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First Religious Newspaper Born in NH

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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