by Leigh A. Waltz, MFA
Unitarian Universalist History
Methodist Theological School in Ohio
Susan Ritchie, Ph.D.
May 20, 2020 (footnotes are numbers in parentheses. — I’m learning WordPress!)
Universalist faith has met religious needs while testing the limits for a denomination claiming to be Christian for its entire history.(1) This paper looks at the progression toward such limits. It touches on some causes that shaped some of Western European Congregationalist Christianity into the informed amalgam of faiths and teachings that would become the American Universalism of 1960, the year before the formal joinder with Unitarianism. This paper asks, what happened to Jesus?
The Reformation, with its intense, liberal Bible study, also launched a process of denominational diversification. The North American colonies became a seedbed. The ideas of the Enlightenment account for some tempering of the harsher features of Calvinist theology. They prepared the way, along with attention to specific Biblical passages, for the re-emergence of the doctrine of universal salvation. (2) Along with the slow coming of science and fatigue under Calvinism’s doctrine of election, (3) churches became laboratories where preachers tested their interpretations of the Bible to their congregations. The Bible has more than a few Universalist cues, (4) and the kinder, loving message attracted some devout Christians.
Resisting the ways of the Church of England or the oppression of other powerholders, Puritans, Moravians (5) and others colonized the New World. Anglicans followed. They and the Congregationalists, from 1680 to 1760, became the dominant sects in most English-speaking colonies. (6) In the passing of the 1600s and the 1700s, Protestantism had given rise to new movements such as Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, Methodists, and numerous others at times called “dissenters,” by the main groups.
Since Universalism would take this experiment to its furthest, let us trace some steps from Methodism to Universalism.
It was “the English doorway” to New World Universalism.
One dissenter was Englishman John Murray (1741-1815), whose development began Calvinist. He worked for John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, and tested that discipline but then flowered in the influence of another former Methodist, James Relly (1722-1778). Murray decided against the doctrine of everlasting punishment. (7) Relly not only persuaded him in England but convinced New Englanders via Relly’s book, (8th ftnt) Union (1749), to invite Murray, once they learned that he was in the colonies, to come and preach. So, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1774, (9) an exotic seed germinated.
Several born New Englanders – and Baptists among them—were growing spiritually beyond the usual bounds of their given faiths. Adams Streeter (1735–1786), Caleb Rich (1750-1821), Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797) and Hosea Ballou (1771-1852), are all Baptist converts to Universalism. Home-bred seeds germinated.
Diffusion and variation (10) were also at work in American Universalism. Author David Robinson attests to this: “The marked diversity of the Universalist denomination makes it difficult to pinpoint a starting point for the movement.” (11) People were reading their Bibles and talking about what they found. Protestants generally accepted intermarriage among Protestant sects. (12) John Murray’s parents were Anglican and Presbyterian, and Murray became John Wesley’s protégé. (13) Murray then married a Congregationalist who had also read Relly’s book. (14) Christianity wants to involve the Bible, and most early Universalists were very Bible-involved. “Their sermons were biblically-based.” (15)
To a current researcher, the idea of Christianity can become unclear. Even the term “Christian” strains to encompass the variety of adherents. The trend in American religious history toward “non-denominational,” began under the duress of wanting to belong, wanting to understand the Scripture, and settling the frontier. Would one worship with other Christians who did not share the specifics of a particular sect? Generally, yes. (16) Especially against a regular backdrop of “savage wilderness.” To a Euro-centric worldview, Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment Christianity were synonymous with civilization. “In eighteenth-century religious commentary ‘indifferent’ usually referred not to loss of interest, as it does today; it simply pointed to the latitudinarian practices that resulted whenever diverse religious groups were obliged to share church buildings and even ministers.” (17) Not all mixing was cordial.
[block quote]In 1838 the Universalist Reverend George Rogers, in one of several swings through […] the Southwest, found no co-religionist ministers
in New Orleans. […] Rogers preached [there…] and elsewhere in Louisiana and in […] Mississippi, usually at courthouses, although Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians opened their pulpits to him. [A]t Selma, Alabama, […] its ministers refused him their churches. (18) [end block quote]
Many clergymen regarded Universalists (and Unitarians) as renegades, and the unacceptable views perpetuated by their denomination represented a broken branch on the tree of Christianity. The Winchester Profession adopted by Universalist congregations in 1803 omitted “articles on the Mediator and the Holy Ghost.” (19) Apart from Unitarian, all other Christian sects would have claimed that the Universalists were officially abandoning Jesus while they had already abandoned (the concept of) hell. (20) The Boston Recorder proclaimed in 1835 that Universalism was “the reigning heresy of the day.” (21) Many non-dissenters wondered what could assure morality among Christians if not the threat of hell? The General Convention of Universalists in 1848 felt the need to adopt “a resolution affirming that the Bible contains a special revelation from God, which is sufficient for faith and practice.” (22)
Seeking such reassurance were insiders who knew of or had begun reading books from the likes German liberal Protestant theologian David Friedrich Strauss (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined) (23) and other works of New Testament redaction criticism. Reassurance was also for the outsiders who might or might not share their pulpits. (24)
Still, with the help of their publishing efforts, (25) energetic and enthusiastic evangelists of Universalism spread the faith to a high-water mark of about 1850. (26) (Interestingly, Google ReCaptcha scanning shows that print mention of the word “Christian” also peaked around 1850.) “Even though Baptists were generally appalled by Universalist theology, they lent to their rebellious Universalist children a characteristic aura of populist dissent, folk authenticity and autonomous polity.” (27) Thus, the Universalists had a place at the Christian table.
Across the entire trajectory of Universalist growth, increased literacy and education must have modified the denomination. (This was true of Unitarianism as well.) The human tendency of learning generally opposes staid power structures, and that is what religious denominations are “places to avoid an argument.” Yet the Universalists embraced debate as edifying performance and in print.(28) True, anyone could entertain the idea of learning, but many believers adopted explicit or implicit proscriptions. (29) Amazing and provable scientific ideas were spreading. If a gifted youth of the 1820s happened upon the Treatise of Celestial Mechanics (LaPlace published from 1798), many “good Christians” would likely have scolded as the author was believed to be an atheist. (30) Any 1859 reader of Origin of the Species (31) likely got the same treatment, but the scandal was more widely known.
The word “universal” has powerful connotations inside the known purposes of religion but also outside. Universalists’ and their loving tendency accommodated very liberal theology and much at least implicit universalist philosophy. (Particularist)(32) Christians consistently derided them then, and the disdain continues today.(33) The slur, “you believe in everything and nothing,” is opposite in focus but similar in ethos to the same “narrowness shaming” aimed at Christians by the wider, secularized world in our post-Christian age.) There were later references to “learning from all traditions” in the explanatory documents that liberal Christians drafted for their membership and so that outsiders might understand what they believed. (paragraph)
Other ideas began circulating in liberal Christian and other circles as people saw widespread problems like slavery, poverty, and alcohol in society (34) and these before the terror of the Civil War. Most soldiers were professing, particularist Christians on both sides. Four years saw the killing of half a million people. Helena Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled was published serially by 1871, along with the first English version of Karl Marx’ Das Kapital.(35) The genocide of Native Americans was the accepted norm.(36) Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra sold in 1885. The World Parliament of Religions happened in Chicago in 1893, and by 1918, WW I had annihilated 40 million people in four years. WW II killed seventy million. “After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Auschwitz, viable Christian theology became a problematic endeavor.”(37) Throughout the 1950s, Americans entered the anti-Communist craze and began practicing for a nuclear holocaust. The CIA launched Project MK-Ultra in 1953. (38) No one anticipated the results of technology or the advent of modernism. (This is a snapshot of a supernova.) How does one capture the Zeitgeist of such a century? By 1959, Jesus was removed from Universalists’ Article II as the name “Unitarian Universalist Association” was adopted. (39) Instead, they opted for “Universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition.” (40) This was an effort to widen the scope, understanding, and tolerance of the faith.
The purpose of the previous paragraph is to present the difficult accommodation of spiritual beliefs in the face of tremendous forces arrayed against the individual groping for meaning in a world gone mad. It is also an attempt to look across the landscape of American history for an understanding of Universalist engagement in “the social gospel.” It was a clear precursor of what is now called “liberation theology.” (41)It is a view taken to consider Universalist engagement with unprecedented events having little or no apparent relation to the teachings of the Bible and sometimes actions in blatant contradiction to the Gospels.
Russell Miller’s description of the decade-long struggle to join Universalism to Unitarianism reads like a Kafka novel. The frustration, confusion, and enormous bureaucracy dragging on for more than ten years (consuming the 1950s) seem to have resulted in an agreement by exhaustion. According to authors James Casebolt and Tiffany Nierko, that amalgamation still gives pause to members of the denomination attempting to describe their beliefs. (42)
How far off-base is it to suspect that the preoccupation with the merger was precisely that— a preoccupation? The 1950s were a very troubled decade in America and around the world, especially for liberals! Taking a stand, especially for an already small denomination, was taking a risk. Most of America was not ready for the civil rights crisis, even if some saw it as God’s work. This may have fallen short of universalism and Universalism.
Here is an excerpt from a book published by an originally Universalist church in Syracuse, New York, in 2001: (43)
Later in the ’50s, when asked […] if this church would “call a
qualiﬁed minister . . . regardless of color or sex,” the trustees
held a discussion and directed the minister to reply. The response
was thoughtful for its time but telling of the biases that prevailed.
Dr. Reamon wrote, “We believe that worthy young people,
irrespective of color or sex, should be encouraged to prepare
for ministerial service in our denomination but with a clear
understanding of the realities involved . . . the average “white”
congregation is unlikely to call a “colored” minister . . . the
average congregation still prefers a man as its minister. . .
We must be frank to say that, if our pulpit were open, a “colored”
minister would hardly be considered as a candidate. (January 20, 1955)
In instances of admitted racism or sexism, we may be able to see how we fail to rise to the demands of our highest ideals, (44) but without any corrective action, individual or collectively, use of the term Universalism seems to be a conceit. Noting this awareness is not to say there should be enforced placement of “othered clergy” within the denomination, but if a Christian sect could appreciate the merits of such a scheme, it would seem Universalists could. It would be similar to the Russian mystic Gurdjieff assigning a follower to become the helpful attendant for another disciple for whom the follower had expressed dislike. It would be similar to a guru’s directing the disciple to smile until the world returns it. We cannot easily see Jesus now, not even in the rear-view mirror, because we have changed the subject. (45) We changed the subject into an object.
This writer visited two Universalist churches and noticed that their architecture related to typically Christian styles. Both had stained-glass windows depicting Jesus. In discussion with one of the ministers, she revealed that her predecessor claimed not to have mentioned Jesus in the ten years before her arrival to assume leadership.
This writer also contacted a UU clergyman for his opinion regarding the diminished role of Jesus in the Universalist/UU congregational life. He responded:
[What you are observing] could be adequately explained by a model that emphasizes the ways in which the U.S. has become increasingly multicultural and multireligious. Instead of Jesus somehow disappearing in American Universalism, it’s more about how Jesus is now accompanied by Buddha, Mohammed, and by traditions that don’t place a big emphasis on a single influential individual. (46)
Regarding all denominations, one might make a case for Jesus “having departed.” An anthropologist posed the question, “If [the pre-ministerial] Jesus could have foreseen all the killing in his name, should he still have gone through with it?” A Benedictine monk once told writer Tripp Fuller, that a person becomes a serious theologian once they can “ask a scary enough question.” (47)
Most people do not want to pose scary questions. Still, the particularist who happened to attend Universalist services and decided not to return might have had speculative moments as probably occurred to Pompey. The Roman general took Jerusalem, strode past corpses to the Temple and the Holy of Holies, and then, left it “untouched.” (48) The empty space was full, and Pompey could not see it.
For a resonant believer, all space and any space has resonance. Jerusalem or Benares or Rome or any “objected” place is not axis mundi.(49) The believer is axis mundi.
American Universalism passed through its development from Biblicist to Bible-informed. Generalizations are tricky for a spread-out, diversified, self-governing affiliation of believers and thinkers who make few or no ideological demands. The participants seem to have always been able to focus more on organizational sense of identity and less on a theological sense. (50) Such a “hypermodern religion” has more strengths than can be observed from one vantage point. As Casebolt and Nierko observed:
This affiliation occurs because the tradition fits the transformed self, not because the self is transformed to fit the tradition. More so than any other religious tradition in America, people can become UU because of what they already believe rather than changing what they believe because of becoming UUs. The tradition adjusts to fit the new member, rather than transforming the new member to fit the tradition.
The particularists see a broken branch on the tree of Christianity and label it “Universalism.” It is not a broken branch that connects the tree to everything in caring. And as any orchardman can tell, a broken branch may still bear fruit. All it needs is support.
If any act of kindness may be regarded as the second coming of Christ, the sorts of challenges voiced by Reb Yeshua to his fellow Jews and others so long ago ought not be the same challenges that get a person disowned by a Christian congregation.
Universalism, especially 1960-vintage Universalism, seems to have become a safe place to pose scary questions and still be welcomed and feel it. So, the purpose of the faith and participation in it are both extended. The Holy of Holies only appears empty.
1. For this paper, Christian means adhering to or claiming to comply with the teachings of Jesus.
2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Universalism#accordion-article-history (accessed May 11, 2020) Arminianism, the belief that God offers Christ’s atonement to all humankind, gets many Bible readers to lean in the Universalist direction. Origen had started the Christian Universalist thinking long before Arminius.
3. The followers of John Calvin (1509 – 1564) postulated a doctrine of “unconditional election.” It said that before God created the world, he decided that some humans would be predestined for salvation, and the rest would be consigned to eternal damnation. John Knox (1505-1572) brought the notion to Scotland. For an idea of how a believer of such teaching can relentlessly torment themselves, this writer recommends John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666).
4. Some examples of typically cited New Testament passages that support the argument for universal salvation are: Luke 3:6, John 1:29, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 Timothy 4:10, Titus 2:11-12, Hebrews 2:9, and 1 John 2:2. There are also many Old Testament examples, but here are a few: Isaiah 66:23, Psalm 16:10, Malachi 3:2-3. For a discussion of Biblical universalism vis-à-vis exclusivism (and “strong exclusivism”), see Yale philosophy professor Keith DeRose’s site: https://campuspress.yale.edu/keithderose/1129-2/#5 .
5. These are followers of John Huss of Prague. He was to Czech-speaking people what Martin Luther was for Germans, about a hundred years earlier. Huss was burned at the stake in 1415.
6. https://www.facinghistory.org/nobigotry/religion-colonial-america-trends-regulations-and-beliefs (accessed 11MAY2020)
7. David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists, Greenwood Press: London, 1985. 297.
8. Despite the crown’s efforts to monopolize the importation of books, New England and the colonies had quite an appetite for printed matter. New England’s first printing press arrived at Harvard in 1638 (two years after its founding). In 1775, there were 31 newspapers. By 1810, there were 376. By 1835, there were 1200. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Newspaper_growth.png (accessed 29APR2020) Europe’s book production increased exponentially: Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten van Zanden claim that book production became exponential in the sixteenth century (a book being 49 or more pages) – producing more than 200 million volumes. The seventeenth century produced more than 500 million volumes. The eighteenth century produced nearly a billion. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:European_Output_of_Printed_Books_ca.1450–1800.png#/media/File:Europäische_Produktion_von_gedruckten_Büchern_ca._1450–1800.png (accessed 10MAY2020).
9 Robinson, 49.
10. Diversity was our starting point. A 1771 print shows a New York City skyline accentuated with steeples—eighteen houses of worship serving a maximum of 22,000 people. (Temple count: Dutch Reformed 3, Anglican 3, Presbyterian 3, Lutheran 2, French Huguenot 1, Congregational 1, Methodist 1, Baptist 1, Quaker 1, Moravian 1, Jewish 1). http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/midcol.htm
11. Ibid., 48.
12. The Religious Society of Friends was a notable exception. When Squire Boone refused to apologize to his rural North Carolina Quaker meeting for the marriage of yet another son to a “worldling” (non-Quaker) in 1750, he was ousted. His son Daniel never went to church again (though he had his children baptized). When Quaker William Bassett was too outspoken about the evils of slavery in 1840, his Lynn, Massachusetts meeting ousted him, and he joined the Unitarians.
13. Smith, Bonnie Hurd, “John Murray: Preacher, organizer, and promulgator of hope,” (reprinted from Mingling Souls Upon Paper: An Eighteenth-century Love Story) http://jsmsociety.com/John_Murray.html (accessed May 04, 2020)
14. In 1759, Relly’s book was published in England. It was one of the billion books published in Europe that century.
15. David S. Blanchard, One Hundred Forty Fruitful Years: A History of The First Unitarian Universalist Society of Syracuse. (Syracuse: First Unitarian Universalist Society of Syracuse, 2001)2.
16 Catholic and Mormon worship, however, were often regarded as off-limits to “regular church folk,” meaning Protestant.
17 Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7.
18 Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 68.
19. Charles Howe, The Larger Faith, (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1993), 21. Howe attributes the omission to Ballou’s rational Unitarian theological leanings.
20. “You were always hell and Jesus with a pistol, Bob.” That is a line David Webb Peoples put in his screenplay “Unforgiven” (Warner Brothers, 1992). It is a western set in 1880 Wyoming. The line aptly conveys that the sheriff, who speaks it, means, “you were always really good with a pistol.” Fiction or not, for this paper, we can understand that to most Nineteenth-century Christian Americans, Universalists appeared to have abandoned what is “really good” in Christianity. That contemporary movie-goers understand this means that theologically, this is where many Americans still are.
21. David E. Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History, (Chicago: Meadville-Lombard Press, 2000), 161.
22. Bumbaugh, 160.
23. Strauss’ book (published 1835-1836) was a sensation and a bombshell for orthodoxy. Mary Ann Evans (ne George Elliot) translated it into English in 1846. Even before, many Universalists were of German extraction, and many Protestant immigrants to America were German speakers. The Earl of Shaftesbury said it was “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.”
24. Was there ever a time when one’s religious beliefs were not in some way threatened by a thirst for knowledge? The quest is all there is. This is what the yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda calls “Self-Realization.” Every ancient hero story is essentially a departure, an acquisition/understanding, and a return. The “sin-suffering-salvation” cycle is the same “adventure” subjectively experienced. We are all on the journey to bring back wisdom.
25. Howe, 40. “There were twenty-five to thirty Universalist newspapers in the mid-1840s, but a much larger number had been started only to go out of business.” There were 138 periodicals started between 1820 and 1850. (Howe cites Russell Miller.)
26. Ibid., 161.
27. Robinson, 48-49.
28. Howe, p34. The example given is the debate between Hosea Ballou and Edward Turner in 1817.
29. Such proscriptions ran a gamut from strict Catholics not reading Scripture but letting the priest interpret them on the congregation’s behalf to designations of “inappropriate literature” among Protestant groups. The more one knows, the more difficult it is to cling to fundamentalism or particularism.
30. LaPlace famously told Napoleon, when asked by the emperor about the hand of God relative to celestial mechanics, “I have no use for such hypotheses.” (Unlike his English counterpart, Isaac Newton.) His apparent agnosticism and presumed atheism scandalized the literate Christian world of the time.
31. Charles Darwin’s work laying out the process of natural selection. 32 32 In theology, particularism is the doctrine that some but not all people are elected and redeemed.
33. Even in the Oxford English Dictionary (of 1979), the examples used to illustrate “Universalist” are demeaning (e.g., “Universalists defeat themselves” and “…weak Universalist”).
34. Jane O’Brien, “The Time When Americans Drank All Day Long,” BBC News, Washington, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31741615 (accessed May 10, 2020). Americans drink an average of 2.3 gallons of pure alcohol a year compared to 7.1 gallons in 1830. Alcohol became enough of a problem that temperance movements, especially church-driven, were becoming popular, and by 1840 the Washingtonian Society, the precursor to Alcoholics Anonymous, had started in Baltimore. Here is Nathaniel Currier’s 1846 print illustrating the progression of alcoholism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teetotalism#/media/File:The_Drunkard’s_Progress-_Color.jpg
35. These influential works first appeared in Victoria Woodhull’s newspaper, The Woodhull Claflin Weekly. Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, brought spiritualism and much of Hindu philosophy to America. Marx is arguably the father of modern communism.
36. Second Governor of Colorado, John Evans told Whites that they could kill Indians on site in 1864. Twenty years later, Buffalo Bill started his “Wild West Show,” turning the on-going genocide into entertainment.
37. Tripp Fuller, “Turning Jesus Down.” In The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic…Or Awesome?, 133-54. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2015. Accessed May 15, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctt155j380.11.
38. This top-secret project involved dosing unwitting, civilian Americans with powerful psychotropic and hallucinogenic drugs. https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp90-00965r000100150073-8
39. Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870 to 1970. (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985), 659.
41. A movement in Christian theology, developed mainly by Latin American Roman Catholics, that emphasizes liberation from social, political, and economic oppression as an anticipation of ultimate salvation. Gustavo Gutiérrez gave the movement its name with his 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation.
42. James Casebolt, & Tiffany Niekro, (2005). Some UUs Are More U than U: Theological Self-Descriptors Chosen by Unitarian Universalists. Review of Religious Research, 46(3), 235-242. Accessed May 15, 2020. doi:10.2307/3512553. “[…M]ore than any previous survey [this] points out the complexity of some individual UU’s theological views. That the typical respondent felt the need to circle three or four terms to describe his or her theology makes this clear.”
43. Blanchard, 35.
44. This remains an issue with UUs though less with sexism and more with racism and non-cisgender clergy. The course for the present seems to be radical, lay pulpit sharing. Were it not for the Covid-19 outbreak, this writer would suggest continued interfaith pulpit exchange and a summer month of “from afar hosting” to heighten cross-cultural, interracial and transgender awareness and acceptance.
45. The teaching is the way. The journey is the essence and becomes the substance, but imagining a destination, or hoping for “arrival” or even assigning an expectation of vicarious experience of anything, especially outside oneself, may be a reasonably sure repudiation of consciousness.
46. Rev. Dan Harper “Quick question,” e-mail message to Leigh Waltz, April 26, 2020. Reverend Harper is assistant minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Palo Alto, Calif. He blogs at danielharper.org/blog. He was kind enough to answer my question: “Where did Jesus go in the course of Unitarian, Universalist and UU development?”
47. Fuller, 137.
48. According to Cicero, his contemporary Pompey, “was so awed by its sanctity that he left the treasure and the costly vessels untouched.” (“Ant.” Xiv. 4, § 4; “B.J.” i. 7, § 6; Cicero, “Pro Flacco,” § 67). He likely saw a menorah, an altar for the showbread, and Torah scrolls. He also likely misunderstood what he saw. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12264-pompey-the-great (accessed May 18, 2020).
49. The world axis – the connection between heaven and earth.
50. Casebolt and Nierko, 240.
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