Guide to Salvation
Universalist Sunday School Lessons
1840 - 1870
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."
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.
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
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,"
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."
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."
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
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
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
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,
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."
Commenting on the six month debate which ensued, historian Anne Boylan
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".
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
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
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."
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
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."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."
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
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?"
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."
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."
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."
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:
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
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
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
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."
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
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"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.
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.
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".
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
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?"
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."
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"
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
, and Hudson directly challenges his students: "Have you attended to all
the foregoing lessons?... Have you increased in virtue as well as in
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?",
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?
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."
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?"
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:
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
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."
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."
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
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,
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.
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
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",
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."
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
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.
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."
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."
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
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."
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."
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
To one’s fellow-men, ones owes the exercise of charity, kindness, and
humanity. Austin expresses the essence of these duties in a slightly
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
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
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
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
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."
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.
Austin, John M., Sunday School
Expositor, Boston: Abel Tompkins, 1850.
Bartholomew, L.G.,The Sunday
School Companion, Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1862.
,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,
Smith, Benton,The Christian Way
For Advanced Scholars in Sunday Schools and Bible Classes. Boston:
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Unknown, ed.Church of Our Father.
Detroit: Universalist Society, May 1882 - February 1883.
Boylan, Anne M., Sunday School:
The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880, New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1988
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,
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Hatch, Nathan O., The
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