The Universalist society in Oxford, Massachusetts, one of the earliest Universalist churches in America, hosted the conventions which led to the creation of the Universalist denomination. The church was founded and largely led by members of the extended Davis family, some two dozen siblings and first cousins, all grandchildren of Samuel Davis of Roxbury, Massachusetts (1681-1760) who settled in Oxford in 1729. Among the lay leaders of the church were Samuel Davis Jr., his younger brother Elijah, his older sister Deborah, and her husband and first cousin, Ebenezer Davis. These Davises were first cousins and in-laws, as well as close friends and theological allies, to the Universalist visionary and frontier preacher, Caleb Rich. They were also influenced by a second cousin, Dr. Isaac Davis, a universalist theologian from northern Connecticut.
Benjamin Davis (1710-1787) arrived in Oxford in 1734 and started a second branch of the Davis family. Three of Benjamin’s sons—Craft, Benjamin, and Hovey—married the daughters of Stephen Streeter, a local Universalist whose brother, Adams Streeter, was one of the earliest Universalist preachers.
Isaac Davis (June 13, 1716-November 14, 1777) was born in Windsor, Connecticut. Dissenting from the Congregationalist Standing Order, Isaac and his wife Rachel became Separatist dissenters. Rachel was briefly jailed for breach of peace when she entered a church one Sunday in Hartford and was moved to deliver an impromptu sermon. Late in life they moved to Somers, Connecticut where Isaac Davis, a physician, published a universalist treatise, What Love Jesus Christ Has for Sinners. He gathered a small group of followers, known as Davisonians.
John Murray passed through southerly regions of Connecticut several times in the early 1770s. Davis’s theology differed from Murray’s enough to make any connection with Davis unlikely. Murray thought sin derived from the incompletion of human nature in isolation from unity with Christ. He believed that Christ’s atonement brought only redemption, not salvation, or ultimate happiness, which required a human response to Christ’s love. Davis’s view of original sin was more orthodox, making his form of universalism more extreme than Murray’s. He thought Christ’s sacrifice, sufficient to pardon all sinners, was the essence of salvation. His theology, therefore, stressed the overcoming of original sin, not reconciliation with God.
Dr. Davis visited his cousins in Oxford, Massachusetts during the early years of the Revolutionary War. He found in them an audience already predisposed to welcome his ideas. Many years later, in 1827, when Thomas Whittemore visited Oxford and inquired about the origin of Universalism there, some of the elderly church members told him “the attention of certain individuals in this town was first drawn to the subject of Universalism, by the conversations of one Dr. Isaac Davis.” Davis’s book may have circulated among them as well, but Whittemore could not find a copy.
In 1777 Dr. Davis died in Somers, probably not more than a year after his evangelistic journey to Oxford. The Davisonian group in Connecticut did not long survive his death. Though remembered in the folk tradition of Oxford, he was mostly forgotten. Davis’s chief contribution to Universalism was in helping to solidify the Universalist identity of his Oxford relatives who made the transition from disorganized opposition to local Congregationalist leadership to the founding of a sect.
Samuel Davis, Jr.
Samuel Davis, Jr. (April 1, 1746-January 28, 1817) and his brother Elijah Davis (October 8, 1750-September 24, 1842) were at the heart of a circle of “Friends” who adopted what might be called proto-Universalist theology no later than 1775. This group resisted fighting in the Revolutionary War and sought recognition as a separate sect, exempt from parish taxes. Samuel Jr., and two younger brothers, sons of Samuel Davis (1711-1784), each married a sister of Caleb Rich. A well-to-do farmer, Samuel, Jr. invested in a factory for making metal tools which was, however, not a success. His younger brothers had smaller farms carved out of the paternal estate.
Both Samuel and Elijah were known for their tremendous strength. Samuel was a locally celebrated wrestler whose pugnacious character was also evidenced in town and parish affairs. Elijah, though also large and strong, was better remembered for his reading and his capacious memory for bible verses. The burly brothers thus made a formidable team in religious disputes.
In 1775 their cousin, Caleb Rich, stayed with them in Oxford for several months while on leave from the army camped around Boston. Together all three evangelized the Oxford area and towns in northeastern Connecticut. The following year Elijah, cousin John Mayo, and Jonathan Streeter were arrested for refusing to report to the Continental Army. Although they claimed to be Quakers, they were sent to a jail in Worcester which they found “loathsom” and full of vermin. In January, 1777, they appealed unsuccessfully to the Massachusetts legislature. They claimed they were imprisoned because “it is contrary to the religion of the Blessed Jesus & the precepts he has taught us to take up Arms and Use Endeavours to destroy one another & because we cannot see our Way clear to engage in the present war Unhappily Subsisting between great Britton and the American states.”
The circle of “Friends,” as they called themselves, had no known connection to any Quaker meetings. They adopted the label because they objected to war and because Quakers were a recognized legal alternative to the Standing Order. The Oxford town government did not recognize them as such and several times denied their petitions and applications for tax exemption. The “Friends” were also joined by their uncle Col. Jeremiah Learned (1733-1812), a veteran of the French and Indian War (Seven Years War), who felt he could not violate his old oath of loyalty to the king in order to fight against the British.
Throughout these years the parish church in Oxford was undergoing a period of troubles. The financial hardships attendant upon the war made it hard to pay the minister, Joseph Bowman, his full salary. After years of financial dispute, in 1782 Bowman was dismissed. He immediately and successfully sued the town for the money owed him. Samuel Davis and other Universalists offered to pay their share of the debt if the town would in future exempt them from the parish tax and let them have a proportional share in the use of the meetinghouse. The town refused their offer and compelled the religious dissidents to contribute to the settlement. Another Universalist cousin, Abijah Davis, later claimed that the main motive for the Universalists’ separation from the Standing Order was tax abatement.
Around 1784 John Murray became aware of the Oxford Universalists and paid them a visit. He suggested they might organize themselves legally along the same lines as his church in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Further, by aligning themselves with his church and a few others, they might be able plausibly to present themselves as an organized sect or denomination in the new state. Accordingly, the incipient society hosted a convention of Universalists in Oxford in 1785. The Oxford Universalists adopted the name and compact Murray had suggested, becoming an “Independent Christian Society, commonly called ‘Universalists.'” Adams Streeter, who had preached in Oxford on an itinerant basis for several years, was settled as minister.
In the early years Samuel Davis, Jr. was frequently on the church committee. He represented Oxford at several conventions. After the failure of his metal-working mill, in 1800 Davis and his immediate family migrated to Eddington, Maine. Elijah Davis remained in Oxford. Although partially disabled for much of his life, Elijah lived into his nineties and was undoubtedly one of those interviewed by Whittemore in 1827.
Ebenezer Davis (September 18, 1737-August 12, 1816) and Deborah Davis (October 12, 1736-February 27, 1785), when they joined Samuel Davis’s circle of Universalist “Friends” in 1779, brought with them wealth and influence that strengthened and sustained the Universalists of Oxford throughout the founding period and for more than a generation afterward. Ebenezer, eldest son of Edward Davis (1714-1784), married his cousin Deborah in 1758. They managed and owned an extensive cattle farm in Charlton, Massachusetts. Deborah ran the farm in Ebenezer’s absence and was remembered as being a shrewd cattle-trader. The Davises became quite rich after they contracted to supply the Revolutionary army. Unlike his cousins, Ebenezer was an ardent patriot. Their oldest son, Ebenezer, died in 1777 while serving with the army in Connecticut.
The Davises had been pillars of their Baptist church in Charlton until 1779 when they were expelled for heresy. Included in the list of charges against Ebenezer were denial of “all Church Covenants and all articles of faith, being inventions of man” and his assertion that “no men do preach the Gospel so clear as those that do hold to universal salvation.” Expulsion of their richest member did not hurt the Baptist church, but rather caused a revival which resulted in a growth in membership. The nearby Oxford Universalist “Friends” benefitted even more since they were joined by several other former Baptists, as well as by Ebenezer and Deborah Davis. When the Universalists were organized in 1785, Ebenezer Davis was by far the largest financial contributor.
Deborah Davis did not live to see the formal organization of the Oxford Universalist society. She died in early 1785. Ebenezer was married twice more, to Darah Allen in 1786 and Mrs. Hannah Ammidown in 1802. Later in life, while still maintaining the farm, Davis became a legal consultant, business advisor, and banker. When he died he was the richest landowner in Worcester County.
Although he had no formal education, Davis was considered knowledgeable and well-read. He had what was locally considered a large library. He was a supporter of the ministry of Hosea Ballou, who included the Oxford-Charlton area in his circuit from 1791-1803. Ballou preached at Davis’s funeral. “Although endowed with a spirit of liberality almost proverbial, yet he had accumulated a vast fortune,” Ballou said. “With this great property at his command, it appeared to be his constant object to ease the burdens of his fellow men, and let the oppressed go free.”
Other noteworthy Universalist members of the Oxford Davis clan include Abijah Davis (1758-1833), a wealthy farmer, magistrate, and politician, married to Abigail, daughter of Ebenezer and Deborah Davis; Jonathan Davis (1761-1838), a major general of militia, Chief Justice of the Court of Sessions for Worcester County, 1812-14, organizer and president of the Oxford Bank, 1823-33, and trustee of Nichols Academy, who late in life went back to the Congregationalist church; and Levi Davis (1752-1807), younger brother of Ebenezer, captain in the transport service during the Revolutionary War, town official in both Oxford and Charlton, and building contractor who built the Universalist meetinghouse in Oxford (completed in 1792).
The records of the Oxford Universalist Society are in the Universalist Special Collections at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Information about the Davis families can be found in George F. Daniels, History of the Town of Oxford, Massachusetts (1892); Samuel Forbes Rockwell, Davis Families of Early Roxbury and Boston (1932); and George L. Davis, Samuel Davis of Oxford, Mass., and Joseph Davis of Dudley, Mass., and Their Descendants (1884). Daniels also provides histories of the Congregational and Universalist churches in Oxford. Another important early source on church history is Thomas Whittemore, “Memoir of the Universalist Society in Oxford, Mass.,” Universalist Miscellany (March, 1849). Anson Titus wrote two articles for the Universalist Quarterly which contain much of the available material on Isaac and Ebenezer Davis respectively: “The Davisonians,” (1878) and “Reminiscences of Early American Universalism—First Paper,” (1881). Arthur J. Mekeel’s “New England Quakers and Military Service in the American Revolution,” in Howard H. Brinton, ed., Children of Light (1938), has a small amount of detail about the wartime imprisonment of Elijah Davis. Modern studies of Oxford and Oxford area Universalism include Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (1982); Peter Hughes, “The Origins of New England Universalism: Religion without a Founder,” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (1997); and Ernest Cassara, “John Murray and the Origins of Universalism in New England: A Commentary on Peter Hughes’s ‘Religion without a Founder,'” and Peter Hughes, “Early New England Universalism: A Family Religion,” both in Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (1999).
Article by Peter Hughes
Posted July 17, 2001