First Religious Newspaper Born in NH
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Bible01On 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.”  

Elias_SmithSmith’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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Removed to Portsmouth

By 1802 Smith was in debt and on the verge of despair. He sold his house and horse and carriage and furniture, and moved his wife Mary and their children from Massachusetts to his in-laws home in Newmarket, NH. He was down to his last $45, but unbowed in his beliefs. Smith preached in Portsmouth and surrounding towns, captivating listeners and working without notes. He sparred verbally with the city’s powerful ministers like Rev. Joseph Buckminster of the North Congregational Church. Encouraged to take on the establishment, Smith took his stand in Portsmouth where his writing career began in the New Hampshire Gazette. His pamphlet against infant baptism “made no small stir,” Smith wrote. 

Response to the radical writings of Elias Smith was swift and stern. One detractor wrote that “the press has lately vomited out many nauseous things from this writer.” Detractors referred to the “poison of his writings” calling it “the most wretched trash that ever issued from the press.” Traditional churchgoers in town, “the enemies of the cross” Smith called them, tried to disrupt his worship services. Yet “not a hair of my head ever fell to the ground through the malice of my enemies,” Smith later wrote. 

In fact, he found loyal supporters in Portsmouth who contributed their money so that the preacher could move his family into town. He packed Jefferson Hall twice with his next sermon. Fourteen days after Smith moved to Portsmouth in 1803 the first great fire wiped out the city center including Jefferson Hall. The city burned twice more, yet the fires only seemed to magnify his supporters, who grew from 20 to over 150. He opened a singing school for children. The group obtained a new larger meeting house and it was frequently stoned and the windows smashed by angry mobs. People swore at Elder Smith as he walked the streets, but he only increased the frequency of church meetings and published more pamphlets, even comparing the anti-Republican politics of his detractors to the work of the anti-Christ.  

He rejected the validity of denominational names like Baptist, Methodist, Calvinist, Presbyterian, Quaker, and Congregationalist – since no such groups could be found in scripture. Smith and his followers adopted no creed and no strict code of worship. They referred to themselves, secretly at first, simply as “Christians.”  Despite its many churches, Smith wrote, there were few ‘real Christians” in Portsmouth.   

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Herald of Gospel Liberty

Smith’s revolutionary sermons and tracts drew other outspoken preachers like Abner Jones to visit Portsmouth. Despite constant poverty and oppression, Smith felt he was part of a growing movement of revolutionaries. He announced publically that he was no longer a Baptist, but a Christian who patterned his life after Christ and not church law. With Jones and others he attended Christian Conferences where he met with emerging groups including Freewill Baptists – and later Universalists and Unitarians -- who held similar beliefs. Smith’s Christians, in fact, once scholar notes, could be mistaken for evangelical Unitarians. His ideas began to catch fire in what historians call the Second Great Awakening. Smith was thrilled in 1806, to learn that a Baptist church with 400 members in Massachusetts had voted to change their name to “Christians.” Other conversions followed. 

Smith was constantly on the road, speaking throughout New England, and often gone for months at a time. Even when home in Portsmouth, he was traveling, speaking to as many as 3,000 worshippers. Copies of the NH Gazette show Smith holding “field meetings” at Paul Rollins’ dwelling-house, at North Hampton near a tavern, by a bridge in Stratham, and dozens of rural sites, often preaching seven days a week. 

It was during a trip to Rhode Island that he hit upon the idea of a religious newspaper.  The first issue of the Herald of Gospel Liberty found only 274 subscribers at the annual fee of one dollar. By 1815 the number had risen to 1,500 subscribers. The newspaper contained free-wheeling discussions of topics interesting to Christians, including Catholics, with no bias toward denomination or sect. The goal was to educate and to seek common ground for unity among believers. Smith also printed articles about the Jewish, Hindi, and other religions. He also became an advocate for the equal rights of blacks, and he proposed that women should be allowed to preach the gospel.

Despite endless financial problems Smith published his fortnightly newspaper for 10 years, moving it briefly to Portland, Maine, then to Philadelphia, and back to Portsmouth. The Herald found its way south and west, and its publisher was thrilled to learn of Christian churches springing up in Kentucky, Virginia, Philadelphia, and beyond. Like an early Internet Web site or like Christian radio and television stations that followed, the Herald created a “Christian Connection” between isolated and independent groups with similar views. 

Smith was devastated when his wife Mary died of typhus fever in 1814, leaving him with six children. One son committed suicide. Smith quickly remarried a woman 20 years his junior. Then in 1817, to the great disappointment of his followers, Smith announced that he was joining the Universalist Church.  

Robert Foster, a printer in Portsmouth, took over the newspaper for the next two decades, renaming it The Christian Herald. Smith continued to preach, but also became involved in the democratization of medicine. Just as he had railed against elite college-educated ministers, he now took on professional doctors. Common people, Smith argued, had a right to provide their own healthcare free from costly physicians. Smith practiced homeopathic medicine and was an avid follower of Samuel Thomson, a self-taught herbalist from Alstead, NH. His remedies included doses of vegetable elixir, botanic ointment, hygenian compound, and  panacea pills – all described in Smith’s autobiography.

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Elias Smith’s legacy

Elias Smith repudiated Universalism in 1840 and returned to his flock of Christians before his death in 1846. He lived to see his churches springing up across the expanding nation. Smith’s plea for religious unity based on the New Testament lives on in the Church of Christ with an estimated two million followers. Smith, along with Abner Jones, James O’Kelly, Thomas Campbell, Barton Stone, and others are considered part of the Restoration Movement. Their goal was to restore the church to its purist form as represented by the first apostles immediately following the death of Christ. The modern Church of Christ consists of autonomous congregations (about 15,000 according to their Web site). It has no central governing body, and baptizes adults by immersion only – much as Smith and his followers proposed.

All but forgotten in Portsmouth where he was adored by a few and mobbed by enemies, Elias Smith still fascinates historians and religious scholars. “He was not a fanatic,” says historian Michael Christie of Nova Scotia. Christie confirms that the Herald was indeed America’s first religious newspaper, and he has been working for the last decade to gather a complete set of all the issues published – including copies of those archived at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. 

Smith was typical of the tumultuous era in which he lived, Christie says. It was a time of religious revival when Americans were searching for new meaning in their new nation. Smith had vision, Christie says, and a unique idea. “He was a thinker, not a rebel.”  

Biblical scholar Dr.Thomas H. Olbricht, who studied Christian history at Harvard Divinity School, says as many 6 million Americans may be heir to the principles espoused by Smith and the leaders of the Restoration Movement.  

“I first knew about Elias Smith more than 60 years ago,” Olbricht says today from his home in South Berwick. Olbricht grew up as a member of the Church of Christ in Ohio.

“He was a rather aggressive kind of person,” he says of Smith. But it was Smith’s critically important newspaper, Olbricht notes, that allowed the early leaders of the independent churches that sprung up across the nation to learn about each other.  

And what of the Herald of Gospel Liberty? It still exists at age 202, currently published by the United Church of Christ (UCC). A copy of Smith’s original Portsmouth newspaper is prominently displayed on the church’s official Web site. According to a UCC press release, founder Elias Smith “invested his meager savings and all his energies to spread his vision of religion freed from pomp, divisive doctrine, and a stuffy clergy.” The Herald is described as both a “magnet” for 19th century revivalists and the “glue” that held their movement together. The importance of the Herald, one historian notes, “cannot be overestimated” in the creation of frontier churches. It was within the pages of America’s first religious newspaper that Elias Smith and his followers worked out the meaning of what it meant to be a modern Christian.

 

SELECTED SOURCES:  The Perfect Law of Liberty by Michael J. Kenny (1994); The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith (1840); The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch (1989). 

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com. Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this Portsmouth Herald column appears exclusively online.

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