It doesn’t seem possible that children are back in school and summer vacation is a thing of the past for many. Even with the COVID 19 pandemic still going strong and the Delta Variant sweeping the nation and hitting those not vaccinated, please everyone stay safe and be well. The walls are going up on our new church and it’s beginning to feel we are rounding the second bend. The new building team has been very hard at work overseeing the project and we thank them very much. Sunday school rooms are being figured out, and our new interim minister, Rev. Michelle Ma will soon be with us starting September 1st. There is much excitement in the air.
This month is our second of a seven-part series of our UU History and how we came to be.
John Murray Comes to America – 1770 The Wind of Change By: Janeen K. Grohsmeyer
Over two hundred years ago (when the United States of America was still the thirteen colonies), there lived a man named John Murray. John Murray and his wife, Eliza, lived in the country of England. They were very religious people. Every Sunday they got up early, got dressed, ate their breakfast, and went to church. Sometimes, John Murray would preach a sermon and talk to the people about God.
Now, their church was not a place to be happy. No one smiled. No one laughed. No one sang. Because the followers of that religion, called Calvinism, believed that almost all of the people were going to hell. They believed that God would let only a few people into heaven. No matter what people did, even if they were really, really nice and tried really, really hard to be good, they still couldn’t go to heaven. No matter what. And so, the religion in that church was a very serious business, and the people were expected to be serious, too.
But one day, John and Eliza Murray heard of a man named Mr. Relly. Mr. Relly was of a different religion, a religion that said people didn’t have to go to hell, a religion where people could be happy. Finally, after talking about it for weeks, John and Eliza decided to listen to what Mr. Relly had to say. The next Sunday, they got up early, got dressed, ate their breakfast, and they went to Mr. Relly’s church instead of their own.
At that church people smiled. Someone actually laughed. When it came time for the sermon, Mr. Relly got up to preach. He said, “God loves all his children. God doesn’t have favorites. Everyone, everyone in the universe, has the chance to go to heaven and be saved from the fires of hell. Salvation is universal.” Mr. Relly was a Universalist, and after hearing his sermon, John and Eliza decided they were Universalists, too.
But the people at their old church weren’t Universalists. “Mr. Murray!” they said, very stern. “Have you and your wife been going to hear that heretic, Mr. Relly?
“Yes, sirs, we have,” answered John Murray.
“And do you believe such nonsense, that all people have the chance to be saved?”
“Yes, sirs, we do.”
“Mr. Murray!” they said, appalled. “You mustn’t say such things!”
“Yes,” said John Murray, “I must.”
And the said, “Oh, no, you won’t!”
And he said, “Oh, yes, I will!”
And they said, “Well, you can’t say them here! You and your wife both have to leave!”
Poor John and Eliza Murray! None of their old friends would talk to them, and they were lonely and sad. Then Eliza had a baby, which made them happy for a while, but then the baby got sick and Eliza got sick, and John had to borrow money to pay the doctors. He borrowed more and more money and went to more and more doctors, but they couldn’t help. His wife and his baby died. And then he was arrested, because he couldn’t pay back the money he had borrowed.
So there John Murray sat, all alone in a cell, with no job, no money, no family and no friends. He decided he had failed God and failed his family and failed himself. He decided he was never going to be part of a church again. He decided that was never going to peach again
After a few days, Eliza’s brother paid the money that John owed, and so John was set free. But John wasn’t happy in England anymore. He wanted a new life in a new land. He bought a ticket on the sailing ship Hand-in-Hand. The ship had great white sails that were filled by the wind, and the wind blew and blew. The wind blew John Murray all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, far away from England and to a new land
But the wind blew John Murray to a place he hadn’t planned to go-he ended up in New Jersey, instead of New York. The Hand-in-Hand became stranded on a sandbar off the coast, and the sailors couldn’t move the ship because the wind kept blowing them into shore. Because there wasn’t much food on the ship, John Murray climbed out and waded ashore through a marsh. Near Barnegat Bay, he met a farmer named Thomas Potter, who invited him into his house and gave him supper.
Now, Thomas Potter also believed in a loving God, and he believed in Universal Salvation. He believed in it so much, that ten years before John Murray had shown up on his doorstep, blown in by that wind, Thomas Potter had built a little church all by himself. For ten years, he had been waiting and waiting for the right preacher to come.
And now the preacher was here! But John Murray did not want to preach. Not at all. Thomas Potter argued with him and talked to him and prayed over him, and still John Murray didn’t want to preach. “I swore I would never preach again,” John Murray said. “Ever.”
But Thomas Potter said, “I believe that the wind that brought you here to my door was the breath of God. I believe God sent you here to preach in the church I have built. I believe that the wind will never change until you have preached to the people a message from God. Tell me, sir, if that wind does not change by Sunday morning, will you take that as a sign from God himself that you should preach again?”
John Murray thought and thought about that, and finally said, “I will”.
The wind blew. The wind blew and blew for days, and it kept the boat from leaving the shore. The wind didn’t change. So, on Sunday morning, on the thirtieth of September in the year 1770, while that wind was still blowing, John Murray got up early, got dressed, ate his breakfast, and went to church.
And he preached.
He preached in the church Thomas Potter had built, and he preached of a loving and caring God. He preached of Universal Salvation, the idea that all people everywhere in the universe could go to heaven and be saved. He said, ‘you possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine!”
And afterward, when the people came to him and thanked him for his sermon, John Murray changed. He changed his mind about joining a church again, and he changed his mind about being a preacher.
In 1779, in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, John Murray became the minister of the very first organized Universalist church in America. He traveled and preached in many places in the United States and became known as one of the founders of American Universalism.
The church that Thomas Potter built doesn’t exist anymore. It was torn down years ago. But Universalists are still there – Unitarian Universalists now. If you go to New Jersey, there on the shores of Barnegat Bay, you can stay at a special Unitarian Universalist retreat center named Murray Grove, in honor of John Murray, the man who decided to preach again and to let his light shine.
John Murray is sometimes called the Father of American Universalism, but Universalism had emerged in central New England well before his arrival. Elhanan Winchester, Adams Streeter, Caleb Rich, and the Davis family were influential in the New England movement. John Murray and James Relly and their brand of Universalism came from Methodism. John and Eliza Murray were excommunicated from their Methodist church in 1760.
In 1774, four years after his sermon in Thomas Potters church, Murray settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts, though he continued to travel about from place to place, preaching. In 1770, Murray and seventeen others of Gloucester split from the First Church of Christ Congregation and formed the Independent Church of Christ (see right – picture circa 1930). They built a meetinghouse and held their first service on Christmas Day, 1780. Five years later, after being harassed both legally and physically by other denominations, Murray was instrumental in choosing the name “Universalists.” This helped the new faith gain legal recognition and protection and earned John Murray the title “Father of American Universalism.”
In 1778, John Murray and Judith Sargent Stevens (her husband, John Stevens, had died the year before) were married. She became well known for her writings. In 1793, Murray settled in a parish ministry on Hanover Street in Boston. He remained there until his death in 1815. The Universalist Society of Boston is now the Unitarian universalist Associate (UUA) headquarters in Boston, MA on Farnsworth Street.
For more interesting information about Thomas Potter and John Murray’s story click on the link here, Thomas Potter and John Murray Story – Murray Grove. There are pictures of the Potter Homestead and Rev. John Murray ministering. Next month we go to 1819 and The Baltimore Sermon, titled Those Awful Unitarians. But…were they really that awful?