Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Hidden gems: Harriet Livermore: "A Stranger and Pilgrim"

by Haley Steinhilber, archival intern

A portrait of Harriet Livermore that was featured in the Essex Aquarian (Vol, 5. No.1, January 1901) to accompany a short biography

A portrait of Harriet Livermore that was featured in the Essex Aquarian (Vol, 5. No.1, January 1901) to accompany a short biography

“Since then what old cathedral town
Has missed her pilgrim staff and gown,
What convent-gate has held its lock
Against the challenge of her knock!”
— John G. Whittier, “Snow-Bound” 1

Unlike many women of her time, Harriet Livermore was born into a wealthy middle-class family with access to higher education. She never settled into a single denomination, but instead focused on the task to “restore the apostolic simplicity of the primitive church.” She followed no creed except what she deemed as “biblical truths” taken from the New Testament. 2 She was permitted to give sermons in many Protestant congregations during the 19th century, including meetinghouses of the Church of the Brethren where she established relationships with notable Brethren figures, such as Sarah Righter Major and Abraham Harley Cassel.

Harriet was born to Hon. Edward St. Joe Livermore and Mehitable Harris on April 14, 1788 in Concord, New Hampshire. Both her grandfather (Hon. Samuel Livermore) and her uncle (Arthur Livermore) were active in the United States legislative government. Her grandfather had been the New Hampshire representative to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Harriet’s father was the U.S. District Attorney during Washington’s term, Justice of the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, and served as a Senator. 3 Her family’s wealth and status afforded Harriet more opportunities for education during her youth—she attended Byefield Seminary and Atkinson Academy in New Hampshire.

Sarah Righter Major and husband
Courtesy of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Sarah Righter Major and husband

In her own writings, Harriet described herself as “volatile” in her youth and always filled with a considerable amount of rage and passion. Her family denied her request for marriage due to her quick temperament, and not long after, her love succumbed to yellow fever.4 In 1811, when Harriet was twenty-three, she sought solace in the sanctuary of faith. She channeled her passion into spiritual devotion.5 Much to the horror of her family, this religious revelation caused her to abandon privileged life and familial obligations to pursue “personal holiness.” In 1821, Harriet answered the call to become a preacher, and began travelling from place to place to preach the gospel in any welcoming denomination she could find.6 She was received in 1826 by Reverend Peter Keyser and the Church of the Brethren congregation in Philadelphia, PA, where she met Sarah Righter Major.7 Harriet is credited with the conversion of Sarah Righter Major, the first female Brethren preacher in the Church of the Brethren. Harriet thought of Sarah as “her spiritual daughter,” and encouraged her affinity to preach.8

Harriet appears in the famous poem, “Snow-Bound,” by John Whittier as “the not unfeared, half-welcome guest.” His interpretation marked her as intimidating, independent, and outspoken for a woman.9 Abraham H. Cassel, famous for his collection of historical Brethren documents, is responsible for saving the remainder of Harriet’s documents and publications. Coincidentally, Cassel himself was converted to the Church of the Brethren by Sarah Righter Major.10

Despite her status as a woman, Harriet was well-known during her lifetime for being an articulate preacher. Crowds would gather to hear her sermons as she was rumored to be handsome, passionate, and a beautiful singer.11

“Her language was correct, persuasive, and judging by my own feelings, the profound attention and sympathy of the audience, extremely eloquent. Many wept even to sobbing.... Judging, as I said, by my own feelings...I should say she is the most eloquent preacher I have listened to since the days of Mr. Waddell. But no language can do justice to the pathos of her singing. For when she closed by singing a hymn that might with propriety be termed a prayer...her voice was so melodious, and her face beamed with such heavenly goodness as to resemble a transfiguration, and you were compelled to accord them all to her.”12

Livermore addressed the US Congress four different times, an honor only given to one other woman, a British missionary named Dorothy Ripley. This was partly because of her reputation to bring audiences “to their knees in prayer,” but was also inspired by her family’s connection to Congress.13

However, not everyone was thrilled to hear Harriet speak. Harriet broke through the boundaries that separated the dual spheres between gender in a society where women were defined by their relationship to men. President John Quincy Adams belittled her popularity as “an impulse for vanity and love of fame.” Other critics believe she had lost her “feminine” modesty by exposing herself to the male-dominated public. Harriet, and women like her, were often likened to prostitutes or actresses as a result of their presence in the public sphere.14 Sarah Righter Major remedied this issue by marrying a member of the Brethren clergy. By doing this, she could offer an additional sermon at the end of her husband’s service or substitute while he was away.15 Harriet never married, but defended her validity as a preacher by using examples of the Old Testament and even Christ himself to justify women’s right to preach. She argued that when Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection, he chose her to be the first preacher of his good news.” She further used the Bible to interpret femininity versus masculinity by referencing the often maternal language used to describe Christ.16

Among Harriet’s other ventures, she was an Adventist. She believed that she had a part in the prophecy mentioned in Rev. xi. 3-13 and travelled to Jerusalem four times during her lifetime to witness the Second Coming of Christ. She became known there as the “American ‘Mejunneh’” and “’the Yankee crazy woman.’”

In May of 1832, Harriet trekked to the Western United States to live as a missionary among the Native Americans. She believed that they were the lost tribes of Israel and sought to better their condition in the United States. The Commissioners on Indian Affairs disagreed with her mission, and forced her to return to the East.17

The stories of female preachers in eighteenth and nineteenth century America have widely been forgotten by history. Harriet Livermore is one such woman lost behind years of erasure. Her beliefs became more erratic in old age and she further slipped from prominence. Harriet died impoverished in an alms house in Philadelphia. She was buried at the cemetery behind the Germantown meetinghouse in Pennsylvania. A Brethren woman and friend to Harriet, Margaret F. Worrell, had Harriet placed in her own lot at the cemetery.

The gravestone of Harriet Livermore in Germantown, Pennsylvania
Courtesy of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives

The gravestone of Harriet Livermore in Germantown, Pennsylvania

1 John G. Whittier, “Snowbound,” in Harriet Livermore: “The Pilgrim Stranger,” Rev. S.T. Livermore, A.M. (Hartford: Press of the Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Co., 1884), 13.

2 Catherine A. Brekus, "Harriet Livermore, the Pilgrim Stranger: Female Preaching and Biblical Feminism in Early-Nineteenth-Century America", Church History 65:3 (1996), 393.

3 Rev. S.T. Livermore, A.M. Harriet Livermore: “The Pilgrim Stranger” (Hartford: Press of the Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Co., 1884), 17.

4 “Harriet Livermore,” The Essex Antiquarian. Vol. 5, No. 1, (Salem, Massachusetts, January 1901), 7-9.

5 Catherine A. Brekus, "Harriet Livermore, the Pilgrim Stranger: Female Preaching and Biblical Feminism in Early-Nineteenth-Century America", Church History 65:3 (1996), 392.

6 Catherine A. Brekus, "Harriet Livermore, the Pilgrim Stranger: Female Preaching and Biblical Feminism in Early-Nineteenth-Century America", Church History 65:3 (1996), 393.

7 Rev. S.T. Livermore, A.M. Harriet Livermore: “The Pilgrim Stranger” (Hartford: Press of the Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Co., 1884), 95-96.

8 Harriet Livermore, A Narration of Religious Experience: In Twelve Letters. (Concord, 1826), 161, in Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845, (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 264.
Kermon Thomasson, “Harriet Livermore: Snow-Bound’s ‘not unfeared, half-welcome guest’” Messenger, December 1992. 18.

9 J. Dennis Robinson, “Harriet Livermore is Local ‘Shero’” As I Please, June 23, 2001. http://www.seacoastnh.com/arts/please062301.html

10 Kermon Thomasson, “Harriet Livermore: Snow-Bound’s ‘not unfeared, half-welcome guest’” Messenger, December 1992. 18.

11 Rev. S.T. Livermore, A.M. Harriet Livermore: “The Pilgrim Stranger” (Hartford: Press of the Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Co., 1884), 86.

12 Letter of an "esteemed lady" to her daughter, January 9, 1827. Quoted in Elizabeth F. Hoxie, "Harriet Livermore: 'Vixen and Devotee'", The New England Quarterly, 18:1. (1945), 44.

13 Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845, (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 1, 13.

14 Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845, (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 2-3.

15 Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845, (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 223.

16 Catherine A. Brekus, "Harriet Livermore, the Pilgrim Stranger: Female Preaching and Biblical Feminism in Early-Nineteenth-Century America", Church History 65:3 (1996), 397.

17 Rev. S.T. Livermore, A.M. Harriet Livermore: “The Pilgrim Stranger” (Hartford: Press of the Case, Lockwood, & Brainard Co., 1884), 125.