Give Them Not Hell, but Hope
How many of you know who John Murray was? How many know his story?
John Murray is known as the father, or the founder, of Universalism. His story is often called our Unitarian Universalist miracle story. The great Universalist faith originated in a series of bizarre coincidences that almost defy belief. Murray’s story shows the power of our Universalist roots. It also shows that there are possibilities for greatness even for those who have at times wanted to give up.
John Murray was born in 1741 in England, but grew up in Ireland from age ten on. His father was a strict Calvinistic Anglican, but at some point became interested in Methodism, which in those days was still a reform movement within the Anglican church. The younger Murray was attracted to it too. From early on, he took a leadership role in church activities. Also early on, he came to believe he was one of the Elect – that limited group of people who would be saved and go to heaven on Judgement Day, while the rest would burn in eternal damnation.
Murray at first became employed in business, but he also did some preaching. Methodists in those days encouraged itinerant preaching by lay people, both men and women, and Murray enjoyed it, and by all accounts was good at it. After his father died he went to London, where he was exposed to many influences. When he was still probably no more than eighteen, he married, and they eventually had a son.
At some point Murray became aware of a man in London, James Relly, who was preaching a doctrine of universal salvation. He was horrified at this radical notion, but when he was asked by his church to “bring a young lady back from her erring ways,” he found he couldn’t argue against her logic. Then he and his wife studied Relly’s writings and checked all the scripture references. He became convinced and now “wondered how it was possible that ‘discoveries so important should never until now have been made, and now only by this man.’” (The Larger Hope, p. 9) Attending a sermon by Relly, Murray was “captivated by the sermon, humbled by the knowledge, so convincingly presented, that there was no such body as ‘the Elect’. No one could claim to be uniformly good, to the exclusion of others.” (p. 9)
Every Sunday Murray and his wife would attend half of Relly’s services and go to their old church for the other half, “in that way,” Murray said, “hearing the truth without running the risk of losing our reputation.” (p. 9) By 1760 Murray had become a complete convert to Rellyism, and was ready to proclaim it to the whole world.
Around the same time, however, his association with Relly was found out and he was voted out of his Methodist society. Soon after he was arrested for debt, and though he managed to get out of it, it was followed by the death of his one-year-old son. His wife’s health was declining and his own wasn’t good. He got news of the deaths of four of his siblings in Ireland, and his wife’s medical expenses caused more financial difficulty. When his wife died, Murray was tempted to take his own life, but instead he decided to come to America, “determined to bury himself in the wilderness,” wishing, as he expressed it, “to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all, as though I ne’er had been.” (p. 10)
When his ship approached America, it ended up stranded on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey. Murray was sent ashore in search of provisions. He came ashore at Good Luck Point, and was greeted by a deeply religious man named Thomas Potter, who had built a chapel on his property and was waiting for someone to come preach the gospel of universal salvation in it.
Potter had heard the message of universal salvation from preachers from the Ephrata Community west of Philadelphia. They were associated with a group of German Baptist Brethren, or Dunkers, who had come on their own to an idea of universal salvation.
Potter invited Murray to preach on the next Sunday. But Murray was not interested in preaching. He had come, after all, to escape, to retreat into his misery. But Potter persisted, and made a deal with Murray, that if the wind did not change first and blow the ship off the sandbar, he would preach in Potter’s chapel on Sunday. Murray agreed, feeling the wind was bound to change by then.
According to Charles Howe, author of A Larger Faith, “Potter assured him that it would not, and indeed the wind held steady. Murray’s sermon on universal grace, delivered to Potter and his neighbors on September 30, 1770, was evidently exactly the one Potter had long been waiting to hear, and its effect on Murray himself was likewise profound B by the time he had finished, his reservations about preaching were gone forever. Soon after the service was over, a sailor came from the ship with the news that the wind had just changed direction, and the ship was off the sandbar and ready to sail. Potter and Murray both regarded their chance meeting and the postponement of the wind’s change as a sign of [divine] providence. . . . Murray sailed on to New York City, preached there to an enthusiastic congregation, and was soon traveling up and down the northeastern seaboard, sowing the seeds of Universalism wherever he went.” (p.2)
People were eager to hear Murray’s message of hope and acceptance. Most belonged to religions that taught hellfire and brimstone and eternal damnation, and were afraid about their own fates and about their family and friends. Hearing Murray “make a strong case that all were destined to be saved, based on convincing scriptural arguments, was a welcome and liberating experience.” (p.5)
On the other hand, universal salvation was an unpopular doctrine, particularly because many felt it took away an essential incentive for people to behave. Without a system of rewards and punishments, why should people be good?
Murray was subjected to criticism and persecution, but he didn’t let it stop him. According to one story: “Once, when he was preaching in Boston, one of his opponents threw a large rock through a window, narrowly missing his head. Murray promptly picked up the rock and said, ‘This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.’ Then, laying the rock aside, he announced, ‘Not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth.’”
On another occasion, his views were challenged by an orthodox minister named Bacon. Murray’s response was so warmly applauded by the congregation that some of Bacon’s supporters went out, came back with some eggs, and started pelting Murray with them, to which he responded, “These are moving arguments, but I must own at the same time, I have never been so fully treated to Bacon and eggs before in all my life.” (Howe, p. 4-5)
After four years of itinerant preaching, going from town to town, Murray settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He served as a chaplain in George Washington’s Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, but sickness forced him to resign after just eight months. When he got back to Gloucester, there was a movement to force him out of town, and it even passed a town meeting vote. But he refused to leave, ignoring the order. Then sixty-one of his followers organized the first Universalist church in America, with Murray as their minister. There were many challenges, including issues of taxation, and questioning Murray’s ordination and the validity of the weddings he performed. He and the congregation got through them all.
In 1788 Murray married Judith Sargent. Judith Sargent Murray was an amazing woman for her time — for any time – a prolific writer and a major champion of women’s rights. Howe writes that “clearly, John’s success in the ministry was largely due to Judith’s unwavering emotional support. The couple had a long and close relationship that ended only with John’s death in 1815.” (p. 8)
By 1790 there were perhaps two dozen organized Universalist societies, and plenty of people who believed in the doctrine throughout New England, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Besides those Murray had directly influenced, there were others, mainly in Pennsylvania, who had come to it from a different route. They decided to come together and form a denomination – to adopt a “statement of faith and a plan of government that not only would provide a helpful model for local societies, but also would encourage cooperation between them.” (Howe, p. 10) Murray was instrumental in its forming and remained a leader in denominational affairs.
They met in Winchester, New Hampshire, and the document they put together, which is the foundational document of the denomination is known as the Winchester Profession.
Universalism grew quickly with its message of a loving God. People don’t need a system of rewards and punishments to motivate them; what works better is to feel they are valued and loved. Many people believe that now, but the Universalists led the way, bringing the message to a Calvinistic society that believed certain people are chosen and others are not.
Murray’s Universalist belief that everybody will be saved was also tied to an Enlightenment belief in the potential of human beings. We are all “the Elect;” we all have the divine light within us. This is the message that John Murray preached. This is the message that he preached when he said:
Go out into the highways and by-ways.
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light and understanding
to the hearts and minds of men and women.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage;
preach the kindness and
everlasting love of God.
(#704, Singing the Living Tradition)
As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in the potential of human beings. We believe the divine light exists in everyone. We believe that, and yet it still can be incredibly hard to uncover that light, to let it shine. Sometimes we worry that if we stand up and speak our minds or do what we really feel moved to do, people will throw eggs or stones at us. Sometimes we’re overcome by grief or depression or despair, and it’s hard to imagine doing anything much but surviving. Sometimes life just feels difficult, and it seems like it’s all we can do just to get through the day.
But we can’t give up. Life won’t let us. It’s hard to be faithful to the best that it in us, and yet there is no other way. Just as we think we have given up and we set sail for our wilderness, we end up at Good Luck Point, being greeted be a Thomas Potter who won’t let us quit.
Of course Murray didn’t know he would find Good Luck Point and Thomas Potter at the end of his voyage. We usually can’t see that far ahead. Murray only intended to be setting sail for oblivion.
In my own life, I came once to a point of giving up. I had been pursuing an elusive sense of spiritual connection and creative flow that I felt I had once had and had lost. I had been working as a waitress and other low-paying jobs with no benefits while I tried to “find myself.” I had gone to Germany and was working as an au pair, although I was already thirty, and I had just finally gotten an offer from the Peace Corps after waiting at least a year. They offered to send me to Poland. I felt I was in a different place than when I had applied. I thought about how I would be well into my thirties by the time I got back from the Peace Corps stint, and still unable to adequately support myself, still without health insurance. I admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for, at least not in the manner I had been looking, and that it was time I gave up and concentrated on making a living. I decided to decline the Peace Corps offer and to pursue a career in computer programming. In doing so, I was giving up far more than the opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps in Poland. I was giving up my most precious dreams, my idea of what was most important in life. As I saw it, I was admitting defeat. I was sailing to America.
And as it turned out, this was exactly what I needed to do. I went to Chicago and took a Computer Career Course and then got a job as a programmer/analyst. A real job with health insurance and paid vacation and everything! That job at an insurance company was the last thing I would have planned for myself, the last thing I would have thought would help my personal growth. But through it, I gained the independence I needed to feel safe enough to be able to make the changes I needed to make in myself.
Each of us has unique talents, unique perspectives, unique ways of loving the world. And the world needs all of us to use our special gifts, to be faithful to the best that is in us. We serve nothing by holding back. As Marianne Williamson says, “We are all meant to shine.” “It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.” We all have the potential to excel at whatever it is that calls to us. We all have the potential to be “brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous.” We need to give ourselves permission, and sometimes we need to let ourselves go all the way into our despair and come out the other side—sail all the way across the Atlantic and see what greets us on the other side. It’s all there, just inside, waiting to be released.
Where is your Good Luck Point? Who is your Thomas Potter? What miracle can you imagine that would allow you to blossom into your fullest potential? Where do you need to set your sails in order to find a new perspective? Where is the New World you wish to sail to?
John Murray did more than found a denomination. He did more than bring a liberating message to the world that all are saved. By his own life, he gave us a story of hope, a story of redemption, a model of overcoming despair. May we all find a way through the darkness. May we uncover the light within us, letting it shine and thereby lighting the way for others.