Universalist ministers were often circuit riders. Hosea Ballou was one of these. There is a story told about him riding the circuit in New England, while riding over Hampshire’s craggy hills with a Baptist preacher one afternoon. Ballou told him that he used to be a Baptist as well, but that now he was a Universalist and went on to tell of the universal salvation to all by a loving God. The Baptist preacher was horrified to hear about universal salvation, especially about the part that all would be saved by a loving God, and that he believed that there was no hell. How would people be good if there was not a threat of eternal damnation? They argued theology as they rode. The Baptist preacher looked over and finally said in exasperation:
'Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse, ride away, and I'd still go to heaven.'
Hosea looked over at him and said quietly, ‘If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.’
Later, when Ballou had an established congregation, an elderly woman inquired of him whether he had the habit of asking his parishioners, 'O, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?' Ballou's response was typical fir its laconic wit. 'No, Madam,' he said, 'That class do not attend my church.' That's how you kept people in line, you see, by threatening them with the fires of hell! Universalists were so named because they taught the concept of Universal Salvation which actually was an old doctrine of early Christianity, but one that Augustine or actually the corresponding Pope and council had declared heretical in the 4th century, inventing the idea instead of original sin, since neither Jesus nor scripture teaches it! Like Unitarianism, Universalism would lean heavily on scripture rather than on tradition and doctrine. Unlike Unitarianism, Universalism would hold to statements of faith although they would be constantly updated and open to interpretation. But early Universalists were usually circuit riders, more like revivalists, services were often in tents or barns, and were very emotional with conversions a common occurrence, taking place among rural folk, usually not well educated. While the Unitarians evolved out of the 'Standing order' Congregationalists, the Universalist preachers more often came out of the Methodist or Baptist churches! They believed in spreading the faith in a missionary zeal! Perhaps it is why they grew so fast!
In 1790, the Universalists met in convention in Philadelphia and drew up a statement of faith, written by another layperson, Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the declaration of Independence and the ‘Father of American Psychiatry. The first statement was very antislavery, but it was a long affair, and was quickly superseded by another profession of faith, this time in Winchester, NH in 1803, and which would stand for close to a century.
The Winchester Profession: (obviously not in inclusive language)
"We believe that the holy scriptures of the old and new testament contain a revelation of the character of God and of the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind. We believe that 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. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works, for these things are profitable under men." (Elmo Robinson, 131-132) Like in Unitarianism, these statements were not so much creeds as guides, and included what was called a 'liberty clause.' Another 'brother of Universalism' was Hosea Ballou who lived from
1771 -1852 and was originally a Baptist minister and full-time farmer, but who saw the Universalist light; indeed he was also Unitarian in his view. He rejected certain Christian doctrines as both unscriptural and irrational: the Trinity, The Fall of Man, The depravity of human race, the Governmental theory of Atonement, Salvation by Faith Alone, Everlasting punishment….’ He spoke of a liberal and universal faith: ‘Our platform of faith is general and allows individuals an extensive latitude to think freely, investigate minutely, and to adopt the particular views which best comport with the honest convictions of the mind, and fearlessly to avow and defend the same….’
One of my favorite historical characters, was Abner Kneeland, a 19th century Universalist preacher who had the honor in 1834 to be the last person in the US to be convicted of Blasphemy. He served 60 days in a Massachusetts jail, then moved to Salubria, Iowa, and founded a Utopian Community. Listen to his words when Fifty years later he would write this credo:
‘I believe… that the whole universe is NATURE … that God & Nature, so far as we can attach any rational idea to either, are perfectly synonymous terms…I believe that it is in God that we live, move, and have our being, and that the whole duty of humanity consists in living as long as we can and in promoting as much happiness as we can as long as we live.’
Indeed, Universalism was a liberating faith for those held captive by the fears of hell and the possibility that they might not be part of the elect that Calvinism taught. Like Unitarianism in this regard, both groups theologically were similar, except that Universalism never seemed to splinter the way Unitarians did and remained within Christian traditions though not exactly Trinitarian. Their strong sense of morality stemmed from their belief in the teachings of Jesus and further that they had a duty to be moral because there was no everlasting hell. That's why Ballou's statement to the Baptist minister that if you were Universalist, you wouldn't even think about doing something evil just because you feared punishment, because that would mean that you weren't truly good, wouldn't it.?
The ‘Father of Universalism’ was John Murray, an Englishman who had been a Methodist preacher in England until he was converted to the idea of universalism by another Methodist preacher named James Relly. Because Universalism was considered heresy, he was expelled from the Methodist clergy and fell upon hard times. His wife and child grew ill and he could not pay for his rising debts. He was arrested and thrown in Debtor’s prison; his wife and child died while he was there. He was released and decided to quit ministry and go to America, sailing to this country on a ship aptly called “Hand in Hand” in 1770.
George deBenneville, also called Father of Universalism'-1703-1793 immigrated to Philadelphia in what's known today as the Germantown section in 1741 -'The promise of Universal Christianity is that all men would be finally redeemed by the love of God.' Unlike rigid puritanical New England, Pennsylvania was founded by the Quaker, William Penn, to be a religiously tolerant place. Universalists tended to be humble, rural folk, often farmers. They tended to be of a lower socioeconomic class than the Unitarians. Yet that is part myth or stereotype for Universalism also had more churches in most large cities than Unitarians did, and in the late 1800's Universalists had at least 4 times the number of members. They weren't always poor,either, but counted many wealthy businessmen among their ranks, like the man who started the Quaker Oats Company, in Akron by the way. Ferdinand Schumaker got rich selling oatmeal to the Union Army to the Union Army during the Civil War. When Second Universalist CHurch, now the Akron UU Church, was built across from Quaker Oats factory, a Temperance hall also built. The factory grounds are now a shopping mall, and Akron Hotel was the grain elevator. The Universalists were also active in the temperance movement!
. Yes, he should have called it Universalist Oats and we would have been much more well known, but it must have been hard to come up with a Universalist Logo like the picture of the Quaker that he eventually used. Bechtel College in Akron which would become University of Akron also founded by the Universalists.
Israel Washburn, anti slavery lawyer, war governor of Maine, a trustee of Tufts college founded by Universalists, and oh, yes, founder of the Republican Party, also spoke at Centennial Celebration in 1870, said that not only was the Universalist church based upon God's unlimited love, but that it was 'universal in its scope and ultimate membership-it will embrace the world.' Talking about how John Murray had been a chaplain in the revolution etc. he concluded, 'our church has a right to be called the church of America,' The first woman minister to be ordained by a denomination in America in 1863 was Universalist minister and suffragette, Olympia Brown. She graduated from Antioch College in 1860 with much resistance from authorities, and was an active force in the 19th century women's suffrage movement as well Universalism. After her first two New England churches, she took over a declining church in Racine, Wisconsin, which now bears her name, and helped it prosper. Women ministers were not well accepted to say the least. She eventually gave up parish ministry to work full time for the women's movement and traveled extensively as a speaker and organizer, and finally lived to see women get the right to vote in 1920. In 1870, the newspaper, The Christian Register reported on the centennial celebration of Universalism : The Universalists have a number of female ministers, and most of them were present and proved themselves the peers of their brethren both in the pulpit and on the platform.' Universalist men and women were active in antislavery and abolitionist groups, penal and mental institutional reform, the abolishment of the death penalty, temperance, women's and African American rights, as well as being involved in many of the other reform movements of the 19th century and early 20th century. They founded 5 colleges and 20 secondary schools, so that their students would not be influenced by other churches' schools. The colleges were Tufts, St. Lawrence, Lombard, Smithson, and Buchtel. Tufts and St. Lawrence would both become current Universities. Before the merger they also housed Universalist seminaries-both seminaries were shut down after the merger. Lombard became part of the present UU seminary, Meadeville Lombard in Chicago. Buchtel College became University of Akron. In the late 1880's-Universalist women started the first National Organization of Church Women to be organized in US. Quillen Shinn was a Southern Universalist Circuit rider preacher who covered 30 to 40,000 miles over his lifetime by horseback in the latter part of the 19th century founding many churches and converting many souls. Arguing against the idea that Universalism is founded on negations, he wrote that it's 'affirmations express stronger faith than has professed by any other church on earth, includes all that is good and true in all religions ancient and modern, in all systems, in all philosophies, in all churches, in all worlds, and in all the universe.' Remembering that Universalism was strongly biblically based some thought Quinn knew the Bible by heart, because he argued from scripture not logic. And he didn't like the term, 'Liberal Christian,' which is how many Universalists were describing themselves, because he said, 'Liberal Christian, is a term I do not use. I despise it because it usually means one who believes more in some heathen philosopher than in Christ.'
Some Universalists were a little more conservative than others, one might say!
During the 1870 Centennial celebration, Dr. Edwin Chapin preached before 7000 in the tent Communion sermon- 'There is a deeper church that the Universalist, it is Christ's church; and remember that outside of all churches and creeds, there are thousands and hundreds of thousands, who have no fixed, definite views, who do not know what they believe. They know one thing. They believe one thing they believe in Christ.'
By the 1890’s, the Winchester Profession seemed out of date and had slowly been abandoned by most churches as a condition to join and so at the General Convention of 1897 a new statement of faith was written and approved:
"We believe in
The Universal Fatherhood of God;
The Spiritual Authority and Leadership of His Son, Jesus Christ;
The Trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a Revelation from God;
The certainty of Just Retribution for Sin;
The final Harmony of all Souls with God.”
And in 1935, the General Convention meeting in Washington ratified "The Washington Profession", as the humanist-theist controversy was present in Universalism as well:
“The bond of fellowship in this convention shall be a common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to cooperate in establishing the Kingdom for which he lived and died.
To that end we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All Conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every human personality, in the authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God. Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test, provided that the faith thus indicated be professed.”
Clarence Skinner was perhaps one of the most important 20th century Universalists, Secretary of 1910 U Social Service Commission,Prof. of Applied Christianity at Crane Theological School for decades, at Tufts College. In 1937, he wrote Liberalism Faces the Future, where he defined liberalism as, 'Belief in man, and a sense that at the core of human nature is a something sound and good. The liberal affirmation of human nature rests on a confidence in human intelligence, an ' inherent moral capacity to choose the right,' and a social ability to meet the difficulties of shifting and confusing social forces.' In 1945 he wrote A Religion for Greatness, describing Universalism as 'a radical religion based upon a 'vital meaningful relationship between the self and the universe,' a religion that he thought as 'Universalism,' in a modern sense.' He found 'in the idea of 'brotherhood' the fundamental connection between the older an d newer Universalism.' In 1935 in the Bond of Fellowship though ot wanting a Creedal test interpreting its purpose 'To do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and cooperate in establishing the Kingdom of God which he loved and died.' This was seen by most as a kingdom on earth and as historian Ernest Casara says 'the extent to which the Universalists had melded into the social gospel Protestantism of the day.' In the late 19th century, there was a movement to make Universalism a Universal religion and as late as 1949, Brainard F. Gibbons, who would be president of the Universalist Church of America, wrote: "A new type of Universalism is proclaimed which shifts the emphasis on universal from salvation to religion and describes Universalism as boundless in scope, as broad as humanity, and as infinite as the universe. Is this Universalism's answer: a religion, not exclusively Christian or any other named brand, but a synthesis of all religious knowledge which passes the test of human intelligence, a truly universal religion?" Humanism came late to Universalism and was never as popular as it was in Unitarianism. Universalism really could be described as liberal Christianity though many orthodox Christians wouldn't have considered it Christian because it no longer believed in the trinity, though most still believed strongly in the teachings of Jesus and scripture, but in liberal interpretations, not literal ones! It looked and acted and sounded Christian in its worship services, though its sermons would have been more liberal, and no one would, of course, been threatened with going to hell or original sin! Indeed, it would have been more positive and more loving and probably more social justice oriented. Perhaps the most well known Universalist before and after the merger to form Unitarian Universalism in 1961 was Kenneth L. Patton. He wrote volumes of books on humanist Universalism, then humanist UUism. He was minister of the Charles Street Meeting House at the bottom of Beacon Hill which was to be organized as a universal religious worship space, and is described in Patton's book, A Religion for One World: Art and Symbols for a UNiversal religion. He wrote this poem for the project: 'Leave your journeying to build temples, and adorn them with intimations of longer journeys you cannot take, and images of countries you may never enter. In far-off times others will put their carvings beside yours, and light candles where long ago yours burned away. In their celebrations there will be a lingering of your questions and solicitations.
The rafters and the pillars will remember your dreams, and the children will discover the beauty of your ancient hands.’ from Ground of Being
Some of my research comes from my Universalist mentor, Rev. Bob Payson. He was the minister of the large UU church in Lancaster,PA where I went to seminary. He let me stay at his family's house a couple nights a week, since it was a 2 hour drive from my home. He was, he said, the last Universalist minister fellowshipped before the merger, and he wanted me to know the stories of Universalism. He lent me Universalist books and articles. He was a scholar minister, taking a course in Hebrew at the seminary just because he was interested in being able to read the Jewish Bible. Indeed, he looked like an Old Testament prophet with a long gray goatee. His oldest son, with a good Jewish name of Aaron, was a junior in high school when I began seminary. He is now a UU Minister colleague and good friend with many years in ministry. Bob also spoke frequently at our lay-led fellowship and when Elizabeth was born, he did her dedication service. I like to think that that link, my youngest daughter being dedicated by the last Universalist minister, now dead for some years, keeps Universalism alive for me, and that it is the Universalist strain of the great teachings of Jesus for ethical living and search for truth within me that also teaches the transforming power of love through community as the basis of my religion and the text for many of my sermons. My first pulpit was as a student in a small Universalist church near where George deBenneville used to preach in Reading, PA. It was an old stone Gothic Church with a huge stain glass Window of Jesus the good shepherd, and in front of the pulpit was the 19th century oak communion table with these simple words from scripture carved into it facing the congregation for over a hundred years -'GOD IS LOVE.' As a mystical humanist, I was comfortable there, even though I wasn't sure why at first. Perhaps the reason the Universalist are known for their heart is not just the love of God that they preached, but also the love of life, that Jesus and his teachings of love had come to set us free from the worry that we were somehow unworthy of being loved- by God maybe even by each other. And I think also the Universalists wanted to see a change in our behavior once we were 'converted' once we were' liberated,' enlightened;' they wanted us to live moral lives every day of the week, in business and in church, in relationships, and especially in working toward social justice. They didn't want to have intellectual discussions about heaven; they wanted to actually go there!
Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ So I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con Su Dios, ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’
Peace,Love, Shalom,Salaam, Blessed Be,Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios