UU Minute #89

Will the Wind Change?

1770. John Murray, in grief and despair from the loss of his only child and, soon after, his spouse, sets out for a new life in America. The ship, making its way up the coast toward New York, gets stuck on a sandbar. Murray goes ashore to get provisions, and meets Thomas Potter, who has built a chapel on his farm in order that there be a place for someone to preach universalism. Potter learns that Murray was a preacher and a universalist. Voila!

But there’s a snag. Murray didn’t want to preach, ever again. He wanted a new life, away from all of that. And. He needs to be back on the ship where he expects to be off the sandbar and sailing away by Sunday. But Potter persists and somehow manages to extract a promise that if the wind doesn’t change, and the ship is still stuck on Sunday morning, Murray will come preach in Potter’s chapel.

Would the wind change? Though neither Potter nor Murray could have known it, the history of Universalism in America hung in the balance. If the wind changes, dislodges the ship, then Murray is on his way and maybe he never does preach again, as was his intention.

The wind didn’t change. And because it didn’t, the development of American Universalism did.

Thomas Potter gathered a small congregation of his family and neighbors, and John Murray preached in Potter’s chapel. Potter loved it. Most of his neighbors loved it. Murray got back on the ship and went on to New York, but the encouragement and affirmation he’d received changed his mind about preaching. He was soon back again in New Jersey, and from there launched a popular itinerant preaching career.

NEXT: John Murray in Gloucester


UU Minute #88

Thomas Potter's Field of Dreams

In the mid-1700s, the land that is now Murray Grove, in Good Luck, New Jersey, was being farmed by Thomas Potter. A member of a locally prominent family, he was illiterate yet successful and deeply religious. Probably a Quaker Baptist, Potter had caught wind of universalism: the idea that all human beings will ultimately attain salvation.

Universalism contradicted the Calvinism that prevailed in the colonies, but there were a few universalists around. George de Benneville had come to America in 1741 and had been preaching Universalism around Eastern Pennsylvania. A number of German immigrants who believed in universal salvation had settled in the mid-Atlantic colonies. A German Universalist, Georg Klein-Nicolai, had written a book arguing for Universalism, and in 1753, de Benneville had made arrangements for an English translation to be published under the title The Everlasting Gospel. Klein-Nicolai said that
“As the whole divine being is pure love, so are likewise all the attributes of God. His wisdom, omnipotence, holiness, mercy, truth, etc. are, at bottom, nothing else but love…. The true and only God is entirely an ocean of love.”
Perhaps these universalist ideas had made their way to Thomas Potter. In any case, in 1760 he set aside a piece of his farmland and built there a chapel for the express purpose of housing a preacher of the universalist gospel.

Now, we have no record of a voice telling Thomas Potter “if you build it he will come.” But Potter did build it, and, it took ten years, but he came. Universalist preacher John Murray’s ship got stuck on a sand bar just off the coast from Potter’s farm. Murray came ashore to get provisions, the two men met, and Thomas Potter’s chapel had its preacher.

NEXT: Will the Wind Change?


UU Minute #87

John Murray, part 1

John Murray – the founder of Universalism in America – was born in Alton, Hampshire, England, the oldest of 9 children. When he was 9, the family moved to Cork, Ireland. In Ireland, the Murrays became Methodists. At age 18, John returned to England and gravitated to London, where he joined the Tabernacle of George Whitefield, whom he had heard preach when Whitefield toured through Ireland.

Around age 19 or 20, John married Eliza Neale. Becoming a leader in Whitefield’s congregation, often leading prayers, John was sent to try to bring back into the fold a young woman who had adopted James Relly’s Universalism. The young woman confounded him with arguments in favor of universal salvation, so John and Eliza went to hear James Relly for themselves. They studied both Rellyan and anti-Rellyan literature before, first Eliza, then John, converted to Universalism – for which they were expelled from the Tabernacle.

Calamities then struck. His only son died in infancy. Then Eliza, too, fell ill and died. John was thrown into debtor’s prison. His brother-in-law rescued him from prison, and John managed to pay off his debts, yet he remained in despair. James Relly was encouraging John to preach the good news of Universalism, but John was just too depressed. He wished, he said, “to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all, as though I ne’er had been.”

In 1770, at age 29, he resolved to sail for America and see if he could build a new life in the new world. Arriving in America, Murray’s ship was grounded on a sandbar and remained for a time becalmed off the coast of New Jersey. The captain sent Murray ashore on a foraging expedition – and that’s where John Murray fatefully met Thomas Potter.

NEXT: Thomas Potter's Field of Dreams


UU Minute #86

Universalism: James Relly to John Murray

In 18th-century Britain, Methodism originated as a revival movement within the Church of England. Among the itinerant preachers conducting revival meetings along with John Wesley and George Whitefield was one James Relly from Pembrokeshire, Wales.

Relly had decided to become a revival preacher when he was age 20, after hearing George Whitefield preach. But Relly’s theology began to drift away from Wesley and Whitefield. James Relly was finding his way to Universalism. He was increasingly captivated by the words of Romans 5:18:
“Therefore just as one man’s [i.e., Adam’s] trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s [i.e., Jesus’] act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
If all had sinned in Adam, then all were saved in Jesus. All.

That was the basic reasoning of Relly's book, Union: or A Treatise of Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and His Church, published 1759. The book, reissued many times, made James Relly well known in both Britain and America. A sect of Rellyites emerged. One day a zealously anti-Rellyite young preacher named John Murray called upon a Rellyite disciple to convince her of her error. Much to Murray’s confusion, the woman confounded him with her logic. He found himself forced to yield more and more ground. Her name is lost to us, but through her effect on John Murray, she is a key figure in Universalist history.

John Murray and his wife went to hear James Relly preach. Murray would later write, “I was astonished to witness in so bad a man so much apparent devotion.”

Soon John Murray was a Rellyite and a Universalist.

NEXT: John Murray, part 1