Universalism—The Biggest Word in the Language
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 6, 2005
John Murray was one of the founders of the Universalist religion in the New World. He was also a rugged and independent soul, a religious thinker years ahead of his time. He was a man who often spoke his mind, and as often happens with people like that, this sometimes got him into trouble.
Murray was born in the town of Alton in England, in the year 1741. He had trained in England as an itinerant Methodist preacher, but, as one story goes, he was sent one day to the home of a recalcitrant middle aged woman who, it seems, had strayed far from the Methodist fold. Indeed, she had even begun to spout openly the doctrines of a heretical preacher named James Relly, who was teaching the “insane” (to the orthodox) notion that God would not damn the greater majority of men and women to the fires of hell (as the prevailing Calvinism of the day taught); but that God, instead, would save everyone—that salvation was, in fact, universal.
So, Murray descended upon this woman’s house that day with the express purpose of reconverting her to the ways of orthodoxy and Calvinism. But instead, as he first spoke, and then cajoled, and finally argued with her, a strange thing happened: He suddenly found himself gradually agreeing with her, and with Relly’s philosophy. By the end of their discussion, the woman had converted Murray to the joys of Universalism! So John Murray left the Methodists and became a Universalist preacher instead.
This was not an easy move to make, nor would Murray’s life be an easy one. His friends denounced him. He was tossed out of the Methodist fold. His wife and infant daughter died within a few months of each other. He was thrown into debtor’s prison when he couldn’t pay the bills he had incurred during their sickness.
Released from prison in 1770, John Murray decided to make a whole new start for himself. He left England and sailed for America. He wanted no more of churches and religion and preaching, he said. He just wanted to go to America, become a farmer, and start over.
But then, another funny thing happened. The ship upon which Murray was sailing ran aground on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey. Murray was one of those sent ashore to purchase provisions while they waited for the winds to change so they could set sail once again.
Onshore, Murray met a prosperous, somewhat eccentric farmer named Thomas Potter. Potter, it seems, had built his own meetinghouse on his property the year before. But the meetinghouse had stood unused since then because, Potter said, he was waiting for God to send him a preacher: not just any preacher, he said; one who would preach the doctrines that Potter himself now embraced— a new religious doctrine that had just made its way to America—something called universal salvation, a new faith called Universalism.
According to the myth (and remember: “myth” is not always a bad word) on his first sighting of John Murray, Potter knew that this was his man. “You’re my preacher,” he said to Murray. “You’re the one sent by God to preach in my meetinghouse and spread the good news of Universalism in the New World.”
“Oh, no,” Murray said. “No, I’m, not.”
“Yes, you are,” Potter said.
“No, I’m not,” Murray replied. He wanted no more of churches, no more of religion. He was a sailor now, he said; he had come to America to become a farmer. But Potter argued and begged and cajoled and finally asked Murray to preach just one sermon—just one little sermon—in his new meetinghouse.
Finally, Murray agreed that, if the wind still had not picked up by that Sunday, and if Potter would leave him alone after that, he would preach—but just once, just one sermon. After that, he would be gone, on his way, to his new life as a farmer.
Well, guess what? The winds didn’t pick up. The boat didn’t move. Murray, a man of his word, preached his sermon to a congregation of skeptics, whom he (apparently) converted into a band of excited, convinced believers. The next day, however, when the wind did change, and the boat sailed for New York, Murray sailed with it—off to his new life in America.
But it was not the life that Murray had originally intended for himself. Now, he had the ministry back in his blood. He knew that it was his calling, truly, to bring Universalism to America. Eventually, he moved to New England, and became an itinerant preacher of universal salvation there; then, he settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts where, in 1779, he established the Independent Christian Church, the first openly Universalist congregation in America.
In those early days, the Universalists held the field against the orthodox pretty much to themselves. While the Calvinists spewed forth fire and brimstone, and taught the total depravity and probable damnation of most human souls, the Universalists steadfastly maintained the potential goodness of humanity, the love of God, and the final harmony of all souls with God. For their non-conformity, the Universalists often faced ridicule and persecution.
But those early Universalists also possessed an inordinate amount of energy and enthusiasm. They wore their faith on their sleeves, and never passed up an opportunity for a discussion, a debate, or an argument. They wrote and published and spread their word far and wide. They organized churches in every town and village in which they settled, in some of the most off-the-beaten-track places you can imagine.
Our Universalist ancestors knew that they had an important doctrine to preach, perhaps the most important of all. “Universalism, why it’s the biggest word in the language!” the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning is said to have once exclaimed. Our Universalist forbears knew that she was right. They knew that theirs was a faith completely in step with the democratic and optimistic spirit of the new American nation; they knew that they had a unique, exciting, forward-looking doctrine to share with the whole world—this idea that God was love-- and that God would save all people, not just the chosen few.
More conservative forces looked out at the religious landscape with alarm: “Universalism is the reigning heresy of the day,” wrote the editor of the Boston Recorder in 1835. “It is spreading far and wide. It is poisoning more minds, and ruining more souls, than any, if not all, of the heresies among us.”
By the early 1830s, the Universalists had already established more than 700 churches. They could claim hundreds of thousands of adherents, and were, perhaps, one of the top five religious denominations in America. Universalism was the wave of the future, many believed.
They did their job well, that first generation of American Universalists; maybe they did it too well. Perhaps they convinced too many of the orthodox that they were right about universal salvation. Within a generation, in the years before the Civil War, the doctrine of universal salvation would no longer be confined to Univeralists. Soon, many Methodists were claiming it as their own, as well. Soon, a new generation of Congregationalists, under the leadership of men like Horace Bushnell, were trading in their stern and severe Calvinism for more positive ideas like “Christian nurture”, and replacing their harsh and vindictive judgmental God with a God whose primary nature was love, and who cared for all of His creation.
Soon, it seemed that “universal salvation” rather than being a raging controversy any longer had turned instead into a great theological yawn. As the controversy faded, so American Universalism declined. In the years just following the Civil War, it is sometimes estimated that there were perhaps 800,000 Universalists all across America; by the time of the Unitarian-Universalist merger about a century later, there were, perhaps, 40,000.
As extreme Calvinism gave way in mainline religious circles to a kinder, gentler Christianity with a human face, so traditional Universalism lost much of its thunder. It seemed destined just to fade away, to be submerged into a new, contemporary Unitarian Universalism, where the larger Unitarian wing would always seem to predominate. In the words of the Universalist minister Max Coots: “In our time, Universalism, as such, like a spinster lady late in life, took a husband, and though they agreed to hyphenate their married name, by now the offspring of that union often simply call themselves by the husband’s name, and in time may not recognize her name at all.”
But then, as was so often the case in Universalist history, something funny—something totally surprising and unpredictable—happened along the way. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Not too long ago, I came across a headline in the Boston Globe which read: “Baptist Professor Faces Heresy Trial”. The article continued:
“On Monday, trustees at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City will open an inquiry that could mark the start of a [modern] heresy trial, to borrow the words from one professor there.
“That professor is Temp Sparkman, a 54-year old lifetime Southern Baptist, and it is on him that the debate will focus…
“The charges leveled against Sparkman… are theologically-based. The most damaging is that he is a universalist—that is, that he believes that all people, regardless of their religious orientation, are ‘saved’…
“Sparkman and his friends have repeatedly denied the charge.
“’It’s a slander,’ said [one of Sparkman’s supporters].”
Then, there’s another news item with a dateline marked Mason, Tennessee. There, The Diary of Anne Frank has been removed from the public school curriculum, and the play based on that book has been banned. Why? Because in her diary, Anne, religious subversive that she was, dared to state that God will save all people; that God will save Jews, just as certainly as Christians. Certain people find that notion too dangerous to teach to children. Once you open up the pearly gates of salvation, I guess, how are you ever going to slam them shut again?
No, universalism is not yet a settled issue. And rumors of the demise of Universalism, both within our religious movement and within society at large, have been greatly exaggerated.
John Murray and those other early Universalists not only stood in opposition to the prevailing notions of God; they stood in opposition to the prevailing ideas of human nature, as well. Those early Universalists were bold enough to proclaim that humanity was not bound to sin; that human nature was not a synonym for total depravity.
That question has not been settled in our own time, either.
Not too long ago, a well-known evangelist was teaching a course on preaching at a conservative theological school. He was stressing to his class just how important it is to make one’s facial expression reflect the words being spoken. “When you speak of Heaven,” the evangelist said, “let your face light up and become irridated with a heavenly glow. Let your eyes shine with reflected glory.” Then, he continued, “When you speak of Hell—well, then your everyday face will do.”
It boggles my mind how can any rational person can look upon the glory and the loveliness of an “everyday” human face—the face of one of our children; the face of a parent or a grand-parent, now just a blessed memory perhaps; the face of a spouse or a beloved—and equate that glorious image—that reflection of all that is divine—with the burning fires of hell and sin and depravity? Yet that is exactly what much contemporary religion, if we take it at its word, would have us do.
Well over 200 years ago, John Murray declared that there is within the most ordinary of men and women—within everyday people like you and me—a shining light that can pierce the darkness of our lives, and pierce the darkness of our world:
“Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new nation,” he commanded. “Give the people, blanketed with a decaying Calvinism, something of your new vision. You possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine. Use it in order to bring more light into 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 to them the kindness and the everlasting love of God.”
In my opinion, no one has ever expressed better, before or since, why it is important that this church is here, and why it is important for our Universalist faith to survive.
Way back in 1770, John Murray reminded us that the true work of religious faith lay not in haunting children’s dreams with imaginings of hellfire and damnation, in divvying up the world into “saved” and “unsaved”. No, the work of true religion lies in trying to bring more understanding and warmth into the lives of those with whom we share this world.
We possess, individually and as a church, only a small light. Such a very tiny light. But now, 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. There are too many preachers of hell in this world, and too many things in this world which are hellish and depraved and evil. But there are many things, too, that are honorable, and just, and true, and lovely. It is on the side of those that we need to stand.
We don’t need to add to the voices of despair and selfishness in this world; there are already too many of those. We all need hope and courage, today more than ever.
Hope and courage: this is the calling of our particular community of faith, blessed with this name of cosmic proportions. We possess only a small light, but may we uncover it in all we do, and let it shine. When it flickers and fades and even goes out, let us have the tenacity and the patience to light it, again and again. For it is still a light which burns forth with the possibilities of a new world. It is a light which burns eternally, our small and steady refraction of God’s love, the illimitable light of the universe itself.