William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan
Finding aid for
Finding aid created by
John Pierpont Papers, 1854-1861
Rob S. Cox, October 1996
John Pierpont papers
Pierpont, John, 1785-1866
The John Pierpont papers consist of seven letters written by the noted Unitarian minister, poet, and reformer about his Spiritualist beliefs and activities.
The material is in English
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu
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The collection is open for research.
Copyright status is unknown.
John Pierpont Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan
A Unitarian minister, poet, and all-purpose reformer, John Pierpont came from an illustrious New England family descending from James Pierpont, one of the founders of Yale College, to the financier, J.P. Morgan, John's grandson. Graduating from Yale with the class of 1804, Pierpont was employed as a private tutor in South Carolina until 1809, when he returned north to begin the study of law. In the following year, he married his fourth cousin, Mary Sheldon Lord, and began on a family that would number three sons and three daughters. Two years after Mary Pierpont died in 1855, John remarried to Harriet Louise (Campbell) Fowler.
Pierpont was admitted to the bar in Newburyport, Mass., in 1812, but when his legal career failed to flourish, he entered into a mercantile partnership with a brother in law, Joseph L. Lord. Although this pursuit, too, languished, due largely to the uncertainties of a wartime economy, Pierpont's literary aspirations began to bear fruit, culminating in the publication of the critically received book of poetry, The Airs of Palestine in 1816. The Airs was later expanded and revised, and along with The Anti-Slavery poems of John Pierpont (1843), consolidated Pierpont's reputation as a minor, but noteworthy poet. When his business partnership foundered, however, he was once again forced to change careers.
Enrolling at Harvard Divinity School, Pierpont prepared himself for the Unitarian ministry. In retrospect, his rambling, substantial intellect found its life's work in April, 1819, when he was ordained as pastor of the Hollis Street Church, Boston. For over a quarter of a century, he used his pulpit to promulgate a deeply liberal theology to an all-too conservative congregation, delivering a strident message of comprehensive political, educational, and social reform. Among his many publications during these years were two influential school readers, The American First Class Book (1823) and The National Reader (1827), and numerous sermons. Pierpont also worked tirelessly for temperance and the abolition of slavery, but his forthrightness -- or tactlessness -- on both these issues earned him the enmity of a portion of his congregation, who waged a protracted struggle to dislodge him. After seven bitter years, these efforts finally succeeded, resulting in Pierpont's resignation from Hollis Street in 1845. He later held Unitarian pastorates in Troy, N.Y. (1845-49) and West Medford, Mass. (1849-1858).
The liberal cast of Pierpont's mind is reflected in his attraction to phrenology and Spiritualism, both common beliefs of antebellum reformers. Never admitting any conflict between his beliefs as a Unitarian and Spiritualist, Pierpont became an active "investigator" into Spiritualist phenomena as early as 1854, and by the late 1850s, was a firm believer. "There is not a fact in sacred history," he wrote, "or, in truth, in any other history, of which the evidence presented to my mind is so strong -- or a tithe as strong, as that those whom I have loved, and have 'gone before' are often, if not always around me, and that I am still an object of their interest and of their care" (1861 September 19). It is likely that these beliefs -- along with his penchant for preaching politics -- contributed to renewed conflict in his congregation in Medford that in the spring of 1858, once again led him to resign a pastorate.
Although 76 years old, Pierpont rose to the challenge of the Civil War, and volunteered to serve as chaplain of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. He was gratified to serve his country at such an advanced age, and his radical ardor fueled a belief that he was entering into direct conflict "against that infernal power that has been so long serving the devil," as he put it, "if indeed the slave power is not the very devil itself" (1861 September 19). Although poor health forced him to resign this commission within two weeks, Pierpont continued in a public capacity, accepting a clerkship in the Treasury Department. Following a brief vacation in August, 1866, he died suddenly of disease of the heart. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Collection Scope and Content Note
The John Pierpont papers are comprised of seven letters, all addressed to the family of friend and fellow Spiritualist, Asher Tyler, later president of the Elmira Rolling Mill, Elmira, N.Y. Though brief, these letters shed a highly focused light on a little known facet of John Pierpont's life, his belief in Spiritualism. The standard biographical works on Pierpont elide any mention of his dalliance with spiritual phenomena, despite the fact that he was an ardent and vocal supporter of the cause for over a decade. Spanning the years from his first investigations to his full, mature belief, these seven letters indicate something of the development and depth of Pierpont's commitments, with brief glimpses into his other reform activities.
The Pierpont Papers includes two letters from 1854, in which Pierpont appears to have been testing the ability of a clairvoyant medium, Mr. Potter, to read personality from a writing sample. According to Pierpont, Potter was successful in every regard, with the exception of an error in reading Pierpont's age. In the second of these letters, Pierpont reported that another medium, Mrs. Perkins, was able to discern Potter's influence on the writing sample, reading it like a palimpsest on a manuscript. For Pierpont, this provided convincing evidence of Perkins' authenticity. More impressive, still, was another of Pierpont's experiences with Mrs. Perkins, in which she was able accurately to diagnosed an illness afflicting Mrs. Tyler -- without seeing or knowing the patient -- and to prescribe medication that Pierpont was convinced would be efficacious (1857 June 21).
Perhaps the most interesting letter in the collection, however, is the letter in which Pierpont informs Tyler that he has volunteered for duty as chaplain of the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. Equating the cause of abolition of slavery with a crusade against the devil himself, Pierpont also reiterates his unwavering commitment to the authenticity of Spirit communication.
- Troy (N.Y.)
- West Medford (Mass.)
Additional Descriptive Data
The Benjamin West Papers contain a printed broadside listing the order of the ordination services for Pierpont as pastor of the Hollis Street congregation, 1819 April 14.
Dictionary of American Biography vol. 14: 586-587.
Dexter, Franklin B. Biographical sketches of the graduates of Yale College, vol. 5, 1792-1805 (N.Y., 1911): 692-704.
- 1854 March 17
- 1854 April 10
- 1857 June 21
Mansfield, James V.SeancesSlaverySpiritual healingSpiritualism
- 1854 March 17
- 1854 April 10
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865United States. Army--Chaplains
- 1857 June 21
- 1861 January 26
- 1861 September 19