Where Have All the Universalists Gone?

Ken R. VincentBy Ken R. Vincent

One of the great religious mysteries is how the Universalist Church in America — once the 6th largest denomination in the United States — could shrink to its current minority status within the Unitarian Universalist (UU) denomination. In a recent article in the Review of Religious Research entitled, “Some UU’s are more U than U,” James Casebolt and Tiffany Niekro note that only 19% of UU’s identify themselves as Universalist. Since UU’s comprise only one-tenth of 1% of Americans, calculating “19% of one-tenth of 1%” may seem like embarrassingly inconsequential number. To make matters worse, some UU’s have co-opted the word “Universalist” but invented new meanings that rob the term of its impressive history. But do not despair! I’m here to tell you that Universalism thrives — not as a separate denomination, but as a critically important way of understanding God that is more relevant than ever for today’s complex, pluralistic world.

Let’s review some Universalist basics. Universalism asserts that God is too good to condemn humankind to Eternal Hell and that, sooner or later, ALL humanity will be saved. Hell is for rehabilitation/purification and not eternal. This theological position is supported by numerous verses found in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. While a belief in Universal Salvation can be found in virtually all the world’s major religions, Universalism in the West for the last 2,000 years has been understood to mean Universalist Christianity. Our earliest written account advocating Christian Universalism is by Clement of Alexander in the 2nd century, but his pupil Origen was Universalism’s most influential theorist. In the 6th century, Universalism was dealt a blow when Origen’s work was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, although it remained viable in the Church of the East (Nestorians and Jacobites). In the West, Universalist theology was relegated to the realm of Mystics until the Reformation when it was “resurrected.”

When the Unitarians and Universalists “married” in 1961… Universalist theology schools were closed, including the flagship theology school at Tufts University.

The decline of the Universalist church as an independent denomination is most often attributed to the success of its doctrine of God’s love for ALL! When other denominations began to acknowledge the power of this hopeful and inclusive message, they were motivated to moderate their emphasis on Hell-fire, brimstone, and predestination! Consequently, parishioners who embraced the Universalist view could remain in their traditional congregations rather than relocate in a Universalist church. Patrick Murfin adds that rural Universalist churches were hurt by migration to the cities and that tiny Universalist churches in the American West were devastated by the Depression. When the Unitarians and Universalists “married” in 1961 (Universalists had the larger “dowry” but fewer members), Universalist theology schools were closed, including the flagship theology school at Tufts University.

In my pursuit to better understand the place of Universalists and their church in American history, I was fortunate to discover copies of the weekly Universalist magazine The Universalist Leader/The Christian Leader (the name changed) at the Rice University Library in Houston where I live. This urbane Boston-based weekly published articles on theology, history, biography, current events, and church groups. Besides Universalists, the magazine had occasional contributors who were Unitarians, Congregationalists, and liberal Jews.

Reading through the available issues of the Leader from 1922 to 1942, I was pleased to find that Universalists during this 20-year period were Liberal Christians in every sense of the word! Articles advocating women’s rights, minority rights, and birth control were common. Missionary work to China, Japan, black churches in the rural South, and remote states like Texas was also reported. Much attention was given to the building of the Universalist National Memorial Church, which was to be Universalism’s “cathedral” in the nation’s capitol. While rural Universalists had often been advocates of prohibition, I found only an occasional article lamenting its failure. A few entries did confirm the presence of Bible literalists in the denomination, particularly in the South and Texas.

One of the most fascinating topics for me was the reaction of these Universalists to the theological bomb that altered Unitarianism forever — the Humanist Manifesto — published by a group of Unitarian ministers in 1933. (One wonders if the great American Transcendentalist Mystic Ralph Waldo Emerson could have predicted this when he called his Unitarian church “an icehouse” and lamented the “corpse cold Unitarianism of Harvard College and Brattle Street.”) Most Universalists reacted to this with shock, did not know what to make of it, and questioned how to respond to it. However, the Leader printed opinions both “pro” and “con” on the subject; many writers assumed that the type of Humanism that the Unitarians were advocating was the kind of Renaissance Humanism of virtually all Progressives. While articles by Unitarians consistently reflected their ongoing, major soul-searching, obsessive rumination, navel-gazing, and continuing identity crisis, I was inspired by the ever-optimistic Universalists who went blissfully on with their Liberal Christianity. Although acutely aware of the evil of Hitler early in his rise, and showing skepticism for Communism, the Leader consistently reflected an optimism that problems could be solved, and the world could be a better place! Especially significant was the Universalists’ openness to world religions (which had come to the forefront of Universalism during the Parliament of World Religions at the end of the 19th Century).

Our Universalist forbears who published Leader would not have been surprised at the merger of the Universalists with the Unitarians in 1961. The issues I read reported often on proposals that had been discussed for years about joining not only the Unitarians but also the Congregationalists to form a “super” Liberal Christian denomination! I do think they would be shocked that the denomination today is no longer exclusively Universalist (ALL are saved) with today’s membership spanning views from annihilation to reincarnation. Similarly, UU’s are not necessarily exclusively Unitarian (i.e., advocating One God in opposition to the Trinity), with members advocating beliefs from atheism to polytheism. Finally, I think our Universalist ancestors would find it puzzling that Unitarian Christianity and Universalist Christianity are only minority positions within what has become an interfaith church.

So — where have all the Universalists gone? In the 21st Century, Universalists are everywhere! Believers in Universalism can be found in virtually all Christian denominations, as well as other world religions. Being Universalist involves a change of heart rather than a change in denomination! Universalism is part of the theology of the Church of Christ Scientist and the Unity Church of Christianity. The American Baptist Church is “sort-of” Universalist, as a recent survey found that 75% of their members do not believe in Eternal Hell. Let us now explore the options for Universalists in the United States today which include: 1) “Virtual” Universalists, 2) “Latent” Universalists, 3) “Closet” Universalists, 4) “Independent” Universalists, and 5) “Experiential” Universalists.

“Virtual” Universalism was born as a result of the Internet. For a few hundred dollars a year, an individual or small group can now publish its theology on the worldwide web, and Universalist web pages have appeared advocating a variety of Universalisms. The views range from the extreme Bible literalists, to liberal Christians, to Universalism in world religions. A couple of years ago, I became webmaster for the Universalist Herald (“The Oldest Continuously Published Liberal Religious Periodical in North America”). When I initiated its website (www.universalist-herald.net), I began exploring other Universalist websites with the ambitious goal of providing “links” to all the Universalist websites via our own. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that this was not possible; although I continually search the net for new links to Universalist Christianity and Universalism in world religions, more sites continually are added, faster than I can evaluate them! Some “Christian” Universalists are so fundamentalist as to exclude the UU denomination from their fold! I found one “Unitarian” site that has an article by someone who doesn’t believe in Universalism. The Universalist Herald website does include links to conservative Christian sites; two of these sites (Tentmaker and True Grace Ministries) have more Universalist history on them than any UU site. True Grace Ministries even includes some 19th Century articles from the Universalist Herald. Our web links include three Quaker Universalist sites and one site of Universalism in world religions. It is gratifying to see that a lot of people in a lot of places are promoting Universalism in general and Universalist Christianity in particular.

94% of Americans believe in God and 86% believe in Heaven, but only 71% believe in Hell. … Using population figures from the 2000 U.S. Census, this means that there are 43 million “Latent” Universalists in the United States!

“Latent” Universalists are the next category. In his book Psychology and Religion, Michael Argyle sites a 1992 survey that found 94% of Americans believe in God and 86% believe in Heaven, but only 71% believe in Hell. This 15% discrepancy between belief in Heaven and Hell is a routine finding in sociological surveys; sometimes the discrepancy is as high as 20%. Using population figures from the 2000 U.S. Census, this means that there are 43 million “Latent” Universalists in the United States! Many of them probably would be surprised to learn that there is a longstanding, honorable theological position which affirms their beliefs! The web is one way to let them know that there is a name for what they believe — “Universalism.” If we could herd all these folks into one denomination, we could give the Fundamentalists a run for their money!

“Closet” Universalists are folks whose personal theology is Universalist and who base their belief on the Bible (or in the case of non-Christians, other holy books). They choose to stay within their traditional denomination — sometimes because of their spouse/partner’s wishes, sometimes because of tradition, and sometimes because their city or town offers no alternative. Occasionally they do “come out” as Universalists but remain within their denomination. An impressive immerging subset of “Closet” Universalists is authors who write about Universalism but choose to maintain their identity with another Christian denomination. (Go to the “Books” tab on the Universalist Herald website for proof!) For example, Philip Gulley and James Mulholland (Quaker ministers) have written If Grace Is True and If God Is Love. Both books are selling very well and represent a real break-through into the marketing of Universalist books to the general public. Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn (Roman Catholics) wrote a wonderful little book that is even suitable for teenagers called Good Goats. It has been in print for 12 years and received an Imprimi Potest (Seal of Approval) from the Catholic Church. (This gives us hope that the Catholics will eventually get around to rehabilitating Origen!) Other current authors advocating Universalist theology are American Baptist, Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Mennonite, Methodist, and Presbyterian. And the list is growing!

“Independent” Universalists have always been with us. These folks are very much Universalist in belief but are not members of any church. A good example of this is Thomas Talbott who wrote The Inescapable Love of God. A while back, I wrote Prof. Talbott to ask his denomination. He replied that he had belonged to the Church of Christ until his church found out he was a Universalist, and they removed him from their rolls! Another example is Gary and Michelle Amirault who are the creators of Tentmaker.org, one of the largest Universalist websites. They are not affiliated with any denomination but occasionally have Universalist “revivals” on their property. By far the most famous “Independent” Universalist was Abraham Lincoln who never joined a church. (This was not too unusual for his day as only 16% of Americans were church members in 1850. The number of Americans belonging to churches continued to rise until the 1960′s when it reached a high water mark of 63%.) In his book The Almost Chosen People, later re-published as The Religion of Abraham Lincoln, Prof. William Wolf notes that Abraham Lincoln was a Universalist throughout his life. He lists three sources documenting that his Universalist beliefs were present in his youth and remained throughout his life. All three sources stated that Lincoln knew his Bible and could expand on Universalism at length. Lincoln was fond of repeating a jingle about a Native American, Johnny Kongapod: “Here lies poor Johnny Kongapod. Have mercy on him Gracious God, as he would do if he was God, and you were Johnny Kongapod.” Another of Lincoln’s frequent quotations was from St. Paul: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I Cor. 15:22)

Finally, we come to one of the most dramatic changes to Universalism that can be described, and that is the category of “Experiential” Universalists. Through their personal religious mystical experiences, the unconditional love of God for ALL was made known to them. For the past 150 years, physicians and social scientists have been studying religious experience. In the 19th century, the Society for Psychical Research was founded to study this data academically, and in the early 20th century, William James’ classic work, Varieties of Religious Experience, was published. While research in this area waned during the heydays of Marxism and Freudianism (1930 – 1960), scientific research on religious experience since 1960 has been prolific and persuasive.

Osis and Haraldsson researched deathbed visions in the United States and India and verified a cross-cultural consistency, although the religious figures seen in deathbed visions varied according to the person’s religious background. Regardless of their religion, those dying reported dead relatives and religious figures coming to take them away to the afterlife. In over 1700 accounts, there was not one case in which the take-away person was an apparition of someone still alive. The physicians and nurses who reported the deathbed visions noted only one case that was Hellish. Shortly after this, the Religious Experience Research Centre founded by Sir Allister Hardy at Oxford (now at University of Wales, Lampeter) reported on 3000 cases of mystical religious experiences by ordinary people; only 5% of these were negative experiences. Over the years, research into developed countries has reported about 40% of their populations report mystical religious experiences on questionnaire; this goes up to 60% + when people are queried via personal interview. The numbers seem to be increasing, probably because more people are coming out of their spiritual “closet.” Nothing changes one’s mind like being personally touched by God! In addition to mystical religious experiences happening to a large number of people, we also have learned through modern research that the majority of these folks are normal or healthy and that, just as in the case of St. Paul in ancient times, they change the lives. Those who have mystical religious experiences report being more oriented toward helping others and improving society. Many researchers from William James onward are convinced that religious experiences like these are the basis for the writings of the world’s religions. Over and over in the Bible we read of prophets having a mystical experience that empowers them to speak on God’s behalf (e.g. Isaiah 6:1-8; II Corinthians 12:2-4).

Although in my mind, as a social scientist and religious researcher, the mystical religious experiences are the really big news, another phenomenon related to religion and afterlife has generated the most interest with the public: the near-death experience. Near-death experiences are not unique to modern man; Plato wrote about the near-death experience of a man named Er in his Republic. And Universalists have a premier 18th century account in the autobiography of one of our own — Dr. George De Benneville. Thanks to modern resuscitation techniques, near-death experiences have become commonplace. While people occasionally report going to Hell, others report being rescued from Hell when they call out to God. Without question, the overwhelming majority of near-death experiences are positive. This has had an effect on the mindset of the general population regarding afterlife. A recent poll conducted by Beliefnet found 84% of their readers felt that the near-death experience was proof of afterlife. The physicians and social scientists who research this phenomenon are more cautious, but virtually all of them agree that near-death experiences, death-bed visions and related phenomena do point to afterlife. As William James said, “religion, in fact, for the great majority of our race, means immortality and nothing else.” At the very least, mystical religious experiences and near-death experiences serve to invalidate the claims of Christian exclusivity.

Universalism has been part of Christianity from its earliest days. Like Zoroastrianism (Zoroaster preached Universal Salvation around 600BCE or earlier), Universalism is now imbedded within other denominations and religions. Is the growing number of Universalists sufficient to counter the evils of Christian exclusivity which continues to claim that God loves only people of a particular brand, of a specific sect, of a special religion? Or is it time for a revival of the Universalist Church — gathering together all who enthusiastically affirm that God is too good to condemn people to Eternal Hell? Universalism holds the key for resolving the strife in our modern, pluralistic world community. For people trapped in the dogma of Fundamentalism, Universalism offers a Bible-based alternative more essential today than ever — a God who promises ALL will be saved.

This article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of The Universalist Herald. Ken R. Vincent, Ed.D., is Webmaster of Universalist-Herald.net. He is the author of The Golden Thread: God’s Promise of Universal Salvation. Dr. Vincent served as a founding Board member of the Christian Universalist Association.