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Judith Sargent Murray: Turn Around

Like most children growing up in the American colonies before the Revolutionary War, young Judith Sargent attended church with her family on Sundays. Because her family was wealthy, they had a prominent pew in the First Parish Church where Judith had to sit still, without fidgeting, for hours while the preacher thundered on and on about how evil all people were and how angry God was at them.

Many years later, in 1774, when Judith was grown up and married, her father invited John Murray to come be the minister of a new church. This church was a Universalist congregation, with different ideas about God. Murray preached about God as a loving, forgiving parent who would never condemn anyone to everlasting torment in Hell.

[Ask participants: What do you think it was like for Judith to hear John Murray's preaching that God is loving, after growing up thinking God was like an angry father who punishes people? How might the idea of a loving God change the way she felt about herself, about the times when she had made mistakes, or done something wrong or mean?]

Around the time John Murray began preaching Universalism in church, Judith agreed to take in her husband's two, orphaned nieces and raise them. Judith had always believed girls should learn, just as boys of the time did, whether there was a school for them to go to or not. So she set out to teach her nieces herself. As she began to teach them the three "R"s of reading, writing, and 'rithmetic, it became clear to Judith that the girls should also learn another "R"—religion. But Judith could find no books that taught Universalist ideas to children, only books which perpetuated the ideas about an angry God that Judith and her family had rejected.

Judith remembered listening in church when she was a child. She remembered the frightening sound of the preacher's voice, and the frightening things he had said about God's anger. So Judith set out to create her own religious education program, teaching her nieces about a loving, forgiving God who offered salvation to everyone.

When other families at the Universalist congregation learned what she was doing, they asked Judith to write down her teachings. Despite much self-doubt and concern that others might think her unqualified to write about religion, Judith published a catechism, which gave Universalist answers to the kinds of questions children ask about what God is and how we should live our lives. This important work became the first, ever Universalist religious education program, part of the heritage of love which has been passed down to us through the ages.

Writing this catechism was a turning point in Judith's life. By not only publishing it, but freely admitting that she, a woman, had written it, she established herself as an author in a time when it was uncommon for women to receive an education, let alone create educational materials. She went on to become an accomplished poet, essayist, and columnist.

Judith's first husband—the uncle of the little girls she raised—was killed in a war in the West Indies. After a while, Judith married the preacher, John Murray. As Judith Sargent Murray, the feminist author became her new husband's partner in spreading Universalism throughout New England.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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