John and his older brother Charles, born in Boston, were both christened by John Murray at the First Universalist Church. The Spear family later belonged to Second Universalist Church, where Hosea Ballou was minister. John was apprenticed to a shoemaker and then, like his brother, studied for the ministry in the Roxbury, Massachusetts household of Hosea Ballou 2d.
Spear began his ministry preaching to Universalists in Barnstable (Hyannis), Massachusetts while assisting his brother Charles in nearby Brewster. He was ordained and installed by the Barnstable congregation following the dedication of their meetinghouse in 1830. Though a settled minister there only briefly, Spear continued to preach in the area for six years. He later served Universalist societies in New Bedford, 1835-41, and Weymouth, Massachusetts, 1841-45.
In the 1840s Spear was a prominent abolitionist. He succeeded in organizing the first Universalist anti-slavery conventions, in spite of opposition from the many Universalists who were opposed to such mixing of politics and religion. With Frederick Douglass and others, Spear spoke frequently in the 1844 "One Hundred Conventions" campaign of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, whose purpose was to spread anti-slavery conviction and to combat the rising influence of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Unlike the A.F.A.S.S. the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society urged that there be no accommodation or union with the slave-holding states. Late that year, on an anti-slavery lecture tour in Portland, Maine, Spear was attacked by a mob and sustained serious head injuries from which it took him several months to recover.
A slave, Lucy Faggins, traveled with the family that owned her to visit New Bedford, which was home to a sizable community of free Negroes. Spear was instrumental in arranging the legal process through which Faggins was able to opt for freedom. For depriving the southern family of their household "servant" Spear was vilified in public as a "nigger stealer," threatened with legal action, and forced to resign his New Bedford pulpit.
After passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which legalized the capture of escaped slaves in non-slave states and their return to slave owners, Spear was among the organizers of the Boston Vigilance Committee, dedicated to helping slaves evade capture. He was an operator on the Boston portion of the Underground Railroad. Fellow pacifist and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the Liberator that "although the weapons of our warfare [are] not carnal but spiritual, we [do] not object at all to the use of the 'Spear.'"
While still in New Bedford Spear began a "mission of love," visiting and helping prisoners. John was part owner and co-editor, 1845-47, of his brother's newspaper, The Prisoner's Friend. He also campaigned against the death penalty. Later, working on his own on behalf of indigent criminals in Boston and elsewhere, he modeled, and partly invented, the role which would one day be filled by the parole officer.
By 1852, partly under the influence of his daughter, Sophronia, Spear began heeding the direction of spirit messages to people and places where his freelance ministry—which now included "magnetic" healing through the laying on of hands—would be of most help. That year, in a state of trance, he conveyed twelve messages from the spirit of John Murray, which he had transcribed and published as Messages from the Superior State.
He soon declared himself the chosen medium, or "general agent on Earth," of the spirits of John Murray, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and other distinguished departed who had together formed a "Congress of Spirits." Spear let it be known that the "Congress" would deliver plans, through him, for the remaking of society. Through Spear the spirit of Jefferson discoursed against slavery. Universalist physician Benjamin Rush's spirit directed him to give lectures on health and medicine. Scientific spirits, like Franklin's, relayed information to assist with advances in technology, including a perpetual motion machine, an electric thinking machine, an electric ship, an intercontinental telepathic network, and an improved sewing machine. The "Congress" also urged the foundation of spiritualist utopian communities in Kiantone, New York and Patriot, Indiana.
Old friends thought Spear sadly deranged. Having lost interest in the Universalist denomination, which he had served for over two decades, he did not resist the process by which he was removed from fellowship with the Universalist ministry. Former colleagues in campaigns for reform tried to distance themselves and their causes from him, out of fear that Spear's "eccentricities" and "delusions" would be taken as products of their movements. Nevertheless, Spear was able to recruit many others to membership in spiritualist associations, the Order of the Patriarchs and the Sacred Order of Unionists. Nested in these organizations were secret societies, devised by Spear, for orderly intercourse with spirits who meant to elevate the human race.
Spear's spiritualism became even more controversial in 1857. The spirits, speaking through him, began to urge free love as a way to regenerate society. His new program would replace institutionally sanctioned marriage with sexual relations governed entirely by mutual desire and love. He championed the availability of birth control methods and the woman's right to refuse sexual intercourse, even with her husband. These radical ideas occasioned his separation even from more conservative spiritualists as well as from leading advocates of woman's rights, who were trying to win property rights and suffrage, not reproductive rights.
Spear's preachments in favor of free love coincided with the breakup of his marriage and the start of an extra-marital relationship with woman's rights advocate Caroline Hinckley. The birth of their son in 1859 was a public scandal. In 1863, to legitimize his son, Spear divorced his wife of thirty-two years, Betsey, and married Hinckley. They lived and toured in England, 1863-69, giving lectures, holding seances and performing healings. They were disappointed in British spiritualists who showed no interest in radical politics.
The Spears returned to America and lived in San Francisco until 1873, then in Philadelphia, laboring all the while in a variety of radical causes. They helped organize Victoria Woodhull's Equal Rights Party and worked for woman's rights, health reform and socialism.
Having served for two decades as general agent for the "Congress of Spirits," Spear received in 1872 a spirit message instructing him to retire. Late in his career he admitted that his missions had "not always been promotive of immediate union and peace" and had subjected him to "trials borne, mostly, in the secret chambers of my soul." Still, he expressed general satisfaction. "Dearly have I loved the work in which I was engaged. I have been helped to see that beyond the clouds that were round about me, there was a living, guiding, intelligent, beneficent purpose—the elevation, regeneration and redemption of the inhabitants of this earth."
John Spear died in Philadelphia in October, 1887, and was buried in the Mount Moriah Cemetery.
The most important collection for the study of John M. Spear's career in spiritualism and nineteenth-century reform is the Sheldon Papers at the Darlington Memorial Library at the University of Pittsburgh, which includes papers and letters of the Kiantone community and spirit directives to John. The records of the New Bedford Universalist Society are at the Andover Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Material describing stages of Spear's career was published in The Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, The Christian Freeman and Family Visiter, The Practical Christian, The Liberator, The Prisoner's Friend (also known as The Hangman), Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, and The Word, as well as the spiritualist newspapers The New Era, The Banner of Light, and The Spiritual Telegraph.
Spear wrote an autobiographical account of his work, 1852-72, Twenty Years on the Wing: A Brief Narrative of My Travels and Labors as a Missionary Sent Forth and Sustained by the Association of Beneficents in Spirit Land (1873). There are no full-length published biographies of Spear as yet, but Neil B. Lehman wrote a dissertation, The Life of John Murray Spear: Spiritualism and Reform in Antebellum America (1973). John Buescher's joint biography of Charles and John Murray Spear is in preparation. Short partisan biographies of John Spear can be found in the introductions to The Educator (1857), edited by Alonzo E. Newton, and Messages from the Superior State (1852), transcribed and edited by Simon Crosby Hewitt. Both of these works are collections of spirit messages communicated through Spear. Emma Hardinge's Modern American Spiritualism (1870) and Paschal Beverly Randolph's The Unveiling; or What I Think of Spiritualism (1860) are among a number of works which unfavorably depict Spear's spiritualist mission. Adin Ballou reported on Spear's early experiences of spirit contact in Spirit Manifestations (1853) and wrote an introduction for and printed Spear's account of messages from the spirit of Thomas Jefferson as Twelve Discourses on Government (1853). Modern works most useful for understanding Spear's mission as a spiritualist are R. Laurence Moore, In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture (1977) and Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (1989). Caroline Hinckley Spear wrote A Brief Essay on the Position of Woman (1866).
Article by John Buescher