Setting the Record Straight in Gloucester, Massachusetts
This article was prompted by a reading of An Address on Samuel Gilman presented by Henry Wilder Foote, at the dedication of the Gilman Memorial Room. In order to corroborate Foote’s assertions about Samuel Gilman, the following were consulted: History of the New England Society of Charleston, South Carolina, by William Way; Samuel Gilman’s obituaries from the American Unitarian Association and in Necrology of Harvard College, by Joseph Palmer; A Massachusetts Yankee in Senator Calhoun’s Court, Samuel Gilman in South Carolina, by Daniel Walker Howe, in The New England Quarterly of June 1917; Mingling Souls Upon Paper and From Gloucester to Philadelphia in 1790, two biographies of John and Judith Murray by Bonnie Hurd Smith (source of etchings); Wikipedia and other historical websites detailing lives of those mentioned; and correspondence from three Gloucester, Massachusetts historians: Joan Ciolino, Director of the Sargent House Museum (source of photo); Stephanie Buck, Librarian of the Cape Ann Historical Association; and Sarah Dunlap, Archivist with the Gloucester Archives Committee.
On April 16, 1916, when a number of Harvard graduates gathered at this church for the dedication of the Gilman Memorial they had funded on the third floor of our church tower, Henry Wilder Foote, an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Divinity School gave the address. This well-researched speech contains some of the most vivid information we have about Samuel Gilman in a biographical sketch which begins prosaically enough: “Samuel Gilman was born in Gloucester Massachusetts, on February 16 1791,† the son of Frederick Gilman...." However, the footnote reveals, “ †This is the date of his birth as given in all the biographical notices of Dr. Gilman, and cut upon his monument in Charleston, but the vital records at Gloucester give the date as 1790.” In response to a request for corroboration, the following was received from Sarah Dunlap of the Gloucester Archives:
Samuel’s birth date [Book 5, Gloucester Intentions, Births Deaths, 1782-1806] has: "Samuel, son of Frederick Gilman of Exeter, New Hampshire, by Nabby short for Abigail his Wife, was born Feby 16th 1790."
His parents’ marriage: [Gloucester printed Vital Records Marriages (GVRM), p. 230] “Marriage of Frederick and Abigail: Frederick Gillman (sic) and Abigail Hiller (sic) Somes, June 8, 1786.
Birth of Abigail: Abigail Hiller Somes, daughter of Benjamin & Susanna, 2nd wife, May 9, 1768. (GVRB p.665)
Notice the (sic)s: the spelling of “Gillman”, an acceptable spelling at the time or possibly an error in transcription; although the literature uses “Hillier”, the proper spelling of Abigail’s middle name is “Hiller” as it is engraved on her tombstone in our churchyard. Her birth date there appears as May 9th 1770, a two year discrepancy with the Gloucester birth records.
Other children born to them were: Susanna Hiller Gilman, b. Aug.6, 1787
Arrolina Augusta Gilman, b. April 13, 1789
Louisa, b. Jan. 1, 1797.
Dunlap comments: “Therefore: if Samuel was born in 1790, it would have been only 10 months after his sister Arrolina's birth - possible, but it casts a bit of doubt.” It was actually 320 days or 10 2/3 months.
In response to a request for some other method of corroboration, Dunlap replied: “My first and only thought had been, that someone along the line thought that in 1790 there would have still been double-dates” but this practice ended much earlier” – this refers to (the) system of double dating used in England and British North America from 1582-1752 for dates falling between January 1 and March 25. This was common practice because the new Gregorian calendar, which went into effect in 1582, but was not officially adopted by the British and the American colonies until 1752, recognized January 1 as the first day of the year, while the old Julian calendar recognized March 25 as the first day. Thus, dates between those two days prior to the calendar change in 1752 were often written with both year numbers (i.e. 5 January 1712/13),” according to the website About.com.
Foote also posits, “The house at Gloucester in which he spent at least part of the first ten years of his life is still standing on Middle Street. It is a beautiful specimen of a New England colonial mansion, erected about 1786 by Winthrop Sargent and occupied by his daughter Judith, wife of Rev. John Murray, the founder of Universalism. Frederick Gilman bought the house from the Murrays five or six years after the birth of his son Samuel, but there is a tradition that Samuel was born there. As Mr. and Mrs. Murray were said to have gone to live with Winthrop Sargent after Mrs. Sargent’s death, at a date earlier than Samuel’s birth, it is quite possible that Frederick Gilman’s birth here is well founded.”
Although Samuel Gilman’s childhood was eventually full of tragedy, he certainly could be termed “advantaged” during his earliest years. His father was a “wealthy merchant” involved in the import trade and Samuel spent at least part of those years in this very "beautiful specimen" in Gloucester.
Like ships passing in the night, in this house we have one of the great near misses in UU history. According to Dunlap, the house was actually built in 1782 at 49 Middle Street by Captain John Stevens, at the time a prosperous trader and husband of Judith Sargent, whom she married in 1769 when she was 18 years old; indeed, she was the daughter of “well known ship captain” Winthrop Sargent and Judith Sa(u)nders Sargent. The younger couple had no children of their own but in 1780, the Stevens adopted two orphan girls -- Anna Plummer, John's niece, and Polly Odell, a young Sa(u)nders cousin. In the years after they moved into the house, Capt. Stevens, found his fortunes taking a bad turn so he sailed off to the West Indies aboard one of Winthrop Sargent's vessels to escape his creditors. John Stevens died on the Caribbean island of St. Eustacia in 1786, leaving his wife with the bills. In 1788 Judith Sargent Stevens, married John Murray, “the minister responsible for transporting the Universalist religion from England to America.”
Today the house is preserved as The Sargent House Museum, also known as the Sargent Murray Gilman Hough (SMGH) House, furnished as it might have looked in 1790. Dunlap says it should be called the Sargent Stevens Murray Gilman Hough House; after all, it was Capt. Stevens who built it. It contains remembrances of its many famous residents, including portraits of Samuel Gilman, another by Thomas Sully, and one of Caroline, by Alvan Fisher. Joan Ciolino Director of the Museum says it displys Samuel Gilman’s communion table and his shaving stand which he used when he was a student at Harvard: he had lovely taste in furniture. There are also a few portraits by John Singer Sargent, Judith Sargent (Stevens) Murray's great-great nephew who was an original founder of the museum.
To check Foote’s assertions out, we must back up two decades. In 1770, Winthrop Sargent read James Relly's Union, on the view that universal salvation is assured, and began to gather a group of friends and family in his Gloucester home to discuss Relly's Universalist theology. According to Hurd Smith, in 1774, Winthrop Sargent traveled to Boston to hear a spellbinding itinerant preacher from England named John Murray “and asked him to preach in (Sargent’s) distant fishing and trading port. John agreed” and wrote in his autobiography, “November 3d, I repaired to Gloucester, and was received by a few very warm-hearted Christians” and as stated by Hurd Smith, “met Winthrop Sargent’s daughter Judith Sargent Stevens that day, an encounter whose significance he could not have known....John decided to make Gloucester his home, but protests to his ministry arose....” both ecclesiastic and secular. The successive ministers of the Sargent’s First Parish Church fought Murray. First, Andrew Croswell, inveighed against Murray’s “doctrine of universal salvation (as) inimical to virtue, and productive of all manner of wickedness.” Then, in 1775, “Eli Forbes, wrote against Murray’s preachings, threatening the family with excommunication.
“The town even attempted to have John Murray removed as a vagrant, until Winthrop Sargent deeded him a piece of his own land, thus making John a legal freeholder.” Later, “Forbes followed through on his threat to expel them from church membership -- an act of potentially enormous legal and social consequence for the outcasts. But instead of renouncing their chosen faith, the Gloucester Universalists signed Articles of Association in 1779 to create their own religious society: the Independent Church of Christ. They built their own meetinghouse on land owned by Winthrop Sargent and dedicated the small building on Christmas Day in 1780, calling John as their pastor.”
Gloucester’s first Universalist meetinghouse
Continuing, Hurd Smith reports, “Because the Universalists defied the law and refused to pay taxes to First Parish Church after forming their Association, in 1782 the town seized articles of value from Universalist believers to sell at public auction. In 1783, Murray brought the Universalists’ case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by arguing for the legal right to create a religious organization independent from the established church. Eventually, in 1785 and 1786, the court ruled in favor of the Universalists, thereby allowing them to realize a monumental victory for all American citizens.
“The Universalists victory was short-lived, however. In 1787, First Parish challenged John’s authority to perform the marriage ceremony and the Universalists advised John to leave Gloucester for his safety.” They also petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to declare his ministry legal. “He decided to return to England to visit his mother whom he had not seen for eighteen years. But before he left, he wrote from Boston Harbor to the recently widowed Judith Sargent Stevens and asked her to marry him….” leaving before he received a reply.
Murray received “a triumphant return to the country of his birth…where he was frequently asked to preach and (he was) dubbed ‘the most popular preacher in the United States.’” After receiving word that the legislature had legalized his ministry, he returned to Boston in 1788, where “Governor John Hancock hosted a reception in his honor. While his departure from Gloucester had been a necessary but painful decision, John’s absence, and the Universalists petitions, had finally, after many years of opposition, solidified John’s stature as a beloved preacher of the Gospel. His hard won success was crowned that fall when he married Judith Sargent Stevens (on July 5, 1788) in Salem, Massachusetts…(Winthrop Sargent was not only John Murray’s chief benefactor but was now Murray’s father-in-law as well.)…and participated in a second, more traditional ordination service in the Gloucester meeting house on Christmas Day.
“The Universalists published notices of their pastor’s calling in newspapers throughout New England to thwart further challenges to John’s ministry. Truly, 1789 was a new beginning for John Murray....John and Judith began married life together in Judith’s Middle Street home in Gloucester where John had been lodging for many years.” The Cape Ann Historical Association (CAHA) confirms this: [CAHA Scrapbook #? p. 122] Judith Sargent Stevens continued to live in the house after her first husband's flight and death.
Picking up the story again, Hurd Smith writes, “Before long, Judith was pregnant and John prayed for a safe delivery…But, tragically, their son, Fitz Winthrop, was stillborn. John feared for Judith's life, as she lay ill for many weeks. But she recovered, and the two of them journeyed to Philadelphia in 1790 where John spent several months that summer helping to organize the first national Universalist convention....Back home, in 1791, Judith gave birth to a healthy daughter they called Julia Maria....Simultaneously, the Boston Universalists were urging John to accept a position as their minister. With a new family, he needed to increase his income and likely was intrigued by the idea of living in the New England "Metropolis" with its intellectual, literary, religious, and political activity. John's congregations agreed to allow him to divide his time between Gloucester and Boston, but, eventually, the thirty-seven-mile distance became impractical. John established his friend the Reverend Thomas Jones of Wales in the Gloucester pulpit in 1793, and on October 23, the First Universalist Church in Boston installed John as their pastor. In (1793 or) 1794, John moved his family to an elegant townhouse at Franklin Place in Boston.”
The first Universalist meetinghouse in Boston
Back to Henry Wilder Foote: how much credibility can be placed in his theory that Samuel Gilman was born in the SMGH House in 1790? Here in the words of Stephanie Buck: In the 1790 Census of Gloucester, it looks clear that Gilman and Murray did not share a house: #271: the number of the entry in the census records which for some reason cannot be traced to a specific address Gilman, Frederick, 2 males over 16, no males under 16, and 5 females. #624: Rev. John Murray, 1 male over 16, 2 males under 16, no females. [Since John and Judith were away on trip to Philadelphia at this time, these might just be servants.] The census was taken as of August 2, 1790, so it must have actually been taken on or after August 2.
According to a biography of Judith’s brother Winthrop, both their mother and father died in 1793; Samuel would have already been two or three years old by then. According to Hurd Smith, Judith is in Boston when her mother dies July 1793, and rushes to Gloucester to care for her father, (yet neither her mother or father’s deaths are recorded in Gloucester nor are the Murray’s children’s births, all of which is a mystery to the Gloucester historians). If Judith stayed with her father until he died, it would have been for only a few months. This rather scotches Foote’s suggestion that the Gilman family rented the property when the Murrays moved in with Winthrop Sargent to take care of him for any length of time.
But the final proof comes from the detail of the 1790 census. There being no male under sixteen in the Gilman household would seem to deny the fact of a February, 1790 birth for Samuel, so we have to believe the tombstone in our churchyard is correct.
No one in Gloucester knows how the one year error was made on Samuel’s birth record. No one in Gloucester knew that Abigail Gilman’s two year discrepancy existed until our communication.
Did the Gilman family rent the house prior to their purchase? Stephanie Buck of the CAHA [CAHA Scrapbook #? p. 122] establishes the date that Frederick Gilman’s purchased the house as Apr. 28, 1797; Samuel was not quite six years old. After their 1794 permanent removal to Boston, the Murrays could have rented 49 Middle Street to the Gilmans, but it would have been well after Samuel’s birth. Such transactions were not recorded, so it is possible that Foote is partially correct, but we’ll probably never know.
David Elder, Docent