The Christian Watchman & Reflector: A 19th Century Boston Baptist Newspaper

When studying history, there are a variety of sources that give us a window into another world, and one of these is newspapers. In their time, newspapers served as the primary medium for the exchange of ideas, at times resembling a form of “social media.” Controversies were debated, sermons reprinted, minutes of various societies published. Newspapers could be so controversial that an editor could lose his life (see the example of Elijah Lovejoy who was murdered at the age of 35 for printing an abolitionist paper).

Over the past few years I’ve come to deeply enjoy digging into the archives of a 19th century Boston Baptist newspaper, The Christian Watchman and Reflector (GenealogyBank has searchable digitized archives for the Christian Reflector for the years 1842–48 and for the Christian Watchman from 1819–1876). It was here that I first discovered nineteen previously unpublished letters written by Charles Spurgeon, including his “Red Hot Letter on American Slaery” (see: “Charles Spurgeon in the Christian Watchman & Reflector | Index”). I’ve since devoted hours upon hours to searching the archives on any variety of topics related to Baptist History. Additionally, when I want to know “what did certain 19th century New England Baptists think about [X]?” I search the archives. Every source, though, needs itself to be examined, in order to better understand the context and the perspectives expressed in it. Though somewhat lengthy, this is actually just a beginning sketch of the history of this paper. An exhaustive study remains to be done, and this merely gestures toward some of the contours such a study could follow.

The Most Popular Baptist Paper in All New England

William Cathcart  (1826–1908), in his Baptist Encyclopædia, called it “the most popular Baptist paper in all New England” (466). Robert Turnbull (1809–1877) considered it “the leading Baptist journal in New England, and one of the best papers in the country.”

Thomas Armitage (1819–1896), in his The History of the Baptists, gives this brief overview of the paper:

The oldest Baptist weekly in America is ‘THE WATCHMAN’, of Boston, established in 1819, with the title, the ‘Christian Watchman,’ and edited by Deacon James Loring. The question of slavery becoming a subject of warm discussion, the ‘Christian Reflector’ was begun at Worcester, Mass., edited by Rev. Cyrus P. Grosvenor. This paper was removed to Boston in 1844, under the editorship of Rev. H. A. Graves, where it obtained a large circulation; but, Mr. Graves’s health failing, Rev. J. W. Olmstead became its editor, March, 1846, and in 1848 the two papers were united, under the name, ‘The Watchman and Reflector,’ Dr. Olmstead remaining as editor

(Armitage, 882)

The leading Baptist seminary at the time—Newton Theological Institution—was just ten miles away, and the Watchman & Reflector tended to stay up-to-date with, and to some extent to reflect, the higher echelons of white Baptist leadership.

Name Changes and Mergers (1819–1913)

The paper underwent a number of mergers and name changes over the years. Here is a nearly complete list of its evolution over the years (with links to the Library of Congress listing for each title):

The Christian Watchman

Christian Watchman: (Boston) 1819-1819

The very first article published in the Christian Watchman was a missionary update from Burma:

Christian Watchman & Baptist Register. (Boston) 1819-1821

The Christian Watchman. (Boston) 1821-1848

(LOC notes that the paper was “Published under the patronage of: Baptist Missionary Society of Massachusetts, Dec. 9, 1825-Aug. 1838.”)

The Christian Reflector

Christian Reflector (Worcester, MA) 1838-1839

Christian reflector. (Worcester, Mass.) 1840-1848

The Christian Watchman & Reflector (or was it “Reflector and Watchman”?!)

In 1848, the Watchman and the Reflector merged, though the order in the name switched during its first year:

Christian Reflector & Christian Watchman: (Boston) 1848-1848

Christian Watchman & Christian Reflector. (Boston) 1848-1850

Christian Watchman & Reflector. (Boston) 1851-1866

Watchman & Reflector. (Boston) 1867-1875

In 1876 the paper merged with another Boston paper, the Christian Era, to form: The Watchman (Boston).

The Watchman. (Boston) 1876-1913

William Cathcart, “The Watchman”

William Cathcart includes an entire entry for “The Watchman” in his Baptist Encyclopædia

Watchman, The, a weekly religious paper, pub­lished in Boston, was started, in 1819, by True & Weston, Mr. Weston being its first editor. The original name of the paper was The Christian Watchman, and it was intended to be an organ of the Baptist denomination, setting forth and vin­dicating, in a kind, Christian spirit, the peculiar tenets and practices of the Baptist churches in this country Messrs. True & Weston did not long retain their connection with the paper, but passed it into the hands of William Nichols, Deacon James Loring acting as its editor. Here it remained for fifteen years, and, as an exponent of Baptist prin­ciples and practices, it performed excellent service for the denomination. On the retirement of Dea­con Loring from the editorial chair, Rev. B. F. Farnsworth took charge of the paper for a few months, when he was succeeded by Rev. Ebenezer Thresher, who was its editor for three years. During the next ten years—from 1838 to 1848— The Christian Watchman was under the editorial management of Rev. William Crowell, whose abil­ity as a writer was everywhere acknowledged. Under his supervision the paper took a high posi­tion among the religious periodicals of the day. In consequence of what by many were regarded as too conservative views on the exciting topics which were agitating the community during this period, Mr. Crowell’s position was condemned ; and there seeming to be a call for the establishment of another paper, the Christian Reflector was started in Worcester, Mass., with Cyrus Grosvenor as editor, and W. S. Dannell as publisher. In 1844 the new paper was removed to Boston, and, under the edi­torial management of Rev. H. A. Graves, it was not long before its circulation exceeded that of The Christian Watchman. The health of Mr. Graves led to his resignation, and the paper passed into the hands of Rev. J. W. Olmstead. The two papers were united in 1848, under the editorial manage­ment of Messrs. Olmstead and Hague. Mr. D. S. Ford, one of the publishers, soon came upon the editorial staff, his specialty being the arrangement of the outside of the paper, which, by his enterprise and rare tact, was made as attractive as the inside. The general tone and circulation of the paper con­tinued to improve from year to year until 1867, when it was enlarged to an eight-paged sheet, furnishing to its patrons nearly double the amount of reading matter, with but a small increase in its price. Mr. Ford retired from the Watchman and Reflector at the close of the year 1867, and the proprietorship and editorial management were in the hands of Dr. Olmstead. The Christian Era, which commenced its existence in Lowell, Mass., in 1852, to meet the demand for a more thoroughly out­ spoken anti-slavery paper, after passing through a successful career, chiefly under the management of its editor, Rev. Dr. Webster, was merged into what, under the present arrangement, is called The Watchman, at the close of 1875. The editors of The Watchman were Drs. Olmstead, Lorimer, and Johnson during the year 1876. Rev. L. E. Smith, D.D., for a long time connected with the Examiner, of New York, took the editorial chair at the beginning of 1877. The circulation of the paper in 1878 was a little under 20,000, and was con­stantly increasing. Its growth has been extraor­dinary. The Christian Watchman, insignificant in size, has expanded to a sheet 49 inches by 33, nearly eight times as large as at its birth. The expense of a single paper for original matter has been often larger than the former outlay for an entire year. It cannot be doubted that a prosper­ous future is before it.

(Cathcart, 1216)

Note: if the language regarding William Crowell and Cyrus Grosvenor seems cryptic (“took a high position”; “too conservative views on the exciting topics which were agitating the community during this period”) let me make it plain: Crowell was moderate on the issue of slavery, and Grosvenor was outspoken: 

Begun in 1838, the Christian Reflector was religious paper for the Baptists of Massachusetts. Intended as a paper for the layman, the Reflector was outspoken in its advocation of temperance and morality, and of abolition. Cyrus P. Grosvenor edited the first four volumes. Although the paper was theological in nature, during his editorship, at least two or more articles concerning the slave and the abolitionary movement appeared each week.

“Christian Reflector,” Library of Congress

William Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopædia

Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopædia is a standard reference book for 19th century Baptist history. A search of the book uncovers a wide range of Baptist figures who were connected to the Watchman and Reflector in a variety of ways, whether as owners, editors, writers, reporters, or occasional correspondents. Reading through the list will give you a sense of the various ways Baptists engaged with their newspapers.

Granville S. Abbott (1837–1897)

“For four years he edited the Sunday-school department of The Watchman, of Boston.”

(Cathcart, 10)

Rufus Babcock (1798–1875)

“Dr. Babcock had a ready pen, and always maintained an intimate connection with the religious press… His correspondence with the Watchman, as it is now called, extended over almost the entire period of its existence.”

(Cathcart, 52)


James G. Bolles (1802–1871)

When fifteen, entered a printing-office in Bridgeport, Conn., and remained till twenty; went to Boston, Mass., and was partner in the firm that published the Christian Watchman.”

(Cathcart, 111)

William Chauncy Child (1817–1876)

“In 1861 he was chosen district secretary of the American Tract Society, of Boston, which position he held for eight years,— 1861–69. Soon after retiring from this office he was elected district secretary of the American Baptist Publication Society, and was in office until1873. He occupied during the latter years of his life a responsible position on the editorial staff of The Watchman and Reflector.”

(Cathcart, 215–26)

William Crowell (1806–1871)

Crowell, William, D.D., was born in Middle- field, Mass., Sept. 22, 1806. He received his liter­ary and theological education at Brown and New­ton. While pursuing his studies at the latter he preached in several villages and towns around Bos­ton, especially at Quincy, where he gathered a congregation in a large gambling-room in a house formerly used as a tavern, and such was the bless­ ing attending his ministrations in this room that a church was organized. 

Soon after leaving Newton, Mr. Crowell accepted the editorship of the Christian Watchman. This position he held for ten years, when the Watchman and the Christian Reflector were united. During this period the paper prospered, and its reputation was not surpassed by any denominational organ in the country. 

While in Boston, in 1845, he preached twice every Sunday, and taught in the Sunday-school. After leaving Boston he accepted the pastorate of the church in Waterville, Me., and continued to serve it for about two years, when he removed to St. Louis, Mo., to take editorial charge of The Western Watchman. He held this position for ten years, making the paper a power among the grow­ing hosts of Missouri Baptists. A variety of causes led him, just as the late war was about to convulse the nation, to retire from the editorial chair of The Western Watchman, after which he served as pastor for a short period at Freeport, 111., and at the time of his death he was engaged in ministerial and other labors in New Jersey. He died in August, 1871. The Watchman and Reflector, of Boston, of August 31, 1871, says of him, “His mind was one of uncommon discrimination and clearness. We mourn the loss of so able and good a man, and that his ‘sun should have gone down while it was yet day.’” Dr. Crowell was one of the most tal­ented and cultured men in the Baptist denomina­tion, his piety was all-pervading, and he shed a genial and blessed light over the entire relations of life. Thousands mourned his death as an af­fliction to the whole Baptist Israel. He was the author of several works, chief among which was “The Church Member’s Manual” now used as a text-book in some of our theological seminaries.

(Cathcart, 1304).

Sewell S. Cutting (1813–1882)

.In 1851 he accepted an editorial position on the Watchman and Reflector, of Boston.

(Cathcart, 305)

Daniel Sharp Ford

Daniel Sharp Ford

“Daniel Sharp Ford (1822-1899) is a Northern Baptist newspaper publisher. Born in Cambridge in a Christian home, as a young man Ford apprenticed in the printers’ trade in Boston, soon becoming a partner in the newly-founded Christian Watchman and Reflector, a Baptist newspaper that becomes a leading voice for American Baptists.

Ford’s publishing enterprises did not stop there. In 1857 the business partners founded the Youth’s Companion, a publication aimed at young Christians. In a matter of time, a falling out between Ford and his partner led to his giving up his part in the Watchman and Reflector while assuming full ownership of Youth’s Companion.”

(from Bruce Gourley, “Baptists and the American Civil War: March 5, 1864”)

Amory Gale (1815–1874)

He graduated from Brown University in 1843, and from Newton Theological Seminary in 1846. Under his labors while a student at Brown Univer­sity an extensive revival was experienced in Royalston. His first settlement after graduating was at Ware, Mass. Here he was ordained Nov. 11, 1846. In the spring of 1857 he received a com­ mission from the American Baptist Home Mission Society to visit the West, and settled with the First Baptist church of Minneapolis. He succeeded Rev. T. R. Cressey as general missionary for the State. July 1,1858. For fifteen years he toiled in his mis­sionary work, and reaped a glorious harvest. The Rev. Lyman Palmer collated many facts concerning Brother Gale’s labors, from which we select the fol­lowing : “Sermons, 5000; family calls, 16,000; books sold or donated, 25,000 volumes; miles traveled. 100,000.—more than 50.000 miles of his missionary journevings were with Indian ponies, in a buggy or a sleigh.” Large churches were anxious for his services, but his reply was, “The men are fewer who will take fields to be worked up, so I will take a new field.” He had a strong physical frame, but it was the constraining love of Jesus that wrought within him an indomitable energy to grapple with and overcome great difficulties. He did not stop to look at obstacles, but to inquire for needed work. For years he suffered very much with asthma, and often slept leaning against the wall of his room, lie had as true a missionary spirit as ever dwelt in a human heart. He organized Sunday-schools all over Minnesota. At the time of his death there were one hundred and sixty-nine Baptist churches in that State, more than one-half of which he had assisted in forming. His name will long remain a household word in Minnesota. 

In the summer of 1874 he sailed for Europe. While abroad he visited the principal places of in­terest in Great Britain, many of the continen­tal cities, Greece, Constantinople, and Palestine. At Jaffa, prostrated by Syrian fever, he was taken to the hospital, where he died, Nov. 25, 1874. During his travels a number of highly interesting letters from his pen were published in the Watch­man and Reflector, of Boston. The death of no citizen of Minnesota ever occasioned more profound sadness, lie was buried in the 1”American Prot­estant Cemetery,” near the city of Jaffa.

(Cathcart, 430–31)

George Gardner (1828–1895)

George Gardner

“He has contributed to the pages of the Baptist Quarterly, published several missionary tracts, and was the Sunday-school editor of the Watchman and Reflector for 1871 and 1872.”

(Cathcart, 436)

Hiram Atwell Graves (1813–1850)

In 1842 he became the editor of the Christian Reflector, a Baptist weekly newspaper, published in Boston. He entered upon the duties of the office when the fortunes of the paper were at their lowest ebb. At once it was evident that an energetic man was at the helm of affairs. The moribund paper was lifted into new life. Its subscription list increased largely, and it was a power in the denomination, which made itself felt in every direction. At length it was united with the Christian Watchman, and under the new name of the Watchman and Reflector it was the most popular Baptist paper in all New England. 

Such hard and constant strain on his nervous system, as he was forced to endure to bring his paper up to the point where he finally left it, thoroughly exhausted him, and he was compelled to retire from his editorial chair and seek rest and recuperation in a milder climate. Three or four years were spent in the island of Jamaica. His disease was probably held in check, but it was not subdued. Feeling satisfied that he could not recover, he returned to his native land, and after lingering a few weeks, he died at his father’s house in Bristol, R. I., Nov. 3, 1850. 

The fame of Mr. Graves rests upon his accomplishments as an editor. Of him, as working in this department of Christian labor, Dr. Turnbull says,“He formed the character and laid the foundation of the prosperity of the Watchman and Reflector, the leading Baptist journal in New England, and one of the best papers in the country. 

Easy, versatile, and graceful, apt, also, in a high degree, with sufficient spice of wit and vigor, always sensible and often eloquent. his leaders, short or long, were the first things caught by appreciative readers. In full sympathy with the spirit of Christianity and the progress of the age in all benevolent enterprises, he threw himself into the grand movement of the church for the salvation of the world. Our educational, missionary, and philanthropic schemes are largely indebted to his judicious, earnest advocacy.”

(Cathcart, 466)

William Hague (1808–1876)

“He has also written much for the reviews and the periodical press, especially for the Watchman, of Boston, with which he was at one time connected editorially, and whose columns he has often enriched over his well-known signature “Herbert.” Dr. Hague is justly regarded as one of the ablest and most scholarly ministers of his denomination.”

(Cathcart, 485)

Alvah Hovey (1820–1903)

Alvah Hovey

“Dr. Hovey has contributed a large amount of matter to the Christian Review, the Baptist Quarterly, the Bibliotheca Sacra, the Examiner and Chronicle, the Watchman, the Standard, and other papers.”

(Cathcart, 547)

Heman Lincoln (1821–1887)

Heman Lincoln

“Dr. Lincoln has had much experience in writing for the press during all his professional life. For five years he was editorially connected with the Christian Chronicle, and for thirteen years with the Watchman and Reflector.”

(Cathcart, 703–704)

Richard M. Nott (1831–1880)

“In the summer of 1880 his health so failed that he was obliged to abandon his supply at Brookville, and also his valuable work in the Sunday-school department of The Watchman, the “Lesson Helps,” which were very satisfactorily prepared by him.”

(Cathcart, 859)

John W. Olmstead (1816–1891)

In 1846 he became editor of the Christian Reflector, of Boston. In 1848 the Watchman was united with it, and he filled the editorial chair of the consolidated papers until 1877. His ability as a religious journalist was fully demonstrated in his long and successful management of that paper… His life has been one of great usefulness and honor”

(Cathcart, 868)

George Whitefield Samson (1819–1896)

George Samson

He entered Brown University in September, 1835 ,and graduated in 1839. In the mean time he was an occasional correspondent of, and reporter for, the Christian Watchman, Boston… 

After four years of arduous labor, having specially prepared himself for the study of art and of Biblical archaeology, he spent a year in the East and in Western Europe, devoting half a year to Goshen, the Desert of Sinai, and Palestine; following the route of Napoleon’s engineers in1798–99 through the delta retraced by Seetzen in 1810, and personally finding the valley east of Jebel Mousa, regarded by early Christians as the place of Israel’s encampment, and since his visit recognized by French and German scholars. He satisfactorily identified also the sites of Christ’s birth, baptism, transfiguration, death, ascension, and other localities. A series of letters was written for the Watchman, of Boston ; three articles on Goshen were prepared for the Christian Review; one on Sinai for the Bibliotheca Sacra; a treatise on the places of New Testament baptisms; a small volume on spiritualism,—all appearing between 1848 and 1851. 

…No Baptist clergyman in the country is perhaps better known throughout the denomination than Dr. Samson.”

(Cathcart, 1024–25)

Lucius Smith (1822–1900)

In 1868 he entered upon his duties as literary editor of the Examiner and Chronicle, and held that office until 1876, when he was called to the chair of editor of the Watchman, which place he now occupies. 

Dr. Smith’s editorial calling seems to be the one for which he has special and most superior qualifi­cations. His experience in this line goes back to his student days, when for a year he was editor of the Williams Miscellany, a college magazine. Pres­ident Hopkins said at the expiration of that year’s work, “ I do not believe you are done with editing. I am inclined to think it is your vocation.” The event has justified the correctness of his confident assertions. Besides articles contributed to reviews, magazines, and various newspapers, Dr. Smith published, in 1852, “Heroes and Martyrs of the Missionary Enterprise, with an Historical Review of Earlier Missions.” The degree of D.D. was conferred upon him in 1869 by Williams College. Dr. Smith is held in the highest esteem in the extensive fields which he has cultivated.”

(Cathcart, 1071)

Joseph Stockbridge (1811–1894)

Having received an appointment as chaplain in the U. S. navy, he was ordained in New York in 1842, the sermon being preached by Rev. Dr. William R. Williams, from the appropriate text, Acts xxvii.24, “God hath given thee all them that sail with thee.” In the discharge of his official duties Dr. Stockbridge has visited many parts of the earth, and Occupied several stations as chaplain on land. He has also had intimate connections with the public press, both religious and secular. As a correspondent of The Watchman, under the signature of “Mallah” he has furnished a large amount of matter, especially in the form of interesting and instructive letters from foreign lands.”

(Cathcart, 1111)

Ebenezer Thresher (1798–1886)

Ebenezer Thresher

In 1834 he became editor of The Watchman, though his name did not appear in connection with the paper until1836, when he purchased the proprietorship from William Nichols, and held this three or four years.

(Cathcart, 1151)

Tremont Temple

Tremont Temle

Tremont Temple, Boston, Mass., was pur­chased early in 1843 by Timothy Gilbert, S. G. Shipley, Thomas Gould, and William S. Danwell for $55,000. It had been the Tremont Theatre.. The deed was executed in June, 1843. The object for which the edifice was bought by these gentle­ men was to secure a place of worship for the Tre­ mont Street Baptist church, where the seats should be free, that there might be free seats for the poor, and for strangers coming to the city to seek employ­ment, whose means would not allow them to rent, pews in other churches. 

…The church worshiping in the Temple has a membership of 1500, and, under the able ministry of F. M. Ellis,D.D., one of the largest congregations in the UnitedStates. It is known and designated as the headquarters of New England Baptists. The Missionary Union, the New England departments of the Home Mission Society and the Publication Society, the Woman’s Baptist Home and Foreign Missionary Societies, and the Watchman have rooms in the Temple.

(Cathcart, 1162–64)

James Upham (1815–1893)

In 1866 he retired from this position [president of the New Hampshire Literary Institute], and became one of the editors of the Watchman and Reflector. He held this office for several years with distinguished ability.

(Cathcart, 1185)

John E. Weston (1796–1831)

Henry Weston

Weston, Rev. John E., was born in Amherst, N. H., Oct. 13, 1796. On his mothers side he was of Huguenot descent, and had many of those qualities of character which we associate with those honored French refugees, who suffered so much for the sake of their religion. He estab­lished, in connection with Mr. Benjamin True, in 1818, the Christian Watchman, now The Watchman, of Boston, which has been in existence sixty-three years. His connection with the paper continued not far from three years. While thus engaged his religious impressions ripened into a full hope in Christ, and he was baptized by Rev. James M. Winchell, Feb. 22,1820, and connected himself with the church under the pastoral care of Rev. Dr. Sharp. Having given up his business as a printer, he now resolved to carry out his early purpose to secure a better intellectual training, with a view to entering the ministry. lie repaired to the Andover Phillips^ Academy, and subsequently put himself under the tuition of Rev. Dr. Bolles, of Salem, Mass.; then became a student of Columbian College, and com­pleted his theological studies in part at Andover and in part as a member of the first graduating class at Newton. He was ordained at East Cam­ bridge, Mass., Oct. 10, 1827, and was the pastor of the Baptist church in that place for four years. He resigned his charge May 27, 1831. An invita­tion had been extended to him to become the pas­ tor of the Baptist church in Nashua, N. II., but his work was nearly done. On his way to Nashua to fulfill an engagement he drove into a pond—it being a warm summer’s day—to refresh his horse. Unfortunately it was a dangerous place, and Mr. Weston leaped from the carriage, and, being unable to swim, was drowned. The sad event occurred July 2, 1831. Mr. Weston was father of the Rev. H. G. Weston, D.D., president of the Crozer Theological Seminary.

(Cathcart, 1234)