Mary Bayley Cressy’s “Peculiar Freedom”

Taken in the studio of Baltimore photographer Thomas Parker Varley, this carte de visite portrait of Mary Bayley Cressy is the counterpart to the portrait of her husband, George Newton Cressy, discussed in the previous post.

All but  forgotten today, Mrs. Cressy during her brief lifetime built a small Christian kingdom in Baltimore as one of the forces behind the establishment of the Baltimore Female City Mission,  known after 1869 as the “Home for Fallen Women.” Founded in 1865 with the support of First Presbyterian Church pastor J. H. Kaufman, the Mission was an auxiliary of the Maryland Tract Society, of which her husband was a manager.

One of the Female City Mission’s endeavors was to recruit women  to serve as “earnest, faithful female missionaries” to the poorer districts of the city.  Children came to the Mission’s “Sabbath School,” where they were given clothing and food along with prayers and lessons about Christianity.

Mothers were invited to gather weekly for the “Mother’s Mission,” where working class women could find companionship, “instruction and sympathy,” childcare and other kinds of aid, including temporary respite from abusive husbands, all with a generous helping of prayer and evangelizing. She organized a “Saving Fund” to instill in women “habits of economy and calculation for a ‘rainy day.'” Cressy persuaded a number of unnamed wealthy benefactors to support all these projects.

Mary L. Bayley was born about 1828 in Baltimore to Newbury, Vermont-born attorney John M. Bayley and Eliza (Evans) Bayley. Her father died before 1840, and she and her mother found refuge in the home of her aunt Mary Evans, her mother’s sister.

In June of 1860, she married fellow “home missionary” George Newton Cressy, who, like her father, was from Vermont.  Cressy had served the American Tract Society as a colporteur, or itinerant vendor of religious tracts, and was then one of the principals of the Maryland Tract Society in Baltimore.

Mrs. Cressy was one of a long line of women down the centuries who found power and authority through Christianity and the institutions sanctioned by its churches.

What is known about her life comes almost entirely from an anonymous memoir published after her death in 1868, entitled One Who Loved Jesus, published by the Tract House at No. 73 West Fayette Street, Baltimore.

Clearly meant as an evangelizing tool, the volume’s “excessive religious fervor,” as historian M. Hamlin Cannon so aptly says of similar texts of the period, “repels the modern reader” (M. Hamlin Cannon, “The United States Christian Commission,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, Jun., 1951, pp. 61-80).

The book portrays her as a saint, instilled by God from childhood with “the burning love for souls, which at times seemed to consume me” (183). Her ambition was to be a foreign missionary, a rarity for a single woman in the mid-19th century.

“Then I thought that my work would be to go ‘far hence to the Gentiles’ to teach them the unsearchable riches of Christ, but God, in His Providence, ordered it otherwise, gave me South Baltimore as my field of operation” (183).

With the apparent support of her husband,  Cressy devoted her life to evangelizing in South Baltimore. Although she is occasionally depicted with sewing or embroidery, it seems that George Cressy’s modest income gave her a “peculiar freedom from temporal cares” (29).

Instead of taking a house, they “boarded” on Hanover Street, and as they had no children, “her time was to an unusual extent at her command” (32). Unusual indeed for the day, her husband encouraged her to pursue her ambitious agenda for Baltimore’s salvation.

Mary Bayley Cressy died on 29 April 1868. Although her brief death announcement in the Baltimore SUN does not say where she was to be interred, One Who Loved Jesus relates that she wanted to be buried in Loudon Park Cemetery, along side her mother, Eliza (Evans) Bayley and her aunt, Mary Evans.

Note: All quotations are from One Who Loved Jesus unless otherwise noted. A copy of the book can be found at the Maryland Historical Society.

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