Adams Streeter (December 31, 1735-September 2, 1786) was the first minister of the Universalist congregations in Oxford and Milford, Massachusetts, societies at the heart of the indigenous origin of New England Universalism. According to the History of the Town of Oxford, Massachusetts, Streeter was the “chief agent in establishing the denomination.”
Adams was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, the seventh child of Stephen Streeter and Catharine Adams. Although cited as “Adam” in many Universalist sources, he was called Adams after his mother’s family. In 1744 the family moved west to Douglas, Massachusetts. As a young man Streeter lived in nearby Charlton and Oxford. Around 1760 he is known to have preached in Charlton as a Baptist lay evangelist. In 1774 he was ordained by a Baptist society in Douglas as their minister.
Within a few years Streeter was preaching universal salvation. Although the precise range of his circuit is not known, people from Oxford and Milford, Massachusetts were probably aware of this feature of his preaching at an early date. Adams’s older brother, Stephen Streeter, a lay universalist controversialist, had marriage and political connections with members of the Davis family who were organizing religious dissent in the Oxford parish. Expelled from the Baptist church for heresy in 1781, Adams was immediately recruited by Noah Wiswall, a prominent Milford Universalist, to serve the Universalists there.
For the next four years Streeter traveled a circuit, from his base in Milford, which encompassed the Massachusetts towns of Attleboro, Rehoboth, Bellingham, Milford, Sutton, Oxford, and Charlton, as well as Thompson and Woodstock in Connecticut and Providence, Rhode Island.
In 1781, Caleb Rich, a pioneer Universalist evangelist with a society in the area around Warwick, Massachusetts, sent for Streeter to preside at his ordination. Three years later Rich, Streeter, and other Universalists from central Massachusetts attended a gathering in Oxford, the first semblance of a Universalist convention. The following year, in 1785, saw a more significant meeting in Oxford. At this second meeting two other early Universalist evangelists, John Murray, minister to a Universalist society in Gloucester, and Elhanan Winchester, pastor of the Universalist society in Philadelphia, took part in the proceedings. With technical assistance from Murray, the churches in Milford and Oxford were legally incorporated upon the same plan as that of Gloucester. This meeting united the several independent strands of early Universalism. Scattered New England Universalists could now consider themselves a movement or sect.
Streeter was formally settled as minister over two of the newly organized “Independent Christian Societies,” Milford and Oxford. Perhaps because Oxford was the larger, he moved his residence there. He also extended his preaching circuit to encompass a society he helped Murray to organize in Boston. Unlike other rural evangelists, Streeter was able to preach acceptably to the Boston Universalists attracted to the movement by Murray’s distinctive theology. Among all the founding Universalist preachers of New England, Streeter could best address all parties and unite all factions.
Unfortunately, apart from what can be deduced from the above fact, nothing is known of the particular emphases of Streeter’s preaching. He did not publish. In 1786, only a year after the Oxford Convention, he died while on a preaching trip to Rhode Island. By the time Universalists began to collect and record their history, they could only learn of Adams Streeter’s contribution by report of those few old enough to remember him.
Adams’s younger brother, Zebulon Streeter (1739-1808), also became a Universalist preacher. Nothing is known of how he came to do so except that he had begun preaching no later than 1791. He lived in Surrey, New Hampshire. Though not distinguished for other achievements, Zebulon Streeter was revered by fellow Universalists in his later years. He was made moderator of the New England Universalist General Convention six times between 1796-1806. He presided over the Winchester Convention in 1803 and served on the statement of faith committee with Hosea Ballou, George Richards, Zephaniah Laithe, and Walter Ferriss.
The brothers Sebastian, Russell, and Barzillai Streeter, Universalist ministers of the next generation, were only distantly related to Adams and Zebulon Streeter. Even so, when Sebastian was ordained in 1808, Edward Turner, the preacher on the occasion, alluded to the kinship to bless a passing of the torch between generations. “May the mantle of our Elijah, the late presiding Elder of this Convention, fall upon the young Elisha,” he prayed, “and clothe him with a double portion of his spirit.”
Sources of information on Adams and Zebulon Streeter are scattered. Records of the Oxford church and minutes of the New England Universalist General Convention are in the Universalist Special Collections at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Records of the Milford church are kept at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Milford in Milford, Massachusetts. 19th century sources include Lemuel Willis, “Recollections Pertaining to the Universalist Church during the first Half of this Century, Number 19: Adam and Zebulon Streeter, Walter and Edwin Ferris, James Babbitt, Samuel Smith and Noah Murray,” The Universalist (June 26, 1875); Caleb Rich, “A Narrative of the Elder Caleb Rich,” The Candid Examiner (April 30, 1827-June 18, 1827); Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, vol. 1 (1884); Thomas Whittemore, Life of Ballou, vol. 1 (1854) and “Memoir of the Universalist Society in Oxford, Mass.,” Universalist Miscellany (March, 1849); Anson Titus, “Reminiscences of Early American Universalism-First Paper,” Universalist Quarterly (1881); George F. Daniels, History of the Town of Oxford, Massachusetts (1892); Adin Ballou, History of the Town of Milford (1882); and Isaac Backus, A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists, 2 ed., ed. David Weston (1871). The WPA historical records survey, Inventory of Universalist Archives in Massachusetts (1942), is also useful. Peter Hughes, “The Origins of New England Universalism: Religion without a Founder,” The Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (1997) contains a recent re-evaluation of the importance of Adams Streeter and the Oxford church.
Article by Peter Hughes
Posted December 24, 2000