Middleton Murry on Religion Life

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Middleton Murry on Religion


John Middleton Murry (1889-1957) was a writer and literary critic, who (for better or worse) is best known these days as the husband of New Zealand born writer Katherine Mansfield, and controversial curator of her papers after her death in 1923. However in his day Murry was a prominent commentator on a range of contemporary issues, most especially the state of religion and English Christianity. He was on the Anglican fringe, his doctrinal views verging on the unorthodox. As his friend the leading Anglican historian and divine Alec Vidler said of him: “he was one of that numerous and uncoordinated class that finds it impossible honestly to accept the official claims made by the Christian Church and for Christian dogma, but nonetheless retains… the conviction that in the spiritual experience of Jesus and in the spiritual movement that stems from him there lies the clue to what human history and human experience ought to be”.1

Murry was born in Peckham, London, the son of a clerk in Inland Revenue, a man who was a great advocate of education, being a self-taught man himself. Murry studied hard and eventually won a scholarship to study classics at Oxford, getting second class honours in 1912. He went on to found and edit modernist journals, being passionately interested in literature and cultural movements. This was a very exciting cultural time in Europe and Britain, of course, with such movements as Impressionism in painting, and avant-garde philosophy, poetry, novels, Marxist and Freudian theory, and religious ideas such as Catholic and Anglican Modernism. The Bloomsbury Group were active in England, and Murry became close friends with D. H. Lawrence for a time.

Murry encouraged innovative writers, such as Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot (great poet and apostle of religious symbolism and myth2), and Virginia Woolf. Murry went on to write over forty books and pamphlets. They include a biography of Dostoevsky (1916) and a popular text on English style (1922). As the Oxford DNB says, Murry had an established English reputation by the early 1920s, even though he is now largely forgotten: “His controversial, often mystical, criticism and journalism returned obsessively to the ideas of the sanctity of art and the need for a new order of pseudo-religious brotherhood, although the forms these ideas took changed through his life. He designed his journal, The Adelphi, which he edited from 1923 to 1948, specifically to promote his often fluctuating, but always passionately held principles” [ODNB].

He went on to write books on Keats and Shakespeare, Blake, Swift and Lawrence, and an acclaimed autobiography Between Two Worlds (1935). During the 1930s he became an advocate of socialist and pacifist causes. In the 1940s he started a Christian commune on a farm in Norfolk. As Alec Vidler observed, he was strongly committed to this ideal of spiritual rural living. He always believed that rural living was more conducive to a genuine religious spirit than the hectic and ugly life of cities (the “evil” of cities was an enduring theme in much English commentary from the 1890s on). But the commune idea also fitted into the broader context of Murry’s philosophy. As Vidler acutely explained, Murry was a seeker after a way of life that would enable people to find the deepest experience of which they were capable. He thus engaged with every available social philosophy. Vidler sees three aims in Murry’s quest: (1) to achieve a free society that could assimilate new economic, political and technological developments “and triumph over the natural drift of the modern State to a power-driven collectivism”; (2)as a corollary, there needed to be “a greatly heightened consciousness of personal responsibility throughout the body politic, in local communities as well as centres of power”; (3) he saw that he himself must show the way by drawing together “a small community of persons who shared his ideals and would try them out in a common enterprise…farming. He reckoned that this thoroughly down-to-earth way of testing their social beliefs would teach them a great deal of living and working together and about the roots of democracy. The members of the community were, to begin with, pacifists, but the experiment continued after Murry ceased to be a pacifist”. The community was not professedly Christian, but for Murry himself it was “an attempt to discover what Christianity really means today in terms of individual and corporate experience”. Vidler often visited the farm. Murry would give “lay sermons” to those assembled for worship on Sunday evenings. In these sessions, and in other retreats that they both attended over more than ten years, discussing the fundamental questions of human existence, Vidler “was always deeply moved by Murry’s contributions to our discussions, above all by his profound sensitivity and sincerity and integrity”3. He later collected Murry’s farm addresses as Not As The Scribes: Lay Sermons (1959). The commune eventually folded, but as ODNB wryly comments: “the farm was a success, and Murry ended his life as a well-off gentleman farmer, [and] a Conservative voter”. You may or may not think this a good thing.

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