John and Eliza Murray were one serious illness from bankruptcy

It’s well known now that a medical crisis is more likely to push you — let’s limit this to the United States — into bankruptcy than any other single cause. This was true, too, for Universalist church founder and inspirer John Murray and his first wife, Eliza around 1768.

The text follows, but first to set the scene.  Our brother and our grandfather are literally Eliza’s. She was raised by her grandfather, but had been disinherited — at one brother’s scheming; he got her inheritance as a wedding gift — for marrying Murray (for being a follower of George Whitfield, rather than being a Universalist.) Though reconciled, the grandfather’s new wife — who had been the older man’s servant; John had found her — cut off the family. On top of this, both Murrays had recently become attendees of the notorious (Universalist) James Relly’s worship, and so were cut off from the main of London evangelical fellowships. Their avenues for relief few, and thus their risks high . . .

We had a sweet little retirement in a rural part of the city. We wanted but little, and our wants were all supplied; and perhaps we enjoyed as much as human nature can enjoy. One dear pledge of love, a son, whom my wife regarded as the image of his father, completed our felicity. But, alas! this boy was lent us no more than one short year! He expired in the arms of his agonized mother, whose health, from that fatal moment, began to decline. I was beyond expression terrified. Physicians recommended the country; but my business confined me in London, and my circumstances would not admit of my renting two houses. I took lodgings at a small distance from town, returning myself every day to London. The disorder advanced with terrific strides. My soul was tortured. Every time I approached her chamber, even the sigh which proclaimed she still lived administered a melancholy relief. This was indeed a time of sorrow and distress beyond what I had ever before known. I have been astonished how I existed through such scenes. Surely, in every time of trouble, God is a very present help. I was obliged to remove the dear creature, during her reduced situation, the house in which I had taken lodgings being sold; but I obtained for her a situation about four miles from town. The scenes around her new lodgings were charming. She seemed pleased, and I was delighted. For a few days we believed her better, and again I experienced all the rapture of hope. My difficulties, however, were many. I was necessitated to pass my days in London. Could I have continued with her, it would have been some relief. But as my physician gave me no hope, when I parted from her in the morning, I was frequently terrified in the dread of meeting death on my return. Often, for my sake, did this sweet angel struggle to appear relieved; but, alas! I could discern it was a struggle, and my anguish became still more poignant. To add to my distress, poverty came in like a flood. I had my house in town, a servant there; the doctor, the apothecary, the nurse, the lodgings in the country, — everything to provide; daily passing and repassing. Truly my heart was very sore. I was friendless. My religious friends had, on my hearing and advocating the doctrines preached by all God’s holy prophets ever since the world began, become my most inveterate foes. Our grandfather was under the dominion of the woman I introduced to him, who had barred his doors against us. The heart of our younger brother was again closed, and, as if angry with himself for the concessions he had made, was more than ever estranged; and even our elder brother, who, in every situation, had for a long season evinced himself my faithful friend, had forsaken us! I had, most indiscreetly, ventured to point out some errors in the domestic arrangements of his wife, which I believed would eventuate in his ruin, and he so far resented this freedom as to abandon all intercourse with me. Among Mr. Relly’s acquaintance I had no intimates, indeed, hardly an acquaintance. I had suffered so much from religious connections, that I had determined as much as possible to stand aloof during the residue of my journey through life. Thus was I circumstanced, when the fell destroyer of my peace aimed his most deadly shafts at the bosom of a being far dearer to me than my existence. My credit failing, my wants multiplying, blessed be God, my Eliza was ignorant of the extent of my sufferings! She would have surrendered up her life, even if she had feared death, rather than have permitted an application to either of her brothers; yet was I by the extremity of my distress precipitated upon a step so humiliating.

But she did die, and in time Murray was locked up in a sponging house, a prelude to prison proper, where the inmates, locked up in a bailiff’s house were squeezed (hence the sponge reference) by having to pay their own bed and keep, at inflated prices. His brother-in-law William paid his debt and set him up in a business. Within two years, he had left “to retire in” the wilderness of America, a kind of living suicide and the rest — they say — is history. And providence.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

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