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The Miracle of the Little Fish Seller

There are a number of Universalists in the TPUUF community, which is only a narrow state away from Murray Grove, NJ. I often heard reference to Murray's arrival in 1770 but until I prepared to teach a course on the literature of Unitarianism, I had never read his autobiography. When I did so, I was sufficiently attracted to it that this sermon resulted.


The Miracle of the Little Fish Seller (9/23/01)


September 30 is the 231 anniversary of the day on which John Murray, whose is widely viewed as the founder of the Universalist Church in America, gave his first sermon here in the New World. It was truly a new world then, both for the residents of the 13 colonies and for Murray himself, open, expansive and generous in its promise.


That the sermon was given at all and that it was given near here in New Jersey was the result of an eight-fold miracle, which I shall call the miracle of the little fish seller.


We need the context before looking closely at that event and trying to understand its meaning, then and for us now.


John Murray was born on December 10, 1741 in Afton, England, the eldest of eight children born to an Episcopalian father and a Presbyterian mother


He was precocious: At the age of 2, when his oldest sister was baptized, John said "Amen" to the consecration prayer; an event widely taken as a sign of God's favor.


He could read the Bible by age 6 but inventively filled in portions he didn't understand.


His father was gloomy and hyper-religious, which was a contrast and a point of conflict with John who was described as having a sunny disposition and loving the outdoors. Perhaps he took more after his mother!


By age 10, his father's influence and the strict Calvinism of his church caused great suffering; he was in fear of eternal torment due to his supposed sins and shortcomings; however, his father said these feelings were a sign of his being one of the elect.


At this time, he and his father traveled to Ireland, to prepare for a family move. They settled near his grandmother's house in Cork. His father soon became converted to Methodism (although remaining in an Episcopal parish) and abjured the family to follow his direction. Soon after that, his father became seriously ill.


At age 12, the family was rendered destitute by a major fire; however no life was lost. By this time John had become an ardent Methodist, partly to escape his father's daily instruction and admonitions.


On his deathbed, John's father entrusted him with the religious guidance of the family. However, after a misunderstanding with a patron, a Mr. Little, who had attempted to adopt him, a scandal over a love letter to an older woman and with the family provided for through a small inheritance from his paternal grandmother, John decided to leave Ireland and go to London. He was probably in his early 20s by then.


In London, he became a general rakehell and ran up sufficient debts that he was more than once confined to debtor's prison. In his own words*:

“Of music and dancing I was very fond., and I delighted in convivial parties.  Vauxhall, the playhouses were charming.  I had never known life before.”


Firmly believing in providence, he made little effort to improve his ways and indeed, somebody, frequently a younger brother, always showed up to bail him out.

However, he was much impressed by Rev. James Whitfield, a charismatic Wesleyan preacher, who had played such a great role in the 1741 religious great awakening here in the colonies and his contact with Whitfield reawakened his interest in religion.

In 1750, before John had come to London, James Relly had organized the first Universalist congregation in London and in 1759 had published his pamphlet known by the short title "Union," in which he argued that Jesus' sufferings had so united him with mankind and been so extreme as to earn salvation for all, for all time.

John was initially repulsed by this doctrine, because it was somewhat counter to the Methodism of his time, but apparently underwent a conversion.

He subsequently went to hear Relly preach and was convinced by his argument for universal salvation (which was based centrally upon a portion of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:17-19)):

In Relly's words, as quoted by Murray:

“Either make the tree good and the fruit good, or the tree corrupt and the fruit corrupt; for every tree is known by its fruit; a good tree cannot bring forth corrupt fruit or a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”


Initially, since Murray had fallen so low in society and in his self-esteem, he was convinced of the corruption of God and, thus, of his own condemnation, since he was himself corrupt - but he quickly came to see and to argue and preach the positive, or Universal salvation message; that God was infinitely good and that all would be saved.

During this time, he met and married Eliza, most probably a love match, and they soon had a son. However, the boy died within the year and his wife died within a few weeks thereafter.

The spring of 1770 found John in the pit of despair and considering suicide, although his theology frowned upon it.


He resolved only to withdraw from public life; in his own words:

“I would infinitely have preferred entering that narrow house which is appointed to all living; but this I was not permitted to do; and I conceived to quit England and to retire to America was the next thing to be desired…My object was to close my life in solitude, in the most complete retirement.”


On biding farewell to his mother, in response to her heartfelt entreaties to remain in England, he said further:

“Do not, I entreat you, think of me as living.  I go to bury myself in the wilds of America.  No one shall hear from me, nor of me.  I have done with the world.”

On July 21st, 1770, he sailed from England in the brig "Hand-in Hand." John Murray's words again:

“I did not anticipate my fate upon my arrival. I had determined upon nothing, and yet was not distressed.  A perfect indifference pervaded my soul.”



And then, as it is common to read in fairy tales and parables, something wonderful and unexpected and unexplainable and unpredictable, a miracle, an eight-fold miracle, occurred. We have Murray's own account in Chapter 5 of his autobiography, written near the end of his life, completed by his widow Judith Sargent Murray and published in 1816.

The brig was headed for New York, since that port was believed to be open while Philadelphia, then the largest city in the colonies, was believed embargoed against English shipping, and the "Hand-in-Hand" was an English vessel. Some three days from expected landfall, the Hand-in-Hand encountered an outbound vessel and the master was informed that the reverse was true.

He redirected the brig's course to Philadelphia, arriving there in early September.Murray was disappointed, as he had intended to go to New York, where his only friend in the colonies lived. The master of the brig then proposed that Murray go ashore and take the daily stage to New York. He intended to do so, but found that the coach had already departed; the master then invited him back on board and the brig sailed for New York, which in fact was not embargoed.

A dense fog arose, a sloop was sighted and from it the master of the brig ascertained that he was within 7 miles of Sandy Hook, that point of land about which shipping turned to the west to approach New York harbor. In fact the advice given was seventy miles not seven, but there was a misunderstanding in the fog. So, when by dead reckoning, due to the continuing fog, the master soon turned to the west, the brig went quickly into the breakers and, passing over the bar, came to rest in a small cove, then known as Cranberry Inlet, on the east central coast of New Jersey.

The fog now dispersed, and they found that they were almost on the shore and in the company of the sloop from which the unclear directions had been gained. Murray, taking his Bible, went on board the sloop: It being smaller than the brig, its captain proposed to slip over the bar the following morning and sail for New York.

The following day saw the larger vessel, the "Hand-in-Hand," safely departed but the small sloop, with Murray aboard, had encountered head winds and lay becalmed within the Inlet. There proved to be no provisions on board, so Murray went ashore with the boatmen to get some supplies. While they stopped at a tavern, John Murray went for a solitary walk in the woods.In his words,

“I unexpectedly reached a small log-house, and saw a girl cleaning a fresh fish.  I requested that she would sell it to me.  ‘No, sir, you will find a very great plenty at the next house; we want this.' ‘The next house, what, this?' I said, pointing to one in the woods. ‘Oh, no, sir, that is a meeting-house.' A meeting-house in these woods? I was exceedingly surprised.  ‘You must pass the meeting house, sir; and a little further on you will see the other house, where you will find fish enough."



In that famous phrase, you know the rest of the story: Murray passed on and came to the other house, entered and was greeted by a tall man, rough in appearance and advanced in years, who said, in part: "Come, my friend, I have longed to see you; I have been expecting you for a long time."

The man was John Potter, an illiterate farmer, who had some years before built the meeting-house in what is now Murray Grove, certain that a minister would come who would preach of Jesus' goodness and of salvation of all. He had instantly recognized Murray as a preacher, and over the coming days, as the sloop lay becalmed by the adverse wind, pestered Murray to preach for him and his neighbors. Murray resisted but was finally worn down – as the wind was still unfavorable for departure, he said that if the Sabbath came and the wind had not turned, he would preach.

The appointed day came, Sunday September 30th, and Murray preached his first sermon in the New World – upon completion, a boatman entered, announcing that the wind had turned, that the wind was fair for departure.John Murray went on to an illustrious career, first as an itinerant preacher then as a settled minister, first in Gloucester and later in Boston, serving to focus and launch the Universalist Church in America. I could take the rest of my time to discuss interesting and enlightening episodes of his new public life, of Murray's new world in the New World, but I want to focus on the events of that September.In any traditional religious interpretation, they are truly miraculous.

Miracles are events, a string of events in this case, so improbable or violating understood physical law as to be taken as signs of divine intervention.Perhaps the key event is the refusal of the girl to sell her fish. The miracle of the little fish seller is, of course, that she refused to sell a fish to John Murray. One can imagine a whole ritual process centered upon this event: a holy week, the last week in September, sailing races, processions in the woods, a blessing of the winds, a girl passing through the aisles of the church refusing to sell fish, etc., etc. The Universalist church, as founded by Murray and advanced by Elhanan Winchester, Hosea Ballou and others, did not form itself about such a miraculous progression and annual celebration. And I wonder, why do we treasure this story, this heritage, and whether miracles have any place in our modern faith practice as UUs?

I do not know the Universalists' reasons why there is no Universalist Holy Week at the end of September and I have time today only to outline my personal answer to these queries. In brief, let me say this: I believe we are a church of miracles and that they are so commonplace that we ignore them, each of us, every day.

If I were to ask any of you, have any of you experienced miracles?, I have no doubt that some would scoff at the idea, some would be intrigued and some would recount odd co-incidences and, perhaps, even miraculous events, astonishing escapes, unexplained cures. While these may seem miraculous to some, I would like to suggest that we have ALL been ignoring the obvious.Let me begin by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, our transcendentalist forebear, on the subject of miracles. In his great sermon, the Divinity School Address of 1838, two decades after Murray's death, he rejected miracles as a basis for conversion and belief, saying "To aim to convert a man by miracles, is a profanation of the soul." Emerson then proceeded to a wholesale condemnation of the organized church and of pulpit preaching, railing against the "corpse cold Unitarianism" of his time. But earlier, in the same sermon, he observed:

“(T)he word Miracle as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster.  It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”


The blowing clover and the falling rain, the physical creation which Thomas Paine regarded as the one true, uncounterfitable revelation; these are the true miracles. The universe is a cold, bleak and empty place – but here, here, we live, and it's a miracle, a succession of miracles.

I cannot bring rain inside nor cause clover to grow here. However, consider this: an orange*: so simple and everyday we never see it clearly for what it is.

When I used to teach biomedical design, I began each course with exercises designed to heighten the students' powers of observation, appreciation and estimation, focused on a study of the orange, an everyday object. I asked the students: tell me all you know about the orange, all you can know, what is knowable both of its qualities and quantities. And they began with simple ideas: It's round, it's orange colored, it's a fruit. But they quickly progressed to considering the orange in all its complexity: its shape, far from a simple sphere, it's color, far from uniform, its beauty, its composition, it's uses.

I invite you now to regard the orange with your five senses:

To the eye, it is pleasing, to the nose, enticing, to the touch, intriguingly complex, to the ear, as I tear it, inviting and full of promise and

   to the taste, sweet, delicious and refreshing.


Now consider this: No man or woman or machine or other work of mankind made this orange, nor could they ever. As Paine remarked, the physical creation is uncounterfeitable.Yes, it's true, a seed was planted and a tree was tended. But it was earth and water, the sun and the wind, the annual cycle of the seasons, which caused it to grow and put forth buds, leaves, flowers and, finally, this wondrous fruit.The orange is here and we encounter it in our life, hardly noticing it nor taken account of its improbability. It is pretty, it smells good, it can nourish our spirit as well as our body.

And the world, I tell you, is full of oranges, and myriad other miracles; they are too commonplace, the commonplaces of our lives, in their extraordinary existence. Like us, they are all a part of the interdependent web of existence and like us, they are miraculous.John Murray trusted to providence and found, not the narrow house of the grave, but a new world. And so should we – if we can only be open to the miracle of the everyday, of the ordinary, of our time together here on this tiny blue and white speck that we call home. We have no need of the extraordinary, the inexplicable, for Emerson's Monster – we are both subject and object, part of the great miracle of being.

Our role is, as Ann Dillard implores us, to abet creation and be witness to it, so that creation does not play to an empty house.And this we have done and this will do, for we have founded our church on a reverence for great miracle of the interdependent web of existence. It is miraculous and miracles continue, all around us and within us, day by day, moment by moment.

Blessed be.

Closing Words

It is worth nothing that John Murray opposed child baptism, as lacking a scriptural basis (he belittled it as "Infant Sprinkling"), developed the tradition of child dedication, which we continue today, as well as introduced congregational response (talkback) into his services. We do not have the full text nor even the topic of his first sermon in this, his New World, but a purported fragment, reading #704 (Singing the Living Tradition) has been preserved.