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First Religious Newspaper Born in NH

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.   


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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Wednesday, January 17, 2018 
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