Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 2: Universal Salvation to Universalism

Universal salvation, or universalism, is the theological belief that, through the goodness, mercy and love of God, all people will be saved; that is, all people will be forgiven their sins and granted eternal life. The idea that all people would be saved is a very old one. It can be seen as early as the works of Origen, an important scholar and theologian of the early church (c.185-250 CE), and surfaces in Christian history in the thought of theologians and faiths from the Roman Catholic Church to the radical arm of the Protestant Reformation. However, for the most part, the doctrine of universal salvation stood as contrary to the teachings of most Christian churches. And when universalism did "bubble up," it remained a theological idea rather than a formal or distinct church tradition.

That is, until universalist ideas came to America, where, at long last, universalism developed into a formal institution. There are different stories as to how this came about. The often recounted story is about John Murray (1741-1815), a Methodist lay preacher from England. In England Murray became converted to the idea of universal salvation by James Relly, author of the pamphlet Union. Following the death of his wife and infant son, Murray gave up preaching and, in 1770, immigrated to the United States. As the story is told, on the way to New York, Murray's ship became stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey. While waiting for the wind to shift the ship off the bar, Murray went ashore where he met a farmer, Thomas Potter. Potter is reported to have asked if Murray was the preacher sent by God to preach universal salvation in the meetinghouse he had built for that purpose. Murray declined, but Potter persisted. If, he said, the winds did not change by Sunday, it was a sign from God that Murray was meant to preach in the meetinghouse. If the winds did release the ship, Murray was free to continue his journey. The winds stayed quiet, and so on Sunday, Murray returned to the pulpit to preach universal salvation in Thomas Potter's meetinghouse. In the following years, Murray preached universalism along the east coast of the United States, and in 1779, founded the Independent Church of Christ (now known as the Independent Christian Church, Unitarian Universalist) in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is recognized as the first Universalist church in America. Finally, an institution dedicated to universalist ideas was founded.

Murray's was but one of the streams of universalism (the theological idea that all will be saved) and Universalism (the formalization of these thoughts as churches and other institutions) in America. Predating Murray's arrival by almost 30 years, George de Benneville (1703-1793), a doctor and a preacher of universalism, immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1741. Though arrested several times in Europe for preaching universal salvation, de Benneville found a more sympathetic audience in America, and was instrumental in the conversion of several early universalists, including Elhanan Winchester. De Benneville also preached to Native Americans, and was instrumental in the 1753 publication of The Everlasting Gospel by Paul Siegvolk, a book which had great influence in spreading universalist notions, particularly the idea that God cannot be cruel or unjust.

A third stream of universalism arose in the Connecticut River Valley of northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. Caleb Rich, an itinerant lay preacher, spread belief in universal salvation after experiencing several mystical episodes. In 1773, Rich founded a specifically Universalist church in Warwick, Massachusetts, and soon also established additional churches in Richmond and Jaffrey, New Hampshire (but as they were not recognized to have legal standing, John Murray's Gloucester church of 1779 is considered the first Universalist church in America). Rich's preaching converted many to Universalism including several cousins of Hosea Ballou as well as David Ballou, Hosea's brother. Hosea Ballou (1771-1852), who later converted to the belief of universal salvation, became one of Universalism's leading figures.

At a regional meeting, or convention, in Oxford, Massachusetts in 1785, individual Universalist churches joined together to form a broader religious movement. The movement became even broader with the first national convention, in Philadelphia in 1790. The conventions provided opportunities to bring all the various streams of universalism together for a week of conversation, debate, socializing, revivalism, and activism. The Philadelphia Convention of 1790, which had 17 delegates, adopted a resolution that invoked the Universalist belief in the ultimate worth of every human being in opposing slavery. The meeting at Winchester, New Hampshire in 1803 resulted in codifying Universalist beliefs of the time in what became known as the Winchester Profession (see Workshop 7). By 1833 the General Convention became the national forum for Universalism. The three-day celebration in September, 1870 in Gloucester, Massachusetts that marked the centennial of John Murray's landing in America was the largest religious gathering ever to take place in the United States: 12,000 attended.

In 1805, Hosea Ballou published A Treatise on Atonement, perhaps the most influential Universalist document of the 19th century. The book articulated an American understanding of Universalism, and the religion of universal salvation spoke to many in the youthful, optimistic nation. Because Ballou held that no soul was hellbound, whether by God's judgment or exclusion of election, his book represents the first real break universalism had with Calvinism. Ballou was a preacher and a founder of the Universalist Magazine (1819), but is perhaps best remembered for his role in the Restorationist Controversy of the 1820s. Ballou held the "ultra-universalist" view that all people were saved immediately upon death, while others, notably Paul Dean and Edward Turner, held that salvation came to all people only after an interim period of punishment and atonement after which souls would be restored to God's presence. The ensuing controversy threatened to split the young denomination, though it ultimately not only survived, but thrived.

Universalism grew rapidly in numbers as individuals left their former religious traditions, particularly the Baptist and Congregational faiths. By the time of the Civil War, there were estimated to be more than 600,000 Universalists in the United States. While attracted to the message of universal salvation, these "come-outers" from other traditions brought ideas that influenced the ways in which Universalists organized themselves.

Universalism developed theologically as well, and by the late 19th century promoted higher criticism of the Bible, the need for Universalism to establish a universal Beloved Community through social engagement, and reconciliation between religion and science, particularly in light of the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. In the 20th century, as Universalism moved further from its Trinitarian Christian roots, the term "universalism" took on the meaning of a religion for all people, rather than its original reference to the doctrine of universal salvation. Robert Cummins, the General Superintendent of the Universalist Church of America (UCA), succinctly declared in 1943, "Ours is a world fellowship."