Spiritual Wife-ism in Colonial Massachusetts

Article Covers
Townshend, Windham, Vermont, United States
Windham, Vermont, United States
Warwick, Franklin, Massachusetts, United States
Franklin, Massachusetts, United States
Year range
1760 - 1844
This article was originally written and contributed by Jillaine Smith and is an excerpt of her larger yet-to-be published manuscript, "God Love and Lust: The Tale of Four Revolutionary Families."



As the colonists of New England approached what would become the American Revolution, another revolution of sorts was taking place in towns large and small. While Massachusetts had maintained strong Puritan sensibilities, the rest of New England and colonial America had been experiencing a diversification of religious views, and despite its efforts to prevent it, Massachusetts could not keep such variations outside of its borders. As a result, such alternative religious groups as Quakers, Baptists and what would become Universalists were increasingly roaming and settling throughout the colony. Inside of this environment of spiritual experimentation, it may not be too surprising to learn that alternatives to social norms were also be explored. Whether based in radical political beliefs or more base human desires (or some combination), we may never know. But we do know that the town of Warwick, MA was rocked by more than revolutionary fervor in the 1770s.

During this time, one “Elder HIX” arrived in the young town of Warwick, Massachusetts. He was an “itinerant Baptist minister,” going from house to house converting people. Apparently a very charismatic individual, he also preached that men and women had spiritual as well as temporal spouses, and when so moved to love another, “there was no criminality in such a connection.”

The controversy was first written about (in published form, anyway) in Jonathan BLAKE, Jr's History of the Town of Warwick, Mass., initially drafted 50 years after the controversy took place, but not published until almost a century later. Most subsequent works reference Blake, who describes the controversy thus:

[The Baptist “Elder Hix” and his followers] went from house to house, convincing and converting one another; held their meetings by day and by night, in season and out of season. Their daily and usual occupations were neglected; some of the first characters of the town were subjects of irresistible grace, and exhorted and prayed and admonished each other to flee the ark of safety; and children and boys, unlearned and untaught, could pray with the tongues of men and of angels. Much enthusiasm made them mad, sober reason was discarded, and the town was well nigh turned upside down.
[Elder Hix] told them that men and women had their spiritual husbands and wives as well as their temporal; and consequently where the spirit led them to love and admire each other in a spiritual sense, there was no criminality in the connection.

The Families

When the victims of this delusion (if we may be allowed so mild an expression) were wrought up to the highest pitch, when meek-eyed Charity hoped and believed them to be sincere worshippers of God, the bubble burst, the wolves in sheep's clothing were discovered. Such a scene of infatuation and corruption was brought to light as perhaps never was before witnessed in a Christian land. Who could believe that this monster in sin [referring to Elder Hix], though a pretended servant of the most high God, had long been guilty of conduct that would disgrace a brothel; and, to fill up the measure of his iniquity to the brim, he absconded from the town with a young girl, the miserable dupe of his nefarious wiles, and a deluded proselyte to his pretended religion. This girl's name was ____ Doolittle. As soon as the rookery was broken up by the arch demon's decamping, Mr. Amos Marsh cleared out with Mrs. Doolittle, the girl's mother; and Mr. Amzi Doolittle, the father of the girl, went off with Mr. Thomas Barber's wife.

While the specific dates of this eruption are not documented, review of the records places the timing around the spring or summer of 1778.

Blake's history as well as subsequent commentary by other historians implies that everything went back to normal, with spouses returning to their "temporal" families. But extensive research into the families affected reveals quite a different set of outcomes.


"Elder Hix" ran off with the daughter of Amzi Doolittle. An examination of the records reveals that the only daughter this could have been was Lavina Doolittle, and the The Doolittle Family of America also indicates that Amzi's daughter Lavina m. "____ Hicks" and removed to New York.

Confirming Hix's identity is a bit more complicated. The strongest clue is found in the E.E. Brownell Collection, which identifies the wife of Jonathan Brownell (1792-1875) as Azubah Hicks, daughter of Moses and Lavina (Doolittle) Hicks. This branch of the Brownell family lived at the time of the marriage in Hoosick, NY. And indeed, the 1790 US Census finds "Moses Hicks" in Hoosick, NY, a couple of lines away from "Amos Marsh" (see below).


One Moses Hicks -- a contemporary of the Warwick protagonists -- was living near Warwick at the time the "spiritual wife-ism" controversy broke out. He was the husband of Mary Goff, by whom he had many children leading up to the Revolutionary War. They lived in Richmond, NH, just north of Warwick, MA. The Hix/Hicks family to which he belonged was strongly baptist. Descendants of Moses Hicks cite an obituary of one of Moses' children through the first (Goff) marriage, which indicates that Moses fathered 22 children by two different wives. The second wife and her children, however, have not been confirmed by Hix descendants.


Amos Marsh (1730-abt 1820) was an early and active resident of Warwick. He'd married Beulah Leonard shortly before removing to Warwick with most of her brothers and sisters. Beulah gave Amos eight children leading up to 1775 before he abandoned her for Amzi Doolittle's wife. Blake indicates that Marsh and Mrs. Doolittle were apprehended in New York, brought to Northampton to stand trial, sit in the stocks and that Marsh ever after war the letter "A" on his clothing.

But despite Blake's claim that Amos came back to Beulah, the records don't support this. An Amos Marsh is listed near Moses Hix in Hoosick in the 1790 census, and appears to remain in Hoosick through the 1820 census at which point he disappears. His first wife, Beulah, is enumerated as head of household in Warwick in the 1790 census, implying Amos was not with her. She then disappears from the records.

Additional evidence that Amos married Jerusha (Smith) Doolittle is found on a gravestone. Amzi's first wife, Jerusha Smith, is buried in Winchester, NH with her Doolittle children; her tombstone identifies her as "Jerusa A., wife of Amos Marsh, former wife of A. Doolittle." She is likely the elderly female enumerated with her son Amzi Doolittle Jr in the 1840 US Census.

Image:DoolittleMarshJerusha d18441019.jpg


Amzi Doolittle had been raised in nearby Northfield, MA, where his father was the town preacher and doctor. Shortly after his marriage to Jerusha Smith -- who was also from a long line of preachers in and around Northfield-- the young family moved to Warwick. Like Marsh, Doolittle was an active citizen in the town. That he had Baptist sympathies is implied by an autobiography of early universalist Caleb Rich, which identifies Rich's father-in-law as a leading Baptist citizen. (Rich married Amzi's eldest daughter Electa Doolittle the year prior to the spiritual wife-ism controversy.)

Jerusha Smith gave Amzi nine children before running off with Amos Marsh. One history writes that Amzi, "to get even with the rest of his family," eloped with Thomas Barber's wife.


Thomas Barber's wife was Hannah Miller. When Thomas and Hannah married in Rehoboth, MA or Cumberland, RI, Hannah (another daughter of a minister-- and probably a Baptist one) was six months pregnant. After the birth of their first child, they moved to Warwick, and Hannah gave Thomas four more children-- only one of whom was recorded in the church records, possibly due to their baptist faith not allowing for the baptism of infants.

Thomas and Hannah appear to be the only pair that reunited after the "exchange of partners". Like all the other families caught up in the controversy, they left Warwick. The Barbers headed to Townshend and Wardsboro, VT, by 1782 which was at the time an independent republic, not one of the colonies (or early U.S. states). But living "next door" to them there was Amzi Doolittle and his children, supposedly without Jerusha (who we believe to have been in Hoosick with Amos Marsh, living near her daughter and Moses Hicks).

Hannah (Miller) Barber gave Thomas Barber three more children between 1781 and 1785. Return to yesterday : a history of Wardsboro, Vermont claims that Thomas Barber divorced his wife-- probably shortly after the birth of the last child. There is a Townshend marriage record for Hannah Barber and Amzi Doolittle in 1787. And in fact, Hannah and Amzi are buried side by side at the Winchester, NH cemetery.

Image:DoolittleAmzia_d18300419.jpg Image:DoolittleHannahMillerBarber d18260304.jpg

That the Barbers and Doolittles remained close despite the controversy of wife-swapping and 18th century divorce is evidenced by the fact that two Barber daughters married two Doolittle sons and moved together from VT to Winchester, NH about 1830-- along with their remarried parents-- Amzi and Hannah. And at least two of Hannah's Barber children named their own children after their mother's second husband, Amzi.

As much as 19th century historians would like to have believed that Warwick families went back to "normal," it appears that they did not at all, but continued to live with their "spiritual mates" long into old age.

Steps for Further Research

  1. What happened to Amos Marsh's first family? It appears that some of them remained in Warwick, at least for awhile. But then they dissipate.
  2. Were Amos Marsh and Jerusha (Smith) Doolittle really tried in Northampton? Is there a record? And if, as her gravestone claims, she did marry Amos, when and where did this take place?
  3. Do wills exist for any of these individuals? And if so, what further light do they shed on these families?


  1. Jillaine S. Smith, "God Love and Lust: The Tale of Four Revolutionary Families'" unpublished manuscript, c. 2008-2013
  2. Jonathan Blake, Jr., History of the Town of Warwick, Mass.; Boston, MA, USA: Noyes, Holmes, & Co., 1873; LDS FHL microfilm #1321383, item 4; digital version available on Ancestry.com.
  3. Elijah Ellsworth Brownell, the E.E. Brownell Collection, unpublished multi-volume manuscript filmed by the LDS in 1963, Film #0333573, page 5.
  4. Vital Records of Townshend, Vermont.
  5. Evergreen Cemetery, Winchester, NH, gravestone readings conducted by Jillaine Smith.