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Damnation, American Style: How American Preachers Reinvented Hell

Fire and brimstone survived the Enlightenment and prospered at the dawn of the American republic — but why?

Book cover of Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction
Photo Credit: Oxford University Press

The following is an excerpt from Kathryn Gin Lum's new book,  Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2014).  This excerpt was first published in Salon and is reprinted here with permission.

Among the many congratulatory letters George Washington received after assuming the presidency was one from “the Convention of the Universal Church, assembled in Philadelphia.” “SIR,” it began, “Permit us, in the name of the society which we represent, to concur in the numerous congratulations which have been offered to you.” The letter reassured the president that “the peculiar doctrine which we hold, is not less friendly to the order and happiness of society, than it is essential to the perfection of the Deity.” One of its signers, Universalist minister John Murray, had known Washington since serving as a chaplain in the Revolutionary War. The minister and his second wife, Judith Sargent Murray, had even stopped to dine with the Washingtons on their way to the Convention. Thanks in large part to their efforts, universal salvation was no longer an obscure creed espoused by a scattered few. Now the Convention sought to establish Universalism as a recognized, socially responsible faith.

Washington responded favorably. “GENTLEMEN,” he began, thanking them for their well-wishes, “It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing: for their political professions and practices, are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularlyevinced by your society.” Such affirmation of the Universalists’ civic friendliness, from none other than the first president of the newly United States, must have gratified the Convention. They were well aware that other Protestant clergy, especially the Calvinists, disdained their “peculiar doctrine.”

One of Universalism’s harshest critics was a Presbyterian minister also named John Murray and close in age to the other. To distinguish the two, their followers dubbed the Universalist “Salvation” Murray and the Presbyterian “Damnation” Murray. While “Salvation” preached the eventual redemption of all humanity, “Damnation” treated congregants and readers to vivid depictions of a hell gaping wide for sinners of every stripe. Universalism, he argued, offered license to sin without fear of consequences and undermined the justice of God by making Him a weak and ineffective ruler. “Salvation” and Judith Sargent Murray, for their part, believed that the promise of heaven for all presented a more perfect and rational view of God as loving and merciful rather than vengeful and arbitrary. Such a God, they hoped, would do more to inspire virtue and good works in the new nation’s citizens than a tyrannical deity who could arbitrarily condemn a significant part of His creation to eternal perdition.

The controversy over the justness and necessity of eternal hell took off in the aftermath of the revivals that swept New England and spread through the colonies in the mid-eighteenth century. Out of these revivals came intense debates over predestination, human nature, and the character of God, which dovetailed into the arguments over damnation. These debates did not stay hermetically sealed within a vacuum of theological speculation but traveled into the social and political realms as Americans worried about the success of their national experiment. In a new republican society, where disinterested virtue seemed the only check on unbridled power and tyranny, the choice to reject or retain belief in eternal damnation was much more than an arcane doctrinal dispute. Universalists and their opponents alike suggested that their beliefs represented not only the safest religious faith for the individual but also the best moral glue for the new nation.

Each group, in attacking the other, defined itself further. Those who rejected damnation had to explain how the promise of heaven for all would promote morality in the here-and-now. And attacks on Calvinism by Universalists and others new to the scene, including the early Methodists, prompted some Calvinist theologians to defend their traditional faith by reshaping it for a new era. In so doing, they helped to revitalize the idea of damnation for a new generation and ensure that Universalism would remain marginalized through the antebellum years. But in the early decades of the republic, Universalism seemed poised to blossom beyond the hopes and fears of damnation’s detractors and defenders alike.

Awakening Controversies 

The religious ferment precipitated by the New England awakenings that had begun in the 1730s did not go uncontested and formed the essential backdrop to the Universalist controversy. Supporters of the revivals, including Jonathan Edwards and his followers, found themselves defending the legitimacy of the passionate religious experiences they had inspired, the necessity of spiritual rebirth for salvation, and the continued validity of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Predestination did not square easily with revivals: if God had already determined who would be saved, what could revivals do but instill anxiety and despair in those who lacked the ability to repent and be reborn? Meanwhile, English intellectuals across the Atlantic had been questioning the justness of hell since the seventeenth century. They mostly wrote for each other, worried about the possible consequences of letting their ideas reach the masses. But educated Americans like Edwards were aware of their doubts and arguments.

Edwards warned that “the very principal reason of such thoughts arising in the mind is a want of a sense of the horrible evil of sin.” All were born wicked after Adam’s fall, and God was justified in letting any individual plunge into the “bottomless gulf” of hell without forewarning. But this did not mean that humans had no agency and therefore no responsibility for their fates. Instead, said Edwards, all sinners had a natural ability to repent, since nothing physical or external, like pain or paralysis, hindered their doing so (at least in a Christian society). Individuals had no excuse for the depravity of their hearts and their warped wills. It was their duty to heed God’s call, especially in a revival setting where everything was calculated to facilitate a change of heart and nothing but their own intransigence and moral failure prevented them from doing so.

While defending the natural freedom of the will, Edwards also reaffirmed predestination and God’s ultimate, even inscrutable, sovereignty. Although all sinners had a duty to repent and hence escape the terrors of hell, God only elected certain people, for reasons unknown, to receive a new spiritual sense. This godly infusion enabled the elect to direct their warped moral inclinations toward repentance, rebirth, and love for “Being in general.” The damned were so not by external factors but by their own fallen free wills, which God had not chosen to redeem.

Believing that humans had the physical if not the moral ability to repent and be saved, Edwards and his fellow revivalists exhorted them with fire and brimstone discourses like the infamous 1741 “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” After the initial revival in Northampton had subsided following the suicide of Edwards’s uncle, Joseph Hawley (who was convinced that he was damned), Edwards had realized that “hell, in all its fury and torture, would have to be enlisted if heaven were ever to be gained.” He had an “explicitly—at times excruciatingly—physical conception of hell’s torments,” drawing from observations of nature. His “Sinners” sermon compared fallen humanity, in the eyes of God, to a “spider, or some loathsome insect,” suspended by God’s mercy “over the fire.” Edwards ended the sermon with a powerful altar call:

And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners . . . . Many that were very lately in the same miserable Condition that you are in, are in now an happy State, with their Hearts filled with love . . . . How awful is it to be left behind at such a Day! To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing! . . . How can you rest one Moment in such a Condition?

The sermon provoked intense physical and emotional reactions. One congregant observed that “there was a great moaning and crying out throughout the whole house.” Similar ecstasies and terrors were reported throughout New England in the early 1740s and in other regions where the revivals spread.

Calvinist opponents of the revivals, including the Congregationalist “Old Lights” led by Boston minister Charles Chauncy and the Presbyterian “Old Side,” believed that the intense experiences such sermons produced were at best mere enthusiasm and at worst the work of the devil playing on the minds of the overwrought and excitable masses. They were particularly alarmed by the license such enthusiastic experiences seemed to give laypeople to criticize staid ministers as “spiritually dead.” They saw the attempts of Edwards and his followers to square predestination with free agency as impenetrable and unconvincing metaphysical speculation. These opponents believed that revivals, where sinners were suddenly convicted of their depravity and impending damnation to the point of fainting and crying, would not result in true rebirth. They held that real conversions should and would come about through membership in the church community and diligent use of the traditional means appointed for the reception of saving grace: prayer, Bible study, attendance at services, and Holy Communion. Ultimate salvation required a life of obedience and not just sudden rebirth produced by terror. Through such gradual means and holy living the elect would come to know of their election, while those who were not elect would at least conform to the external ordinances of Christian behavior.

These anti-revivalists were not uniform in their opposition. Some saw themselves as conservatives shoring up the traditional faith of their Puritan forbears against the novelty and disruption of Edwardsean revivalism; others veered in a more liberal direction, repudiating attempts to create a “consistent Calvinism” that would square free will with the sovereignty of God. The more these increasingly liberal ministers emphasized the church as the means of saving grace, the less they hewed to the doctrine of predestination. They stressed the importance of moral living over a change of heart. They also emphasized the ethical example of Christ rather than the traditional Calvinist doctrine that Christ’s death on the cross saved the elect alone. Some of these theologians and ministers, receptive to the encroachments of Enlightenment rationality and optimism on the Calvinist tenets of original sin and partial election, formed the vanguard of American Unitarianism. Even Chauncy himself would turn to universal salvation by the 1780s, though he published his defenses of the doctrine anonymously, testament to the incendiary nature of rejecting damnation in the early republic.

The “Insanities” of Calvin and Hopkins 

By the second half of the eighteenth century, then, the Calvinist idea that damnation resulted from inherent and inherited depravity and from God’s selection of only a few for salvation was coming under attack from within. At the same time, external threats to the doctrine of predestination were filtering into the colonies from religious movements with overseas roots, like Universalism. Methodists were also beginning to make incursions, doing away with unconditional election in favor of emphasizing free will and ability to strive for salvation (a theological position known as Arminianism). Not all early Americans were Calvinists, but Calvinism was the dominant theological tradition against which most other groups defined themselves and which received the most fire from freethinkers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They accused Calvinism of painting God as an arbitrary dictator who randomly chose whom to save and whom to damn. No less than Thomas Jefferson decried Calvin as “indeed an Atheist . . . or rather his religion was Daemonism . . . . It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.” Likening an American theologian, Samuel Hopkins, to Calvin, Jefferson wrote that both propounded “insanities . . . . The straight jacket alone was their proper remedy.”

This Samuel Hopkins was famed (and reviled) for his declaration that sinners should be willing to be damned for the glory of God. A New England native, Hopkins considered himself the direct heir to Jonathan Edwards and likewise sought to defend the consistency of Calvinism against external and internal onslaughts. Hopkins wrote his major works after Edwards’s death in 1758, as the excitement generated by the revivals continued to spin out in theological debates. His own conversion had occurred in the midst of the awakenings in New England while he was a student at Yale in the late 1730s and early 1740s. His classmate David Brainerd, later a missionary to the Native Americans, was keen on ascertaining Hopkins’s spiritual state. Although Hopkins initially resisted, Brainerd soon succeeded in frightening him out of his apathy. After weeks of agony and guilt, Hopkins “had a sense of the being and presence of God, as I never had before . . . . I was greatly affected, in the view of my own depravity, the sinfulness, guilt, and odiousness of my character; and tears flowed in great plenty.”

Hopkins set his energies to systematizing Edwards’s thought. He drew on Edwards’s distinction between natural ability and moral inability to battle against the incursions of liberals like Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew. Hopkins thought they had veered in an alarmingly Arminian direction, putting more emphasis on good behavior and personal agency than on God’s sovereignty and man’s fallen state. Hopkins believed uncompromisingly in the depravity of human nature. He argued that the traditional means of opening oneself to saving grace—devotions, communion, prayer—only further condemned those who practiced them but continued in unbelief. God was beholden to save no one who used these means, since “there are no promises of saving mercy made to sinners, upon any condition short of faith in Jesus Christ.”

According to Hopkins, true holiness consisted in spiritual rebirth marked by the transformation of self-love, which he considered the essence of sin, into selflessness or “disinterested benevolence.” Edwards had discoursed on benevolence as primarily an aesthetic notion. To Hopkins, it was a moral and social imperative. He criticized what he saw as the selfish individualism of Yankee merchants and businessmen like those in the bustling port town of Newport, Rhode Island, where Hopkins became minister of the First Congregational Church in 1770. His attack against selfishness made him one of the earliest opponents of the African slave trade that greatly added to the wealth of Newport’s merchants and seafarers. In the midst of the Revolution, Hopkins maintained that America could not expect deliverance if it continued in the “crying sin” of “enslaving the Africans,” for which God might “yet punish us seven times more.” Half a century later, abolitionists would echo the idea that Americans as a whole could be punished for the sin of slavery.

Hopkins’s famous statement that true converts must be willing to be damned for God’s glory also grew from his assault on selfish individualism: “He therefore cannot know that he loves God and shall be saved, until he knows he has that disposition which implies a willingness to be damned, if it be not most for the glory of God that he should be saved.” In other words, to argue that it was cruel and arbitrary for some to be eternally damned and others saved was to think of one’s own good instead of the eternal and higher good. Rather than agonize over their own eternal destiny, people should spend their energies trying to ameliorate moral and social ills and better their society. Fear of hell from self-love could not be a person’s sole motivation to repent: the true mark of regeneration was the alignment of your will with God’s for the good of all, even if you yourself were to be damned for reasons that were inscrutable to humans, but made perfect sense in the all-knowing mind of the all-wise and ultimately benevolent Creator.

Hopkins was not a popular preacher; he was known more as a theologian than a dynamic figure in the pulpit. His defense of innate depravity and the justice of God in choosing whom to damn went consciously against the grain of Enlightenment optimism and the emerging sense of the self as an individual, and not just a cog in society, that characterized the western transition to modernity. Still, despite his unpopularity with some, Hopkins’s call for self-sacrifice for the sake of the greater good resonated in the new nation, where virtue seemed to be the only glue holding society together.

John “Salvation” Murray (1741‒1815) 

While Hopkins was defending his view of the nature of God, man, and eternal damnation, the two John Murrays landed in America. “Salvation” was the elder by a mere five months. The best source that we have of his personal religious history is his own autobiography. First published in Boston in 1816, a year after his death, the volume reminded Universalists of Murray’s important role in founding the denomination in America.21 It also served as an apologetic, explaining to non-Universalists why a Calvinist would choose to abandon his faith. Murray portrayed himself as an erstwhile persecutor of Universalists who had had a change of heart and became one of the movement’s biggest supporters, much like Paul with the early Church).

The son of a respectable but far from wealthy Calvinistic Anglican father and Presbyterian mother, Murray painted his childhood in England and Ireland as austere and filled with “the doctrines, taught by that gloomy Reformer . . . . hence my soul frequently experienced the extreme of agony.” The threat of eternal damnation was never far from his mind and the more the “naturally vivacious” child chafed against his father’s strict ordinances, the more “Religion became a subject of terror.” His father was so strict that he would not allow Murray to seek a college education, “trembling for [his] spiritual interest, if removed from his guardian care.”

In his late teens, after his father died, Murray took care of the family and then traveled to London, where he let loose and lived a “life of dissipation” for a year. Soon after, in debt and deeply embarrassed, he fell in with followers of the famous revivalist George Whitefield. Feeling himself to be accepted and forgiven, his “bosom swelled with the most delightful sensations.” Yet even still, Murray was troubled that, while he might be saved, countless others would suffer eternal damnation. He “exclaimed, Lord, why me? Why take me, and leave these poor, unfortunate beings to perish in a state of sin and misery?” In response to such anxieties, he comforted himself that “such was the sovereign will and pleasure of God; he would have mercy, on whom he would have mercy, and whom he would he hardened.”

Murray married another follower of Whitefield, the pious Eliza Neale, and thought about entering the ministry himself. While attending Whitefield’s Tabernacle, he became aware of the teachings of one James Relly, whose fame rested on a piece entitled “Union: Or, a Treatise on the Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and His Church.” This publication laid out Relly’s central contention that Christ and humans are joined with Christ as the head and humanity as the body. Because of this union, all of humanity suffered with Christ on the cross, just as the death of the head causes the death of the body. According to the traditional Calvinist view, Adam’s original sin affected all humans, but Christ’s sacrifice was effective only for the elect. Relly’s doctrine of union modified the last part of this formula so that, just as all individuals were condemned through Adam, so all were saved through Christ’s suffering.

Murray initially viewed Relly’s teachings—and even Relly himself— with undiluted animosity. He even claimed a willingness to murder Relly if God saw fit, again in keeping with his self-portrayal as a Paul-like convert to Universalism. It was only when he and his wife actually read a copy of Relly’s ”Union” and then listened to him give a sermon that he had a change of heart. The effect of the doctrine was nothing short of a conversion experience. It altered his entire outlook on life: “I regarded my friends with increasing affection, and I conceived, if I had an opportunity of conversing with the whole world, the whole world would be convinced.”

Within the Whitefieldian religious community of London, Murray’s embrace of Rellyan doctrines was not to be tolerated. When his changed views became clear, the community promptly excommunicated him.

A host of woes followed: his infant son died, followed by his wife of consumption. Unable to pay his wife’s medical bills, Murray found himself in debtors’ prison contemplating suicide. The prospect of leaving England for America to “avoid, if possible, a part of [his] misery” ultimately raised him from his despair. Released from prison, Murray boarded a ship, the Hand-in-Hand, to the colonies. The ship beached off the New Jersey shore in 1770. In an origin story that has become almost mythical among Universalists, Murray happened upon a certain Thomas Potter, who had already been exposed to ideas about universal salvation from various frontier sects that professed different versions of the doctrine. Potter had built a meetinghouse but was awaiting a preacher. He made a pact with Murray: if the wind changed and Murray’s ship was able to sail off, he would let him go; if not, it would be a sign that Murray was destined to preach in America. The wind did not change, and Murray agreed to stay.

In telling this story, Murray probably wanted to convince his opponents that he had had no designs in crossing the Atlantic other than securing his own peace of mind. This would make his subsequent mission seem more providential and organic than if Relly had sent him to America for the express purpose of spreading his doctrines. But spread them he did. He not only filled Potter’s pulpit but also itinerated along the Northeastern seaboard, encouraging his audiences to conclude in favor of universal salvation without always using the terms explicitly. As he gained the support of those who found his doctrines congenial, he eventually preached a basically consistent Universalist theology that included some Calvinistic tenets along with Relly’s doctrine of the consanguinity of Christ and humanity.

Murray never denied human depravity nor did he argue for a temporary, remedial hell, as did Charles Chauncy and Baptist minister Elhanan Winchester, who also turned to universal salvation. Rather, Murray argued that God intended hell only for the fallen angels and that at the final judgment all humanity would be cleansed of sin and ushered into heaven for eternity. Murray was less than forthcoming about what would happen between death and the final judgment, suggesting that unbelievers would suffer because of their own anxieties and fears. He refused to call this suffering “purgatory,” instead applying that word derogatorily to the temporary hell espoused by other believers in universal salvation (“There are some . . . who will have it that, tho’ all Mankind will finally be saved, they have much to do, or to suffer, in order to satisfy divine justice. . . before they can see God, in Glory, they must pass through a Purgatorial Fire”). In Murray’s estimation, this took saving power away from Christ and put it in the hands of sinners to save themselves through purgatorial penance: those who advocated for such a hell “do not conceive that it is the Blood of Jesus Christ alonewhich cleanseth from all sin.” Murray’s concessions to Calvinism were deep.

Not that the Calvinist clergy cared. “Salvation” Murray was not well-educated, but his ability to reach ordinary people and non-theologians through “far-fetched” reasoning greatly disturbed the Calvinists, no matter the internal divisions that already plagued them since the mid-century revivals. Murray was a popular and dynamic preacher, drawing audiences from as far as twenty miles away, inviting comparisons to George Whitefield, and even filling staunch Congregationalist Ezra Stiles’s pulpit at the request of some of his parishioners (though unbeknownst to Stiles himself). He proved so popular that, within the first few years of his arrival in America, he had received invitations to fill many other pulpits too and preached in Philadelphia, New York, Newport, Providence, Boston, Newburyport (home to “Damnation” Murray), Portsmouth, East Greenwich, and New London. Along the way, he even debated eternal punishment with Samuel Hopkins himself. For the Northeast’s Calvinist ministers, struggling to fill their pews and offering plates in an era of “low and erratic levels of church adherence,” Murray threatened to draw potential congregants to what they saw as a dangerous and heretical doctrine. As Andrew Croswell, a Boston minister, complained in 1775, “He can put on a bold face, and make his hearers laughand giggle; and while he is able to do this, he may be sure of a train after him, in all populous places.” Philadelphia minister John Stancliff even likened Murray’s power to a contagious disease, which he satirically dubbed “the putrid Murrinitish plague,” prescribing a remedy of sprinkling the victim’s head with the ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, and surrounding the patient with pictures of the suffering of the damned.

John “Damnation” Murray (1742‒1793) 

Another of Murray’s opponents probably resented him all the more because he shared the same name and age, was also born overseas, and could easily be mistaken for him in a pre-photographic age.35 Although he did not leave behind a detailed autobiography, we can piece together enough details of the Presbyterian Murray’s life to shed some light on his quite different religious trajectory.

John “Damnation” Murray was born in Antrim County, Ireland, and raised in the Presbyterian Church. Unlike “Salvation” Murray, he received an extensive education: first at a school not far from his birthplace, then with a private tutor, and finally at the University of Edinburgh. At the age of 15, he entered into full communion in the Presbyterian parish of his birth.36 Whether he experienced the same anxieties as the other Murray over his election is unclear. Since he never forsook his childhood faith, he likely felt no need to leave behind an autobiographic apologia. In fact, he was so doctrinally rigid that he became embroiled in a controversy because he refused to be licensed by a Presbytery that he “charged . . . with doctrinal defections.”

In the midst of this controversy, which escalated into an attack on his character, he decided to come to America. The year was 1763, seven years before the other John’s arrival, and his pretext was an invitation from an uncle in Boothbay, Maine, to fill that town’s Presbyterian pulpit. Although the licensure controversy never fully subsided even in America, “Damnation” was nevertheless able, like the other Murray, to acquire a reputation for Whitefieldian prowess in the pulpit. He actively strove to ensure that his training would not be forgotten, especially in contrast to “Salvation” ’s lack thereof. He remarked on the latter’s “entire want of learning or education” and noted that “Salvation” had “lately been imported from England”: a likely reference to the belief that Relly had sent the Universalist to America in order to spread his insidious doctrines. The reference also suggests an attempt to link himself with the established Calvinist clergy against someone who was only seven years more “foreign.” The Universalist Murray was far from an “illiterate leader,” as “Damnation” dubbed him, but the fact that he was perceived as such, and as a “Stranger” by many native-born clergymen, reflects the prejudice of the educated clergy against him and other ministers from rapidly growing populist denominations like the Methodists and Baptists, who lacked formal theological training.

“Damnation” also linked himself to American supporters of revivals, expressing hope that the awakenings that had begun in America would be the start of a global phenomenon that would usher in the millennium. Although he arrived after the mid-century heyday of the revivals, smaller, local seasons of awakening continued even as the controversies kindled by Edwards and his followers still swirled. “O Lord arise,” prayed Murray in a 1764 letter, after witnessing and preaching in a series of Long Island revivals, “and visit all Nations with thy all-powerful Grace. Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” Murray’s successes in Gilbert Tennent’s Philadelphia pulpit, where he brought in many new members, Boothbay, where he led an “extensive revival,” and Newburyport, where he eventually settled, earned him a reputation as a potent revivalist and eloquent preacher.

If “Damnation” Murray’s printed sermons are any indication of his revival style, he used his Whitefieldian eloquence very differently from the other Murray, to impress his audience with the horrors of eternal damnation. “Where now is the sparkling poison of the wanton eye?” he asked in a 1768 sermon describing “The Last Solemn Scene”:

Altered into the baleful image of horror and despair—the very picture of the ugliest fiend below: whenever they roll their eye-balls, their ghastly looks are telling all within them. The very visage of the sinner points out the favorite passion of his soul, as strongly as if you saw the drunkard rise rolling in his vomit—the lascivious taken in the adulterous moment—the prophane lips just stretched open with their usual blasphemies.

This hair-raising sermon was apparently quite popular as it was reprinted at least four times, as late as 1824, more than thirty years after Murray’s death. His views were hardly novel; the graphic imagery is reminiscent of Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Judith Sargent Murray (1751‒1820) 

Judith Sargent and her family would have undoubtedly heard sermons like this from ministers like “Damnation” Murray, who still dominated New England pulpits in the 1760s and 1770s. But they had also been introduced to James Relly’s writings by an Englishman in their hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts, even before “Salvation” Murray’s arrival. They found Relly’s ideas congenial but were not sufficiently convinced to leave the town’s Calvinist First Parish. They were not theologians or ministers, but wealthy merchants and seafarers—the kind of people Samuel Hopkins condemned as self-interested—whose roots in the port town of Gloucester ran deep. Descendants of Puritans, they were far from provincial and were frequently exposed to new ideas and people from across the Atlantic.

Judith was the eldest of the Sargent children. At the age of 18, she married another wealthy Gloucesterian sea captain, John Stevens, who was also intrigued by Relly’s writings. Judith was better educated than most women of the time, due in part to her privileged upbringing. From an early age, she was a prolific writer and staunch advocate of women’s ability and right to earn a living on their own. She looked up to Mercy Otis Warren and hoped to also attain celebrity through her pen. Still, her education did not include theological training. The arrival of “Salvation” Murray in America was a godsend. Here was a man who had met Relly in the flesh and would be able to explain to her and her family the complexities of his doctrines.

In 1774, four years after “Salvation” ’s arrival, Judith initiated correspondence. She wanted “with the strictest propriety,” she wrote, to “mingle souls upon paper.” In her very first letter to him, she expressed her admiration and gratitude for his teachings. She had decided to embrace his version of Universalism and told him why: “I acknowledge a high sense of obligations to you, Sir, I have been instructed by your scriptural investigations, and I have a grateful heart . . . . You have enlarged my views, expanded my ideas, dissipated my doubts, and led me to anticipate, and with sublime, and solem pleasure, the mystery [?] of the resurrection.” Murray seems to have responded favorably, asking Judith to “show [him] what the God Man hath revealed to [her] soul.” She answered modestly, suggesting that she was at a loss for words to explain her feelings: “I can much better meditate on the blissful vision, than impress my sense of the immensity . . . . When I contrast my days of ignorance with those on which the sun of Righteousness hath dawned, I am wrapt in pleasure.” Their correspondence continued, and in 1776 Judith and her family stopped attending the First Parish of Gloucester. In 1778 they formed a society of Christian Independents with some other defectors and appointed “Salvation” Murray as pastor. Judith never repented of her choice to accept the doctrine of universal salvation. She published a Universalist catechism in 1782, defended the faith in public writings, and subtly infused her other publications with Universalist ideas. And in 1788, a year after her first husband’s passing, she married John Murray himself.

Judith’s letters to John suggest that her acceptance of Universalism was based on her conviction that the faith was more “reasonable” and less “inconsistent” than Calvinism. It supported her belief in the ultimate equality of all mankind and importantly, womankind, since it posited that everyone, regardless of “sect, age, country, or even sex,” in her own words, belonged to “one grand, vast, and collected family of human nature.” The promise of universal salvation also helped Judith to cope with the uncertainties of life in the eighteenth century, where the austere doctrines of men like Samuel Hopkins and “Damnation” Murray did not provide much solace. Her letterbooks, poetry, and essays are filled with reports of deaths, sickness, and sorrow, coupled with her assurance that there would be a final restoration. In an essay entitled “Death of an Unbeliever,” for instance, she consoled an unbelieving dying friend with the promise of universal salvation: “The record which God hath given of himself, proclaims the universality of his love, and of his power, the restitution of all things, the wiping of every tear from every eye.” Judith noted that “those individuals who were, upon this occasion, assembled in the chambers of death, continued silent, they tacitly consented that the Heretic, if in her power, should soothe the agonized mind of their departing friend, nay their countenances were descriptive of approbation.” To Judith, even these non-Universalists seemed to concede the comforting power of the “heretical” idea that all might be saved.

 

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