Jesse Babcock Ferguson (January 19, 1819-September 3, 1870), a renowned orator and minister in the Antebellum South, converted to universalist and unitarian beliefs. His conversion created turmoil in his own large Nashville church and throughout the region. Though forced from his pulpit because of his new beliefs, he was not welcomed into any other denomination because of his passionate conviction of the truth of spiritualism.
Jesse was born in Philadelphia, but his family soon moved to Virginia. Apprenticed to a printer and continuing his own studies, by age 13 he was teaching in a backwoods Presbyterian school. He moved to Ohio. There he married, opened a school and edited a religious newspaper. He then moved to Kentucky as an independent itinerant preacher.
Ferguson was invited to hold meetings for the Disciples of Christ, or the Church of Christ, the liberal, trinitarian sect led by Alexander Campbell. In 1846 the Nashville Church of Christ made him its pastor. During the following years, his influence within the denomination, through his editorship of The Christian Magazine, came to rival Campbell’s. By 1851, however, his religious views had changed. He had become an outspoken proponent of universal salvation. Now he preached that there was a “future Spiritual life to all human beings that death cannot destroy” and that “future Spiritual life is progressive to all souls.” “Eternal doom or damnation,” he proclaimed, “is a hideous fable of a barbaric age; a dream of the fanatic, a tool of the designing, and a curse to all who receive it.”
Ferguson preached both Universalist and Unitarian doctrines from his Nashville pulpit and retained the vigorous support of the overwhelming majority of his congregation. But Campbell and others in the Church of Christ denounced him as an infidel and a heretic, even though, as Ferguson noted, those in Campbell’s movement “professed to have renounced all authoritative creeds and ecclesiastical judicatories.” Ferguson and his congregation foiled repeated attempts to oust him from the church.
Ferguson came to summarize his evolving religious views in the phrase, “One God, one race, one destiny.” He claimed these views were stimulated by messages he received in séances, through several trance mediums including his wife Lucinda and daughter Virginia, from the “spirit” of William Ellery Channing. Campbell came to Nashville to bring back into line the many Churches of Christ in central Tennessee influenced by Ferguson’s too liberal preaching. Ferguson declined to debate Campbell because, he said, Channing’s spirit had counseled him against it. Influenced by the “spirit” of Channing, he declared, “I hail, with delight and satisfaction, the dawning of an era of liberty of conscience and liberty of thought. Man is no longer to be led; but he is to walk forth in the light of day.”
But Ferguson did not attempt formal Universalist or Unitarian affiliation. He wrote, “[W]e do not establish a Unitarian Church, a Universalist Church, or a Spiritualist Church. We recognize the true Christian Church as a Church of Humanity, Christ-like in its spirit and administration; free and just in its acknowledgement of the right of any soul that God has formed, and hopeful and helpful for the good of each and every one.”
In 1855-56 Ferguson traveled to New Orleans where he often preached in Theodore Clapp‘s Unitarian Church. When he returned to Nashville, he rallied supporters in his congregation to repel another attempt to force him out of the pulpit of the Nashville Church of Christ. The civil courts, however, awarded the church to the followers of Alexander Campbell, who now referred to Ferguson as a “bold relief Universalian.” Ferguson resigned in April, 1857. Immediately afterwards, the church burned in a fire of suspicious origin.
After Ferguson parted ways with the Campbellite Movement, still firm in his Universalist, Unitarian and spiritualist beliefs, he devoted himself to trade and real estate investment. Many in the Church of Christ still regard Ferguson as the most disruptive influence in their denomination’s history, a “meteor that rose to the zenith,” one Church historian wrote, who then burned out and fell into oblivion.
Ferguson remained a popular orator. He spoke throughout the South on politics and literature, his popularity undiminished by controversy. In an 1850 sermon he defended the “God-appointed relation of master and slave.” Individual blacks might be freed if they “advanced,” but most, he believed, needed the discipline of slavery. As a universalist he believed it was in the “second chance,” after death, that this life’s inequalities—such as those embodied in slavery—were to be reconciled.
As the Civil War drew near, Ferguson lectured to large audiences, urging them to unite to fend off hostilities from the North. Once the War began, he exhorted the South to unite in prosecuting the War. When Nashville was captured, he escaped through Union lines and made his way to England. There he lobbied for the Southern cause and for his idea of an international congress which could adjudicate differences between North and South during a truce. He returned to America and made his way to Richmond, but the Confederate government gave no support to his proposed plan. While traveling through Memphis, he was arrrested by Union troops but allowed to return to his farm outside Nashville where he stayed until the War was over.
Afterwards, he traveled to New York on business. There he saw a performance of the brothers Ira and William Davenport. Their act involved levitations and escapes from locked cabinets and tied ropes, purportedly effected by spirit aid. The young Davenports recruited Ferguson to travel to Europe with them. He was to serve them as a chaperone and also warm audiences for their performances with lectures on spiritualism. On his previous visit to England, Ferguson had gained the esteem of important members of the English upper class. The Davenports had hopes of their patronage.
Ferguson did travel with the Davenports for a portion of their tour in England. His reputation suffered as a result. He himself eventually became convinced that their stage show demeaned spiritualism, although he publicly vouched for their character after two incidents in which skeptics exposed them as simple conjurors. Ferguson separated from the tour and returned to the United States.
He immediately headed for Washington. He was worried about the fate of the South as the Republican Congress confronted President Andrew Johnson, his friend and former parishioner from Nashville. In London Ferguson’s spiritualist colleague, former Universalist minister John Murray Spear had given him a set of “spirit dispatches” for President Johnson. Ferguson delivered the dispatches and lobbied and lectured around Washington on behalf of the President before returning home.
Back in Nashville his real estate investments had become profitable. A wealthy man now and his faith in universal progress and salvation undiminished, he made plans to begin a utopian spiritualist settlement in the Tennessee countryside. But he grew ill and died on September 3, 1870. His family buried him at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville in a plot close to the burial sites of many other leaders of the Church of Christ who had repudiated him.
Ferguson left a large body of work. His writing is well represented in the Christian Magazine, which he edited from 1848-53, before his beliefs changed. Enos Everett Dowling wrote An Analysis and Index of the Christian Magazine, Edited by Jesse Babcock Ferguson, Nashville, Tennessee, 1848-1853 (1958). Ferguson’s early investigations into spiritualism are detailed in the notes he kept of séances in his Nashville home, which were printed in the New York spiritualist newspaper, The Spiritual Telegraph (1854-55), and reprinted, along with his sermons on the subject, in three volumes entitled Spirit Communion (1854-55). Among notable Ferguson speeches and sermons are Address on the History, Authority and Influence of Slavery (1850); Relation of Pastor and People, Statement of Belief on Unitarianism, Universalism and Spiritualism (1854); Divine Illumination (1855); History of the Relation of the Pastor to the “Christian Church of Nashville” (1855); The Times! or, The Flag of Truce (1863); and Nationality versus Sectionalism (1866).
Thomas Low Nichols, editor, Supramundane Facts in the Life of Rev. Jesse Babcock Ferguson, A.M., LL.D., Including Twenty Years’ Observation of Preternatural Phenomena (1865) is a long and admiring biography of Ferguson, written by his Spiritualist friends in England, in anticipation of his coming to England on tour with the Davenport Brothers. This work was mined by Church of Christ partisan Johnny Tucker for rather different purposes in Like a Meteor Across the Horizon: The Jesse B. Ferguson Story (1978). Alexander Campbell’s assessment of Ferguson’s fall from grace can be traced in the 1854-56 issues of Campbell’s newspaper, The Millennial Harbinger and in Henry Leo Boles, Biographical Sketches of Gospel Preachers (1932). Brief entries on Ferguson can be found in Alibone’s Critical Dictionary of English Literature: A Supplement (1891, reprinted 1965); W. Steward Wallace, editor, A Dictionary of North American Authors Deceased before 1950 (1951, reprinted 1968); and Leslie A. Shepard, editor, Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology (2nd edition 1985, and 3rd edition 1991). Other sources of information on Ferguson include Robert Cooper, Spiritual Experiences; Including Seven Months with the Brothers Davenport (1867); Thomas Frost, Lives of the Conjurors (1876); Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Embracing a View of the Origin, Progress and Principles of the Religious Reformation Which He Advocated. Vol. 2 (1870); and “Spiritualism in Nashville Thirty-Five Years Ago,” Religio-Philosophical Journal (September 28, 1889 and January 11, 1890).
Article by John Buescher
Posted August 21, 2001