Where did the highway begin?

I was reading a post at Looking for Faith where its author quotes John Murray’s much-cited passage from his first sermon in America. You know the one — it is even in the gray hymnal:

Go out into the highways and byways 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. 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.

I’ve preached about this text more times than I care to remember. But one thing nags at me: where does this quotation come from? I mean, what primary source is there from which we can attribute this quotation. Or, what is the earliest secondary source we have.

I though with a more robust Google Books we might be able to pull back the veil, but no. Perhaps the answer lies in one of Murray’s manuscript sermon books, or in one of his rare printed works that not his autobiography. Or perhaps Judith Murray recorded it.

Does anyone have a clue? Not to boast, but if there were only a few people who knew the answer, I thought I would be one of them. The passage is one of the more endearing literary touchstones we have: I would like to know its provenance, even if it means we learn it isn’t from Murray at all.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. I went behind you on Google books… hmmm….
    — no source earlier than the 1980s?

    while I doubt it will be fruitful, do you mind if i ask for you on the UU Historical Society chat list?

  2. Ron Stevens points me to Charles A. Howe’s THE LARGER FAITH (1993) , which quotes the passage.
    The references states ” Henry Cheetham, “Unitarians and Universalists” (Boston: Beacon Press. 1962), p80, for the charge by John Murray to his fellow ministers.

  3. Jay Atkinson on the UUHS list checked his copy, the quote is there, but no source.

    I believe that the quote reads as Charles Howe said ” charge to his fellow ministers” which would suggest either a circular letter or talk at a conference. He went to the 1804 in Philadelphia. Anyplace else? Scott, do you have or have seen the three volumes of John Murray letters (I see mentioned in Eddy), can we eliminate those?

  4. According to the murraygrove.org homepage, the quote is from 1770 (the “Potter sermon” then). Perhaps it comes from a local oral tradition? I have also run quite a few different searches and there are varieties of the quotes not always justified with ellipsis, e.g. the reference to “crumbling Calvinism” is sometimes missing.

    I guess this research, when it’s over, could well have a place in some journal of UU history! ;-)

  5. @Jaume. Perhaps an oral tradition, but not likely. For one thing, there has not been a continuous local Universalist church, though the Murray Grove camp is there.

    The reference to “crumbling and decaying Calvinism” — which the more I think of it doesn’t sound like Murray; he was more likely to use pointed rhetoric but be circumspect about particular targets — is found in more academic uses of the quotation, but not in the liturgical redaction found in the gray hymnal which is surely the only version some people have.

  6. maybe the “crumbling and decaying Calvinism” is odd – while I have certain thoughts when I think of Calvinism, would Murray have that same thought? when I think Calvin, I think of the depravity of mankind and limited attonement. But would Murray have thought that? After all, Calvinism is also predestination and irresistible grace, which various Universalists definitely did believe.
    Does this fit with Murray?

    1770 is very unlikely – it sounds like a charge to other ministers, it mentions “America, your new country”. Does this sound like he was preaching to Potter and friends in the pre-revolutionary days?

    Oh, Scott, one of the three volumes of Murray’s letters is in Google books!

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