Sunday, July 16, 2017

Frontier Atrocity by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

On 9 July 1809 in Holloway, Maine ( site of what was later to become Augusta) James Purrington, a recent settler in the community) slaughtered his wife and six of his children with an axe and fatally slashed his own throat with a razor. Midwife Martha Ballard was a near neighbor. In her diary she wrote:

My husband went and returned before sunrise when after taking a little food he and In went on to the house there to behold the most shocking scein that was Even seen in this part of the world. May an infinitely good God grant that we may all take a suitable notice of this horrid deed, learn wisdom therefrom.

Later, she described the funeral as

A sollom specttacle to behold. May we all learn a profitable lesson from this dreadful scein and may it please the God that rules to Sanctify this affliction to the surviving relatives . . .

 Martha’s  prayer no doubt echoed Mr. Taylor’s sermon – and hundreds of others she had heard in her seventy-one years- though it wasn’t the sermon but the pageantry of the occasion that impressed her most powerfully, the ritualistic arrangements of the bodies, the funeral march, and the hundreds of people crowded in nearby houses, in the streets, on the tops of buildings. There had not been an event like this in Augusta since the commemoration of George Washington’s death six years before.

The essential point for Martha, however, was that God was in control, that he had the power to “sanctify” as well as to destroy.

For some of her contemporaries, the lessons were more complex. By 1806, religious dissent in the region had increased. New sects were growing surprisingly strong, making the old divisions among Congregationalists seem tame. In 1780, all the churches in Lincoln County, whatever the differences among them, had been Congregational; by 1800, in the by then two counties of Lincoln and Kennebec, sectarian churches – Separate Baptist, Free-will Baptist, Methodist, and Universalist – outnumbered orthodox congregations by almost three to one.

It was inevitable that the Purrington murders should feed into growing anxiety over religious dissent in the region. Congregationalists along the Kennebec continued to squabble among themselves while Methodists, Free-Will Baptists, Universalists and even Shakers took their members. Martha’s neighbors were among those affected. “There were 6 persons Baptised by imertion at Sidney,” she wrote on 4 August 1805. “Mrs. Andrus was one.” James Purrington, it was said, had dabbled in more than one heterodox creed.

In his broadside “Horrid Murders” Peter Edes, editor of the Kennebec Gazette had noted that the murderer was “warm believer in the fatal doctrine of universal salvation, “ but made no effort to exploit the fact. Within days, Edes had accumulated enough additional information to amplify this explanation into a twenty-page pamphlet giving a more detailed account of the murder, a sketch of the life of Captain Purrington, and “Remarks on the fatal tendency of erroneous principles, and Motives for receiving and obeying the pure and salutary precepts of the gospel: “Unbelief in the superintending providence of God, and human accountability, is a principle which opens the door to every vice.” Edes quoted “a respectable gentleman in Bowdoinham” who affirmed that

about twenty years ago he (Capt.P.) jopoined the (Calvinistic) Baptist Church in Bowdoinham, and continued in their fellowship several years; till he imbibed the sentiments of the Freewill Baptists; for which he was cut off from the church. He was not a Universalist till some years since. I have conversed with several of his former neighbors, who unanimously testify that he was a Fatalist”

If Edes’s account is correct, Purrington’s life recapitulated the religious history of the region. In towns like Bowdoinham, already split by Baptist and New Light revivals, the heterodox teachings of the Free-Will Baptists and Universalists found fertile soil. Both groups challenged the central Calvinist doctrine that God predestined some souls for salvation, others for damnation. The Free-Will Baptists believed sinners chose to accept or reject Christ’s atonement; the Universalists argued that all od’s children would be saved. The emphasis of both groups on “a benevolent God, human perfectibility, universal non-penal atonement, and free grace for all believers” allied them with liberal  Arminians in New England’s urban centers – Edes pamphlet associated Purrington’s universalism with the “fearless impiety of a Paine and the unrestrained licentiousness of a Godwin” – yet both groups were evangelicals rather than rationalists. They were powerful precisely because they grafted their optimistic doctrines onto the experiential, charismatic religion familiar from earlier revivals. In light of the Free-Will challenge, Bowdoinham’s Calvinist  Baptists described themselves as “ a fold in the midst of wolves, or a defenseless flock surrounded with . . prowling multitudes.”

Of the two groups, the Universalists appeared most threatening because they undermined the socially useful distinction between the saved and the damned. How could society survive once the doctrine of an eternal judgment was destroyed? In a sermon preached at Bowdoinham ten days after the murders, Timothy Merritt argued that the first and moving cause of Purrington’s murders was disbelief inn the Providence of God: “Though he died seized of a large estate, he was under apprehension that his family would come to want.” But second only to his lack of faith in God’s superintending care was his belief in the doctrine of universal salvation.

 You all know, that for some years past, he has professed to believe firmly that all mankind, immediately upon leaving the body, go to a state of the most perfect rest and enjoyment: and to my certain knowledge he denied the doctrine of a day of judgment and retribution. Of course it was no question with him whether his family were regenerate, or born again, or in other words, whether they were prepared for so sudden a remove from this world. It was, therefore, natural, and what anyone would do under the same circumstances, to endeavor to prevent the anticipated trouble in his family, and make them all forever happy. There is every reason to believe that this was his real motive.

As a good Calvinist, Merritt could not let his congregation rest there, however. Purrington’s sins were natural because they mirrored the fundamental errors of humankind. Gently, he led his listeners from comfort to discomfort, from calm reassurance in the face of evil to jolting reminders of their own culpability. The murders forced Purrington’s neighbors to recognize the depravity of human nature, the frailty of life, and the folly of trusting in any earthly thing, including their nearest and dearest relations. “We may bolt our doors at night against thieves and robbers, but bolts are no security to life;- the assassin is within.”

This is not said with a view to excite jealousies and fears between friends and connections; nor to destroy that subordinate confidence which husband and wife, parents and children, reasonably repose in each other; but merely to shew you your real circumstances, and bring you to put your highest trust in God alone, where it ought to be placed.

If given the opportunity to answer Merritt’s accusations, the Universalists surely would have argued that the doctrine of universal salvation nurtured righteousness rather than sin, that their teachings were no more to blame for Purrington’s murders than the Congregationalist doctrine for Henry McCausland’s slaughter of Abigail Warren thirteen years before [ God called him to save Maine for the Congregationalists- he was deemed insane]. Universalists would have distained Calvinist efforts to breed fear in the hearts of their listeners; surely a true knowledge of God’s love was a more powerful motive for good than an erroneous fear of God’s wrath.

Despite differences in emphasis, however, the arguments of both groups began at the same point – predestination – and ended with the same consolation – ultimate trust in God’s goodness.

The oral history of Universalism contains an account of a triumphant sermon preached by Father Barnes of Portland, Maine, when all the Congregationalist ministers in the region refused to officiate at the funeral of a suicide. The theme of Barnes’  sermon – “when all the designs of God inn apparent ills are seen through, and his benevolent purposes understood, all that is now dark will become light” - is ultimately indistinguishable from Merritt’s argument – “When we see that God has suffered these evils, we are to conclude that he has acted upon some wise and benevolent principle, worthy of himself.” God is all powerful and all good. We must submit to his judgments. It is thee theology which underlines the religious sentiments in Martha Ballard’s diary: “May an infinitely good God grant that we may all take sutable notis of this horrid, deed, learn wisdom therefrom.”


  1. Abraham Lincoln was a fatalist. That, at least, was what he told many people over the course of his life. "I have all my life been a fatalist," Lincoln informed his Illinois congressional ally, Isaac Arnold. "Mr. Lincoln was a fatalist," remembered Henry Clay Whitney, one of his Springfield law clerks, "he believed ... that the universe is governed by one uniform, unbroken, primordial law." His Springfield law partner William Henry Herndon, likewise, affirmed that Lincoln "believed in predestination, foreordination, that all things were fixed, doomed one way or the other, from which there was no appeal." Even Mary Todd Lincoln acknowledged that her husband had been guided by the conviction that "what is to be will be, and no cares of ours can arrest nor reverse the decree." What this meant in practical terms, as Herndon discovered, was that Lincoln believed that "there was no freedom of the will," that "men had no free choice";view=fulltext