Bruce photo

Mrs. Elizabeth M. Bruce

Another author whose life merits more attention than it's previously received is Elizabeth M. Bruce. Almost no information is available about her early years other than that she was born in New York in September 1830 to a man from Vermont and his Massachusetts-born wife. [1] The family name may have been Hurd. [2]

Bruce's date of marriage and husband's full name remain mysteries. Her first identifiable book, Our Children's God: A Book of Stories for the Young, appeared in 1859 as by "Mrs. E. M. Bruce," the name used on her subsequent book publications. Five more titles, issued as the initial volumes in Life Stories for Children, were published in 1863 by the Boston firm of Tompkins and Company. This appears to be a publisher-created series, for the sixth and final book was by Sarah Carter Edgarton Mayo (1819-1848). [3] Nonetheless, at least two of Bruce's volumes have a narrative connection, for The Sun-Beam is a sequel to the preceding book, Georgy King and His Three Little Pets. A second series, Happy Heart, was published in 1874. In addition to her juvenile fiction, Bruce also wrote works for adults, including A Thousand a Year (1866), about the financial trials of a pastor's family in the city. [4]

Bruce was well qualified to write about the tribulations of ministers, for she was herself a pastor in the Universalist Church -- and more: she had not only built her church, the Wayside Chapel in Malden, Massachusetts, but "was also its trustee, janitor, choir, and preacher. " Actively involved in the church and women's issues, she attended the first Woman Preachers' Convention in Boston in May 1873, where she was elected secretary of the organization. (Julia Ward Howe was its president; Olympia Brown and Mary H. Graves, the two vice-presidents.) In their biography of Howe, her daughters Laura E. Richards and Maud Howe Elliott mention that "After the formal conference, [Howe] welcomed the members at her own house, talked with them, and heard of their doings. Her eyes kindled as she heard of the Wayside Chapel . . . heard how for thirteen years [Bruce] had rung the bell every evening for vesper service, and had never lacked a congregation." [5] A later account noted that Bruce offered daily services for more than twenty years, during which time "at least 80,000 people attended." [6]


In fall 1873, Bruce was present -- and quite vocal -- at the Massachusetts Universalist Convention, when the topic of admitting women to Tufts University was raised. One report notes she "offered a preamble and four resolutions calling for forthright action . . . Her wording was spiced with a certain amount of righteous indignation." Although "All of Mrs. Bruce's efforts were tabled by the Convention, . . . it was voted that they be considered again at the next meeting" [7], but they were ultimately quashed by the university's president. [8] However, according a history of the college in its online magazine, "When Tufts finally went coed, in the 1890s, it was thanks to the pressure exerted by Universalist women such as Mrs. E. M. Bruce . . . who for several years sponsored resolutions in the General Convention . . . directing the College to do the right thing." [9]

Were that not enough, about late 1874, Bruce became co-editor of the Ladies' Repository, a responsibility she shared with Mrs. Henriette A. Bingham, and "prepared" its final two issues when Bingham was ill. [10] In 1875, she assumed the editorship of The Myrtle, a Unitarian Sunday-School magazine for children, a position she held for more than thirty years, all the while maintaining her pastorate in Massachusetts. [11] She also continued to write children's books, and her six-volume Helpful Hand stories appeared in 1880.

Mr. Bruce's whereabouts during these years are unknown. The 1880 census -- the earliest in which Elizabeth Bruce has been located -- shows her living alone. [12] This situation suggests that like many other women writers of the era, she may have turned to her pen to support herself, and that Mr. Bruce may have been absent -- due to a separation or death -- as early as the 1860s. In the 1900 census, Mrs. Bruce was still living alone and still listing her occupation as clergy. That census was the first to ask for additional information about marriage history and childbirth: in Bruce's entry, the space reserved for number of years married has been left blank, but the census taker recorded that she had had no children.

Although Bruce ceased editing The Myrtle in 1905, she apparently continued to preach, for the 1910 census again shows her as minister in Massachusetts. She died in Massachusetts 20 August 1911. [13]


[1] Information about Bruce's parents, birthplace, and month of birth is from her entries in the 1880 and 1900 U.S. Census. Her first name, middle initial, and year of birth are from the Library of Congress's catalogue records. No biographical entry for her has been found in any of the standard sources.

[2] Bruce's name appears as "Bruce, Elizabeth M. Hurd" in the list of Unitarian Universalist Association. Inactive Minister Files, 1825-1999 at Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.

[3] A biographical sketch of Mayo from American National Biography is available online.

[4] A Thousand a Year is available online at Wright American Fiction.

[5] Laura E. Richards and Maud Howe Elliott, Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, vol. I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915): 389, 391. Available online at American Women Writers.

[6] Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America 1870-1970 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985): 683n53.

[7] Russell E. Miller, Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts College 1852-1952 (Beacon Press, 1966) online at Tufts Digital Library.

[8] Miller, Larger Hope . . . 1870-1970, 544. Miller notes that President Miner spoke against the resolutions and coeducation, concluding "His remarks undoubtedly bore great weight, for the resolutions, preamble and all, went down to defeat by way of indefinite postponement."

[9] David Reich, "Founding Fathers: Tufts and the Universalist Tradition" Tufts Magazine Online (Spring 2002).

[10] Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America 1770-1870 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1979): 334, 908n76.

Bruce also participated in -- and spoke out at -- the second meeting of The Universalist Reform League in 1875, where "she made a plea for a larger number of women in the Universalist ministry" (Miller, Larger Hope . . . 1870-1970, 464).

[11] Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope . . . 1870-1970 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985): 189.

In addition to editing The Myrtle, she also apparently contributed a number of short stories and poems to its pages; the two issues seen each contain at least one poem and short story signed "E. M. B."

[12] The 1850 US census and the 1855 New York census show an Elizabeth Hurd whose age correlates with E. M. Bruce's living in Oneida, New York, but there is not enough information to verify her identity.

[13] L. B. Fisher, A Brief History of the Universalist Church for Young People, 4th. ed. (N.p: n.d.): 189.

Copyright 2010-2016 by Deidre Johnson . Please do not reproduce without permission

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