The Universalist National Memorial Church held a convocation on October 7, 2023 entitled “Universalist Jubilee: Its Legacy and Promise.”
The video will become available at some point and I will link it here, but in the meantime these are the notes from my part of the service.
Friends, where have we as Universalist come from? A few words. Look to the window to my right. It depicts, or is intended to depict, the Hand-In-Hand, the vessel which brought John Murray from England to America on September 30, 1770. This is the anniversary we remember today: the point from which we mark the 250th anniversary of Universalism in America. By the time he landed at Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, he was already a broken man. His change of faith within British evangelicalism lost him most of his friends and probably successful career. Then his wife Eliza and their son died. He landed in debtors’ prison, and once out we wanted to lose himself in the world, particularly the great American wilderness. That’s why he came here. But even the ship, bound for New York, was off course. The grace — almost miraculous grace — of his encounter with Thomas Potter encouraged him back to the ministry, and back to life. It’s a well-known, oft-told story, too long to repeat now, but it’s a story we need to tell more often. Murray did not plant Universalism here. There existed groups and individuals up and down the Eastern Seaboard who felt, thought and believed as he did: believing in a perfect hope of God’s complete salvation. One such group was the nucleus of what would be the first Universalist church in America, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. And one of those he met was Judith Sargent Stevens, a writer in her own right and today more famous than this minister she would later marry. The irony was that his own theological and homiletic approach to Universalism, the would-be denomination he supported and his lineage of leadership within the fellowship of churches faded in his own lifetime and he was quickly overtaken by others whose names are also a part of our heritage. But Father Murray was as much a model of Christian life and a preacher or pastor. He suffered disappointment, depression and loss. We can understand him, and trust that he would understand us. His faith that God saves, and saves completely returns us to hope. Little wonder this church’s first iteration was a memorial to him. While the vision in and from Universalism was grand, our numbers never were. Numerically, we have been been in decline for generations. In 250 years, will there be Universalists who look through us, to Murray’s landing in New Jersey? The question is not important. Rather, as with others before me, I trust God and trust in God. I trust God will be true to the divine nature, a nature that we profess as love. Not that God is loving, but that God is love itself. And that love will not betray or fail us. Our existence is not a failure in the universe. New people rediscover and reconstruct this faith all the time; it will not die. So I trust in God, that there will always be a witness for the larger faith, whether in our fellowship or another. Occasions change and plans fail, but the providing grace of God endures. Those who will listen will hear the truth. So at this anniversary celebration, we can look back to Murray’s landing and return to life. Behind him we see the Reformation, and the Apostolic church, and back to Calvary where this world was redeemed, and from that to the foundations of the world. There, with the Creator, “whose nature is Love” we find our legacy and our hope.