Hosea Went Universalist

Who Are These People? part 1

I grew up Unitarian Universalist. I grew up in the Southeast: in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. In adulthood, I lived in Atlanta, Georgia; Waco, Texas; Charlottesville, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; Rochester, Minnesota. That was all before I became a minister. However strange a new town might feel, however adrift in unfamiliar streets and customs I might be, I would look up the local Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Yellow Pages. (You remember Yellow Pages? It’s what us old timers used to use before there was the internet.) I would show up on Sunday morning and there I would be among my people. I would be home.

Yet even I, born and raised Unitarian Universalist, would occasionally have a certain experience. It must be even more common among the many people who do not come to Unitarian Universalism until adulthood. I’m talking about those times of looking around the room – around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, or at a committee meeting, or a potluck dinner – and thinking: "Who are these people? They kinda seem like ordinary people, but there's something a little different about them."

Unitarian Universalists today are the inheritors of a long and a deep and a rich tradition of free and thoughtful people making together religious community. That's who we are.

Heaven, hell, and sin are big concepts. Many of those who do find themselves landing at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in adulthood after growing up in some other tradition have journeyed through significant evolution of their concepts of what heaven and hell and sin are. The individual journey that many Unitarian Universalists have taken recapitulates the journey of Unitarianism and Universalism. The liberal religious movement in this country went through stages, just as some current Unitarian Universalists individually did. Before we could come to a place of affirming both heaven and hell as experiences in this life, we started by saying there was no hell of eternal afterlife punishment.

To illustrate this evolution, let’s look at the life of an early Universalist: Hosea Ballou, born in 1771. His father, Maturin Ballou, was a preacher in Rhode Island before American independence. Then he headed out for that harsh New Hampshire wilderness for a new life. It was a tough life. With the tools they had, and the stony ground, and the short growing season, only the scantiest of living could be wrung from the land. And on Sundays, Maturin “preached without pay in the plain little meetinghouse where the members of his own household provided a large portion of the congregation” (Scott 58). Hosea was Maturin and Lydia Ballou’s eleventh child – so that congregation wasn’t quite so small as might have been supposed. When Hosea was two, his mother Lydia died, worn out and without medical care.

It was a life of arduous toil. Hosea was 19 years old before he first went to school. And the only reading matter in the house was one Bible, one old almanac, one battered dictionary, and one pamphlet about the Tower of Babel.

Maturin was a strict Calvinist Baptist. He preached that God willed eternal damnation for most of the human race. As Hosea was growing up, gradually the hamlet near the Ballou farm, Richmond, New Hampshire, grew. There were more people in the church.

And Maturin stepped down from the pulpit before Hosea was baptized at age 17. By full immersion. Out of doors. In a New Hampshire river. In November.

About that time, Hosea began to think about
“the reasons for the faith he had accepted. There was no use asking his father questions; he already knew what the answers would be. So he went to the Bible” (C.L. Scott, These Live Tomorrow 59-60)
He went to see for himself what the Bible really said. What he saw was disturbing. What he saw were a lot of passages that seemed to contradict what he’d been taught all his life. What he saw didn’t say anything about most of humanity being condemned to hell forever.

Then, as if on cue, as if to compound Hosea’s uncertainties, word started to drift over from Warwick, New Hampshire, about six miles away, that there was a minister there named Caleb Rich who was preaching a strange doctrine called Universalism. And occasionally some cohorts of Caleb Rich came and visited Hosea’s church just for the purpose of raising embarrassing questions. “How could a good God be responsible for endless suffering in hell of creatures of his own making?” And what about this passage here, Romans chapter 5, verse 18:
“Therefore as by the offence of one [i.e., Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one [i.e., Jesus] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life." (KJV)
All men, it says – all people, to use a better translation. What’s up with that?

These universalists were starting to get a following in Richmond, New Hampshire. The Calvinists resisted strongly, but some substantial Baptists were won over. A whole family of Ballous – cousins of Hosea – went over to the universalist side. This universalist threat had to be countered! Hosea went to the Bible to find the refutations that would confound these wrong-headed universalists once and for all.

Instead, he found himself forced to yield more and more ground. Hosea really struggled.
“Could it be that his father missed important passages in the Bible? Is the doctrine of ‘election’ really true? Is the great majority of humanity doomed to endless suffering?” (Scott 60)
Hosea felt like: “Hey, if it were up to me, I’d let everybody into heaven. It’s not like it’s going to get too crowded – it’s infinite. Could God be less kindly than I feel?”

Finally, Hosea Ballou came to resolution of that struggle. He let go a part of his inheritance. Yes, there were still parts of the Bible that did raise questions that he could not answer, but a basic clarity came to him. Certain clouds rolled away, and he said, “That’s it. I am a Universalist.”

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Who Are These People?"
See also
Part 2: Atoning for Us All
Part 3: The Price We Pay

1 comment:

  1. Hosea Ballou asked, "Is the great majority of humanity doomed to endless suffering?" And he couldn't bring himself to say yes --because God, he was sure, was good.

    Well, admittedly the word "endless" is a problem, since none of us can even imagine forever. But substitute "lifelong" for "endless," and in candor we have to say what Hosea could not: Yes, the great majority of humanity is indeed condemned to long suffering. Look to Guatemala, in the shadow of the volcano. Look to the bombed-out streets of Aleppo or Gaza. Look to the deserts of South Sudan. Look to the camps made by the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Look to the US southern border crossings, where sobbing children are taken forcibly from refugee mothers --and in our name, funded by our taxes, supposedly for our national security.

    The power of the old Universalist doctrine was its insistence that we are all saved --and perhaps we are, if all that's meant is that we're saved from the flames of an eternal God-stoked hell, a hell we can't comprehend and don't believe in. Whether we're saved as well from the hells that burn right here on earth, right before our eyes --well, that's another question. With regard to those hells --the ones we do believe in and see for ourselves on the evening news-- well, salvation of most of humanity from those hells is still only a hope. And it's up to us. Nor is it about what we merely believe, what we're willing to affirm with our words. It's about what we DO --in other words about what we most DEEPLY believe, right down to our sinews, and affirm with our bodies. That's where the tale of our salvation will be told, because --as Jesus's brother James kept insisting-- faith without works is dead. So no, hell is not yet extinguished; it's completely real and completely present. Whether it stays that way --well, that's up to us; it depends on what we do.