John W. Mears was born on August 10th , 1825 in Reading, Pennsylvania. His parents were Henry Haller Mears and Anna Birkenbine Mears. John was the oldest of 7 Children. His father was a grain merchant and his mother was a Sunday school teacher. He was raised in a Presbyterian household, which took inspiration from the revivalist campaigns of Charles Grandison Finney.
The family moved to Philadelphia in 1836. His father opened a successful grain marketing firm, which financially supported the family, and was later taken over by John’s brother George.
In his youth, John Mears was mentored by men including Judge William Darling and Rev. John L. Grant. Darling was a Berks County judge, businessman, and temperance activist who attended the same church as the Mears when they lived in Reading and helped inspire John Mears’ support for temperance. Grant was a Philadelphia preacher and Sunday school teacher, who helped inspire Mears to become a minister.
From an early age, John Mears showed an interest for scholarly study and intellectual debate. Mears started college at age 15, at Newark College in Delaware. After graduating from Newark, he studied at Yale College for 2 years, and then went on to study at Yale Divinity School. He graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1851 and became a minister.
Mears started his first ministry at a new Presbyterian church in Camden, New Jersey. During this time, he became affiliated with the New School faction of the Presbyterian Church and became friends with one of its leaders, Albert Barnes. The New School faction was a group of ministers in the Presbyterian Church which emphasized evangelism, conversion of new members, and cooperation with other denominations, and it was more supportive of social reform. While the Old School faction was relatively more Calvinist, insular, and resistant to cooperation with other denominations and participation in social reform movements.
On September 2nd, 1852, Mears married Phebe Ann H. Tatem. They had at least one son. Over the following several years,
Mears ministered at a series of small churches, in Camden, New Jersey, Elkton, Maryland, and Milford Delaware.
Following his resignation from the Milford Church in 1860, Mears decided to leave active ministry and pursue a new career. He moved back to Philadelphia and took a position working for the American Presbyterian newspaper. In July of that year, he became the newspaper’s editor. The newspaper provided a larger outlet for Mears’ intellectual interests and desire to debate. He used it to promote the New School interpretation among Presbyterians, promote temperance and other reforms, and comment on various social and political issues.
The American Presbyterian promoted the Union cause during the Civil War. After the Battle of Gettysburg, the newspaper was involved in the nationwide effort to identify Amos Humiston, a Union soldier from Portville, New York, who died during the battle and on whose body was found an image of his children.
The American Presbyterian was absorbed into the New York Evangelist in 1870, and Mears lost his job as editor.
Outside of his newspaper work, Mears was involved in a variety of social reforms. He campaigned to shut down the operation of Philadelphia streetcars on Sundays. He was involved in a campaign to stop pollution of the Schuylkill River (at that time, the City’s main source of drinking water). After the Civil War, he helped to raise funds for the creation of an orphanage in Gettysburg for children orphaned by the war. (Unfortunately, the orphanage would later fail due to bad management.)
Mears wrote a book on the history of the Reformation in the Netherland which was published in 1867. He also wrote books on 14th Century Bohemia and on Madagascar, and he was involved with translating works in other languages into English: a translation from the Greek of the orations of Thucydides and from the German the works of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Mears was a big fan of the works of Immanuel Kant and worked to promote their scholarly study in the U.S.
Mears received an honorary doctorate in divinity from Indiana University in 1867.
Hamilton College in Clinton, Oneida County, New York, created a new professorship in honor of Albert Barnes in 1881. John Mears was hired to fill that position. Mears was primarily a philosophy professor, but he also taught classes on religion, French language, and German language. He gained a reputation as a strict teacher.
While living in Oneida County, Mears continued to be involved in various forms of activism. He wrote numerous pamphlets and gave speeches promoting temperance and prohibition. In 1874, Mears he persuaded a meeting of the Utica Presbytery to endorse the temperance cause and call for the prohibition of the liquor traffic. He was also involved in various committees within the regional and state Presbyterian organizations.
Mears was involved in the campaign against the Oneida Community. Oneida was a religious commune in Oneida County, founded in 1848 and lead by John Humphrey Noyes. Many outsiders objected to the group's sexual practices under its system of complex marriage, where generally any member of the community could have sex with any other, where older men introduced young girls to sex (at age 13 on average and some as young as 9) and older women introduced young boys to sex. This sex education in some cases involved incest, and Noyes often decided who which members would form relationships. Much of what they did would be made illegal following the passage of statutory rape laws and anti-obscenity laws in the 1870’s.
Opponents of the commune had made public and legal campaigns against it for decades. In 1873, Mears became the leader of a Presbyterian committee which worked to bring an end to the Oneida Community’s practices. A combination of the public campaigns, the growing threat of legal investigation, and dissenting members within the Oneida Community eventually brought down Noyes. He fled to Canada in 1879 to avoid being arrested for statutory rape, and the Oneida Community officially abandoned its practice of complex marriage.
Mears declared victory after the Oneida Community abandoned complex marriage, but he was displeased that Noyes had avoided arrest. The Oneida Community was dissolved in 1881.
In the 1870’s, Mears rose in academic and political prominence. In 1877, he became president of the New York State Teachers Association. In 1878, the Prohibition Party nominated Mears as its candidate for congress in New York’s 23rd district.
Mears was part of a rising wave of Prohibition Party congressional candidates. In that year, the party was able to run candidates in about 1/3rd of the state’s congressional districts. Following his nomination, a group of students at Hamilton College held a rally in celebration. At the rally, student Lawrence Winfield Baxter stated, “It is one of the most gratifying signs of the times that the people are awakening to realize the necessity of instituting some genuine movements of reform”. Mears made his own statements at the rally: “I suppose, gentlemen you have come here and want to know how your professor got into politics. Your professor of metaphysics into politics. A little sound metaphysics would not do politics any harm. Politics ought to be gotten out of dram shops, our politicians of all parties would be safer and sounder men if they were separated from the fumes of a bottle”. Mears ended up receiving 451 (1.98%) votes and came in 4th place.
The New York Prohibition Party held its 1879 state convention on September 3rd. The convention, under the leadership of state chairman James Bronson, selected a slate of candidates for statewide offices. John Mears was its candidate for Governor. The rest of the state ticket included James Bronson of Montgomery County for Lieutenant Governor, Professor Alphonso Hopkins of Monroe County was for Secretary of State, Caleb W. Allis of Onondaga County for State Controller, Stevan Merrit of Rockland County for State Treasurer, John J. Hooper of Tioga County for State Engineer, and Walter Farrington of Dutchess County for State Attorney General.
The State Party platform opposed the state’s liquor licensing system, supported passing a state constitutional amendment banning the manufacture, importation, and sale of liquor, and supported women’s suffrage.
After the convention, Hamilton college students once again held a rally in celebration Mears' nomination. The main speech at the rally was given by Charles A Gardiner, a Hamilton college student who would go on to be class valedictorian, study at Columbia Law School, and became a corporate lawyer. During the speech Gardiner stated, “We sympathize with you in your work. We would see this evil of intemperance driven from our land”. Mears gave his own speech as well. During his speech he stated that, “The liquor traffic continues to be the most expensive, the most useless and the most damaging of all evils under which society suffers through the civilized world” and “I enjoy few things more than a downright, earnest combat with something that deserves to be combated”.
Mears undertook a statewide campaign. The Prohibition Party funded posters and handbills. His campaign got enough attention to worry the Republican Party, who feared that he could compete with them for the support of a significant number of voters, and he was attacked in the press.
A week before the election, Mears held an event at Clinton’s Schollard Opera House alongside Charles Gardiner. Mears ended up receiving 4,437 (0.47%) votes and came in 5th place. His results were greater than the 3,412 (0.34%) votes received by William Groo in the 1876 Gubernatorial election.
After the election, Mears continued to engage in temperance and social activism. He organized a celebration in 1881 for the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, after which he returned to Hamilton for the 1881-1882 school year. He celebrated the inauguration of Rev. Dr. Henry Darling (his friend and son of his childhood mentor Judge William Darling) as the new college president. In September, Mears gave an emotional speech at a memorial at Hamilton College mourning the assassination of President Garfield.
This would be Mears’ last public speech. Mears’ health declined throughout the year of 1881. On October 24th , Mears collapsed while teaching a class and had a series of seizures due to Sepsis (blood poisoning). Attempts at medical treatment were unsuccessful.
Mears died on November 10th, 1881. His funeral was held on November 12th and was attended family members, academic colleagues, and fellow ministers. In speaking of Mears, his long-time friend, Rev. Thomas J. Brown stated that “Inactivity had no charms on him,” and his student Charles Gardiner stated that he taught “a lesson in self-respect and in what a pure and pious zeal combined with pluck and persistence can accomplish.
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“The Official Count: The Figures as Declared by the State Board of Canvassers”. The Buffalo Commercial. (Buffalo, New York). December 15, 1879. Accessed, July 23, 2019. https://www.newspapers.com/image/265190916/?terms=john%2Bmears%2Bprohibition
-- Contributed by Jonathan Makeley