Judith Sargent Murray (May 5, 1751-June 9, 1820), essayist, poet, and playwright, was the most prominent woman essayist of her day. She argued forcefully for improved female education and for women to be allowed a public voice. She was among the first Universalists in New England, a pioneer religious educator, and the wife of the distinguished Universalist preacher John Murray.
Judith was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the oldest child of Judith Saunders and Winthrop Sargent. Four of her sisters died in childhood, but three siblings survived to adulthood: Winthrop, Esther, and Fitz William. Both the Sargent and Saunders families had accumulated significant wealth through several generations of lucrative trade in England and the West Indies. They were cultured, politically aware, and civically active.
“An ill-taught old Woman” taught Judith rudimentary reading and writing skills; her mother provided her with “a pretty extensive acquaintance with needle work, in all its varieties, with a general idea of family business and arrangement” to prepare Judith for “the department it was presumed [she] should be called to fill,” meaning, marriage. Contrary to Sargent family legend, Judith did not study alongside her brother Winthrop while he was tutored to enter Harvard. “In vain did I solicit to share, in those instructions, which were so liberally allowed to him,” Judith explained years later to Mary Pilgrim. However, as Judith was “passionately fond of the pleasures to be derived from the page of narrative” she “seized by avidity” from the Sargent family library “every thing which fell in my way, and if I have acquired any literary information, it hath been attained through many difficulties.” Judith never forgot the discrepancies between male and female education she had personally experienced. As she wrote to Winthrop, “I have, through life, mourned the want of early instruction.”
Judith was also a “scribbler” from a very young age. “Ere I had completed my ninth year,” she explained years later to the Reverend William Emerson, “I had written a little work, which in the simplicity of my years I determined an history.” According to family legend, her father read her “humble attempts at poetry” to family members, making no secret of his pride in her ability. Along with prose and poetry Judith wrote numerous letters, maintaining a regular correspondence with family and friends.
The Sargent children were raised to be “good Christians” at the established Congregational First Parish Church where, according to Judith, they were taught that “benevolence should guide their every action, virtue will be the principle of their lives.”
When she was eighteen, in 1769, Judith married the younger John Stevens, the son of a prominent Gloucester shipping family. The following year, Winthrop Sargent read James Relly‘s Union, published in London in 1759, and began to gather a group of friends and family in his Gloucester home to discuss Relly’s Universalist theology. In 1774, when he learned that the British Rellyan preacher John Murray was traveling in the northern American colonies, he invited him to Gloucester. Judith knew right away that in Murray she had found a mentor, spiritual teacher, and intellectual companion. Soon after, she wrote, “I am not much accustomed to writing letters, especially to your sex, but if there be neither male nor female in the Emmanuel you promulgate, we may surely, and with the strictest propriety, mingle souls upon paper.”
When in 1775 England and the American colonies went to war, Judith—who eventually supported separation from the mother country—prayed for a peaceful resolution. Many of her friends and family members had economic and familial ties to Great Britain. She abhorred violence, in any form, and despised the “lawless power” that now reigned over the colonies and the “hostile terror” that was fueling civil war, driving persons of “unblemished integrity” from their homes and families because their “sentiments correspond not with the popular measures.”
In 1778 Judith Stevens was among those Universalists suspended from the First Parish for not attending church. The following year she was one of the signatories to Articles of Association, creating the Independent Church of Christ. The Universalists soon built their own meeting house and called John Murray as their pastor. A long legal struggle with First Parish ensued, in which Judith played her part. In 1786 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the Universalists, handing down the first ruling for freedom of religion in America.
Meanwhile, in 1780, Judith and John Stevens had adopted two orphan girls—Anna Plummer, John’s niece, and Polly Odell, a young Saunders cousin. Judith’s concern for their religious upbringing, and for that of the growing number of Universalist children in Gloucester, propelled her into the role of religious educator. Encouraged by the parents of these children to write down what she was teaching, in 1782 she privately published a Universalist catechism. It is considered the earliest writing by an American Universalist woman, and the first religious education material produced for Universalists. In its preface, she wrote, “If there is any thing that ought for a moment to take place of those exquisite sensations, which we boastfully term peculiarly feminine, it is surely a sacred attention to those interests that are crowned with immortality. Whatever is essential to the ethereal spark which animates these transient tenements, will exist when the distinction of male and female, shall be forever absorbed.”
In 1784, Judith published her first essay, written under an assumed name according to eighteenth-century etiquette. “Constantia’s” essay “Desultory Thoughts Upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, especially in Female Bosoms” appeared in the Gentleman and Lady’s Town and Country Magazine. In it she laid the groundwork for future essays on women and girls: “I would, from the early dawn of reason address [my daughter] as a rational being” and “by all means guard [my daughters] against a low estimation of self.”
At some point, it is not entirely clear when, Judith decided to copy her letters into blank volumes called “letter books.” She did this in part “for affectionate posterity,” but also to provide a window for future generations on what she knew were extraordinary times. Very few eighteenth-century women had the ability or self awareness to document their lives. Judith’s copied letters cover the years 1774 to 1818.
By 1786, the war had devastated John Stevens’s merchant business. To avoid debtor’s prison, he escaped Gloucester on board one of Winthrop Sargent’s vessels. He died soon after, while attempting to set up a new business in the West Indies.
In 1788, as he was about to sail for England, John Murray wrote Judith a love letter from Boston Harbor. She reported that he “acknowledged he had long loved me, even from the commencement of our acquaintance, with ardour loved me, but that he would have sacrificed his life, rather than have admitted a thought in this regard to me, which my own guardian angel would blush to own, but that, as I had now for many months been released from my early vows, he presumed to calculate upon a favourable hearing.”
Upon Murray’s return Judith and John were married. Their first child, Fitz Winthrop (recorded incorrectly in the Sargent genealogy as George), born in 1789, died after only a few hours of life.
“Constantia” resumed writing, publishing poetry and a two-part essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” in 1790, in the Massachusetts Magazine. “I would calmly ask,” she wrote in the latter, “is it reasonable, that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded, as to be allowed no other ideas, than those suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing [of] the seams of a garment? . . . Are we deficient in reason? we can only reason from what we know, and if opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence.”
In 1791, at forty years old, Judith gave birth to Julia Maria Murray. “Well, my Mamma,” she wrote her mother, “how good is the God with whom we have to do—hardly for a single moment did I dare to indulge a hope of the blessing which is now in my possession.” Although both mother and daughter survived, their health would always be fragile.
In 1792, Judith created a new essay series for the Massachusetts Magazine using a male persona, “observing,” she explained, “in a variety of instances, the indifference, not to say contempt, with which female productions are regarded, and seeking to arrest attention.” As “The Gleaner” she addressed a wide array of subjects including federalism, citizenship, and virtue, as well as female education and abilities. “His” identity was kept secret even from her husband. “Was I the father of a family,” “The Gleaner” wrote, “I would give my daughters every accomplishment which I thought proper; and, to crown all, I would early accustom them to habits of industry and order” that “they should be enabled to procure for themselves the necessities of life,” thus “independence should be placed within their grasp.”
Later that year, 1792, Judith developed a second series for the Massachusetts Magazine. “The Repository” addressed more philosophical, reflective, and even Universalist subjects. In one revealing essay, she wrote, “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 . . ., the acquitting plaudit of my own breast, and the rational award of a serene mind, than to have worlds for my admirers.”
In 1793 John Murray was called by the Boston Universalists. Upon Judith’s arrival in Boston in 1794, the editor of the Federal Orrery, one of Boston’s bi-weekly newspapers, approached her to develop a column. She obliged by submitting five entries as “The Reaper.” But the editor, Thomas Paine (not the author of Common Sense), edited her work far too extensively for her taste and Judith severed their relationship. Paine was furious, and subsequently in his newspaper criticized Judith’s work and accused John of writing most of it himself.
In 1795, after Boston lifted its ban on theatrical entertainment, Judith wrote her first play, The Medium, or Happy Tea-Party (later renamed The Medium, or Virtue Triumphant). It was performed at Boston’s Federal Street Theatre, making Judith the first American to be so honored. Her second play, The Traveller Returned, appeared in 1796. Both plays were satirical investigations of American citizenship and virtue, and featured strong female characters.
In 1798 Judith self-published The Gleaner, a collection of her earlier “Gleaner” essays and her two plays. Subscribers included George Washington and John Adams, to whom she dedicated the book. In The Gleaner, Judith acknowledged “The Gleaner” and “Constantia” to be one and the same; in the public prints, however, she identified The Gleaner‘s author as Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray.
The book firmly established Judith Sargent Murray as an early advocate of progress for women in America. “We seem, at length, determined to do justice to THE SEX,” she proclaimed in one of the essays. “[W]e are ready to contend for the quantity, as well as the quality, of mind . . . I expect to see our young women forming a new era in female history. . . . The noble expansion conferred by a liberal education will . . . give them a glance of those vast tracts of knowledge which they can never explore, until they are accommodated with far other powers than those at present assigned them.”
During the early 1800s, due to her reputation as an advocate for quality female education, Judith was asked by her cousin Judith Saunders and Clementine Beach to help them start a female academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Judith obliged by placing advertisements, securing property, and recruiting students. The Ladies Academy opened in 1803 on Dorchester’s Meeting House Hill. Students were taught scholarly subjects along with traditional domestic skills.
At home, Judith taught Julia Maria until she was old enough to attend academies in Boston. She also oversaw the education of a number of nieces, nephews, and sons of family friends. Some lived with her, others boarded at Pemberton Academy in Billerica, Massachusetts; Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire; and Harvard College in Cambridge. She visited “the boys” who were away at school regularly, and maintained a steady, loving correspondence as they were young and far from their homes.
Judith continued to publish poetry, this time as “Honora Martesia,” in the Boston Weekly Magazine, until in 1809 John Murray suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. His mind was still alert, but he could no longer work. As the Boston Universalists found it difficult to support the Murray family along with a new minister, Judith struggled to make ends meet. In 1812 the Murrays published John’s two-volume Letters and Sketches of Sermons which they hoped would bring them income. They were disappointed.
That same year, Julia Maria married Adam Lewis Bingaman, a Harvard student from Natchez, Mississippi, who had boarded with the Murrays for a short time. Judith’s first grandchild, Charlotte Bingaman, was born the following year.
In 1815 John Murray, Judith’s “tender, delicate, and indulgent friend,” passed away at the age of seventy-four and after twenty-seven years of marriage. Although bereft, she oversaw two funeral services for her husband, one in Gloucester and the other in Boston. She also completed and published John’s autobiography, Records of the Life of the Rev. John Murray, in 1816.
Universalist theology had changed over the years since John Murray had first arrived in America in 1770, but Judith’s had not altered in the slightest. She was increasingly unsympathetic with the current generation of Universalists, and found no minister of her choosing in Boston. In 1818, when Adam Bingaman sent for Julia Maria and Charlotte to move to Natchez, Judith went with them to live at the Bingaman family plantation, Fatherland. Nearby was her brother Winthrop’s large family, including children she had helped raise years earlier in Boston. She died in 1820 and was buried at Fatherland. Her daughter inscribed on her gravestone, “Dear spirit, the monumental stone can never speak thy worth.” Julia Maria and her daughter died within a few years. Her son’s family line ended within a generation, leaving no direct descendants of Judith Sargent and John Murray.
Beginning with Alice Rossi’s 1973 The Feminist Papers, historians have acknowledged the contribution Judith Sargent Murray made toward the progress of women. Her role in Universalist history, however, is still being explored. She was among its founders in Gloucester. Her catechism was an important early textbook for children. The assistance she provided to Murray before, during, and after their marriage, though probably significant, has yet to be documented. Some of Judith’s “Repository” essays in the Massachusetts Magazine promoted the “good news” of Universalism, and she was certainly an outspoken champion of “the truth as it is in Jesus” among her many friends and family members. Her letters reflect a role in networking among the scattered adherents of Universalism up and down the Atlantic seaboard.
Judith Sargent Murray’s letter books, discovered in 1984 in Natchez, Mississippi, by Unitarian Universalist minister Gordon Gibson, are at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, Mississippi. They have been published on microfilm. Bonnie Hurd Smith has prepared The Letters I Left Behind, Judith Sargent Murray Papers, Letter Book 10 (2005); a collection of letters from the journey Judith and John Murray made to Philadelphia to attend the first national Universalist convention, From Gloucester to Philadelphia in 1790 (1998); and Judith Sargent Murray, Her First 100 Letters. Gordon Gibson published excerpts from the letters, and a description of how he found the letter books, in The Rediscovery of Judith Sargent Murray (1991). There are also letters in Caroline Turner Smith, Caroline Augusta Sargent Turner (1995). For an overview of the letter books see Bonnie Hurd Smith, “The Letter Books of Judith Sargent Murray,” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (2000).
Some of the actual letters Judith Sargent Murray wrote to friends and family may be found in the Winthrop Sargent Papers and the Wigglesworth Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society and in other collections. There are Judith Sargent Murray Papers at Andover Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Gleaner was reissued with an introduction by Nina Baym in 1992. There is a collection, Sharon M. Harris, ed., Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray (1995). The following works have been reissued by the Judith Sargent Murray Society and are available at their website (www.hurdsmith.com/judith): A Universalist Catechism by Judith Sargent Stevens; Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms; On the Equality of the Sexes; On the Domestic Education of Children; The Repository magazine series; and The Reaper newspaper series.
Copies of The gleaner : a miscellaneous production by Constantia (1798) [Judith Sargent Murray] can be read on-line at the HathiTrust.org library: The Gleaner Vol. 1 – The Gleaner Vol. 2 – The Gleaner Vol. 3 also The Life of John Murray: Mrs. Murray’s continuation-Record, 1775-1809 (182?)
Information on Gloucester’s early Universalists may be found in Richard Eddy, Universalism in Gloucester, Mass. (1892). Books in which Judith Sargent Murray has been featured include David McCullough, John Adams (2001); Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (2005); Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (2005); Susan Branson, These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in early National Philadelphia (2001); Dorothy Emerson, editor, Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform (2000); Therese B. Dykeman, American Women Philosophers, 1650-1930 (1993); Ruth Barnes Moynihan, Cynthia Russett, and Laurie Crumpacker, Second to None: A Documentary History of American Women (1993); Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (1980); and Alice Rossi, The Feminist Papers (1973).
Article by Bonnie Hurd Smith
Posted August 22, 2005