In an earlier post about Sheshequin Universalist Society member O. H. P. Kinney, I noted that Kinney had turned to spiritualism later in life. A disproportionate number of spiritualists in the nineteenth century were former Universalists, including a sizable number of Universalist ministers. One Universalist minister who later became famous as a spiritualist served the Athens and Sheshequin congregations in the mid-1850s.
James Martin Peebles was born in 1822 in Vermont. His family moved to upstate New York when he was a teenager. In 1838 James heard the Universalist minister Rev. Nelson Doolittle preach, and he was converted to Universalism.
Peebles attended the academy in Oxford, NY, graduating in 1841. After attending a Christmas Eve service at the Universalist church in Oxford, he decided to go into the Universalist ministry. He was fellowshipped in 1844 and ordained in 1846.
In January, 1853, after serving several congregations in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Peebles was called by the Universalist church in Elmira, NY. There he found “a boon companion” in the Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, pastor of the Congregational church (now Park Church, United Church of Christ). Both ministers were more liberal than was considered acceptable in their respective denominations.
During his pastorate in Elmira, Peebles also served Athens and Sheshequin in some capacity. His name is not mentioned in the record books of either congregation, but long-time member W. H. H. Gore remembered him as one of the pastors who preached at Sheshequin during a hiatus in the Rev. Schuyler Gibson’s pastorate. The Bradford Reporter (Towanda) noted that Peebles officiated at the funeral of Athens society member Zephon Flower in April, 1855. Peebles also preached at the courthouse in Towanda in May of that year and performed a marriage in Wysox the following month.
Peebles’ first exposure to spiritualism was in 1849, when he went to Auburn, NY, to “hear the spirit rappings.” During his time in Elmira, Peebles was attending seances and was beginning to question his Universalist faith. In a letter to a classmate from the Oxford academy – who was also a Universalist minister – he wondered, “Were the spirits burning up his theological rubbish?”
Peebles resigned from Elmira in May, 1855. On Sunday, Oct. 14, 1855, he preached for the last time at Athens and Sheshequin. The Waverly Advocate noted:
“An affecting Address was voted him by the society in Athens, referring in a beautiful manner to the relationship which had so long existed between them, and expressing the warmest solicitude for his future welfare.”
Peebles gave the Universalist ministry one more try. In January, 1856, he accepted a call from the Universalist Society in Baltimore, MD. But in less than a year, he resigned amid rumors of his conversion to spiritualism. As liberal as the Universalists were in comparison to the Calvinist Christians, they were not liberal enough to embrace spiritualism.
Peebles officially left the Universalist ministry in 1857. He settled in Battle Creek, MI, where he served a spiritualist group for six years. From there he went on to travel the country and the world. He served as U. S. consul to Turkey in 1868.
Peebles returned to our area in May, 1872, as part of a speaking tour. The Athens Gleaner reported:
“Rev. and Hon. J. M. Peebles, formerly Pastor of the Universalist church of this place, and late consul to Turkey, proposes to tell what he knows about spiritualism to the people of Waverly at 10 cts. per head.”
Peebles continued to promote spiritualism throughout the rest of his long life. He died in Los Angeles, CA, in 1922, six weeks before his 100th birthday. Two biographies, published in 1878 and 1901, testify to his prominence in the spiritualist scene.