Even as a young girl, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore was tortured by the idea that only some were destined for salvation. She would awaken her parents in the middle of the night begging them to pray for her sisters lest their souls be eternally lost. She wrote in her memoir, The Story of My Life:
I was sometimes shaken to the very center of my being, and often expressed to my father, even when very young, what I frequently felt,--a bitter regret that I had ever been born. There were times when I envied the cat that purred at the fireside, or the dog that slept on the doorstep. They could be happy, for they had no souls to be saved or lost.
When a new baby was born into the family Mary begged her parents to send the baby back to God in case she was not destined to be a true Christian and therefore not one of the saved. Her father tried to reassure the young Mary saying they would pray for the baby and train her to be a good Christian, but the Calvinism Mary learned at the First Baptist Church of Boston told her this was not enough. Mary knew the doctrine of election: that God determined, even before birth, who was to be saved and who to be damned. She could find no assurance of this baby's ultimate salvation, and when another sister died at the age of fifteen Mary was cast into despair. "Happiness and I had parted company forever, unless in some certain and assured manner I could be convinced that my sister Rachel was not among the lost," she wrote.
It was some years before she found the reassurance she sought. One Christmas Eve she wandered into the Universalist Church in Duxbury, Massachusetts and heard the minister, Daniel Livermore, read from the Gospel of Matthew, "And thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." Though Mary knew the Bible well, this was not the sort of passage that her Calvinist education stressed. It opened for her a new horizon, and she went on to write in her memoir about the new faith that cleared away all the anxiety and despair she had known until then.
In later years I have been compelled to so wide and thorough a study of the great subject of religion that I have gained a nobler comprehension of God, life, and human destiny than I was ever taught. I have learned a broader tolerance, a world-embracing sympathy, and a more stimulating and uplifting faith.
Mary Livermore's experience of encountering Universalism was not unusual in a world where eternal damnation was the prevalent theological position used to exact moral behavior from God-fearing Christians. The optimism of a faith that asserted that the love and mercy of God was stronger than human misdeeds changed people's lives. It was an optimism that paralleled the promise of a new nation, for it held that God is merciful, and preached that humans are capable of moral discernment and growth.
Universalism promised that humans were not only capable of distinguishing good from evil, but that they would choose righteousness for its own sake, without the threat of future damnation. This contrasted with the prevailing tradition, which said humans are by nature prone to evil and incapable of resisting the pull of innate depravity. Orthodox believers were not ready to release the moral hold of a promised eternal punishment. How were people to be made to act in moral and upright ways, they asked, if not under threat of dire, unceasing consequences? This question was widely debated in pamphlets, in religious periodicals, and in person. Theological debates between ministers began in the mid-18th century, and were still alive a century later.
One such debate was held in Southold, New York. The debate set the Methodist and Universalist ministers the task of deciding the eventual fate of all humanity. Held over the course of four evenings and two afternoons (a total of 18 or 20 hours) the debate was recorded as a victory by both sides. But the debate did not end there: It was subsequently published in several pamphlet versions and reported in New York's Universalist Union paper. Here one learns that the local Presbyterian minister, no supporter of the new upstart Methodist church, still found its views preferable to the dangers of Universalism. He wrote that the theology of Universalism had not "influenced any man that was vicious and abandoned, to turn and become a man of prayer, faith and holiness," but was prepared to go a good deal further in declaring that, even worse, the faith had the reverse effect. By removing the natural restraint of endless punishment for sins, Universalism had "emboldened" individuals in their sins and crimes. Accordingly he described Universalist church members as those expelled from evangelical churches. He concluded by accusing Universalism of flagrant and open materialism, semi-atheism, and absurdity.
Though but one local occurrence of theological discourse, the Southold Debate is representative of the challenges faced by early Universalists, challenges which continued into the late 19th and even the 20th century. Regardless, the Universalists found creative and compelling ways to spread their message. The Women's Centenary Association, established to help raise money for the 1870 Universalist Centenary in Gloucester, later became a service organization, the Centenary Aid Organization. The earliest denominationwide women's group, it changed its name in about 1905 to the Women's National Missionary Association (WNMA) dedicating itself to mission work, and particularly funding rural church outposts of liberalism in areas of fundamentalism. The WNMA established and supported a string of small churches in the 1920s and 1930s, emphasizing education in rural areas. These small congregations offered an alternative to the dominant cultural and theological conservatism. In particular, the Universalist teaching against damnation of unbaptized infants offered comfort in small communities faced with infectious disease and high infant mortality.