An important Universalist leader in the movement to reform prisons, Spear was born in Boston, and was dedicated in the Universalist church by John Murray, for whom his younger brother was named. Charles’s career began as a printer, a skill he would put to good use as a reformer. He moved on to the Universalist ministry, and was fellowshipped by the Northern Association in Vermont in 1827. Spear spent most of his career in prison reform after serving brief ministries on Cape Cod and in Boston. Influenced by the writings of Benjamin Rush, Spear became especially concerned about prison conditions, the reform of prisoners and their lives after discharge. He taught Sunday School classes in both the state prison and the Charles Street Jail in Boston. His wife Sarah also became active in this work, and traveled with him a great deal up and down the coast, and as far inland as Michigan speaking on the treatment of prisoners. In 1845 he began to edit a periodical called Hangman, which opposed capital punishment. He also joined forces with his brother for a time and edited Voices From Prison: Being a selection of poetry from various prisoners, written within the cell (1847). They founded the Prisoners Friend Association in 1845, which published a journal, The Prisoners’ Friend, which lasted in various forms until 1861, but John, who had an erratic career, drifted off to spiritualism after two years. This paper also introduced the first column devoted to the humane treatment of animals. Charles also spoke before numerous legislatures to implement penal reform. Spear became an outspoken advocate for the abolition of the death penalty after living in Connecticut in the early 1830s, and later published Essays on the Punishment of Death (1844). In 1845 he was one of the organizers of the Massachusetts Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, and he became its first recording secretary, and later its chief agent. In 1851 the governor of Massachusetts authorized Spear to go to England to speak on capital punishment.
Spear was devoted to a number of other reform issues. He was an outspoken advocate for peace, and with his wife, spoke out for the rights of women to hold property. He wrote on the economic exploitation of women. Like his brother, he was active in the abolition movement, and offered a resolution against slavery that was passed by the Massachusetts State Convention of Universalists in 1843. He was also interested in the water cure (hydrotherapy) and phrenology. In prison reform progress was slow, and Spear received scant support from the denomination, although P.T. Barnum, and his virtuoso singer Jenny Lind gave money. Spear made great progress in abolishing debt as a reason for being sent to prison. Penal reform continued to receive his devoted attention for his remaining years of life, as his goal was to apply “the spirit of charity to all outcasts.” He died in 1863.