Shutter: “Progressive Changes in Universalist Thought” (1895)

Since the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly will be held in Minneapolis this year, I though some choice words from one of the more prominant Universalist ministers to have served in the city would be an appropriate selection. I’m particularly fond of the second Ballou quote, below. I’ll see if I can find the source of his biblical citations, too: an interesting translation. (Well, that was easy: both are from John 16, in the good ol’ King James. I was thinking it might have been one of the early “modern” translations.)

The Arena, vol. 14 (1895), p. 144-154

Progressive Changes in Universalist Thought.

by Rev. Marion D. Shutter, D.D.


The author of the fourth gospel attributes this remarkable utterance to Jesus: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all the truth.” The Great Master is just about to be taken away. His three years of personal instruction are at an end. He admonishes His disciples not to think that He has told them everything — that He has given them a full and complete revelation of all that is to be known, of all that they and the world need to know. There will be growth and progress in religious thought. “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.” Ye are not yet prepared, O My disciples, for the entire realm of truth. I have led you across the boundary line into the new territory, but vast, unexplored regions lie beyond. “Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all the truth.” God’s Spirit of truth is to be always in the world, guiding men from age to age.

“The letter fails and systems fall,
And every symbol wanes;
The Spirit over-brooding all,
Eternal love, remains.”

These words show us, in a very striking way, one phase of the work of Jesus Himself. He did not seek, as many of His followers have done, to bind men down to certain formulas, to limit their thinking to certain propositions, to prevent them from going beyond the revelations of that particular time. Remotest from His purpose was the attempt to fasten chains upon the human mind. He was a breaker of bonds; He was a destroyer of traditions; He was the outlawed heretic of His day, the prince of iconoclasts. He stirred men up, He made them think. He gave a marvellous impulse to the religious intellect. He taught the people of His day, and the people of every subsequent age, not to repose upon the teachings of the past, but to watch with sleepless eye the ever-opening and ever-enlarging unfoldings of God.

If Jesus were upon the earth to-day, who can doubt that He would heartily welcome, as portions of the everlasting gospel, the revelations of the astronomer’s telescope, which show the work of God to be so much more vast than earlier generations dreamed; the revelations of the geologist’s pick and spade, which extend the work of God through uncounted ages, and remove that wondrous “in the beginning” far into the twilight of the past eternity; the revelations that have come through the naturalism’s researches, showing the methods of the Creator? All these would Jesus welcome to-day. He would command His followers to stand, with uncovered heads, before the rising and growing vision, and would Himself lead them in the ascription of praise — “Great and marvellous are Thy works, O Lord God Almighty.”

How contrary to His high example the conduct of those who say: “Here in our creed is the truth of God, beyond which you must not go. We have it here in compact and definite shape. Beyond this is danger, destruction, damnation!” The denomination whose name appears in the title of this paper is not prepared to take such an attitude. We revere the past, but we do not idolize it. We do not break with it, but we are not fettered by it. We know full well that the foundations are laid there; but we know quite as well that we shall never get on with the building if we stop with the foundations. “One layeth the foundation, another buildeth thereupon.” Our work is that of the builder. Every denomination that intends to live must adjust itself, in each generation, to new conditions of life and thought.

I. The earliest Universalism in this country is represented by that noble figure, of whose work and influence we must always speak with respect, —

John Murray.

Born in Alton, England, Dec. 21, 1741, of Calvinistic parents, his home was constantly overshadowed by religious severity. No sunshine entered the life of the child. His father seldom indulged in a smile. The boy was taught that for any person not one of the elect to say of God or to God, “Our Father,” was nothing better than blasphemy. Thus early in life were the terrors of religion impressed upon his soul. He passed through childhood, as many another has done, in constant agony, his childish imagination filled with pictures of the last day, the world in flames, and horrible devils carrying off the wicked to their doom. Like many another child he hardly dared to go to sleep at night, for fear of awaking next morning in hell! (Such were the teachings by which it was once thought to make religion attractive to children.)

As young Murray grew up, the Methodists began to come into his neighborhood. He was carried away by their enthusiasm, but never changed his Calvinistic views. He chose Whitefield, who was Calvinistic, rather than Wesley, as his guide, although Wesley himself made a class leader of John Murray. Later the young man came under the influence of James Relly, who, from being a preacher in Whitefield’s connection, had become a preacher of Universalism. He was convinced by the reasoning of Relly and adopted his views of destiny. Then followed his excommunication from Whitefield’s society, persecution by his old friends and neighbors, the death of his wife — one calamity after another, until, broken-hearted and in despair, he resolved to cross the ocean and seek in the new world “to close his life in solitude and complete retirement.”

He came, but not to close his career. He came to begin the real work of his life. He came to start a movement that has never died and will not die — a movement that is destined to sweep from theology every vestige of cruelty and darkness that still lingers; a movement whose influences are seen today in the more humane tone of the pulpit and the growing demand for expurgated creeds. The story of his reception upon these shores is curious enough. It is not necessary to restate here the manner of his meeting with Thomas Potter on Cranberry Inlet, and the way in which, all unconsciously and without design, preparation had been made for his advent. If he had come to proclaim the old-fashioned message of burning wrath and relentless doom, his reception would have been called a “wonderful providence.” He did not come, however, for the purpose of preaching any doctrine; he did not mean to open his lips; but when circumstances compelled him to speak, he preached the gospel of boundless love and universal victory over evil. We shall, therefore, refrain from calling the manner of his reception a “wonderful providence,” that we may give no offence to our evangelical friends, and allow the whole transaction to be classed as an “inscrutable mystery.”

This was the beginning. What were the theological opinions of Murray? Those opinions were, to a large extent, characteristic of the Universalism of his day. They represent the early period of the denomination, and are of interest as showing from what we have advanced. Murray was, in most particulars, a decided Calvinist. He was trinitarian in his ideas of God and in his views of Christ’s nature and relation to God. He believed in the traditional fall of Adam and all its consequences, original sin and transmitted depravity. He believed in vicarious sacrifice. He held that endless punishment was, indeed, the just due of human sin; but that Christ had borne the penalty of all, and that all would at last be saved. He held, in his own peculiar way, the doctrine of election, but he enlarges it, in the event, to include all except the “spirits that fell from heaven.” He did not go quite so far as Origen, who believed that the devil himself would finally be brought to the “mourner’s bench” and soundly converted. Murray believed in a personal devil, but handed him over to be dealt with upon strictly orthodox principles.

Such was the theology of Murray. Such, for the most part, was early Universalism. Such was the rock from which we are hewn, the hole of the pit from which we are digged. There were, however, especially during the latter part of his ministry, those who differed from his views in regard to the person and mission of Christ. Among them were Rich, Winchester, and Ballou. Of these Murray was moved to say, “I know no persons further from Christianity, genuine Christianity, than such Universalists.” Murray, honest and faithful, believed sincerely that there was to be no advance in Universalism beyond the form in which he held and delivered it. There was nothing to be said that he had not said. Departure from the paths he had marked out was departure from Christianity itself. Murray had himself departed from Whitefield and Wesley; but no one must depart from Murray!

Let us not blame him because he was mistaken. Let us reverence him for the work he did, and for making possible still later and better work. He brought, in a certain degree, the spirit of truth, the spirit of inquiry and investigation; and that spirit has led his disciples into fields beyond the dooryard of their master. It was glory enough for him that he rimmed with light the iron throne of Calvinism; that he found a heart of love in the God of that terrific system; that to the little band of the elect on earth, he added the mighty host of human souls in the hereafter; that he dropped the plummet of God’s redeeming mercy to the bottom of hell!

II. I have suggested certain departures from his views among some of the Universalists, towards the latter part of Murray’s career. We must, therefore, call attention to the second great figure in our history,

Hosea Ballou,

who stands for the next phase of denominational thought.

Born at Richmond, N. H., in 1771, thirty years after the birth of Murray, he also sprang from a Calvinistic family. His father was a Calvinistic Baptist minister. The youth of Ballou was as about as miserable, theologically speaking, as that of Murray. He himself relates: —

We were all taught, and in our youth believed, that we were born into the world wholly depraved, and under the curse of a law which doomed every son and daughter of Adam to eternal woe. At the same time God had made provision for a select number of the human family, whereby they would be saved by the operations of the Divine Spirit, which would operate in what was called conversion sometime during the life of those elected. Those who were not elected would remain without any effectual calling, die, and be forever miserable. When I was a youth, it was the sentiment of all Christian people, so far as I knew, that not more than one in a thousand of the human family would be saved from endless condemnation.

With a mind naturally logical, Ballou, as he grew up, discovered the absurdities and inconsistencies of the prevailing theology, and before long we find him excommunicated from his father’s church for being a Universalist. The father entreated and remonstrated, but the son was firm. Among the questions he put to his father was this: “Suppose I had the skill and power out of an inanimate substance to make an animate, and should make one, at the same time knowing that this creature of mine would suffer everlasting misery — would, my act of creating this creature be an act of goodness ?” The question troubled his father, but it was never answered. The only answer, indeed, that the orthodoxy of Ballou’s day, or of any other day, has ever made to such questions, is to solemnly warn against the use of human reason : “Do not think and question; only believe. The use of reason may destroy your soul!”

While the logical mind of Ballou could not rest satisfied with the orthodoxy of his day, no more could it rest satisfied with theology as John Murray would have it. In his remarkable work on “The Atonement,” a work which embodies most of his own system, he distinctly repudiates the doctrine of the Trinity; he teaches that Christ was a dependent, created being, and not God; he rejects the vicarious and substitutionary sacrifice, and holds that Christ was sent into this world to teach men the way to God and reconcile them to Him. He also repudiates the doctrine of a fall and of inherited depravity, and insists on the originial rightness of human nature. In his early life he appears to have believed that there would be disciplinary suffering in the next world; but latterly he abandoned this idea. “His matured opinion seems to have been,” according to Dr. Cone, “that sin is punished when and where it is committed; and as he did not believe that men would sin in the life to come, he did not think they would suffer punishment in that state of existence.” His doctrine, for this reason, was known among his opponents as the “death-and-glory doctrine.”

Mr. Ballou’s book and preaching revolutionized — or, as Murray would have described it, “wrecked” — the denomination. Different from the spirit of Murray, in this respect, was the spirit of Hosea Ballou. He seems to have realized, as did Jesus, that the spirit of truth would constantly lead the earnest seeker into new regions; and in the preface to his great book, published about eighty years ago, he writes: —

It is a happy circumstance that in the denomination of Universalists no one feels bound to support and defend the particular opinions of another any further than he is himself convinced of their truth and importance. Our platform of faith is general, and allows individuals an extensive latitude to think freely, to investigate minutely, and to adopt what particular views best comport with the honest convictions of the mind, and fearlessly to avow and defend the same.

Golden words, and words we do well to remember to-day.

Ballou accepted Murray’s doctrine of destiny, and added to it the doctrine of the Divine Unity and of Christ’s work as a moral power influencing men to God. A rational view of Deity and of the nature of salvation was Ballou’s work upon Murray’s foundation. Having finished his course and. accomplished his task, he fell asleep in the year 1852. Says President Cone: —

A great and spotless soul, he well deserves the meed of reverence and of honor from us of this generation who have entered into his labors. Well shall we do and deserve if we perform the work allotted to us with the zeal and consecration, with the courage and sincerity, and with the geniality and toleration which distinguished Hosea Ballou.

III. The Modern Period

Since the death of Ballou, we cannot say that any one man has become the embodiment and exponent of a period. There has been progress since his day, but the thought and tendencies of the modern epoch are not gathered up in one individual.

The denomination still stands with its foundations in the past. It retains the doctrine of human destiny for which Murray so zealously labored, but it disclaims the Calvinism with which that doctrine was associated in his mind. With Ballou, it repudiates his ideas of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, vicarious sacrifice, and total depravity. It accepts with Ballou the unity of God, the original Tightness of human nature, and the morally educational work of Jesus Christ. But it no longer accepts the later teaching of Ballou, that punishment for sin is confined to this life; the vast majority to-day would say that penalty may extend and does extend into the other life, and lasts while sin lasts.

But if modern Universalism retains so much of the work and thought of the past, we may well ask, “Has it any characteristics of its own ? What distinguishes the Universalism of to-day from the Universalism of the fathers?” It is already apparent that there is a large body of truth which we hold in common with them. Wherein do we differ?

1. The Universalism of to-day differs from that of yesterday, in some respects, as the oak differs from the acorn; it is the development of certain germs of truth whose unfolding was long delayed.

For example, our fathers, in the confession of 1803, departed so far from orthodoxy as to declare that the “Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God, the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind.” Orthodoxy said, “The Scriptures are such a revelation from beginning to end.” We can hardly realize to-day the length of the departure measured by the word contain. The fathers also affirmed man’s right to use his reason in the interpretation of the Bible, to whatever conclusion he might be led. The orthodoxy of the day insisted that reason must only be used so far as it brought one back to the predestined conclusions of the creeds. All this was before the day of scientific criticism, and while our fathers affirmed the difference in value and importance of different parts of the Bible, yet in their handling of proof texts they proceeded upon the orthodox assumption, and in their answers and arguments treated every passage, from whatever part of the Bible it came, as if it stood upon a level with every other passage. They denied the infallibility of Scripture, and yet built their theology upon the very infallibility they denied. They recognized the office of reason, but confined it to the explanation of texts.

That word “contain,” however, was a seed that has germinated and marvellously grown under the influence of modern critical study. Within its wonderfully elastic boundary line, we find room for the results of the scholarship of to-day. We no longer assume infallibility. We recognize the progress in morality, in religion, in everything, that different portions of the Bible indicate. We recognize the human error, even while we feel the divine heart-beat underneath. To them the Bible was the book of theology; to us it is the book of life. To them it was the mathematics of dogma; to us it is the literature of religion. To them it was a magazine of proof texts; to us it is the torch of the spirit to kindle the flames of devotion and love. It decreases as a theological authority; it increases as a guide to duty, as an inspiration to holiness. A merely textual Universalism has had its day. We no longer think it worth while to show that a smiling countenance is hidden behind every frowning text. Reason, from the drudgery of interpretation, has been lifted to the supreme authority. But the change that has been wrought was all originally wrapped up in that word “contain.”

2. The Universalism of to-day differs from that of yesterday, in some other respects, as the kernel differs from the shell; it makes use of the vital and essential truth of the past without the former discussions concerning the incidental and subordinate.

One difficulty with the Universalism of other days was its terminology. It was loth to part with the expressions of orthodoxy. It used the Trinitarian formula in baptism, in benediction and doxology, although it denied the Trinity. From some of these expressions many suppose, even to-day, that the Universalist church believes in the doctrine of the Trinity. There is frequent necessity to correct this impression. It used the orthodox phraseology to describe the work of Christ, while denying the vicarious sacrifice; so that many thought and still think that the only difference between the Universalists and others upon this subject is in the extent of Christ’s work and not at all in its nature. Then, too, there were many discussions about the person of Christ. There is still diversity of view. Not all in the denomination think alike concerning the miraculous birth, the preexistence of Jesus, the exact place of His classification in the scheme of being, and the entire subject of the supernatural.

While in regard to the Bible we have felt the impulse of modern criticism, so in regard to all that has been believed to transcend the ordinary course of nature, we have felt the influence of modern science, The old distinction between natural and supernatural is vanishing. The kingdom of God is not divided into two antagonistic provinces. Slowly but resistlessly increases the thought that the doctrine of “special interferences” must go with the doctrine of “special creations”; that every apparent exception is in reality a part of the universal order. There is no diversity, however, regarding the moral power of Jesus, His life, His example, His teaching. These are the essential things. That exalted human personality, that incarnation of godliness into actual character, in its moving and moulding might, is still preached, while the nugatory questions of the past about Jesus, are allowed to pile themselves up like driftwood along the banks of the living stream.

3. Once more, the Universalism of to-day differs from that of yesterday, as the demonstration in mathematics differs from the application to practical mechanics.

It was, indeed, necessary for great principles to be wrought out, for great doctrines to be established; and for this purpose line upon line, precept upon precept, were needed. The doctrine of the Divine Fatherhood must be veritably driven into the minds of men and fixed there. Sermon upon sermon up-piled, debate overtopping debate, these were needed to abolish the everlasting dungeons of the future. The work was done and well done. All honor to the sturdy fathers of the faith. Let none of the younger generation, who cannot realize the difficulties of that elder day or the heroism it took to meet them, say one word in contempt or depreciation. Let us do our work as faithfully as they did theirs.

It must strike one, however, that, from the very necessity laid upon them, the theology of the fathers was very largely a theology that centred in the future. Its field was the hereafter. Its prevailing aspect was that of “other-worldliness.” It banished the clouds from the heavens, but left many a shadow resting upon the earth. It is for us to take the great truths of God’s Fatherhood and of man’s destiny, turn them earthward, and find here and now their application. Our fathers smote the tyrant of the skies; it is for us to take the same principles by which they did it, and smite the oppressions of the earth. Our fathers affirmed an immortal worth in the vilest creature; they said there was something in him that ages hence would burst into magnificent blossom in the sunlight of paradise. It is for us to insist that the processes of unfolding shall not be postponed; that they shall begin on earth, and that the conditions for that unfolding shall be made as favorable as possible.

The immortal worth of every human being! Put that idea under society, and it is no longer a machine for turning out dollars, but a garden for the cultivation of men. It is this idea that is stirring the world to its foundations, and beginning to thaw the icy maxims of political economy. It is teaching us that human labor is not, in the ordinary sense, a commodity; not to be bargained for in the market-place as if it were a barrel of flour or a load of lumber; not to be driven to the wall by advantage taken of its pinching necessities; that it differs from other commodities because behind every stroke of work is a brain whose powers of thought and inspiration are sparks from the infinite light, a heart whose throbs of affection pulsate with the immortal love and the immortal life.

The worth of a human being! We see it in every movement to abridge the hours of physical toil, that the mind may be more free for improvement. We see it in every law to protect life and limb for those who labor amid the complex machinery of the factory and mill. We see it in the laws to protect childhood from the blight of that toil to which so many are doomed even before their arms have “seven years’ pith.” We see it in the provisions that make attendance at school compulsory, and in the additional provisions to make that attendance effective by furnishing free text-books as well as other appliances. The value of humanity in this world is the moral of those old discussions about the future.

Well did our fathers say that no saint could bear the sight of endless misery over yonder; why should any real saint be able to bear any better the sight of the awful misery that still exists in this world — the “Inferno of Modern Civilization,” as Mr. Flower has so well named it ? O living saint, wait not for the future. Put aside that noblest of all dreams, the exploration of the regions of the lost hereafter, and carry your message of hope and love and restoration into these hells of to-day of which our cities are full — these hells of pauperism, of grinding poverty, of innocent suffering, of ghastly intemperance, hells of the sweater’s shop and the loathsome tenement, hells whose fires “man’s inhumanity to man” has lighted — and here let your gospel sound its music. Seraph-wing and savior-heart are needed here and now.

These are the lines along which must move the Universalism of to-day. Along these lines victory is certain. No nobler opportunity is before any people. We must keep in sympathy with the world’s thought and the world’s life. Let us apply the principles of our fathers, and coming generations will rise up and call us blessed, as we look back to Murray, Ballou, Winchester, and all the transfigured company who have gathered, crowned and radiant, in the heavens!

  1. Ginny McAninch says:

    Hi Scott,

    Here is a challenge from Roger Butts and Tony Lorenson

    I am a lay leader at First Universalist in Mpls MN. I am preparing a sermon for our 4th of July service. I came across a reference to Samuel Thompson in a recent book by T.H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots. Per Breen, Thompson was a Universalist and his teachings influenced the insurgency, giving authority to individuals rather than institutions. I cannot find anything on Thompson.

    I found Tony and Roger in the GA exhibit hall and was discussing this. They said you’d be the man for this. I must admit they delighted in the possibility of my inquiry to you!

    So I ask, do you know anything about this early American Universalist minister, Samuel Thompson? Breen’s notes cite Jack P Greene, Imperatives, Behaviors and Identies, Essays in Early American Cultural History and James Leamon Revolution Downeast.

    Thanks!

    Ginny McAninch

  2. Rev. Scott Wells says:

    Wow — what an interesting question. I’m tickled to be noted, but that name isn’t at all familiar. A John Samuel Thompson was a Universalist minister in Massachusetts — Hosea Ballou preached his ordination — but the dates would be too late.

  3. De-Leon Peacock says:

    Scott, I truely enjoyed reading this sermon you posted “Sutter” I am a Georgia boy myself and after spending years in the belief system of the fundamentalist I am thinking of ordination into the Christian Universalist Association. Please continue to post such inlightening historical presentations. Again THANKS so very much.

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