John (Murray) the Obscure

Bless his heart: the UU Enforcer has put a number of photos on his blog of the graves of famous Unitarians and Universalists, including Hosea Ballou and John Murray. The latter is, of course, the much-noted “father of American Universalism.” Much-noted, but little understood. Indeed, the honor is really haigiographic since the idea of the unique origins of Universalism was never seriously accepted outside the Sunday school, generation-past.

The Enforcer asks: “this Grave was moved here, in celebration of the Universalist Church of America’s 100 or 150th anniversary. Why didn’t the UUA come and lay wreathes here when GA was in town?”

Murray's new tomb, as depicted in his autobiography

I think he’s getting Murray’s re-interment confused the the Murray commemorations of 1870, the centennial of Murray landing in America. The General Convention was held that year in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and (at 12,000) was the largest religious gathering in America to date. (Or so it was claimed.) Murray’s grave was moved from the Granary Burying-ground, in the Sargent tomb, on June 8, 1837, almost twenty-two years after his death, on the occasion of the Massachustts state convention. (Imagine if we had district meetings like that today!) He was much a living and honored presence among Universalists. But his particular theology was then as dead as he, and at every turn one gets the impression that his younger contemporaries were embarrassed by the old man.

Thus even then, one gets the sense that Universalists knew neither what to make of their “founder” or his legacy so I can hardly judge the more recent lack of ceremony. (But I think there were tours of Mt. Auburn at the Boston GA.) The habilitation of his second wife, Judith Sargent, has given John a new aura of reflected light, but little more understanding. Consider how hard it is to find copies of his primary printed work, other than his autobiography, which Judith had to finish. (She remarried and is buried in Mississippi.)

A better memorial to John Murray than wreaths would be a serious review of his theology — its boundaries and limitations included — without trying to make him more like Ballou or Winchester or anyone else, and so he may be appreciated fairly, or laid to rest.

Categorized as Universalism

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Scott: Love the historical perspective and Enforcer’s pics. were great. But I write about a more personal matter. Of late, your posts are lengthy again meaning you typed a lot. Does this mean that your wrist issues have resolved? Just curious as I was concerned for your continued well being.

  2. Yes, Roger, and thanks for asking. Some ergonomic adjustments at Day Job made the difference. Alas, the Dvorak keyboard didn’t and will have to wait.

  3. Would love to begin doing historical work on Murray froim his own documents. But how can I get my paws on them, or re-prints of them?

    I’ve got tons of stuff in my library by both Hosea and Adin Ballou; as well as Thayer, Edwin Hubble Chapin, and even a re-print of Judith Sargent Murray’s letters.

    I smell good historical research.

  4. Hmm, interesting point – the Murray Autobiography is common enough that I gave one away at the last Universalist Convacation; (ait was in print for a long time) – and there is at least one other biography out there, but yes, while I have lots of Ballou Sermons, and even books with Winchester’s theology ((although i expect i need for my eyes to improve to read it))- and lots of stuff from the 1820s to 1890s – I dont have anything else by Murray — not a short sermon, nothing. what else did he write? was he affliated with any of the denomination press? i guess Eddy’s has a list — but I dont have that either — so all I know of his theology is what the younger generation had to say—–

  5. Hi Scott,

    I’ve been browsing your blog a little, as a person interested in universalism from a Christian perspective.

    I’ve found a lot of mentions of Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement on UU sites, as though it was a document of great historical and foundational importance, but I can’t find an online copy of it anywhere. You seem the person to ask – has anyone put this book online, or isn’t it as important as people make out?

  6. Rusty — It is as important, but I suspect a limiting factor for getting the Treatise online it its size (long) and the fact that is was in print (the last edition was printed in 1986) and available until fairly recently.

  7. Treatise on Atonement : I see that amazon has an audio book version of the Treatise for $20 and Powells is selling one of those modern print on demand yellow cover jobs for $26. Using Froogle, I see 24 different editons consisting of hundreds of copies from $16 up to 150+, including the yellow cover job for $16 (and postage). I would guess that any local brick and mortor bookstore could order the yellow cover job…. I didnt check a used book search engines.

    (anybody heard the audiobook mp3 version?)

    as for anything important (and in PD) has to be free online, well it is important enough to still be inprint —
    — and cheap enough for anyone to want a copy to get one. To put it on the web, means someone has to scan (and hopefully clean up) a copy, which is time consuming for something that is not too hard to get.

    If one doesnt really want to buy a copy, I would imagine an interlibrary loan would be easy enough to get.

  8. Thanks Scott, StevenR.

    I’ll see if I can get my hands on a print version; however I’m a bit disappointed that it isn’t online. The cost of digitising a book isn’t that great in the scheme of things; usually the prohibitive cost is copyright. I would have thought that getting such a book online might be considered a useful exercise in outreach by UU central (sorry, don’t know the proper term)?

  9. i notice that BooksAMillion is selling the print-on-demand version of the Treatise.

    i dont think that UU Central (or UUHQ) does any historical stuff whatsoever.
    however Starr-King has a nice Universalist history site

    some smallish books are linked, and a series of articles.
    there are some other Universalist books online
    – one of the Pingree debate books, I know of……
    more phamplets than books though

    (and in keeping with this thread title: no John Murray)

  10. I think Starr King has a “nice” Universalist site that lifted the work of other people (myself included) without a word of recognition, for which they got a substantial grant from the St. Lawrence Foundation.

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