John Murray Sails to the New World

I’m away from Internet access today, leading a workshop on Unitarian Universalist history. While I’m away, I thought I’d leave you with this story, which is part of a work-in-progress, a book of stories for liberal religious kids. The source for the story is The Life of Rev. John Murray, by John Murray, ed. and completed by Judith Sargent Murray; 8th edition ed. L. S. Everett (Boston, 1854), pp. 128 ff. There are lots of versions of this story out there. But I went back to the source, and wrote this shorter version from scratch, putting my own (slightly cynical) theological spin on it. It’s fun to ask people from the congregation, or children from the class, to act out the various parts of this story (someone always wants to do the death scene).

John Murray Sails to the New World

Most Unitarian Universalists don’t spend very much time talking about miracles. We’re not all that interested in miracles, and many of us don’t believe in miracles anyway. But did you know that we have our very own Universalist miracle? Let me tell you about the miracle of John Murray.

John Murray lived in England, with his wife and his baby. John Murray and his wife had started out going to an ordinary church, and people in that ordinary church believed that if you were bad, when you died you would go to a very unpleasant place called Hell. Fortunately, John Murray’s wife, Eliza, found a Universalist church where she learned that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and therefore no one would ever go to Hell after they died. Soon, she brought her husband to that church, too, and they became enthusiastic about their new Universalist religion. John even became a Universalist preacher.

Then something very sad happened. Eliza and their baby got very sick and died. John was so sad that he decided to give up preaching Universalism, leave England, and go to America to start a new life. So he got on a boat that was sailing for America.

Well, they sailed and they sailed and they sailed, and at last they were almost to America. But as they got close to shore, the boat got stuck on a sand bar! They couldn’t get off that sandbar, so the captain sent John Murray ashore to fetch back some food and water.

John Murray went ashore. They were far from any port, or even any town, and as he walked along he saw a very strange sight. He saw a small farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, and nearby he saw a church. What was a church doing in such a lonely place?

John Murray introduced himself to the owner of the church, a man named Thomas Potter. John asked him what the church was for, and Thomas Potter answered that he had built the church, but that he was waiting for a preacher who would preach about a loving God, who would preach that there was no such thing as Hell. Well, said John Murray, I used to preach just exactly that — I was a Universalist preacher — but now I don’t preach any more.

Thomas Potter grew excited, and said, “You’re just the one I’ve been waiting for! Come preach to me and my neighbors in my church!”

But John Murray said, No, I have to get back on my ship that’s stuck on the sandbar. Well, said Thomas Potter, if your ship is still stuck on that sandbar on Sunday, will you come preach in my church then? Yes, said John Murray, because he was sure that the ship would be free of the sandbar by then.

Days went by.

When Sunday came around, there was the ship, still stuck on the sandbar. And so John Murray came ashore, and preached a sermon on Universalism to everyone in that neighborhood. He was such a good preacher, he kept on preaching Universalism, and he went on to found the very first Universalist church in New England, which is still a Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

So that’s our Universalist miracle: because the wind didn’t shift, John Murray started preaching Universalism, and became the most famous Universalist preacher of his day. We know it happened this way, because that’s exactly how John Murray tells the story in the autobiography. It’s our own Unitarian Universalist miracle.

7 thoughts on “John Murray Sails to the New World

  1. Steven R

    I told this story when I gave a sermon on Universalists to the folks in Myrtle Beach, SC, last month. I of course mentioned more strongly the theory that Potter built the church because he might have heard the preachings of George Adams Martin, the Ephrata missionary who is known to have preached in NJ prior to Murray’s arrival (and who- some Brethren historians believe had a son who founded the Universalist churches in South Carolina).
    (oh a real semi-picky correction: Murray didnt found that church in Gloucester, it was lay led before he got there).

  2. Dan

    Steven R @ 2 — Much thanks for the correction. I didn’t mention the Ephrata community because I wanted to remain true to Murray’s telling of the tale… but maybe I’ll reconsider that in the inevitable rewrite.

  3. Sian W.

    That’s a great story! And I love that it is from our tradition! I can’t wait to read more of your stories!


  4. Diane

    Thanks for the wonderful true story! I have not been a UU for very long, so I had not heard of this. I enjoyed this post immensely.

  5. Greg

    I’m a UU at a church named after John Murray. I’m teaching first and second graders about saints today, and I’m going to use John Murray as an example of a UU “saint.” I’m going to use your story as part of the class. Thanks!

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