Smith, Stephen Rensselaer

Stephen Rensselaer Smith (September 27, 1788-February 17, 1850) was a Universalist evangelist in the state of New York at a time when Universalism was rapidly growing in popularity, even as the population of the state was rapidly growing, with New Englanders migrating west along the Erie Canal.

Smith, born in Rhode Island to Hope and Rachel (Horton) Smith, spent most of his childhood in Oneida County, an area in central New York that was a major bulwark of the Universalist movement. At that time, most of New York was wilderness, and the Universalist denomination was barely known.

Stephen Rensselaer Smith

Smith had intermittent schooling, ending his formal education at the age of fifteen. His informal education was hindered by the fact that there were few books to be read in frontier areas. However, Smith had a curious, wide-ranging mind and absorbed as much educational material as possible. At the age of eighteen, he became a local school teacher.

In his teenage years, Smith was troubled by the angry, wrathful, and arbitrary God of traditional Calvinist Christianity. He was interested in religion but found few outlet for his emerging views.

In 1806, “The Western Association” was organized (New York was the west) and received into fellowship with the national General Convention of Universalists (GCU). The following year, the GCU sent Hosea Ballou to aid and advise the newly formed association. “For the first time in his life,” after hearing Ballou in Utica, New York, Smith “felt that he had listened to a sermon that neither involved an absurdity nor a contradiction.” He studied Universalism until the summer of 1811 when he decided he wanted to be a Universalist preacher.

Smith apprenticed between 1812 and 1814, first, with Paul Dean in central New York and then with Richard Carrique in Massachusetts. This was typical for Universalists who had no formal educational institutions to prepare ministers. Candidates would study informally with an ordained minister, live in the minister’s home, give an occasional sermon, and generally assist the minister. Smith fellowshipped in 1813 and was ordained at the 1814 General Convention of Universalists. The virtually instant respect of his denomination is indicated by the fact that in June, 1815, he preached the initial sermon at the New Hartford Universalist church, the first one built in New York State.

Smith’s emerging theology seemed to closely parallel the ideas of Ballou. He saw Universalism as a form of Christianity that revolved around the teachings of Jesus. His religion was largely based on a rational reading of the Bible to determine the message that God had communicated through various individuals.

Smith had a clearly unitarian, as opposed to trinitarian, conception of Christianity. He was troubled by what he saw as the illogical nature of the trinitarian argument that God had three separate entities. At the same time, while friendly to the emerging Unitarian denomination, Smith did not favor a merger; in New York State there were ten times as many Universalist societies as there were Unitarian societies.

He expressed what would at the time be considered a liberal minded and tolerant attitudes toward the treatment of others. He spoke out strongly against capital punishment, seeing it as a form of revenge, not as a deterrent. The unfair treatment of women was a topic that also attracted his attention, although he would not be considered a feminist by later standards.

Like the majority of nineteenth-century Universalists, Smith recognized the social implications of the denomination’s emphasis on human rights and integrity but he did not believe religion was the vehicle to achieve social justice.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Universalist denomination had emerged in New England, especially in the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts and Vermont, but also to some extent around the major cities on the Atlantic coast. Many of the New England migrants to New York must have brought their Universalist leanings with them, while others knew about the denomination. A fertile market for liberal religion was being created, but there was strong competition with larger denominations such as the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists.

The population of New York state grew rapidly during the early years of Smith’s ministry. Rising population densities in coastal New England states, where the remaining land was often unsuitable for farming, coupled with the expansion of inland waterways such as the Erie Canal, and improved wagon designs that could easily carry a family’s belongings, encouraged young adults to emigrate west.

Explicitly Universalist societies only started to appear in New York State in the early 1800s. Three Universalist societies formed in the central part of the state between 1803 and 1805: at Fly Creek and Hartwick in Otsego County; and a third at New Hartford (now Utica).

When Smith was fellowshipped in 1813, he joined nine other Universalist ministers in New York State listed on Universalist rolls nationally. This number increased rapidly in subsequent years but there were never enough ministers to serve the several hundred towns in New York State that tried to form Universalist societies. In addition, ministerial training and supervision was minimal so many ministers had very short careers.

Other than a two-year stint in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith spent the rest of his life as a settled minister in New York State. His pastorates were in New Hartford, Clinton (twice), Albany, and Buffalo. Smith remained single for a number of years after his ordination. In 1821 he married Lucy Stillman in Oneida County and they had ten children.

No minister could outdo Smith at circuit riding, the primary means of spreading religion at the time. Even when he was in permanent fellowship with a specific congregation, he spent much of his time preaching and organizing in nearby communities. In his 1852 memoir of Smith, Thomas Jefferson Sawyer notes that from 1813 to 1849, ìÖhe preached five thousand one hundred and twenty-seven sermons, in about two hundred different places.î This was done at a great physical cost to Smith, for his health declined precipitously over the years.

The circuit riding of Smith and others, including Nathaniel Stacy, had a mixed impact. Universalism was significant in New York State by 1850, with typical weekly attendance involving several thousand individuals, but it was never able to challenge the attendance numbers of the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists. Yet, several hundred communities saw the emergence of Universalist churches or fellowships, and more traditional denominations clearly viewed the Universalists as a heretical liberal force to be challenged.

Like many early Universalist ministers who lacked a formal education, Smith developed into a gifted and prolific writer. He served as editor for a number of Universalist publications, produced pamphlets, and wrote books. Like his mentor Hosea Ballou, Smith had the ability to write succinctly and directly and to use clear, relevant examples. In addition, like Ballou, his writing was characterized by a strong appeal to reason.

His articles advocated the importance of Universalism and forecast its eventual triumph. Smith was quite willing to engage ministers of other denominations in printed debate. His best known publication is Lectures to Youth, 1843, a series of printed lectures in which he advised adolescents on a variety of topics such as moral development. The major statement of his theological beliefs is found in the book, Causes of Infidelity Removed, 1839.

Smith encouraged the establishment of Universalist Sunday Schools and a seminary at the Clinton Liberal Institute. Once it was established he was a tireless supporter and fund raiser for the seminary. While some ministers were trained at Clinton, the theological program eventually shifted to Canton, New York and subsequently St. Lawrence University. The Clinton Liberal Institute became a preparatory school.

A mature, balanced personality, Stephen Rensselaer Smith was obsessed with the desire to make Universalism the dominant force in American religion. A sprightly, glowing individual, he was essentially an invalid by the time he was sixty. His primary health problem was tuberculosis, which was probably the result of inadequate self-care. He spent the last year of his life on leave in Buffalo, dealing with his extensive physical disabilities. His premature death in 1850 was due, at least indirectly, to overwork and exhaustion.

Besides the books noted above, Smith wrote Memoir of Rev. John Freeman (1835); and the early history of the Universalist denomination, Historical Sketches and Incidents Illustrative of the Establishment and Progress of Universalism in the State of New York (1843). The most complete study of Smithís life is Thomas J. Sawyer, Memoir of Rev. Stephen R. Smith (1852). Significant sections on Smith can be found in Nathaniel Stacy, Memoirs of the Life of Nathaniel Stacy, Preacher of the Gospel of Universal Grace (1850); and in Fidelia Woolley Gillett, Memoir of Rev. Edward Mott Woolley (1855). Sawyer, Woolley, Freeman, and Stacy were contemporaries of Smith in the Universalist ministry, with Sawyer born in 1804, Wooley in 1803, Freeman in 1800, and Stacy in 1788. Smith and his contempories are also mentioned in Ann Lee Bressler, The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880 (2001) and Charles A. Howe, The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism (1993).

A number of articles authored by Smith can be found in: The Universalist, the Herald of Salvation, the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate and other periodicals. They are often signed with the initials S.R.S. Many are available from Google books. Brief memoirs or obituaries appeared in the Evangelical Magazine & Gospel Advocate and the Universalist Trumpet. More information on New York Universalism can be found on the website of the New York State Convention of Universalists at:

Article by Avery “Pete” Guest
Posted December 20, 2011