Sermon: “John Murray in 2020”

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on September 27, 2020 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Matthew 21:28b-32. [shortened lesson]


Wednesday marks the 250th anniversary of John Murray's arrival in America. Later dubbed the "father of American Universalism" and considered for generations its signal pioneer, in a person, John Murray stands for Universalism. The stained-glass window of the ship in our church building (second from the front, pulpit-side) represents the ship that brought Murray to America, so represents Universalism in the life of the Christian church. Our church's original name was the Murray Universalist Society, and for a long time the church was planned to be a memorial to him personally. So, today's anniversary celebrates him, the Universalist church, where it has been and where we are going.

You may have seen the lithograph of Murray in the vestibule at church. Not the big one in the rectangular frame of a man presiding over the Lord's Supper. That's Hosea Ballou, important in his own right, but he belongs to the generation after Murray and in many ways replaced Murray's theology. But rather the profile of a man in an oval frame just before you go down the hallway to the parlor. It's a bit faded, rather small and easy to miss — just like our understanding of Murray, and even the world's understanding of Universalism and what it points to: the empowered nature of God, which will save all.

There's a contradiction between John Murray as an emblem, and the common knowledge about him. Why is that?

The story so far

Since we will be joining First Universalist, Minneapolis next week in their service as part of Murray Grove's observance of the anniversary, I won't preach this sermon the way I normally would. There are usual and customary ways to talk about John Murray, his arrival, and ministry — Murray Grove, Thomas Potter, "this argument is solid, and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing" — so there's a good chance we'll hear all about it next week, and if not then, than eventually.

Suffice it today that Murray did not come to America to evangelize, but at age twenty-eight was already a broken man. The ship he was on was bound for Philadelphia, but arrived off the central coast of New Jersey and got stuck on a sandbar. He was part of the landing party to get supplies — so no auspicious disembarkation — when he met an elderly man, radical in his beliefs, who was convinced that Murray was the preacher of universal salvation that God had long promised. He even had a meeting house ready for him to preach in. Was it providence? A tale later reshaped to sound better? Simple luck? Whatever the case, later generations of Universalists made this the origin story and bought the site as a retreat; it still exists, you can visit, and the center — Murray Grove — will be our hosts next week.

Celebration

But first things first: let's celebrate this. We have come far in faith. We're not big but we have survived with our integrity, our community and our legacy intact. He have a heritage that has depths to inspire us and encourage us. It's like being the father of the prodigal son, who thought that his son had died. We have something to celebrate, so let's not take that for granted. I could use a little celebrating about now.

And further by looking at this heritage, and though the lens of today's lessons, we have notes that lead us to a better and more generous spiritual life, and a closeness to God that gives us strength in times of need (and why we gather as a church.) We have much to celebrate.

The anniversary

Of course, we are not the first to mark the day. 150 years ago there was a centennial convention in Gloucester, Massachusetts that attracted twelve thousand participants, the largest meeting either the Unitarians or Universalists ever held. Even fifty years ago George Huntston Williams wrote an essay, American Universalism, which is still a standard source for interpreting the history, and is still in print. (I recommend it.)

But what is it 250 years ago that we are marking, apart from a trans-Atlantic passage? What's the meaning of the story? I think it's the failure of misplaced intent and a redirection towards new life. In other words, life doesn't go according to plan and those changes can have their own consolations. Murray's voyage, or at least the way we usually interpret it, is itself theological.

A bit more context. John Murray was born in Hampshire, England in 1741 but brought up in Ireland, by his father, a merchant. He was a Calvinist within the Church of England; severe and smothering, today we would consider the elder Murray as emotionally abusive. John understandably, if selfishly, left his family when his father died, as a part of the famous evangelist George Whitefield's entourage, later settling in London and attending Whitefield's Tabernacle. That's when he met and later married Eliza Neale. (Her family did not like him.)

Nearby, a former disciple of Whitefield named James Relly was stirring up trouble by teaching that Christ took on human nature completely, and so in his saving acts, saved the human race completely. And the infection was beginning to spread.

So Murray was sent to correct one of these poor deluded Rellyites — and you can see this coming, right? — she got him thinking that Relly might be right: that all human beings were saved, not maybe or optionally, but as a condition of salvation itself.

But he and Eliza became convinced of Relly's teaching and joined his Universalist church. In falling away, they lost their friends.

Murray in London

He and Eliza might have had a happy life together, even if without material riches, and going down in the annals of English Dissent as a later rival to John Wesley. But their son died in his first year, and then Eliza's health declined. In a dreadful story familiar to people today, John did his best to care for his sick wife. They moved four miles out of town, to a healthier environment, even though that meant he had to walk eight miles each day to earn a living. He spent all he had on doctors, nurses and medications. But nothing worked, and Eliza died too. Widowed and destitute, John ended up in a private prison for debt. If his brother-in-law hadn't paid his debt and and given him a job he might still be there.

He was despondent. It seems he contemplated suicide, but considered a sin and chose instead to "to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all" in the wilderness of America. That's how he ended up on that ship, landing 250 years ago.

What a strange thing to celebrate.

Why Murray?

So maybe you're wondering, why does John Murray get the pride of place? He wasn't the first person to preach universalism and either Britain or America. There were already Universalists that met him on every important stage of the journey, some of whom had very different ideas of how God would save humanity. One reason surely is that he was the pastor of the first explicitly Universalist church in America, but even it rose out of group that studied the works of James Relly. He later became the minister of the first Universalist church in Boston. And he had a reputation of being a popular preacher. But there were other popular preachers, and (surprisingly) his particular theology barely survived his own lifetime.

Maybe it's because he was a careful and intelligent writer, but that's not really the case either. He didn't leave a systematic theology or textbook, or a series of arguments like other more influential theologians.

Even though three volumes of his letters and sermons exist, they were very hard to come by until the mass scanning of books a few years ago, and I was many years into the ministry before I actually saw a copy! That's because they weren't reprinted and kept alive by later generations, because, to put it nicely, they don't age well.

In the 1780s, Murray had some legal problem about the Universalist church being a separate entity, and so weddings he officiated that might or might not have been legal. He went back to England until the matter was settled. He returned on the same ship as Abigail Adams, and so we have her impressions of her in her journal:

Mr. Murry preachd us a Sermon. The Sailors made them-selves clean and were admitted into the Cabbin, attended with great decency to His discourse from these words, "Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him Guiltless that taketh His Name in vain." He preachd without Notes and in the same Stile which all the Clergymen I ever heard make use of who practice this method, a sort of familiar talking without any kind of dignity yet perhaps better calculated to do good to such an audience, than a more polishd or elegant Stile, but in general I cannot approve of this method. I like to hear a discourse that would read well.

Snobbery aside, we can say that John Murray was not a polished writer. But there was someone who did write in an elegant formal style. In that book study group that became the first Universalist church was a wealthy young widow, Judith Sargent.

In time, John and Judith married, and if you happen to study eighteenth-century American history, you are more likely to know about her than him, in part because she was a published author, and particularly because of her her early 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes.

Copley's portarit of Judith SargentIf you visit Gloucester today, the mural on the wall is of her. The research institute is about her, not him. The famous portrait (by John Singleton Copley no less) is of her, not him. And we know more about her inner life, through the preservation of her works and private correspondence, than his. A museum exhibit currently running is about her. And if John didn't write a training manual, Judith did, in the form of a catechism.

The critical John Murray

By contrast, John Murray is little known and little read, even in our church circles. There is no critical edition of his works, and apart from shabby print-on-demand copes, you can only find them in libraries or on-line.

Even the bit of Murray quoted in the gray hymnal (704) is not only not from Murray, but comes from a modern inscription, addressed as if to Murray.

But if I had to bring back one work, and to answer the question, "why John Murray?", it would be his autobiography, the Life of Murray and Universalists read inspirationally for generations. (Judith wrote the last section.) It was kept in print though the nineteenth century, and I have a copy given "from Minnie to Vesta" as a Christmas gift in 1899. I think because it had a reputation of being inspiring rather that deep, but from that must have come affection and recognition; the book is also how we know his story. Here was a man who knew early abuse, the temptations of friends and the allure of the city, grievous loss, imprisonment, a quest, the grace of God and a new chance. And all he wanted from it was the chance to tell you that God is love, and that all of us are included in God's salvation. That's why I think Universalists really cared about him.

Theology

Now, as I said before, John Murray barely outlived his own theological contribution to Universalism, but what was it he believed? It was easier for later generations to honor the man rather than his beliefs, so they weren't widely discussed. Precisely because his beliefs were controversial, he preferred to preach around them early in his career, leading hearers to come to the conclusion that all persons would be saved, rather than just saying it outright. We can use some of writings near Murray to get a reasonable reflection of what he believed.

What we do have at hand was the book James Relly wrote, Union; a late profession of faith by a church in Connecticut that was the last reference to a living example of Murray's theology and later secondary writing.

A distinctive feature of Relly-Murray theology is role of Jesus Christ as the captain of humanity. They believed that that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, meaning that God not only had a knowledge and participation in our human nature, but that as the Second Adam, Christ put on humanity — us, collectively — as you or I might put on a garment.

Thus it was not Jesus alone who died on the cross, descended to hell, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven; rather, we all did. It is now a part of our human nature. To be human is to be saved.

Then what is the purpose of the Jesus' teaching or the role of the church? In a sense, it is to unlearn what we have come to believe, and be bound by it. Most people don't believe to be human is to be saved, so they (or we) must be saved from our unbelief in the goodness of God. Those who do not believe such will suffer a kind of living hell feeling, but not actually being, alienated from God. Thus we do no earn salvation, but know int. This gives the Universalist church its purpose: to spread the good news of what has already and what must forever be.

Rivals to Murray included Elhanan Winchester in Philadelphia, and his belief that God will fill all promises and salvation shall one day surely occur. (He and Murray did not get along.) Also, Hosea Ballou who made a common-sense argument from the nature of divine justice, that finite beings are not liable for infinite penalty, and this was already taking over in Murray's final years.

A word or two about our lessons.

Ezekiel

Ezekiel was one of the prophets, and probably one of the hardest to appreciate and understand. Culturally, he's known from the gospel song, "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel," a reference to a manifestation of heavenly beings. These heavenly beings — an amalgam of eyes and wheels and wings — that on the one hand is a stunning metaphor for the omnipresence and omniscience of God. But on the other hand have encouraged lurid and literal images of what they would look like. Real nightmare juice. Ezekiel is fodder for 1970s conspiratorial pulp paperbacks to suggest that Ezekiel actually met beings from other worlds, the "wheels" being their spacecraft.

He's hard to understand because of the intensity of his visions. For Murray, that meant Ezekiel pointed a straight line to universal salvation, but from another part of the book. (Surprise, surprise.)

And yet Ezekiel is not so strange as to be ignored; at the church, in the chancel rail there are carvings of the four living creature within wheels, emblems which are also use to depict the writers of the four gospels. So think of Ezekiel like a live electrical wire: hazardous, but helpful with approached carefully and with understanding.

In our passage, God tells the prophet to end an ancient saying: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." What does that mean? That we each bear the guilt for our own actions. What this doesn't mean is that each of us are liberated from the actions of those who go before us. People, much too often, do not get what they deserve because the conditions they're born into. This passage tells us that children (for example) to do deserve to be born into war, into hunger, into being poisoned or threatened by their environment. They do not deserve this, and yet too many get it. Human justice (or injustice) is not God's, and we ought to remember that even if we carry a grudge or anger, that this doesn't compel God to share it. Rather, we should try to see situation from God's point of view, or at least another point of view before deciding what is right or wrong.

Matthew

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus speaks of the way of righteousness.

The John in the lesson from the Gospel of Matthew was not John Murray, of course, but John the Baptist, who had been teaching and stirring up controversy. Jesus was having a dispute with learned teacher, and made the point that those who do the right thing do the will of God, rather than those who say the right thing. Or put another way, without the correct, corresponding action, pledges and promises are meaningless or worse.

The same is true of beliefs. You can agree with an idea, but if you don't understand it, what do you really believe? Or you can agree with an idea, and profess it, and really understand it, but act like it's not important, what then do you really believe?. In other words, you can be a hypocrite, but you're not fooling God.

What does this have to do with Universalism, past or present? In brief, it is one thing to profess Universalism and its another thing to live it. Living it is far harder, in part because it's not a matter of making a theological commitment and sticking to it. Life that comes from theological commitments requires continuous evaluation and moral decision making. Our life together challenges any hidden self-centeredness. We present one another with carefully considered models of living. This makes it easier to do the right thing, and not merely say it, and so live a life in harmony with God — even before the final harmony.

After Murray

I suppose it should go without saying that you can be a devout, sincere  ember of this church without believing anything John Murray preached. You could  have even done that in 1805. And so we announce each Sunday a definition of liberalism as "having no credal test for membership." At most. Universalists wanted to be known as having a common hope without dwelling in the details of how that might happen or what that might look like. Issues that brought other denominations to their knees barely set a ripple among the Universalists, and when there were controversies, the leadership tended to choose broadness over exclusion. It's a heritage worth keeping.

Closing

Dearly beloved, we are with this church because pioneers, founders and leaders built something that has continued to this day. But nothing is given, nothing is guaranteed.

Each of us must decide what is valuable and everlasting, and what is partial and ephemeral. What is essential and life-giving, and what is dispensable and secondary. As St. Paul said, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." (1 Thess. 5:21.)

Reputation, legacies, plans and fortunes rise but more easily fall. Commit yourself in word and deed to the good, the God-facing direction that brings life and health.

God bless you this day and evermore.

Manuals of Faith and Duty revisited

I don't know where people get all this time to read; I'm lucky to scratch out ten pages a day. So that prompts me to shorter books and that reminded me of an article I wrote in 2008 about a set of eleven Universalist handbooks, written at the end of the nineteenth century. And if you can read through the breathless optimism and pre-Einstein, pre-Freud thought, you can learn a thing or two. I just finished Heaven and got some food for thought about what the kingdom of heaven means.

Back in 2008, I used Google Books; now I prefer Internet Archive, both to reduce my "Google footprint" and because Internet Archive has a better reading experience, and a wider variety of download options. So, I'm reprinting a period advertisement, with links to the Internet Archive, with two exceptions. Also, I've not reviewed these for bad scanning, so leave a comment if you find a book that's a skew. The Internet Archive often has different versions of the same book so it's worth a re-search. Enjoy.

"Manuals of Faith and Duty"

Manuals of Faith and Duty
Edited by Rev. J. S. Cantwell, D.D.

A series of short books in exposition of prominent teachings of the Universalist Church, and moral and religious obligations of believers. They are prepared by writers selected for their ability to present in brief compass an instructive and helpful Manual on the subject undertaken. The volumes are affirmative and constructive in statement, avoiding controversy, while specifically unfolding doctrines.

The Manuals of Faith and Duty are sold at 25 cents each. Uniform in size, style, and price.

I. The Fatherhood of God. By Rev. John Coleman Adams, D.D., Brooklyn, N.Y.
II. Jesus The Christ. By S. Crane. D.D., Earlville, Ill.
III. Revelation. By Isaac Morgan Atwood, D.D., President of the Theological School, Canon, N.Y.
IV. Christ in the Life. By Rev. Warren S. Woodbridge, Medford, Mass. [Google]
V. Salvation. By Orello Cone, D.D., President of Buchtel College, Akron, O.
VI. The Birth from Above. By Rev. Charles Follen Lee, Boston, Mass.
VII. The Saviour of the World. By Rev. Charles Ellwood Nash, D.D., Brooklyn, N.Y. (book notice)
VIII. The Church. By Rev. Henry W. Rugg, D.D., Providence, R.I. (1891)
IX. Heaven. By Rev. George Sumner Weaver, D.D., Canton, N.Y.
X. Atonement. by Rev. William Tucker, D.D., Camden, O.
XI. Prayer. by Rev. George H. Deere, D.D., Riverside, Cal. [Google]

Thank you for the book

Last week, I was musing in front of minister friends about how I should read David Bentley Hart's That All Should Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation (Yale, 2019) for reasons that should be obvious to even casual readers of this site. And past the obvious: who would be the best audience for the book? I'll write about it as I get deeper into it.

Well, muse in front of friends and what happens? One ordered a copy and had it shipped to me. My thanks to the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, D. Min. for the gift.

Last week was full of unhappy (personal) news, and a token was a balm and an encouragement. (It worked.) That's a benefit of having friends for a long time. But she is not only a friend, but a colleague. The graces of collegial support aren't always formal or programmatic, though it's tempting in professional spaces to privilege structures and forms. Indeed, I wonder if most acts of ministerial collegiality are informal, or at last the ones that have lasting impact. Informal but not unimportant. It's no secret that I don't participate in formal, institutional collegial structures; my reasons are several and have changed in priority over the years. But my informal connections — some deep, some momentary — are now as wide as ever, and that's a gift that also deserves thanks.

Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C.

If you are looking for a Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C., I'll be preaching and leading worship at Universalist National Memorial Church,  at the corner of 16th and S Streets, N. W. at 11 am.  (Map)

Update! Four well-loved carols!

We will meet in the parlor — easier to heat and cheerier for a small congregation — with refreshment to follow.  (There will, of course, also be a Christmas Eve service at 8 pm.)  Hope to see you there.

Peeking in on the United Universalist Convention, 1939

Eighty years ago today, the United Universalist Convention began at the Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. It's my home church, so a moment of pride.

The convention was not for the national denominational body (Universalist General Convention) alone, but included the meetings of the ministers association, the women's association and the Sunday school association. For four days, they worshiped, heard reports, passed resolutions, broke into small groups and saw demonstrations. Given the size of the church, and the polity that sent 214 delegates from state conventions rather than every church, it was a smaller affair than today's General Assembly. The banquet was, however, held at the Mayflower Hotel, which became famous later for other reasons.

Of the ministers welcomed into fellowship after the communion service, I recognize the names of Brainard Gibbons, later a General Superintendent, and Albert C. Niles, who wrote a biography of George De Benneville. A proposed pension plan never came to fruition. A rule change allowing dual fellowship (with the Unitarians and Congregationalists) passed, but I'll have to research to see if this was an expansion of an earlier change; the Universalists entered comity talks with both the Unitarians and Congregationalists in the 1920s. Resolutions for co-ops and against gambling reflect their morals.

I don't have access to the denominational magazines, so it's hard to gauge the tone. Recall that the Germany had invaded Poland the month before, and Britain had declared war on September 3; a "phony war" to this point. The countries of the Americas had decided on neutrality. Yet the Universalists passed a resolution on conscientious objectors "which provoked considerable discussion but was finally adopted with a few dissenting votes." I'm guessing the memories of the Great War were too fresh, and the writing ("times of war hysteria") was on the wall. I can only imagine what Owen D. Young must have felt: he was the toastmaster for the banquet! The church's tower was named for him and dedicated to international peace, recognizing the plan he proposed to restructure German war reparations a decade prior. But war was here.

You can read the official record of the proceedings here.

Two new Universalist books

We are in a silver age of Universalist Christian writing: new works and reprints, for popular and academic readers and from across the confessional spectrum. I'll be posting book notices, partly to spread the word and partly to keep a record for myself. (I sometimes forget where I see books.)

Here are two that came on the radar:

With this article, I open the category Universalist literature.

Decline of Universalism: posted works about polity and administration

To continue the preparation towards considering the pre-war decline of Universalism and how Universalists responded to it. Last time, I looked at documents I'd already published about ecumenical overtures; this time, works related to polity and administration.

I need more from the Thirties, and the documents I found a few months ago will help fill the gap.

While slightly post-war:

I think I need to look at the scope of programs and budgets soon.

To read and review: Allin’s Christ Triumphant

The moment I saw Thomas Allin's Christ Triumphant: Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture, I knew I needed to read it.

I got my copy — a reviewer's copy, free of charge from the publisher, to be clear; thank you — last night and will update you as soon as I have reached a convenient stopping point. My keenness and my glacial reading pace will be at war with one another.

Continue reading "To read and review: Allin’s Christ Triumphant"

How did the Universalists manage the twentieth-century decline?

I take reader requests, and reader asked what the Universalists did to address the decline prior to World War Two. This squib of an article is what I plan to do.

  • I'll consider denomination theological and social adaptation, institutional plans and budgets. I'll use reports, directories and where available newspapers and books.
  • I'll work from a hypothesis that the decline in denominational Universalism began in the 1920s and lead to a choice to either merge with another denomination or collapse. There were two contenders: the Unitarians and the Congregationalists. As we know, the Unitarians "won" overall, and some individual parishes joined the Congregationalists.
  • I'll look at the initiatives to encourage loyalty, minimize the parish losses and raise funds. I'll try to identify what fell off the table.
  • As I review period documents, I'll point out and transcribe documents that illuminate the truth, and I'll modify my hypothesis as needed.

This is a long-term project, and to be clear I don't think there are parallels to the UUA today. (The money and ministerial supply couldn't be more different.)

What would it take for the Universalists to have four new churches?

I'm watching the development of the Universalist Orthodox Church with a lot of admiration and a little bit of envy. In about a year it has grown to four parishes and two emerging missions. (Their site has a new page that better explains their approach and what they mean by Universalism.)

Are any of these parishes large? No. Do any have a building that they own for worship? No. Are their clergy compensated for their labor? Doubtful. But do they exist and grow? Yes. Do they ordain or receive new clergy? Yes. Do they have regular, public services of worship (liturgies)? Yes. I'll take what they have over the unrealized plans for a large institutional church any day.

What what would it take for us on liberal Reformed end of Universalism to have four parishes and two emerging missions? That's behind so many of the articles I write here. I'm fortunate to live in a city with a Universalist Christian church, where I am a member and preach occasionally. There's one in Providence, and Tokyo. You might find others, historically related to the Universalist denomination or not. If I were in a city with a Universalist Orthodox church, I'd probably attend liturgies, at least occasionally. But people in most places don't have the option.

I'm not going to build a church where one's not needed but you may need to do so. A monthly service of morning and evening prayer led by a lay person for a congregation of three is a hundred times better than wishing that there was a church.

What would it take for the Universalists to have four new churches? A hundred? Even one? Most of all: desire to have one, even if there's no institution "out there" to help. (That said, I'd gladly do what I could to help a new church. I bet others would as well.)