Sunday, January 23, 2011

John Murray's Trial in Massachusetts:

I know we discussed the Dedham decision in Massachusetts which ultimately resulted in that state's religious establishment ending in 1833. Long story short: The Mass. Supreme Court, staffed by some Unitarians at that time, held Unitarians were a "Christian" sect eligible for state establishment aid which pissed the orthodox off so much so that they pushed for disestablishment.

But apparently, in 1783 the Universalist John Murray was involved in a similar set of court cases, where the "heterodox" side also won. Murray's and the Dedham decision could be viewed as bookend cases in favor of a heterodox, heretical "Christian" establishment in Founding era Mass. That state is, as I have come to learn, a "book end" on Founding era establishment policy. On one end we have "Virginia" represented by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson which not only disestablished but also (in Jefferson's 1786 Statute on Religious Liberty) separated church and state to some significant degree. On the other, Mass., which enacted a mild "Christian" establishment, consistent with "liberty of conscience."

As it turned out, however, such establishment encompassed heterodoxy and heresy, incompatible with what CS Lewis would later term "mere Christianity." The evangelical Baptists of that day embraced Jefferson and Madison's Virginia view that more separated church and state. After reading these cases I understand why.

Indeed, I wonder whether John Murray's cases influenced Madison's notes for his Remonstrance that cautioned against courts, with their recognized common law powers of filling in gaps in the law, deciding what constitutes "Christianity" eligible for state establishment aid.

What happened? Because John Murray preached Christianity, properly understood, taught ALL MEN will eventually be saved, more "orthodox" types argued he should be disqualified from receiving state establishment aid.

As Thomas Whittemore's 1830 book on Universalist history notes (paragraph breaks added for clarity):

At the close of the last chapter we left Mr. Murray in Gloucester, surrounded by a few steadfast friends, who had erected a Meeting House, and seemed to be enjoying a brief respite from persecution. ... At the time this society came into being, the Constitution of Massachusetts had not been drawn up, the United States were involved in the war of the Revolution, and there seems to have been no regularly prescribed method for the formation of societies distinct from the original parishes.

The Universalists in Gloucester therefore, considered themselves as constituted a christian society, by framing and subscribing articles of association, and by electing their religious teacher.

In the summer of 1780, the new constitution for the state went into effect, in which it was provided "that the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic, or religious societies, shall at all times have the exclusive right of electing their public teachers and of contracting with them for their support and maintenance.

"And all moneys paid by the subject to the support of public worship and of the public teachers aforesaid shall, if he require it, be uniformly applied to the support of the public teacher or teachers of his own religious sect or denomination, provided there be any on whose instructions he attends; otherwise it may be paid toward the support of the teacher or teachers of the parish or precinct in which the said moneys are raised.

"And every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably and as good subjects of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law; and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law."


Not withstanding the association of the Universalists in Gloucester into a religious society, they were taxed to defray the expenses of the old parish. A demand which seemed to them so unreasonable, they refused to satisfy; and thereupon their goods were seized by an officer and sold at auction. An action was instituted for the recovery of the property; and, after great solicitation, Mr. Murray consented that it should be brought in his name, he had hitherto refused any stipulated salary; but his friends being assured by their attornies that their case was hopeless, unless Mr. Murray became the plaintiff, he, at last, with great reluctance permitted it.

The question now to be decided was one of great importance; it was the first of the kind which had occurred under the new Constitution. Whether a society could be known in law, unless it were a body corporate, and what shall constitute a teacher of piety, morality and religion, were questions the decision of which affected not Universalists alone, but all other sects which dissented from the original parish.

The Universalists in Gloucester saw clearly the importance of the case to be decided, as it affected the interests of the various denominations in the commonwealth; and, advised by counsel of the highest standing, they moved forward with a firm and steady step.

VI. The case came on for trial in the year 1783. The ground taken by Mr. Murray's opponents was, that no teacher could have a right to recover the money paid by his sect, unless the person demanding it is the teacher of a town, parish, precinct, or a society legally organized, and vested with civil and corporate powers. It was furthermore objected, that Mr. Murray's followers had no name or appellation of Protestant Christians, and were not known in the country as a sect; and that Mr. Murray did not come within the meaning of the law, as he was not a teacher of piety, religion and morality. (Bold mine -> JR.)

"We beg leave to ask," said his opponents, "can a man who publicly discards the doctrine of God's moral government, of future rewards and punishments, urge, with a good face, or with any hope of success, the practice of morality? Can he consistently preach up morality, when he at the same time saps its very foundation, and cuts the nerves of Christian piety, by blending all characters together, and by making all equally holy, because equally united to Christ in his incarnation?"9

In reply the Universalists said, "whether he is a teacher of piety, religion and morality, cannot be determined from a revision of the motives he offers as to the rewards and the punishments which are to be bestowed or inflicted in another world. We believe that the question must be decided by the evidence of his urging the people to piety and morality, as the foundation of the greatest good which their natures are capable of, and as a compliance with the will of their Almighty Creator and Preserver, without going into an inquiry of his opinion respecting the quantity of punishment in a future state.

"That God will punish men for sin, in such a manner as will far overbalance the pleasures which can be derived from vice in this world, is so clearly pointed out in the gospel, that we are compelled to believe it; but whether the opinion of some learned and good men, who imagine that the wicked will be annihilated; or whether that of the learned Dr. Chauncy, Dr. Priestly, and many others, who believe that there is a temporary hell prepared for the ungodly, which is another state of probation, or any other opinion respecting that subject is best, every one must determine for himself. Neither statutes, penalties or rewards, can force, or allure, a man to consent to the truth of a proposition, without sufficient evidence received by a mind capable of examining, and applying of it.

"The idea, that it is necessary to the good order of civil government, that the teachers of religion should thunder out the doctrine of everlasting punishment, to deter men from atrocious crimes, which they may otherwise commit in secret, has long been hackneyed in the hands of men in power; but without any warrant from reason, or revelation for doing of it; for reason itself, without the aid of revelation, gave no intimation of a state of retribution; it was the Gospel which brought life, and immortality to light. God, in the civil constitution which he was pleased to form for the Jews, strongly prohibited murder, perjury, adultery, and many other crimes which men might then commit in secret; but in no one instance, gave an intimation, that the Jews should be punished in another world for their crimes in this. Had a threatening of that nature been necessary to the support of civil government, we might with propriety look for it there. It was not till the Christian Church was illegally weded to state policy, that men in power dared to hurl the thunders of the Most High at those who offended against government; and even then modesty forbade it, only as they arrogantly pretended to do it for the honor of God, and the advantage of religion."0

This case was kept in court for a long time. Trial succeeded trial, and review followed review, at Salem and at Ipswich, in 1783, 1784, and 1785. In the fall of the latter year a writ of review was again served, but the final decision was deferred until June, 1786, when a verdict was given in favor of Mr. Murray. The conduct of Judge Dana attracted particular notice. The view he had taken of the case in former trials was unfavorable to the plaintiff; but a revolution had passed in his mind. When he noticed that article in the Constitution which directs that monies may be applied by each person to teachers of his own religious sect, he said the whole cause depended upon the construction of that clause. He had before been of opinion it meant teachers of bodies corporate; he then thought otherwise; as the Constitution was meant for a liberal purpose, its construction should be of a most liberal kind; it meant, in this instance, teachers of any persuasion whatever, Jew or Mahometan.

It would be for the Jury to determine, if Mr. Murray was a teacher of piety, religion and morality; that matter, he said, had in his opinion been fully proved. The only question, therefore, before them was, if Mr. Murray came within the description of the Constitution, and had a right to require the money. "It is my opinion," he declared, "that Mr. Murray comes within the description of the Constitution, and has a right to require the money." Having been out all night, the jury returned a verdict in the morning in favor of the plaintiff.

VII. Thus protected in the enjoyment of their religious rights by the decision of the highest judicial tribunal in the commonwealth, and by the verdict of an impartial jury, the Universalists in Gloucester went fearlessly on; rejoicing that it fell to their lot to resist the beginnings of oppression under the new Constitution, and to test, at so early a period, its liberal provision in favor of the freest toleration. Additions were made to their number; Mr. Murray was their most constant preacher, and they were occasionally visited by other public laborers of kindred views; success, above their highest anticipations, crowned their exertions. ... (pp. 351-57.)

Very interesting. On the one hand we have folks arguing that those who deny eternal damnation are not "Protestant Christians," therefore, not "protected" under the state religion clause, and the other, a judge, apparently (I'm going to look this one up) who held Jews and Muslims are included under Massachusetts' mild religious establishment.

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