Wednesday, September 29, 2010

John Murray Day

We celebrated John Murray Day at our house this week.

We’ve been attending a local Unitarian Universalist church for a couple of months, and, in a church-sponsored parenting book group, I recently encountered John Murray for the first time. According to, Murray is “often referred to as the father of American Universalism, helping to found Universalism as a denomination in the 1790s” (par. 10). The story goes that fierce winds prevented Murray from leaving the shore of New Jersey for his intended destination on September 30th, 1770, and, because he was detained, he agreed to speak at a Universalist meetinghouse, thus preaching the first Universalist sermon in America. He went on to serve as a minister for the first Universalist church in Massachusetts for the better part of the next couple of decades. As a Universalist, Murray espoused that salvation was for everyone, not just “the elect,” as the Calvinists of his day believed (or “the saved,” as contemporary conservative Christians believe today). Universalism of Murray’s time was driven by the belief that if Jesus was sacrificed for all of humanity, as the Bible states, then even non-believers could not be doomed to Hell. Today, Universalism is much less confined within a Christian worldview and, in UU theology, has come to stand for the inclusion of all people, regardless of faith or creed. Many Unitarian Universalists see Murray as helping to build the foundation for acceptance of difference within a religious community.

In order to commemorate John Murray’s contribution to Unitarian Universalism, my family and I instituted a new ritual involving dessert! (As my husband says, my daughter and I can turn anything into an opportunity to consume chocolate.) We started with two scoops of ice cream. I poured chocolate syrup over one of the scoops, and we all observed how it flowed over the ice cream. I then stuck an Oreo part-way into the other scoop, taking care to position it so that it was perpendicular to the bottom of the bowl. I poured chocolate syrup into the ridge between the two chocolate wafers of the Oreo, and we observed how it flowed differently than it did in the first. We talked about how the ice cream represents the world and the Oreo represents a person, like John Murray. The syrup flow over the Oreo demonstrated, then, that one person can make a difference in how the world experiences the forces of life. After discussing the demonstration, we all had Oreo sundaes!

Okay, so maybe it’s a stretch. But I wanted to find a way to celebrate this day, one of the only “special” days of a specifically UU history. It is important to me to reinforce that we are a family grounded in a free-thinking spiritual tradition, a tradition founded on principles of Universalism, both of the new definition and the old.

Perhaps because I come from an evangelical Christian upbringing, I see the concept of Universalism not just as a tenet of the UU church but also as a marker in my own spiritual journey. To move beyond the (fear-based) belief in Hell has been a major milestone for me and has allowed me—just as it allowed the Calvinist-turned-Universalist John Murray, I suspect—to join in meaningful community with believers and non-believers of all sorts.

I also believe that we might all benefit from the adoption of a belief in Universalism, as it seems to me to not only prevent our condemnation of each other to spiritual damnation but also, and perhaps more importantly, to pave the way from toleration to associationism, a journey that very well might led all of us to further spiritual enlightenment by virtue of learning from others. In a post over at A Commonplace Blog, D.G. Myers defines toleration: “Toleration, on my showing, would entail the unspoken agreement to put up with religious differences without ever undertaking the impossible mission of reconciling them, which—in the absence of any logical method for doing so—can only end in coercion or violence —separatism to learning from each other” (par. 6). Myers thus describes toleration as enduring the religious opinions of others without budging on our own beliefs. As Kevin points out in a comment, though, it seems a bit ridiculous to envision living in harmony with people of differing beliefs but remaining unchanged by this diversity. Kevin states, “Perhaps the world’s religions aren’t as insular as [Myers] suggest[s], aren’t self-contained circles” (Myers, par. 11).

Indeed. It seems to me, in fact, that the concept of Universalism allows for a more positive—and perhaps more practical—way of living with difference, a way that Daniel Harper at Yet Another Unitarian Universalist describes as associationism. Harper sees associationism as “refer[ing] to a form of voluntary association in which local organizations or voluntary associations are connected into a larger association or network of local organizations, by means of written records (minutes of meetings, bylaws, etc.), and formal and informal exchanges between associated local organizations (informal local cooperation, formal regional and national conventions, annual meetings, etc.)” (par. 8). In short, associationism allows people of divergent belief systems to come together in community, to support each other, to work toward common goals, and to help each other attain spiritual enlightenment. Associationism differs from toleration in that it implies more than a respect for spiritual difference; instead, it opens up the possibility of learning from the diversity of a common religious community.

John Murray Day is, for me, then, not just an opportunity to rejoice in my family’s recent inclusion into a local spiritual community but also a celebration of Universalism itself, a concept that has played a major role in my own religious liberation and that offers the promise of uniting us for the purpose of individual and communal spiritual growth. And, of course, the kids and I liked the ice cream and Oreos!


  1. I am glad that you have found a place where you feel free to think and feel this way. It is so hard to move from the stranglehold of conservative, evangelical, right-wing Christianity to a more open form of belief. Does your church ever talk about the fact that there are universalists in every faith? I ask this because I consider myself to be very Methodist, however, I also believe in universal salvation and in what you call associationism, and many churches practice this same level of cooperation, but they call it ecumenism. I suppose my level of wariness, and questioning, comes from some of the Unitarians I have met who assume they have the only claim to being open-minded of, accepting of, and willing to learn from other forms of faith, and from my experience, there are narrow-minded individuals in every faith group. I'd love to chat with you about all this stuff, so we should have coffee sometime.

  2. This is something that does actually interest me. I would like to understand better how a Christian can conceptualize Universalism (especially because I'd like to see some members of my own family of origin move in this direction). I'd love to hear more about ecumenism over coffee. Who are you, though?!?!