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HANDOUT 1: Introducing Hosea Ballou

Hosea Ballou preached his liberal faith to everyday people, men and women of the laboring classes. He was a self-educated man from rural New Hampshire and Massachusetts who was spurned by the Boston Unitarian elite. But in no small part thanks to Ballou, by the end of the 19th century, one out of every eight Americans called themselves Universalists.

He was an author, a public lecturer, an itinerant preacher, editor of various Universalist journals and minister of the Second Universalist Society of Boston for a quarter of a century until his death in 1852, at age 81.

Hosea Ballou's most important theological work was A Treatise on Atonement. In this work he defined theology as a science of human experience. Theology is not a speculative art, it is always about human experience, so, he concluded, "we ought not to argue [over religious matters of] truth which we have no knowledge of by experience."

Ballou insisted that human beings are created to be fulfilled and happy. In Ballou's own words: "... if the Almighty, as we believe him to be, did not possess power sufficient to make all his creatures happy, it was not an act of goodness in him to create them... . If it be granted that God has both power and will to save all men, it is granting all I want for a foundation of my faith." Ballou rejected the beliefs that human nature is fallen (doctrine of original sin) and that human beings are subject to eternal damnation (doctrine of the elect and the damned).

Ballou believed that human emotions prompt us to moral or immoral actions, so we are invited to strengthen the emotions that reap happiness for self and others. In Ballou's words: "We cannot be profitable to others unless we savor of the Spirit within us."

Ballou believed we have a God-given right to be happy. God is love, Ballou insisted. And when we feel this love we are happy.

Ballou, in sum, believed that a loving God would not condemn humanity to eternal damnation. Get rid of errant theology, Ballou said, and you will get rid of the clergy, politicians, and public figures who stoke fear in order to keep their own vested interests, personal greed, and moral corruption from public view.

Ballou's legacy to us as Unitarian Universalists today is our awareness of our God-given right to be happy. Hosea Ballou made human happiness a mandate of liberal faith.

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Last updated on Thursday, February 7, 2013.

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