Correcting the Murray-Potter story

Earlier, I stated the Wikipedia article on Universalism had an inaccuracy about John Murray and Thomas Potter.

I got an email,

In your post about Wikipedia’s entry about Universalism, you mention Murray and Potter. I have only a passing familiarity with the story but find the apparently false version touching. What is the real story?

Wikipedia said

Early universalists in North America include John Murray and Thomas Potter in 1770. The story goes that God told Potter that he was to go and rescue the one swimming from a boat that had hit a sandbar and that this person would be the one he was waiting for. Murray preached to Potter’s neighbours and the word spread like wildfire.

There are three basic problems.

  1. The contextual overemphasis on Thomas Potter and John Murray as “early” without recognizing pietists like George deBenneville and the Rellyan study group in Gloucester, Massachusetts (which included John’s future wife, the author and Universalist catechist Judith Sargent) that made up the core of the first church
  2. Universalism didn’t take off like anything in the environs of Potter’s meetinghouse at Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. Early centers of activity were Gloucester and Boston; the Connecticut River Valley, centering on Oxford, Massachusetts; the Vermont and New Hamphshire hinterland; Philadelphia; and the German settled areas of South Carolina.
  3. The touching story is garbled (but still touching.) The young Murray made passage from England to America on the brig Hand in Hand. It stopped first in Philadelphia, then en route to New York jumped a sandbar. Because the brig was fully laden, it couldn’t pass back over. Murray agreed to the captain transfer some of the cargo to a smaller vessel, allowing the brig to clear the sandbar; he also agreed to get provisions, and went ashore. Cutting the story short, there he found a man who gave him fish: Thomas Potter. Potter was an “enthusiast” and a theological universalist who had been waiting a decade for a preacher of Universal Salvation. The rest, they say, is history. I don’t know how the “swimming” came in. This episode is in the autobiography .


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