Go Out Into the Highways
February 20, 2022
Rev. Maddie Sifantus and MaryBeth East
Go out into the highways and by-ways of America, your new country…
preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.
~ John Murray
HYMN “For a Universalist Festival”
As to their holy place, the Jews, God’s ancient race,
Thronged year by year; so now, our feet have sought
This mecca of our thought, and hearts with gladness fraught
Have led us here.
We come with words of hope, for the strong hands that cope
With giant wrong; God leads the conquerors on,
Who has the strife begun—the victory will be won
Through God ere long.
Words: Mary A. Livermore, adapted; Music: Felice Giardini
TIME FOR ALL AGES “The Preacher, The Farmer, and the Little Church That Waited” Charlene Brotman, Ann Fields and Barbara Marshman, adapted
ANTHEM The Gift of Love Hap Hopson
Music ©2006 Hope Publishing
All rights reserved. Reprinted under ONE LICENSE A-735009
READING John Murray
Go out into the highways and by-ways of America, your new country. Give the people, blanketed with a decaying and crumbling Calvinism, something of your new vision. You may possess only 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. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair. but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.
SERMON Go Out Into the Highways Rev. Maddie Sifantus
The text of our anthem The Gift of Love is adapted from Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth in the days of early Church, I Corinthians 13. We know it mostly as a scripture often read at weddings but it is actually speaking of a larger love, the love the Universalists were talking about, it seems to me. And it was suited to this past week when many in our culture celebrated Valentine’s Day and in a month when we Side With Love with our fellow UUs.
We come back to my theme of Universalism this morning, one I will be revisiting from a number of different angles in the next couple of years. From famous early Universalist leaders such as John Murray as we heard in our Time for All Ages to events going back in time to the theology that set them apart from other churches of their day. From their hymnody to the buildings they built. From their evangelism to their missionary efforts on the frontier. One focus I am quite interested in is the Universalist architecture, such as ours here in this historic building which is different from the majority of historically Unitarian churches like First Parish in Wayland MA where I became a UU. I have a lot more research I plan to do and will enjoy sharing with you, friends, what I find out.
The very first month I was with you back in January 2015 I shared my first sermon on Universalism, “The Larger Hope”—a title I pilfered from my friend and colleague, the late Charles Howe’s book of that name. I said on that occasion as we were starting out, “…here we are this morning, gathered in a Universalist building, gathered together once again, as generations have been gathering. Gathered to be in community with each other—gathered to think about the larger things of life, a larger faith, and to think about how to be together in good times and difficult times. Now that I am here as your minister, I am interested in this particular congregation and its roots, wondering about its path to today, what its guiding vision was and what it will be, and what might be symbolic of that vision.”
As you may remember, I had planned to do extensive research about our roots back East, the Hardison family and also Mary A. Livermore while I was on Sabbatical last year…which was doomed by the pandemic, for the most part. I am taking one more month of the three more I am owed this summer to continue that research, hoping to finally get to Caribou, Maine and Pennsylvania among other places. After I came back last summer I did another service, restarting my Universalist series. That Sunday in August it was “Universalism: Our Heritage”. I talked about the Universalist cross and drawing the circle wide. I mentioned that morning that I had been in Gloucester in July where the church of John Murray is located, had been in the building on an earlier occasion, and that I would return to talking about John Murray on a future day…and here we are.
Then in November in a service named “Foundings” I talked about the importance of knowing our history and rituals such as Centennials, Bicentennials and the like, referencing again some of the early leaders of Universalism. And last month I did a sermon on one version of Universalist theology, “The Devotional Heart”, which was about Universalist pietism. But today I am thinking about the history of Universalism in this country and how it spread, with a particular focus on John Murray. In the future I will go way back to find early foreshadowing of what is now called Universalism, even in pre-Christian days. For instance, did you know that in 500 BCE “Ionians [one of the ancient Greek tribes] believed in one irreducible element common in all nature, called the universal substance, to which all things would return?” We build what we know today on what came before us. Before Murray, a little historical side trip:
Back in 1993 at our UU General Assembly, which that year was in Charlotte, North Carolina, a large celebration was held in honor of 2 centuries of Universalism in America. It was called “Singing, Shouting, Celebrating” and was created by two dear friends and colleagues of mine, both of whom are now gone: Gene Navias and David Johnson. In it they did a quick review of the history and theology of early Universalism from its introduction in America to the Civil War. Here are the highlights:
America began discovering Universalism when George de Benneville came to Pennsylvania in 1741.
John Murray delighted the ears of Thomas Potter when he preached on the New Jersey shore in 1770 and heeded Potter’s demand to share the Universalist gospel that God is love.
God is loving and forgiving like a caring parent.
Eternal punishment, hell fire and bitter sectarianism are the real heresies.
God loves all people in every condition all over the world. Anything less than that is to be scorned as partialism.
Salvation is universal. All souls will come into harmony with God and know the joys of heaven.
That message was a strong antidote to the orthodoxy of the period, and was spread by preachers on horseback to Canada, New Orleans, Oregon, and many a town in between.
Convinced of God’s love from searching the scriptures, Universalists preached, published and debated successfully with popular purveyors of doom.
They applied their universality to all human issues. As early as 1790 Judith Sargent Murray wrote an essay proclaiming the rights of women.
Olympia Brown and a host of her sisters were officially ordained as Universalist ministers.
Universalists reasoned that if we’re all going to be in heaven together, we’d better learn how to get along amicably on earth.
Slavery and war were proclaimed as abominations to a loving God.
The way was not easy. Universalism was denounced as an anathema and Universalists as heathen.
The right of free assembly, the right to support one’s own chosen church, the right to ordain one’s own clergy had to be won by legal battles.
Early preachers and their congregations were often far flung and lonely.
So they began to meet together and held their first regular assembly in September 1793, the date we celebrate as the formation of the Universalist denomination.
When they met, they gave voice to their faith, their hope, their love, just as we do today.
You may have noticed that our first hymn this morning was written by Mary Ashton Rice Livermore for a Universalist festival. It was first published in 1861 in The Gospel Psalmist: A Collection of Hymns and Tunes for Public, Social and Private Devotion, especially designed for the Universalist denomination. She was renowned for the clarity, passion, and depth of her oratory. She is renowned for us for her speaking in these parts and inspiring our women to create our Mary A. Livermore Society—the Mary As—in her name. I will be doing more research in her hometown of Melrose, Massachusetts in July. Stay tuned for that! But today let’s think a little bit more about John Murray. You heard some of the story that we love to retell in the Time for All Ages. Here’s some more:
John Murray came to the our shores in 1770, a defeated man, trying to start over again in a land where he could disappear. He was 29 years old, a widower. His wife Eliza and their one-year-old baby died in England, and medical bills had crushed him, landing him in debtor’s prison. John was a deeply religious man, raised by strict religious parents. His father would quiz him when he was 7, 8, and 9 years old, asking him questions about the sermon they had heard that morning. If he couldn’t answer the questions he would get caned or have his ears boxed. Most sermons back then were about hell, as people back then took its threat very seriously.
Unfortunately, you still can hear a good many sermons preached by people who believe in hell. Perhaps you heard some growing up or on a visit to a different faith community. But Universalists believed in Universal salvation and that got many of them in trouble. You can still hear some preachers putting down universalism, in fact. But let’s get back to John Murray. He lost everything, because he was converted to Universalism in England. He had been a lay preacher and Bible scholar with the Irish Methodists, and he loved good preaching. He visited every church in London, which is how he heard James Relly, a Universalist preacher. The idea that God was loving and that everyone would be saved in the end appealed to him and to his wife Eliza. Their friends begged them to come back to normal church. Their families cried. His business dried up. When he ended up bereaved, in prison, bailed out by Eliza’s brother, he just wanted to disappear, never preach again, never talk theology again, start all over with no history where no one knew him and he didn’t have to face either looks or words of loving concern or a self-righteous “I told you so.” Which brought him to our story of how he arrived in America and first thing found Thomas Potter and the chapel he had built, praying for a Universalist preacher to show up. Turned out Potter gave him the nudge he needed. Quite the story.
The Revolutionary War came, and John Murray worked as a chaplain to the troops, under the orders of General George Washington. When the war was over, and the new US was founded, in 1779, John Murray organized the first Universalist church in America in Gloucester, Mass. After many years, he fell in love again and married Judith Sergeant. His ministry there was important in the separation of the church and state—a story for another time. In Massachusetts, it was argued that Universalists should not be allowed to serve on juries or to testify in court “because no one who did not believe in eternal punishment could be trusted with such serious responsibilities.” One Sunday in Boston, Murray was in the middle of his sermon when a large rock sailed through the large stained-glass window behind him, narrowly missing his head. “Murray, never at a loss for words, held up the rock to the congregation’s view, weighed it in his hand, and pronounced, “This argument is solid, and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.”
Lots more can be said about John Murray and his role in early Universalism and may be said on another day. I end with this from my colleague Meg Barnhouse, “Our job as Universalists is to live in this hell-haunted place and hold out the idea that a loving God would not torture anyone for mistakes or even for really bad behavior. People can make a hell for themselves or one another right here, but God doesn’t make one for us.”
Blessed be. And Amen.
BENEDICTION Hosea Ballou
Let love continue. If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury; but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good. Let us keep a secret guard against the enemy that sows discord among us. Let us endeavor to keep the unity of spirit in the bonds of peace.
 Sifantus, Maddie (2015) The Larger Hope.
Johnson, David and Eugene Navias (1993). Singing, Shouting, Celebrating.