When Mr. Murray met a “young lady”

Central to James Relly, John and Judith Murray, was the idea, that it is not our faith that makes Jesus our savior, but rather that our faith is a recognition of the fact that he is our savior even before we believe. In his memoirs John Murray tells the story of how he was first presented to this argument when he met a young lady in his church, who was influenced by Relly.

John Murray (1741-1815)

Central to James Relly, John and Judith Murray, was the idea, that it is not our faith that makes Jesus our savior, but rather that our faith is a recognition of the fact that he is our savior even (in some sense) before we believe. If he wasn’t, our unbelief would not make him a liar (1 John 5:10).

In his memoirs John Murray tells the story of how he was first presented to this argument when he met a young lady in George Whitefield’s congregation, of which he was a member. The young lady was clearly influenced by Relly.

“I recollect one instance in particular, which pierced me to the soul. A young lady, of irreproachable life, remarkable for piety, and highly respected by the tabernacle congregation and church, of which I was a devout member, had been ensnared; […] she was become a believer, a firm, and unwavering believer of universal redemption! […] The young lady received us with much kindness and condescension; while, as I glanced my eye upon her fine countenance, beaming with intelligence, mingled pity and contempt grew in my bosom. After the first ceremonies, we sat for some time silent; at length I drew up a heavy sigh, and uttered a pathetic sentiment, relative to the deplorable condition of those, who live, and die in unbelief; and I concluded a violent declamation, by pronouncing, with great earnestness, He that believeth not, shall be damned.

“And pray, Sir,” said the young lady, with great sweetness, “Pray, Sir, what is the unbeliever damned for not believing?”

What is he damned for not believing, Why, he is damned for not believing.

“But, my dear Sir, I asked what was that he did not believe, for which he was damned?”

Why, for not believing in Jesus Christ, to be sure.

“Do you mean to say, that unbelievers are damned for not believing there was such a person as Jesus Christ?”

No, I do not; a man may believe there was such a person, and yet be damned.

“What then, Sir, must he believe, in order to avoid damnation?”

Why he must believe that Jesus Christ is a complete Savior.

“Well, suppose he were to believe that Jesus Christ was the complete Savor of others, would this belief save him?”

No, he must believe that Christ is his complete Savior.”

“Why, Sir, is Jesus Christ the Savior of any unbelievers?”

No, madam.

“Why, then, should any unbeliever believe that Jesus Christ is his Savior, if he be not his Savior?”

I say, he is not the Savior of any one, until he believes.

“Then, if Jesus be not the Savior of the unbeliever until he believes, the unbeliever is called upon to believe a lie. It appears to me, Sir, that Jesus is the complete Savior of unbelievers; and the unbelievers are called upon to believe the truth; and that, by believing, they are saved, in their own apprehension, from all those dreadful fears, which are consequent upon a state of conscious condemnation.”

No, madam; you are dreadfully, I trust not fatally misled. Jesus never was, nor never will be, the Savior of any unbeliever.

“Do you think Jesus is you Savior, Sir?”

I hope he is.

“Were you always a believer, Sir?”

No, madam.

“Then you were once an unbeliever; that is, you once believed that Jesus Christ was not your Savior. Now, as you say, he never was, nor ever will be, the Saviour of any unbeliever; as you were once an unbeliever, he never can be your Savior.”

He never was my Savior till I believed.

“Did he never die for you till you believed, Sir?”

Here I was extremely embarrased, and most devoutly wished myself out of her habitation; I sighed bitterly, expressed deep commiseration for those deluded souls, who had nothing but head-knowledge; drew out my watch, discovered it was late; and, recollecting an engagement, observed it was time to take leave.

I was extremely mortified; the young lady observed my confusion, but was too generous to pursue her triumph. I arose to depart; the company arose; she urged us to tarry; addressed each of us in the language of kindness. Her countenance seemed to wear a resemblance of the Heaven which she contemplated; it was stamped by benignity; and when we bade her adieue, she enriched us by her good wishes.” (John Murray, The Life of Rev. John Murray (1833), p. 100ff)

The argument, which the young lady had most likely got from James Relly, reappears in Judith Sargent Murray’s catechism (written when her name was still Judith Sargent  Stevens) from 1782. Here we find the same argument in the answer to the question “Yet is there not a condemnation spoken of to those who believe not the efficacy of this great redemption?”

The text says, he that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned. Again, he that believeth not is condemned already. Thus is damnation and condemnation synonymous in scripture: now it is evident, that if I believe not that Jesus died for my sins, I am condemned, in that I make God a lyar! in not believing his record; which record declares, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his son. Moreover, if I look to myself, I must feel the sentence of death; nor can I be saved therefrom, ’till I look unto the Lamb of God, who taketh away my sin. Those who assert that this damnation consequent upon unbelief is eternal, forget that every believer was once an unbeliever: and further, that in that day when they shall be all caught up to meet the Lord in the Heavens, they shall all see, and seeing, they shall with Thomas, believe; nor shall a son or daughter of Adam, be then left in ignorance.”

The phrase that “every believer was once an unbeliever”  can also be found in the 16th century anabaptist Hans Denck. I’ll have to look further into possible connections.