism; he was converted to orthodox Congregationalism by Rev. A. H. Heath, the minister of the North Congregational Church. Stiles left New Bedford to become the pastor of the East End Congregational Church in Brooklyn. Stiles apparently left some turmoil behind him in the Universalist church, for the church did not call a new settled minister for two years. During that time, Rev. Charles Rockwell Tenney, the minister of the Mattapoisett Universalist church, traveled each week to New Bedford as a supply preacher. Continue reading

“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…