A Time for All Ages
John Murray and The Winds of Change by Christy Olson and Jessica York
True or false: In April of 1775, Paul Revere rode through the streets from Boston to Lexington yelling “The British Are Coming”.
True or false: The Declaration of Independence was signed by everyone on July 4, 1776.
True or false: A Civil War general named Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, NY.
Myths, one and all. Fabrications, shifted narratives. It seems silly to tell these falsehoods, and yet… throughout human history, legends and apocryphal stories have sprung up – often not to obscure the truth (although there is plenty of that – a topic for another day)… but often to tell a story about a people. In the case of some of the great American legends and tall tales, they were told to enhance the reputation of our new country – greater, bigger, smarter, more unique, rougher, tougher, more fabulous.
American Unitarian Universalism is not immune from this propensity – and in fact, the story I shared in a time for all ages has much in common with the story I told last week, about the three little pigs, from the viewpoint of the big bad wolf. In that story, the truth wasn’t very interesting – wasn’t sexy and newsworthy – so a story was created to make it seem special.
Yes, John Murray was a Methodist minister from England who left the ministry when he discovered he believed in the doctrine universal salvation, much to the dismay of his fellow Methodists. Yes, after his wife and newborn child died, Murray spent some time in a debtors’ prison; his brother in law rescued him and helped him pay off his debts, and firm in his resolve to not preach again, Murray announced that he wished “to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all, as though I ne’er had been.” In 1770 he decided to quit his life in the old world and start fresh in the new.
He boarded the brig Hand-In-Hand, which grounded on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey.
Yes, it is true Thomas Potter had built a chapel for itinerant preachers, and yes, Potter invited the reluctant Murray to preach.
Now the legend says Murray and Potter struck a deal, and the weather played in Potter’s favor. Legend also says that that first sermon, delivered September 30, 1770, was the start of American Universalism.
But what we know is that German immigrants who believed in universal salvation had already established themselves in the mid-Atlantic colonies. We know that Potter himself was connected to a group of Baptists who were open to universal salvation.
And we know that Murray’s first sermon had very little to do with Universalism, as he was, admittedly gunshy.
But does all of that matter? The UU mythos tells a narrative of a miracle for people who don’t often believe in miracles. But the miracle was a lot less headline-grabbing – the miracle was that he preached at all… and subsequently, he got his confidence back. And, finding that there were places he could explore and expound upon his own rather Trinitarian theology of Universalism.
Now the fact that Murray started preaching again at all is important, because he struggled to find a place but kept at it…. And he eventually founded a meeting house in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he established the first Universalist Church in 1780. Subsequently, Murray worked through legal channels to ensure Universalists were protected under Massachusetts parish laws, and by 1785 had helped to establish the Universalist Convention. This was important – Massachusetts was a hard place to be a preacher if you didn’t follow their orthodoxy – just ask Anne Hutchinson. Murray had taken up quite a fight.
Now I tell you the less sexy side of the story – not to knock Murray off a pedestal, but to point out how important the real pedestal is… if not for Murray, Universalism would not have taken root or been legitimized. And if not for his travel to ensure our faith’s success, his pulpit wouldn’t have been open to a more radical Universalist named Hosea Ballou.
You see, Murray’s Universalism was of the restorationist variety – Murray believed that those who died impenitent would be punished in the afterlife until the Day of Judgment, when all would finally be saved – or restored, while bad angels, devils and demons would be condemned – a belief reinforced by the parable of the sheep and the goats in the gospel of Matthew.
Meanwhile, Ballou, a Baptist preacher’s kid from New Hampshire, saw universal salvation differently – that hell was here on earth, and that once we died, we would all rest in the glory of God – “death and glory” it was called.
Now the controversy between Universalists was hot and heated – so much so that one time when Ballou preached, Murray’s wife, Judith Sargeant Murray instructed a choir member to stand up and declare, “The doctrine which has been preached here this afternoon is not the doctrine which is usually preached in this house.” To his credit, Ballou’s respect for Murray and his knowledge of their theological incompatibility meant that Ballou did not attempt to settle in Boston while Murray was alive.
Which was also a good thing – because instead of settling in, Ballou spread his message farther and wider, taking advantage of the administrative work that Murray had done to legitimize Universalism.
Now it’s not a surprise that Ballou’s universalism was more popular than Murray’s – Murray’s was still heavily tinged with the hellfire and damnation of the Calvinists.
Remember – this is a time, the late 18th/early 19th century, when hellfire and damnation in the style of Jonathan Edwards was still in vogue; it was still common to hear passages like this, from the famed sermon “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God”:
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder!
I suspect good church folk were more scared of their minister than they were of God Almighty.
So then, imagine hearing Hosea Ballou. He’d preach in small, temporary pavilions, with the words “God Is Love” painted on a crossbar at the top of the stage.
And he would preach not of hellfire, brimstone, flames of wrath.
Just love. God as love.
Ballou would talk about a God who, as a Father, loves all his children:
“Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”
God is love. We are all saved.
Ballou’s message was full of wholeness and worth, love from a loving God. And unlike restorationist Universalism, you don’t have to wait – you don’t have to worry whether you got it all right so you don’t have to suffer when you die. It’s salvation, right off the bat.
It’s a message people are still waiting to hear.
It’s so radical, the Universalist church almost pulled apart because of it.
It’s so radical, it was vilified by even Universalist-leaning Unitarians – William Ellery Channing said he had never seen a more irrational doctrine.
It’s so radical, Calvinists are still up in arms. For proof that the landscape hasn’t changed, consider the story of evangelical pastor Rob Bell. In 2011, Bell wrote a NYT bestselling book Love Wins, where he suggested there might be something to the universalist argument, even though he refused to call himself a Universalist. And still he was vilified by the evangelical community, with conservative leaders like Albert Mohler assserting that Bell’s book was “theologically disastrous.” Controversial pastor Mark Driscoll took Bell to task on Twitter and his blog, calling Bell’s ideas “completely absurd and unjust.”
And that’s just over a general assumption that maybe there’s wiggle room in the New Testament for something that might resemble universal salvation.
Universalism becomes even more radical when you follow it, as we do, to its natural conclusion… that if all souls are saved by the simple fact that God loves us, then Universal Salvation must extend beyond Christianity, to literally ALL SOULS, whatever they believe.
We are inheritors of something incredibly radical. To many, it’s heretical.
And the fact that John Murray – who was ready to fade into obscurity and never preach again – stepped into that pulpit and could not help but preach and promote Universalism – that to me is the miracle.
Thanks to Murray, we had space for Ballou. And thanks to Ballou and his evangelical prowess, Universalism as we know it today began to spread and change history. We count among Universalism’s exemplars and pioneers Olympia Brown, the first woman welcomed into full ordained fellowship in 1863; Benjamin Rush – signer of the Declaration; scientist Joseph Priestley; Red Cross founder Clara Barton; newspaper magnate Horace Greeley; Abner Kneeland – the last person to be tried for heresy by the government in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; industrialist George Pullman; showman PT Barnum.
And thanks to Murray, I stand here today in a Universalist congregation, as a Universalist. Although raised by Unitarian Universalist parents, as a child, I attended a Methodist Sunday school – because the UU Society in Albany was much too far to drive on a Sunday morning. Sometime around age 9 or 10, I recall a discussion about who is saved, and wondering about the poor communist kids in China who had never heard of Jesus – were they saved? No matter what the class was teaching, I decided YES, because otherwise, what kind of God was this?
I didn’t have the words for it, but the idea I now know as Universalism made sense to me then, and it still makes sense to me. It makes me feel loved, and worthy, and part of the interconnected web of all existence.
But Universalism doesn’t just make me feel good. It makes me want to DO good. As the great showman and notable Universalist PT Barnum remarked, “a comparatively small portion of scripture bears on immortal life and the great end of our course. Conduct is three-fourths of life. This present life is the great pressing concern. This is precisely as it should be.”
As UU minister Forrest Church writes, Universalism encourages us to “pitch ourselves into the very midst of life’s teeming questions.”
And those teeming questions send us headlong into the centerpiece of Universalism: that Hell isn’t where we try to avoid going after we die – Hell is on Earth. Here, and now. Sin isn’t inherited from some ancient creation myth, it’s manifest in those times when we act inhumanly. Evil grows when we forget that we are part of this huge planet, with all its beings and the very planet itself.
Hell is on earth…and it is easy to see:
- Man-made climate change is causing massive disasters, unwieldy temperature fluctuations, species extinctions, and a pile of consequences we can’t imagine, yet live with on this island that may be gone before the turn of the next century.
- There is a clear and present danger to women’s health, women’s rights, and women’s dignity, with a shocking growth in the culture of misogyny and violence, and more draconian laws being passed to turn back 100 years of progress.
- As a country, we have failed the First Nations miserably, and continue to do so – taking their lands, destroying their water, sidelining their rights, legitimizing their slander, refusing to recognize their place as the original Americans, and recently – the near complete media blackout of the huge protests to protect their rights in the Dakotas.
- Clean energy solutions are being sidelined in favor of outrageous greed and ill-advised big oil interests, with some green initiatives held so in contempt there are laws against implementing them.
- The Borderlands continue to be a crucible for racism, poverty, oppression, and violence – with buses of immigrant children besieged by snarling mobs, with political candidates crying out for walls and deportation.
- Veterans are being slighted – they are homeless, suffering with PTSD and often addictions – and are trapped in a failed system with years-long delays for treatment.
- Income inequality isn’t just a catch-phrase but a horrific reality that is causing starvation, homelessness, disease, and unease.
- Anti-union sentiments assault workers of every stripe, from teamsters to hotel workers, from teachers to firefighters.
- Anti-education sentiments are destroying primary and secondary education – and student loan burdens threaten to bury a generation in inescapable debt.
- Sexual orientation and gender identity are being so demonized, our LGBTQ youth are killing themselves. And many trans people are being murdered.
- Gun violence thrives with Caucasian people walking through malls, rifles slung over their shoulders, daring someone to take issue.
- Racism thrives, with black people constantly afraid to walk through the streets, even when their hands are empty and open and in the air… with a growing list of names of people dead, with a growing realization of just how hard it is to be black in America.
That is evil.
That is Hell on earth.
We aren’t loving each other; we are hating each other.
That is hell on earth.
But we are not called to hate – we are called to love.
In love, there is justice.
In Universal love, we must do justice. Universalism is more than comfortable seats and no damnation. As Lewis Beals Fisher says, “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer is that we do not stand at all; we move.”
The real call of Universalism is social action – around the world, in our communities, and right next door. The call of our faith says we must listen to our neighbor, who may be different from us, or have needs we cannot know just by looking at them. Who are they? What do they struggle with? How can we help? How can we make life more just, more loving, and less like hell on earth?
When we love one another – when we follow the golden rule and do unto others – we Love the hell OUT of this world.
When we hear each other’s stories, we Love the hell OUT of this world.
When we honor each other’s lives, we Love the hell OUT of this world.
When we lend a hand to help, we Love the hell OUT of this world.
When we ease another’s suffering, we Love the hell OUT of this world.
When we stand with one another, we Love the hell OUT of this world.
So let us go forth and honor the miracle that is Murray’s first sermon and do as he asked, to give them NOT hell. Instead, let us Love the hell OUT of this world.