His beginnings were humble; he was born the son of an immigrant Scottish coal miner in the company town of Lonaconing, MD. But John Gardner Murray (1857-1929) rose to the heights of the Episcopal Church on the national level, becoming the first elected Presiding Bishop in 1926.
Until the church began electing a Presiding Bishop in 1925, the fifteen previous holders of that office had automatically assumed the position by being the most senior bishop in the House of Bishops, measured by their dates of consecration.
The following ‘Tribute From a Boyhood Friend,’ published in the Baltimore Sun on October 8, 1929 shortly after Bishop Murray’s death, gives a sense of the man’s character formation at the start of his remarkable journey.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE SUN:
Now that the high tributes have been paid to the great leader of the Protestant Episcopal Church, the writer wishes to give a word of remembrance of the boyhood and youth of John Gardner Murray.
One year his senior, I think of him as far back as a boy’s memory can go and always with satisfaction. Born in Lonaconing, he often reminded me after he became bishop that my father was the physician that brought him into the world.
For awhile I was a year ahead of him at school, remembering back to the eighth year. He was soon in the same classes, and as the school years passed, he grew larger and stronger, and to me as a lad handsomer than any boy I knew. I found myself as a youth of 15 holding this boy of 14 before me as an ideal character, for in the mining town where boys heard on every side that one must “sow his wild oats” he had clean thoughts, clean lips and a clean life.
The day comes before me when (15 years of age) I stood with John and two other schoolmates in the vestibule of the school and we talked of having “found God,” and what we should do concerning the church. I united with the church and soon went to Ohio to school. John did not join the Methodist church for some time, but as he put it to me later “I became a mule-driver in the Jackson mine.” Of the right sort, I am sure.
The lines of our lives did not often meet, but when they did he seemed the older, and the boyhood attraction was there for a higher life. This summer I found a letter that I had written to my father from my first charge as a minister fifty years ago, telling him of a long letter from John, giving his plans for his lifework, asking about Drew Theological Seminary, and whether as a local preacher he could get a small church to help pay expenses. He entered Drew that October, 1879, remaining two years when he was called West to help support the family on account of the death of his father.
It is well known what a successful businessman he was, both in Kansas and Alabama. He kept his connection with the Methodists until 1887, when he was confirmed in the Protestant Episcopal Church in Alabama.
When the call came in 1903 to become rector of St. Michael’s and All Angels’, Baltimore, he phoned me to come to the church and talk the matter over. He was in high spirits, for he had taken Mrs. Murray to “dear old Cony,” as he called it, that he might show her the small house where he was born. He ought not have been disappointed that no one recognized the tall, handsome man as he walked through the town, but what an ovation they gave him in the store when they found out that he was John Gardner Murray!
This letter is not to call attention to the great churchman, but to tell of the influence of one boy upon another boy, the unconscious influence of a pure minded schoolmate that wrought for nobler living.
Frank Gibson Porter
Baltimore, Oct. 8, 1929