My Universalism in June post

UU Salon‘s appeal to discuss Universalism as “the other U” and review of a graduate-level Universalist class curriculum at Transient and Permanent — to be put plainly — pushes my buttons.

For the last two decades or so, I’ve seen Universalism viewed normatively through a Unitarian lens, though this process is actually more than a hundred years old. Can’t we ever overcome:

  • the folklore that Universalism is a second-rate, under-class and rural form of Unitarianism, with no distinct qualities (or none that need to be respected.)
  • that we are free to make it whatever “we” want, without a careful and balanced examination of what’s come before.
  • that the polity of the Unitarian Universalist Association needn’t have both Unitarian and Universalist elements, and have only those that fit conveniently into Unitarian congregationalism. (That means the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and ministerial voting at General Assembly are not aberrations.)
  • the tendency to only respect the edgiest and most marginal forms of Universalism — Abner Kneeland’s atheism and Ken Patton’s one-world-faith among them — while rejecting what the rank and file valued for so long, warts included. (Say, a propensity to debate ad nauseum.)

So to keep this brief — when my rants run long, I never publish — I’d alter the syllabus of the Universalist course this way:

  • start with 17th and 18th century European antecedents, like the “Philadelphian” Jane Lead, the German Boehemists and Anabaptists. Examine George de Benneville and Elhanan Winchester. (Going back to biblical times or the church fathers for historical justification is Universalist polemic. Proving the “heretical origins” of Universalism is a late intrusion.)
  • have a unit on the development of Universalist polity and structure, say in an arch from 1790 to 1900, at least. Rehabilitate Elbridge Gerry Brooks. Review the role of publishing, especially newspapers, in organizing Universalists.
  • recast the sections on foreign mission and pre-WWII-war non-Christian approaches as a missological study. Or to ask 19th century Universalist minister S. J. McMorris’s question, that if Universalism is true, “what is the use of preaching it?” Include anti-Universalist literature and discuss the role of morality in Universalist mission. Don’t fall into a trap of making Quillen Shinn the sine qua non of mission; consider women’s and youth movements here fully. Review the Universalist educational mission.
  • Use pacifism and spiritualism as test cases of diversity within Universalism.
  • don’t get too caught up on recent developments like Carlton Pearson’s experience and Phil Gulley and Jim Mullholland’s If Grace Is True. These tend to recapitulate the history and sound like young people extolling the joy of sex. As if they had discovered something new. There’s plenty of other territory to cover.
  • use Ann Lee Bressler’s now-expensive Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880. Or the first half, at least. It’s an indispensable review of what made Universalism different and a tonic to later Unitarian irenism, that cloaked a very different origin in convincing theological terms. Helps break the fever of self-referential and internal folklore masquerading as history. And no quotations, like the Murray-attributed “not hell, but hope” unless you can cite them.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Basically, I like your course outline. Here are some comments and suggestions on each of your points:

    17th and 18th C. European antecedents should, it seems to me, include James Relly, since his influence is well documented — and not just through John Murray.

    The polity section should look at the Baptist connection of early New England Universalists, as documented by Marini and others. Certainly, early attempts at Universalist organization showed some resemblance to Baptist organizational structures. There are good studies on Baptist associationism, but they are pretty technical, so this might have to come in a lecture.

    Looking at mission from a Universalist point of view should, I think, include the Japan mission — and also the fact taht in the 1950s the UCA was receptive to the Philippines Universalists in a way that’s hard to imagine the Unitarians doing.

    Spiritualism should absolutely be included. John Murray’s drift from Universalism to spiritualism has been well-documented, so he could be taken as a case study of how Universalism and spiritualism intertwined in the last 19th C.

    Yes, forget Gulley and Mulholland. Dean Godzins, before he got laid off as UU history professors at Meadville Lombard (perhaps the most bone-headed move M/L ever made), made his UU History students read In the Hands of a Happy God: The “No-Hellers” of Central Appalachia by Howard Dorgan, a book about Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBU), as a way to prompt reflection on how we draw denominational boundaries. PBU theology is not all that different from that of the Universalist General Convention (at least, the Ballouvian strand of the UGC). But PBU is so clearly different in other ways that it really brought home to me how denominations are more than theological stances, they are complex systems involving common practices, social networks, and historical accidents.

    I think it would be possible to substitute Stephen Marini’s Radicale Sects of Revolutionary New England, which compares early Universalists, Free-Will Baptists, and Shakers. The comparison with other denominations again helps bring into relief important features within Universalism that we might otherwise neglect. Furthermore, Marini introduces the useful notion that early Universalism was characterized by what he calls “liberty” — which has helped me to understand why the “Liberty Clause” of the Winchester Profession is so important.

  2. Thanks for your suggestions, Scott, I appreciate them. The expense of Bressler really bugs me, especially since I got my copy relatively cheap back in the day. If it were a real life course, I could put it on reserve in the library and make students read it. But online I don’t have that opportunity.

    Part of the difficulty with a course such as this is that it has to satisfy multiple constituencies, including students interested in history, others looking for personal inspiration, some who want to know how to handle the Universalists they may encounter as pastors, a notable minority of non-UU students (who have no particular interest in the Universalist denomination per se), school interests who want an AR/AO angle to all courses, students who’ve already taken UU history courses, students who’ve barely heard of Universalism (or, have major misconceptions, or who are theologically opposed to it, or who are militant atheists), and more. You can pretty much only make one sure-fire prediction: everyone will feel like something they wanted was left off, and no one will be entirely pleased with everything they encounter. So it goes. I’m not entirely pleased with it and I designed the darned thing: compromises have been made for the sake of getting the course accepted, drawing in a sufficient student body, omitting subjects that won’t play well online, handling the limited number of weeks assigned for instruction, managing the range of student and personality types who take SKSM courses, and dealing with the inability to access some resources (from print materials to the professor’s in-classroom charisma). I will say, though, that there is a specific logic to the choices made, which will hopefully produce the best possible overall learning and interacting experience. Rough patches will be altered or replaced in future iterations of the course, but you can’t know don’t work until you’ve done it at least once.

    You’re right that the early stuff is Universalist polemic: that’s why it’s in there, to show what tactics were used to justify Universalism. As for the newer Universalists, they’re in there partly to show that others have taken up the mantle that we’ve dropped, partly to examine how as the Universalist denomination has deflated, other folks have had to reinvent the same wheel for themselves without the benefit of all the work done over two plus centuries by the Universalists, and also partly to show how the mainstream world frames these developments as if they were novel rather than showing any awareness of historical Universalism. Clearly there has been a continuing desire for Christian Universalism, but its a demand we’ve decided not to meet. We’ll talk about why. And don’t worry, Murray won’t tell anybody to give ’em hope and courage, just as Francis David doesn’t suggest we can all love alike in my Unitarian history courses anymore.

  3. Goodness Dan, I assumed that each of these pieces you described would be in there! (So endorse them.) I’m pretty sure I have Relly’s Union on the site. Add, too, William Vidler as an early Universalist to Unitarian figure, Adin Ballou’s influence on Tolsoy, and the Friendly House mission and the Outlaws Bridge work — both in North Carolina — which I would assume would make it in, too. And I agree with your recommended readings, too. Especially the Marini, which makes a good companion piece with Bressler.

  4. I think part of my response is that I clearly differentiate between universalism (in its classical sense, not the “one god many faiths” modern interpretation) as a contested Christian doctrine, and Universalism as the ecclesiastical institution that was based on that doctrine; one is ancient and reappears through the life of the church, the other is an early modern Institution.

    With that said, I’m not sure what you mean about talking about Universalism in the church fathers as Universalist polemic. Was it suggested that the patristic figures were universalists? Certainly MOST weren’t universalists, and the only one I can think of off-hand who was a universalist (Origen) was considered a heretic for a number of his views. But that at least means we need to consider universalism as having an ancient lineage in historical theology and not just as a product of enlightened early modern Christians.

  5. @Peregrinato. Modern Universalists found justification for their beliefs by creating a lineage dating to the Patristic era, much like Baptists did (or do.) By modern, I mean the 1829 publication of The Ancient History of Universalism, predating even the misplaced genealogical fascination of Unitarians with Arius.

  6. Oh okay. That makes more sense. I wouldn’t avoid the fact that some early Church leaders espoused a form of universalism, but certainly not parade it in terms of some groundswell of universalism which was lost or buried by the accretion of that terrible Latin Christianity (blah blah blah) — as you observe some Baptists would say about their own doctrine. (I also assumed we were working with similar notions of “modern,” as opposed to early modern, or contemporary)

  7. Stephen, as you may know. Ministers in fellowship serving a church have a General Assembly vote in the UUA. Given the era of congregational fundamentalism we’re in now, some people think that’s an abuse of Unitarian principles.

    It may be, but it’s a Universalist practice. In Universalist polity, both ministers and parishes were fellowshipped; this was the basis on which they could vote in convention. There was a small difference, though not all that meaningful. A Universalist minister got the vote by virtue of having convention fellowship, but without serving a church he or she could loose that fellowship — surely a sign of the perpetual ministerial shortage. (Likewise, a Universalist church that called a non-Universalist minister could be expelled.)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.