Give Them Not Hell, But Hope and Courage
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 25, 2001
In the years immediately following the American Revolution, John Murray, widely acknowledged as the founder of American Universalism, spoke these stirring words:
“Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new country. Give the people, blanketed with a decaying Calvinism, something of your new vision. You may have but a small light, uncover it, let it shine, use it bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God."
John Murray was always a man who spoke his mind. He was a religious thinker generations ahead of his time. The essential meaning of his words—spoken nearly 250 years ago—ring with the same clarity and truth today, perhaps more than ever.
In those early years following the founding of their movement, the Universalists held the field against the orthodox Calvinists pretty much to themselves. William Ellery Channing, the first leader of American Unitarians, had not even been born yet. When the first Universalist church in America was founded in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1779, the founding of the American Unitarian Association was still almost half a century away. Universalism in those early days was radical stuff—completely cut off from the mainstream of American religious life.
But those early Universalists didn’t need social acceptance; they had other things going for them: They possessed an inordinate amount of energy and enthusiasm. They never passed up an opportunity for a debate, a discussion, or an argument. They wrote, and published, and spread their word. They organized churches in every town and village in which they settled, in some of the most out-of-the-way places imaginable—even by the standards of the early 19th century.
They believed, very simply, that theirs was the faith most in tune with the tenor of the times in which they lived—most in step with the democratic and optimistic spirit of the new American nation. They knew that they had a mission: that they had a new and exciting and forward-looking faith to share with the whole world—the doctrine of universal salvation—the doctrine that God would save all people, not just the chosen few.
By 1835, the Boston Recorder, an orthodox journal, was asserting that:
By the early 1830s, the Universalists had already established 700 churches and societies. They could claim, perhaps, as many a half-a-million adherents. Things seemed to be going very well, indeed…
But could it be that the early generation of Universalists in America did their job a little too well? Perhaps they convinced too many of the orthodox of the validity of universal salvation and their God of Love. Soon, Methodists were claiming that, after all, their founder, John Wesley, had preached universal salvation years before Murray had… Soon, a new generation of Congregationalists, under the leadership of men like Horrace Bushnell, were doing all they could to distance themselves from the extremes of their Calvinist forefathers, and were also stressing the love of God and the potential for good within human nature.
“Universal salvation” became part of the mainstream of Christian theology (or pretty near). It wasn’t a doctrine that could generate very much controversy any longer. And as the controversy faded, so American Universalism declined. In the years just following the Civil War, some estimates put the number of Universalists in America at around 800,000. At the time of the Unitarian-Universalist merger, about a century later, there were, perhaps, 50,000.
By the dawn of the 20th Century, American Universalism faced a severe identity crisis, one that would rage for perhaps the next 60 years. Universalists were asking themselves some very difficult questions:
As extreme Calvinism gave way to a softer, more humane Protestantism, so Universalism seemed to lose most of its thunder. It seemed destined just to fade away, like the Swedenborgians and the Schwenkfelders, and other now long-forgotten religious movements…
But sometimes, the more the world changes, the more it stays the same. John Murray and his early Universalist cohorts not only stood in opposition to the prevailing Calvinist view of the nature of God as a mean and vindictive tyrant in heaven. They also opposed the Calvinist view of he nature of humanity, as well. Those early Universalists dared to assert that humanity was not bound to sin, that human nature was not a synonym for total depravity.
Is the Calvinist teaching of total depravity also a thing of the past? Hardly!
A well-known evangelist was teaching a course on preaching at a certain theological seminary. He was stressing to his class just how important it is to make one’s facial expressions reflect and echo the words being spoken. “When you speak of Heaven,” the evangelist said, “let your face light up and shine with a heavenly glow. Let your eyes shine with reflected glory!” But then, the evangelist continued, “But when you speak of Hell—well, then, your everyday face will do fine.”
How can a rational being look upon the glory and the loveliness of an everyday human face—the face of one’s child or parent; the face of one’s spouse or partner or beloved; the magnificent diversity of human faces in all their colors and shades and shapes—are equate that with the burning fires of hell, and with sin and depravity? Yet, that is what so much of contemporary religion would have us do.
Well over 200 years ago, John Murray declared that there is within the most ordinary of people—within you, and within me, and within all of us—the most extraordinary shining light, which can pierce the darkness of our lives, and pierce the darkness of our world.
Way back in 1770, John Murray was telling the world that the true work of religion lay not in imaginings of hellfire and damnation—lay not in dividing the world up into “saved” and “unsaved”—but in trying to bring more understanding and warmth into our lives, and into the life of the world. That was the work we had to do as religious men and women.
Some things about our Universalist (and our Unitarian Universalist) faith have changed over the years. (It could well be that if John Murray were somehow transported into one of our Unitarian Universalist churches today, he’d probably shake his head in amazement at what the faith he had helped to found had become.) Much has changed. But some important things have not changed:
Meeting in convention in Washington, DC in 1935, the Universalist Church of America avowed its faith “In the supreme worth and dignity of every human personality.”
Every statement of Unitarian Universalist faith since that time has included some variation of that cherished phrase.
The very first of our current principles, adopted by our Association in 1985, declares: “We covenant to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
“The supreme worth and dignity of every human personality.” “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” These are, clearly, words that echo one another.
Perhaps this is the most precious legacy which John Murray and our early Universalist forefathers and foremothers have left us.
Perhaps over time, the specific theological doctrines of universal salvation became less important to American Universalists. As the years have passed, maybe we have become less concerned about theological issues of heaven and hell, of salvation and damnation, per se. But the Universalist belief in the magnificent potential of our humanity—our belief in the absolute indivisibility of our humanity in the eyes of God—is something that has remained constant and true from generation to generation. Perhaps this is one gift that our faith can still offer to a pained and bruised world today. Perhaps this is still our mission as religious people.
There are too many preachers of hellfire and damnation in this world of ours. There are too many that want to go on dividing the world up. There are too many voices of despair—hopeless voices, voices of selfish, narrow-minded salvation. There can never be too many voices of hope and courage.
God knows, there’s much in this world worth despairing about. There is much that is hellish and depraved and downright evil.
But there are just as many things that are true. There are just as many things that are honorable. There are as many things that are just, and pure, and lovely.
The choice is ours as to which side we will stand on.
We possess, individually and as a church, only a small light. But today, more than ever, we need to uncover it. We need to let it shine.
The people around us don’t need any more hell in their lives. They’ve probably tasted enough of it already. But they do need hope and courage. We all need more hope and courage.
May we, Unitarian Universalist men and women of a new age, a new postmodern time, imbibe something of the tenacity, something of the fighting spirit of our forefathers and foremothers. May we patiently and steadfastly tear down every fence someone tries to build around the Spirit. May we cherish always the broad horizon’s grander view; may we celebrate our “freedom which reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more”. May we remember that there is a universe-full of ways to approach the Divine, and that all who journey in a spirit of goodwill and sacrificial spirit are our comrades in faith, our brothers and sisters along the road of the Spirit.
May we warm ourselves in the light of one another. And may we shine forth, with courage and with hope, to all of those around us.