Atoning for Us All

Who Are These People? part 2

Hosea Ballou came to a moment when his resistance to universalist arguments finally crumbled -- a conversion experience that may have started as intellectual and grown into a commitment of the heart, or may have started as an niggling inchoate intuition for which intellectual rationale subsequently developed.

Many Unitarian Universalists today can relate to what that moment must have been like. Most current Unitarian Universalists reached a time in their adult life when they said, “That’s it. There are things I am still struggling with; my quest, my spiritual journey, does continue, but I am a Unitarian Universalist. It’s what I am. My lot is cast with these people.”

For many of these UUs, the very next thought was: “Oh, my, how do I tell my parents?”

Here’s a telling story:
“One Sunday afternoon as young Hosea sat in the corner of the kitchen, Maturin his father asked, ‘What is that book you are reading?’
Hosea answered, ‘A Universalist book,’
‘I cannot allow a Universalist book in my house,’ declared the father.
So Hosea walked out to the woodshed,” and, knowing his father would be watching him, in plain sight hid the book “in the woodpile. After Hosea had gone to bed Maturin went to the woodpile, and discovered that the forbidden book was the Bible.” (Scott 61)
Hosea scrimped and saved his pennies and, at age 19, bought himself one term at Chesterfield Academy.
“He got his money’s worth, absorbing so much from his studies that at the end of the term he was granted a certificate that declared that he was prepared to teach school.” (Scott 61)
In September 1791, at age 20, he attended the General Convention of Universalists in Oxford, Massachusetts. Universalism had gained a foothold in communities on the Atlantic coast, and Hosea had the chance to hear those preachers speak.

Hosea heard the call, took to preaching. In his day there were many preachers who earned most of their living doing something else. Hosea would teach all week and preach on Sunday. His fame spread. He got ordained.

At age 25 some colleagues began to be a little concerned. He showed no signs of getting married. As far as anyone could tell, he had never had a love affair. His colleague universalist minister Caleb Rich explained to Hosea the hazards of an unmarried minister, and even produced a woman for Hosea: Ruth Washburn – amazingly both intelligent and willing. The marriage was long and happy and produced eleven children. (Perhaps eleven was the quota in those days?)

Through his preaching and his writing, Ballou reshaped Universalist doctrine. Ballou’s 1805 book, A Treatise on Atonement, is a major landmark in the development of our thought. His editorship of the Universalist magazine – creatively titled The Universalist Magazine – gave us our identity for more than a generation.

In addition to being Unitarians, we today are Universalists. We are Universalists, walking in Hosea Ballou’s footsteps, not to try to be like him, but to be who we are – to let each of our unique little lights shine. We are Universalists not because we believe what Hosea Ballou, or any other predecessor, believed. We are Universalists because we are the latest participants in the conversation that is Universalism – the conversation that Hosea Ballou reshaped with his powerful ideas. It is as participants in that unbroken dialog, that continuous conversation which in this country extends back 240 years, that we are who we are, not by adherence to any article of belief advanced in that conversation. We are Universalists because we today speak with each other continuing the ongoing conversation in which Ballou in his time so eloquently spoke. And we understand ourselves by understanding how we got here, how this conversation came to constitute us. We learn to see for ourselves, more independently and more confidently, by hearkening to the echoes of voices from our past.

In his Treatise on the Atonement Ballou addressed Christ’s act of atoning for our sins by dying on the cross. The Calvinist doctrine proclaimed limited atonement. Christ’s act atoned for only a few – the great majority of humankind was doomed to hell. This included, the Calvinists felt sure, all the nonCalvinists and even probably most of the Calvinists. Ballou’s point, like the other Universalist preachers, was that Christ’s atonement atoned for us all.

And I can agree with that.

Insofar as Jesus knew what he was risking, and did it anyway, insofar as Jesus saw for himself and dared to speak of what he saw despite the danger, then his brave compassion, which earned him crucifixion, redeems us, all of us. Insofar as Socrates’ saw for himself and refused to shut up about what he saw, insofar as he continued to urge others to also come take a look, then his civil disobedience for the cause of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which earned him a bowl of hemlock, redeems us, all of us. Insofar as Katherine Vogel in the sixteenth century saw for herself and spoke out saying God was one and not three, insofar as she would not recant, knowing the penalty, then her theology, which earned her fiery death at the stake, redeems us, all of us. For every act of imagination and vision and courage redeems the species that is capable of producing it. By such acts we are lifted out of our petty, small-minded, mean tendencies and we are shown of what we, too, are capable. Such acts speak to us, if we will listen, and they say, “Hey you, human being, look what your humanity has in it to do.”

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Who Are These People?"
See also
Part 1: Hosea Went Universalist
Part 3: The Price We Pay

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