First Religious Newspaper Born in NH
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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On a Thursday evening in 1808, a full 90 years before the Portsmouth Herald was born, a controversial New England preacher named Elias Smith made history. His Herald of Gospel Liberty, printed here in Portsmouth, became the first religious newspaper in the world. The job of a “herald,” Smith wrote, was to announce the truth with a voice louder than 50 men. (Continued below)
“There is no doubt in my mind but that many will be displeased at what may appear in this paper from time to time,” Smith wrote on the front page of his first issue. Critics, he knew, might accuse him of “turning the world upside down and stirring up the people to revolt.”
Smith’s controversial idea was to write the truth, simply and fairly, about religion in America in his day. Just as the United States had recently gained freedom from the political tyranny of King George, Smith wrote, he hoped to release the common man from the tyranny of Christian priests and church dogma. Smith believed that every person had the inalienable right to read the Bible and to interpret its meaning without interference. And he saw the modern newspaper as the best way to connect and educate a widespread population of Americans who were unhappy with the traditional church.
Sprinkled as a boy
Born into a Protestant family in Lyme, CT in 1769, Elias Smith was six years old at the outbreak of the American Revolution. He was deathly afraid of being killed by invading British soldiers and equally fearful that his childhood sins would keep him from entering “the gates of Heaven.” In his autobiography (published in 1840) Smith described the trauma of being baptized against his will at age eight, his hands and feet restrained, and forcibly “sprinkled” by a local minister.
Although he grew up to become an itinerant Baptist minister, Smith writes, he was a tortured soul leading a double life. Like many religious “radicals” of his era, he questioned the conventions and teachings of the traditional European church. He began to criticize the practices of the Protestant establishment. He suggested that Christians could worship independently, without church sanction, simply by reading the Bible carefully and following its teachings. Smith dismissed most Calvinist doctrines as “nonscriptual” and man-made, since they were not mentioned in the New Testament. He rejected ideas of the Trinity (Father, Son & Holy Spirit), eternal damnation, the immortality of the soul, original sin, the divinity of Christ, and especially infant baptism. Jesus was baptized willingly as an adult, and fully immersed in water, Smith explained to his followers. Ministers who sprinkled the heads of innocent children, Smith implied, were not true Christians. Most college-educated clerics, he came to believe, were actually acting in direct opposition to the lessons found in the New Testament.
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