On or near September 30 of each year, some Unitarian Universalist families and congregations celebrate the arrival of John Murray on the New Jersey shore in 1770—and hence the arrival of Universalism in America. As the story goes: After John Murray’s ship became stranded upon a sandbar, Murray and a few other shipmates went ashore to gather some supplies. As part of this quest, Murray met a man named Thomas Potter who invited him and his stranded friends to join his family for dinner.
During the conversation over the meal, it was revealed that Potter had just built a chapel and was looking for a minister to preach in its pulpit. John Murray was a Universalist minister, but after losing his wife and son and being forced out of England for preaching Universalist ideas, he’d pledged never to preach again.
However, Potter asked the reluctant Murray if he would at least preach on the coming Sunday. Murray said his boat would sail out of port by Sunday and so he wouldn’t be available. Of course, ships in those days relied upon wind power and the winds would literally have to change in order for his ship to sail. Potter asked him if he would preach on Sunday if his ship hadn’t yet sailed, and Murray gave in. “If I’m still here on Sunday,” he said, “I will preach.”
On Sunday, September 30, the winds had not yet changed and so John Murray did preach a sermon in Thomas Potter’s church. His Universalist message of a loving God who would not damn anyone to hell—the idea of universal salvation—was welcome news in America and soon John Murray found himself preaching regularly again to larger and larger crowds eager to hear his message.
Families can celebrate John Murray Day by telling his story as part of a special meal to commemorate this event. You can find a great story about John Murray as part of the Tapestry of Faith online curriculum project. (See the UU World archives for articles about Murray’s conversion to Universalism and about the revival of the congregation he would later found in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the first Universalist church in America.)
Each person could also share something good in their life, perhaps even something unexpected that turned out great—just as John Murray’s stranded ship ended up with Universalism’s good news coming to America. Promises can also be made, such as pledges to do homework without grumbling or remembering to pack a dessert in a child’s lunch.
Finally, because the story of John Murray is so closely tied to water, families can take this opportunity to express their gratitude for having easy, convenient access to clean and safe water. Pledges can even be made to consciously use less water on this day—or the week in which the celebration falls.
However it is observed, John Murray Day is a chance for families to celebrate a uniquely Unitarian Universalist holiday—and commemorate the Universalist half of our religious heritage.