Nathaniel Stacy (December 2, 1778-April 7, 1868), was a pioneer Universalist preacher in central New York State and western Pennsylvania. His fortitude was legendary. For many years this diminutive, five foot, one hundred pound, modest man organized rural societies with constant itinerant preaching, traveling by day and preaching at night, spreading the gospel of Universalism. He has been called the “Ballou of New York and Pennsylvania.”
Nathaniel’s parents, Rufus and Anna Day Stacy, came from Gloucester, Massachusetts where they had heard John Murray preach, and Rufus had been a fisherman. Although they believed in universal salvation, when they moved inland to New Salem, Massachusetts, they became half-way covenant members of the local First Parish Church (Congregational). Nathaniel, the third son of seven children, born in New Salem on December 2, 1778, attended his parents’ new church but was not aware of the heretical character of their true faith.
Around 1790 Universalist itinerant preachers, including Caleb Rich and Thomas Barns, began to make occasional visits to the New Salem area. Stacy recalled that these “strange preachers of a strange doctrine” caused “considerable excitement, and called forth all the bitter censures, denunciations, and condemnations of the standing order.” In spite of the risk of sharing this opprobrium, Rufus and Anna Stacy again began to listen to Universalist preaching and openly avowed their Universalism. Nathaniel, however, retained for some time the more orthodox religion of his youth.
Stacy’s formal education was limited, especially since his father needed help with the family farm. At fourteen the boy was apprenticed to a blacksmith, but after a long illness, decided he was not fit for a life of manual labor. He studied at the New Salem Academy in 1797-98 and again in 1800-01. In between Stacy worked as a schoolteacher and newspaper distributor in Vermont. During the winter of 1799, dissatisfied with the Calvinist sentiments of the Baptist preacher with whom he was boarding, Stacy studied the Bible and was convinced of the truth of universal salvation. Later that year he attended the New England Universalist General Convention at Woodstock. There he first heard the preaching of Hosea Ballou whose sermon on the rich man and Lazarus “swept away the last vestige of doubt and darkness” from his mind.
Attracted by the prospect of working for a Universalist employer, in 1801 Stacy moved to Dana, Massachusetts to work as a store clerk. This location gave him the opportunity of regular interaction with Ballou, who lived in Dana. The next year he apprenticed himself to a clockmaker. One day Ballou came into the shop and asked him, “Brother Stacy, what are you tinkering here for?” He had not been able to settle on a career, Ballou told Stacy, because preaching was his true business. Until he began to serve as a minister he would not be happy. Ballou offered to become his teacher and, in October, 1802, took Stacy into his home and study.
One Sunday Ballou feigned a headache, telling Stacy he must preach in his place. When Stacy protested that he had no notes from which to speak, Ballou told him it would be better for him to begin preaching extemporaneously. “You may say just what you please,” he assured the frightened Stacy, “and I’ll get up and prove it all true, by Scripture.” Although he felt “like an ox to the slaughter” as he was led to the pulpit, Stacy conducted the service acceptably. Afterward he “heard no more of Mr. Ballou’s headache.”
At the end of 1802 Stacy traveled with Ballou to the ordination of James Babbitt in Jericho, Vermont. Stacy was persuaded to remain with Babbitt to continue his study for the ministry and to help launch Universalist evangelism in the area. During 1803-1805 Stacy did circuit preaching in Vermont and central Massachusetts, supporting himself with seasonal schoolteaching. In his Memoirs Stacy provides a vivid account of the events of the General Convention held in 1803 at Winchester, New Hampshire, at which the Universalists first adopted a profession of faith. Stacy was a strong supporter of the profession, feeling that it legitimized Universalism, thereby rescuing Universalists from “clerical oppression.” The Convention granted Stacy a letter of fellowship in 1803 and ordained him two years later.
Stacy began preaching in central New York State early in the summer of 1805 while on a visit with a brother in Canajoharie. By the end of the season he had developed a regular circuit of five preaching stations. In two of them—Whitestown and Hamilton—new Universalist societies were organized. A conference of local Universalists called for the formation of a regional association and sent delegates, including Stacy, to represent New York State at the New England General Convention. The next year, with Hosea Ballou, Paul Dean, and other visiting Universalist clergy in attendance, the Western Association of Universalists was organized. For a number of years Stacy remained the only effective evangelist in the territory of the Western Association (central New York State).
On a visit to New Salem in 1806, Stacy married Susan Clark. Raised a Congregationalist, she became Universalist after they were married. The couple had eight children; three sons and five daughters. They lived, at first, in Brookfield and Whitestown. In 1808 Stacy accepted a call to the church in Hamilton, New York. He remained there twenty-two years. The Hamilton society gave Stacy and his family land upon which to settle. They supplemented their income by farming and Susan helped to support the family with sewing, spinning, and weaving.
By 1810 Stacy had extended his preaching circuit to include two dozen towns spread over five counties in central New York. Because Paul Dean settled for a few years in Whitestown, beginning in 1810, Stacy was able to make evangelical visits westward to the Finger Lakes region and the Genesee River area during 1811-12. His visits to these areas laid the foundation for new churches and associations. By 1813 there were half a dozen ministers settled in societies founded in the wake of Stacy’s preaching visits. He claimed that during the twenty-five years he was settled in New York State, the number of Universalist societies there grew from two to two hundred. He spent the summer of 1814 as an army chaplain, as the War of 1812 still continued to be waged. He later described this muddy, foot tramping experience as one of the worst of his life.
During 1817-18 a revival began in Stacy’s Hamilton congregation and spread to other denominations and throughout central New York State. He recalled that “it seemed, for the moment, that all the walls which separated the different denominations tottered to their very foundations.” A number of converts were made to Universalism and existing Universalists developed a practice of reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves. He thought the revival was “no extraordinary outpouring of the Divine spirit,” but “the inspiring influence of Divine Truth, firmly believed and firmly appreciated, upon those intellectual powers with which God has endowed his moral offspring.”
A leader in organizing as well as spreading Universalism in New York, Stacy helped to found the Chenango Association, 1823, and the Black River Association, 1824. Stacy proposed the idea of a New York State Convention of Universalists at the first session of the Chenango Association. Although by a convention Stacy meant a “center of communications” and not a new form of hierarchy, he was at first misunderstood and suspected of having episcopal ambitions. When the Western Association was transformed into the New York State Convention in 1825, Stacy took a leading role in its deliberations. In his Memoirs Stacy wrote of the Universalist denomination, “In the State of New York, I have witnessed its first breathings, its infantile struggles, its youthful fears and hopes, and ardent longings and anticipations, until it assumed a manly dignity.”
His tenure in Hamilton ended unhappily. An anti-Masonic group had created tensions within the congregation. Stacy decided it would be better to move on. From 1830-40 he traveled through Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. He organized the church in Columbus, Pennsylvania and was its first minister. From 1835-40 he was pastor in Ann Arbor, Michigan and helped organize the first Universalist association in that state. After a return call to Columbus in 1841, he helped direct the building of a new church and continued to further the cause of Universalism in western Pennsylvania. In 1859 Universalist societies in his area formed an association named in his honor.
Stacy was proud of his circuit-riding ministry. “I have traveled, repeatedly, through storms, and over roads which most people would think unendurable and impassable, for miles on miles, to meet appointments, when I was confident people would think it a hardship to travel a half-mile to attend meeting.” Although he found these travels “excessively fatiguing,” Stacy’s health remained vigorous throughout his long career. He wrote that he was never “so happy as when proclaiming in the ears of man, and defending, with all the efforts of my feeble talents, the Great Salvation.” He died in Columbus, Pennsylvania.
There are Nathaniel Stacy Papers at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Much of what we know of Stacy’s life can be found in his Memoirs of the Life of Nathaniel Stacy, Preacher of the Gospel of Universal Grace (1850). An excerpt from this is included in Ernest Cassara, Universalism in America (1971). Another nineteenth century source is Stephen R. Smith’s Historical Sketches and Incidents, Illustrative of the Establishment and Progress of Universalism in the State of New York (1843) and Historical Sketches, Second Series (1848). Stacy’s story is told in Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope, The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870 (1979) and Mark W. Harris, Among the Dry Bones: Liberal Religion in New Salem, Massachusetts (1982).
Article by Mark Harris
Posted January 22, 2003