Author Bonnie Hurd Smith in her Salem home with a reproduction of John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Judith Sargent Murray.
Thanks to a local historian, Judith Sargent’s Revolutionary-era letters are making the basis for a fascinating look at life, love and women’s rights in the 1700s.
In November 1774, Judith Sargent wrote a letter to a new acquaintance, Universalist minister John Murray. “I am not much accustomed to writing letters, especially to your sex,” she wrote, “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.”
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Through illness and religious persecution and financial troubles, Judith Sargent and John Murray wrote faithfully to each other whenever they were apart. They discussed religion and politics. She pestered him to be careful of his health and asked him to go shopping for her. He shared the details of his travels and encouraged her budding career as a writer.
In her letters, Judith is tender, playful, and affectionate, but always discreet, because she is also married. But after 14 years of friendship, after Judith’s husband dies and John is fleeing the country because of religious persecution, they finally confess their love for each other.
Judith’s story unfolds in the pages of “Mingling Souls Upon Paper: An Eighteenth-Century Love Story,” annotated and published by Bonnie Hurd Smith, an independent scholar who is the director of the Judith Sargent Murray Society and is also Judith’s second cousin seven times removed.
Judith’s letters contain much of interest to historians — she lived through the American Revolution and the struggle for religious freedom, she was an important writer and an early advocate for equality of the sexes, and she corresponded with famous men such as George Washington and John Adams. But the story of her love for John Murray is perhaps the most universal theme of all.
Not content to sit on the sidelines
The daughter of a prosperous Gloucester merchant, Judith was fortunate to be raised in a family that regarded intelligence and a strong will as desirable traits in a woman. Although Judith did not have as extensive an education as her brothers, she read books from the family library and discussed politics and religion with her father.
“A lot of 18th century fathers would say, ‘You need to stick to sewing and cooking, stay away from the library,’” says Smith. “Her father showed off her writing as soon as she started writing poems. He was proud of her.”
And she was fond of him. As a young woman, Judith secretly had herself inoculated with smallpox, a risky procedure at the time, so she could nurse her father should he ever contract the disease.
Much of Judith’s later writing advocated the equality of the sexes, a conviction that stemmed from Universalist teachings.
“She was actually, in her view, very conservative,” Smith says, “because in her mind, there was God’s plan, and any deviation from that was wrong. That’s not radical, that’s having a world view that you internalize and stick to.”
Judith also wanted to see the ideals of the new republic transform the lives of girls and women. “In this sense, she was a true daughter of the American Revolution, working hard on behalf of future daughters and sons,” says Smith.
A visit from the preacher
Judith’s father, Winthrop Sargent, embraced the teachings of Universalist thinker James Relly and held small gatherings in his home to talk about this new religion. In 1774, Winthrop heard that the English Universalist preacher John Murray was in Boston, and he invited Murray to come to Gloucester to lead the fledgling congregation.
Soon after this first meeting, Judith wrote her first letter to Murray, asking him to correspond with her about their religion. Judith’s letters don’t always make easy reading.
“If I am not mistaken in the character of the person I have the pleasure to address, it will be most agreeable to him, that I should lay aside all that awe, and reference, which his unquestionable superiority demands, and approach him with the freedom of a sister, conversing with a brother, whom she entirely esteems,” Judi
This flowery and indirect style was typical of educated men of the era, Smith says, and Judith may have been overcompensating a bit for her lack of formal education.“I imagine especially in that first letter to John Murray, she was probably showing off a little,” says Smith, “just as we did in eighth grade — when you met a guy you liked, you wrote the same letter 23 different times before you got it right.”
Judith’s writing style makes it hard to pin down whether she is overly formal or truly affectionate.
“It’s a little bit of both,” Smith says. “She was always very careful to express in context that he was her pastor and her friend. Within a few years of meeting him, in my opinion, they are extremely affectionate. There is an intimacy in these letters that goes beyond a pure platonic friendship.”
Nonetheless, Smith says, “Neither one would have betrayed the trust inherent in her marriage.”
Crisis and resolution
Judith wrote to Murray about all sorts of things, from the small details of daily life to the panic in Gloucester when a British ship arrived in the harbor in 1775, and the legal troubles the Universalists ran into when they refused to pay taxes to the Congregationalist parish.
In 1786, Judith’s husband, John Stevens, fell into financial troubles that would have a dramatic effect on her as well. She writes about the frantic efforts of her family and friends, including Murray, to keep their creditors from seizing their belongings and throwing Stevens into debtor’s prison.
“Now, the corroding apprehension, that an enemy is constantly laying in ambush for our destruction, furnishes the … necessity of bolts, and bars, which alike exclude both friends and foes,” she wrote
Stevens traveled to Saint Eustacius, in the West Indies, to escape his creditors and try to re-establish his business, but the expedition was not a success. In 1787, in failing health, he began the return trip to Gloucester. Judith had a vision that predicted his death, and a month later she learned that he had in fact died.
These were troubling times for Murray as well. The Congregationalist First Parish Church of Gloucester had challenged his legal ability to perform marriage ceremonies. Advised that his safety was at risk, Murray decided to return to England.
In a letter to her aunt by marriage, Mary Turner Sargent, Judith chronicles the sequence of emotions she went through during this period. After Stevens’ death, she resigned herself to widowhood and even looked forward to leading a quiet and relatively free life.
“I believed myself incapable of love, as traced by the pencil of the Poet,” she wrote.
When Murray was forced to leave the country, however, she realized her true feelings for him at last.
“In short I could no longer deceive myself,” she wrote, “my soul became a scene of tumult, and upon every rising thought, was stamped too sure a confirmation, that I had in fact become a slave, to the most impetuous of all passions, of which I had, erroneously considered myself incapable.”
At this dramatic moment, she received a letter from Murray, written before his departure from Boston.
“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, and to supplicate, at least for a continuation of my esteem.”
Tossing notions of a quiet, intellectually satisfying widowhood to the wind, Judith married him.
The next chapter
Most love stories end at the wedding, but not this one.
Before her marriage, Judith had published an essay and a Universalist catechism for children, but in 1789, the year after she married Murray, Judith’s writing career began in earnest. She published essays titled “On the Equality of the Sexes” and “On the Domestic Education of Children” in Massachusetts Magazine, and in 1792 she began a regular column called “The Gleaner.”
“Her professional life took off when she married [Murray],” says Smith, “and that speaks volumes in my mind about the kind of husband he was.”
In 1794 the Murrays moved to Boston, where John was serving as minister of the First Universalist Church. The following year Judith’s play “The Medium, or Happy Tea-Party,” was performed at Boston’s Federal Street Theatre. In 1798, she collected her Gleaner essays into a book, the first book self-published by a woman in America.
Judith had taken care of several nieces and nephews when she was married to Stevens, but she had always wanted to have a child of her own. Her first child with Murray was stillborn, but in 1791, at the age of 40, Judith gave birth to a daughter, Julia Marie. As her writing career burgeoned, she continued to welcome nieces and nephews into her home.
In 1809, Murray suffered a stroke that paralyzed one side of his body. The family’s finances were already precarious, and with John unable to work, their lives became more difficult. In addition to caring for him, Judith edited and published John’s sermons, in hopes that would improve their financial situation. Her devotion to him never flagged, nor did her faith.
“Let us hand in hand pursue the rugged path, which yet remains, until we arrive at that beatified state, where sin nor sorrow will no more invade, and where we shall be completely blessed,” she wrote to him in 1810.
Judith’s brother Winthrop had moved to Mississippi and become governor of that territory. When a friend of his, Adam Bingaman, came to Boston to attend Harvard, Judith took him in as a boarder to help make ends meet.
“Bingaman’s family was supposed to pay Judith a lot of money to board him,” says Smith. It didn’t work out that way. The family sent Judith $500 and never paid her another cent.
Adam married Judith’s daughter Julia, but later he returned to Mississippi, leaving his wife behind. Winthrop tried to persuade Bingaman to return to his wife and pay Judith what he owed her, but Bingaman refused. Julia continued to live with her parents, and in 1813 she gave birth to a daughter, Charlotte. Two years later, in 1815, John Murray died.
The journey south
Murray’s experiences in her last years illustrate exactly what she was fighting against when she advocated for the rights of women.
“She wanted to die in the same bed she had shared with John Murray, and she wanted to be buried in the Granary burying ground in the family tomb,” says Smith.
It didn’t turn out that way. Bingaman sent for Julia, and because of the laws of the time, she had no choice but to join him in his hom
“Judith was not going to part with her only child and her only grandchild,” says Smith.
While she was far from familiar territory, Judith did have some comforts. She enjoyed being with her daughter and her grandchild, as well as the nieces and nephews she had helped raise.
“But to go from Boston, which is a thriving, progressive intellectual center, to an enormous slave plantation in the deep south must have been shocking to say the least,” says Smith. Unfortunately, no letters survive from this period of Judith’s life.
Two years after she left Boston, Judith died and was buried in Natchez.
An examined life
Judith was unique among the women of her time in that she kept copies of her correspondence, starting when she was 23.
“Judith Sargent Murray, as far as we know, is the only woman to systematically, throughout her life, create letter books,” says Smith. “The president of Harvard kept letter books, or had his secretary do it for him. The presidents of the United States kept letter books, because they knew what they were doing was important and they knew it was important to keep records. Women, by and large, were not educated. They literally didn’t have that ability to do this, but they also didn’t think their lives were important enough to record.
Smith was an undergraduate at Simmons College when a relative who was on the board of the Winthrop Sargent House told her about Judith. Soon, Smith was making frequent trips to the house, often after hours, to read their copy of Judith’s book “The Gleaner.”
“I could not believe I was reading these astonishingly outspoken, powerful essays about female abilities, female education, but also about the new American nation,” says Smith.
At the time, scholars believed that Judith’s personal papers had been destroyed, but in the mid-1990s, while she was serving as president of the board of the Sargent House, Smith learned that Sargent’s letter books had been found in an old house in Natchez. Elated by the news, she left the board in 1996 to form the Judith Sargent Murray Society and begin transcribing and annotating the letters. “Mingling Souls Upon Paper” is the second volume she has published.
Like Judith Sargent Murray, Smith has self-published her books, lining up financial support in advance, and like Judith, Smith corresponds with scholars about her work.
“As I encounter interesting pieces of information I know someone will want, I sent the information off,” she says. As a result, snippets from Judith’s letters have been included in David McCullough’s biography of John Adams and Cokie Roberts’ book, “ Founding Mothers.”
As rich as Judith’s letters are, what is omitted can be just as revealing.
“There is not one letter to John Stevens in her letter books,” Smith says. “There is one letter in which she says that members of her family who she used to write to have sort of expressed a bit of annoyance at the length of her letters and asked her to write shorter letters or wait until they get back and not write letters at all.”
That letter was addressed to John Murray, who, fortunately for everyone concerned, didn’t mind long letters at all. In fact, he loved them.
The house that John Stevens built for Judith in 1782, and where Judith and John lived for several years after their marriage, is now the Sargent House Museum, 49 Middle St., Gloucester. For more information, go to www.sargenthouse.org. “Mingling Souls Upon Paper” is available at area bookstores or through the Judith Sargent Murray Society Web site, www.hurdsmith.com/judith.