WHAT IS IT that we who call ourselves Universalists 1 have in view? What called us into being, and what purposes do we now serve? What is there about us that is distinctive?
We believe those persons are wrong who tell us man is inevitably selfish, that cut-throat competition is the law of life, that war is the means by which the strong will ever overcome the weak. We hold that such doctrine is atheism of the worst kind-an utter denial of the best in religion. We insist God created man in His own image, that is, God gave to man a mind to understand the right, a will to choose the right, and the capacity to attain such relationship with the Creator as will enable him to live righteously. As a child of God, this is man's spiritual heritage; and the responsibility is his of developing it by putting it to use.
Almost certainly there are some erroneous impressions which call for correction. It may be helpful, therefore, to suggest some of the things we are not.
We are not merely a company of men and women seeking to build another denomination. Most churches attempt to justify their separate existence by identifying their own organization or their particular faith with that of the "primitive church"- the church as it was during the early centuries of the Christian era; but such basis for separateness is scarcely tenable. The scholarly research of so eminent and unbiased a student as the late Canon B. H. Streeter 2 of Queens College, Oxford, proves beyond doubt that the early church possessed no single, distinct form, that its forms were many and varied, and that, while any one of today's churches might rightly claim to be patterned after one or another of the early churches (for there were several, not just one, so also might every other. In any event, what virtue would there be in such a claim, even were it true? Five of the seven schools extant in those early days were Universalist in their sympathies. Therefore, theologically, we may be said to have been in the majority and holding the "orthodox" viewpoint; but it would not occur to us to claim our right to separate existence today by reason of the situation which then prevailed.
Nor are our dominant characteristics a more elastic theology and a more humane doctrinal outlook. If these-and only these-were our dominant characteristics, our mission would cease to exist, for other churches are tending swiftly in the same direction. There are those who look upon us as a creedless church in which dwells the spirit of freedom, and, while this is true, it could scarcely be judged sufficient to warrant our being. Our intent is to be plain-spoken yet humble. Instead of regarding ourselves as a company of people who have already "arrived" theologically (religiously), we prefer to conceive of ourselves as learners, keeping our minds open, consulting unprejudiced scholarship, respecting human experience, refusing to conceive God's revelation as confined to so many properly dotted is and crossed t's, or enclosed within the covers of a single Book.
Nor is it true that we are a people who merely "don't believe." The technique just referred to leads inevitably to the conclusion that there are some things we do not believe. Such matters as those over which, down across the years, the Christian Church has fought, bled, and all but died -belief in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Immaculate Conception, miracle-working power of the Sacraments, literal interpretation of all portions of the Old and New Testaments-any and all of these, most Universalists do not accept; but we do not make the grave mistake of prescribing that our people shall not accept them. They may or they may not, as they choose; and, therefore (significantly), they do not. We hold a man's relationship with God is too sacred a thing to be tampered with from without. After all, who are we-who is anyone else-to dictate the terms of such relationship? As a matter of fact, such beliefs make no real difference anyway,-no difference, that is, morally and ethically. They are matters of opinion only and have nothing to do with richness of character, personal or social, which should constitute the primary concern of the church.
Universalism did begin as a protest, and properly so; but it was a moral protest, theological in form. There were in those early days a few souls who had the courage to rise up in protest against what they conceived to be a cruel, Moloch-worshiping Calvinism, and to call the Christian world back to Jesus' conception of God as Father of all His Creation. Universalists were the protestants of the Protestants, branded as heretics and rebels; but they proved to be in the vanguard of theological thought, pioneers in social reform, gadflies to themselves and others, one of the most humanitarian movements in the history of the Christian Church.3 Yet all this is only a lesser aspect of the thing we are banded together to do.
It is our judgment we are different; but we are not so simply because we wish to be. We are different because the very logic of the situation makes it inevitable. Universalism, by the very nature of the case, is an inclusive gospel. Universalist Fellowship is inclusive in character, that is, any exclusion is self-exclusion. We attempt to stand not only for a more liberal kind of religion, but for a point of view so radically at variance with most of the existing faiths as to make ours a different religion. The conception we have of the Church itself is fundamentally unlike that held by most of the established institutions of religion.
Orthodoxy (by this we mean that phase of religious life which includes both Catholic and Protestant friends) conceives of religion as constituting a body of truth to be believed. There may be differences of opinion as to what the truth is, and there may be an endless variety of interpretation of the same truth; but, beneath all opinions and interpretations, there is common agreement that religion is inevitably associated with a body of truth.
The second major proposition of orthodoxy is that the acceptance of this body of truth is essential to salvation. In other words, faith is belief in the truth which saves-and to be outside belief in such truth is to be both in error and in danger. The "elect" are on the inside, that is, on the inside of the right church or denomination. The "Church" is distinct from the world. It is a separate society whose primary functions are to provide fellowship for believers and to win them in ever increasing numbers. Thus, as viewed by the Universalists, there goes on and on this process of divisiveness, separating believers from non-believers, the saved from the unsaved, saints from sinners, the evangelical from the unevangelical; but, in all this (and frequently escaping notice), is the fact that, underlying the orthodox conception, there is the conviction that religion is something one obtains from outside oneself, something one "catches" (as one catches measles), something one "puts on" (as one puts on one's hat and coat). Man is not by nature a child of grace. Religion is not his natural environment, his native endowment. Rather, it is a relationship he enters through faith-an act of volition; or, it is an experience which enters him. In any event, we become truly religious only through faith.
Here is the Universalist's real point of departure. He starts with the
assumption that religion is man's natural environment, is native to him,
Universalists part company with most churchmen by reason of this, -their conception of human nature. We emphatically repudiate the idea of original sin resulting from the fall of man. There never was "a fall" of man. If there is truth to be gleaned from modern knowledge, it is that man has come up from primitive origins. Our first ancestors were not an innocent pair in a garden, eating its fruits in peace. They were primitive creatures in a forest, fighting wild beasts, living upon roots and nuts and captured prey. Just how self-consciousness arose, or how the first personality developed, we do not know; and we find ourselves under no necessity to settle these problems of human origins, except to recognize that there never could have been an innocent, free being meeting a single fateful test which was to determine the moral nature of his descendants for all time.
We regard the doctrine of man's degradation, with its penal consequences, as one of the most ghastly ideas ever to misdirect the thoughts of men,-a concept altogether unworthy of an intelligent human being or a good God. We hold, rather, to confidence in the moral potentialities of man, and in salvation as a matter of human cooperation with God in organizing life so that the rude instincts which are our biological inheritance may become habits of a cooperative society animated by love.
For us, then, religion need not be associated with a prescribed set of beliefs, although it may result in beliefs. We have beliefs, and those we have are great indeed. Our present Great Avowal, for example, reads:
But the agreement between us is comparable to the agreement between scientists. Beliefs held by scientists are not prescribed. Scientific truth issues from use of the scientific method: laboratory testing and experimentation; unhampered and unbiased research. All we insist upon is that our beliefs do not result from revelation; nor are they essential either to our personal salvation or to the life of our Church. They are inferences, fruit of the scientific method as applied to religion. They are-as they should be-working hypotheses, used as hypotheses are used in every other department of living, as tools by use of which we are aided in our growth toward the state of all-round maturity for which the privilege of life was given us and for which we are intended.
Thus do Universalists have faith, but in a very different sense. Our faith is not in doctrines and creeds, but in purposes and goals. Our faith would liberate man from speculative dogmas which, in any case, cannot be verified, and set him free to harness his spiritual energies to the realization of ideals and values in his personal and social life. This is the very thing which Jesus himself called faith, and the selfsame manner in which he used it: the free, creative spirit of man at work on the stuff of life, saying to the future, "It shall be thus and so, because -we will it to be!"
In other words, Universalists conceive of themselves as striving to be a voluntary association of men and women, children and youths, seeking to apply both intelligence and heart to the social organization of man's religious endowment, in order to achieve desirable goals in individual and social living. The supreme aim of The Universalist Church is not to glorify God (although it may result in God's glory), or to win men to Christ (although it may prove a most effective means of demonstrating the spirit exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth). No; the Universalist Church is a very human institution, created solely for the purpose of enriching, enlarging, and fulfilling the life which is man's.
There are approximately eighty thousand persons known to be associated with
the four hundred forty-eight Universalist churches in the United States.
Doubtless, there are an even greater number (uncounted, but avowed
Universalists) residing in communities where there are no
Universalism brings to its people a message of assurance. Based squarely upon the firm conviction that man is naturally religious, it brings to many who have felt themselves outside the pale an appreciation of their own religious impulses, and encourages the spiritual longings and aspirations which are theirs to become more articulate. Fellowship in the Universalist Church is a perfectly natural and rational thing. While we guard zealously against the practice of proselytizing, we endeavor to welcome into full fellowship former members of any and all churches, or of none. Generally speaking, Universalist churches are not made up of residents of the neighborhood only. Constituents are widely scattered and often travel many miles to services. Their association issues from conviction. Over fifty per cent of the ministers have come from non-Universalist background. This influx of laity and clergy alike is due, in part at least, not to the mood of mere tolerance on the part of Universalists, but to a growing respect for their assumption that the inclusion of differing viewpoints is both democratic and educationally acceptable. Ours is an inclusive fellowship. Any exclusion becomes self-exclusion. Here, in embryo, is the kind of fellowship which, if the world is to survive, the world must have.
Universalism has produced persons who have dared to live courageous lives, to think new thoughts, to perform pioneering deeds.
In 1790 in Philadelphia (years before Lincoln was born), Universalists-the first body of religionists so to do-went on record as opposing human slavery in any form. One of the twelve charter members of the first Universalist church to be organized on American soil was "Gloster Dalton, An African."
Hosea Ballou's (1771-1852) A Treatise on Atonement, in 1805, was the first book published in America advocating the strict unity of God. This was ten years prior to the famous Unitarian controversy in 1815 between William Ellery Channing and Samuel Worcester.
Lombard (a Universalist college) and Oberlin were the first of all American colleges and universities to adopt co-education. Universalists were among the first to champion public schools free from ecclesiastical control.
Adin Ballou, a Universalist at Hopedale, Mass., was instrumental in founding the Hopedale Fraternal Community, 1842, one of the early cooperative communities which endeavored to apply to social and economic life the ideals of religion.9
The Universalist Church was the first to sponsor women for its ministry, not because they were women but because they were persons. The very first body of women in America to organize on a national scale was a body of Universalist women. The first journal10 devoted to the welfare of working women was edited by a Universalist minister.
The first official State Labor Conciliator was the Rev. Le Grand Powers, a Universalist minister appointed to that post by the Governor of Minnesota in 1887.
Universalists were first to sponsor prison reforms. The Rev. Charles Spear edited The Prisoners' Friend, the first prison paper. Spear paved the way for successful prison reform movements in which some of his Universalist descendants, such as Orlando F. Lewis and Thomas Mott Osborne, were active. Universalists were first to propose parole; first to oppose capital punishment.
Benjamin Rush, Universalist layman (Philadelphia physician) and signer of the
Declaration of Independence, was a pioneer in the field of temperance education;
he helped organize the first anti-slavery society. In 1791, he founded the First
Day Sunday School Society,
The Rev. Charles H. Leonard, then minister in Chelsea, Mass., and later to become the beloved Dean of the School of Religion at Tufts College, founded Children's Day.
William E. Barton's Lincoln's Religion contains the following: "The religious spirit of Abraham Lincoln was in harmony with Universalism. He censured his friend, Peter Cartright, the evangelist, for the latter's attack upon Universalism. `Pastor,' said he, `I used to think it took the smartest kind of man to defend and uphold Universalism. But now I think differently. They have the whole Scripture on their side and so many witnesses it would be impossible to lose.'"
It is an accepted fact that the influence of Thomas Starr King, a Universalist minister, kept the state of California in the Union during the Civil War.
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was a Universalist.
The first Universalist church, organized in Gloucester, Mass., in 1779, was destined to "make history." A man named Gregory visited the town in 1769, bringing with him the writings of the London preacher, James Relly (1722?-1778). This book, Union, caused great interest. Universalism, per se, was then unknown; but Relly taught "universal salvation" and Gloucester followers became known as "Relly-ites." The Universalist Church in America dates from the advent from England in 1770 of the Rev. John Murray (1741-1815)11, (denominational organization was achieved in 1790). Murray was a Relly convert from English Wesleyanism; and the small group of "Relly-ites" in Gloucester called him to serve as their leader. The book, Union, only needed public proclamation by Murray to unite these people organizationally, and to crystallize the opposition. An attack was made upon Murray after his second appearance in Boston in 1774. He and his followers were forced to continue their meetings in private homes, chief of which was the home of Winthrop Sargent. In January of 1779, they achieved formal organization as a church, and on Christmas Day the following year their new meeting house was dedicated.
Opposition again asserted itself, this time on the question of taxation. Assessors of the First Parish held that the persons who had withdrawn to follow Murray were still liable to taxation for the support of the First Parish. Universalists countered by insisting that the Bill of Rights12 attached to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts provided for the support by each and every individual of the religion of his choice. First Parish then claimed that Murray's congregation was not religious in character, nor was it incorporated, and that Murray himself was not properly ordained.
Property of Universalist people was seized for non-payment of taxes and sold at public auction; whereupon, Universalists brought suit to recover. The case came to trial in 1783 and continued in litigation on appeal and review until 1786, at which time the Universalists obtained a favorable verdict. This verdict (by judge Dana) freed Universalists of Gloucester from the necessity of supporting a church in which they could not believe. This was the first test case of its kind, and is a landmark in the history of free religion. Gloucester Universalists and their leader, Murray, were fighting the battle of freedom for other religious groups as well as for themselves.
While Universalist ideas reach back twenty-five hundred years to the obscure author of the Book of Malachi ("Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us?"), Universalism finds itself peculiarly at home in free-born, democratic America. In fact, it is one of the few religious denominations of purely American origin.
Its genius is its liberty. Its fathers dared challenge tyrannies of ecclesiastical authority, interpreting life in larger, more triumphant terms. Its beginnings were linked with stormy days of political and industrial revolution. Its prophets were stoned and ostracized.
One of its most admirable characteristics is its determination to uphold the right of every person to interpret the fundamentals of religion according to his conscience. Absolute freedom of utterance and latitude for adventure are secured for laity and clergy alike. It has pledged itself to struggle for complete emancipation.
The Universalist Church offers a moral and spiritual fellowship of persons whose ideal is the drawing together in the spirit of fraternity all men, learning and teaching the values of basic religion, and devoting themselves to such obviously essential tasks as the relief of suffering, the rebuilding of that which war has destroyed, and the establishment of moral principles of world government.
Universalist churches adhere strictly to congregational polity, calling or dismissing their ministers, and, in other ways, determining their own destiny. Churches within an area are sometimes gathered, for purposes of fraternity and teamplay, as "associations"; but the major unit of organization between the parish-church and the denomination as a whole is the state convention (composed of churches within the state). Delegates of these local churches and state conventions, together with ordained clergymen, meet biennially in General Assembly (constituting the governing body of the Church). The Assembly elects a president (who serves as moderator of the Assembly and may serve as chairman of the denominational Board of Trustees) and a Board of Trustees. The Trustees, in turn, elect a General Superintendent, a Treasurer, and a Secretary,-the Superintendent serving as ecclesiastical head and chief executive officer of the denomination.
The denomination is organized so as to function by departments: Depts. of the Ministry, Church Extension, Service Projects, Education (with Divisions: Children, Youth, Adults), Public Relations, Publications, Business Administration, and Survey & Evaluation. Each department has its executive director, a member of the denominational staff. Each department operates through its department board (members are chosen by the Trustees), the chairman of which is a Trustee. Denominational auxiliary groups are: the Association of Universalist Women; the National Association of Universalist Men; the Universalist Youth Fellowship; and the Universalist Publishing House. The denominational journal is The Universalist Leader. Executive offices are at denominational headquarters: 16 Beacon Street, Boston 8, Mass.
The program of relief and rehabilitation in Hungary, the Netherlands, and Germany, sponsored by The Universalist Church, has been cited as most outstanding by the International Relief Organization of the United Nations. Modern missions are established in Japan; and groups akin to and affiliated with American Universalists may be found both in England and Holland (London and Amsterdam).
Now, in conclusion, it must be understood that, with respect to theological views, not all my fellow Universalists would accept these statements of mine. We have no accredited theology. The truth makes men free, and when they are free they are free to differ. Universalists are united by no hierarchy, by no set of mandates agreed upon, but by a common spirit, a mutual purpose, and a freedom for all. Frankly, we do not know what we shall believe eventually, for our faith is not set in authorities and infallibilities. It is meant, rather, to be a growing, developing, broadening, deepening thing-now from some new insight of philosophy or science, now from some fresh revelation of human goodness, now from some mystic experience of God which surpasses the power of lips to utter, now from some simple fellowship of those who join hands to make this a better world, a happier nobler place for the children of God. The Universalist believes all each day's experience enables him to believe.
Universe; universal; universalism; all-pervading; embracing or comprehending
the whole; general. The doctrine that all men will ultimately be saved.
"We have all one Father who will succeed in his purpose of love. The entire
family of mankind will finally attain to the spirit that is in Jesus . . . Good
will triumph over evil, and God will be all in all."
Universalism's message is based squarely upon: (1) the primacy of man; (2) the unity of the human family; and (3) the universality of truth. And this is God's own message, its truth inscribed on every page of man's recorded rise.
Universalism is the philosophy and religion of the all-inclusive. The whole is greater than its parts. It interprets life in terms of universals and unities, levels barriers, abjures prejudice, renounces all that sets man against his fellow man, endeavors to integrate humanity into one harmonious co-operating society. Universalism is found wherever men work together for a better world, embraces all religions, works with science to create a finer, happier world.
Universalism is being re-born. It is a "one world" faith in the making. It must come because without it the world cannot continue, except on the present path which leads toward suicide. Universalism is a reconciling, unifying faith; more than a negative protest against errors of the past, more than a mere social credo. It is a faith broad enough and deep enough to command the loyalty of all men.
3 "As for the Universalists, the record of their fidelity as a body to the various interests of social mortality is not surpassed by that of any other people." (From BACON'S History of American Christianity.)
4 This "Great Avowal" of Universalists (adopted in 1933 at Worcester, Massachusetts, and ratified in 1935 at Washington), represents the latest affirmation of faith made officially by The Universalist Church of America.
The earliest "Profession of Belief" was adopted in 1803 at Winchester, New Hampshire: "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 good and profitable unto men."
And this was followed (1899, at Boston) by the "Five Principles":
"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."
5 Tufts College and Tufts College Schol of Religion; St. Lawrence University and Canton Theological School; Lombard College; Akron University (Buchtel) ; Goddard College; Clinton Liberal Institute; Westbrook Junior College; Dean Academy.
11 Perhaps the earliest preacher of Universalism in America
was Dr. George de BenneVille (1741, a physician, in Pennsylvania).
Dr. Charles Chauncy, who graduated from Harvard in 1721, and was ordained pastor of the First Church (Congregational) in Boston in 1727, was distinguished for his learning and patriotism. He became a Universalist some years before making a public avowal of his convictions, though he expressed himself freely to his friends, and submitted to them his writings on the subject.
About the year 1750 he undertook a close and critical study of the Scriptures, particularly of the epistles of Paul, in which he occupied seven of the best years of his life. As a result, he came into the belief of Universalism.
CHURCH ORGANIZATION, ADMINISTRATION, PROGRAM
Charter, Constitution & By-Laws of The Universalist Church of America.
HISTORY OF UNIVERSALIST THOUGHT
J. W. HANSON, Universalism in the First Five Hundred Years of the
Christian Church (UPH, 1899).
A. GERTRUDE EARLE, Beginnings of Universalism (UPH, 1940).
J. S. CANTWELL, ed., Manuals of Faith and Duty (UPH):
OSCAR F. SAFFORD, Hosea Ballou (UPH, 1889).
Antiphonal Readings for Free Worship (UPH, 1933), arranged by L.
Reprinted from: THE AMERICAN CHURCH, edited by Vergilius Ferm