HISTORICAL SKETCH OF UNIVERSALISM
By Max A. Kapp
Modern Universalists trace the beginnings of their movement in America to the work of Dr. George de Benneville in Pennsylvania (1741) and Reverend John Murray in New England (1774). The historic theological emphasis was upon the doctrine of the universal salvation of all mankind, The ‘partialist’ teaching that only a limited number of ‘elect’ would go to heaven while the rest would go to eternal damnation in hell after death was opposed. Arguments were drawn from the Old and New Testaments to prove that Christianity taught the final happiness and holiness of all men. Jesus Christ was held to be the universal saviour. Standing against the orthodox churches in defense of a minority position, Universalists from earliest times sensed the importance of the principle of religious freedom. They stressed the ethical character of God in his relations with men, maintaining that his nature was rational, loving and redemptive. Sin was finite, and punishment was remedial, not vindictive. The social humanitarianism of later Universalism was conditioned by this belief in an ethical God.
When American Universalists began to write histories of their movement, they discovered universalistic emphases in many of time early Christian thinkers, Certain Christian Gnostics (130 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria; Origen, one of the greatest third century theologians; Theodore of Mopsuestia and many others espoused the belief in universal salvation which was not formally condemned by council until 544. Even under the growing dogmatism of the middle ages, occasional voices gave utterance to universalistic teachings. In Reformation times, the radical Anabaptists expressed the universalist hope, and a mystical universalism developed in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries, but was never organized. Dr. George de Benneville, father of Universalism in Pennsylvania, was versed in German mystical Universalism. In England, too, universalistic teaching had spokesmen. By 1759, James Relly had written his book, Union, opposing Calvinistic election and championing universal salvation. John Murray was profoundly influenced by James Relly. Hosea Ballou (1805) broke with Murray’s thought, re-interpreting the doctrine of atonement and teaching Unitarian ideas about God and Jesus.
Evolution of American Universalism
At first, Universalism in America was a theological movement or a point of view; it was the source of controversy within existing churches. Soon, churches that were avowedly Universalist came into existence. Preachers were found among those who ‘came out’ from orthodoxy; others were raised up from the ranks of intelligent laymen. There was no over-all organization. Soon local associations and state or regional organizations sprang up. By 1840, a sense of denominational destiny had been felt. Measures were taken to form a comprehensive denomination, but only gradually and grudgingly did state organizations sanction a ‘general’ or national organization, which was achieved by 1866 (The Universalist General Convention, renamed in 1942 to the Universalist Church of America).
Many evidences of denominationa1 consciousness had begun to manifest themselves. Statements of Faith, pamphlets and magazines, extensive literary effort, the establishment of academies, colleges and theological schools, the formation of a strong women’s organization, the establishment of a flourishing young people’s movement were vital testimony to the achievements made by 1890.
Universalism had special attraction for thoughtful, middle-class Americans.. While it had its share of college-trained men and women, it was not a university-centered movement. Universalist preachers in the 19th century often reached the ears of the plain American through public debates with orthodox preachers. An extensive controversial literature exists. At one time, nearly 900 Universalist centers were reported; many of them must have been transient ‘come-out’ groups or more preaching posts. But it may be ventured that they helped in tempering the prevalent Calvinistic climate of American religious thought.
Development of Thought
Nineteenth century Universalism was greatly modified by the rise of critical Bible study. No longer could proof-texts from Biblical sources be confidently used in preaching and debate. Biblical Universalism began to give way to philosophical Universalism. Darwinianism (from 1859 on) posed a challenge to all Bible-centered faith; Universalism quickly, but not without pangs, accepted the implications of the theory of evolution and other scientific findings. The rapid industrialization of America after the Civil War gave rise to serious social concern in the churches; Universalism, on the whole, responded affirmatively to the Social Gospel which arose. A marked shift of emphasis has gradually taken place so that ‘salvation’ no longer suggests to most Universalists an event in the after-life, but a process of self-fulfillment and social transformation. John Murray’s individual salvation theology, dependent upon semi-orthodox doctrine, has long been out-moded and has only antiquarian interest today. The older theological utterances about “universal salvation” can be interpreted as vehicles for a persistent concern about “the supreme worth of human personality.” Dr. Clarence Skinner’s interpretation of Universalism in his book, A Religion for Greatness, summarizes a great deal of vital modern Universalism.
The Boston statement of faith (1899) reads “we believe in the Bible as containing a revelation from God". The Washington profession of faith (1935) reads: “We avow our faith in the authority of truth, known or to be known”. The broadening of view is unmistakable.
The Boston statement affirmed a belief in “the final harmony of all souls with God”. The parallel statement in the Washington statement, reads: “We avow our faith in the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively to establish the Kingdom of God”. The shift of emphasis is apparent to all who read.
There is considerable variety of theological opinion to be found among Universalists. Theism, humanism, naturalism and mysticism have their advocates. There are Christian Universalists and those who would divorce Universalism from Christianity. No statement of belief has ever been wholly satisfactory. There now exists some agitation for a revision of the Washington Profession, adopted in 1935. A ‘liberty’ clause guarantees that no doctrinal statement shall he used as a creedal test.
A Declaration of Social Principles, adopted in 1943, summarizes recent social thinking among Universalists.
Universalist concern in the area of religious education, youth work, and hymnology parallels or coincides with that of Unitarians. Universalist seminaries have trained a considerable number of Unitarian ministers, and the courtesy has been returned.
The charter of the Universalist Church of America states the fourth purpose thus: “To promote harmony among adherents of all religious faiths, whether Christian or otherwise”. In recent decades, a marked effort to broaden the meaning of Universalism beyond Christian dimensions has been made, especially among the younger clergy and laity. Universalism has sometimes been defined as ‘Universe Religion’ or ‘Religion for One World’, emphasizing not the doctrine of Christian salvation, but the universal aspiration of man toward the good life as evidenced in the wisdom and ethics of all the great world faiths. Deepened appreciation for the full circle of spiritual discovery has been stressed. The need to transcend primitive and pre-scientific insights in the light of modern knowledge has been emphasized, together with the need for human beings to discover each other as partners in the shaping of human destiny.
Modern Universalism is thus the product of a long, uneven evolution, steadily broadening its conception of itself as an inclusive movement. It stands in the stream of religious liberalism, and, while it has fostered the development of its own historic faith, it has shared the liberal concern for reason, enlightenment, freedom of thought and democracy.
SOME SIGNIFICANT DATES IN UNIVERSALIST HISTORY
130—550 Gnostics, Origen and others taught Universalism.
600—1400 Medievalism overwhelmed but did not eliminate Universalist teachings.
1500 Anabaptists and others stressed universalistic positions; Sieglock’s Everlasting Gospel.
1600 - 1700 German Mystical Universalism: also English Universalist writings.
1741 Dr. George de Benneville, mystical Universalist, settles in Pennsylvania among other ‘believers’.
1759 In England James Relly writes Union; influences John Murray.
1770 John Murray emigrates and begins preaching Universalism in America.
1779 Independent Church of Gloucester, Mass.
1790 Philadelphia Convention: Benjamin Rush interested; opposition to War and Slavery.
1796 Dr. Joseph Priestly advocates Universalism in Philadelphia.
1803 Winchester Profession of Belief, adopted by New England Universalists.
1805 First edition of Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on the Atonement, directing Universalist thought
toward Unitarian views of God and Jesus.
1800-1850 Growth of regional associations and state conventions
1819 Universalist magazine published.
1833 Formation of “The General Convention of Universalists in U.S.” — advisory powers only.
1866 Universalist General Convention formed, indicating trend toward more unified,
rational, denominational policies.
1852 Tufts College founded, 1869 Tufts Divinity School established.
1856 St. Lawrence University and Theological School founded.
1856 Children’s Day instituted by Rev. Charles H. Leonard, Chelsea, Mass.
1862 Universalist Publishing House established.
1871 Women’s Centenary Association formed; later becomes
Association of Universalist Women (1939)
1889 Young People’s Christian Union formed; later called Universalist Youth Fellowship.
1890 Beginning of Universalist Missionary work in Japan.
1899 “Essential Principles of Universalism” adopted at Boston.
1913 General Sunday School Association organized at Utica, New York.
1921 Universalist Women acquire Clara Barton Homestead; developed into camp for diabetic girls.
1935 Washington Statement of Faith adopted.
1942 Universalist General Convention renamed Universalist Church of America.
1943 Declaration of Social Principles of Universalism (Our Faith Demands).
1945 Universalist Service Committee formed.
1955 Merger of Universalist and Unitarian Youth Organization (LRY).