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.

George Newton Cressy, Baltimore Colporteur

This carte de visite portrait of Mr. George N. Cressy was taken at the Baltimore studio of Thomas Parker Varley, corner of Baltimore and Holliday streets, probably in the mid to late 1860s.

Born in 1827 in Jamaica, Vermont to Alpheus Cressy and Lydia (Cass) Cressy, George Newton Cressy devoted most of his life to “home missionary” work in Baltimore (The Cressy Family, created and maintained by LeRoy Cressy). He  had a small income from a farm he owned in South Londonderry, Vermont, and earned a little from his work with the Maryland Tract Society.

He was commissioned as a “colporteur,” an itinerant seller of tracts and Bibles, by the American Tract Society of New York in 1849.

In the 1850s, he settled in Baltimore, where in 1860 he married fellow evangelical Christian missionary and member of the Maryland Tract Society Mary Bayley, daughter of Vermont-born attorney John M. Bayley or Bailey.  They took rooms at 102 Hanover Street, near West Conway, along with Mary’s sisters, Jane and Eliza Bayley. The neighborhood of small row houses is long since gone to the wrecking ball; the Baltimore Convention Center and the Baltimore Hilton now occupy the site.

According to a posthumous memoir of Mrs. Cressy published ca. 1870 by the Baltimore Tract House, George Cressy attended the Congregational Church on Eutaw Street, while his wife was a member of the South Baltimore Presbyterian Church, a mission of the First Presbyterian Church overseen by Rev. J. H. Kaufman (William Reynolds, A Brief History of the First Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, 1913, pg. 67).

They must often have been apart. During the Civil War, George Cressy joined the Maryland Committee of the United States Christian Commission. The Commission’s aim was to bring religion to the soldiers, but the best of these workers did so through compassionate generosity. Commission members supplied food, clothing, books, letter-writing paper along with prayers, exhortations, religious tracts and Bibles.

Cressy spent a good portion of his time visiting wounded and sick soldiers in the Washington hospitals. In 1864’s annual Commission report, Cressy related that “we held two prayer meetings weekly at the National Hospital on Thursday and Sabbath evenings. Some have been well-attended; others, thinly” (Second Annual Report of the United States Christian Commission, 1864, pg.94).

They passed out copious quantities of “tracts, books, etc.,” and Cressy reported a few spiritual successes. “We have been encouraged by several instances of hopeful conversion from these efforts, through the blessing of our Heavenly Father” (USCC Annual Report, pg. 95).

Cressy and his fellow committee members also visited the fortifications and encampments around Baltimore, finding great need for basic supplies, and distributing to the troops “boiled hams, bread, crackers, cheese, condensed milk, tea, sugar, coffee, lemons, etc.,” paying special attention to the sick (Cross, The Civil War and the US Christian Commission, 1865).

Cressy stressed the urgent need for supplies at the hospitals: “Your Committee are of the opinion that the Christian Commission could not do a better work than to obtain from the proper authorities, to all our hospitals, the much needed suitable nourishment for the sick and convalescent” (Cross, pg. 149).

To his nephew, Nelson Newton Glazier of the 11th Vermont Infantry, son of John Newton Glazier and Phoebe (Cass) Glazier, Cressy was simply “Uncle George,” a welcome face from home. Cressy visited Glazier in camp near Fort Lincoln several times in 1862, bringing news from home as well as comestibles including:

“a nice loaf of wheat bread not yet cold from the oven in Baltimore, a splendid sponge cake made by Aunt Mary – Uncle George’s wife – some nice cookies; a lemon pudding and a cocoa pudding; two nice apple pies; a frosted fruit cake . . . three glasses of jellies or preserves; some very nice apples; and a lot of excellent pickles; a chicken already cooked; besides a lot of papers, tracts, etc. To be sure one man no larger than Uncle George could not bring everything, as he had to bring it by hand from the depot” (from the letters of Nelson Newton Glazier, part of Vermont in the Civil War).

Mary Bayley Cressy died in 1868. According to LeRoy Cressy’s Cressy Family website, George spent 35 years in Baltimore, beginning in 1854,  then returned to Vermont. The 1900 census finds the old missionary living with his sister Hannah Cressy in the home of their niece, Betsey Kingsbury.

According to the Baltimore American newspaper, George Newton Cressy died on 20 April 1905, in Bondville, Vermont.