In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Judith Sargent Murray

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Murray and Other Writers

American Literature Judith Sargent Murray
Bonnie Hurd Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0033


Judith Sargent Murray (b. 1751–d. 1820) was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, when the American colonies were still under British rule. As the daughter of a merchant-class family, she was taught rudimentary reading and writing skills but used her father’s library to begin a lifelong process of self-education and writing. As the Revolutionary War approached, Murray’s literary focus took the form of letter writing. Her first published work, a Universalist catechism for children, appeared in 1782. By then, while married to her first husband, John Stevens, Murray was among those who had embraced Universalism and established the first Universalist meeting house in America. Her catechism is considered the first work by an American Universalist woman. In 1784, using the pen name “Constantia,” Murray published her first public work, “Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms.” Her 1790 essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” is considered the first public claim in America for female equality. This essay was followed by “On the Domestic Education of Children.” By now, Murray’s first husband had died, and she was married to John Murray. In 1792, she created two essay series for the Massachusetts Magazine, assuming a male pen name for The Gleaner. Meanwhile, Boston had lifted its ban on theatrical entertainment and Murray wrote her first play. The Medium, or Happy Tea-Party opened in 1795. It was the first American-written play produced in that city. Her second play, The Traveller Returned, opened in 1796. In 1797, Murray began work on her book, The Gleaner, which appeared in 1798. She was the first woman in America to self-publish a book. From 1802 to 1805, Murray’s poetry appeared in the Boston Weekly Magazine under the pen name “Honora Martesia.” In 1805, she wrote a third play, The African, which was never produced. By this time, Murray’s life revolved around raising her daughter and caring for John Murray, who suffered a stroke in 1809. His mind was still alert, and in 1812 they published Letters, and Sketches of Sermons. After John’s death in 1815, Murray edited his autobiography. In 1818, she moved to Natchez, Mississippi, with her daughter and died there in 1820. She fell into literary obscurity until 1974 when Alice Rossi published “On the Equality of the Sexes” in The Feminist Papers. Murray’s letter books were discovered in 1984 and made publicly available in the early 1990s.

General Overviews

Until recently, there has been a dearth of information about Judith Sargent Murray. What existed was written without the benefit of Murray’s letter books, relying instead on outdated, secondary sources. However, the works listed here (Baym 1992, Gibson 1991, Harris 1995, Hennen 1989, Mills 2006, Smith 2007) make liberal use of Murray’s letter books to tell her story.

  • Baym, Nina. “Introduction.” In The Gleaner. By Judith Sargent Murray, iii–xx. Schenectady, NY: Union College Press, 1992.

    Baym’s overview of this reissue of Murray’s 1798 book The Gleaner examines Murray as an essayist and stresses her writing techniques and unusual early American female voice.

  • Gibson, Gordon J. “The Rediscovery of Judith Sargent Murray.” In Not Hell, But Hope. Edited by Charles A. Howe, 69–90. Lanoka Harbor, NJ: Murray Grove Association, 1991.

    Gibson found Murray’s letter books in 1984, and this is the first general overview of Murray’s life and character using her personal correspondence.

  • Harris, Sharon M., ed. Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray. Women Writers in English, 1350–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Along with examples of Murray’s essays, plays, and poetry, Harris’s book uses works by Gibson, Hennen, and Smith for a biographical treatment that sets Murray’s literary work in historical context.

  • Hennen, Michael. “Introduction.” In Judith Sargent Murray Papers. By Judith Sargent Murray. Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1989.

    Murray’s letter books are housed at the MDAH in Jackson. The department is responsible for preserving the volumes and publishing them on microfilm. Hennen’s work appears at the beginning of each roll of microfilm and focuses on the information he was able to glean from Murray’s letter books to illuminate her life story.

  • Mills, Tammy. “Lines Written in My Closet: Volume One of Judith Sargent Murray’s Poetry Manuscripts.” PhD diss., Georgia State University, 2006.

    In the first volume of her dissertation on Judith Sargent Murray’s poetry manuscripts, which were discovered along with her letter books in 1984, Mills provides a biographical introduction of Murray with a special focus on her poetry writing. Mills’s work is available through the Georgia State University Digital Archive.

  • Smith, Bonnie Hurd. “Mingling Souls upon Paper:” An Eighteenth-Century Love Story. Salem, MA: Judith Sargent Murray Society, 2007.

    This book includes an overview of Murray’s life, which is also available on the Judith Sargent Murray Society website. The focus of Smith’s work is on Murray’s relationship with her second husband, John Murray, as well as her professional and personal life.

  • Smith, Bonnie Hurd. “Great American Universalists: John and Judith Sargent Murray.” Harvard Square Library. 2011.

    The Harvard Square Library is an online resource that provides information about prominent historical Unitarians and Universalists around the world. This section on Murray looks at the contributions made by both Judith and John Murray in religion, politics, and literature.

  • Smith, Bonnie Hurd. “Judith Sargent Murray”. In Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Unitarian Universalist Historical and Heritage Society.

    Smith’s section on Murray describes her life story but focuses primarily on her contributions to the development of Universalism in America and her role as the wife of the first Universalist preacher in America, John Murray.

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