Judith Sargent Murray

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Judith Murray (Sargent)

Also Known As: "Judith (Sargent) Stevens Murray"
Birthplace: Gloucester, Essex, Massachusetts
Death: June 09, 1820 (69)
near, Natchez, Adams, Mississippi, United States
Place of Burial: Natchez, Adams, Mississippi, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Winthrop Sargent and Judith Sargent
Wife of Capt. John Stevens and Rev. John Murray
Mother of Mary O'Dell; Anna Plummer; Fitz Winthrop Murray and Julia Maria Bingaman
Sister of Maj. Winthrop Sargent; Capt. Fitz William Sargent and Esther Ellery

Occupation: writer
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Judith Sargent Murray


Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820) was an early American advocate for women's rights, an essayist, playwright, poet, and letter writer. She was one of the first American proponents of the idea of the equality of the sexes—that women, like men, had the capability of intellectual accomplishment and should be able to achieve economic independence. Her landmark essay "On the Equality of the Sexes," published in the Massachusetts Magazine in March and April 1790 predated Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which was published in Britain in 1792 and in Philadelphia in 1794. Her daughter inscribed on her gravestone, "Dear spirit, the monumental stone can never speak thy worth."

  • Judith Sargent Murray maintained a lively interest in the theatre throughout much of her life. She is certainly one of the earliest native American playwrights and perhaps the first American woman to have her plays professionally performed on the stage.

Life and career

Early life and family

Judith Sargent was born on May 1, 1751, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Winthrop and Judith Saunders Sargent. She first noticed the gender inequalities of her day when her brother Winthrop, two years her younger, began studying the classics, a subject that her parents—in keeping with the usual practice of the eighteenth century—refused to provide for their daughter. She learned to read and write, and had a passable knowledge of French, but although she considered herself as capable as her brother, her educational experience was far inferior to his. Thus, even as a young girl, she was painfully aware of the way her society circumscribed the aspirations of women.

Primarily self-taught, Murray believed that with quality education, women's accomplishments would equal those of men's. She believed women would succeed in life for two reasons: 1) education, 2) parents who raised their daughters to "reverence themselves," as she put it in one of her essays.

A student of history, Murray used examples of women's accomplishments dating to ancient times to prove her points and to provide leadership in what would become a long struggle for women to fulfill their potential and become fully empowered members of society.

Early career

Judith Sargent Murray wrote anonymously under assumed names including "Constantia," "The Reaper," "Honora Martesia," and, most famously, as her male persona "Mr. Vigilius" or "The Gleaner." She adopted this masculine pen name because she wanted her readers to consider her ideas and not dismiss them as merely derived from the pen of a woman. Murray's three-volume 1798 book of essays and plays titled The Gleaner, established her as a leading author and intellect, and as an advocate for women's equality, education, and economic independence. Essays in The Gleaner also championed the new republic; considered citizenship, virtue, and philanthropy; decried war and violence of any kind; and discussed Universalism, Murray's chosen faith. The book was purchased by such prominent figures as George Washington, John Adams, Henry Knox, and Mercy Otis Warren.

At approximately age twenty-three, Judith Sargent Murray began making copies of her correspondence to create a historical record for future generations. These letter books—twenty volumes in all—were found in 1984 and were published on microfilm by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History where the original volumes reside. Containing approximately 2,500 letters, Murray's letter books make up one of the few surviving collections of writings by women from this period in American history. (The letter books are currently being transcribed and published by the Judith Sargent Murray Society.)

Judith Sargent Murray was among the group of people in Gloucester, led by her father, Winthrop Sargent, who first embraced Universalism. Her name was included in the public documents that expelled the Gloucester Universalists from First Parish (Calvinist/Congregational) for refusing to attend and pay taxes to the established church. The Universalists took their case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and won the first ruling in America for freedom of religion, meaning, the right to support their own church, their own minister, and not pay taxes to First Parish. This ruling affected religious groups throughout the nation.

The minister they wanted to support in their own Universalist church was John Murray, who is considered the founder of organized American Universalism. A native of England, John Murray first arrived in the colonies in 1770 and settled in Gloucester in 1774. Like Judith's father, people up and down the Eastern seaboard had already embraced the Universalist interpretation of the Bible put forth by the Welsh-born James Relly. John Murray, one of Relly's protégés, was the first preacher of the new faith in America. He was charismatic and convincing, and he succeeded in dismantling the dark, gloomy promises of Calvinism in favor of a more hopeful view of the present and life after. He organized fledgling groups into established Universalist churches and societies.

Marriages and Universalism

After Judith's 1st husband, John Stevens, died in the West Indies where he fled to escape debtors prison, she and John Murray married in 1788, in Salem, Massachusetts. At the end of John Murray's life, Judith helped him publish his book Letters and Sketches of Sermons. She also edited, completed, and published his autobiography after his death. Universalist historians consider Judith Sargent Murray's involvement in Universalism among the reasons why women have always held leadership roles in the Universalist church, including as ministers.

Judith and John Murray had two children: a son, Fitz Winthrop who was stillborn, and a daughter, Julia Maria, who survived to adulthood but died at the age of 31. During her first marriage, Judith adopted two of her first husband's orphaned nieces, Anna and Mary Plummer, and briefly housed another young orphan to whom she was related, Polly Odell. During her years with John Murray, Judith oversaw the education of twelve children, including her daughter; they were the children of her brothers, or those of family friends. When she traveled, she befriended more young people and maintained a regular correspondence with them. She helped found a female academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1802-3, and her 1782 catechism, written for children, which is considered the earliest writing by an American Universalist woman. Throughout her life, Murray was a dedicated teacher to all of the young people with whom she came into contact.

Judith Sargent Murray died in Natchez, Mississippi, June 9, 1820. She is buried in the Bingaman family, Hurricane Plantation cemetery, which was donated to the state owned "Grand Village" archaeological park by Bingaman descendant, Mrs. Grace MacNeil, in 2012.



Judith Sargent Murray's legacy is a subject of much contemporary discussion. Because her letter books were only fairly recently discovered, no one has been able to produce a complete biography of her life, though "A Brief Biography with Documents" (by Sheila L. Skemp) is useful in understanding her life's contributions to the study of intellectual history. Alice Rossi's 1974 landmark book The Feminist Papers starts with Murray's "On the Equality of the Sexes." Rossi began the reinstatement of Murray's voice to the American story. Since the discovery of the letter books at "Arlington", in Natchez, Mississippi, 1984, by the Rev. Gordon Gibson, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and through the work of the Judith Sargent Murray Society, the letter books are being transcribed, indexed, and published for researchers to use. David McCullough included one of Murray's letters in his biography of John Adams. Cokie Roberts used Murray's letters in Founding Mothers.

Selected works

Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), author & feminist, was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the eldest of the 8 children (4 died in infancy) of Winthrop & Judith (Saunders) Sargent. Her father was a wealthy shipowner & merchant, & both parents came from families long prominent in the town. Her brother Winthrop, Jr., born in 1753, served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, rising to the rank of major; he was later secretary of the Northwest Territory (1787) & first governor of the Mississippi Territory (1798). Another brother, Fitz-William, made a fortune in the China & India trade.

As a girl Judith showed such an intellectual bent, that she was allowed to share Winthrop’s lessons as he prepared with a local minister for Harvard, & during his college vacations he reportedly helped her continue her studies.

Judith Sargent was married at 18 to John Stevens, a sea captain & trader. The couple lived in the Gloucester mansion known today as the Sargent-Murray-Gilman-Hough House. It was probably built for them by her father. They had no children.

In her twenties, Mrs. Stevens was “seized with a violent desire to become a writer.” She began composing occasional verse, but as the American Revolution approached, she found her attention turning to social questions & adopted the essay form.

The talk of liberty & human rights that was rife in patriot families prompted her, like her contemporaries Abigail Adams & Mercy Warren, to challenge prevailing assumptions about the status of women. In 1779 she wrote an essay declaring that the sexes had equal minds & calling for more thorough education for girls; her first published piece was her “Desultory Thoughts of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms,” which appeared in 1784 in the Gentlemen & Lady’s Town & Country Magazine, a short-lived Boston periodical, over the signature “Constantia.” A healthy self-respect, she argued, would prevent young women from rushing into marriage merely to gain status & avoid spinsterhood.

Meanwhile Judith Sargent Stevens, like her father, had been attracted to the liberal religious doctrines of Universalism. The Sargents had first heard of these beliefs from an English seaman who visited Gloucester in 1770. Four years later, when the itinerant preacher John Murray (1741-1815), now known as the founder of the Universalist Church in America, arrived in town, they offered such support that he decided to settle there. Murray gathered a congregation which, after being expelled from the First Parish Church, in 1780 built the first Universalist meetinghouse in America, on land donated by Winthrop Sargent. Apparently, Judith Sargent Stevens was also attracted to the preacher himself.


  1. Judith Sargent Murray's Letter Books
  2. Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography - Judith Sargent Murray
  3. Mississippi Dept of Archives & History - MURRAY (JUDITH SARGENT) PAPERS
  4. Sargent House Museum
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Judith Sargent Murray's Timeline

May 1, 1751
Gloucester, Essex, Massachusetts

Anna & Mary are described as the nieces of Judith's first husband - but could they be the daughter's of Judith's sister?


SARGENT (Sargaint, Sargante, Sargeant, Sarjant, Serjant)
. . .
Anna, and James Odell [sojourner. int.] Oct. 1, 1767.*
. . .
Judith, and John Stevens, jr., Oct. 3, 1769.*

August 1789
Gloucester, Essex, Massachusetts, United States
August 22, 1791
Gloucester, Essex, Massachusetts, United States
June 9, 1820
Age 69
Natchez, Adams, Mississippi, United States
Age 68
Natchez, Adams, Mississippi, United States