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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.