John Murray Sailed Over the Ocean


Many years ago, there were two separate kinds of churches – the Unitarians, and the Universalists. Each church started on its own, but over time, they grew to have more things in common with each other. This is the story about the person who started the Universalist church; his name was John Murray.

John Murray was born more than 250 years ago, in England. He was very religious, and started preaching in different churches. Eventually he started believing an idea called universal salvation, and that idea is what the Universalist church eventually got its name from.

But universal salvation was not popular back then, and many of John’s old friends disagreed with this new idea he was preaching. They made him leave their church, and stopped talking to him. Then something very sad happened: his wife, and his baby son, got very sick – so sick, they died. Some other bad things happened to John after that, so he decided to stop preaching, move away from England, and come to America. So in the year 1770, Murray got on a ship that sailed over the ocean, heading to New York City.

But the ship got blown off course, and got stuck in a bay in southern New Jersey. The ship finally got away, but a few sailors – and John Murray – had gotten on a smaller sailing boat, and the winds changed direction, so Murray’s boat could not leave the bay. They needed food, so he went ashore to ask for help from the nearest farmhouse he could find. When he knocked on the door, John Murray got the biggest surprise of his life: the farmer answered the door, and asked John, “Are you the preacher God has sent to me?” John was shocked: how could this man know he had been a preacher?

The farmer’s name was Thomas Potter, and he did not know that about John. But Thomas, also, was deeply religious. He led discussion groups on religious ideas in his house, then built a chapel, a small church building, on his farmland. Thomas prayed to God often, asking God to send him a preacher, to give sermons there. But not just any kind of sermons, because Thomas Potter also believed in universal salvation, and he wanted a preacher who would talk about that in his sermons. Very few people believed this idea, and for these two of them to find each other like this was totally surprising.

At first, John did not want to preach; he had left England to leave preaching behind him. But Thomas kept asking, so finally John said that if the winds did not pick up by Sunday, he would preach. The sailboat stayed in the bay for several days while no wind blew. Finally, on Sunday morning, Thomas invited his neighbors to the chapel, and John Murray preached a Universalist sermon there. The day was September 30th, 1770.  Thomas was extremely happy, and John…well, just as everyone was leaving the chapel, a sailor walked up to say the winds had started blowing again during the sermon, and they could now leave. That’s how John Murray got back to preaching in America, which led him to start the first Universalist church in America nine years later – well, the first besides Thomas’s chapel, that is.

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