In 1984, 20 volumes of 5,000 letters by an 18th-century feminist were discovered in Natchez, Miss. Judith Sargent Murray wrote them, having copied all her correspondence starting at the age of 23. Historians are still trying to digest them all.
Judith Sargent Murray was born into a well-to-do family on May 1, 1751 in Gloucester, Mass. Though smart and curious, her family followed the custom of the day and limited her education because of her sex.
Her lack of educational opportunity troubled her. So she taught herself history and French, and began writing essays under masculine pen names. She advocated women’s equality, education and economic independence while spreading the word about Universalism.
On Nov. 3, 1774, John Murray walked into Winthrop Sargent’s parlor in Gloucester to talk to him about Universalism. The new denomination was just beginning to erode the stern Congregationalism that dominated New England. Murray was a charismatic 33-year-old preacher who had arrived in New Jersey colony only four years earlier, just after his wife and only child had died.
Becoming Judith Sargent Murray
That November day, Murray met Sargent’s 23-year-old daughter Judith. They undoubtedly talked about Universalism, and they were probably attracted to each other. She was smart, beautiful and devoted to Universalism. She was also married.
Nevertheless, Judith hoped they could “surely, and with the strictest propriety, mingle souls upon paper” by writing letters to each other.
They were friends for 14 years and married for 27. Over the course of their friendship and marriage, Judith became the most important female essayist in America and John became the founder of American Universalism.
Five years before that meeting with John Murray, 18-year-old Judith Sargent married John Stevens, a Gloucester sea captain and merchant. She did not love him, but she respected him and tried her best to do her duty by him.
They lived in the largest and most elegant house in Gloucester, but she felt lonely as he often went away to sea.
She was philosophical about her first marriage as she was about many things: “Self approbation ensures peace, while discord at home is pregnant with most corroding sorrows,” she wrote.
She published some poems. In 1794 Town and Country magazine would print her first essay, which argued for more advanced education for girls. She believed lack of education led to low self-esteem in girls. “I think, to teach young minds to aspire, ought to be the ground work of education,” she wrote.
She and John Stevens did not have children, but they did take in and educate two orphans. His fortunes fell while her writing career blossomed. The American Revolution hurt the maritime industry, his father’s business failed and John mismanaged his own business. In 1786, John fled Gloucester to avoid debtors’ prison and died soon after in St. Eustatius in the West Indies.
She kept up her writing, including her letters to John Murray.
Universalism in Gloucester
Universalists differed from the New England Congregationalists, or Puritans, who believed the ‘elect’ were saved and the ‘unregenerate’ weren’t. Universalists believed in universal salvation and religious liberty.
Universalism started during the Reformation in England. It was John Murray who brought it to America. He started preaching in Lacey Township, N.J., and continued in his travels from New Hampshire to Virginia.
The Sargents converted to Universalism as soon as it came to America, as did John Stevens. Gloucester was the only placee in the country where John Murray found people had already converted to Universalism.
The Congregationalists suspended the Sargents from the First Parish Church of Gloucester. Then they invited the Murrays to return, but the Murrays refused. Instead, they went to court and won their case, allowing them to support the church they preferred. They also built the first Universalist meeting house on land donated by Winthrop Sargent and dedicated on Christmas Day 1780.
During the Revolution, John Murray was suspected of being a British spy, but George Washington appointed him chaplain of the Rhode Island Brigade. The other chaplains objected to him because he didn’t believe in hell.
John Murray and Judith Sargent Stevens married on Oct. 6, 1788. It was a love match, a passionate marriage in which both were equal.
She proselytized on behalf of Universalism as the religion compatible with the ideals of the American Revolution: human liberty and empowerment. Universalism was the first American denomination to ordain women
The Murrays had a son who lived only a few hours. Then at 40, Judith gave birth to her only daughter, Julia, who lived to be 31.
Judith’s feminist essays had proved popular, and in 1792 she began to write columns for the Massachusetts Magazine as a man She used the nom de plume ‘The Gleaner.’
In 1793 the Murrays moved to Boston, where John served as pastor of the Universalist Society of Boston.
The town had just lifted its ban on the theater, which Judith Sargent Murray strongly supported. She wrote a play, The Medium, probably the first to be produced by an American on stage. Her groundbreaking essay, On the Equality of Women, predated Mary Shelley’s plea for equality of the sexes by two years.
Her commitment to education for women did not waver. In 1802 she helped her cousin, Judith Saunders, and Clementine Beach open a school for girls in the nearby town of Dorchester.
John Murray suffered a stroke in 1809 and Judith spent the next six years caring for him. Their daughter married a wealthy Harvard student, Adam Louis Bingamon, in 1812. After John Murray died in 1815 Judith completed his autobiography and moved to Natchez, Miss., to be with her daughter.
She died in Natchez on June 9, 1820, at the age of 69 and is buried on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Julia died two years later.
With thanks to Mingling Souls Upon Paper: An 18th Century Love Story by Bonnie Hurd Smith. This story was updated in 2021.