Universalist Heroes and Heroines

October 29, 2000
JAN VICKERY KNOST
THE FIRST PARISH, UNITARIAN IN NORWELL


Give them, not hell, but hope and courage.
-The Reverend John Murray

To begin this twenty minute adventure and to set the stage I want to read you a Litany of Universalist names:

Millard Fillmore, American President - Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence - Hosea Ballou, architect of modern Universalism - The Rev. Thomas Starr King - Universalist minister who saved California for the Union - Mary Livermore, Suffragette - P.T. Barnum - showman and originator of "The Greatest Show on Earth" and lifelong member of the Universalist Church in Bridgeport, CN - Owen D. Young - American Financier and founder of the Radio Corporation of America.

"Universalism" has been called the biggest word in the language of religion. It is a deep and abiding part of our religious heritage as Unitarian Universalists. Too often I find that my Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers have not the least in the way of an understanding of Universalism. And so I would like to invite you on this journey of understanding. I hope it will enhance our ability to explain an important aspect of our liberal faith as we seek to grow our denomination.

High above the expanse that makes up the Los Angeles Basin there are wonderful opportunities for mountain drives that overlook the lights of the city. Years ago, during the time in which my parents were discovering Universalism and in the process of becoming early 20th century "come-outers", my father tells the story of an evening upon which he took the family on a drive up into the foothills of Altadena. We had parked there and were observing the twinkling lights of the basis. My brother and I soon went to asleep thus assuring my parents of success in getting us to bed.

As Mother and Dad sat there in the quiet of that evening the haggard, troubled face of a young man showed his face in the car window on the driver's side. Brother, are you saved? he blurted out. Then he quoted John 3:16 . . . that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him would not perish but have everlasting life. Then the young man exclaimed again, Brother, are you saved?

Very quietly and firmly, my father replied, Good sir, I am a Universalist. I was never lost! This left the cocksure young zealot rather speechless. He went wandering down the hill to the next car to try his question again.

My friend and colleague, the Reverend Deane Starr, now deceased and once candidate for President of the UUA, once described his first experience of worship in a Universalist Church. His words are mine, paraphrased from memory:

He said, There I was, burdened with a lifetime of fundamentalist teaching; troubled deeply that I was deserting the faith with my heretical thoughts. And as I sat in that little Universalist Church and heard the words of the Minister, I was suddenly charged with excitement. life was no longer one of continuous gloom. God was not the functionary who merely carried out His threats to all who are born with the sin of Adam upon them. God was immortal, all-caring love among men, women and children. God was there for all of us. We were not lost. We were assured of salvation - all people were assured.

And then Deane leaned forward and said to me with sincere intensity;

Jan, it seemed like I had been in shut up in a dark, stifling room all my religious life with no air to breathe. Then, suddenly, it was as if the four walls were in the form of Venetian blinds and someone opened those blinds all at once. And light and fresh, cool pure air flooded my consciousness. I was able to breathe. There was hope, I wasn't lost. And I have never forgotten that wonderful moment. It has stayed with me through a lifetime of liberal ministry.

Something of this kind must have captured the heart and imagination of the young Methodist minister as he sat listening to his friend, James Relly, speak of the unfailing love of god in a world of despair. This new and heretical view of God's nature must have made John Murray's spirits rise like Deane Starr's must have. The religious despair in London and throughout Europe in the 18th century was like that.

John Murray, often called the Founder of American Universalism, was born in Alton, England in 1741 and was raised a Methodist. He attended Reverend Whitefield's church for a time, accepting the usual Christian doctrine out of Calvinist teaching. According to that belief, all people are born sinners and need to be saved else they would suffer the eternal fires of damnation in hell. But there was also a catch. Not all people would be chosen by God - only an elected few would enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven. And although you did not know if you would be one of them, failure to accept Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior would bring certain doom. One was assured of the irreversible pangs of an eternity of torment where the body is never consumed.

Nonetheless, John Murray was a man unafraid of honest doubt, regardless of the turmoil it brought to his spirit. After a time, he left Reverend Whitefield's church to attend a religious society in Cannon Street, London. There, a certain James Relly, author of a new, heretical book titled Union, preached a doctrine of universal salvation. to quote from Murray's autobiography:

Mr. Relly has said, speaking of the record which God gave of his Son: "This life is in his Son, and he that believeth not this record, maketh God a liar; it is plain that god hath given this eternal life in the Son to unbelievers, as fully as to believers, else the unbeliever could not, by his unbelief, make God a liar.
(Murray, The Life of John Murray, p. 27)

Slowly but surely, the genius and beauty of this new doctrine wore upon the spiritual consciousness of John Murray. In the little church that he served he began to preach a Gospel of Universalism, much to the displeasure of his hearers. The result was that he lost his position as Minister. Being unable to obtain work he could pay his debts. He was thrown into debtor's prison. While there his beloved wife became seriously ill as did his infant son. With no money or care, they soon died. Upon leaving prison, Murray, understandably grief-stricken and embittered beyond measure, renounced the ministry and refused to practice the Christian faith. He then signed on as a deck hand on the ship "Hand-in-Hand" and set sail for the new world.

It is at this point that Universalist history combines romance and the human tendency to create apocryphal records. Murray, being educated, was quickly given responsible tasks while on board ship. The captain's destination was New York but port regulation kept them from landing either there or Philadelphia where they were told they could find harbor. Upon starting back for New York, fog and navigational miscalculations landed them at a place called Cranberry Inlet near Good Luck on New Jersey's south shore.

Murray was put in charge of a small company to go to shore for supplies. The men spread out looking for provisions. Murray noticed a farmhouse not far off and on the way asked a young girl carrying a basket of fishes if he could buy them from her. "No", she said, "but if you go to that farmhouse there You will get all the supplies you need." With that she went on.

Sitting on the porch of the old farmhouse was a large, elderly bewhiskered man who introduced himself as Thomas Potter. When Murray replied, "Yes, I am glad to see you and I have been waiting for you." Thinking this reply somewhat strange, Murray asked why. And it was then that a relationship began that was to change the course of a large portion of American church history forever.

I have been waiting for a preacher to preach in my meeting house yonder. Murray looked beyond the old farmhouse to see a tiny white clapboard church. What do you mean? asked Murray. Potter replied, I have been reading the Holy Scriptures all my life. More and more it has come to me that the gift of life that we are given could not have been from the hands of an angry god as the Reverend Jonathan Edwards insists. It has come to me that God must be a loving kind of God - a father of all creatures. His essence is not anger and hate. It is love. And so I decided that there should be a place in this New world for such a message of hope to be preached. So you see the Meeting House I have built with my own hands.

Murray attributed these words to this remarkable man and what follows as well;

God will send me a preacher, and a very different stamp from those who have heretofore preached in my house. The preachers we have heard are perpetually contradicting themselves, but that God, who has put my heart to build this meeting house will send one who shall deliver unto me his own truth; who shall speak of Jesus Christ and his salvation..." My friends often ask, "Where is the preacher, of whom you speak?" And my constant reply has been, "He will by and by make his appearance." The moment I beheld your vessel on shore, it seemed as if a voice had audibly sounded in my ears; "There, Potter, in that vessel . . . is the preacher you have been so long expecting."

Obviously, young Murray was astonished at such words. But on reflection, we must conclude that his speech and civil ways undid him for the educated person he was. In those days, if one was educated, the chances were good that one was at least a teacher, if not a minister. Taking hold of his initial incredulity, Murray asked what might have given Potter the impression he was a preacher. To which Potter replied, ". . . t is not what I saw, or see, but what I feel, which produces in my mind a full conviction."

Murray: But my dear sir, you are deceived. I never shall preach in this place, nor anywhere else!
Potter: Have you never preached? Can you say that you have never preached?
Murray: I cannot. But I never intend to preach again.
Potter: Has not God lifted up the light of his countenance upon you? Has he not shown you his truth? ...why should you not show it to (others)?

And so the conversation continued with Murray refusing. By this time his men had found him and had been given ample provisions by Potter for the ship's company. Taking leave of his host, Murray thanked him profusely. To which Potter is said to have replied, The wind will not change, Sir, until you have delivered to us, in that meeting house, a message from God. (Murray, ibid, p. 139)

One historical account of American Universalist history was written by the Rev. Frederick A. Bisbee in 1920. It was called From Good Luck to Gloucester. Bisbee's account of what followed Thomas Potter's pronouncement was almost lyrical in its style.

Thomas Potter (must have been) a mystic. He could see the unseen, he could know the unknown. In John Murray, who to his early associates was but a weak sentimentalist, unstable in all his ways, a visionary; Thomas Potter saw the great religious leader who was to rank with Martin Luther as the emancipator of human souls from the thraldom of a cruel and impotent theology, and he held up this man, fleeing from responsibility and service, and challenged him to service . . . (and) how Murray struggled to escape! But Potter would not let him go until he had delivered the message for which the church had been built, and which was to be the baptism of the renewal of the Gospel of God's Universal Love. (Bisbee, Universalist Publishing House, 1920, p. 3f)

And so it was that on September 30, 1770, John Murray preached his first Universalist sermon on the shores of this new land. For the first time, Thomas Potter was to listen to words that he could not only agree with through his study of scripture, but which would comfort his great spirit forever.

Now if you visit the place called Murray Grove on the shore of southern New Jersey, you will find a memorial boulder that was set up and dedicated there in Good Luck in the year 1902. The inscription on it reads: Near this spot first met Thomas Potter, the Prophet and John Murray the Apostle of Universalism. The following Sunday, September 30, 1770, in Potter's Meeting House, Murray first preached in America. The wilderness and the solitary place were glad for them.

The record is quite clear from that moment when John Murray went to New York that he began itinerant preaching to those who would listen. Word went out across the land of this young man with a new message of love and hope. It found sympathetic listeners in several families in a place called Gloucester, Massachusetts. That fishing port on Cape Anne north of Boston contained several eminent families who had come across a book brought from England by a young sailor. The book's title was Union and its author was none other than the same Reverend James Relly who had preached words of hope to Murray in England years before. Those same families had been meeting to discuss some of the great spiritual insights the book contained and which they felt intuitively themselves.

When word came concerning this new preacher with his message of promise and his emphasis on the universal salvation of all souls with God, it was not long before they brought him to Goucester to speak. That was in 1774. They wanted to hear for themselves from this man who had been so widely attacked as a "Rellyan" throughout the land. And so, for twenty years, Gloucester became Murray's home. He held his first meeting at the house of Mr. Winthrop Sargent, and there met Mr. Sargent's widowed daughter, who, in due time, became Mrs. Judith Murray, a woman of marked personal beauty, quick and vigorous intellect, and a partner to her husband's work for all the remaining years of his life.

Judith Murray was but one in a legion of strong and courageous women who came out of the Universalist tradition with a vision of social justice and service to those in need. Scores of projects for social betterment came into being under their direct influence and commitment all around the world. Here, in Europe, in Japan and in the deep South.

So that Judith Murray was one of the first in a growing list of Universalist women who's names have been placed in the halls of American memory for their singular accomplishments for humanity. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was a Universalist. The Reverend Olympia Brown was the first woman minister ever to be ordained by a denomination. That was in 1857 and the ordaining body was the Universalist Church of America which John Murray helped to found.

Murray called the Universalists the heralds of universal redemption. This sense of being a part of God's realm of love led Universalists to be in the forefront of efforts to improve the human lot, to transcend the barriers of partialism, to create on earth a foretaste of life in the divine kingdom. It eventually led to the establishment of a denomination that once ranked as the fifth largest in population in the United States. And so the Universalists affirmed "the power of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively to establish the kingdom of God."

Universalists also found little problem in embracing a variety of theological ideas and stances, confident that none of them, however odd or erroneous, could lead to ultimate consequences of unhappiness or damnation. Believe what one would or must, one could not excommunicate oneself from God's love. Among the Universalists were theists, deists, humanists, transcendentalists, yes, even trinitarians - all with internal variations. Through them all was shown this sense of hope and confidence.

Permit me, then to bring this brief bit of Universalist history to a close. I have shared this drama if for no other reason than to assure myself that some of you will not only remember, but will retell that same story to others. For it is in the telling of the story that our history is sustained as a liberal religious movement.

The parallels between that time over two centuries ago and the times in which we live, are startling indeed. I need not go into a litany of the several ways in which religion seems to continue into the pit of fear and superstition. You are as aware as I of some of the outrages committed in the name of religion. Doctrine goes unchallenged. Scripture is studied but never questioned. Millions desert human intellect for the quagmire of religious tyranny.

Equally true were those times in which Murray, Potter, Olympia Brown and Clara Barton lived. Imagine the case with Murray. Here he was, a minister driven from his pulpit for NOT preaching a doctrine of fear; a God of wrath and judgment; an eternal afterlife of burning and suffering in hell. Today, people flock to the megachurches, Bibles in hand, NOT to study and question them, but to accept what they are told - which is NOT to question, only to accept its teachings as inerrant truth.

My prophecy is this. Notwithstanding the fact that we are entering an age of science and technology, of broad based knowledge and expertise the likes of which the world has never seen, NEVERTHELESS, more and more people will continue to be more and more frightened as they go through the treadmills of their religious lives. They will be more and more frightened because in the New Testament Book of Revelation it says that when the Millennia arrives, Armageddon will come with it. In the fullness of time, Jesus, the Christ, will return as God's judge to separate the people - believers from unbelievers. Those who are not chosen will surely die and will suffer the tortures of hell for eternity.

Mark my words. Millions will hear this message more frequently and with more incessant urging by the preachers of "the Word" than ever before. Who knows that their fear will cause them to do? Who knows to what depths their leaders will go in order to insist on their message?

Considering human behavior today and in the face of this possibility, we as Unitarian Universalists have a unique opportunity, as did John Murray in his time, to become a vanguard for some of those frightened people with an alternative message. A message of hope. A message that contains the simple blessing, belief and promise of a Universal God of Love. These times are similar in many ways to the years in which Murray and Potter lived. People will be hungering for just such a message of joy and compassion.

The Rev. Dr. Gordon "Bucky" McKeeman, my friend, mentor and senior colleague, was for many years Senior Minister of our Unitarian Universalist Church in Akron, Ohio once wrote that:

H.L. Mencken, the remarkable American whose book of quotations is yet to be equalled in comprehensive excellence, was once asked to speak in Topeka, Kansas. He was there to speak in opposition to prohibition. A woman accosted him as he entered the hall. He invited her to come in to hear him but she said she would only do so if she could make a statement IN FAVOR of temperance. This she did, asking Mencken what HE would say if, when he died, he were to be called before St. Peter and the Heavenly Hosts. Mencken replied "Madam, I would step forward, bow politely, doff my hat and say, "GENTLEMEN, I WAS MISTAKEN!"

I don't know. Perhaps the one true purpose of my life and ministry has been nothing more than to prepare me and others to be strong and courageous for those days. It could be that we have been set apart to answer the message of religious gloom that will surely come as the year 2000 approaches. But it will take strength, vision and courage to answer such a challenge. For I believe we are again at a threshold where people are ready to hear Murray's words ringing true again, for he said,

Go out into the highways and byways of America . . . give the people, blanketed with a decaying and crumbling Calvinism, something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of (all). GIVE THEM, NOT HELL, BUT HOPE AND COURAGE! Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God!
(Howe, Skinner House Books, 1993, p. 9)

Amen.