Guide to Salvation 
Universalist Sunday School Lessons
1840 - 1870 

Rev. Lisa M.S. Friedman


            The early to mid 1800’s was a time of renewed piety and religious fervor in America - a period when evangelical religious sects flourished. Anxious to spread their saving message, many began to form new kinds of Sunday Schools in which to teach their new-found revelations and to develop their own curricula. Like their more evangelical counterparts, the Universalists were also very concerned that their children and youth have a thorough knowledge of scripture, but they sought to teach a very different interpretation of it. In the face of competition from their zealous Protestant neighbors and because of their own expansion, they too began to reevaluate they ways in which their Sunday Schools taught their young the "correct", i.e., Universalist, interpretation of scripture, theology and the moral duties which arose from them. In the words of St. John and St. Peter, printed on the title pages of two lesson books, the Universalists desired to "have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in the truth" and they wanted their children to "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you."[1]  How did they meet these goals? How were the basic tenets and controversies of mid-nineteenth century Universalism reflected in their religious education programs? What were their views of education and children? What were their Sunday Schools like?

            This paper endeavors to explore such questions through a sampling of the seven curricula published by either Abel Tompkins or the Universalist Publishing House between 1840 and 1870.[2] This period is of interest, both as a significant time in the American Sunday School movement as a whole, and as a vibrant era of Universalist history, a time of expansion, growth, and theological debate. To compare the methods of the Universalist Sunday Schools with those of other denominations is beyond the scope of this paper, although some mention will be made of the larger context in which these curricula developed. Instead, this paper will explore the curricula to discover what they can tell us about the specifically Universalist history in this period, especially the nature of its religious education approach and theological identity.  What distinguishes these curricula from their more mainline counterparts is not their form, method or educational outlook, but the uniqueness of the Universalist theology that they teach - a theology which stood in stark contrast to evangelical Protestantism in its beliefs about the human potential for good, universal salvation, and the folly of believing in Hell.

            In order to examine the religious education approach and the theological positions of these lessons most effectively, this paper will divide its analysis into three basic divisions: context, method, and content. The historical context in which these curricula were written will be explored through placing them briefly within American history in general, within the American Sunday School movement itself, and within Universalist history. An examination of their method will focus on the educational approach of the lessons - their format, goals, and learning theories. Finally, the discussion of content will highlight the theology and morality expressed in these works. Most of these curricula were part of various Sabbath School Lesson series advertised by the Universalist Sunday School Depository, and the others were clearly written with similar format and purpose. Some attempt will be made to compare them to one another in similarities and differences, as well as their development over this time period, although they are surprisingly consistent with one another.

            The years between 1840 and 1870 encompass a tense, emotional, and active time in American history, beginning in the aftermath of the second Great Awakening and leading into the devastation of civil war. If historian Gordon Wood is correct in saying that the period 1790 - 1830 was "the time of greatest religious chaos and originality in American history,"[3] then it is equally significant for our purposes that the nineteenth century as a whole has been referred to as the "era of institution building."[4] By the 1840's the values of evangelical Protestantism had become almost identical to the Republican values one needed to be an upright American citizen. As their national leaders became immersed in the battle to save the Union, an energetic movement of evangelical Protestants threw their efforts into creating voluntary institutions that could effect spiritual conversions, promote social reforms, and work toward greater social stability. Societies for the reform of schools, prisons, orphanages, and asylums, as well as abolitionist and temperance groups, emerged to try to regenerate both individuals through spiritual conversion and the society in which they lived through moral renewal.

            As Boylan remarks, the leaders of these institutions were "not merely an old elite struggling to keep alive a dying social order; they were themselves part of an emerging leadership class with close ties to the urban mercantile and manufacturing economy."[5] Increasing industrialization brought with it the rise of the middle class and the conviction that expanding a free labor economy was in keeping with important democratic and moral principles. As these zealous, middle class Protestants looked at their rapidly-changing society, with its increasing population (mostly Catholic immigrants, who, they thought, drank too much) and lack of moral cohesion, they decided that something must be done. Their conclusion was that they were the ones with the time, resources, and moral conviction to do it.

            The Sunday School was one of the institutions which received their attention and concern. Although by 1840 Sunday Schools were firmly established in America, the concerns and goals of the Sunday School movement continued to develop, especially in dialogue with the evolution of public education. In fact, the Sunday Schools began in relationship with public education. The first Sunday School established in America was founded in 1791, in Philadelphia, under the leadership of the First Day Society.[6] Modeled on British examples, these schools were created to replace a disintegrating apprenticeship program, which offered basic education to all children who participated in it, and to keep unruly children and youth off the streets on Sunday. The First Day Society was an ecumenical organization that saw itself as promoting public virtue via education, and they hired teachers, recruited students, and petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to provide free schools, so that education would not just be available to the wealthy.

            By 1819, when the last of the First Day schools was forced to close its doors, it was largely due to the fact that a new kind of Sunday School had arrived on the scene. This new school did not see its role as providing ecumenical education in the Bible and basic Republican virtues, rather its leaders saw their Sunday lessons as a vehicle for salvation and correct theological belief. To teach belief in God was not enough - it must be the understanding of God which would lead students to eternal life. These new schools grew rapidly in numbers and their influence spread beyond the Eastern seaboard; between 1825 and 1832 the American Sunday School Union saw an increase of enrollment in their schools from 75,140 to 301,358 children, ages five to fourteen - a leap from 2.2 to 7.9 percent of the American population.[7]

            Although the Sunday Schools became more and more a means of supplementing public education's seeming deficiencies, they nevertheless remained concerned about and interested in influencing the public school curricula. Most denominations, however, disagreed about what exactly was deficient in these curricula. An 1838 controversy involving Horace Mann[8], secretary to the Massachusetts's Board of Education, and Frederick A. Packard, corresponding secretary of the American Sunday School Union, is illustrative. When presented with a popular religious book and asked why it was not included in the school curricula, Mann responded because it "would be in the highest degree offensive to the Universalists" and "would ill accord with the views of the Unitarians."[9]  Commenting on the six month debate which ensued, historian Anne Boylan observes:

In their letters, Mann and Packard articulated different definitions of "sectarian" teaching. To Mann, books like Abbott's Child at Home and the publications of the American Sunday School Union were "sectarian" not because they promulgated the views of one religious denomination, but because they espoused doctrines held in common by orthodox Protestants (such as Congregationalists) but unacceptable to liberal Protestants (such as Universalists and Unitarians)... Packard, on the other hand, asserted that Mann favored the "sectarian" views of Universalist and Unitarians by refusing to sanction books that taught orthodox Protestant doctrines. The effect, he believed, would be to make only Universalist-Unitarian books acceptable in Massachusetts's schools, a policy that he denounced as "anti-evangelical".[10]


It was within this debate and context that the Universalists themselves created their own curricula, not merely concerned with ecumenical education, but also with the teaching of the Universalist gospel in opposition to the evangelism of orthodox Protestantism.

            Although the Universalists cannot theologically be classified within the mainstream of evangelical Protestantism, their social status, values and interests coincided to a large extent with these trends, debates and institutions. On the whole, they were no more friendly to the Catholics than their evangelical counterparts. They, too, were very concerned with the moral fabric of their society and felt that their Universalist gospel had something to offer their times. Many Universalists were among the burgeoning new middle class, which took the lead in establishing and running of the new voluntary associations, and they were especially interested in all areas of education. Two of the authors of the curricula explored in this paper were also fund-raisers, founders, and former presidents of two major Universalist colleges, Tufts and Buchtel. Another was extremely active in the Temperance movement. Although they did not participate in the American Sunday School Union due to theological differences, the Universalists took much of their conception of Sunday School from the Union, borrowing the format of their curricula and adapting them to their own usage.

            The results reflect the efforts of a diverse group of clergyman to fill the gaps which were felt in Universalist church regarding their Sunday School lessons. There does not seem to have been a committee or organization to oversee the writing and production of these curricula, nor did the Universalists have a Sunday School Society of their own until much later than mainline denominations. Each author seems to have been self-inspired to make his own contribution to fill this void. The seven curricula which will be considered in depth in this paper are as follows: Questions on Select Portions of Scripture, Designed for the Higher Classes in Sabbath Schools (1847), by Charles Hudson, The Sabbath School Expositor: Being a Compend of the Doctrines Held by the Universalist Denomination, Designed for the Use of Teachers, Bible Classes, and the Older Pupils in Sabbath Schools (1850), by John M. Austin, Bible Exercises or the Sunday School One Class (1854), by A.A. Miner, Guide to Salvation: The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ: Designed Expressly for Universalist Sunday Schools (1863), by L.J. Fletcher, Gospel Doctrines for Sabbath Schools (1865), by W.R. French, The Sunday School Companion: Designed for Bible Classes and the Older Pupils in the Sunday School, (1862) by L.G. Bartholomew, and finally, The Christian Way for Advanced Scholars in Sunday Schools and Bible Classes (1868), by Benton Smith.

            Each of these curricula was written for a specific purpose and with specific goals in mind, with each author writing out of his own experience and educational theory. Some were clearly written for Universalists alone, endeavoring either to propound their own version of Universalism or to teach generally acceptable doctrines, while others sought to present the debates as they stood or to edit them out altogether. For example, Hudson not only sought to "give a new impulse to the study of the scriptures by our children and youth", but also labored to "exhibit the character of God and his design in the kingdom of grace" and to "exhibit some of the evidence of divine revelation, that in this age of infidelity, the young mind might be furnished in some degree with an antidote against the poison of skepticism."[11]  Similarly, Fletcher's curriculum declared his intention that "in this book the child is to find his or her example of a true life, and the foundation of his or her faith in immortality."[12]

            Such deliberately sectarian aims stand in contrast to the goals of some of the other authors. W.R. French agreed that children needed to "be taught the doctrines of the Bible so as to have a clear idea of them", but nevertheless attempted to present these doctrines in such a way as to "keep them so free from individual opinions that they may be suited for general use."[13]  Dr. A.A. Miner was primarily concerned about the lack of variety and the need for a "clearer conception of the order and scope of the Holy Scriptures", and so his book is an attempt to bring an entire school together each day for one closing lesson in order to study the Bible together. He even writes that "the scope and design of the book do not include doctrinal teaching, and it may prove equally useful to Sunday-schools of all denominations."[14]John M. Austin took the entirely different approach of including the diversity of opinions within his curriculum itself, explaining that since he was "fully aware that on a few minor point, a difference of opinion prevails among Universalist, the author has endeavored to present each conflicting view in a clear light, as held by its adherents."[15]

            This diversity of goals for the curricula, informed in part by their vision of Universalism and its essential tenets, is no surprise when one looks at the diverse background of its authors. For example, Charles Hudson, who rails in his preface about the poison of skepticism, was one of the most scholarly proponents and staunchest defenders of Restorationism (belief that one needed to atone for one’s sin before reconciliation with God was possible) during the height of the controversy over this issue in the 1830's. Originally published in 1830, his lessons were so popular that Rev. Otis A Skinner, a leading opponent of Restorationist views, edited some of Hudson's text for an "improved edition", explaining, "as the author's views, on some texts, are different from those generally held by the Universalists, a wish has often been expressed, that the book might be so altered, as to render it entirely acceptable to all our Schools and Bible Classes."[16] Because there was no centralized denominational process producing curricula for use by all the churches, Universalists often had to adapt lessons by their own religious fellows in order to meet the needs and desires of individual churches and Sunday Schools.

            Despite this diversity of goals, with few exceptions, the curricula are consistently structured in variants of a question and answer format and organized into a series of lessons.  Hudson varied from the other, later curricula in that he began with extensive Bible quotations instead of just giving references to verses, but his overall structure is nevertheless typical of the others. It is important to note that he acknowledges having adapted the plan for his manual from two other writers, Fisk and Allen, but developed it, especially the kind of answers, to more Universalist views. Each lesson consists of reading a set of verses, for example, Lesson I on John the Baptist begins with Luke, chapt 1, 5-23, 57-80. Hudson has two kinds of questions, one kind in large type and the other in small. There is one large type question per verse, aimed at the student repeating the meaning of the verse, and these are intended especially for the younger students. The questions in small type are more interpretive, asking for the meaning of words or for historical or theological interpretation; "What is an angel? What is it to be great in the sight of the Lord? Who were the heathen?"[17] In explaining the purpose of these questions, Hudson writes that they are "more difficult in their nature, and generally have no reference to guide the scholar. The writer has endeavored to make these questions somewhat inductive, but at the same time leaving them in such a manner as to exercise the judgment of the learner."[18]  Other authors use such inductive questions for similar purposes, but with less frequency.

            Five of the seven curricula organize their lessons under similar headings, such as "The Johns of the New Testament", "The Magi Visit Jesus", "Jewish Forms of Worship", etc., but use scriptural quotes either as the intended response to their questions or as references to support the answers given, if scripture is even quoted at all. Smith, in teaching the parable of the rich lawyer, refers to more than one gospel: "Who came to Jesus to inquire how he might have eternal life? Ans. A certain lawyer. Luke x. 25. What were his worldly circumstances? Ans. He had great possessions. Matt xix. 22."[19] Miner's first lesson, entitled "Names Given to the Bible", shows another kind of lesson which deals with more interpretive, non-scriptural issues: "What is the meaning of the word Bible? Book. Why is the Holy Bible so called? It is the best of books."[20] Still another type of question and answer exchange, from teacher to student, is illustrated by Fletcher's lesson, "Review: What Children Should Learn from the Childhood of Jesus", which asks children to make connections with their own lives:

T: What should children learn from this example of Jesus? S: To honor and obey their parents regardless of their earthly condition. T: What other lesson does that example teach? S: It teaches that the child of poor parents may be just as great and good as the child of parents who are rich... T: What place of worship may be the same to you as the Temple and Synagogue were to Jesus? S: The Sunday school.[21]


These examples illustrate how the question and answer format was used to for many purposes: to help students learn scriptural passages, to understand basic theological tenets and interpretations, and to relate these truths to their own daily realities.

            A notable exception to this format, although not to its goals, is Austin's curricula, The Sabbath School Expositor, which was written to teach the logic and content of Universalist doctrine to older pupils. Unlike the brief question and answer dialogue, Austin takes a particular theological theme and presents in numbered paragraphs the argument for the Universalist understanding of each doctrine. At the end of each lesson, there is a page or two of questions for the student. For example, Lesson I begins with the doctrine of the existence of God which Austin goes on to support by explaining the following five points: 1) the head of the universe must be a being of infinite intelligence, 2) such evidence is found in nature, 3) there is the presence of a perceptible design in the universe, 4) an effect cannot exceed its cause, 5) God is immutable, but our conception of Him is ever changing.[22]  The questions that follow lead the student, with various degrees of subtlety, to repeat the logic, order and content of Austin's arguments.

            These curricula, even Austin's, all rely on the question and answer format to instruct their students through memorization first, and inductive reasoning second, depending on the students' age, skill, and familiarity with the basic subject matter. A few, especially Fletcher’s, recommend teaching the lessons at least two times through to the same students, once for purposes of basic understanding and second for more subtle points of learning. The large type and small type questions, which several of them use to some extent, allow for a deeper examination of the lessons, when appropriate, and also serve to make each lesson more or less adaptable for young and older audiences. During this time, rote memorization was becoming less popular as a teaching technique, although it remained part of curricula as these seven illustrate. Miner is explicit in his instructions to the teachers trying to use his book:

Whenever the answer to a question consists of three or more particulars, and is followed by an affirmation corresponding to the question, let each particular be twice repeated. For example, the last question of Lesson VII., What are the five books of Moses?, should be answered, Genesis, Genesis, Exodus, Exodus, Leviticus, Leviticus, Numbers, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Deuteronomy, are the five books of Moses, are the five books of Moses. By this means, the youngest children in the school will be able to join the exercise and learn the lesson well.[23]


Yet some of the other authors were explicitly concerned that the lesson format still allow for discussion and interpretation by the teacher.  Fletcher reminds his reader that his book is only a helper, that the teacher should engage the issues raised themselves. He urges the teachers to "help them by your better vision and teach them by your more perfect thought... Talk much with your classes. Call out the thoughts of children by many questions. Make it one of your chief endeavors to develop thought, in the mind of the child, and turn it in the right direction."[24]

            This approach and structure in Sunday School lessons is very much in keeping with the larger trends of the time. In the 1820's and 30's, many Sunday School educators of all denominations were trying to move away from pure rote memorization to a method which engaged the students' religious sensibilities, a change which set the tone for the next two decades. They also began to form classes by age groupings rather than reading skill.  Curricula began to place greater emphasis on understanding Biblical precepts. As one of the managers of the American Sunday School Union observed, "It is a source of regret that many pupils of Sunday schools are ignorant of the meaning of those passages of scripture which they commit to memory", while another union member opined "however desirable storing the memories of children may be, it is still more desirable that their minds should be enlightened, and their consciences awakened by its solemn truths."[25]  The Universalists appear to have wholeheartedly agreed, although they saw in those passages a different meaning and a different truth than many of their fellow Christians.

            Like other Sunday Schools, Universalists tried to keep their classes small, six to eight students, so that the students could form intimate relationships with their teachers. The role of the teachers was not merely academic, and especially during the 1860's and 70's, as new ideas about childhood became popular, they were strongly encouraged to influence their pupils through their own moral and spiritual example. The goals of the more mainstream Sunday Schools which developed from teaching reading and memorization at the beginning of the century to the desire for encouraging conversion, and from there to a late century ideal of Christian nurture, are reflected with a more liberal slant in the Universalist lessons.  Writing originally in the 1830's, Hudson prefaced his lessons with a desire to "give that exercise to the scholar's mind which was desirable"[26]but by 1862, L.G. Bartholomew was warning teachers:

no pupil can make great proficiency in spiritual knowledge, who depends entirely on the letter of text books, or who is able to answer, even satisfactorily, the several questions contained in the lessons. There must be original thought and investigation. The mind... must think fearlessly - independently, and not be tied down to abstract formula. [Therefore] there is no attempt at an exhaustive analysis of the subject treated, .... there is latitude intentionally allowed for the Teacher to elaborate each answer, and by familiar discussion... to amplify his own thoughts upon it.[27]


This change in method mirrors the shift in the understanding of the nature of childhood around mid-century from the belief that children were sinful and at the height of their potential for corruptibility to a romantic, Victorian vision of childhood as a time of innocence and possibility.[28] 

            The authors of these curricula understood that the success of their lessons depended in large part on the skill and dedication of the teachers who used them. Therefore it is not surprising that most of the seven curricula discussed in this paper had specific instructions in the prefaces or separate explanatory notes intended for the teachers as to how their lessons might be best used (all were intended for use by a teacher in a classroom, with the exception of Miner's one Bible class, which was an opportunity to bring all the classes together at the end of the day for a shared lesson by the superintendent). There was also a wealth of advice literature throughout the century, and an increasing number of training conferences which represented endeavors to train these volunteer teachers accordingly. A Universalist contribution to this effort is found in Universalism and Problems of the Universalist Church by William Frost Crispin. In it he bemoans the need for better organization and management of the Sunday Schools and in his chapter devoted to this topic, he includes a number of short treatises written by experienced Sunday School teachers and superintendents. The following title are illustrative: "The Ideal Sunday School", "How to Teach", "Illustration", "The Cheery Teacher", and "The Dead Bible Class".[29] Universalist Sunday Schools clearly shared many of the same organizational and recruitment dilemmas that their orthodox neighbors faced.

            Indeed, after surveying the educational approach and structure of the Universalist Sunday Schools, it is clear that a stranger looking into the classroom through a window would not be able to deduce what denomination the school belonged to. It is the content of the lessons themselves which differentiated the Universalist schools so firmly from the others. The method and structure of running the Sunday schools and the curricula themselves are in much keeping with the dominant trends of other Sunday schools in this century, but the Universalist lessons offer a unique take on religion.

            It is interesting that despite some difference in emphasis in their theological interpretations of Universalism, the seven authors from this period show consistent agreement on the areas of subject matter for their curricula. First and foremost is the Bible itself, both the Old and New Testament, as well as the maps of Palestine, Jerusalem and St. Paul's missionary travels. The lessons on the Bible consistently cover not only the stories themselves, but also points of historical fact and interpretation. For example, Hudson's lessons asks such questions as "What is wild honey? Where was it found?..... What is a publican? Were the Jews at that time tributary?"[30] and a footnote from Fletcher's work about the magi's guide informs the teacher and student of a renowned scholar’s opinion that "we are not to understand that this was what we generally denominate a star."[31] The second important subject matter area addresses the theological interpretation of Bible passages, as well as instruction in issues about the nature of God, Jesus, etc.  Taking some examples from Bartholomew, we find the following typical inquiries and answers: "Q: What is the first thing necessary to faith in the Scriptures? A: A belief in the existence of God. Heb. xi. 6. Q: Has God been revealed to us in any other way than through the Scriptures? A: Yes; the whole creation reveals him. Psalm xix. 1-3"[32] The third area which the authors address consists of the specific moral virtues which the Scripture and God teach. W.R. French asks "Q: What are our duties to our fellow-men? A: To exercise charity, kindness and humanity"[33] , and Hudson directly challenges his students: "Have you attended to all the foregoing lessons?...  Have you increased in virtue as well as in knowledge?"[34]

            As he encourages each teacher and student to exegete these topics, each author reveals his biases in three basic religious areas of Universalist belief: the sources of religious authority, the theological cornerstones of Universalism, human nature, which includes the moral/spiritual virtues necessary to a fulfilling and ethical life. Although they are all in agreement as to what the Universalism of this century is not in their opposition to orthodoxy, their disagreements about the nature of Universalism reveal much about the development of and tensions within Universalist theology during this time. A brief look at these four aspects of Universalist theology provide some sense of what was at stake for these author if their lessons failed to pass on Universalism as they saw it.

            Throughout the seven curricula there are four sources of religious authority which are addressed, although not every author defines or recognizes them equally. The first source of authority is the most obvious, the teaching of scripture. All seven writers acknowledge the centrality of scripture to their Universalist theology. The Old Testament or "Old Dispensation" is seen as serving to prepare the way for the New, and is not treated in full by all the curricula. Hudson begins with John the Baptist and works forward through highlights of the New Testament, only to jump back for a brief review of Genesis and some of the Psalms. He does use his small type questions to review such themes as the meaning of Passover, the history of the Hebrews, and significance of Jesus extending his message to the gentiles. Austin refers to the Old Testament only when it supports his argument, either about the nature of God or the setting of the stage for Jesus. Miner's curricula is unusually thorough in his lessons, asking the students to divide the Old Testament by author into historical, poetical, and prophetical books, and other such details. More historical in his focus, he has his students recite the cities of Samaria, of Judea, etc. In all of the curricula there is a clear sense of the New Testament being superior to the Old.

            The second source of religious authority that is mentioned most in the earlier curricula is that of revelation. How each author defines revelation is not always perfectly clear. When Hudson asks his pupils: "It was predicted that Christ should enlighten the Gentiles: did they ever enjoy the light of divine revelation before the advent of Christ?"[35], it is not clear what kind of answer he expects. That he has some reservations about what constitutes divine communication from God is represented in his questions about the Wise Men's search for Jesus, Matt. 1:1-23. He queries:

Several divine communications in this and the preceding lesson, were made known by dreams. Are dreams the surest mode of divine communication? When the object to be effected is only to convince the person himself, is not a dream sufficient? ... If the command to flee to Egypt had been given in a voice from heaven, audible to all the people, would this have defeated the object? Though a dream may be sufficient to convince the individual himself, would this evidence be sufficient for others? Do the great truths of divine revelation rest upon such evidence alone?[36]


Hudson wants to affirm the fact that revelation is real and to have some means to test it as true from a rational perspective. Bartholomew has an even more rational understanding of revelation as reflected in the following exchange: Q: What do you understand of revelation? A: A disclosure of truth. Deut. xxix. 29 Q: How was the revelation given? A: Through inspired men. 2 Tim iii. 16."[37]  What appears to be at stake in these distinctions is to what extent revelation is a direct and mystical experience versus an experience of truth via normal intellectual or spiritual insights.

            Part of the way that Hudson and the other authors affirm revelation as a valid religious experience is by appealing to the third source of religious authority, the natural world and creation that surround them. In arguing for the mystical nature of the resurrection, Hudson, argues "the resurrection is a miracle, and so must be above the common course of nature, but is it any more incomprehensible in itself,  than the germination a blade of grass?"[38] Austin cites the existence of a design in nature in his defense of the existence and unity of God. French, in his lesson on "The Spirituality of God", designs the following exchange:

Q: How is [God] further described? A: As the invisible God. Q: Can we know that an invisible being exists?... Can you give some examples? A: The wind, electricity, attraction. Q: How do we know these exist? A: From their effects, which are very great. Q: What proves the existence of God? A: The works of creation so great and wonderful.[39]


Over and over, these curricula cite the natural world as valid and rational evidence for the Universalist gospel.

            The final source of religious authority which is referenced in these lessons is that of humankind's moral and intellectual capacity. Austin is perhaps the clearest in arguing that humans were endowed with a mind and soul for religious purpose. He asserts: "Had man been endowed with nothing more than a body, with its appetites and instincts, he would be simply a graceful and cunning brute", but it is "in the proper exercise of the divine endowments which constitute the soul, that rational creatures find their highest enjoyments."[40] God has created humankind in His image, a point which French emphasizes in his discussion of the meaning of God’s role as Father: "Q: Is he called the Father of Nature? A: No; he is the Creator of Nature.Q: Why can he not be called the Father of Nature? A: Because nature has no rational soul. Q: Of what, then is he the Father? A: Of intelligent, moral beings."[41]   God's gifts to human nature are a source of connection with him when properly attended to and exercised - they are not gifts to be wasted. Fletcher has his students recite this in terms which they might relate to:

T: How do your hands grow strong? S: By using them. T: How does your mind grow strong? S: By using it, in study, and in the application of that I have already learned. T: And do you not suppose that your moral and religious nature grows strong by the exercise of its own powers? S: I think it must be so.[42]


This assumption that humans have the capability of understanding God, his purpose, and their place in it is at the heart of these curricula's emphasis on the importance of religious education itself.

            This faith in the goodness of creation and humankind, and in its being of source of religious strength is one of the most distinguishing tenets of Universalism. In appealing to each of these sources, the Universalist authors reflect their liberal Protestantism, as well as the influence of science, transcendentalism, and other nineteenth century modes of thought. As one looks at the theology which arose from these sources for these nineteenth century ministers, one begins to see how Universalist theology itself was undergoing transition.

            There were three cornerstones of Universalist theology which can be seen to be evolving in these curricula: the nature of God, the role of Jesus, and the good news of the Universalist gospel, as seen through beliefs about death, punishment, forgiveness, and the nature of the afterlife. Of these, the nature of God probably changes the least throughout the century, as his centrality has not yet begun to wane in the face of modernity. Nevertheless how God is understood by the Universalists is central to every other theological tenet which they held. All of the authors affirm his existence as the center of faith. The first four lessons in Austin's work outline the Universalist doctrine as he sees it concerning the existence, the unity, the attributes, and the government of God. In these, Austin characterizes in direct fashion an image of God which is described more obliquely in the others. According to Austin, God is the Head of the Universe, being of infinite intelligence and ultimate perfection. God, himself, is immutable, and it is only humankind's perception of Him which changes, as God sees fit to enlighten us according to God's plan. God is the designer of all creation, and nothing happens that is not according to his Divine plan.

            Austin maintains that the fact that there is but one God "forms the foundation of all enlightened and true religion... the doctrine of a plurality of gods, whether in the gross from in which it exists among Pagan nations, or as it is found in the modified theory of a trinity of persons in the God head, alike conflicts with the deductions of Reason and the teachings of Nature and Revelation."[43]  There are two kinds of attributes that God possesses: natural ones, such as omnipotence and infinity, and moral ones, such as truth, justice, mercy, etc. Interestingly enough, Austin insists that love is not an attribute of the Divine, for "it composes the entire essence of his moral nature. God is love... LOVE itself."[44]  No principle exists which opposes this nature in God. Austin dismisses descriptions of the wrathful God of the Old Testament as words which are not to be understood literally, for "they were used by the divine writers, in conformity with the highly metaphorical style of composition in ancient times: and, according to all enlightened biblical interpretation, should be viewed merely as figurative representations of God’s disapprobation of sin, and his purpose to punish the guilty."[45] The other authors, both in their direct and indirect treatment of God, corroborate this all-powerful, all-knowing, loving Being, who has designed the world and all of creation for a good purpose.

            Out of this understanding of God comes the speculation about what the nature of his son might be, the meaning of that son's life on earth, and the nature of the son's role in religious life after his resurrection. All of the authors agree that Jesus was indeed the son of God and messenger of the purest form of the gospel as it has been made known to humankind. Some are adamant in making the point that Jesus was the son of God, not God himself, but rather "one in spirit and one in purpose."[46] Three images of Jesus are prevalent: Jesus the Redeemer, Jesus the Instructor, and Jesus the Mediator.  The first and third images express the more divine attributes of Jesus within Universalism, while the second image, that of the Instructor, plants the seeds for a more unitarian view of the importance of Jesus which would emerge within Universalism toward the turn of the century.

            Operating under the assumption that the perfect God never had anything but a perfect plan for his creation, many of the curricula teach the doctrine of the preexistence of Jesus. In presenting his summary of the diversity of views among Universalists as to this point, Austin is quick to observe that the belief is Jesus' preexistence is not essential to the Universalist faith. He, however, finds it the most reasonable doctrine, as it puts Jesus in the best light, willing to sacrifice his place in the heavens to come down and be with his people. French cites scriptural proof for this, arguing that Jesus said "I came down from heaven" and "Before Abraham was, I am."[47] This doctrine of Christ's preexistence is consistent with the image of God as perfect designer and with Jesus' roles as Redeemer and Mediator. Jesus is the one who comes to Earth with the good news that all can eventually attain reconciliation with God, understood as a state of spiritual perfection, and who aids people to work towards that perfection both while they are alive on earth and in their afterlife, if it is needed.

            Jesus’ purpose on Earth was to bring this gospel to all people and convince them of its truth. Both Austin and Hudson are clear in their desire to prove the miracles performed by Jesus as necessary, real, and believable to the rational mind. Both argue that Jesus needed to show proof of his authority from God, because the Jews would not have believed his message without such proof. Austin even quotes a Unitarian minister, Dr. William Ellery Channing, to say:

When Jesus Christ came into the world, nature had failed to communicate instructions to men, in which, as intelligent beings, they had the deepest concern... Now such miracles are not to be met and disposed of by general reasonings, which apply only to insulated, unimportant, uninfluential prodigies.[48]


However, Austin does note a diversity of opinions espoused by Universalists as to how Jesus achieved these divine feats. According to him, some Universalists believed that Jesus "was enabled by God to call to his aid the agency of some positive and active law in nature, beyond the reach of man", while others, Austin among them, found it more reasonable to believe that Jesus was able, through God's plan and assistance, to arrest the operation of natural laws for those moments (this second opinion being deemed more near to the idea of an actual miracle).[49]

            Especially in the earlier curricula, Jesus' primary importance is his act of redemption and his heavenly role as mediator, but he is also lauded as a perfect example of how humanity should be. This is the main function of his role as instructor, to lead people through example, parable, and divine mediation along their spiritual path to new birth and oneness with God. As W.R. French highlights in his twelfth lesson, "Christ Our Example"[50], Jesus' most important act of example is his resistance to the many temptations to sin here on earth and his willingness to bear his trials and learn from them. In short, he is the ideal of a moral and spiritually perfect being, and most Universalists believed that at some point in their spiritual journey their souls would achieve a similar state. At the end of the lesson, French asks his students: "Q: What if we fail in any respect? A: Make greater effort in future time."[51] Many believed that Jesus would continue to guide them, in this life and whatever came after, until the transformation was complete, so great was God's love for humankind and the perfection of his plan.

            This was the heart of the nineteenth century Universalist understanding of the good news of the gospel. All of God's creation and plan worked to teach humankind to resist temptation and sin, identified as a kind of moral death, and to bring their souls back to their original purity and to the eternal peace.  Where Universalists disagreed with one another was whether or not the learning ended with one's physical death or continued on in the afterlife until perfection was reached, and what was necessary for this saving perfection to be achieved. The trials and temptations experienced in this human life were viewed as part of God's plan. In Austin's words, "The imperfections to which we are subjected in the present existence operate as a healthful discipline to develop the best qualities of the heart, and prepare us to appreciate in an exalted degree, and enjoy with a keen relish, the blessings which a higher world will bestow upon us."[52]

            Out of this gospel comes the Universalists’ view of human nature. With this "healthful discipline" working to perfect our souls, it is logical that he Universalist image of human nature which is embodied in these curricula is not the image of innate human depravity, as taught by Universalism’s orthodox counterparts. Instead, humankind is seen as having been made in God's image, endowed with the moral and intellectual capacities which are a part of God's power and perfection. Austin asserts that "mankind have been endowed by their maker with moral agency or freedom... Man's accountability rests solely on his moral freedom. He can be held responsible for his actions, only to the degree that he is at liberty to select his own course." Sin and wickedness come "after years of the assaults of temptation", rather than being humankind's natural state.[53] Salvation and spiritual perfection come through learning to discipline the heart and soul, and so Austin rails that "any system of theology which teaches that Christ came to save from deserved punishment - thus virtually instructing men that they can sin with impunity to any extent, and still escape all the penalty denounced against it must necessarily be defective both theoretically and practically."[54]

            Central to the Universalist understanding of spiritual improvement is the relationship between punishment, repentance, and forgiveness.  The curricula writers are clear that the promise of God's ultimate forgiveness does not mean a release from the consequences of one's actions. Austin writes, "punishments are emendatory, resulting in the reformation and restorations of those who endure them."[55] Eternal punishment referents are not properly translated from the Greek. To truly repent one's actions entails a change of the heart, a kind of spiritual transformation. Austin continues, "the change wrought by repentance must be experienced by every individual who has ever committed known and willful wickedness, before salvation and happiness can be experienced."[56] This change is viewed as a New Birth of sorts, or a rebirth to one's original state of moral innocence, which is God's gift of forgiveness. Austin is quick to warn that "forgiveness is not the remitting of punishment. Nor are men forgiven or pardoned by God, simply because they have been punished."[57] Hence repentance is one of the first and most important duties which the curricula encourage their students to embody.

            There are several other moral virtues or duties which the curricula teach in order to encourage their pupils along the path of spirituality improvement. W.R. French's lesson on duty itself points to three areas of duty which the Universalists deemed important: "Q: Into how many classes may our duties be divided? A: Duties to God, to ourselves, and to our fellow men."[58]  He goes on to explain that one’s duties to God consists of the obligation to love, obey and worship him, while one’s duty to oneself is to cultivate the powers and faculties we possess "that we may be capable of doing greater good."[59]  To one’s fellow-men, ones owes the exercise of charity, kindness, and humanity. Austin expresses the essence of these duties in a slightly different manner:

These duties, both to God and fellow-beings are all summed up, by the saviour, in two commandments. ‘Thou shalt love the Lord they God, with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it. ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’.[60]


All duties spring from the need to honor the love of God and to obey his commandments.

             In addition to such duties as repentance and forgiveness, several of the curricula have lessons on or refer to such virtues as honesty, fairness and equity, frugality, temperance, humility, charity, and Sabbath observance. Many devote an entire lesson to each virtue, expounding upon its roots and examples in Scripture and relating it to the children’s experience. As a whole, these more specific, more easily quantifiable qualities reflect the middle-class Protestant ethic which emerged during this century. They also embody the spirit of social reform in which the Universalists took part. Their emphasis in these curricula reveal Universalism’s self-identification with the republican ethos of this time period and a more Victorian morality.

            Although the virtues that the Universalists espoused had much in common with mainline Protestantism, it is clear that the theological sources from which they derived those virtues was uniquely their own. The desire to teach new generations of Universalists the pure gospel was a challenge to Universalists of this time, for there were were many who opposed their views, and there were also many forces and debates which impacted the Universalism of this time. New understandings of science, human development, and republicanism, along with theological controversies around transcendentalism, restorationism, and the nature of Jesus all led to a slow change in some basic Universalist tenets. The authors of these curricula show both a significant amount of consistency in the Universalism which they teach, but the image of Universalism which they present also contains the seeds of change.

            In order to fully comprehend the significance of this time period and its influence on Universalist theology, it is helpful to have a framework within which to examine the Universalism which these curricula represent. Historian George Hunston Williams, looking at Universalism as of 1870, classifies three different conceptions of the church which were prevalent at the Gloucester Convention of that year, and which appear in the curricula and writings leading up to it. His three classifications are: Christian Universalism, Republican Universalism, and Restitutionist World Religion Universalism. Of these, the first two are most relevant to the Christian Universalism encouraged through these lessons.

            Christian Universalism itself has three subgroups, according to Williams. The first phase grew directly out of the Universalist fathers, John Murray and Elhanan Winchester, and looked forward to a redemptive future with God, when all would be saved, while simultaneously rejoicing in the redemptive past of Jesus' resurrection as the revelation of this truth. This earliest form of Christian Universalism would become known as Restorationism, for they still believed that one had to atone for one's sins before one could be reconciled with God. The second phase was best expressed through Hosea Ballou the first and Hosea Ballou the second. Going back to Origen of Alexandria, the Ballous argued for what Williams calls a "fully unitarian Universalism with the stress no longer upon the afterlife, but simply on the constancy of the divine benevolence in all stages of creation and on an uncalculating human benevolence in response to the divine plenitude of purpose."[61] This in turn led to the third phase, which was a more moralistic, Jesus-centered Universalism, which took some of the mysticism out of the Ballous' theology.

            The curricula which have been explored in this paper reflect a melding of these three phases identified by Williams. Especially in Hudson, one sees the emphasis on the need to atone for one’s sins before one’s soul is perfect enough to be fully reconciled with God. In Austin, particularly, this view of the importance of repentance is side by side with the image of a benevolent God, whose very design for creation contains the natural impulse within all beings to work toward their own perfection, which they are in harmony with their true nature. Finally, examples such as Bartholomew’s understanding of revelation as a disclosure of a truth through inspired men, not necessarily directly from God, hint at a more moralistic, less mystical Universalism than that seen in some of the earlier lesson books. What is striking here is that traces of all three can be found alike somewhere within each curricula, a fact which suggests that these curricula were expressing a time of great momentum and flux within our theological development.  

            The second main conception of the church which Williams identifies is that of Republican Universalism. By this he means a vision of Universalism as the "Democracy of Christianity". Here Universalists not only saw their religious values as congruous with those of the Republic, but they claimed that "theology, and polity, and above all theodicy made of them the most distinctive bearers of the ethos of the Republic."[62] This conception of the church took on more meaning and emphasis after the Civil War and during the Reconstruction period, but is clearly evident in at least in its budding stages in the Republican virtues and social reform which the curricula promote.

            Finally, the third conception which Williams argues is of Restitutionist World Religion Universalism. It was influenced most by communitarianism, transcendentalism and evolutionism. It distanced itself from identification solely with American democracy or eventually even Christianity. This conception understood Universalism to be a "Religion of Greatness", destined to preserve a global humanism, and considered it the most highly developed form of religion.

This conception is not obviously present in the curricula examined here, but is certainly apparent in the curricula which begin to appear in the 1880’s, which indicate that something significant is occurring in post-Civil War Universalism during the 1870’s.

            The context, method, and content of these seven curricula have now been examined at length, but more research remains to be done before these issues are explored in full. Our examination leaves the following questions unanswered:  How did the seeds of theological change grow over the century? Was there as much consistency among Universalists in their theology as these seven curricula would indicate? How did the image of God and Jesus change over time and what specifically influenced this change? Were there other styles of religious instruction used in Universalist Sunday School? Did any women author curricula? The answers to these questions would serve to expand our understanding of the issues of this important era of Universalist history.

             Nevertheless, these seven curricula offer a strikingly comprehensive picture of Universalist religious education and theology during this period. It is clear that the early to mid-nineteenth century was a vibrant time, both in American religious history in general, and within Universalism. Universalists renewed their efforts to teach their faith to new generations, borrowing from their more evangelical peers their methods and structure in order to do so. They were able to achieve this without compromising their theological integrity, and they continued to proclaim the gospel of Universal salvation, even as their understanding of the nature and source of the religious experience and their image of Jesus slowly became less mystical and more moralistic.


Works Cited

Primary Sources

Austin, John M., Sunday School Expositor, Boston: Abel Tompkins, 1850.


Bartholomew, L.G.,The Sunday School Companion, Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1862.


Fletcher,L.J. ,Guide to Salvation:  The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ:  Designed Expressly for Universalist Sunday Schools. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1863.


French, W.R.,Gospel Doctrines for the Use of Sabbath School. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1865.


Hudson, Charles, Questions on Select Portions of Scripture Designed for the Higher Classes in Sabbath Schools, Boston: B.B. Mussey & A. Tompkins, 1847.


Miner, A.A., Bible Exercises or The Sunday School One Class. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1854.


Smith, Benton,The Christian Way For Advanced Scholars in Sunday Schools and Bible Classes. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1868.


Unknown, ed.Church of Our Father. Detroit: Universalist Society, May 1882 - February 1883.


Secondary Sources

Boylan, Anne M., Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988


Crispin,William Frost,Universalism and Problems of the Universalist Church OR A Statement of Our Doctrines, the Reasons for Preaching Them, the Causes Retarding the Growth of Universalism AND A Plea for Better Methods; Also A Discussion of the Work of the Church and the Duty of the Laity; Including Hints and Helps for Pastors, Officers, Teachers, and Parents, on the Organizational and Management of Sunday Schools and on Teaching and Covering Classes, Akron: Ohio: Beacon Publishing Company, 1888.


Hatch, Nathan O., The Democratization of Early Christianity, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 220.


Williams, George Hunston, "American Universalism: A Bicentennial Historical Essay."  In:The Journal of the Universalist Historical Society, Vol IX. Boston: Universalist Historical Society, 1971.



[1] John M. Austin, Sunday School Expositor, Boston: Abel Tompkins, 1850 and L.G. Bartholomew, The Sunday School Companion, Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1862.

[2]The MacLean collection does not have any curricula published before 1840 in its Nineteenth Century collection, but my hunch is that curricula from the 1820's and 30's would be comparable, given that this period saw the emergence of this type of Sunday School format. I have two reasons for choosing 1870 as the cut off point: first, because of George Hunston Williams' thesis (in his essay "American Universalism") that this year, with the Gloucester Convention, was a milestone and turning point in Universalism as a whole, and second, because the Sunday School lessons that I researched after 1870 did seem to have a different theological tenor.  I will reference them when appropriate for purposes of contrast.

[3] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of Early Christianity, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 220.

[4] Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, p. 1.

[5]Boylan, p. 3.

[6]Universalists often mention their claim to having begun the American Sunday School movement through Dr. Benjamin Rush's leadership in this society.

[7]Boylan, p. 11.

[8]Horace Mann is an interesting figure in our Unitarian Universalist history for many reasons, but it is here interesting to note that he was a Unitarian, who professed belief in universal salvation.

[9]Boylan,p. 55.


[11]Charles Hudson, Questions on Select Portions of Scripture Designed for the Higher Classes in Sabbath Schools, Boston: B.B. Mussey & A. Tompkins, 1847, p. iii-iv.

[12]L.J. Fletcher, Guide to Salvation:  The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ:  Designed Expressly for Universalist Sunday Schools. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1863, p. v.

[13]W.R. French, Gospel Doctrines for the Use of Sabbath School. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1865, p. 4.

[14]A.A. Miner, Bible Exercises or The Sunday School One Class. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1854, p. iii-iv.

[15]Austin, p. v.

[16]Hudson, p. 6.

[17]Hudson, p. 7-9

[18]Hudson, p. iv-v.

[19]Benton Smith, The Christian Way For Advanced Scholars in Sunday Schools and Bible Classes. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1868, p. 10.

[20]Miner, p. 7.

[21]Fletcher, p. 44, 47-48.

[22]Austin, p. 7-10.

[23]Miner, p. ii.

[24]Fletcher, p. v.

[25]Boylan, p. 135.

[26]Hudson, p. iii-v.

[27]Bartholomew, p. v-vi.

[28]The monthly Sunday School publications with lessons which I researched from the early 1880's evidenced this change even more strikingly. In explaining the class structure and infant care options, the publication states: "Unfortunate believers in the truth of the old rhyme 'Adam's fall, we sinned all' are invited to visit this department and get a better ideas of the law of heredity." A later edition also contained a sermon by Rev. Rexford on the need for children's religious education to be as natural as possible. unknown, ed.Church of Our Father Detroit: Universalist Society, May 1882 - February 1883.

[29]William Frost Crispin, Universalism and Problems of the Universalist Church OR A Statement of Our Doctrines, the Reasons for Preaching Them, the Causes Retarding the Growth of Universalism AND A Plea for Better Methods; Also A Discussion of the Work of the Church and the Duty of the Laity; Including Hints and Helps for Pastors, Officers, Teachers, and Parents, on the Organizational and Management of Sunday Schools and on Teaching and Covering Classes, Akron: Ohio: Beacon Publishing Company, 1888, p. 161-200.

[30]Hudson, p. 17-18.

[31]Fletcher, p. 29.

[32]Bartholomew, p. 10-11.

[33]French, p. 96.

[34]Hudson, p. 163.

[35]Hudson, p. 12.

[36]Hudson, p. 14.

[37]Bartholomew, p. 9.

[38]Hudson, p. 114.

[39]French, p. 21-22.

[40]Austin, p. 88,91.

[41]French, p. 23-24.

[42]Fletcher, p. 62-63.

[43] Austin, p. 14.

[44]Austin, p. 22.

[45]Austin, p. 23.

[46]Bartholomew, p. 52.

[47]French, p. 34.

[48]Austin, p. 64-65.

[49]Austin, p. 28.

[50]French, p. 49-50.

[51]French, p. 50.

[52]Austin, p. 96.

[53]Austin, p. 92,94.

[54]Austin, p. 54.

[55]Austin, p. 34.

[56]Austin, p. 122.

[57]Austin, p. 135.

[58]French, p. 94-96.


[60]Austin, p. 102.

[61]George Hunston Williams, "American Universalism: A Bicentennial Historical Essay."  The Journal of the Universalist Historical Society, Vol IX. Boston: Universalist Historical Society, 1971, p. 11.

[62]Williams, p. 13.


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