Judith Sargent Murray helped establish the first Universalist church in America, but she is best known for her discussion of gender roles and advocacy of expanded economic, social, and political opportunities for women. She was a noted poet and essayist in an era when women rarely published.
Born in 1751 to a prosperous and socially prominent merchant family in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Judith Sargent displayed signs of great intelligence at a time when women were valued more for beauty and social charms than brains. She read widely, including the work of female authors gaining popularity in Europe, and toyed with the idea of becoming a professional writer. Although she sought to improve her mind by obtaining an education in the classics, her parents insisted that she instead learn traditional female arts like cooking and sewing, a decision that left her angry and embittered. In 1769, Sargent married merchant John Stevens and, in 1776, joined him in becoming involved with the controversial Universalist religious movement.
Sargent held to the Puritan religion of her ancestors until the new faith of Universalism emerged with an egalitarian message that gave her a framework in which to define and defend her belief that men and women were spiritual and intellectual equals. While Universalists believed that all humans were tainted with sin, they stirred controversy by challenging the notion of predestination. All people would be saved from damnation, not just a select few, because Christ had died for the sins of everyone.
Writing in 1776, she argued that if God did not differentiate between men and women, then differing gender definitions were mere artificial constructions. In January 1778, she signed the articles of association creating the first Universalist church in America, thereby inviting the scorn of most members of the Gloucester community. Her steadfast belief in God’s support of her actions meant that this criticism, though severe, had little personal impact upon her. Sargent’s rejection of the established church led her to question other social and intellectual conventions. As she subsequently declared, any argument based on “the despotism of tradition, the prejudices of education, and the predominating sway of revered opinions” was never again quite as persuasive. Once Sargent defied her community over the explosive topic of religion, she found it easier to take issue with other concerns, especially when she was convinced that she was acting in accordance with God’s word.
Encouraged by other Universalists, especially Reverend John Murray, to share her thoughts on gender relations, she began to write for a public audience. By 1784, she regularly sent essays and poems to a select number of New England magazines, but she remained uncomfortable about becoming a public woman and nodded to conventional mores by employing the pseudonym Constantia. Sargent wrote on a wide variety of subjects, often discussing politics, manners, religion, marriage, the education of women, women’s attributes as breadwinners, and motherhood.
Sargent’s life changed dramatically as her husband’s business gradually failed because of the poor trading conditions during the American Revolution. A tepid patriot who was shocked at the lack of civil liberties accorded loyalists, she now had another reason to dislike the conflict. Most New Englanders of this time considered financial setbacks to be evidence of moral failure, and a humiliated Sargent became too ashamed to appear in public. Stevens attempted to resuscitate his career but died in 1787 before doing so.
John Murray, an old friend and the man most responsible for bring Universalism to America, had been boarding in the Stevens household, and Judith married him in 1788. After losing a son in infancy, she bore a daughter in 1791who survived to adulthood.
Murray encouraged his wife to publish, and, in 1795, under her own name, Judith Sargent Murray began a short-lived career as a playwright with two comedies, both of which appeared briefly on the stage in Boston. In 1798, she published The Gleaner, a three-volume collection of her writings that included both old and new essays, as well as poems and both of her plays.
Following her second husband’s death in 1815, Murray published her last work, Life of John Murray, by Himself: With a Continuation by Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray. She died at her daughter’s home in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1820.
Caryn E. Neumann See also: Christ and Christianity; Religion (Chronology); Religion (Essay). Bibliography Fields, Vena Bernadette. Constantia: A Study of the Life and Works of Judith Sargent Murray, 1751–1820. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1931. Harris, Sharon. 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, 1998.