Thomas Potter Story

It could be argued that nowhere in Universalist history are we given such a story of faith as that of Thomas Potter, an illiterate farmer who built a chapel in l760 in the New Jersey woods for a Universalist preacher. Although we say we don’t believe in miracles, the meeting of Rev. John Murray, fleeing England to lose himself in the new world, and Potter, sure that God had sent this preacher of Universalism to give a sermon in his chapel, is about as close to a “miracle” as any in the Bible. I might use the word “synchronicity” to describe this meeting. (“Synchronicity” was first coined by Carl Jung to describe meaningful events that did not seem to follow the laws of cause and effect). Who was Thomas Potter and why was he a Universalist many years before the “parent of American Universalism,” Rev. John Murray, arrived on his doorstep from England, by accident or Providence, depending on your theological point of view?


We know something about Potter from what he said to John Murray, as reported in Murray’s autobiography. (For more on this, see the displays in the Heritage Room, and “The Story of Thomas Potter and John Murray.” What we know about Potter from Universalist historians, chiefly Tufts University professor Russell E. Miller, is that he was an unlettered mystic who had carved an estate out of the pine wilderness of New Jersey and built a meeting house for itinerant preachers. Miller suggests that Potter was a fourth-generation Quaker who became affiliated with the Baptists after establishing himself in what is now Ocean County, NJ, the current site of Murray Grove Retreat and Conference Center. Among the Baptists with whom Potter associated, were a group called the Rogerines, or Quaker Baptists, followers of one John Rogers of Rhode Island.


This sect held to the view of Universal salvation, or, that in the end of time, all creation would be restored or “saved.” It is highly probable, too, that this Quaker/Baptist sect had conversed with kindred Universalist spirits in the Ephrata Cloister of Pennsylvania, a group with whom another early proponent of Universalism, Dr. George de Benneville (l703-l793) had many conversations. The interesting proposal to make, therefore, might be that Rev. John Murray, honored as the “parent of Universalism in America,” was more a family member than an originator, and the family with German, not English roots–Pietists with a conviction of Universalism, settlers from Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

As our research continues, some new light is being thrown on this earliest of Universalist believers. Thomas Potter was born December l8, l689 in Monmouth, New Jersey. His parents were Ephraim Potter and Sarah Brown, from whom he inherited the land. (The whole area initially had been part of the land purchased by Quaker William Penn from Native Americans). Potter probably had contact in 1744 with missionaries from the Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania, Universalists themselves, and founded by a German Baptist named Conrad Beissel. Although no references have been found yet to connect Potter with de Benneville, we do know that de Benneville went on missionary journeys with the people from the Cloister, and it would not be surprising had he gone and visited Potter. Talk about synchronicities!

It seems Potter was strongly influenced by both Baptists and Quakers. The original meetinghouse, Murray reports, was built very much like a Quaker meetinghouse–pews and no high pulpit, but one of crude lumber and lower, closer to the congregants. The chapel was left to John Murray after Potter died; the will, dated May 11, 1777, stipulates that the church should be open to all denominations for the worship of God. In l809 the lot was sold to Methodists for $120. In l84l, a new chapel was built for $703.70 and had a circuit-riding Methodist minister for services. (Interesting, too, because we know that John Murray was influenced by the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley).


Some of the words Murray uses to describe Potter are ones worth pondering today as we wonder what remains of the Universalist faith we have inherited, but often forgotten:

“He had unbounded benevolence,
was a friend to strangers,
and a feeling, faithful man
whose hospitable doors were open to everyone
and whose heart was devoted to God.”

This article was written by Rev. Dr. John C. Morgan, a writer whose book on pietist Universalism, The Devotional Heart, was published by Skinner House Books. John lives with his family in Pennsylvania.