Murray, Judith Sargent

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Murray, Judith Sargent

Born May 1, 1751 (Gloucester, Massachusetts)
Died July 6, 1820 (Natchez, Mississippi)

Author, social activist

Judith Sargent Murray was a well-known author in the United States during the late eighteenth century. Although she used fictitious names—and sometimes a male identity—when writing, Murray's identity was not a secret, and she established a distinguished literary reputation. She is believed to be the first woman to regularly publish essays with her series titled The Gleaner. Considered a minor classic in America, the work has been favorably compared to that of her contemporaries, Philip Freneau (1752–1832; see entry in volume 1) and Noah Webster (1758–1843). Murray entered the national debate on the role of women in the emerging United States, which made her works important to late-twentieth-century historians.

"The idea of the incapability of women is, we conceive, in this enlightened age, totally inadmissible. . . . To argue against facts, is indeed contending with both wind and tide."

Murray's lengthy writing career covered a number of topics and took on a variety of forms, including prose (ordinary language) and poetry. She was a pioneer in the field of playwriting and was the first American-born writer whose work was performed on the Boston stage. Murray is also thought to be the first American woman to have her plays performed professionally. As a leading member of the first Universalist church in America, Murray used her position to help spread Universalist religious and social ideas in the United States.

Universalism in Gloucester

Judith Sargent was born on May 1, 1751, in the coastal town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. She was the first of eight children born to Judith Saunders and Winthrop Sargent. Judith's father was primarily interested in the sea and became a wealthy shipowner and merchant like his father before him. Four of the Sargents' children died in infancy, but three of the remaining four went on to achieve distinction as adults. As a youth, Judith received the same basic, elementary training in reading and writing as all New England girls. However, Judith was very intelligent, and she wanted more. She was not permitted to enter college, but her brother, Winthrop Jr., was studying for admission to Harvard. Judith was allowed to share his lessons with a local tutor. During vacations from Harvard, Winthrop also aided her in continuing her studies.

Judith was eighteen years old when she married a young sea captain and trader named John Stevens, who was ten years older than her. Stevens came from a prominent Gloucester family, but financial problems had left the family without real wealth. Married on October 3, 1769, the Stevenses moved into a beautiful mansion overlooking the harbor and Eastern Point. Times were uncertain in the colonies during the early 1770s because of the threat of war with England. Judith began to write down her feelings in poetry and essays. John served as a member of the Committee of Safety at Gloucester in 1775, and he and Judith were both actively involved in Patriot politics when the American Revolution (1775–83) broke out. Patriots were American colonists who supported the rebel cause to gain independence from British rule.

The war brought financial disaster to the area. Coastal traffic was greatly hindered, and the fishing trade became dangerous due to the naval activity in the waters. Judith's focus in her writing turned more toward social questions and human rights during the war. She found herself questioning the status of women in the new social order of a democracy (a government ruled by the people through majority decisions), much like her contemporaries Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814; see entry in volume 2) and Abigail Adams (1744–1818; see entry in volume 1) were doing. In 1779, Judith wrote an essay stating her belief that women and men had equal minds and deserved an equal opportunity for an education. When John's sister died in 1780, the Stevenses took her daughter Anna to raise as their own; they later took in Anna's sister Mary as well. They had no children of their own.

Early in the 1770s, John Murray (1741–1815; see box), an itinerant (traveling) preacher of the doctrine of universal salvation (all humans would be saved from their sins by God; known as Universalism), had visited Gloucester from England. When Murray first arrived from England in 1770, the Sargent family was among the first to welcome him. He was a frequent visitor at the Stevens home, and Judith became a champion of the

Reverend John Murray: "Father of Universalism"

Though Universalist religious beliefs had their roots in England, an organized movement of Universalism first began in the American colonies in the mid-1700s. Universalism was greatly influenced by the new ideas of the eighteenth century concerning the reasoning powers of humans and the growth of science. Universalist teachings emphasized that all humans would be saved from their sins by God—the doctrine of universal salvation. Hallmarks of Universalism were the freedom of individual interpretation or reason, a tolerance of human diversity, and a belief in the natural dignity of humans. The Universalist doctrine was a reaction to the sterner aspects of other religions at the time, many of which taught that God's salvation would be granted to only a few chosen individuals.

The first person to preach Universalist ideals in America was George De Benneville (1703–1793), who emigrated from Europe to Pennsylvania in 1741. However, it was John Murray, an immigrant to America in 1770, who spread Universalist beliefs with such success that he inspired the birth of an organized movement and a Universalist denomination. Murray and his followers faced much opposition from various religious denominations whose leaders believed that the Universalists held too tolerant of an attitude toward humankind, which would lead to immorality.

Murray traveled through the colonies preaching before settling in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1774. He became chaplain for the Continental Army in Rhode Island in 1775 as the American Revolution broke out, but he soon suffered a severe illness. Returning to Gloucester, he served as pastor of the newly created Independent Church of Christ beginning in 1779.

In 1785, Murray participated in the Universalist convention at Oxford, Massachusetts, that formed the Independent Christian Universalists. Murray was head of the Universalist Society of Boston from 1793 until his death in 1815. The organization later became the Universalist Church of America. It merged with the American Unitarian Association in 1960 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

liberal (open to new ideas) religious doctrines of Universalism. Murray received such enthusiastic support that he decided to make Gloucester his home base. He developed quite a following over the years as he preached that God and Jesus Christ were the same and that the sacrifice of Christ would save all. This interpretation caused a split from the First Parish Church in town, a Congregationalist church whose members did not believe that all would be saved but only those who had personally sought forgiveness and salvation in their lives. In 1780, Winthrop Sargent Sr. donated land to build a meetinghouse in Gloucester, and Murray dedicated the building, which became the first Universalist church in America. In 1782, Judith anonymously published the Universalist catechism, a personal declaration of her faith that was to be used for the instruction of children.

Equal minds

The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, officially ending the American Revolution. However, the financial distress experienced in many places, including Gloucester, continued. Those forced into bankruptcy faced debtors' prison. Judith had continued writing throughout the war and had a desire to use her work to contribute to discussions surrounding current events. Judith knew that if she wrote under an assumed name, she could voice her opinions publicly, and she hoped her writing could also bring in some money to help out the family finances. Using the name "Constantia," she published "Desultory Thoughts Upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Complacency in the Female Bosom." The essay argued for more-advanced education for girls. She linked the self-respect that a woman receives from education with achievements and economic independence that frequently follow. "Desultory Thoughts" was published in the Gentleman and Lady's Town and Country Magazine in October 1784. "Constantia" was the name Judith's closest friends called her. She would continue to use the name regularly for both published and personal writing.

John Stevens was unable to recover from his financial problems after the war, and his creditors threatened him with imprisonment. In the winter of 1786, Stevens left Gloucester aboard a vessel belonging to Winthrop Sargent Sr. and set sail for Saint Eustatius in the West Indies. His plan was to earn enough money elsewhere so that he could repay his debts and return to America. Stevens had not been on the island long when he died of an unknown illness in March 1787.

Judith Sargent Stevens married her pastor, John Murray, in October 1788. Shortly after their wedding, John took Judith to meet Abigail and John Adams (1735–1826; see entry in volume 1) at their home in Braintree, Massachusetts. John Murray had first met the Adamses on their return voyage from England in September 1788. They had shared passage across the ocean and formed a lifelong friendship.

The Murrays traveled extensively while John preached throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. On these tours, Judith became acquainted with a number of the nation's leading citizens, including President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2) and his wife, Martha Washington (1732–1802; see entry in volume 2), and the family of scientist and diplomat Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1). In a letter to her parents, dated August 14, 1790, Judith told of having tea that day with President and Mrs. Washington and then passing the rest of the day at the home of Vice President and Mrs. Adams. She described the scenery and the other guests she encountered throughout the day. Judith was especially impressed by the presence of Southern businesswoman Catharine Littlefield Greene (1755–1814; see entry in volume 1).

In August 1789, the Murrays' first child, a son, died soon after his birth, and Judith turned to poetry to deal with her grief. She renewed her writing efforts and began contributing poetry to the new Massachusetts Magazine. Her topics were varied and included political, cultural, and religious issues. The following year, Judith published an essay titled "On the Equality of the Sexes" in which she argued for educational and employment opportunities for women. On August 22, 1791, the Murrays' second child was born, and they named her Julia Maria Murray.

"The Gleaner"

Judith Sargent Murray became a regular contributor to the Massachusetts Magazine beginning in February 1792 with a series of essays titled "The Gleaner." The monthly essays were written from the point of view of an imaginary man named Mr. Vigillius. Murray used her male character to promote her own position on education and economic self-sufficiency for women. The series was a favorite with the magazine's readers and continued until August 1794. Murray wrote a second popular series of essays for the magazine during the same time period. The series was called the "Repository."

In 1793, the Murrays moved to Boston. There, Judith was able to pursue her interest in the development of American drama. In April of that year, an old ban on theatrical entertainment in Boston had been lifted, and Murray wanted to try her hand as a playwright. By 1795, her first play was presented at the Federal Street Theater, making Murray the first American-born writer to have her work appear on the Boston stage. However, her play, The Medium, or Virtue Triumphant, was not well received, and it had a short theater run. The following year at the Federal Street Theater, her production of The Traveler Returned was equally short-lived after it drew a blast of criticism from reviewers.

Financial difficulties once again began to affect Judith and her family. John suggested she publish her essays. Judith gathered together one hundred of her essays in a three-volume set she titled The Gleaner. The volumes contained most of her essays and poetry as well as her two plays. The entire collection was dedicated to President John Adams. The Gleaner was released in 1798 but had only modest success.

Virtue triumphant


Murray made one more attempt as a playwright with The African, which was performed at the Federal Street Theater in 1808. The Gleaner volumes had not produced the desired response, and Murray failed to arrange a second edition. She continued to publish a few of her poems in Boston periodicals under the pen names "Honora-Martesia" and "Honora." However, family concerns increasingly took most of her attention. John suffered a stroke in 1809 and was bedridden because of the resulting paralysis. He was working on his autobiography when he died in 1815. Murray completed the work herself and published it the following year.

In 1816, Murray moved to Natchez, Mississippi, to live with her daughter and be close to her young granddaughter. She died in 1820 at the age of sixty-nine. Murray was buried in the Bingamon cemetery on Saint Catherine's Creek, overlooking the Mississippi River. Nearly two centuries after her death, historians recognized Murray for her contributions to American literary history. As relayed in Sharon M. Harris's 1995 book Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray, Murray in her introductory comments to The Gleaner wrote, "My desires are . . . I would be distinguished and respected by my contemporaries; I would be continued on grateful remembrance when I make my exit; and I would descend with celebrity to posterity."

For More Information


Field, Vena Bernadette. Constantia: A Study of the Life and Works of Judith Sargent Murray 1751–1820. Orono, ME: The University Press, 1931.

Harris, Sharon M., ed. Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Skemp, Sheila L. Judith Sargent Murray: A Brief Biography with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

Smith, Bonnie Hurd. From Gloucester to Philadelphia in 1790: Observations, Anecdotes, and Thoughts from the Eighteenth-Century Letters of Judith Sargent Murray. Cambridge, MA: Judith Sargent Murray Society, 1998.

Web Sites

"Abigail Adams." Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

Judith Sargent Murray Society. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

"Perspectives in American Literature: Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820)." Department of English, California State University, Stanislaus. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

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