"The Healing Heresy of Universalism"
by the Rev. Krista Taves
May 06, 2007
The Conversion of John Murray, Preacher of Universal Salvation
Narrator: This scene is taken from "The Life of John Murray," by John Murray. John Murray spread Universalism with its doctrine of universal salvation in North America, preaching his first sermon on American soil in 1770. But John Murray was not always a Universalist. He began his ministry as a fire and brimstone Methodist preacher. To his surprise, he was converted to Universalism by a woman in his congregation. This conversation between them takes place in London England, when Murray was still a Methodist preacher, before his fateful voyage to America. John Murray had heard a lot about the controversial universalist preacher Mr. Relly, and in fact he had turned down many invitations to hear Relly’s blasphemies in person, saying he would not be "a murderer of time." But finding a fellow brother or sister drawn into universalist "deceptions," he felt great anguish, and tried his best to "prevent the perdition of souls."
Murray tells the story of his encounter with a young woman of irreproachable life, remarkable for piety, and highly respected by the congregation of which Murray was a member.
John Murray (to the audience): To my great astonishment she had been induced to hear Mr. Relly preach, and having heard, she had embraced the pernicious errors of this detestable babbler; she was become a believer, a firm and unwavering believer of universal redemption! Horrible! Most horrible!
Narrator: The Rev. Murray was deemed adequate to reclaiming this wanderer, and he was strongly urged to the pursuit. Fully persuaded that he could easily convince her of her errors, he entertained no doubt respecting the result of his undertaking.
Murray: He that believeth not shall be damned.
Woman (with great sweetness): And pray, sir, what is the unbeliever damned for not believing?
Murray: What is he damned for not believing? Why, he is damned for not believing!
Woman: But, my dear sir, what was it he did not believe, for which he was damned?
Murray: Why, for not believing in Jesus Christ, to be sure.
Woman: Do you mean to say that unbelievers are damned for not believing there was such a person as Jesus Christ?
Murray: No, I do not. A man may believe there was such a person, and still be damned.
Woman: What, then, sir, must he believe, in order to avoid damnation?
Murray: Why, he must believe that Jesus Christ is a complete Savior.
Woman: Well, suppose he were to believe that Jesus Christ was the complete Savior of others, would this belief save him?
Murray (patiently): No, he must believe that Jesus Christ is his complete Savior; every individual must believe for himself that Jesus Christ is his own Savior.
Woman: But sir, is Jesus Christ the Savior of any unbelievers?
Murray (sadly): No, Madam.
Woman: Why, then, should any unbeliever believe that Jesus Christ is his Savior, if...he is not his Savior?
Murray: I'm saying that Jesus Christ is not the Savior of any one until he believes.
Woman (deliberately): Then, if Jesus is not the Savior of the unbeliever until he believes, the unbeliever is called upon to believe a lie. (Murray tries to interrupt, but she cuts him off and continues.) It appears to me, sir, that Jesus is the complete Savior of unbelievers, and that unbelievers are called upon to believe the truth; and that by believing, they are saved from all those dreadful fears which are consequent upon a state of conscious condemnation.
Murray (huffily): No, Madam; you are dreadfully, and I trust not fatally, misled. Jesus never was, nor ever will be, the Savior of any unbeliever.
Woman (thoughtfully, earnestly): Do you think Jesus is your Savior, sir?
Murray (confidently): I hope he is.
Woman: Were you always a believer, sir?
Murray: No, Madam.
Woman: Then you were once an unbeliever; that is, you once believed that Jesus Christ was not your Savior. (Murray frowns, considering) Now if, as you say, Jesus never was nor ever will be the Savior of any unbeliever...he never can be your Savior.
Murray (spluttering): He never was my Savior until I believed.
Woman (gently): Did he never die for you until you believed, sir?
Murray (uncomfortable, embarrassed; looks at his pocket watch): My my, look at the time--it's late! I suddenly recollect that I have another engagement. Good day, Madam. (He hurries off.)
(She looks at the audience and shrugs; exits the stage in the opposite direction.)
Three Unitarian Universalists arrive at the Pearly Gates, much to their surprise. St. Peter checks his records and realizes that they have led exemplary lives even though these particular Unitarian Universalists aren't Christian. Should he let them in? Generally, he would have said no. But St. Peter is in a good mood. So he offers them a deal. "I'm going to ask you a question, and if you answer correctly, you get into heaven. If you get it wrong, to Hell with you!"
They figure this is as good a deal as they're likely to get, and so Peter asks the first, "Explain the meaning of Easter." The guy scratches his head, and says, "Isn't that where there's a fat guy in a red suit with reindeer, and you get presents and" ... St. Peter pushes the big red button and the poor fellow is hurled into the pits of hell.
Peter asks the second the same question. She looks confused and then says, "Um, yeah, you've got this bunny hopping around hiding eggs under bushes and" ... eter hits the button again, and she's cast down to the place of eternal damnation.
The third UU comes up looking quite confident for he took a Comparative Religions course through the Adult Religious Education Program at his church. He begins to answer. " Jesus was arrested in Gethsamane, after Judas betrayed him, he was hauled before Pilate and sentenced to death, he was crucified on the Mount of Calvary and buried in a tomb with a rock rolled in front of the door –" Peter's relaxing, he's going to let someone in today, he's already reaching for the green button – But the man continues. "and if he comes out and sees his shadow, there'll be six more weeks of winter….." (http://matt.baya.net/jokes/uu.html)
There are versions of this joke for every religion and denomination, every group of people. The more common a joke, the more likely it is that there is a powerful worldview buried within it that makes sense to us at a deep unconscious level. The worldview buried in this joke is that we live in a culture deeply etched by the belief that life is a test whereby we prove our worth. Depending on how well we do that, we will either spend eternity lavishing in heavenly bliss, or writhing in unimaginable pain and suffering. Many of us grew up with this doctrine, and even if we didn’t, its prevalence has shaped the very fabric of our society. It influences our education systems, our criminal systems, it influences how we treat ourselves and what we expect of others in our lives.
John Murray rejected the concept of eternal hell 250 years ago. Like most Christian ministers of his time, he ardently preached salvation from the threat of eternal hell. There was an urgency to his work for he believed he was literally fighting for souls person by person. But then something happened. He had a life-changing conversation with a woman in his church and he opened himself to the universalist message of freedom and love. Freed from the prison of fear that fuelled his fire and brimstone ministry he began to preach the universal love of God, a God who would never create human beings just to subject them to tests that most would fail, and then punish them brutally for it. What kind of cruel and twisted God would that be? In modern secular language, we would call that self-sabotage. Self-sabotage means that when faced with opportunity, you create the means to destroy it. What kind of God is that?
Murray proposed something quite different. God willed all of his creation back into right relationship with him. God created us out of boundless love, and if God's love is truly boundless, then it outshines any kind of sin that we can fall into. No sin is strong enough to overpower the boundlessness of God's love.
Murray was persecuted by both political and religious leaders for his beliefs. Many believed he was endangering the eternal well being of any soul convinced by his teaching. It was widely believed that the only thing compelling humans to be good was the fear of punishment. Take away the consequences of sin, and there would be no reason to be good. What glue could possibly hold society together when fear of punishment was taken away? It would be social anarchy! Murray replied that there was nothing to fear. We made in the image of God, thus God speaks through our own internal natures. Each person is filled with the goodness of God waiting to be manifest in this world. Human nature itself would save us.
It was a stunningly optimistic view of human potential for a culture that viewed humanity as depraved and wretched. Its audacity caught on like wildfire. When Murray fled Britain for the New World, he arrived during the Great Awakening, a time of social, political and economic restlessness, culminating in the American Revolution. Life was pretty uncertain and people hungered for something to hold on to. Evangelicals, both orthodox and universalist, answered that hunger. You could find evangelicals preaching anywhere that people would listen. Massive tent revivals that lasted days, sometimes weeks, were not uncommon.
In this time of ferment, Universalism was born. Universalist evangelical circuit preachers were as numerous as their orthodox counterparts, moving through New England in search of souls to save and churches to plant. Orthodox evangelicals sought to save every man and woman from the fires of hell. Universalist evangelicals sought to save every man and woman from the fear of hell so that humans could get on with living Jesus' message of love and compassion. And they were highly successful in doing so. By the mid-19th century Universalism was one of the largest Protestant denominations in the Northeast.
Today, this whole business of universal salvation seems somewhat quaint to many Unitarian Universalists, and quite unrelated to who we are today. Although we must remember that many who find refuge in our churches may be in the process of undoing that fear of damnation. Our mission is to stand lovingly with them as the web of fear unravels. As an institution, though, the issue of hell has not been a burning issue for a long time in our churches. We have moved on from that. So what use could this part of our history have for us?
Well to answer that question we have to go back to another time in our history, when Unitarianism and Universalism merged in 1961. Universalism had become very small, was in fact dying because most mainline churches had adopted the principle of universal salvation. Universalists had lost their niche market. Universalism had also become more universal and less Christian-centric, although Christianity remained at the core of its identity. It may have become more than Christian, but it never turned its back on its Christian heritage. Unitarians, on the other hand, had begun to displace Christianity, replacing it with Humanism, which has remained the primary religious identification for Unitarians since that time. When Unitarianism and Universalism merged in 1961, Unitarians vastly outnumbered Universalists, and many Universalists' greatest fear about the merger came true. Given Unitarianism's virulent anti-Christian prejudice at that time, most of our Universalist roots became obscured, some would even say purged, from our churches, including Universalism's adventurous history of evangelism.
This legacy lives with us today. Many churches readily welcome Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, Jewish and other teachings, but anything Christian is looked at with distrust, perhaps even hostility. Furthermore, Universalism's appeal to the common people was lost to Unitarianism's appeal to the primarily upper middle class. And, Unitarianism's emphasis of the intellect overtook Universalism's deep appeal to heart.
There was never really a true blending of our two heritages, and many Universalists continue to grieve the loss of their religion to the merger that created Unitarian Universalism. But we are discovering that all of us have lost something. Unitarianism had something to learn from Universalism's generous acceptance of its Christian roots. There is a price for burying your roots. You lose your grounding and become a religion of the moment rather than a religion with enduring meaning and purpose when you turn your back on where you came from. In some cases you even compromise your own values, becoming like the very thing you judge. I'm not suggesting that we have should turn back the clock and become fully Christian again, although there are some in our movement who argue that. The answer is to embrace and treasure the Christian heritage of Unitarian Universalism and see beyond those who abuse Jesus' message of love and compassion. We need to heal our own relationship with Christianity. The longer we postpone it, the longer abusive forms of Christianity have the power to wound us. Once we are reconciled to our heritage, we can fully engage in the saving work that we are called to.
This is in fact what both our Unitarian and Universalist forefathers and foremothers did. They understood themselves to be rescuing Christianity from its excesses and abuses. Unitarians sought to save Christianity from those who approached religion only from the heart, not from the head. Universalists sought to save Christianity from those who brandished the threat of hell to control and suppress.
Debunking hell may not be our burning issue anymore, but freedom is. Unitarian Universalists offer freedom from other damnations that imprison us. This worldly damnations, that hold us just as firmly. Pride. Arrogance. Selfishness. Resentment. A hunger for wealth. The need for an enemy. Old ways of being that aren't working but somehow we can't let go. I imagine that each of us could make our own list of this worldly damnations that hold us back from healing and wholeness and imprison us in a this worldly hell. We don't need God to be creating hell for us, we seem to do a pretty good job of that ourselves. What this faith offers us is freedom from those hells that we have created ourselves.
When John Murray pulled his followers from that great burning abyss, he pulled them back to this world, back to each other, back into themselves. His message? You are free from that prison of fear. Go and do good. Go and live as the God calls you to live. Serve one another. Love one another because the love of God burns brightly in all human beings, as it burns in you. This was his saving message. And it is still ours. We carry the same message. The question is, do we have the courage to really carry it?
When Unitarians buried the Universalist heritage, we also buried its bold heritage of evangelism. By evangelism I do not mean convincing others that there is only one true way. That is a bastardization of the true meaning of evangelism. Its true meaning is to pass on the freedom and joy that we know because we are hungry to share the living tradition we embody with others who hunger as we have hungered. When we turned our backs on our heritage of evangelism, our churches and chapels became insider clubs that were hard to find and often even more difficult to become part of. We need to turn from being sanctuaries of simple self-soothing and return to our prophetic tradition of being beacons of hope. Embracing our Universalist heritage reaffirms that spreading our message of freedom and love is not an oxymoron for liberal religion. It is part of its core foundation.
We still live in a world where many believe that humans need fear of punishment to be good. Many are held in the suffocating belief that humans are depraved and the only way to control our sinfulness is to wall it in with rules fortified by the threat of punishment. And where has this taken us. Into counterproductive social policies, discriminatory constitutional amendments, and a miserly legalism that allows more and more or the marginalized to fall by the wayside. We see it reflected in broken homes and abusive relationships and failed attempts at love. How can we ever really love when we're not loving for the right reason? When you are taught that you must love God because to not love is to risk suffering for eternity, the act of love then becomes twisted. If you're motivation for love is fear, how can you really love? The casualties mount as those who fear God try to love God at the same time and replay that confusion out in their closest relationships. What kind of living is that?
I imagine many of you know far too intimately exactly what kind of living that is. Do you remember how you hungered and thirsted for something different? Do you remember the flood of relief when you found a living faith that nourished all of who you were? We desperately need to reclaim not only the saving message of universal boundless love, but also the restless urgency that compels us to spread that message, person by person, so that others can be nourished at the same well of plenty that nourishes us.
In the words of John Murray, "Go out into the highways and by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess 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 and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God."
Amen and blessed be.
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Send Questions or Comments to Rev. Taves: Minister@EmersonUUChapel.org