Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Hosea Ballou's Conversion

Part of What Moves Us

In 1789, Hosea Ballou attended the Baptist revival held in his hometown of Richmond, New Hampshire. Moved by the preaching during this event, which was touted as "The Great Reformation," Ballou, age 19, stepped forward to be baptized. Like his friends and the hundred or so others around him who also stepped forward to be saved, Ballou had been gripped by fear. But unlike the others professing their new, aching need for God's forgiveness and grace, Ballou was not fearful enough. He did not feel what he was supposed to feel: gut-wrenching fear. He believed the dominant Calvinist theology of his era which claimed God separated the elect from the damned before they were born and that except for these chosen few, all were doomed to eternal damnation, fire and brimstone for their sins. Yet, he did not feel clenched in the grip of an angry, vengeful, wrath-filled God described by the two preachers who led the revival. Ballou was upset because he wasn't upset enough. People were supposed to be terrified of this God and fearful that they might not be one of His chosen people.

Ballou described his predicament years later, in a letter to a friend: "I was much troubled in my mind because I thought I did not stand in such fear of the divine wrath as I ought to do, or as others had done before they found acceptance with God." Worse yet, the doctrines he was now supposed to believe about God and Christ rung hollow.

To figure out what was going on, Ballou turned to the Bible to make sense of the doctrines of his newly professed faith. His mind became troubled anew. It seemed to him that nothing in the Bible supported belief in the Baptist doctrines he was supposed to espouse: belief in eternal damnation for all human beings except a preordained "elect" few; belief in the sacrifice of Christ to reconcile an aggrieved God to sinful man; belief that Christ as the Son of God was also, at the same time, his own Father. Ballou's keenly rational mind rejected such notions as illogical and thus patently absurd. The Bible seemed to affirm Universalism—universal salvation for all—and Unitarianism—the unity of the Godhead rather than in a Triune God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

With these discoveries, Ballou felt happy. Happiness abounded in his heart. And he now knew why he had not felt fearful enough: There was nothing to fear. The God of wrath preached by angry ministers was a human-made God, a false God. By removing the false teachings and the errant theology, Ballou felt the God of love. Ballou felt loved and he was happy. But when Ballou tried to explain to local ministers what he felt and what he had discovered, they screamed at him about his burgeoning Universalist faith, rather than reason with him over the interpretation of biblical texts. So Ballou's Universalism and Unitarianism took firmer hold of his heart and his mind and his new, liberal faith now flowed forth from happiness. He believed that all human beings would be blessed in their afterlife. God condemns no one to eternal punishment and damnation. Universal salvation, Ballou discovered, is a grace-filled gift of an eternally loving God for humanity.

Ballou finally believed that our personal desires motivate our actions and all of them (benevolence, greed, self-sacrifice, love, etc.) boil down to one: the personal desire to feel internally happy.