The full Hosea Ballou quotation

I’ve seen many, many uses by Unitarian Universalists of a passage from Hosea Ballou since the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown’s shooting death and Darren Wilson’s investigation. The quotation, sourced from the service element section of the most-commonly used Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, is edited for worship. Number 705:

If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury,
but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.
Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.

I wondered what the original was, and how edited it got, particularly since these hymnal elements get used so much (to the exclusion of other writings) that they take on a quasi-canonical character. Even if the quotation is ersatz. (Someone asked me, “That isn’t really Ballou, is it?”) It is, but only in a limited way.

For one thing, the context of the hymnal version suggests quasi-Pauline
advice to a congregation or group. As if he was putting another way Romans 16:17, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” But that’s not what Ballou was getting at. Here’s the citation, in context from section 224 (“A plea for unselfishness and love.”) in the last print (1986, from a 1882 original) edition of the Treatise on Atonement,

Should we be tenacious about certain sentiments and peculiarities of faith, the time is not far distant when Universalists, who suffered every kind of contemptuous treatment from enemies of the doctrine, will be at war among themselves, and being trodden under the foot of the Gentiles. Having begun in the Spirit do not think to be made perfect by the flesh. In order to imitate our Saviour, let us, like him, have compassion on the ignorant and those whom we view to be out of the way. Attend to the exhortation, “Let brotherly love continue.” If we agree in brotherly love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury; but if we do not no other agreement can do us any good. Let us keep a strict guard against the enemy “that sows discord among brethren.” Let us endeavor to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” May charity, that heaven born companion of the human heart, never forsake us; and may the promise of the Saviour be fulfilled concerning us, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”

An even broader context makes it clear that Ballou is cautioning Universalists to maintain humility lest they fall into hubris and error, and continues with an appeal to non-Universalists to examine their claims with patience. Ballou disavows judgement. All good things but not how it comes across in the hymnal.

Also, the hymnal version bleeds out the Christian character of the passage. I can’t add much to that. I’ll end with citing the biblical passages above:

  • “Let brotherly love continue.” Hebrews 13:1.
  • “that sows discord among brethren.” Proverbs 6:19.
  • “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” Ephesians 4:3. (“Bond” in King James.)
  • “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” Matthew 28:20.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. In its wider context it seems very much to be an admonition for a community to use humility to fend off internal strife. And as such, it does preach differently, as the speaker must also live up to that humility.

  2. Aside from removing the Christian elements (I wouldn’t expect otherwise–running from our ancestry is so U-U), the removal of the humility aspects is especially troubling to me. And it doesn’t just happen to Ballou, too many UUs don’t know the full Theodore Parker quote about the arc of the universe; which is completely about humbleness/humility.

    I wonder how much of this is trying to run away from what used to be called the “Christian virtues”? I’ll think about that later.

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