William Farwell (January 6, 1749-December 11, 1823), one of the founding generation of American Universalist evangelists, organized societies in the neighborhood of Charlestown, New Hampshire and was the first Universalist preacher in Vermont. A “chimney-corner preacher,” he traveled on horseback throughout northern New England and also visited New York State and Canada East (Quebec). Although not a great orator, “Father,” or “Daddy,” Farwell was respected as a good-tempered, saintly man, whose preaching appealed directly to the emotions. His singing was reputed to have made more converts than his sermons.
The third child of Bethiah Eldredge and William Farwell, William was born in Mansfield, Connecticut. The family migrated north along the Connecticut River to Walpole, New Hampshire, then Westminster, Vermont, and Charlestown, New Hampshire during the 1760s. Having attended only district schools, Farwell afterwards much regretted his lack of formal education. In 1771 he married Phebe Crosby and settled with her on a farm in North Charlestown. They had eight or more children, at least five of whom survived into adulthood.
Farwell was raised in local Congregationalist churches. According to his own testimony, he struggled with the Calvinist doctrine of election and was depressed when he thought that so many people were condemned to eternal suffering. It is not known exactly when Farwell became a Universalist. He converted either in the late 1770s or the early 1780s. He told the following story about this event: One autumn evening two hunters knocked on his door and asked if he might take them on as lodgers for a couple of nights. While Phebe prepared supper for the company, William tried to entertain the visitors and soothe a fretting baby at the same time. He comforted the child by singing him a Christmas hymn, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” When he was done one of the hunters asked him if he believed the words he had just sung, “Glad tidings of great joy I bring, To you and all mankind.” When Farwell failed to commit himself to an answer, the hunter preached to him about God’s universal grace. Unsettled by these ideas, but loyal to his family’s faith, Farwell asked his father to come the next evening to refute the stranger. But his father was bested in argument by the Universalist stranger. In the weeks and months that followed, Farwell wrestled with the question, consulted friends, and studied the Bible. At length he felt the light of God shining upon him and gladly acknowledged himself a Universalist.
The name of the hunter who recruited Farwell for Universalism is unknown. What is known is that in the 1780s Farwell heard the preaching of Zebulon Streeter, of nearby Surry, New Hampshire, and Caleb Rich of Warwick, Massachusetts. These, if they were not the source of his original conversion, certainly pulled him into the larger Universalist movement. In 1791 they participated in his ordination in Charlestown.
When he became a Universalist, Farwell also became a pacifist, for peace was the glad tidings of the angels. When he refused military duty, he was put in the Charlestown jail. While confined there two of his children died of an epidemic disease, possibly diphtheria. He was then allowed to pay a fine and to rejoin his family.
Phebe Farwell did not become a Universalist for several years after William. While they were separated in their faiths she did not oppose his way of thinking, “lest she should be found to fight against God.” At length she, and William’s parents, were brought into the Universalist fold. By this time William had begun exhorting others as well to believe in universal salvation. This caused trouble in the Charlestown church. The minister, Bulkley Olcott, held the unlearned man up to scorn for daring to preach. Perhaps in response to this campaign, in 1784 and 1785 Farwell and his father signed petitions asking to be exempt from parish taxes as it was a hardship to attend church 8 miles away and because they had “sentiments not agreeing with our now Rev. Pastor.”
Farwell’s earliest preaching was in the vicinity of his home. He later gathered little Universalist societies in Charlestown, Claremont, and Unity, New Hampshire and in Springfield, Vermont. Gradually he extended his tours further and further afield into Vermont. He made a trip to Boston, where John Murray welcomed him and encouraged him to preach from his pulpit. In 1796, while visiting Barre, Vermont, Farwell helped found a Universalist church. He soon moved there with his family and served as minister, 1796-1808 and 1811-12. His local preaching circuit included Plainfield, Williamstown, and Montpelier. He also began to take longer journeys, extending from central New York in the west to Maine in the east, and going north to Canada East.
When confronted with theological opposition, Farwell used the technique of divide and conquer. For instance, he is reported to have asked one man, whom he knew to be a Freewill Baptist, if he believed Christ to have made a universal atonement. When the man answered in the affirmative, Farwell asked another in the same company, a Calvinist, if all for whom Christ offered himself would be saved. Having gotten each man to agree with one of the doctrines which, together, led one to deduce universal salvation, he left it to them to contest amongst themselves.
The Universalism that Farwell embraced took in all of God’s creatures. He felt a covenant with nature. It is reported that he would even help insects in distress. William S. Balch recorded that once, when Farwell was staying in his family’s house, his father found him singing at the window at sunrise. “I don’t know but I shall disturb the people in the house,” Farwell told him, “but the birds are praising God, and I must.”
In a sermon given late in his life and reported by Russell Streeter, Farwell preached on God as the good shepherd: “Suppose some of your sheep get out of your yard or pasture, and you want to get them back again. Would you send a stranger arter ’em, who had no interest in them, and cared nothing for them, with clubs and dogs to drive them back? . . . But, no; when you wish to bring your sheep back to the fold, you keep your dogs at home, and taking a dish of salt, you go out and shake it in their hearing, and call them gently . . . as soon as they hear your voice, and know it is you, they not only look at you with heads up, but begin to follow you right into the sheep fold . . . Some have already been brought in, and the rest shall be, in God’s good time.”
Farwell was an active participant in the General Conventions at the turn of the century. He was one of only three ministers present (with Hosea Ballou and Walter Ferriss) at the convention held in Woodstock, Vermont in 1799. He voted for the Ferriss’s profession at the 1803 convention in Winchester, New Hampshire. In 1806 he and Paul Dean, who in the early days of his ministry served the Barre church and itinerated in northern Vermont with Farwell, traveled with Hosea Ballou (then settled in Barnard, Vermont) as an official delegation to the new Western Association in Central New York. Farwell last attended the General Convention in 1822.
In his last year Farwell itinerated as widely as ever. He died in Barre from a fall on ice. Thirty years later grateful Vermont Universalists set up a monument over his grave and commissioned an account of his life by John E. Palmer.
Streeter’s description of Farwell’s preaching can be found in Mary Grace Canfield, “Universalism in Vermont and the Connecticut Valley.” This manuscript, and the minutes of the New England Universalist General Convention, are in the Universalist Special Collection at Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Short biographies of Farwell are William S. Balch, “Random Sketches of the Early History of Universalism: Rev. William Farewell,” Universalist Union (April 18, 1840); John E. Palmer, “Memoir of Rev. Wm. Farwell,” Christian Freeman and Family Visiter (December 9, 1853, reprinted from the Christian Repository); and Lemuel Willis, “William Farwell,” The Universalist (January 30, 1875). There is mention of Farwell and his family in Henry H. Saunderson, History of Charlestown, N.H. (1876) and Jane Harter Abbott and Lillian M. Wilson, The Farwell Family, vol. 1 (1929). His obituary appeared in the Universalist Magazine (March 27, 1824) and the Christian Repository (February 1824). See also Thomas Whittemore, Life of Rev. Hosea Ballou, vol. 1 (1854); Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, vol. 1 (1884); Edith Fox MacDonald, Rebellion in the Mountains: The Story of Universalism and Unitarianism in Vermont (1976); and Peter Hughes, “Some Problems in the Chronology of Early American Universalism,” Unitarian Universalist Christian (2005).
Article by Peter Hughes
Posted July 4, 2006