John Murray (1741 – 1815)

February 15, 2012

John Murray is the founder of Universalism in America.

Born in the village of Alton in Hampshire, England, John Murray was the first of nine children of a quiet Presbyterian mother and stern Anglican father who adopted Calvinistic beliefs and raised their son in a deeply religious household.  The first word that he spoke as a child was said to have been “Amen.”  The religious devotion of the family extended to his paternal grandmother, who had emigrated from France and joined the Church of England.  When her father died, she would have inherited a sizable fortune, but the inheritance was conditioned upon her renouncement of her new faith and a return to the Catholic Church.  Her refusal made a lasting impression on her grandson, who was only five at the time but who came to admire her integrity and conviction.

In 1751 the family moved to Cork, Ireland, where Murray’s father became even more intense in his religious devotion and more strict in the religious teaching and discipline of his children.  He immediately became a friend and supporter of the Methodists, though he retained his loyalty to Calvinism.  “The ardent desire of his soul was to render every individual of his family actively religious,” a desire that gained particular urgency when his health began to fail.  His religious fervor induced him to instruct his children by means of “whipping, admonishing, and praying.”  An offer was made by an Episcopalian minister to take John into his care, to instruct him and send him to college when he was of age.  John’s father refused, believing that he alone was a sufficient guardian for John’s spiritual well-being.

Eventually John’s father became friends with John Wesley, and the family became actively involved with Wesley’s Methodist group. John himself was appointed to be the leader of a class of forty boys whom he led in prayer and song.  John particularly enjoyed the social gregariousness of the Methodist group and their love of music.  He earned the respect of those around him and was judged to be one of the chosen of God, destined to become “a burning and shining light.”  Following his father’s death, John joined the household of his dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Little, a family of means who had converted to Methodism.  He then moved to London and fell in love with Eliza Neale, a young Methodist who consented to marry him.  In 1759 they began to follow the religious teachings of James Relly, who preached universal redemption.  Relly was thought to be a radical by many, and Murray thus alienated himself from many of his friends and family.  He was voted out of his church and various disasters followed:  first came the death of his infant son, then the death of his wife following a debilitating illness, and finally the growth of an insurmountable debt, for which he was imprisoned.   In 1770 he sailed for America, “conceiving (it) as a vast wilderness where he might bury a ruined life.”

Off the coast of New Jersey, his ship grounded on a shoal.  Going ashore for provisions he found a meeting house which one farmer, Thomas Potter, had built in the belief that heaven would send a preacher.  The farmer believed, even before speaking to Murray, that he was the preacher that had been promised.  Though Murray had come to America believing that he would never preach again, he stayed on at the farm (known as Good Luck) and gave his first sermon in Potter’s meeting house on September 30, 1770.  Murray’s services soon drew worshippers from far and wide, and many requests were made for him to preach elsewhere.  He made trips to Philadelphia and New York and in 1772 decided to settle in New England.

After appointment as Chaplain to the Rhode Island Regiments in 1775, Murray cultivated friendships in Gloucester, Massachusetts and became pastor of the newly-formed Independent Church of Christ in 1780.  Here he found a willing audience for his message of universal salvation.  In 1788 he married Judith Sargent Stevens, the widowed daughter of Captain Winthrop Sargent, a prosperous ship-master who had first invited Murray to preach in Gloucester.  Faced with ongoing controversy in Gloucester over his radical teachings, Murray turned his attention to Boston and in 1793 founded the First Universalist Society of Boston, serving as its pastor for many years.

Murray was first buried at the Granary Burying Ground, but in 1837 his remains were moved to Mount Auburn, on which occasion a funeral address was made by Hosea Ballou (Lot #103 Central Ave.), who shaped the path of Universalism in America after Murray.  Many churches and individuals contributed to erect the present monument.

 “Mr. Murray was a man of warm and ardent mind, a rich and glowing fancy, and a heart of stern integrity . . . It cannot be more truly said of any man than of him, that he saw the hand of God in all the events of his life.”

Rev. Thomas Whittemore, quoted in Life of Rev. John Murray

Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson and Cathy Breitkreutz as published in Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Person of the Week: John Murray, 1999.


Portrait of John Murray: Saint-Mémin, Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret De, Artist. John Murray, head-and-shoulders portrait, right profile. Boston Massachusetts, 1802. [Philadelphia:] Photograph.


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