Rediscovering Our Inner Universalist
Continued 2 of 5
The beauty of this foundation myth is that it is essentially true in its details. But it is not the whole story. The German Anabaptists who settled in Pennsylvania were already well disposed to universalism. The brilliant young Dr. George de Benneville had been preaching and teaching universalism around Bucks county Pennsylvania and surrounding areas since 1741. Although he established a chapel in his home, he did not attempt to establish a separate denomination, but preached to the Dunkers, Mennonites, Universal Baptists, and some Quakers receptive to his message. He arranged for the publication of a German language Bible with passages supporting universal salvation highlighted in 1743. In a career that spanned decades he influenced many including members of the semi-monastic sect called the Ephrata Society in NewJersey who in turn introduced universal salvation to English speaking Baptists like Thomas Potter. De Bennville’s followers in Philadelphia, particularly a young preacher named Elhanan Winchester, founded a Universal Baptist church there in 1786, the first church in the country to take the name “Universalist.” This church would become the spiritual home of the Revolutionary leader Dr. Benjamin Rush and would latter offer the English Unitarian preacher/scientist Joseph Priestly his first American pulpit.
Meanwhile, in the frontier counties of western Massachusetts, Vermont and the Hampshire Grants, a group of primitive Baptists were independently arriving at a theology of universal salvation. Caleb Rich struggled with Calvinist predestination. Despite efforts to restrain himself and remain orthodox, he gradually came to believe that Christ had redeemed all souls. Denied fellowship by the Baptists, he and his extended family began to preach on their own. In 1774 he established his first fellowship at Warrick, the first openly universalist society in America pre-dating both Murray’s Gloucester Church and the Philadelphia congregation. This brand of Universalism was rougher around the edges than Murray’s carefully reasoned intellectual approach. It was firmly in the Evangelical tradition and appealed to struggling pioneer farmers, small tradesmen and eventually the emerging working class. It was visceral and emotional—and highly appealing. It spread rapidly via circuit riding missionaries throughout Western New England and into upstate New York.
Soon Caleb Rich and his associates and John Murray became aware of each other. Despite differences in social class, style and nuances of theology, they recognized a kinship. In 1793, with congregations scattered over New England and outposts in Pennsylvania, Virginia and points south to the Carolinas, Murray, Rich and his associates joined by Elhanan Winchester, met in Oxford, Massachusetts to found New England Universalist Convention. Regional conventions in Pennsylvania, Upstate New York and other areas soon followed. Universalism was off and running as a distinct religious movement.
Even in its infancy the upstart sect made waves. From the beginning John Murray and his Gloucester congregation objected to paying taxes to support the local Standing Order church. This battle for separation of church and state would continue into the 19th Century pitting the Universalists and other dissenters against the tax supported established congregations, which after 1820 mostly aligned themselves with the new Unitarians. It was a fight the Universalists won at long last when Massachusetts finally ended tax payer support of parishes in the 1830’s—the last state to do so.
The Universalists, driven by a fervor to share the good news spread rapidly. Often through inter-connected extended families they pushed deep into New York State, west and south. Their self-taught preachers competed with Baptists, Methodists, and the more conventional Presbyterians leaving the Unitarians, Congregationalists, and Anglicans with their highly educated clergy and comfortable middle to upper class congregations far behind. Preachers often
debated orthodox ministers and were famous for their ability to turn Biblical passages to their advantage. In the era of revivalism sweeping the new nation following the Revolutionary War, the Universalists stood in stark contrast to the usual hell fire and damnation and grew at a pace that outstripped their abilities to settle ministers or establish permanent congregations. They were aided by an active tract ministry and a plethora of local and national periodicals. In these pages Universalism grew and evolved.
The Rellian universalism of John Murray had accepted the Calvinist idea of pre-destination believing that through Christ the predestined fate of all souls was eventual reconciliation with God after a period of punishment for sins. Elhahan Winchester in his book DIALOGUES ON UNIVERSAL SALVATION advanced a different argument, one which also resonated with the frontier preachers. He rejected both Calvinist pre-destination and original sin arguing instead for a loving God, who like a Father forgave the excesses of his wayward Children. In return, he argued that grateful people should strive to make their lives worthy of such a generous and forgiving Lord by striving to model their behavior on the example of Jesus himself.
Hosea Ballou, who as a very young minister had been present at the founding Conference, also dissented from Murray’s view. He had been influenced not only by Winchester, who had ordained him, but by the radical Deism of Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allan, who declared that “Reason was the only oracle of man.” Ballou kept Winchester’s flame alive after the formers early death in 1797 radicalizing it even more with Allan’s rationalism.
Conflicts were sure to arise. The young Ballou was invited to preach to Murray’s congregation while the old man was on one of his evangelical tours. After giving his views of universalism, Murray’s formidable wife, Judith Sargent Murray, arose, announced, “The doctrine preached here is not the one usually heard from this pulpit,” and brought the service to a premature end.
Murray continued to be revered as a founder, but his views were rapidly fading from general acceptance. In 1803, meeting at Winchester, New Hampshire the Convention adopted a three point Profession of Faith as the basic doctrine of the church. In general it reflected Murray’s concern for scriptural primacy, and support of the Trinity. But it was loose enough in its explanation of universal salvation, “…there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness,” to accommodate both Murray’s view in temporary punishment and Ballou’s belief that there would be no punishment after death. Despite reluctance of some delegates to require any binding creed, it continued to serve, changed very little through the coming century.
In the early years of the 19th Century, Ballou, articulate and charismatic, emerged as the acknowledged leader of Universalism. In 1805 he published his famous A TREATISE ON ATONEMENT. It represented a dramatic breakthrough in religious imagination. In it he argued that God would not have endowed humanity with the ability to reason if he did not trust us to use that gift and that he would not make any “revelation” at odds with reason. In his view Jesus was not a redeemer of damned sinners, but rather the messenger sent to reveal God’s love. Christ suffered not because of men, but for them and that God need not be reconciled to humanity rather that humans need to be reconciled to God. God’s power and love were infinite and it was impossible for men to frustrate that power and love. This stood Calvinism on its head. Ballou also rejected the Trinity as irrational. He could hardly have been more radical, yet his ideas resonated across the nation.