The roots of American Universalism draw deeply on the New England states and the Burned-Over District of New York, and pass through the dozens of itinerant and local preachers spreading the doctrine of universal salvation to nearly every corner of the region. During the Second Great Awakening, Nathaniel Michael Stacy was one of the first Universalist preachers to delve into the fertile grounds of New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and became one the most ardent promoters of the religion.
Stacy was born on December 2, 1778, in New Salem, Mass., the fifth of seven children born to Rufus Stacy (1734-1824) and his second wife Anna Day Stacy (1745-1837). Rufus, originally from the port city of Gloucester, had been employed in several capacities aboard fishing vessels from the age of seven. The Stacys were sympathetic to the doctrines of Universalism from its infant days. In fact, Nathaniel notes in his Memoirs that they were among the earliest hearers of John Murray, the so-called Father of American Universalism. However, when Rufus and Anna moved their family from Gloucester to New Salem in the mid-1770s, the doctrines preached by Murray had yet made few inroads into inland Massachusetts, and the Stacy children were therefore raised in the Congregational Church. In New Salem, at the relatively advanced age of forty, Rufus began a new career as a farmer, apparently without great success, although he did manage to eke out a living for his sizable family, which included two children from his first marriage. In the early 1790s, he deeded his farm and appurtenances to Stacy's eldest brother, Rufus, in return for a life lease to himself and Anna. It was clear that the remaining Stacy boys would need to fend for themselves.
Stacy tried his hand at a number of trades between 1792 and 1802, from blacksmithing to school-teaching. By his own admission, he was too small and sickly to succeed at blacksmithing, and teaching offered at best only a few months of employment each year. In 1799, when he first heard the preaching of Hosea Ballou, Stacy had just finished a stint of teaching and had apprenticed himself to a clockmaker, but was still restless and unsettled. The simple and optimistic doctrine of universal salvation for mankind greatly impressed Stacy, who had been prone since early youth to fits of terror and depression at the thought of the wrath of an angry God. Eventually, in 1802, he entered into study with Ballou, and was given fellowship as a Universalist minister in 1803. He spent the next few years preaching occasionally throughout western Massachusetts and Vermont, but continued to teach school seasonally to supplement the small income he derived from preaching. When he married Susan Clark of New Salem, however, and moved with her to central New York, he finally committed himself to take up ministerial duties full time. The Stacys stayed in Whitestown and Columbus before settling in Hamilton in 1808, where they would remain for the next 22 years. The couple had a large family of eight children: three sons and five daughters.
In Hamilton, Stacy founded and ministered to a Society of Universalists, and itinerated throughout central and western New York. He might well have remained there for the course of his life but for the Antimasonic excitement which swept over western New York in the late 1820s. Stacy had become a Free Mason in Massachusetts in 1804; he notes in his Memoirs that most of the clergy of the day were Masons. But in 1829, several members of his congregation demanded that he renounce his Masonic ties. Stacy refused, causing a rift in the Society which he felt could be healed only by his departure. As a result, in 1830, Stacy moved his family to Columbus, Pa., where he continued to itinerate and minister, supplementing his income by maintaining a small farm. Despite his apparent success in Columbus, in 1835, Stacy accepted an offer to minister to the Society of Universalists in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where several former members of his Hamilton congregation had settled. Leaving his reduced holdings in Pennsylvania in the hands of a son-in-law, he moved his wife and unmarried children to Michigan. It was an unfortunate time to move to the Territory. The effects of uncontrolled financial speculation and a lack of confidence in the currency were to lead nationally to the Panic of 1837, and Michigan, the newest state, admitted that very year, was hit harder than most. Stacy received little of the money subscribed for his services and was forced into debt for the support of his family. Distressed by this turn of events, the family returned to Columbus only five years after their arrival.
Shortly after his return to Pennsylvania, Stacy resumed his ministerial duties and began work on his Memoirs, which were published in 1850. As he grew older, he itinerated less and less. Eventually, the failure of his eyesight and hearing drew a close to his active career as a minister, although he continued to preach throughout the 1860s, and in fact performed two marriages in January 1868, just three months prior to his death on April 4th. Susan survived her husband by less than two years. She died on October 4, 1869.