The Buddhist on a Bicycle or How I Became a Universalist Without Knowing It
by John L. Saxon
Once upon a time, long, long ago … well, about forty years ago … there was a teenaged boy named John who lived with his mother and father, his two younger brothers, and his two younger sisters in a small town in south Alabama. John’s family was Methodist, so John was a Methodist, too.
John attended Sunday School every Sunday (or almost every Sunday), stopped by the church on Friday afternoon to fold the order of service, participated in the Methodist Youth Fellowship, and sang in the youth choir at the Sunday night worship service. He earned the God and Country medal as a Boy Scout. He believed in God, Jesus, heaven, and hell. His grandmother told him that she hoped he’d be a Methodist minister when he grew up.
One summer evening when John was fourteen or fifteen years old, his father told the family that a young Japanese man named Hiro was going to eat dinner and spend the night with them the next day. Hiro was a nineteen or twenty-year-old student at a university in Japan and was riding his bicycle across the United States during his summer vacation. He had just ridden from New Orleans to Mobile, where he stayed overnight with a friend of John’s father. The friend called John’s father and asked if Hiro could stay with John’s family when Hiro rode his bike from Mobile to Greenville. John’s father said “sure.”
Hiro was a nice young man. He smiled and was very polite. He spoke English well enough to tell us about his bike ride across the United States, his studies at the university, his family, and life in Japan. When Hiro left the next morning on the next leg of his cycling journey, he thanked John’s mother and father for their hospitality and gave them a small present—two tiny statues of the Buddha and Kuan Yen, the Bodhisatva of Compassion.
Shortly after Hiro left, John’s mother told John that she was concerned that she had not told Hiro about Jesus. The problem, of course, was that Hiro was a Buddhist, not a Christian, and because Hiro was a Buddhist, and not a Christian, he was not saved and would not go to heaven when he died.
John was concerned, too, but he didn’t say anything to his mother. John understood that God sent bad people to hell when they died, but Hiro didn’t seem like a bad person. He seemed to be very nice, polite, kind, smart, strong, and funny. And it wasn’t Hiro’s fault that he was a Buddhist or that John’s mother didn’t tell him about Jesus so he could accept Jesus as his savior. How could a loving God send Hiro to hell? It just didn’t make sense.
John remained a member of the Methodist Church until he went away to college, but his views of God and religion became more and more unlike those of his parents, his family, and his friends.
Twenty years later, having moved from Christianity, to agnosticism, existentialism, secularism, and humanism, John joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation and finally realized that he had become a Universalist without knowing it twenty years earlier after a Buddhist on a bicycle spent the night in his family’s home.
As a young boy in rural, south Alabama who had never even heard of Universalism, John had understood that a loving God could not condemn a nice, polite Japanese student to hell just because he was a Buddhist and did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God.
So John never became a Methodist minister as his grandmother hoped he would. But he is studying to become a Unitarian Universalist minister and is standing here in front of you today holding the small statues of the Buddha and Kuan Yen that Hiro gave to his parents—to my parents—forty years ago.
I understand now that my “conversion” from orthodox Christianity to Universalism as a fourteen-year old boy was not that different from the conversion experiences of the first Universalists in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a matter of both the head and the heart—a feeling that a good and loving God simply would not condemn Hiro simply because he was a Buddhist and an inability to comprehend how anything as arbitrary as religious belief could have such eternal consequences.
I have to confess, though, that my Universalism is not at all the same as that professed by George de Benneville, John Murray, Hosea Ballou, or the American Universalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries—and I suspect that your Universalism isn’t, either.
In 1793, Universalism was virtually unknown in America. But over the next fifty years, Universalism spread like wild fire among Christians who simply could not accept orthodox Calvinism’s doctrines of predestination, election, and limited salvation. By 1845, Universalists claimed in 1845 to have 853 churches, 512 ministers, and 600,000 members (though they were probably exaggerating a bit with respect to church membership).
1845, however, was, at least in terms of numbers, the “high water” mark for Universalism. Universalism continued to grow in absolute numbers during the mid- and late-1800s, but its growth didn’t keep pace with that of the U.S. population or other religious denominations. The numbers tell a grim story: in 1896 there were 811 Universalist churches and a total membership of about 65,000. By 1917, membership had declined to just over 50,000 (and, again, the figure may be exaggerated). And by the time of the merger with the Unitarians in 1961, there were fewer than 300 Universalist churches with a total membership of less than 37,000.
So what happened to Universalism? Why aren’t there Universalist churches all over eastern North Carolina? Why do Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and Buddhists outnumber Universalists (and Unitarians) in North Carolina and the United States?
In his book, The Larger Faith, UU minister and historian Charles Howe suggests that Universalism’s decline “was caused by three factors, one sociological, one organizational, and one theological. Sociologically, the migration of Americans to the cities and to the West left many of the rural or village churches without the critical mass to sustain them. Organizationally, the denomination remained crippled by its distrust of centralized power and the resulting difficulty in mounting unified action.” Most importantly, though, Universalism’s decline seems to be related most closely with the loss (or theft) of its essential message and its struggle to articulate a new identity.
Calvinism, with its doctrines of inherent human depravity, salvation for the chosen or true believers, and eternal damnation for most of humanity, is still alive and well in many parts of rural North Carolina. But even the Presbyterians don’t talk too much about predestination anymore. In fact, by the last half of the 19th century, most of the mainline Protestant churches had abandoned the most extreme doctrines of Calvinism and held out the possibility that salvation was not limited and predetermined but freely available to anyone who possessed her faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. That took the hard edge off of Calvinism for most Americans and undoubtedly stole much of the appeal of Universalism’s doctrine of universal salvation, even though the salvation offered by orthodox Christianity was not truly universal.
Perhaps more importantly, though, by 1900 the focus of many, if not most, Americans and much of American religion had shifted from the hereafter to the here and now. Salvation, universal or otherwise, and life after death took a back seat to life before death.