Martyn, Sarah (Towne) Smith

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MARTYN, Sarah (Towne) Smith

Born 15 August 1805, Hopkinton, New Hampshire; died 22 November 1879, New York City

Wrote under: Sarah Towne Martyn, Mrs. S. T. Martyn

Daughter of Ethan and Bathsheba Sanford Smith; married Job H. Martyn, 1841

Both of Sarah Smith Martyn's parents could trace their ancestry to 17th-century New England settlers. Martyn's father, a scholarly clergyman who had fought in the American Revolution, directed her education in channels that were considered "masculine," including not only various modern languages but also Greek and Hebrew. Although Martyn had considerable musical talent, she soon became far more interested in some of the causes that consumed her father's attention, especially the temperance and antislavery movements. From 1836 to 1845 she was active in the Female Moral Reform Society of New York, assisting the editor of the organization's journal, the Advocate of Moral Reform, until she left the society because of internal dissension.

After her marriage to a clergyman, Martyn became known to New York literati as a gracious hostess at whose home famous reformers and writers frequently gathered.

In addition to her editorial labors for the Advocate of Moral Reform, Martyn edited the Olive Plant and Ladies' Temperance Advocate (1842), the True Advocate (1845), the White Banner (1846), and the Ladies' Wreath (1846-50). Martyn edited excerpts from the latter for The Golden Keepsake; or, Ladies' Wreath: A Gift for All Seasons (1851), a collection that reflects the journal's focus on "literature, industry, and religion." Stories and essays by Martyn are included. In "The Social Position of Woman," Martyn describes the female role as giving "tone to the manners and morals of the community" and deplores the idea that woman's contracted sphere of action implies any inferiority. Elsewhere she asserts that the true mission of woman is simply to be a good wife and mother.

Despite Martyn's rigidly traditional views of woman's status in society, she demonstrated by her own example that a woman's impact could extend far beyond the domestic sphere. She also depicted strong female characters in her fiction. For instance, in Allan Cameron; or, The Three Birthdays (1864), one of the many pious books Martyn wrote during the 1860s for the American Tract Society, she depicts a young woman who puts abolitionism into action as soon as she becomes the mistress of her guardian's estates. Not only does Cora free her slaves, but she demonstrates sound economic awareness by presenting each of the males with a plot of land to cultivate so that he can support himself and his family. And in The English Exile; or, William Tyndale at Home and Abroad (1867), Martyn describes the words and actions of the great English reformer and translator through a journal kept from 1521 until Tyndale's martyrdom in 1536 by a female theology student who likes being right where the action is.

That Martyn's best-known work, Women of the Bible (1868), was preceded by an article of the same title in the Ladies' Wreath (1850), indicates a prolonged interest in the topic. Martyn's approach to biblical women is highly romanticized; for instance, she asserts that the Book of Ruth is "full of thrilling interest and pathos" and indicates that Ruth herself is a "young and beautiful woman," even though there is not a word in the Old Testament narrative to imply that Ruth is either particularly young or physically beautiful. Martyn's warmly appreciative nature is the greatest strength of her work; for example, she evaluates the ode sung by Samuel's mother, Hannah, as "one of the finest specimens of Hebrew poetry extant." Throughout, Martyn stresses the marriage and motherhood of biblical women; but 19th-century women might have been stimulated to additional ambitions by her emphasis on their "rare endowments of mind as well as heart."

Other Works:

The Huguenots of France; or, The Times of Henry IV (1864). The Hopes of Hope Castle; or, The Times of Knox and Queen Mary Stuart (1867). Margaret, the Pearl of Navarre (1867). Netty and Her Sister; or, The Two Paths (1867). Daughters of the Cross (1868).


Bittinger, J. Q., History of Haverhill, N. H. (1888). Hart, John S., A Manual of American Literature (1874).

Reference works:


Other references:

New England Historical and Genealogical Register (April 1847).


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Martyn, Sarah (Towne) Smith

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