Tag Archives: John Murray

Associationism, part one

Abstract: In this four-part essay, I claim that the central organizing principle of Unitarianism, Universalism, and now Unitarian Universalism, has less to do with theology, liturgy, religious practice, etc., and more to do with social and institutional structures. We are unified by an institutional approach which I call associationalism. I define associationalism through describing past and existing associational structures, and then briefly set forth a possible direction for the future of associationism within Unitarian Unviersalism.

A historical and descriptive definition: Beginnings

In terms of organizational structure, Unitarian and Universalist congregations in North America are often closely related to the Congregationalist and Baptist traditions. Stephen Marini has documented how early Universalist congregations in central New England often started out as Baptist congregations; and it is well known that many New England Unitarian congregations began as Puritan congregations, and so are closely related to those Congregationalist congregations that also emerged from the old Puritan Standing order churches. We could say, more broadly, that these are congregations that come out of the English Free Church tradition.

It is important to remember that not all Unitarian and Universalist congregations trace their historical roots back to the English Free Church tradition. The Icelandic Unitarian churches in Canada were founded by liberals from the Icelandic Lutheran tradition, who happened to find a comfortable institutional home within Unitarianism; similarly, Nora Church in Minnesota was founded by liberal Norwegian Lutherans. King’s Chapel in Boston evolved away from its Church of England roots to a Unitarian theology, but it still keeps its revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer today. There are churches like First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia and the Independent Christian Church in Gloucester which were founded independently as Unitarian and Universalist churches without any previous denominational connections. And once Unitarians and Universalists traveled West of the Allegheny Mountains, they often had tenuous and even antagonistic connections with eastern churches, and their organizational structures were innovative, diverse, and/or fluid.

Thus it is quite simply wrong to state that all Unitarian Universalist congregations today trace their organizational structures back to the Puritan congregationalist methods captured in 17th century New England political theocracy, church covenants, and documents like the Cambridge Platform. That 17th century New England inheritance is one part of our organizational history, but it is only one part. Continue reading

Documents pertaining to the origins of the “child dedication” ceremony in Universalism

Universalists have used a number of ceremonies to welcome children. Some early Universalists started out as Baptists, and so were probably wary of infant baptism. Other early Universalists worked on the frontier of Euro-American settlement of North America, and were more flexible about the ceremony they used to welcome children; in fact, some early Universalists also practice adult baptism. Universalist views changed over the years; baptism was less popular in the early 19th C., almost universal in the late 19th C., and waned again in the 20th C. An excellent overview of Universalist views on baptism may be found in “Baptism on the Universalist Frontier,” by Lewis Perry, Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, vol. XXIX, 2003, pp. 3-18.

John Murray, arguably the central figure in the founding of institutionalized Universalism in North America, did not approve of infant baptism since, he said, it had no scriptural warrant. Upon his arrival in North America in 1770, some of his early converts to Universalism asked for baptisms; instead, he developed a ceremony which called “dedication,” in which he named the child, and dedicated her or him to God. The following documents describe early child dedications from the late 18th C. to the mid-19th C.

How John Murray developed the dedication ceremony
More from John Murray on dedications
Judith Sargent Murray describes child dedications
A Universalist dedication ceremony from 1855

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Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

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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.