L. Maria Child: Visionary Antislavery Crusader Changed a Church by Leaving It

By Tisa M. Anders, MDiv, PhD


L. Maria Child

Long-time activist and author L. Maria Child (1802–1880) was a household name in nineteenth-century America in like manner to Oprah in contemporary times. As a young woman of age twenty, Child chose Swedenborgianism and the Boston New Church on Beacon Hill for her spiritual home. This was a breath of fresh theological air, especially in comparison with the rigid dogmatism of her childhood Calvinistic Congregationalism. In the 1820s, the fellowship of her congregation along with the theological feeding of her mind and spirit provided the strong foundation for her next five decades of reform work.

When Child initially joined the congregation, she had no inkling that she would one day leave and never return to any institutionalized church. Swedenborgian philosophy never deserted her, though, but instead became foundational to her belief system, even guiding her reform activism. Child also had no idea that her reform writing would one day positively influence the Rev. Thomas Worcester, her congregation’s long-time pastor, from whom she was estranged beginning in 1828. Their shared experiences in that early decade of the denomination along with the lifetime influence of Swedenborg’s theology nonetheless turned out to be a distinctive thread lingering between them. More than three decades later, these common beliefs and background united them for a brief moment in support of the antislavery cause.

Swedenborgianism Attracts Child

Although Child had extensive contact with Unitarianism and Quakerism—the former in her early years through her brother Convers Francis, Jr., and the latter in her later years via the abolitionist movement—neither tradition attracted her enough to join officially. Instead, it was Swedenborg’s theology that deeply touched her at this early stage. Not many details have surfaced about Child’s exact involvement in the Boston New Church other than that she formally affiliated with this Swedenborgian society in 1822, the date when her name showed up on their membership register.[1]

She joined that city’s New Church within the first four years of its existence, after its formal founding in 1818. When reminiscing about her early experiences with Swedenborgianism, Child shared:

I was young then; and all he [Emanuel Swedenborg] said seemed to me a direct revelation to his soul, from the angels. His doctrine of Correspondences seemed a golden key to unlock the massive gate between the external and the spiritual worlds. I then ‘experienced religion,’ and for a long time lived in a mansion of glories.[2]

The principle of correspondences became foundational for Child. “This [concept of correspondences] was first revealed to me, in early life, in the writings of Swedenborg,” she wrote. “The subject took strong hold of my mind, and has ever since deeply and vividly coloured the whole fabric of my thought.”[3] The basis of the doctrine was the continual, permanent, and intimate relationship between the spiritual and natural worlds. Accordingly, everything in the spiritual world had a correspondent manifestation in the physical. The British Swedenborgian artist of landscapes and Swedenborg biographer George F. Trobridge (1856–1909) describes this association:

The natural world is an image or mirror of the spiritual world, every object, fact, and phenomenon, representing some immaterial idea which is its spiritual counterpart.[4]

Child’s Exit from the New Church

What drove Child away from this previously positive influence in her life? The majority of her biographers say that she perceived the Boston New Church as proslavery since her fellow church members did not yet embrace antislavery.[5] No doubt this factor contributed significantly. However, a close reading of Child’s correspondence brings to light another possibility. Very likely, a distressing situation with Reverend Worcester initially turned her away, and then the denomination’s silence on slavery maintained that dissonance and distance.

Prior to Child’s connection to the congregation, a fellow female congregant experienced a troublesome incident and conflictive relationship with Worcester. Two leading Swedenborgians highlighted this case concerning Margaret Hiller Prescott, one of the congregation’s founders. Marguerite Beck Block did so in her history of Swedenborgianism in America. Additionally, in 1822, William Schlatter from the Philadelphia New Church talked about the predicament.[6] He indicated that the Boston Society expelled Prescott on charges of adultery because she married a non-Swedenborgian. According to Schlatter, Prescott also openly criticized both Worcester and the Boston New Church in what became known as the “conjugial heresy,” or the “Boston principle.”[7] The members of the church likened the pastoral relationship to that of a marriage with the minister as husband and the church as his spouse. Worcester and the congregation interpreted that to mean the pastor could not preach at any other church. To do so signified spiritual adultery. Expanding the analysis to congregants’ personal relationships, the Boston New Church seemingly required members to marry only Swedenborgians. To do otherwise elicited the accusation of adultery, as it did in Prescott’s circumstance. Something similar likely took place between this pastor and Child.

The year Child left the Boston New Church appears to have been 1828. In a letter dated 1856, she wrote that she finished with Swedenborgianism “twenty-eight years ago.”[8] Child married her non-Swedenborgian husband in October 1828. They did not wed in the Boston New Church. Instead, their nuptials took place in Watertown, Massachusetts. Her brother Convers Francis, Jr., a Unitarian minister, solemnized the ceremony. Francis and his wife hosted the wedding reception in their home.[9] While it was not unusual that her brother officiated the service, since she and Francis had a close relationship, placed in the context of the Boston New Church and what Mrs. Prescott went through, Child and her husband could very well have experienced the same thing that happened to Mrs. Prescott. Furthermore, when Worcester wrote to her in 1864, he accepted full responsibility for Child’s exit: “I know that I am to blame for your going and I am willing that you should throw as much of the blame on me as you can.”[10]

Others also experienced run-ins with this first pastor of the Boston New Church. Even a biographer of Worcester who was a close friend noted his intransigence that often was experienced as insensitivity: “If his mind were made up on any question,” James Reed wrote, “it was no easy matter to change it.”[11] The sketch quoted one of Worcester’s adult children:

The fact that my father took all his views from Swedenborg, or through him from the Word, added perhaps to a constitutional inability to see well from another’s point of view, made him habitually shy of accepting ideas from others, when they did not at once coincide with what he had gained himself. . . . When to this was added some natural impatience and self-confidence, there was occasionally an appearance of want of consideration for others, deplored by no one more than by himself.[12]

Not surprisingly, by the 1830s, the absence of antislavery or abolitionist leanings in the Boston Swedenborgian church turned into a pivotal factor that kept Child away from this one-time nurturing and challenging religious tradition. In 1864, she declared: “. . . the [Swedenborgian] church and pastor were so bitterly pro-slavery, and so intensely bigoted [sic], that I doubted whether such a church could have come down from heaven.”[13] Twenty-eight years earlier, she had also referred to this lack: “I do not know of a single member in my own church, who has the least sympathy with me [regarding slavery].”[14]

Child Influences Worcester’s Antislavery Stance

Child seemed to base her description of the Boston New Church as “bitterly proslavery” [prior to 1864] on its inaction and silence in regard to this crucial issue and reality. While this does distinguish its members from “active proslavery” sentiment and action, a few solitary active proslavery voices did exist in the denomination.[15] Worcester, the Boston New Church, and the wider denomination were unwilling to end slavery by radical means. Instead, they waited for official governmental signs that the time had come to terminate this evil.

Sampson Reed’s 1880 biographical piece on Worcester described him as being “a law-abiding citizen and not an agitator.” Historian Scott Trego Swank placed the denomination as a whole in this category. Even for the Swedenborgians who viewed slavery as wrong, “[the New Church’s] vision of progress as slow and orderly and their loyalty to government dampened the radical tendencies which cropped up frequently in the ante bellum era. . . . The New Church called for patience while Providence worked out the destiny of all men.”[16] An 1865 article in the New Jerusalem Magazine reinforced this argument: “These things [nature of slavery and resultant action or inaction] belong . . . to the civil government to decide; and, in considering their decision, we must all be patient and charitable . . .”[17]

With the advent of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, and the evolving antislavery position of the federal government, Worcester and many other Swedenborgians received their signals. As such, by 1864, Worcester and the Boston Society turned antislavery. Sampson Reed wrote, “[Worcester] was a great admirer and supporter of President Lincoln, and entered with all his heart and soul into the cause of freedom, which was the cause of his country, in which he was fully sustained by the members of his society.” The ladies of the church even formed a sewing circle to aid the soldiers.[18]

These actions heartened Child. However, she remained bitterly disappointed with the politically-motivated inexpedience of their conversion. She vented to friend and fellow abolitionist Gerrit Smith:

I meant to have written to you some time ago, to thank you for your letter to the Rev. Thomas Worcester, of the New Jerusalem Church. I had the same thoughts about his letter myself, and could scarcely refrain from telling him that I had small respect for any church, which forbore to rebuke wickedness, till [sic] political economy brought proof that it was safe and profitable for the sinner to repent. But I restrained the strong temptation to satire, because, for the poor negro’s sake, I was glad to have people come over to the right side from any motive.[19]

Ironically, Child’s published writings significantly influenced Worcester and prepared him to eventually adopt this antislavery stance. In a letter to her, published in the March 1865 issues of The Liberator and National Anti-Slavery Standard (the letter that Child referenced in her correspondence to Gerrit Smith in the paragraph above), Worcester penned:

Allow me to avail myself of this opportunity again to express my gratitude to you for delivering me from the bondage of false opinions with regard to slavery. If I had not five or six years ago read your tracts on the effects of emancipation, I do not see but that I would have been on the wrong side through all this war.[20]

At this point, Worcester also began sending Child copies of his sermons and other written work. This perplexed her: “[Worcester] has taken to sending me all he does; and I wonder at it; for I have never returned his friendly call; and he is a man accustomed to be attended to.”[21] Worcester and Child also met in person during the 1860s. She described this encounter in a missive to friend Lucy Osgood: “I was glad to see Mr. Worcester, but there is something sad and spectral in the effort to renew intercourse after an interval of 30 years. I did not know him and he said he should not have known me elsewhere.”[22] While Worcester’s change of heart gladdened her, the conversion was not enough to entice her back into any kind of ongoing relationship—personal or professional—with him. Their late-life encounter, however, did bring her some peace of mind. For instance, this description of their personal meeting did not contain the anger and bitterness found in her earlier diatribes against Swedenborgians.


Child did not allow her conflict with Thomas Worcester and the Boston New Church to stop her from leading a full, active life. In fact, she refused to speak negatively or bitterly about Worcester or the New Church on a public basis, confining her disappointments and dismay to her personal correspondence that did not go public until after her death. Child took a different path from the one taken by Worcester and the Boston congregation. She turned to reforms as her chosen way to bring her Swedenborgian beliefs to life. Worcester not only remained active in the Boston New Church and in the denomination, but he became the denomination’s president during the Civil War period. More than three decades after their separation, their paths crossed again in their common experiences of Swedenborgianism and antislavery in possibly reverse-roles, with Child pastoring the pastor.


Tisa M. Anders is author of a forthcoming book to be published by the Swedenborg Foundation on Lydia Maria Child’s spiritual life. She is active in the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, the Founder and CEO of Writing the World, LLC, and a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).



[1] A Sketch of the History of the Boston Society of the New Jerusalem, with a List of Its Members (Boston: Wm. Carter and Brother, 1863), 46.

[2] SL, 275, LMC to Parke Godwin, 20 January 1856.

[3] LNY2, 114 (emphases added).

[4] George Trobridge, Emanuel Swedenborg: His Life, Teachings and Influence, 2nd ed. (London: Frederick Warne and Company, [ca 1907]), 67.

[5] For example, see the two premiere biographies on Child: Carolyn Karcher, The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994); Deborah Pickman Clifford, Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia Maria Child (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

[6] Marguerite Beck Block, The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenborgianism in America (1932; reprint, New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1968), 107–8; William Schlatter, “Some Letters of William Schlatter, 1814 to 1825,” Bryn Athyn College Library, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, 255–7. William Schlatter, Philadelphia, to John Young, 25 March 1822.

[7] Scott Trego Swank, “The Unfettered Conscience: A Study of Sectarianism, Spiritualism, and Social Reform in the New Jerusalem Church, 1840–1870,” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1970), 68–70.

[8] SL, 275, LMC to Parke Godwin, 20 January 1856.

[9] Tisa M. Anders, “Religion and Advocacy Politics in the Career of L. Maria Child” (PhD diss., University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Joint, 2002), 87–88.

[10] CC, 59–1576, Thomas Worcester to LMC, 30 July 1864.

[11] Sampson Reed, A Biographical Sketch of Thomas Worcester, D.D. (Boston: Massachusetts New Church Union, 1880), 130. The sketch, written by Sampson Reed, included a memorial address by James Reed, the Boston New Church’s second minister.

[12] Ibid., 115. The child wished to remain anonymous.

[13] SL, 441, LMC to Gerrit Smith, 4 April 1864.

[14] CC, 4–100, LMC to Louisa Loring, 19 July 1836.

[15] Swank, 346–8. Swank mentioned two proslavery Swedenborgians: William Holcombe and Samuel Sangston Carpenter. He also mentioned a few antislavery Swedenborgians. I do that as well in my forthcoming book on Child.

[16] Reed, 102; Swank, 319, 345.

[17] [I.V.], “What Are the Teachings of the New Church with Regard to Slavery?”New Jerusalem Magazine (March 1865): 472.

[18] Reed, 103.

[19] SL, 441, LMC to Gerrit Smith, 4 April 1864.

[20] CC, 61–1628, Thomas Worcester to LMC, The Liberator, 3 March 1865;National Anti-Slavery Standard, 4 March 1865.

[21] Ibid., 63–1865, [LMC] to Sarah [Blake Sturgis Shaw], 3 September 1865.

[22] Ibid., 59–1580, LMC to [Lucy Osgood], 21 August 1864.


Sources and Further Reading

Anders, Tisa M.  “Religion and Advocacy Politics in the Career of L. Maria Child.” PhD diss., University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology, 2002.

_________. Never Stifling the Voice of Conscience: L. Maria Child’s Spiritual Journey. West Chester, Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation (forthcoming).

Block, Marguerite Beck. The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenborgianism in America. 1932; reprint, New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1968.

Child, L. Maria. Letters from New York, Second Series. New York: C.S. Francis & Co., 1845. In Notes, referenced as LNY2.

Clifford, Deborah Pickman Clifford. Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia Maria Child. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Holland, Patricia G., Milton Meltzer, and Francine Krasno, eds. The Collected Correspondence of Lydia Maria Child, 1817–1880. Millwood, New York: Kraus Microform, 1980. In Notes, referenced as CC; and Maria Child referenced as LMC.

[I.V.]. “What Are the Teachings of the New Church with Regard to Slavery?” New Jerusalem Magazine (March 1865).

Karcher, Carolyn. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

Meltzer, Milton and Patricia G. Holland, eds. Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817–1880. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1982. In Notes, referenced as SL; and Maria Child referenced as LMC.

Reed, Sampson. A Biographical Sketch of Thomas Worcester, D.D. Boston: Massachusetts New Church Union, 1880.

Schlatter, William. “Some Letters of William Schlatter, 1814 to 1825.” Bryn Athyn College Library, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.

A Sketch of the History of the Boston Society of the New Jerusalem, with a List of Its Members. Boston: Wm. Carter and Brother, 1863.

Swank, Scott Trego. “The Unfettered Conscience: A Study of Sectarianism, Spiritualism, and Social Reform in the New Jerusalem Church, 1840–1870.” PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1970.

Trobridge, George. Emanuel Swedenborg: His Life, Teachings and Influence, 2nd ed. London: Frederick Warne and Company, ca 1907.


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