200 years and counting: the legacy of the Herald of Gospel Liberty lives on

The Herald Gospel Liberty was first published Sept. 1, 1808. Courtesy of Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Nashville, Tenn. discipleshistory.org

Propelling journalistic freedom forward

This fall marks the 200th anniversary of what some claim was the first religious newspaper in the world. The Herald of Gospel Liberty played a formative role in the Christian Church that became part of the UCC.
The outspoken editor of the Herald of Gospel Liberty, 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. He also provided a magnet that unified scattered frontier congregations in New England, Virginia and the Central South.

Born in Lyme, Conn., in 1769 at the time of the Boston Tea Party, Smith was deeply influenced by the struggle for freedom in Colonial America. And like thousands of others, his life was changed by the second religious Awakening, a period of spiritual fervor and revivalism that swept the nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a young man, he felt “greatly disturbed” by what he perceived as a call to preach. He hesitated partly because of his limited education.  Then, after giving his first sermon in July 1790, he returned to school for 13 days to learn grammar, two more days to study arithmetic, and eight evenings to learn music.  Afterwards he taught those subjects in the district schools.

Ordained by local Baptist ministers in 1792, he became an itinerant preacher in New England. In addition to preaching, he wrote a series of articles, disowning official doctrine but “hearing Christ in all things.” In 1802, he gathered a small flock of people who agreed with his approach, and the next year they organized a Church of Christ in Portsmouth, N.H.  They “agreed to call themselves Christian without the addition of any unscriptural name.” 

Because the response to his articles was good, he began The Christian’s Magazine in 1805. Every three months he published sermons, interpretations of scripture, and commentaries on religion and on politics — including critical reports of autocratic religion. Smith’s biographer, J.F. Burnett, said, “He held a pen in one hand and a battle axe in the other.”
On Sept. 1, 1808, Elias Smith issued the first edition of the Herald of Gospel Liberty.  He had no clear expectation of an audience beyond the small group of like-minded New England pastors and church members. Every two weeks they received several columns of Smith’s reflections, his continual advocacy for religious freedom, an occasional blistering critique of the “creed and catechism makers,” and an opportunity to read about the revivals that were so popular at the time.

Smith had heard of several groups in Virginia and Kentucky who also professed a simple faith, uncluttered by doctrine, and who called themselves and their churches “Christian.” But until his Herald began circulating beyond New England, these scattered people were isolated from one another.  Drawn together through the magazine, eventually they became known as the Christian Connection or the Christian Church. In 1931, this group united with the Congregational Churches and in 1957 became a part of the United Church of Christ.

Smith engaged in a dialogue with his readers that gradually led to a clarification of the principles that the frontier Christians affirmed. A Virginia reader once wrote to him: “After we became a separate [independent] people, three points were determined on. 1st. No head over the church but Christ. 2d. No confession of faith, articles of religion, rubric, canons, creeds, etc., but the New Testament.  3d. No religious name but Christians.” Smith’s editorial response was: “The three things you mention are what we have all agreed to…”

Nearly 190 years after the first issue, the historian Elizabeth C. Nordbeck credited the Herald of Gospel Liberty as providing “the glue for a coherent Christian identity.” It “is hard to overstate the importance of religious journalism, in particular the Herald of Gospel Liberty,” to the independent frontier churches, she wrote.

There were other frontier leaders, of course.  In addition to Smith, four men were instrumental in early days of the Christian Church: Abner Jones in New England, James O’Kelly in North Carolina, and Barton Stone and Rice Haggard in Kentucky. Others preached and taught and founded colleges; a few picked up Smith’s editorial mantle after he burned himself out in a decade of hard work. 

In 1818, near bankruptcy, Smith sold out to Robert Foster, who renamed the paper the Christian Herald. Foster edited this publication for 17 years until his own health gave out, thereafter the paper was owned by publishing associations. Under various editors it was called the Christian Journal, the Christian Herald and Journal, the Christian Herald again, and then the Christian Herald and Messenger. Eventually, it was renamed the Herald of Gospel Liberty, absorbing several other periodicals. Today, its successor is United Church News.

These periodicals became the arena in which the widely scattered individuals and groups sorted out their commonly held convictions.  By the beginning of the 20th century six principles were generally mentioned.  To the three that Smith had identified in 1908, the right of private judgment, and Christian character as the only test for church membership were added.

The sixth principle caught the spirit of a common goal within the Christian Connection. Barton W. Stone, who had been pastor of the Cane Ridge Church in Kentucky at the time of a massive revival meeting in 1801, was the great advocate for making Christian unity one of the essential principles of the movement. Stone was a signer of the influential “Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” a declaration first circulated in 1803 that marked the beginning of the movement in the Central South. “We will that this body be dissolved,” it stated, “and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large.”

Smith reprinted the “Last Will and Testament” in the first issue of his Herald of Gospel Liberty. Like the publication itself, the “Will” energized a people, who eventually affirmed the unity of all Christians as their sixth principle. Their commitment to unity led them into a merger with Congregationalists in 1931.

Because the Congregationalists held similar views, the unity principle helped spark the formation of the United Church of Christ. When leaders of the Congregational Christian churches and representatives of the Evangelical and Reformed Church forged a Basis of Union, their preamble expressed the belief “that denominations exist not for themselves but as parts of that [holy Catholic] Church, within which each denomination is to live and labor, and if need be, die…”

In the years since the UCC was formed in 1957, the heritage of the Christian connection has often been overlooked or forgotten. It is therefore appropriate that the bicentennial of the Herald of Gospel Liberty become a time to acknowledge the courageous people for whom religious liberty was essential and Christian unity a passion. 

Elias Smith’s insistence on independence — even from a friendly benefactor — has become the standard expectation in many denominations:  editors today enjoy a responsible journalistic freedom akin to the freedom accorded to those who step into the pulpit. That same journalistic independence has powered creative communication in a wide variety of media.

As the Herald did on the American frontier, proclamation in many different forms today provides a tie that binds communities of faith together. The indigenous religious movement that distrusted authority also is echoed in the efforts of men, women and teenagers to build social and religious networks on the internet, including the vibrant websites of congregations and denominations. The legacy of the men and women who energized the Christian Church by publishing their convictions has not merely survived — it has multiplied.

The Rev. J. Martin Bailey was editor of United Church Herald and A.D. magazine, and served as director of communications for the National Council of Churches.  He is a member of Union Congregational UCC in Montclair, N.J.  A more complete essay about the Herald of Gospel Liberty will appear in the Bulletin of the Congregational Library, Boston.

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