Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820

Judith Sargent Murray's Letter 760

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This letter is written to Dorcas Babson Sargent (1749-1836), the wife of Judith’s first cousin, Epes Sargent (1748-1822). Judith was very close to this family and their numerous children, particularly to Epes whom she called her “brother of affection.” Years later, when the Epes moved his family from Gloucester to Hampstead, New Hampshire, Judith was a regular visitor and correspondent with Epes and his children and they, in turn, visited their “Aunt Murray” in Boston.

Given Dorcas Sargent’s interest in raising children, Judith paints for her a richly detailed account of the Bethlehem Academy. Run by a community of Moravians, the Academy (which still exists) was open primarily to girls, from ages 7 to 14.  Boys could attend up to age 7, when they were sent to the neighboring Nazareth Academy. Judith describes the Bethlehem Academy’s grounds, buildings, and the marvel of indoor plumbing. She enumerates the many trades practiced onsite, their weaving and embroidery, the inn and shop — with all of which she was “beyond expression charmed.” She explains the daily routine of the community and the students, including religious exercises, meals, and clothing. She lists what was included in the curriculum, reporting that if she had a daughter she would not hesitate to send her to Bethlehem.  (In fact, years later, when Judith faced the decision about where to educate her daughter, Julia Maria,  Judith kept her in Boston where she could watch over her frail health.)  Finally, Judith describes the burial practices of the Moravians, a subject that was always of interest to her.

The "Murray" mentioned in the letter is her husband, the Universalist preacher John Murray.

(Note: The paragraph breaks are mine.)

Letter 760—  To Mrs E.S.  Philadelphia  Arch Street
June 22d. 1790 

Having, from the melancholy period, which deprived us of our maternal friend, been distinguished by you, my dear Mrs Sargent, with obliging and [tender] sisterly regard, you very naturally supply, in some measure, the void, which her demise had left in my heart — That I love you very sincerely, and that I esteem and respect the propriety, and discretion of your character you will never, I flatter myself, doubt — The beautiful little group who gather round you, possess my very best wishes, and Mr Sargent is the brother of my affection — My feelings thus impelled, you will, I pleasingly believe, permit, and indulge their effusions — for during so long an absence, I cannot deny myself the pleasure of making my appearance by letter, in a family, of whose domestic enjoyments, I have so often sat an admiring spectator — Various are the scenes which have been presented, and many worthy persons we have seen, yet, however novel, or pleasant the succession of ideas, they have not been able to obliterate the sweet remembrances of  home felt good — I have this morning been endeavouring to summons before me, the several events of our journey, for the purpose of selecting for you, something which may be calculated for your amusement, and as you are so usefully engaged, in forming the opening mind, I think I cannot do better, than to make for you a little sketch of our Bethlehem tour —

We were drawn thither, by the fame of that Seminary, and high as our expectations were raised, we are obliged to acknowledge them far surpassed — Bethlehem is in the State of Pennsylvania, situated fifty four miles North of Philadelphia — It is a beautiful Village, which may, without the smallest enthusiasm, be pronounced a terrestrial Paradise — It is true, we do not wander through Orange, and through Citron Groves, but nature hath shaped the most enchanting walks, embowering shades, meadows, hills, and dales greet the eye, with most refreshing Variety — Parallel rivers pursue their glassy course — the margins of which are planted by the most flourishing and highly perfumed locusts, Cedars, Chestnuts and a variety of trees bearing in their season, the most delicious fruit — Now the fertilizing stream murmurs along, in a direct line now indented, or projecting, its Borders still ornamented by the richest foliage, its diversified meanderings exhibit the most pleasing, and romantic views —

Upon an eminence in Bethlehem, the cultivated scene opens before us — a chain of verdant hills encircle it, and this little Eden, is embosomed in the midst — The Town, with a very few exceptions is built with stone, and the dwellings are generally planned upon a large scale — The house of the Brethren, that of the Sisterhood, the Asylum for widows, and the Seminary for young Ladies, are uncommonly elevated and capacious, and there is an air of dignified simplicity remarkably exemplified, through the several structures — The greatest Order, and unanimity, is preserved in Bethlehem, even their water works are characteristic — the inhabitants are supplied from one spring, a cistern conveys it to their kitchens, by the aid of a pump, worked by a water Machine, the cedar pipes receive it, and the ready spout issues at pleasure, the purifying stream in every dwelling —

The Town was originally founded by Germans — Many natives of Europe now reside there, and they preserve their ancient customs with much exactness — A great variety of Arts, and manufactures, are carried to high perfection in Bethlehem, among which is the business of the Tanner, Clothier, stocker[,] Weaver, Tin Works, Blacksmith, Gold and silver smith, saw and sythe Maker, Wheel Wright, and Chaise and harness maker — Grist Mills are fashioned upon the best plan, and they have a Brewery after the English model, Printing, and book binding are said to be finished in the neatest manner — in short they exhibit, and encourage, all the common Crafts — 

Their Religion seems to be a system of Benevolence — its foundation is true Philanthropy, upon which broad base, is erected the super structure of Philanthropy — I admire, beyond expression, the regularity conspicuous in every department, and the Virgin Choir derive all the advantages, which the Cloistered Maiden can boast, without connecting her restraints — I inquired of one of the sisters, if it were in her power to quit her engagements — Our doors, Madam, replied the charming Recluse, are always open — but once relinquishing this retreat, a reentrance is very difficult — The Circle of Amiable Women dwell together in perfect Amity, every one cultivating and exercising her different talent, the profits arriving there from, constituting a common fund — Never did I see all kinds of needle work carried to higher perfection — every flower produced by prolific Nature, is exactly imitated, as to render it only not impossible to designate them — I never saw them surpassed, by any imported from Europe, and with the beauty,  richness, and exquisite shading of their embroidery I was highly pleased — as we pass through the apartments, the tambour embroidery, flowers, etc etc are displayed for sale — I requested that their Value was beyond my reach — Neither is the Loom, or the distaff neglected — Cloths of a superior kind are manufactured in Bethlehem — and we were shown the art of spinning, without a wheel! —

The sisterhood consists, at this time, of about one hundred Maidens, who after a night of such slumbers, as health, and innocence bestow, assemble in an elegant apartment which is a consecrated Chapel — This apartment is properly fixed up, it is furnished with an Organ, and Musick books, and upon the right, and the left, the following inscriptions, in beautiful capitals meet the eye.  “God hath appointed us to obtain salvation, by our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake, or sleep, we should live together with Him.  I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall be joyful in my God, for He hath cloathed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness” [—]  In this Chapel the female Choir, at early dawn, and at closing evening, hymn the praises of the Redeeming God, and prostrating themselves in His presence, the most venerable individual among them, presents their united petitions, and thanksgivings, at the throne of Grace. 

At one board they are every day seated, and persons selected for the purpose, prepare their table.  The Wash house is at a considerable distance, where the apparel of the sisterhood, the Tutoress, and their pupils, is made fit for use, and in the best possible manner.  The establishment of the brethren is of a similar kind, and a like institution in favour of widowed Matrons is admirably completed — They seem to have rectified all that was wrong in their system — Their Males and females, under the chaste auspices of the Marriage covenant, may now form for themselves this civil compact — It is true they must gait their respective refinements, but choosing a spot in Bethlehem, they may commence house keepers, continuing, if they please, their intercourse with, and attachment to their former Associates — This privilege is denied to any, but a Moravian — for although you may sojourn for a time in Bethlehem, yet if of any other persuasion, you cannot become a Free holder in that Place — Married people are not, as heretofore, separated [—] They live together much in the manner of the rest of the world, nor are they, as I observed, arbitrarily united, by the whim, or caprice of the brethren —

Only one Inn is allowed in Bethlehem — but this is upon an extensive plain [—] Travellers are supplied with every article which the season will afford, and that in as fine order, as at a first rate table — Eighteen double beds are furnished and the emoluments accruing, augment the common stock [—] But it is a Seminary of Virtue, and every excellent quality of the heart, to which almost every embellishment is added, that these Elysium fields, will chiefly interest an enlightened, and judicious public [—]

Place your daughter at Bethlehem, and, for a very moderate consideration, she will be taught a perfect knowledge of her Mother Tongue — she will be taught the French, and German languages, with the utmost elegance, and propriety — Reading, Writing, Composition, and Arithmetic, will be given her, in as high perfection, as she is capable of attaining them — She is furnished with an opportunity of acquiring Musick, painting, and geography, with the rudiments of Astronomy, and the strictest attention will be paid to her health, and to the purity of her morals — It is, however, in your option, to omit, for your Girl, any of these branches of study — It is scarcely necessary to subjoin, that needle work, in all its varieties, is taught in Bethlehem — An early habit of Order and regularity, without which I sincerely believe, no one important object was ever yet obtained — will also be secured — The pretty Candidate for excellence, is summoned by a bell from her pillow — she must rise at a certain hour, wash and comb, and, neatly apparelled she must attend prayrs — Breakfast succeeds, after which the several employments and amusements of the day take place — By the way, these morning and evening prayrs are playing on their guitars, which they join with their voices, chanting some divine Poem to the praise of the Saviour of sinners — These devotional exercises are performed in a little consecrated chapel, which makes a part of the school building, and into which no male ever enters. Six O clock is the hour of rising, and eight, of retiring to rest — A lamp continues burning throughout the night, and the students are often lulled to sleep, by the soft sounds of vocal, and instrumental Musick —

The school is divided into a number of apartments, each apartment, to its dimensions, contains a smaller, or larger number of Ladies, Every division hath its particular intendant, or tutoress, and over all there is a Superior [—] The Lodging Room is on a separate story, in a lofty situation, and accommodated with a ventilator — The Culinary apartment is under the ground floor, and the diet is wholesome and sufficiently varied — Twice in the course of a year, they pass a public examination  at which the Reverend teacher of the Bethlehem society presides, and every sunday collects the whole Congregation [—] Men, Women, and children, in the great, or common Chapel, which exhibits some very affecting selections from scriptures — Performances upon a very fine Organ, accompanied by a Violin, and bass viol, constitute a very delightful part of public Worship in Bethlehem — Singing you know is among the essential Rites of the Moravian Religion, and their music is next to divine — Church service is performed alternately in English, and German, and its matter is rational, and instructive —

The young ladies are much accustomed to walking, and Bethlehem abounds with delightfully Romantic promenades — Every fine evening, guarded by one or other of the Governantees, without whom they never make an excursion, they pursue the pleasingly salutary exercise — Regular stages from Elizabeth Town, Lancaster, and Philadelphia, to this Seminary, have recently been appointed — This produces the children who have friends in the Towns from which the stages set out, or in, those through which they pass, upon a post evening, in the great road —

We were so fortunate as to accompany the stage to Bethlehem [—] a happy concurrence of events, brought us acquainted with its passengers, who were three Ladies going thither for the purpose of taking home their daughters — but the Girls were strangers to their design, Two miles from the town, we met the smiling train — It was indeed the most lovely group, my eyes had ever beheld — a very large proportion of the school were drawn out — The hope of bundles, letters, or messages from their friends, had winged their steps — The Girls, whose parents the Carriage contained approached — for a complete year they had not seen them — They caught a glimpse — they looked again, with charming rapture they clasped their hands — O! my Mamma, my Mamma, the gushing tear finished the exclamation, and they stood enwrapped in all the extacy of innocent, affectionate, and joyful surprise — yet, mingling regrets soon balanced the bliss of the moment, and they could not, without perturbed emotions, behold the approach of that [day] on which they must quit a society, where dwelleth chastened indulgence, serenity, and love.

A Lady belonging to New York, had placed her only daughter in this Seminary, for her education — after an absence of twelve months she visited her — Stopping at the Inn, she sent for her child [—] But impatient to embrace her, she set out to shorten the return of her Messenger — The child appeared, but the growth she had obtained, and the alteration of her head dress, prevented her Mother from distinguishing her, until the pretty creature taking her hand, pressed it with soft, and duteous affection to her lips — The Lady, bursting into tears, would then with impassioned emotion, have clasped her to her bosom — but so exactly regulated were the feelings of the sweet Cherub, that with direct and correct affection she requested — “Be composed my Mother, consider we are in the street, and let me attend you to the Inn, which is just in view[”] — Upon reaching the house, the Lady observed — My Dear there are schools in York — In consenting to this separation, great is the sacrifice made by your Father, and myself — Consider, you are our only child, and if your improvements be not far beyond those which you can make in your nature City, we enjoin it upon you to return [—] O! My Mamma, replied the young sentamentalist, excuse your daughter — do not, I pray you, think of such a step, but let us rather be grateful to that providence, which hath appointed for your Helena an Asylum, where she can receive every information, and at the same time be shielded from every Vice —

Coercive manners are unknown in the school, and hence it is articled, that if a child prove of an uncommonly refractory disposition, she shall be returned to her Parents — I asked a student if they had any punishments, and of what Nature? — and she informed me, that advice, and gentle remonstrance, generally answered every purpose, and if these should prove ineffectual, the name of the incorrigible, with the Nature of her offence, would be recorded — but that in the annals of the Bethlehem school, only one solitary instance of such an event, had hitherto occurred. — Recommended by the superior, and introduced by the above mentioned ladies, we had an opportunity of making many observations — We passed through the several divisions of the school, we examined the tambour, and embroidery, executed by the children [—] never did I see any thing in that line to equal it — We attended to their painting and composition — upon these subjects it would be arrogant of me to decide — but I was beyond expression charmed — We listened with solemn pleasure, as they played and sang in Concert —


            “Peace on earth, good will to Men,

            Now with us our God is seen,

            Glory be to God above

            Who is infinite in love.”


Do you not think the tears gushed in the eyes of our Murray — Do you not believe that my heart swelled with transport? Every thing was admirable — But, I must repeat, the exact order and punctuality, to which the students are accustomed, will probably be the coevals of and produce upon their future lives, the finest effect  — Not satisfied with designating three hours, their clock striking even the quarters, regulates, with wonderful precision, every movement — Hither to I have thought, had heaven blessed me with a daughter, from my own guardian care, I would never surrender her — but I am now free to own, it would be the height of my ambition to place her, at the age of seven years, at Bethlehem, and to continue her there, until she was fourteen —

It is amazing what eronious conceptions are formed of this Seminary — Even at New York, I heard the Gentleman, and the Man of letters, exclaim — “What, immure your Girl with in the Cloistered walls of Bethlehem? Surely then you do not intend her for society[”] — yet, it is true, that there is no undue confinement, nor restraint — Even the sisterhood make frequent excursions to the adjacent Villages — I have heard much of the awkwardness, and the [immature] heart of the Bethlehem scholar, but I could not trace it in a single instance, and there absolutely is, in their manners an elegant care, and simplicity, which is enchantingly prepossessing — Indeed, dwelling there together, they are constantly accustomed to society, and, it is a fact, that Bethlehem is the resort of the genteelest strangers — It is true dancing is not taught in Bethlehem — but if it be taught proper dancing may be a subsequent acquirement, and a young Lady, designed for the great World, may be very soon initiated into its customs — Mean time, at Bethlehem, she [acquires in her] early days, a good foundation  — she will imbibe the chastest system of morals, with a fund of benevolence[,] her mind will be stored, and she will receive almost every embellishment

An exact uniformity in dress is not required — It is a request made to parents, and guardians, that all excess may be avoided, and they are fond of seeing the children in white — The Cap, however, is, if I may be allowed the expression, an insignia of their order — all the young Ladies put it on — it is made of Cambrick, received a narrow border of Lawn, sets close to the head, and is fastened under the chin, with a pink ribbon — It is of pure white, indeed all the Bethlehem linen is uncommonly white, and although, upon a cursory view, we are induced to think, this same cap could only suit a handsome face  — yet, however they manage it, I protest there was not one of the Girls, to whom it did not seem to add a charm — The fashion of the cap worn by the inhabitants, and which, for more than a Century, the Moravian Women have not changed, sets also close to the head but it is a different pattern, and not near so becoming — It is however assumed by every female, of every description — Maids, Wives, and Widows, and, by way of distinction it is fastened by the Maidens, with a red, or pink ribbon by Wives with a blue, and by widows with a white, and this knot of ribbon, is the only ornament worn by a Bethlamite female — I inquired if they did not wear black upon the demise of a friend — No, replied an old Lady, in whose composition the milk of human kindness seemed the prevalent ingredient — we judge the deceased are happy, so we do not put on black —

In the Moravian manner of interring their dead, as observed in Bethlehem, and the ceremonies attendant therein, there is something, to me, singularly pleasing — So soon as the spirit is departed from whatever chair or whatever part of the Town — the body is cloathed in white linen, and if a female, the Cap received the Ribbon which designates the order — and the corse is borne to a small, neat chapel [designed] for this purpose, where it is deposited upon stands until the hour of interment — One of the brethren ascends the highest Edifice, which commands the whole Village, and proclaims the death, by means of a German Instrument of Musick, the name of which I could not learn, and he hath a method of conveying this intelligence, which ascertains the sex, age, and connexion of the deceased. 

When the hour of burial approaches, the brethren, the sisterhood, and the children of every description, are by a number of french horns, summoned to attend divine service, in the great chapel, where an exhortation is delivered, and the singing, and instrumental musick, produces a proper, and solemnizing effect — The Body is then borne from the chapel, and placed upon a stand on a beautiful green — the males ranging themselves on one side, and the females on the other — The Body is covered with a snow white Pall, which is ornamented with red, blue, or white ribbon, according to the station of the defunct — upon this Green, a divine anthem is performed, when the deceased is borne to the sepulchrs, instruments of music, resounding, the whole Village, ranging themselves in decent, and beautiful Order, join in the procession — at one of these funerals we attended and we entered the burial ground with a raised, chastized, and solemn kind of satisfaction — Religious exercises were performed at the grave, which being in German, we could not understand, when a sacred concert of vocal and instrumental music again resounding was continued during the interment, and until the Assembly had quitted the Grave yard. 

There is a regularity peculiarly pleasing, even in the burial ground at Bethlehem — It is a spacious level plain, decently walled in, exactly divided, and, on one side, are placed the Males, and on the other the females — The Graves are laid out upon a straight line, and we can walk between every one, with as much ease, as we could pursue our way along the gravel Walks of a parterre — The Gray stone is not raised, as with us, but from a modest tablet, which is generally shaded by the verdant grass, and which bears a concise inscription, we receive the necessary information.  Thus, these Denizens of tranquility live — and thus their passage out of time is marked.

But to return from a digression, which I assure myself will not displace — I have further to say, that I was much charmed by the Governantees of the Bethlehem seminary, there is a decent propriety in their manners, which I have rarely seen equalled — Their very gestures are particularly expressive — The French Preceptress cannot command a word of English, yet there was in her every movement, a kind of language — There is something romantic in her history; of an ancient, and noble Family in France, she made one in the suite of the Princess Louisa, and her education was consequently of the highest kind — Influenced by the example of her royal Mistress she took the veil — and continued, during twelve years, an acquiescing sister — But possessing a superior Mind, and being a Woman of information, reflection originated doubts — She had been invested with some dignities in the Cloister, and she questioned those whom she supposed capable of instructing her but her difficulties rather augmented — until at length, after encountering a series of misfortunes, she escaped, and relinquishing her family, and religious name, she took that of a rivulet over which she passed, which was Fontaine, and finding means to transport herself to Holland, the transition to Germany was easy — In Germany, embracing the Moravian faith, she received an account of the Bethlehem society, when obtaining strong recommendations to the Brethren, she crossed the Atlantic and was received by them, as a valuable acquisition to the school, of which she now constitutes a principal ornament — By such a character, thus qualified, you will conclude the french language is taught with the utmost purity, and elegance — This Lady hath resided nearly two years in Bethlehem.

Boys are continued in Bethlehem, until they are seven years of age, when they are transplanted to Nazareth, a Village about ten miles distant, for the completion of their Education.  In Nazareth the students — “Bless me,” exclaims your husband — “What an Eternal scribbler is this Cousin of ours!  Will the Woman never have done?  Heavens shield us from her lognacity” — Cry your mercy, dear Sir, the regulations of Nazareth — especially as I was not there, I will leave you to conjecture, and I will intrude no longer, than to assure my dear Mrs Sargent, that I am very sincerely and affectionately her admiring Friend —


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