12 April 2009

Mary Ashton Rice Livermore

Universalist lecturer; woman's suffrage advocate; temperance leader

Mary Ashton Rice Livermore was a leader of the woman's suffrage movement, an organizer for the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, and a popular lecturer on social reform. She was born in Boston on 19 December 1821 into a strict Calvinist Baptist family. As a child, she was haunted by the doctrine of predestination, and even urged her parents to send her newborn sister back to God before it was too late. Later, depressed by the death of another sister, she studied Greek, consulted the New Testament in its original language, and found no conclusive evidence to support the doctrine of eternal punishment. As a tutor on a slaveholder's plantation in Virginia (1839-42), she witnessed the brutal treatment and punishment of slaves, and returned to her home a fervent abolitionist.

On Christmas Eve 1843, while employed as a teacher in a girls' school in Duxbury, she was attracted to the cheerful singing emanating from a Universalist church. She had never attended a Universalist service, or a Christmas service, for that matter, many Baptists believing them to be "popish." She enterred the church and was uplifted by the message of the sermon. After the service, she introduced herself to the minister, Daniel Parker Livermore, and inquired about literature about the doctrine of universal salvation. The young minister's views on slavery, temperance and woman's suffrage were consistent with her own. In time, Mary embraced Universalism and fell in love with Daniel. They were wed in 1845.

Daniel served a succession of churches: Fall River, Massachusetts (1845-46); Stafford Centre, Connecticut (1846-51); Weymouth, Massachusetts (1851-53); Malden, Massachusetts (1853-55); and the Universalist congregation at Auburn, New York (1855-57). The couple moved with their two surviving to Chicago in 1857. Daniel considered relocating the family to Kansas, to assist in the establishment of an anti-slavery colony, but the illness of one of the couple's daughters induced the family to remain at Chicago for thirteen years. Daniel owned and edited a reform-oriented newspaper, The New Covenant, and authored works on Universalist theology.

Mary developed her own career as a writer, and pubished award-winning stories such as "Thirty Years Too Late" (1845) on temperance, and "A Mental Transformation" (1848) about "changes wrought in one's life and character by a vital change of religious belief." She worked with her husband as a co-editor of The New Covenant. During a cholera epidemic in Chicago, she did not flee the city, but remained with her husband and organized relief efforts. Her successful experience came to the attention of Henry bellows, the head of the United States Sanitary Commission; he asked her to coordinate the Commission's efforts in the northwest during the Civil War. For four years, she organized volunteer work in Union hospitals trhoughout the region, wrote letters "by the thousands" on behalf of Union soldiers, and raised large amounts of money for the work of the Commission. She became "aware that a large portion of the nation's work was badly done, or not done at all, because woman was not recognized as a factor in the political world.... Men and women should stand shoulder to shoulder, equal before the law." In 1868, she organized the first woman suffrage convention held in Chicago, and rose to prominence in the national movement. She was an editor of The Agitator, a woman's rights journal that merged with the Boston-based Woman's Journal. In 1870, the Livermores moved to Melrose, Massachusetts, to further Mary's work with that publication. She served as the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women. In 1875, she served as president of the American Woman Suffrage Association. In the same year, she began two decades of service as president of the Massachsuetts Woman's Christian Temperance Union. In addition, for twenty-five years until her retirement in 1895, she lectured throughout the nation on women's rights and other reform topics. During this period, she authored two substantial works, My Story of the War (1887) and The Story of My Life (1897). With Frances E. Willard, she compiled A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life (1893).

After her husband's death, she developed an interest in Spiritualism; she was convinced that she had communicated with Daniel through a medium. She retained her commitment to the principles of universal salvation, and her vision of "the great, grand time [when] we shall have but one worship, that of the Universal Father, who embraces in His nature every form of love known to us...; when we shall recognize the great tie of brotherhood the world over; when we shall be done with wars and battles; when we shall come together as one people, with the Lord God our Father and our Leader."