Truth and Meaning: Providence
Born in 1741, John Murray’s childhood was dominated by a Calvinist father whose fears for John’s soul led him to beat and isolate his son. The boy saw religion as a gloomy means to control people’s behavior. As a teenager, Murray met John Wesley, who encouraged his protégé on the path to the Methodist ministry, and to read books John’s father had forbidden.
Murray started preaching. But several personal crises and family losses, combined with his growing doubts about John Wesley’s theology, propelled Murray into a state of despair. Believing there was a higher purpose in life for him, he left Ireland for England. John heard a sermon by George Whitefield and admired the preacher’s nondenominational, welcoming style. Whitefield soon asked Murray to preach at his Tabernacle in London, where John fell in love and married Eliza Neale.
James Relly, a Welsh preacher, was in London lecturing on universal salvation. As a good Methodist, John despised Relly, but found his arguments persuasive. Murray read Relly’s writings and found that his interpretation of the scriptures made sense. John and Eliza heard Relly preach and both were profoundly affected. John wrote in his autobiography: “It was clear that Christ Jesus died for all, for the sins of the whole world and that everyone must finally be saved…I conceived if I had an opportunity of conversing with the whole world, the whole world would be convinced. It might truly have been said, that we had a taste of heaven below.”
The Methodists expelled John from the Tabernacle.
John’s contentment with life ended abruptly when Eliza and their infant son died. Debt-ridden and despondent, Murray decided to leave the ministry and move to America. His ship ran aground, however, on a sandbar off the New Jersey coast. John went ashore in search of provisions and encountered a farmer named Thomas Potter. Potter had built a meetinghouse on his property for itinerant preachers and was waiting for one who embraced universal salvation. There was no doubt in Potter’s mind that God had sent John Murray for this purpose. He urged Murray to preach, but John refused, preferring to leave his past behind and sail on to New York as planned.
Potter warned Murray, “The wind will never change, sir, until you have delivered to us, in that meeting-house, a message from God.” And the wind remained calm for days until John believed in God’s intervening hand and he delivered a sermon. He felt his sense of calling and purpose return. Over the remainder of his life, Murray spread the Universalist message in America.
Whatever you call it — God, Yahweh, Allah, Nature, Synchronicity — we are all called by providence to heal and not to harm. To paraphrase a quote often attributed to Murray: Go out into the highways and by-ways. 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 kindness and everlasting love.