Frontier Pundits: Visiting 1850s Bloomington with Three Angry Editors

Indiana University, 1850

Originally published in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, December 2013

In 1853, while the fledgling Indiana University struggled to survive, three strikingly different men started a newspaper in the frontier town of Bloomington, Indiana. They seemed to disagree on the purpose of the paper, only one had experience as an editor, and they did not have much start-up money. But in November 1853 the hotheaded preacher Eli P. Farmer published the first edition of his Bloomington Religious Times, proclaiming that each individual “has a right to act according to the dictates of his own conscience,” and that his conscience compelled him to start a newspaper. Soon he enlisted the help of a wandering newsman and a phrenologist. Together the three editors filled the paper with tirades, sermons, jokes, puzzles, world news briefs, market reports, long-winded allegories, and very few advertisements. They picked fights with competitors and reflected some of the ugliest biases of their time.

The newspaper did not last long. Within a year all three editors had left and the paper became one more defunct publication of the sort that litter the nation’s past. Except for moments of unintentional brilliance, the Times was not remarkable in its quality or foresight. As a product of its time, though, it offers a window into the minds of its editors and the community they served. It’s been said about blogging, that most immediate twenty-first-century medium, that anyone who publishes instantly for long enough will reveal their inner character, intentionally or not. The same might be true for the small-town presses of the nineteenth century. Editors who publish enough tend to reveal the fears and hopes of themselves and their readers—that is what can be found in the history of this fizzing comet of a publication that streaked through a frontier town in the run-up to the Civil War

The furniture and limestone industries that later defined Bloomington had not yet arrived in 1853. The New Albany-Salem Railroad first rolled through town that year, its cars laden with corn, whiskey, and a multitude of pork products from the Monroe County hills. The trip to the New Albany markets took twelve hours. In 1853 IU graduated only two students, its smallest class ever. When a fire destroyed the college’s main building the next year, it almost was not rebuilt. A pledge of support from faculty and students may have been the only thing that kept the university in Bloomington. The Times urged the town’s thousand or so residents to consider it their “personal obligation”—not the state government’s duty—to rebuild the twenty- six-year-old university.

The Times exemplified rural American journalism in the mid-nineteenth century, an era when anyone with a modest amount of money could set up shop in the marketplace of ideas. The price of newsprint fell by half between 1830 and 1860, driven by technological innovations such as the use of wood pulp in papermaking. This trend, combined with rising literacy rates, created what journalism historian Andrew Saxton called an “optimum” era for newspapers. Professional training for journalists was rare, especially in frontier states such as Indiana. But starting a newspaper had never been easier.

Farmer claimed a benign goal when he started the Times. He wanted to help establish the Republican United Brethren Church, a sect that had broken away from the Methodist Church five years earlier. The paper’s first issue included such thrilling features as the denomination’s constitution, minutes from an administrative meeting, and a sermon. Comics and sports pages were still decades away. Like other papers of its time, the Times ran its articles in dense type, often without headlines and much semblance of organization. The paper’s defining visual ornament was an inch-thick braided border that edged each of its four pages.

When Farmer editorialized, things became interesting. The fifty-nine-year-old preacher thundered against religious tolerance and half-hearted faith. Most of all, he attacked the Catholic Church, which he considered “the most horrible institution which has ever blackened the pages of History.” He promised to expose “astounding, blood chilling facts” about the Church of Rome. He reprinted Revelations 12:1-15, inserting his own interpretive footnotes in brackets. The great red dragon that appeared in John the Apostle’s vision represented the Pope, according to Farmer. Its seven heads and ten horns are the seven kingdoms and ten “petty kings” under the Pope’s rule. The great dragon cast out of heaven in verse 9 represented the true church triumphing over “the Pope or Devil.”

The minister’s invectives reeked of xenophobia. In the mid-nineteenth century, southern Indiana received a massive influx of German immigrants who traveled over the Cumberland Gap and down the Ohio River. Largely Catholic and supportive of the Democratic Party, they arrived in large enough numbers to reshape the state’s cultural landscape. Farmer must have known it. If fundamentalists of every age require an opposition group to demonize, German Catholics suited his need. He devoted much of the Times’ first issues to a “TES- TIMONY OF HISTORY AGAINST THE CHURCH OF ROME,” a series as alarmist as the title suggests. “May God save us from Roman tyranny,” he ended one editorial.

In January 1854, three months after founding the Times, Farmer turned the biweekly into a weekly and announced his new coeditors, Harvey Murphy and Jesse Brandon. Farmer continued to manage the front two pages—the religious half— while Murphy and Brandon filled pages three and four, respectively, with secular news. Of the three, Brandon revealed the least about himself in the paper. He was a former state printer and a prolific newsman who had founded at least ten southern Indiana newspapers, including Bloomington’s first in 1824. He showed no interest in editorializing on hot-button moral issues, seeing the paper instead as a vessel for dispassionate facts. International news consisted mostly of his updates from the Crimean War in Eastern Europe. The only indication that America was veering toward civil war came in his updates on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which authorized the two territories to decide on their own whether to allow slavery. By this point in the twilight of his career, Brandon may have lost interest in participating in the culture wars of his day.

Not so with Murphy. He wrote extensively on temperance, at that time the state’s most divisive political issue. In 1853 the Indiana General Assembly voted to let counties pass local prohibition laws. Two years later it passed a statewide ban on alcohol. The Indiana Supreme Court struck down both measures as unconstitutional. The issue had religious implications, with prohibition fitting into the perfectionist movement embraced by Methodists and other Protestants. They saw human nature as perfectible through social reform and accountability. Catholics and Primitive Baptists moving into the region, on the other hand, held to a belief in a more foundational human depravity. They viewed reform movements with deep skepticism.

Like Farmer, Murphy claimed to support temperance. Both men saw their paper as a potential agent of social change. But the difference between their approaches is considerable. For one, Farmer used four times as many words to make his point. His May 12 editorial on the included questionable exegesis (“Temperance is one of the great principles of the Bible and cardinal points of the Christian religion”), jabs at Rome and “learned Greece,” and an appeal to bipartisanship before getting to the point: “If any man sells or give liquor. . . fine him severely.”

Murphy’s March 10 editorial on the same subject opened by recounting a conversation with an unnamed pro-temperance minister. “Ministers should remember that it has been but a short time since they themselves drank ‘the blessed creature,’” Murphy wrote. Would he have named the minister if it were Farmer? The article reads like a veiled reprimand of his colleague. Murphy called for temperance reformers to rely on “mild, persuasive, and gentlemanly means for reforming the world.” Keeping his rhetorical voice lowered, he ended with a word of caution: “It is better for advocates of the reform to respect the feelings of others. Enthusiasts often do more harm than good.”

Such even-keeled rationalism was not Farmer’s style. According to the autobiography he wrote later in life, it never had been. The son of a Revolutionary War veteran, Farmer moved with his family from Virginia to Kentucky as a child. Native Americans twice burned their home in Kentucky, according to his account. Farmer recounted a period of habitual lying and fighting—though never drinking—in his twenties. He encountered a young Sam Houston in one fight and left the exchange with two broken ribs. Farmer referred to this as his “backslidden” condition, according to a sketch of his life by Riley B. Case. That stage ended on the banks of the Ohio River at a Methodist camp meeting in 1820. There the twenty-six-year-old Farmer was spiritually reclaimed. He took up the call to become a circuit preacher in the model of Methodist founding father John Francis Asbury, one of the leaders in the break from the Episcopalian Church to a less hierarchical, more democratic church. Like Asbury, Farmer traveled the countryside by horse, preaching the gospel to small audiences, often one family at a time. An 1867 Harper’s Weekly illustration portrays the rigors of the demanding, solitary job, showing a circuit preacher leading his bedraggled horse down a lonely road, clutching an umbrella against a rainstorm.

Farmer performed this work for nine years, a typical length of service for circuit preaching, which left little opportunity to provide for a family. During this period he married Matilda Allison, whom he called a “pious, holy woman.” They started a family, though Farmer could not shake his volatile spirit. Case attributes Farmer’s roller-coaster religious life to the importance of personal choice in the Methodist tradition: “Whenever Eli Farmer experienced a spiritual crisis (which was frequently), he looked for another camp meeting. In a denomination with an emphasis on ‘experience,’ religious life was often a cycle of highs and lows, and there was always a need for revivals.”

Farmer became discontent with the Methodists as they became a more established church. In the Times he wrote about what initially drew him to the Methodists: “The preachers carried zeal and religion where they went . . . the old ministers had kept the salaries low, in order to keep out the money-hunters.” The church had lost its way, in Farmer’s eyes. He accused it of abandoning its commitment to “plainness and humility” and left it for good in 1839. He then helped establish the Republican United Brethren Church, a short-lived offshoot that drew from the Methodist and United Brethren churches. The sect probably appealed to him because of its lack of formal organization and wealth, much as Methodism had decades earlier. This search for a more rigorous and authentic faith was a defining theme in Farmer’s life. He wrote in his autobiography, begun when he was eighty, that he was “troubled with grave apprehensions that the standard of Christianity is lower now, than it was formerly when it was in its comparatively primitive days in this republic.”

If the independence of the Times’s editors freed them to speak their mind, it sometimes led to odd decisions. Consider the ethical editorial Murphy published in the March 10 issue. He began with a lengthy rhetorical question about “the savage”: “If he has inherited such a cerebral development that his animal and selfish propensities greatly predominate over his moral and religious sentiments and reasoning power, thus making him deaf to admonition and blind to example, is he then accountable for his deeds?”

Murphy continued, in evident sincerity, to dwell upon the question. He made allowance for the savage’s “innate proneness to evil.” The editorial was part of a cryptic ongoing series that considered the “cerebral development” of both humans and animals. An earlier chapter speculated on how primitive humans might have migrated from Eurasia to the Americas. Another wondered whether a thief might be reformed by altering the shape of his brain. Murphy did not reveal the purpose of the series until March 17, when he announced that he was giving a free lecture on phrenology, the pseudoscience that sought to discern a person’s character by measuring the size and shape of the cranium. Phrenology, which had reached the United States eighteen years earlier with the German lecturer Johann Kaspar Spurzheim, spread west through lectures and demonstrations. Murphy promised to let himself be blindfolded at the end of the lecture, and “thus deprived of the power of sight” he would “read the dispositions and characters of individuals, unknown to him, with such accuracy, that the most sceptical will be silenced.”

The Times never gave an account of Murphy’s lecture and demonstration. But a week later, Murphy revealed that his interest in phrenology was more than a hobby: the March 24 issue featured an advertisement for “Harvey Murphy, practical phrenologist and physiognomist.” For twenty-five cents he would provide a verbal description of character, and for one dollar he would provide a written version. Murphy was using editorial space to serve an advertiser’s agenda, failing to disclose to readers that fact, and using his position to promote his own side business.

Contemporary journalistic standards would condemn this sort of cross promotion as a conflict of interest. Murphy and his colleagues admitted no such problem. It is possible they saw no reason to separate editorial and advertising content, as modern-day news organizations have done. It is also possible Murphy grasped but declined to meet a standard of transparency. For
all the drawbacks of bureaucratic news institutions, their accountability might have kept a beginning journalist such as Murphy more honest.

The Times editors, however, did have standards when it came to judging their peers. Soon after the arrival of a local competitor, the Bloomington News Letter, Murphy accused its editor of an ethical lapse. The editor, A. B. Carlton, served as a lawyer in the defense of a local murder suspect in April 1854. Carlton also published an editorial defending the man’s innocence, without disclosing that he was the man’s lawyer. Murphy must have seen this as different from his phrenology editorials. “We had been greatly misled,” Murphy wrote. “We hope the editor of the News Letter will not prostitute himself as an editor.”

Despite his attack, Murphy was more restrained than his preacher colleague. In the May 26 issue of the Times Farmer employed thoroughly adolescent sarcasm in attacking the unnamed editor of the Wayne County Journal. Farmer fumed about a previous Journal article, which he called “all thunder and no lightning.” Yet he deemed it worthy of response. Only after saying his piece did Farmer include a “Note of Explanation” to his readers that does not explain very much at all. Farmer’s criticism, it appears, was a response to the Journal’s criticism of Farmer’s earlier attack on the Episcopal Church. The Journal was not bold enough in its stance, according to Farmer. The editor “never committed himself, to show where he stood,” Farmer charged. “We cannot tell whether he is on the side of the Lord or the Devil—the Episcopal dog or the Editor of the Religious Times.”

Such squabbles among small-town editors were common. It is difficult to imagine why Farmer felt so compelled to respond to the editor. His readers were probably not paying attention to the publication 110 miles to the northeast. It is telling that the Journal editor did not incense Farmer by vigorously defending an opinion with which the minister disagreed. Rather, he angered Farmer by not making his position clear.

The most important conflict in Farmer’s life was not with any real or perceived enemy but arose from his father’s alcoholism. According to Farmer’s January 20 temperance editorial, his father first encountered “fire water” in the Revolutionary War camps of 1776. Joel Farmer was “taken by her charms,” his son reported. The senior Farmer came to depend on alcohol both to rest when weary and to celebrate when victorious. For him and his comrades, it “gave a false stimulation in the work, in the hour of adversity, warming their hearts in all their social parties and festivals, and was found by their sides on the bloody field of battle.” As a child, Eli and his brother helped their mother provide for the family while their father grew more despondent. The man’s spirit was crushed even further by the Indian attacks, a swindler that cheated the family, and yet another fire. Farmer left his readers with the image of old soldiers commiserating around a bottle, his dying father among them. A teenage Eli and his brother settled their father’s debts, except for a two-dollar or three-dollar whiskey debt. “For we were unwilling to pay a man to destroy our own father,” Farmer wrote.

Nothing else so intimate appears in the entire run of the Times. One can fairly hear Farmer’s heart twisting as he describes his father’s failings. The first-person style may not have been fashionable for a frontier newsman, yet Farmer never sounded so human in his editorializing or more compelling in his political arguments. That’s not to dismiss the vileness of his xenophobic writing. The paper was better known for its anti-Catholic position than for anything else, according to Indiana newspaper historian John Miller. The story of his father is the closest Farmer comes to explaining why he feels so threatened by a German Catholic culture permissive toward alcohol.

Farmer spewed more vitriol than his coeditors, but he was also the most responsible for breathing life into the paper. The story of his father’s alcoholism was not the only instance in which he must have surprised his readers. In the May 12 issue, the preacher directed his zeal at the changing of the season. “There go you out now, ye dwellers in streets and lanes, in brick walls, in midst dust and din, to the open groves and fields where birds sing, and give yourselves to Nature for a day,” read an editorial titled “Bright May,” which Farmer borrowed from Youth’s Friend magazine. The two-paragraph ode to spring speaks of nature as God’s creation, but its references to the “fruits of luscious flavor, the ripening harvests of plenty,” sound more like a romantic poet or a transcendentalist than a humorless minister. It must have been quite a change of seasons to captivate Farmer so strongly. The spirit does not seem to have lasted long—the article appears after a much longer treatise on female prudence and before Farmer’s temperance editorial. But it shows there was more to him than dogma. Intentionally or not, “Bright May” revealed at least a wrinkle of tension for Farmer between his moralistic and romantic inclinations.

Given time, it is possible Farmer and company would have taken more editorial risks. But the rigors of life in the “Great West,” as they called it, did not allow that chance. The May 19 issue announced a dissolution of partnership among the three because of Murphy’s feeble health. Publishing continued, with increasing amounts of secondhand material. A month later the paper’s distinctive border disappeared and its name abruptly changed to the Western Times. Two weeks later Farmer and Brandon apologized for a late issue “on account of sickness” of one of them, most likely Brandon.

By the end of the summer the paper had sputtered into a half sheet—“half a loaf is better than no bread”—with another apology for tardiness. In October Brandon left Bloomington and the Times, “hoping to recruit his health by traveling.” Farmer could not run the paper on his own and handed it over to T. L. Martin and J. F. Walker, who dropped the religious content and used it in the service of the newly formed local Republican Party. Introducing himself, Walker promised to allow “men to honestly differ in opinion” in the pages of the newspaper. He continued, writing in the third person: “In these matters he does not promise to be neutral (as some Editors have done.) This he considers to having no views of his own. Every one that takes any interest in the affairs of his country must have his preference.”

The Times demonstrated the sort of lively, idiosyncratic prose independent journalists can produce, but it also show-cased how easily they can be dragged down by bigoted opinions and ethical lapses. No doubt its editors failed to transcend the prejudices of their time, spreading the sort of ethnic chauvinism that the United States has had to overcome at every stage in its journey. It is possible that wiser voices drowned them out, contributing to the paper’s demise.


A nearly complete collection of the Bloomington Religious Times and the Bloomington Western Times is included in the Eli P. Farmer Papers, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. | Case, Riley B. “An Aggressive Warfare: Eli Farmer and Methodist Revivalism in Early Indiana.” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008): 65–93. | Gunther Brown, Candy. The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789–1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. | Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989. | Nation, Richard F. At Home in the Hoosier Hills: Agriculture, Politics, and Religion in Southern Indiana, 1810–1870. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. | Nord, David Paul. Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007.