To the Convention of the Universal Church
[c.9 Aug. 1790]
I thank you cordially for the congratulations which you offer on my appointment to the office I have the honor to hold in the government of the United States.1
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 particularly evinced by your society. It is moreover my earnest desire, that all the members of every association or community, throughout the United States, may make such use of the auspicious years of Peace, liberty and free enquiry, with which they are now favored, as they shall hereafter find occasion to rejoice for having done.
With great satisfaction I embrace this opportunity to express my acknowledgements for the interest my affectionate fellow-citizens have taken in my recovery from a late dangerous indisposition,2 and I assure you, Gentlemen, that in mentioning my obligations for the effusions of your benevolent wishes on my behalf, I feel animated with new zeal, that my conduct may ever be worthy of your favorable opinion, as well as such as shall in every respect best comport with the character of an intelligent and accountable Being.
In September 1789 a group of New Jersey and Philadelphia believers in the doctrine of universal salvation met in Philadelphia and sent out a circular letter inviting those of like faith to confer the following May at the meetinghouse of Elhanan Winchester’s Society of Universal Baptists in that city. From 25 May to 8 June 1790, seven preachers and ten laymen, from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts, deliberated and drew up a “Rule of Faith” and a “plan of Church Government,” both of which they submitted to the eminent Universalist physician Benjamin Rush for his opinion. The convention also drafted an address to GW before adjourning to the following spring (see Miller, Larger Hope, description begins Russell E. Miller. The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770–1870. Boston, 1979. description ends 76–77).
GW first became acquainted with English-born John Murray (1741–1815), the founder of Universalism in America and the presenter of the Philadelphia Convention’s 1790 address, in September 1775, when the Gloucester, Mass., preacher served as chaplain to Rhode Island regiments under Gen. Nathanael Greene (see General Orders, 17 Sept. 1775, n.1). In October 1788 Murray married Judith Sargent Stevens (1751–1820), widow of Capt. John Stevens of Gloucester and sister of Winthrop Sargent. Judith Murray published verses and essays in various literary magazines and wrote at least two plays that were performed in Boston in the 1790s.
Judith Murray accompanied her husband to Philadelphia in the spring of 1790, and the couple stayed several days in New York on their homeward journey. Mrs. Murray reported that her husband, “as the Minister of the Universal Gospel, presented the Address of the Churches, professing Universalism, to the President of the United States, and was most graciously received” on 9 Aug. 1790. “While Mr. Murray waited at the President’s, Mrs. Washington dispatched a message from her apartment, importing that she would be pleased with a visit from Mrs. Murray, and that if Mrs. Murray preferred enjoyment to ceremony, she need not wait for a levee day, for that she, Mrs. Washington, would certainly be at home whenever it would suit Mrs. Murray’s convenience. His Excellency also deigned to inquire if I now enjoyed my health.” The following evening the couple attended for two hours the first lady’s traditional Tuesday levee at the presidential mansion on Broadway, at which GW requested Mrs. Murray “to be seated, and taking a place by my side, proceeded with peculiar affability to question me relative to my health, to Philadelphia, to my brother, &c., &c.” On 12 Aug. 1790 Martha Washington, accompanied by Mrs. Mary Long Lear, surprised Judith Murray with an unannounced hour-long visit, during which their conversation was “so interested and animated . . . that a bystander would have lost all idea of the distance between us, and would hardly have supposed that we met but for the second time” (Eddy, “Judith Murray,” description begins Richard Eddy. “Mrs. Judith Murray.” Universalist Quarterly and General Review, n.s., 18 (1881): 194–213; 19 (1882): 140–51. description ends 18:195–201, 206, 208, 212–13, 19:143, 144, 145, 146, 148). In 1797 GW and Martha Washington subscribed to Judith Murray’s collected works, published the following year in Boston as The Gleaner. A Miscellaneous Production. In Three Volumes. By Constantia (Evans, American Bibliography, description begins Charles Evans et al. American Bibliography and Supplement. 16 vols. Chicago, Worcester, Mass., and Charlottesville, Va., 1903–71. description ends 12:130).
1. The undated congratulatory address to the president, “signed in behalf and by order of the Convention,” by John Murray and William Eugene Imlay of Upper Freehold, N.J., reads: “Permit us in the Name of the Society whom we represent, to concur in the numerous Congratulations which have been Offered to you since your Accession in the Gover’ment of the United States.
“For an Account of our Principles we beg leave to refer you to the Pamphlet which we have now the Honor to put into your hands. In this publication it will appear that the peculiar Doctrine which we hold, is not less Friendly to the Order and happiness of Society, than it is essential to the perfections of the Deity.
“It is a Singular circumstance in the History of this Doctrine, that it has been preached and defended in every age since the first promulgation of the Gospel, but we represent the first Society professing this Doctrine, that have formed themselves into an independent Church. Posterity will hardly fail of Connecting this memorable event, with the Auspicious years of Peace, Liberty and Free inquiry in the United States, which distinguish’d the administration of General Washington.
“We join thus publicly with our Affectionate fellow Citizens in thanks to Almighty God for the last of his numerous signal Acts of goodness to our Country in preserving your valuable life in a late dangerous indisposition, and we assure you Sir, that duty will not prompt us more than Affection to pray, that you may long Continue the Support and Ornament of our Country, and that you may hereafter fill a higher Station and enjoy the greater reward of being a King and Priest to our God” (DLC:GW; see also, Miller, Larger Hope, description begins Russell E. Miller. The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770–1870. Boston, 1979. description ends 30).
The publication that accompanied Murray and Imley’s address was most likely Articles of Faith, and Plan of Church Government, Composed and Adopted by the Churches Believing in the Salvation of All Men, Met in Philadelphia on the 25th of May, 1790. To Which Are Added, Sundry Recommendations, and a Circular Letter, Addressed to the Churches in the United States Believing the Same Doctrine (Philadelphia, 1790), which was also reprinted in contemporary newspapers, such as the Albany Register, 5 July 1790 (see Evans, American Bibliography, description begins Charles Evans et al. American Bibliography and Supplement. 16 vols. Chicago, Worcester, Mass., and Charlottesville, Va., 1903–71. description ends 8:97; Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, n.s., 6 , 28).
2. For GW’s near-fatal illness of May 1790 and his recovery the following month, see William Jackson to Clement Biddle, 12 May 1790, editorial note.