Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820
Judith Sargent Murray Biography
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Universalist Meeting House, Gloucester
Cover of Letter Book 3John MurrayHome in Gloucester from 1782-94Franklin Place, Home from 1794-1818Interior of Franklin PlaceVolumes 1 and 3 of The GleanerJulia Maria MurrayJudith in middle age by Gilbert StuartGrave site in Natchez, MSArlington, where the Letter Books were found
Learn about Bonnie Hurd Smith's longer biography of Judith here.


Judith Sargent Murray:
Essayist, educator, and promoter of female abilities

by Bonnie Hurd Smith*
(reprinted from Mingling Souls Upon Paper: An Eighteenth-century Love Story)

Gloucester and Universalism

The Gloucester, Massachusetts, of Judith Sargent Murray’s childhood was a thriving colonial seaport in “His Britannik Majesty’s” empire populated by hardy, independent-minded, townspeople. Many families, like the Sargents and Saunderses, had immigrated from England in the seventeenth century to pursue economic opportunities. By 1751, the year Judith was born, they had achieved considerable wealth from exporting fish, lumber, and other commodities to England and the West Indies and importing valuable goods. They were distinguished, engaged citizens whose trade activities exposed them to people and ideas from other parts of the world. Judith Sargent was born on May 1 (baptized on May 5) into these two families, the oldest child of Winthrop Sargent and Judith Saunders Sargent, only four of whose children survived to adulthood.
Judith’s parents provided a typical education for a merchant-class daughter—reading, writing, and training in the domestic skills of sewing and household management. At the same time, though, the Sargents had hired a tutor for their son Winthrop to prepare him for Harvard College. Judith was keenly aware of the differences between their educations. She wanted to learn more, and under her own initiative read books of history, geography, literature, philosophy, and theology found in the Sargent family library. Judith became an avid reader and a “scribbler” from an early age, writing poetry, historical essays, and letters to family members and close friends.

Like most children in Gloucester, Judith was raised in First Parish Church whose Congregational ministers ruled religious and civic life. She was taught to be virtuous, benevolent, and well-behaved to avoid God’s anger. Judith learned that only a few people were predestined for heaven, while most would spend eternity in hell. It was not a particularly optimistic outlook, but Judith’s religious life was balanced by her family’s self-confident business and political pursuits.

Judith fulfilled the one role expected of her when she married John Stevens at the age of eighteen. She had chosen well and appropriately, selecting the son of a prominent Gloucester family. The young couple resided with John’s parents until they could build a house of their own, allowing Judith to live within a short distance of the Sargent and Saunders homes. Their new home would be built in the adjacent lot.
At about the same time, Judith’s father read James Relly’s book on universal salvation, Union, or, A Treatise of the Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and His Church. Winthrop Sargent was intrigued with the scriptural interpretation Relly articulated, and he began to host gatherings in his home to discuss the new theology. It was a radical departure from traditional doctrine, and Judith was among those who embraced Relly’s hopeful, egalitarian view of the worlds here and beyond.
In 1774, when Winthrop Sargent learned that the English Universalist preacher John Murray was lecturing in Boston, he invited him to visit Gloucester. On November 3, John Murray presented himself at the Sargent family home where Judith met him for the first time. Judith asked John if he would agree to engage in a correspondence, and he accepted. While John moved to Gloucester shortly thereafter, he traveled frequently to other parts of New England and depended on Judith’s accounts of life in his adopted town while he was away.
At first, Judith’s letters were filled with theological inquiry, but soon she was reporting fearful goings-on in Gloucester such as when British warships appeared off the coast in 1775 and Judith and her family retreated for their safety to Chebacco Parish, Ipswich, that winter. Her Loyalist uncle, Epes Sargent, later one of John Murray’s most influential supporters, was forced by angry separatists to leave town for Boston.
These were tense times in Gloucester, and not simply because of the war. John Murray’s Universalist supporters, including Judith, faced a different kind of battle in 1775 when they were threatened with expulsion from First Parish Church for not attending. John Murray was accused of being a British spy, and he quickly accepted a post as Army chaplain to prove his loyalty to the American cause. During his absence, Judith kept him apprised of Gloucester’s desperate poverty while the port was closed. When John returned in 1776, he successfully raised funds to alleviate Gloucester’s distress.   
By 1778, war activities had moved south, and now the leadership of First Parish took action against the Universalists of Gloucester by suspending Judith Sargent Stevens, Winthrop Sargent, Epes Sargent (who had returned to Gloucester), and others from the church. Instead of backing down, the Universalists, including Judith, signed Articles of Association the following year to create a new religious society: the Independent Church of Christ. Soon after, the Gloucester Universalists built their own meetinghouse and dedicated the building on Christmas Day 1780, calling John Murray as their pastor. Even though Judith was in Boston at the time nursing her father through smallpox, she delighted in the Universalists’ significant achievement.
Judith quickly found herself in the role of religious educator for Gloucester’s growing number of Universalist children. She had recently adopted two of her husband’s orphaned nieces, Anna and Mary Plummer, and temporarily took in a third little cousin, Polly Odell, as well. Before long, Universalist parents urged Judith to write down the lessons she was teaching. She complied, and in 1782 Judith published a Universalist catechism that is today considered the earliest writing by an American Universalist woman. The pamphlet included Judith’s first public assertion of male and female equality, a hallmark of Universalism.
In the same year, the Universalists’ defiance of First Parish led the ruling ministers to seize valuable goods from Winthrop Sargent, Epes Sargent, and others to sell at public auction. Even though the Universalists had formed their own organization, they were still expected to support the established church—which they refused to do. The Universalists persuaded John Murray, as their leader, to bring their case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and argue for the right to separate from First Parish and support their own church. Eventually, in 1785 and 1786, the court ruled in favor of the Universalists and freedom of religion.

A Second Marriage and a Literary Career

Judith’s life took a dramatic turn in 1786 when John Stevens revealed just how much his debts had accumulated since wartime trade embargoes and a series of storms had destroyed his cargo and ships. He was embroiled in discussions with his creditors to obtain leniency and avoid debtor’s prison. Even John Murray stepped in to negotiate on his behalf. Judith, her husband, and Anna Plummer spent the winter of 1785–6 literally locked inside their home to keep John Stevens safe from the sheriff. That spring, as a desperate last resort, John Stevens secretly left Gloucester for St. Eustacius in the West Indies where he hoped to restore his financial standing by participating in international trade.
Her husband’s departure left Judith ill and depressed. Following her physicians’ advice, she agreed to a journey in the countryside with Anna Plummer, escorted by John Murray. For the first time, Judith saw John preach to crowds of hundreds of people at a time. Until then, she had not fully appreciated his stature and the effect he could have on so many “hearers” from all walks of life.
Judith learned of her husband’s death the following year and resigned herself to life as a widow. But John Murray had other ideas: at the close of 1787 he asked Judith to marry him. At the time, John had made plans to sail for England in January on the advice of his Universalist supporters. His ministry had been challenged again by First Parish, and Winthrop Sargent suggested he leave Gloucester while the Universalists secured a legal ruling from the Massachusetts legislature.
Judith waited many long and apprehensive weeks for a positive decision from the legislature and for her future husband’s safe return. When the Universalists received word in their favor upholding the legality of John’s ministry a few months later, Judith immediately wrote to John with the good news and he sailed for Gloucester that fall. They married in Salem, Massachusetts, on October 6, 1788. Despite her brother Winthrop’s inexplicable disapproval of her marriage, Judith explained to her parents that John Murray was the “choice of my heart.”
Before long, Judith was pregnant with their first baby. After a childless marriage with John Stevens, she was elated. She was thirty-nine years old and had just about given up hope. But in August 1789, the little boy they had planned to name Fitz Winthrop was stillborn. Judith nearly died as well, and faced a lengthy, painful recovery.
While she was bedridden, Judith wrote poetry to submit to the Massachusetts Magazine using the pen name “Constantia.” Her 1784 essay, “Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms,” had been well received in the Gentleman and Lady’s Town and Country Magazine, and she hoped to develop an even wider audience for her political and creative ideas. Along with poetry, the following year, 1790, she submitted what would become her landmark essay. “On the Equality of the Sexes,” appeared in the March and April issues of the Massachusetts Magazine, closely followed by “On the Domestic Education of Children” in May.
Later that year, when Judith embarked on a six-month journey to Philadelphia with John, she experienced a dizzying array of people, places, events, and ideas through the eyes of an acclaimed essayist. Her meetings with President George Washington, Martha Washington, Vice President John Adams, Abigail Adams, and other dignitaries must have heightened her desire to participate in national conversations about citizenship, virtue, philanthropy, female education, and the role of women in the New Republic. Judith knew that as a woman, writing was the only way to have a voice.
When Judith returned home, she was pregnant again at the age of forty-one. This time, though, her maternal hopes were realized when she gave birth on August 22, 1791, to a healthy baby girl they named Julia Maria. Judith’s contentment overflowed that year when the Massachusetts Magazine declared “Constantia” one of its ablest poets. Despite John’s many absences when he was invited to preach outside of Gloucester, Judith now enjoyed a happy family life and a promising literary career, which she was about to advance significantly.
Her decision to create a new column in 1792 for the Massachusetts Magazine stemmed from the knowledge that her friends and family knew “Constantia’s” real identity. This time, in choosing a pen name, she settled on a masculine identity as “Mr. Gleaner” to engage more male readers in her ideas and avoid being dismissed as a female writer. “The Gleaner” addressed many of the political and social issues that were close to Judith’s heart, and “he” developed quite a following. A few months later, as “Constantia,” Judith created a second column for the Massachusetts Magazine called “The Repository,” which included shorter, more reflective, and even Universalist pieces.

Literature, Comedy, and Education in Boston
In 1794, after John had been ordained the minister of Boston’s Universalist congregation, the family moved to Franklin Place, Boston, where Judith would be in the center of New England cultural and political activity. News of Judith’s arrival prompted Thomas Paine, the editor of one of Boston’s newspapers, The Federal Orrery, to prevail upon her to create a new column. Judith agreed, and submitted five installments of “The Reaper.” In this series, Judith investigated lessons regarding character and virtue that she had “reaped” from real life. To her dismay, Paine not only edited her work but changed words and sentences altogether. Judith refused to submit more columns, not knowing that Thomas Paine would later cause trouble for the Murrays.
Thomas Paine’s mean-spiritedness surfaced in 1795 and 1796, when Judith’s plays were performed at the Boston Theatre on Federal Street making her the first American—male or female—to be so honored. The Medium, or Happy Tea-Party (1795) and The Traveller Returned (1796) were comedies about class structure, patriotism, and virtue, and they featured strong female characters. Thomas Paine, himself a hopeful playwright, perhaps resented Judith’s success. He not only denounced Traveller, he accused John Murray of writing it and serving as the male pen behind Judith’s literary efforts. The public spectacle dismayed John’s conservative congregation, but John defended his wife’s abilities by publishing letters in Boston’s weekly newspapers.
In 1796, Julia Maria was a talkative, precocious five-year-old whose early education Judith oversaw herself. Julia Maria used to scold her mother for not providing a brother or sister. Suddenly, out of the blue, Judith’s brother Winthrop wrote to her from the Ohio Territory where he held a high-ranking government position. He told Judith about his infant illegitimate daughter, Caroline Augusta, whom he wanted Judith to raise in Boston. Judith agreed unhesitatingly, pleased with the chance to provide a sister for Julia Maria, but Winthrop was never able to persuade Caroline Augusta’s mother to relinquish her daughter.
Along with her role as a mother, Judith’s domestic duties included managing the family finances. She often had to plead with the Boston Universalist congregation for John’s salary. Her decision in 1796 to produce a book was as much to generate income as it was to achieve real literary fame. A shrewd businesswoman, she secured early support from President George Washington and Vice President John Adams (she also dedicated the book to Adams) for her “indigenous,” meaning American, production. When the two men agreed to her request, she used their names to attract subscribers from the highest ranks of civic, military, business, and academic circles. When The Gleaner appeared in 1798, Judith became the first woman in America to self-publish a book. Two years later, American novelists Henry Sherburne and Sally Wood, among others, praised Judith for The Gleaner’s timeless importance to social and political thought, and they thanked her for the doors she had opened for emerging American writers.  

Young people were very much Judith’s focus at home along with those she hoped would read The Gleaner. In the early 1800s, her brother Winthrop sent his stepdaughter, Anna Williams, to live at Franklin Place. He sent his sons and stepsons to academies in Billerica, Massachusetts, and Exeter, New Hampshire, as well. Later, “the boys” attended Harvard. Throughout her nephews’ years away from home, Judith visited and wrote to them, and hosted them during school vacations. Judith’s reputation as an educator expanded still further in 1802, when Judith Saunders, a cousin, and Clementine Beach asked Judith to support their new female academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where they hoped to provide the kind of education Judith had always championed for girls.
During these years, Judith published poetry in the Boston Weekly Magazine under a new pen name, “Honora Martesia.” In 1805 she wrote a third play, The African, which was inexplicably rejected by a critic during rehearsal and whose manuscript has never been found.

Judith’s Final Days with John, and Without Him

Judith’s life changed abruptly in 1809 when John Murray’s tireless traveling and recurring illnesses caught up with him. A massive stroke left the right side of his body numb, incapacitating John for the rest of his life. Although his mind was alert and he could still speak, he could no longer travel, preach, or take care of his family. The Murrays were already struggling to make ends meet; Judith was shaken. The Universalist congregation hired a private nurse and sent male members of the congregation each day to move John within his apartment or out to a waiting carriage. Even so, Judith was John’s constant bedside companion and she marveled at his patience and good nature.
Having lost the services of their pastor, the Boston Universalists installed the Reverend Edward Mitchell in John’s place, much to Judith’s delight. He was a Rellyan Universalist from New York who could, hopefully, return the church to more traditional Universalist theology. Ten years earlier, John had inadvertently allowed the Reverend Hosea Ballou to preach in his pulpit. The Unitarian views Ballou espoused at that time were not at all in keeping with the teachings of James Relly, and the Boston congregation had been in theological disarray ever since. Now, perhaps, Edward Mitchell could help. Unfortunately, though, he left after only a short time and Judith found herself refusing to attend church and “sanction by her presence” the Universalists’ theological shift.
The same year of Edward Mitchell’s departure, 1812, Judith helped John edit and publish a collection of his writings titled Letters and Sketches of Sermons. They hoped the book would solidify John’s historic role in Universalism and bring them income. While the work was in process, Julia Maria married Adam Lewis Bingaman, a Harvard graduate from Natchez, Mississippi, who had boarded with the Murrays for a short time. In 1813, Julia Maria gave birth to her parents’ first grandchild, Charlotte, and both Judith and John were enchanted by the baby’s playful presence.
But war with Great Britain disrupted the Murrays’ family life as investments failed and American troops arrived in Boston to protect the port. Judith and John feared for their safety, frustrated by the difficulty with physically removing John from Boston if the British set fire to their city as they had done to Washington. Although they survived the hostilities and looked forward to resuming a peaceful life together, John Murray died in 1815 after almost six years of painful confinement. Judith was bereft, having spent forty-one years as his devoted friend and wife. But John had longed to escape the “prison” of his incapacitated body, and she knew they would see each other again in the next world. She was probably relieved on his behalf.
The Universalists held two services for John, one in Gloucester and the other in Boston, where a long procession through the city ended with John’s interment in the Sargent family tomb at Granary Burying Ground. Within a month, Universalist friends approached Judith to complete the autobiography John had abandoned in 1774, and she turned to Edward Mitchell for assistance. Judith published Records of the Life of the Rev. John Murray in 1816, hoping again to preserve her husband’s legacy.
Judith would have preferred to end her days at Franklin Place in the same bed she had shared with her husband. But Adam Lewis Bingaman, who had long since returned to Natchez, had legal control over his wife and daughter and Judith could not bear a separation from her offspring. In 1818, Adam sent word to Boston that he was on his way to escort his family to Natchez. Among the items Judith packed were some of John’s papers and the twenty volumes of letter books she had produced throughout her adult life—blank volumes into which she had deliberately copied her correspondence to family members, friends, and business acquaintances.
Very little is known about Judith’s time in Natchez, where she lived for the last years of her life in the Bingaman family mansion, Oak Point. By then, her eyesight had deteriorated and it is possible she stopped writing letters because none have been found and her letter books end with a message penned from Boston. In Natchez, Judith was reunited with her beloved brother Winthrop, his children, and stepchildren who no doubt enjoyed spending time with the same “Aunt Murray” who had so lovingly guided them through their education. Judith Sargent Murray died on  June 9, 1820, at the age of sixty-nine, and lies buried in the Bingaman family cemetery at Fatherland Plantation. On her mother’s gravestone, Julia Maria inscribed, “Dear Spirit, the monumental stone can never speak thy worth.”

Judith Sargent Murray’s Legacy

Unfortunately, there are no living direct descendants of John Murray and Judith Sargent Murray. The same year that Judith died, her granddaughter, Charlotte, passed away at the age of seven and was buried next to her grandmother. Julia Maria gave birth to Adam Lewis Bingaman Jr. in 1821, but she died within several months, in 1822. Adam Jr. married many years later and raised a daughter who remained single.
It is unclear how many of the young people Judith helped raise continued to advocate for female abilities and a virtuous society. We do know that Caroline Plummer of Salem, Massachusetts, endowed a school for troubled boys in that town and funded a Professorship of Christian Morals at Harvard.
In 1917, Gloucester Universalists and members of the Sargent family opened the former home of John Murray and Judith Sargent Murray to the public as the Sargent-Murray-Gilman House. Today, the Sargent House Museum continues to tell their story.
As for biographies, scholars have long believed the “fact” first reported in 1881 by Rev. Richard Eddy in The Universalist Quarterly that Judith’s personal papers were destroyed in Mississippi. As a result of this misinformation and without such documents, no biographies were written. A 1923 Sargent family genealogy contains a biographical sketch written by one of Judith’s cousins, Lucius Manlius Sargent, who dismissed her published writing as best forgotten. It wasn’t until 1931 that a more complimentary story emerged when Vena Bernadette Field published a master’s thesis at the University of Maine, but even she had very few resources to draw upon other than Judith’s essays.

In 1974, Alice Rossi initiated a steady restoration of Judith’s role in women’s history by including “On the Equality of the Sexes” in The Feminist Papers. More recent scholars of women’s and early American history have followed Rossi’s lead by publishing Judith’s own words (see “Resources”). For instance, the Union College Press reissued The Gleaner in 1992 and the Judith Sargent Murray Society reissued Judith’s Universalist catechism, early essays, poetry, and “Gleaner,” “Repository,” and “Reaper” columns in the late 1990s. John Murray’s autobiography has been reissued or excerpted numerous times.
But the single most important act of restoration was the Reverend Gordon Gibson’s 1984 discovery of Judith’s letter books in Natchez, Mississippi, at the antebellum mansion Arlington. In 1989, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History preserved and published the letter books on microfilm, thus making them available to researchers. Since 1996, Bonnie Hurd Smith has been transcribing the microfilmed letter books for publication. This volume is part of her multiyear effort.
When Judith Sargent Murray thought about her own legacy, she longed for “affectionate posterity” as an author who had helped to improve society for future generations. As John Murray’s wife, she hoped to “rescue his name from oblivion” in whatever way she could. Through the publication of her words, she has finally achieved both—and, as this book shows, also recorded a beautiful love story for posterity.
Judith Sargent Murray was a force, who acted despite the obstacles for women of eighteenth-century society. Perhaps her spirit is best illustrated by her own words in “The Repository” column of May 1793, published in the Massachusetts Magazine:

What a censorious world says of me, cannot offend or permanently hurt me. Was it to commend me, it would do me no real service. I had rather have an unspotted conscience (I may be allowed the expression as far as it is relative to my fellow creatures) I had rather I say be possessed of an unspotted conscience, the acquitting plaudit of my own breast, and the rational award of a serene mind, than to have worlds for my admirers: Without the honied influence of this complacency, I could not but be miserable, nor with it, for any length of time wholly unhappy; and while I am fully resolved to act rightly, the rectitude of my intention cannot but fill my bosom with the most solacing reflexions. I despise then the low manners of an injurious multitude — it is poor, poor indeed, and I will shield myself in the fair asylum of conscious innocence.

In The Gleaner, in 1798, Judith wrote,

The idea of the incapability of women is ... totally inadmissible.... To argue against facts, is indeed contending with both wind and tide; and, borne down by accumulating examples, conviction of the utility of the present plans will pervade the public mind, and not a dissenting voice will be heard.

Perhaps Judith Sargent Murray’s greatest legacy was having the courage to use her “abilities” despite what a “censorious world” might say, and the foresight to document her life.


2008 © Bonnie Hurd Smith

Independent scholar and author Bonnie Hurd Smith is the president and CEO of History Smiths, a marketing company that works with businesses to incorporate history -- their own and their community's -- into their branding, marketing, and community outreach to attract customers, boost customer loyalty, and secure a high status reputation in the communities they serve.