Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820
John Murray Biography (Judith's husband)
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John Murray

Alton, England church
Universalist Meeting House, GloucesterJohn Murray often preached outdoors, attracting hundreds of peopleMr. Murray Unmasked - a pamphlet denouncing his Universalist preachingsFranklin Place, Home from 1794-1815Universalist Church in BostonJulia Maria MurrayRecords of the Life of the Rev. John MurrayGrave site in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge

John Murray:
Preacher, organizer, and promulgator of hope

by Bonnie Hurd Smith
(reprinted from Mingling Souls Upon Paper: An Eighteenth-century Love Story)

Early Religious Awakenings

Alton, England, where John Murray was born in 1741 to an upper-class family, was a rural market town some fifty miles southwest of London.* Alton was dominated by the Anglican church most people attended, just as John’s childhood was dominated by his strict Calvinist father whose fears for John’s soul led him to beat and isolate his son. As a consequence, while a child, John perceived religion as a gloomy means to control people’s behavior. He later wrote in his autobiography, “I believed that I had nothing to hope, but every thing to fear, both from my Creator, and my father; and these soul-appalling considerations, by forcing a conclusion, that I was but making provision for alternate torture, threw a cloud over innocent enjoyment.” Throughout his life, John suffered from depression.
John was a bright but often inattentive student at Alton’s Free School, where he made friends easily and exhibited what his father considered a disturbingly outgoing nature. John continued his schooling in Cork, Ireland, where his father moved his wife and their family of nine children when John was eleven. In Cork, John encountered Methodists, at that time a sect of Anglicans whose more social, musical gatherings were a welcome departure from what John had known of organized religion. The Methodists were evangelicals, held religious revivals, and reached out to people from all walks of life in a radical departure from the more solemn worship style and social hierarchy of the religious traditions of John’s earlier years. John Wesley, the Methodists’ inspiring leader, was despised by the standing Anglican clergy for seducing parishioners away from the established church. He was threatened, sometimes physically attacked, and singularly effective as a preacher of change. He was also an important early role model for John.
After John Wesley came to know the teenaged John Murray he entrusted him with a religious education class of forty boys, encouraging his protégé to lead them in song, prayer, and introspective discussions about their spiritual development. Wesley started John on a path to the ministry, and many Methodists predicted that he would become a “burning and a shining light.” At about the same time, an Anglican clergyman also observed John’s leanings toward religion and asked John’s father to allow John to live with the clergyman’s family while he tutored John for college. Unfortunately, John later felt, his father’s refusal to relinquish control of his son denied him a college education.
Meanwhile, a Methodist family in Cork, the Littles, had befriended John and encouraged him to read the books in their extensive library, an exciting prospect because John’s father had forbidden him to read anything but the Bible or approved religious texts. But now, as a young man, John was free to embark on a self-directed literary education—something he would have in common with his future wife. Judith Sargent.
When John was eighteen, he started preaching to large audiences in Cork. He soon attracted enemies and experienced the kind of animosity John Wesley had endured. He also suffered personal losses when an early love interest broke his heart and his closest male friend, one of the Littles’ sons, died. John’s father died when John was nineteen, after a lengthy illness, and John, as the oldest son, was now expected to manage the Murray family. John felt unable to discipline his siblings as his father had done, nor was he comfortable with the role of provider. He accepted the Littles’ invitation to live with them as one of their own children. Before long, the Littles encouraged John to marry their daughter, a prospect that did not interest him. As it was, the Littles’ heirs objected to John’s presence, fearing he would inherit what was rightfully theirs.
These factors, combined with John’s growing doubts about John Wesley’s theology, propelled him into a state of despair. He was almost suicidal, he recounted in his autobiography, yet, believing there was a higher purpose in life for him, he decided to leave Ireland. As John wrote in recalling the sad departure from his family, his grandmother told him, “You are, my dear child, under the guidance of an Omnipotent Power; God has designed you for himself; you are a chosen instrument to give light to your fellow men.”
On his way to England, John spent a few weeks in Limerick where he heard a sermon by the itinerant evangelical Methodist preacher George Whitefield. John admired the preacher’s nondenominational, welcoming style, which seemed more agreeable than Wesley’s more rigid ministry. John conversed with him afterward, and, intrigued by Whitefield’s independent spirit, he resolved to renew their acquaintance at Whitefield’s Tabernacle in London. Meanwhile, when Whitefield was called out of town, John filled the pulpits where Whitefield had been invited to preach—a high honor for such a young man, but John was already a talented evangelical.
John was on the verge of his twentieth birthday when he arrived in England’s southwest port of Pill, making his way on foot to Bristol. There, he encountered a group of Methodists who befriended him and urged him to stay—a recurring pattern throughout John’s life when he visited new communities. But on to London he went, where he quickly made friends and enjoyed that city’s social life of parties, concerts, and the theater while he contemplated what sort of work to pursue. Before long, John ran out of the money he had received from the Littles and he was consumed by an overwhelming sense of failure. He had to pay off his debts, however, and he secured a position in a textile factory.
John despised the drudgery that filled his days, but in the evenings his love for religion drove him to George Whitefield’s Tabernacle. John also found himself attending services elsewhere in London, wherever he knew a popular preacher was speaking. After a short time, Whitefield asked John to preach at the Tabernacle and his talent quickly became the subject of conversations in London. John fell in love with a young woman who came to hear him preach, Eliza Neale, and they eventually married despite her family’s strong objections to their daughter marrying a Methodist.
Like most of their Methodist friends, John and Eliza were well aware that James Relly, a Welsh preacher, was in London lecturing on universal salvation. As a good Methodist, John despised Relly and refused to hear him. He was even asked to “save” a young Methodist woman whom Relly had been able to tempt away from the Tabernacle. John was surprisingly ineffective; her arguments were persuasive. Finally, John decided to read Relly’s book for himself and he borrowed a copy of Union, or, A Treatise of the Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and His Church. Relly’s interpretation of the scriptures made sense to him.
Soon after, John and Eliza heard James Relly preach and they were both profoundly affected. “The veil was taken from my heart,” John wrote in his autobiography, explaining,

It was clear, as any testimony in divine revelation, that Christ Jesus, died for all, for the sins of the whole world, for every man, &c.; ... and that every one, for whom Christ died must finally be saved ... We now attended public worship, not only as a duty ... but it became our pleasure, our consolation, and our highest enjoyment. We began to feed upon the truth as it is in Jesus, and every discovery we made filled us with unutterable transport.... I conceived, if I had an opportunity of conversing with the whole world, the whole world would be convinced. It might truly have been said, that we had a taste of heaven below.

The Methodists expelled John from the Tabernacle.

A New Life in America

John’s contentment with life ended abruptly when his infant son died and Eliza’s health deteriorated. John moved her to the country, hiring nurses and renting a comfortable cottage. But his desperate efforts were not enough. Eliza died, leaving John heartbroken and debt-ridden. Once again, John was overcome by a sense of personal failure. James Relly was the only friend who could comfort him, and he encouraged John to join him as a preacher of universal salvation. Instead, John decided to “close his life in solitude” in America after hearing stories about the New World’s independent spirit and plentiful resources. With no connections or plans, John boarded the brig Hand-in-Hand bound for New York and served as its supercargo, or business manager.
Before reaching its destination, however, the Hand-in-Hand ran aground on a sandbar off the New Jersey coast. Because the crew required additional provisions, John went ashore in search of food. By chance he encountered an elderly farmer named Thomas Potter who had recently built a meetinghouse on his property for itinerant preachers. Potter was waiting for one to come who embraced universal salvation, as he did, and thus there was no doubt in Potter’s mind that God had sent John Murray for this purpose. He urged John to preach, but John refused, preferring to leave his past behind and sail for New York as planned.
“The wind will never change, sir, until you have delivered to us, in that meeting-house, a message from God,” Potter warned John as John told the story in his autobiography. The wind remained calm for days. John was enough of a believer in God’s intervening hand to relent, and he delivered a sermon on Sunday, September 30, 1770, to the friends Potter had gathered. He felt his sense of calling and purpose return.

While Thomas Potter implored John to remain in New Jersey, John was invited to speak in cities and towns in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. He had to go. While he was attracting opposition from established clergy wherever he went, the public was resonating to John’s powerful preaching style; his oratory was as effective as any they had heard. In 1774, while John was lecturing in Boston, a gentleman from Gloucester, Massachusetts, named Winthrop Sargent paid him a visit and asked him to preach in that distant fishing and trading port. John agreed, writing in his autobiography:

November 3d, I repaired to Gloucester, and was received by a very few warm-hearted Christians. The mansion-house—the heart, of the then head of the Sargent family, with his highly accomplished, and most exemplary lady, were open to receive me. I had travelled from Maryland to New Hampshire, without meeting a single individual, who appeared to have the smallest idea of what I esteemed the truth, as it is in Jesus; but to my great astonishment, there were a few persons, dwellers in that remote place, upon whom the light of the gospel had more than dawned. The writings of Mr. Relly were not only in their hands but in their hearts.
John met Winthrop Sargent’s daughter Judith Sargent Stevens that day, an encounter whose significance he could not have known.
John decided to make Gloucester his home, but protests to his ministry arose. In 1774, the Reverend Samuel Chandler of First Parish Church preached and published a sermon against John in the Essex Gazette. In 1775, Gloucesterians read Boston’s Reverend Andrew Croswell’s pamphlet titled Mr. Murray unmask’d: in which among other things, is shewn, that his doctrine of universal salvation, is inimical to virtue, and productive of all manner of wickedness; and that Christians of all denominations ought to be on their guard against it. Eventually, in 1775, First Parish’s new minister, the Reverend Eli Forbes, addressed letters threatening excommunication to seventeen of John’s followers including Winthrop Sargent, his brother Epes Sargent, and Judith Sargent Stevens. The town even attempted to have John removed as a vagrant, until Winthrop Sargent deeded him a piece of his own land, thus making John a legal freeholder.

These were tense, volatile days in Gloucester, as patriotic fervor swept through the community. Merchants like Epes Sargent were accused of disloyalty and forced to leave Gloucester. John Murray was named an English spy by some, but friends from Rhode Island asked him to serve as a chaplain in the Continental Army. He accepted, hoping his military service would squash further charges of treason. John encountered clerical opposition in the Army as well, but General George Washington chose to expand his service rather than release him.
After less than a year of service as an Army chaplain, John caught a potentially deadly fever in camp and was forced to return home to Gloucester. Once there, he was instrumental in raising funds to help Gloucester’s citizens who were suffering from the closure of their port, though these benevolent activities did little to mollify the First Parish clergy. Instead, the church leadership’s campaign against the small group of Universalists in Gloucester escalated in 1778 when Reverend Forbes followed through on his threat to expel them from church membership—an act of potentially enormous legal and social consequence for the outcasts. But instead of renouncing their chosen faith, the Gloucester Universalists signed Articles of Association in 1779 to create their own religious society: the Independent Church of Christ. They built their own meeting house on land owned by Winthrop Sargent and dedicated the small building on Christmas Day 1780, calling John as their pastor.
The next several years saw John Murray and the Gloucester Universalists involved in a series of legal disputes with local authorities. Because the Universalists had defied the law and refused to pay taxes to First Parish Church after forming their Association, in 1782 the town seized articles of value from Universalist believers to sell at public auction. In 1783, John brought the Universalists’ case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by arguing for the legal right to create a religious organization independent from the established church. Eventually, in 1785 and 1786, the court ruled in favor of the Universalists, thereby allowing them to realize a monumental victory for all American citizens.
The Universalists’ victory was short-lived, however. In 1787, First Parish challenged John’s authority to perform the marriage ceremony and the Universalists advised John to leave Gloucester for his safety. He decided to return to England to visit his mother whom he had not seen for eighteen years. But before he left, he wrote from Boston Harbor to the recently widowed Judith Sargent Stevens and asked her to marry him.
Sailing for England in January 1788, John had no idea if he would be reunited with Gloucester or Judith again. His apprehension gave way to a triumphant return to the country of his birth, however, where he was frequently asked to preach and dubbed “the most popular preacher in the United States.” After a few months, John received word that the Universalists had successfully petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to declare his ministry legal and he boarded a ship to Boston, sharing his passage with John and Abigail Adams who were returning from an ambassadorial mission. The Adamses heard John preach on the ship and struck up a friendship that would last for many years.
When John arrived in Boston, Governor John Hancock hosted a reception in his honor. While his departure from Gloucester had been a necessary but painful decision, John’s absence, and the Universalists’ petitions, had finally, after many years of opposition, solidified John’s stature as a beloved preacher of the Gospel. His hard-won success was crowned that fall when he married Judith Sargent Stevens in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in a second, more traditional ordination service in the Gloucester meetinghouse on Christmas Day. The Universalists published notices of their pastor’s calling in newspapers throughout New England to thwart further challenges to John’s ministry. Truly, 1789 was a new beginning for John Murray.
The Move to Boston

John and Judith began married life together in Judith’s Middle Street home in Gloucester where John had been lodging for many years. He continued to travel, as his health allowed, to help Universalists in other communities organize their own societies. Before long, Judith was pregnant and John prayed for a safe delivery. Perhaps he would have a second chance to realize a fulfilling family life. But, tragically, their son, Fitz Winthrop, was stillborn. John feared for Judith’s life, as she lay ill for many weeks. But she recovered, and the two of them journeyed to Philadelphia in 1790 where John helped organize the first national Universalist convention and represented the New England states during the convention’s deliberations. On John and Judith’s return trip to Gloucester, John presented the convention’s resolutions to President George Washington in New York (the seat of the new American government) to explain, as a courtesy, the growing Universalist movement in America.
Back home, in 1791, Judith gave birth to a healthy daughter they called Julia Maria. Both parents were ecstatic. Simultaneously, the Boston Universalists were urging John to accept a position as their minister. With a new family, he needed to increase his income and likely was intrigued by the idea of living in the New England “Metropolis” with its intellectual, literary, religious, and political activity. John’s congregations agreed to allow him to divide his time between Gloucester and Boston, but, eventually, the thirty-seven-mile distance became impractical. John established his friend the Reverend Thomas Jones of Wales in the Gloucester pulpit in 1793, and on October 23, the First Universalist Church in Boston installed John as their pastor. In 1794, John moved his family to an elegant townhouse at Franklin Place in Boston.
John’s years in Boston were filled with service to his congregation, travels to advise emerging Universalist congregations around New England, and days of recovery from exhaustion when he returned home. The Boston Universalists were slow to pay his salary, unfortunately, and John was often embarrassed by the state of his finances. Judith’s literary career, meanwhile, was blossoming after almost ten years of publishing poems, essays, and plays. Her 1798 book, The Gleaner, sold well and bolstered the family coffers temporarily. But money was scarce, and John found himself accepting an increasing number of invitations from far-off congregations in order to supplement his income.
In 1798, before departing for one such engagement in Philadelphia, John had arranged for the young minister Hosea Ballou to preach in his Boston pulpit. John had no idea that Ballou would promulgate a theology blasphemous to Universalists in his church. In other Universalist pulpits, Ballou was in the forefront of a shift toward Unitarianism that would ultimately succeed—a new interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death and his relationship to mankind. John, however, was immovably Trinitarian, and would never have allowed such ideas to be preached in his church. In fact, Ballou’s theological views caused serious distress and division within the Boston Universalist congregation when he spoke in 1799.  When John finally returned home, he was so ill from a tumor in his side he could only minimally calm his parishioners. Division remained, and Universalism continued to change throughout Boston and far beyond.
In 1809, his relentless efforts on behalf of Universalism ended unexpectedly when he suffered a stroke that resulted in paralysis to the right side of his body. Although his mind was alert and he could speak, John was bedridden for the rest of his life—no longer able to preach, debate, travel, or provide for his family. John’s congregation hired a nurse and sent daily “watchers” to help move and attend to him. Yet as ill as he was, John insisted on shaking the hand of Boston’s new Universalist minister, his friend the Reverend Edward Mitchell of New York, during his installation ceremony. Perhaps, he hoped, under Edward Mitchell, the Boston church would return to Rellyan Universalism and halt the intrusion of Unitarianism. When Mitchell departed for his native New York in 1812, the Universalists installed the Reverend Paul Dean, a conservative minister whose leadership, they hoped, would appeal to John.

The Preacher’s Legacy

John confessed to Judith that he felt “imprisoned” in his “helpless” body. Judith’s letters describing his state of mind report that he longed for an “escape” to the next world. But first, to reinforce the original ideas of Universalism that had strayed so far from James Relly’s 1759 book Union, John asked Judith to help him edit and publish his writings. He would at least leave behind a written testament of the truth as he saw it. John published Letters and Sketches of Sermons in 1812, hoping to generate income along with renewed interest in Rellyan Universalism.
As his investments failed during the early days of another war with Great Britain, John feared for the safety of his family. His frustration reached new heights as American troops arrived in Boston to defend its port. The British had already set fire to the capital city, Washington. What if Boston suffered a similar fate? How could John care for his loved ones—and, equally important, how would his lack of mobility endanger their lives?
Eventually, tensions with Great Britain subsided and Judith and John hoped to resume their peaceful lives together. But on September 3, 1815, John Murray died at the age of seventy-five after almost six years of painful incapacitation. A lifetime of useful service to God and to the public had ended. The leaders of his former congregations organized two services for him—one in Gloucester and the other in Boston where, after a long procession through the city, John was interred in the Sargent family tomb at Granary Burying Ground.
Following John’s death, Universalist friends asked Judith to complete and publish his autobiography. John had abandoned the project in 1774 when he settled in Gloucester. Hoping to preserve her husband’s legacy, Judith published Records of the Life of the Rev. John Murray in 1816. Reflecting the posthumous creation of John’s autobiography, the earlier parts, from John’s original manuscript, are highly detailed and self-reflective, while the later sections, Judith’s additions, are a brief summary of the events of John’s life from 1775–1815. Only three sentences describe their lives together as husband and wife:

Mr. Murray’s last marriage was the result of a strong and holy friendship, founded upon the rock of ages; and, originating in devout admiration of redeeming love, it is fervently hoped, and unwaveringly believed, that this union will be perfected in another and a better world. One son, and one daughter, were the offspring of this marriage. The son surrendered his innocent life in the birth; the daughter still survives, the prop, and consolation of her widowed mother.

Since John Murray’s death, others have sought to honor him as well, including the United States General Convention of Universalists, which, in 1837, moved John’s body to the new and prestigious Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and erected a handsome monument to him. (At Granary Burying Ground, no marker or inscription had identified his final resting place.)
In addition, seventy-one years after John’s death, in 1886, the newly formed Murray Grove Association purchased the property in New Jersey where John first arrived and erected memorials to the story of John Murray and Thomas Potter. Today, the Murray Grove Conference Center hosts the John Murray Distinguished Lecture Series and publishes its proceedings.
John’s autobiography has been reissued many times over the years, with each edition adding new insights and additional material. In 1920, on the 150th anniversary of John’s arrival in America, Frederick A. Bisbee published From Good Luck to Gloucester, the first biography of John Murray. In succeeding years, scholars have included John in histories of Universalism, Gloucester, and progressive religion in America (see “Resources” section).
Although John and Judith Sargent Murray have no living direct descendants, John Murray’s Universalist descendants abound. The Universalist church in Gloucester, the Independent Christian Church, preserves his legacy through programs and exhibits. The Sargent House Museum, John’s former home on Middle Street, is open to the public as a historic house museum. Although Universalists and Unitarians joined together in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, the history of Universalism and its early leaders has received renewed interest. The New Massachusetts Universalist Convention was founded in 1998 to host conferences, publish, and generally “fan the flame of Universalism in New England and Beyond.” Most recently, Universalist enthusiasts established a Universalist Heritage Center in Winchester, New Hampshire, in 2006.
For almost two hundred years, scholars, ministers, and Universalists have variously referred to John Murray as the singular Father or Founder of American Universalism. But to do so is, in fact, a disservice to the dozens of disparate communities where the message of universal salvation had independently taken hold even before John Murray’s arrival in 1770. Perhaps the most fitting title is, simply, as the historian of Universalism, Russell Miller, suggests, Founder of Organized Universalism in America. It is also accurate to state that because of John Murray’s steadfast, inspiring, strategic work, he changed American religious life for the better—as he used to say, from “hell” to “hope.” He would charge his congregations to join him in spreading the “good news of Universalism” by preaching,

Go out into the highways and by-ways of America, your new country. 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 men and women. 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.

*An interesting story about John Murray’s ancestry is described in Letters 615 and 632. While his maternal ancestors were from English minor nobility, John’s paternal family was comprised of Scots who were killed in the 1745 uprising, and French Catholic aristocrats who converted to Protestantism. If John’s father and grandmother had been willing to renounce their faith, they stood to inherit a small fortune. They refused, but, many years later, John appears to have had the opportunity to collect what his family had been denied. 


2008 © Bonnie Hurd Smith

Independent scholar and author Bonnie Hurd Smith is the president and CEO of History Smiths, a marketing company that works with businesses to incorporate history -- their own and their community's -- into their branding, marketing, and community outreach to attract customers, boost customer loyalty, and secure a high status reputation in the communities they serve.