Rev. Ann Marie Alderman
March 19, 2006, UUCAS
Myra Kingsbury was born in Sheshequin, December 5, 1847. She died July 11, 1898 when she was just fifty years old. She never married, and had no children. What is remarkable about her is that she was ordained to the ministry by the Sheshequin Universalists in 1880, and she twice served as their pastor, in 1880 and again from 1896-1898. Although, she served as a pastor for this congregation, in total, for less than three years; the singular fact that she was ordained to the ministry by Sheshequin Universalists during the last half of the 19th century is quite an achievement.
There certainly weren’t many women ministers in her day. Those few women who were ordained were predominantly either Universalist or Unitarian. Even so, by 1870, there were only 15 women who were known to be Universalist ministers. The stories of some of these early woman ministers are known to us. Some left something behind… sermons, speeches, records of public activism, stories of their lives that were either written or passed down to us by their families or those who knew them. We know that it was because of their liberal religious convictions that these women sought ordination and worked for suffrage, for theological and educational reform.
It is "but half expressing it" to say there isn’t much I yet know to fill out the Rev. Kingsbury’s story. I found only a few mentions of her in the Sheshequin church records and in a few obscure Universalist ministerial records. I have spent hours looking for more details, wondering about her life and her career in ministry. I am so intrigued by her, and by her story, that I hope to continue to find out more and fill in the details of her story!
So far, I have found nothing that Myra Kingsbury may have written or said. I have no idea what her particular Universalist theology was (Universalist thought was experiencing major transition during her lifespan). I don’t know what she believed, what she preached, who she may have known or been exposed to. I don’t know how she lived, or what her life was like.
I have no knowledge of how and where she may have been educated, or even if she was. I don’t know why she chose not to marry. I don’t know what she died from.
Like so many women of her time, records of her achievements could have been lost forever. Thanks to the efforts of the members of this congregation, her memory has not been completely lost.
What I do know about her now has to do with her remarkable family and her church. These details, I am happy to share with you, for I believe that for us to better know our own story as a congregation, we should know hers.
By the time she was born her family had been in the Sheshequin area for three generations. Her great grandfather was General Simon Spaulding. He moved here from the Wyoming Valley, (present day Wilkes-Barre), bringing with him his young wife and children. Myra’s great, great grandfather, who was the General’s father, born in Plainfield, Connecticut, was also named Simon Spaulding. Many Connecticut Yankees immigrated to the Pennsylvania frontier, by way of the Wyoming Valley that for a time was claimed by both Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
Anna, Myra’s grandmother, was just a child in 1783, when her father, moved her family to Sheshequin. In 1797, Anna married Colonel Joseph Kingsbury.
He was also from Connecticut, having arrived in Sheshequin to become a surveyor for General Spaulding.
One of Anna’s sisters, Myra’s great aunt, married the Reverend Moses Park.
Another sister married Joseph Kinney.
All these men had been officers during the Revolutionary War. They were part of Sullivan’s March from the Wyoming Valley to Tioga Point and beyond chasing the Indians who were aligned with the British. They were struck by the beauty and the fertility of Sheshequin and soon came back to farm this valley.
From the stories told regarding the history of Sheshequin by Major W.H.H. Gore, most of the early settlers were Baptists. Just three years after General Spaulding arrived with his young family, in 1786, the Rev. Moses Park came to serve as the Baptist minister. (He also married one of the General’s daughters, Myra’s great aunt Ruth.) Seven years after this Baptist preacher, the Rev. Moses Park, arrived, in the year of 1793, he was converted to Universalism, by the Reverend Noah Murray, who had moved to the town of Athens from Connecticut in 1790.
Noah Murray did not marry a daughter of General Spaulding! ...however he had previously been a Baptist preacher, also from Connecticut!
Noah Murray was said to be the first Universalist preacher in Bradford County. He had been causing quite a stir among the Sheshequin settlers as he proclaimed the doctrine of universal salvation. Gore’s stories tell us that Rev. Moses Parks and his brother-in-law, Joseph Kinney, were "deputized" by the Baptists and sent to Rev. Park’s Athens home to engage him in religious debate. .
Gore says: "Armed with their well-thumbed Bible, they proceeded to Athens, to the residence of Mr. Murray, and made known their errand; he received them kindly and courteously, and gladly accepted the challenge and acceded to their request. All night and the next day they fought the good fight. The doctrine of endless suffering of the wicked with baptism as a saving ordinance, were relied on by them as indispensable to a correct understanding of the Scriptures and a necessity of the divine government. But the deeper they went into the investigation, the weaker become their defense; they saw one after another their strongholds demolished and the sun of righteousness melting the icebergs of Calvinism. In short, they were defeated, and acknowledged it and finally rejoiced over it. They agreed to adopt the doctrine of Murray, and Mr. Park was to present the sentiments to his congregation and study the effect without proclaiming the name of the new faith.
Noah Murray was a teacher and a preacher and became one of the founders of the Athens Academy, where Stephen Foster studied as a boy. One of Murray’s descendants, Jane Murray Beck, left over $20,000 for the perpetual upkeep of the Sheshequin Universalist church, which we now call the "Murray Fund" upon her death, not too long ago.
Gore goes on to say; "His (Rev. Park’s) congregation approved of the new preaching and wondered at the improvements in spirituality and wisdom of the preacher. Finally, after speaking as if by inspiration, he informed his hearers that he believed with his whole soul the doctrine of the universal salvation of the whole human race; that he could no longer minister to them as a pastor of a Baptist society and tendered his resignation. A few denounced, but a large majority stood by him and remained steadfast in the doctrine till their death."
So in 1793, the Baptist congregation composed of the mostly Connecticut Yankees that were now settled in both Ulster and Sheshequin began hearing Universalist views from the pulpit. Moses Park stayed with that transformed congregation until 1806, another nine years, before moving to Ohio. After only two years in Ohio, he returned to Sheshequin.
In 1808, when he came back he helped to form a new Universalist society. Rev. Moses Park died just three years later, in 1811. In 1827, some 34 years after the great Athens debate, 19 years after the Universalist society was formed, the Sheshequin church was built!
As all this was taking place, Myra’s grandparents, Colonel Kingsbury and Anna Spaulding were having ten children. Their youngest child would be Myra’s father, Lemuel Spalding Kingsbury, born in 1823. In 1844, he married Myra’s mother, Sarah Osborn. They had three girls. Gore says in his reflections that all of Myra’s relatives were Universalists.
Myra never married and had no children. Both of her sisters did marry. Her sister Alice married Orrin D. Kinney (the grandson of Joseph Kinney). Her sister Gracie married John Childs. Cemetery records show that Myra’s sister Alice died when she was just 41, in 1880.
In that same year, Myra was ordained by the Sheshequin Universalist congregation to the ministry. I don’t know if this occurred before or after her sister’s death. Myra was ordained on June 20, 1880, when she was 32 years old, some 72 years after the Sheshequin Universalist society was formed, 53 years after the Sheshequin building was completed.
Olympia Brown, who graduated from the St. Lawrence Universalist Theological School in Canton, New York, in 1863, is commonly understood to be the first woman ordained in America whose ordination was granted full denominational acceptance. She was a Universalist ordained by the St. Lawrence Association of Universalists in Malone, New York, in June, 17 years before Myra was ordained.
The date of Myra’s ordination certainly makes me wonder if she also attended St. Lawrence. She could have returned after graduation to her home congregation to be ordained and then to wait until she received a "call" from another Universalist congregation looking for a new minister.
On Thanksgiving Sunday the same year Myra was ordained, Sheshequin church records say she preached her farewell sermon and accepted a call to a Universalist church in Vermont.
She may have moved on to a Universalist church that was larger and more vital than her home church. Just four years after these recorded events, according to Gore’s quotes from a July 5, 1884 Sheshequin church record we hear; "the society is dead, and not enough vitality left to get up a respectable funeral. Sunday School closed with the Christmas holidays, and the church has not been used for divine services since that time, not even a funeral, and the edifice stands as a reminder of the good old days of our fathers who met regularly and worshiped in spirit and in truth."
Gore continues; "The society slumbered for the next five years and did not fully arise from its Rip Van Winkle sleep until 1895, when Rev. G.A. King, assisted by Brother Russell of Athens and Brother Polk of Towanda, held a series of meetings. A YPCC (confirmation class?) was organized and during January, 21 members were admitted. Since that time church services have been quite regular."
Meanwhile, church records from the First Universalist Church of Williston, Vermont indicate "Miss Myra Kingsbury" was serving as their "present pastor" in 1886. When she actually began there and how long she stayed, I have not yet been able to document. The Williston, Vermont congregation no longer exists, although their building still stands. There is some indication from Universalist ministry records that Myra may have served other congregations in Vermont and in Maine.
I don’t yet know if Rev. Kingsbury attended theological school, although she may have. I don’t know if her ordination was recognized by a state Universalist convention, although it may have been.
I do know that by 1896, some ten years after she was cited as the present pastor in Williston, Vermont, she returned to Sheshequin. That year the church records indicate that she was paid $200. (That would be a salary equivalent to $4500 today. Good thing her large family was near by!)
Church records also say; "Miss Kingsbury’s ministrations are proving help to our community". Average Sunday School attendance was noted as 50.
Records from the next year, 1897 say; "Rev. Myra Kingsbury was pastor all year. She held weekly services, and her salary of $200 was paid by the Ladies Aid Society. She was engaged to be pastor another year, for a wage of $200, paid quarterly."
Stories about the Ladies Aid Society have been passed down. They are said to have a collection basket up and down River Rd in Sheshequin. It was passed from neighbor to neighbor. Most times these folks added funds to the basket, but sometimes the story is told that funds would be taken from the basket when a family felt their need was greater than whatever the collection was for! At some point the Ladies Aid Society collected rags from the Sheshequin residents. These rags were sent away to be died red and became the red carpet still on the floor at the Sheshequin church.
Rather than pining for the "good ole days of the fathers", it was the Ladies who made sure Myra was paid a salary!
By September 1, 1897, the second year of Myra’s return, a church record says: "Our pastor, Miss M Kingsbury, has been sick nearly all summer and has been unable to minister to her congregation, consequently we had no preaching. The Sunday School continues but with small attendance. To say we miss her is but half expressing it". She was 49 years old.
From a church record written January 1, 1898; "The New Year brings nothing new, for the report on our pastor Miss Kingsbury is no better than last report. We have no preaching. The Sunday School is not running. In fact, the cause of religion is not progressing much. The people have become indifferent to church going. The Ladies Aid Society still continues to meet quite regularly. The money raised has been given to our pastor to assist her in her affliction and suffering. Her disease being such that she suffers great pain, a greater part of the time."
I have no knowledge of what her disease may have been. One of her sisters died when she was only 41 years old.
The July 11, 1898 church record states; "The death of Rev. Myra Kingsbury occurred…Funeral held on 14th was largely attended. Pastor Presiding, Miss (Emma Eliza) Bailey, at the house of her parents. ( According to the UU Womens History Society records, the Rev. Bailey lived from 1844-1920, and served as a missionary and writer in Vermont and PA.)
The Sheshequin church records continue; "The book of a useful life is closed. Peace to her memory is the wish of her congregation." She was 50 years old.
It is "but half expressing it", to have no more to say to you about Myra.
Daughter of Sheshequin, ordained, beloved, a stone of memory stands in the Sheshequin church in her honor.
I will keep searching, hoping to fill in the details…
Rev. Ann Marie Alderman, minister
Unitarian Universalist Church
of Athens and Sheshequin, PA