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A SHORT ESSAY ON UNIVERSALISM

by Hosea Ballou, ca. 1849


We propose, in what we shall say in the few following pages, on the subject of Universalism, to offer a few suggestions on several subjects which relate to the doctrine, considered as a system of theology, which distinguishes its believers, as a sect, from Christians of denominations, and also in regard to some of the different views which have been entertained respecting the doctrine, by those who have professed and defended it.

Having presented the reader with a short compendium of the articles of our faith, in which Universalists are agreed, we propose to set forth a concise view of some of the most important differences in the opinions which have been embraces by believers in the before- mentioned essential particulars.

It would not be consistent with our present purpose, or with the limits prescribed to these pages, to go back in the early ages of the church, and inquire into the particular tenets of those learned divines who were believers in this doctrine, and who taught it in the schools. Some of those, having imbibed many notions taught by Grecian philosophers, thought it consistent with Christianity to retain many heathen opinions, and exerted more labor, learning and criticism, to reconcile the ancient mythology with Christianity, than to understand and teach the doctrine of Jesus in its simplicity.

What we now propose to do is to take somewhat of a general survey of the opinions entertained by those who, within the memory of living men, have believed and taught Universalism. As this doctrine was first taught in this country, its general aspect indicated that it had what we may call a Calvinistic base!

A work entitled "Calvinism Improved," designed to vindicate Universalism, was not very essentially different from the views of our Universalists in general fifty years ago. As the basis of Calvinism is generally understood, we need not describe its elements. Simply to improve it, so as to establish Universalism on it, requires only to extend the merciful decrees of God, which Calvin restricted to a part of the human family, so as to embrace the whole, and do the same with the vicarious atonement made by the Son of God, which Calvin confined to a chosen part. When a Calvinist found that the Scriptures plainly teach that the Savior gave himself a ransom for all men, having, by the grace of God, tasted death for every man, it was easy for him to see the impropriety of believing that God had, from all eternity doomed any to endless woe.

It does not appear that our earliest Universalists doubted that man, by sin, had incurred the just penalty of endless punishment, but fully ruled on the efficacy of the atonement for a deliverance of all men from such a condemnation. The doctrine of the Trinity was also held as an essential part of the general system of doctrine. The great idea of universal salvation filled its believers so full of joy, giving such an impetus to the benevolence and love, that their zeal to impart its light and comfort to their fellow-men seemed to correspond with its vastness and glory. The natural consequence of this state of things was to arouse the clergy, who had quietly settled in the doctrine of endless misery, and were enjoying a comfortable living with their people, who believed their doctrine, to look about them, and to exert all the means in their power to oppose and put down a doctrine, which, to them, appeared to be subversive of Divine Truth, and dangerous to the interests of souls committed to their charge.

The few defenders of Universalism found enough to do, in contending with their numerous and learned opposers, without retiring to their studies to call in question, and to examine, the soundness of certain tenets which they had never doubted, and which they could hold, not only without weakening their own cause, but use successfully in opposing their adversaries, who believed the same. While viewing these circumstances, in room of wondering why our early preachers did not see the impropriety of allowing the infinite demerit of sin, and the incongruous notion of an infinite substitute for its penalty, we may marvel that they should have been brought so far out of darkness as to behold that one bright and glorious star in the midst of the gloom which surrounded it. They were evidently men of strong minds, acute discernment, and of moral courage.

To a wonderful degree were their labors blessed, and converts from the doctrine of endless punishment became numerous, as trophies of their spiritual warfare. But as believers were multiplied, and additions made to the number of advocates of the impartial doctrine, it seems that Divine wisdom saw fit to lead some minds to look inquiringly into the soundness of many dogmas which had been suffered to lie undisturbed in public opinion for ages. These inquiries were directed to test the doctrine of the Trinity, of vicarious atonement, of the infinite demerit of sin, of the justice of endless punishment, of the common doctrine of a personal devil, and the existence of that hell in which the church had so long believed, and which her clergy had located in the invisible, eternal world.

On examination of the dogma of three distinct persons in one indivisible, infinite being, each of which is infinite, it was discovered to be embarrassed not only with mystery, defying even an approach by the human understanding, but involving most palpable absurdity; and when the fact was duly considered, that Jesus by his many prayers acknowledged his dependence on his Father in heaven, and when it was also duly realized that he acknowledged that he was sent of the Father, and that all the power he possessed and exercised was given him by the Father, the dogma was given up, as resting on no better ground than human invention.

Vicarious atonement, when carefully examined, was believed to depend on certain assumed notions, which had for their support neither Scripture nor reason. If man justly deserved endless punishment, or any punishment at all, neither Scripture nor reason would allow that the innocent should suffer it in room and stead of the guilty. As to reason, it frowns on such a dogma indignantly; and the Scriptures, wherever they speak on the subject, assure us that God will render to every man according to his works. As, in the very nature of moral consciousness, guilt is the necessary retribution of the commission of known wrong, it is impossible that the innocent should suffer it. The doctrine of the infinite demerit of sin, and of the justice of endless punishment, required no very deep or labored research to result in exploding it.

The eye of enlightened reason, at one glance, could clearly see, that if sin be infinite, there can be no difference or degrees in criminality, while the Scriptures clearly teach a comparative distinction, and that while one offender is justly liable to many stripes, another is exposed to but a few. As to the justice of endless punishment, minds enjoying the liberty of free inquiry could easily detect the diabolical character of such justice, as it is the exact opposite of the Divine nature, which is love. Such justice is evidently predicated on the false principle and ungodly practice of rendering evil for evil. The commonly received opinion, that there exists a personal being called the devil, seemed as difficult to eradicate from people's minds as any of the superstitions which had been nourished by learned divines in any age. Such a being, it seems, was indispensable in contriving and carrying on the scheme of man's eternal ruin! But when inquiry demanded who was the author of this devil, and what he was made for, and who it is that upholds him, and other kindred questions were asked, the most plausible account which could be obtained amounted to the startling blasphemy of attributing the whole to the wisdom of God! These inquiring minds indulged in the liberty of calling in question the existence of that hell, in the invisible, eternal world, the belief of which the doctors of the church have taught to their people for many ages.

And now, what account were our divines able to furnish concerning this dark, gloomy state of endless woe? Nothing more than that they knew nothing about it. True, they would say that we read of hell in the Bible, but they were utterly unable to show that a single passage gave countenance to the existence of such a hell as they professed to believe in, and in which they taught the people to believe. And as such a belief is evidently dis-honorable to the character of our heavenly Father, it was rejected as an abominable superstition. As some of those exploded superstitions had been retained by the early defenders of Universalism, it was alarming to them to be assured that their younger brethren, who preached the glorious doctrine of universal salvation, had repudiated those doctrines which they had never called in question. And now arose a conflict between the preachers of Universalism, almost as sharp at that which had been carried on between Universalists and their opposers; and had it not been that the spirit imparted to all who believed in that one central idea of universal, impartial, and unchangeable love, predominated in directing their feelings and measures, lamentable consequences might have been realized.

But such as had been favored with new discoveries, realizing that they first believed in universal salvation, before they made those discoveries, and even by the assistance of their fathers in the faith, would have been quite unreasonable, had they been either uncharitable or ungrateful towards their elders and benefactors. Such considerations were not without their favorable influence. The doctrine of a future retribution, or of a state hereafter in which the sins of this life will be punished, was not denied by any of the early defenders of final restoration. The belief that there will be an end of sin and of the punishment was received with such transporting joy, that minor subjects were little thought of.

Those in our times, who are led to yield an assent to the doctrine of Universalism, rarely feel such ecstatic joy as did the first believers. The reason is, those who now become convinced of the truth of the doctrine have so long lived in the atmosphere of the doctrine, that they have, by degrees, become fully convinced, having been inclined that way for years.

As early as were repudiated those opinions which have been noticed, that of a future state of punishment was called in question, and in process of a few years was by many disbelieved. By the writer of these pages this doctrine has been doubted more than half a century, and for nearly forty years has been disbelieved, as being taught in the Scriptures. Difference of opinion on this question, though at one time, and for a little while, produced a rent among our clergy; the healing power of the main doctrine soon overcame all difficulty, which, for a long time, has given us no trouble.

Though there are some now who believe in what is called future retribution, we know of none who pretend to prove it by Divine revelation, or dwell on it in their preaching. We know of no passages of Scripture, which teach the doctrine of a future state, which imply the existence of either sin or punishment in that state. Could we find any such testimony, we should then need Scripture proof that such sin and punishment will have an end, in order to be consistent Universalists.

Owing to the age and infirmities of the writer of this article, he cannot expect to be able, much longer, to render any considerable service to the infinitely glorious cause to whose interest he has had the happy privilege of devoting his humble talents for nearly sixty years. But while holding himself ready to resign his armor, at the word of command, he cannot fully express his gratitude for what he sees of the wonderful spread of truth, and for the numerous army which he will leave in its future defense.