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"Soft Seats & No Hell": Heaven, Hell And Universalism

Unitarian Universalists have been called "Jews without a history." Like our Jewish neighbors we have a creedless faith which accepts Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet, but not as the Son of God, one person in the Trinity. Unlike our Jewish neighbors, we do not enjoy the intimate relationship they have developed with their history. Because we are a faith composed of so many "converts" from some other religion, most of us are not readily conversant with our tradition.

And so to help remedy our history-challenged condition, I share with you a glimpse of the Universalist side of our heritage. As a born Universalist married to a born Universalist, I feel strongly about this because that history has nourished me. And because we have no dogma, it is all the more important that we help sustain our faith by knowing from whence we have come. There will be a test after the service. Only those who pass will be allowed to have coffee.

Years ago I came upon a phrase that tickled my theological funny bone: "Soft Seats and No Hell." It was clearly a title in search of a sermon. The phrase comes from the Rev. Lewis H. Robinson, Minister of the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church in Albion from 1921-1941. He used "soft seats and no hell" to encourage people to come to church. Not only did he tout the sitting comfort of that beautiful cobblestone church, he had put his finger on the distinctive doctrine of Universalism, universal salvation, the final harmony of all souls with God. God is love.

So, let's go for a brisk jog through the history of Universalism and universal salvation. Universalism as an idea goes back at least to the 13th century Before the Common Era (BCE) in the religion of Ikhnaton, a pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Sometimes dubbed "The First Heretic", he believed in Aton, God of the sun, which reigned above all other gods - henotheism - a thunderbolt of heresy in a polytheistic time.i It is remarkable that this monotheism came long before the Hebrew prophets, before Jesus of Nazareth and before Mohammed - founders of the three great monotheistic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Biblical tradition is rich with universalistic imagery: in the Noah story God makes a covenant with the whole human race after the flood. The Hebrew prophets proclaimed a God, not of a particular people, even their own, but a universal God of all earth's people.

The Talmudic tradition expresses ethical universalism when it condemns the rejoicing of the Hebrew people with the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea during the Exodus: "(Yahweh) rebuked them saying 'My Handiwork (The Egyptians) is drowning in the sea; would you utter song before me?'" Passover is a reminder of the humanity of all people.

Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan is universalism in narrative form, to remind the Jewish people even the hated Samaritans - foreigners - were of God. And the Apostle Paul wrote: "In Christ there is neither black nor white, male nor female, neither Greek, nor gentile nor Jew, but all are one"

In the third century of the Common Era (CE), Origin, an early church father, wrote of God as "Spirit", "Light", and the "Source of all Mind," declaring universal salvation from a merciful God. Punishment was a self- inflicted consequence of sin. That was radical stuff, and he found himself constantly in trouble with the theological authorities.

There is a myth from Bernard of Clairvaux in the Middle Ages about a woman seen in a vision. She was carrying a pitcher and a torch. Why these? With the pitcher she would quench the fires of hell, and with the torch she would burn the pleasures of heaven. After these were gone, people would be able to love God for God's sake." There is a similar story from Readings from the Mystics of Islam. The universalist impulse is another way of promoting the importance of being good for - nothing. Universalism rejected of the Calvinist idea of pre-destination - the concept that some at birth were destined for heaven, some for hell. It replaced a vengeful God of judgment with a merciful God of love. Or, in the words of the old cliché: one gets Universalist holy water by boiling the hell out of it.

All this laid the foundation for James Relly's 18th Century enunciation of universal salvation in England. It was a disillusioned Methodist preacher, John Murray, who brought this heresy to these shores in 1770. God was a God of love and forgiveness, not punishment and damnation.

We can illustrate the theological tension by noting that there were two John Murrays in Boston at the turn of the 19th Century, "Damnation Murray," and "Salvation Murray," to distinguish Calvinist from Universalist. The unpopularity of the latter, our John Murray, is evident in these words from his autobiography describing a Sunday morning sermon in Boston: "At length, a large rugged stone, weight about a pound and a half, was forcibly thrown in at the window behind my back; it missed me. Had it sped, as it was aimed, it must have killed me. Lifting it up, and waving it in the view of the people, I observed, 'This argument is solid, and weighty, but it is neither rational, nor convincing . Not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth, or arrest my testimony."' These Universalists took their faith seriously. Hosea Ballou, the pre-eminent 19th century Universalist preacher of universal salvation, was riding the circuit in the New Hampshire hills with a Baptist minister one day, arguing theology as they traveled. At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, "Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I'd still go to heaven." Hosea Ballou looked over at him and said, "If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you."

Ballou defended his faith in a pivotal 1803 book, A Treatise on the Atonement in which he argued that we are assured salvation, not by the death of Jesus on the cross which atoned for all humanity's sins, but by the life of Jesus with his belief in love to God and love to neighbor. Ballou linked the Universal Fatherhood of God with the Universal Brotherhood of man, in the language of the day. He said: "There is one inevitable criterion of judgment touching religious faith in doctrinal matters: Can you reduce it to practice? If not, have none of it."

This was a difficult gospel: to practice what one preaches - to take the love of God for humanity and to live it in the world by including all people in the human family. The appealing image of "soft seats and no hell" was turned on its head. Universalists found their seats hard with the call of conscience and their hells in the evils of this world. They tried to practice what they were preaching about the love of God, endeavoring to create a heaven on earth.

If we think of the theological - our relation to the ultimate - as the vertical dimension of religion, and the ethical - our relation to our neighbors on earth - as the horizontal dimension of religion, then the vertical puts pressure on the horizontal. Our basic beliefs cry out for action. "There is no vacuum in the spiritual life, as there is no vacuum in nature." Universalism, originating in the vertical dimension of faith, now faced the daunting prospect of transforming it into the horizontal.

Universalists figure prominently in the history of social reform in America. Salvation John Murray, George Washington's chaplain during the Revolutionary War, had taken in a slave as a member of the first Universalist Church in America, Gloucester, Massachusetts, and championed the separation of church and state. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was father of American psychiatry, founder of the first anti-slavery society in America and promoted a Department of Peace. Adin Ballou was a Christian pacifist who influenced Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi and King. There was Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, whose biography was called a "sketch of compulsion." Olympia Brown was the first woman ordained by a denomination, the St. Lawrence Universalist Association; she was an ardent suffragette and worked with Susan B. Anthony.

One of this century's Universalist reformers, Clarence Skinner, took issue with the popular Father Divine, who said: "Metaphysics don't tangibilitate." Skinner's theology of the divine indwelling surfaced in his social commitments. He tangibilitated them. Faith, he used to say, was "belief plus" and the plus was that "force which carries belief into action." Faith is a form of human energy. For Skinner God was the creative power at the center of things working toward law and order and justice.

The Rev. Eli Powers had said at the turn of the century: "Universalism as an eschatology is a comforting faith for all who think of a future life. Universalism as a regulator of human life is the most exacting and difficult faith which calls (people) to its support. Universalism teaches us the race is so bound together that an injury to one member is an injury to all."

In the 19th century, Universalists persisted and prospered. One can understand the appeal of being told one is a child of God destined for salvation after being harangued as "sinner in the hands of an angry God." So popular did Universalism become that by the middle of the 19th century its 500,000 adherents made it the 6th largest denomination in the nation, no less than 3% of the total population. Our current Unitarian Universalist percentage of the population is closer to one-tenth of one percent.

The rapid growth of Universalism in Western New York in the 1830s has been attributed in part to the very fact that "people became satiated with protracted meetings and revivals. . . . One result of the general spirit of revivalism in Ohio, according to Universalist interpretation, was making many converts from the faith of endless woe.'"

The popularity of an optimistic faith in which all would be saved had an understandable appeal. But by the time of consolidation with the then larger American Unitarian Association in 1961, it had become one of the smallest denominations. Why? What happened?

In addition to many organizational problems, I suggest that once popular theological universalism had lost its appeal, a much more demanding ethical universalism came into being. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the scientific revolution, Biblical criticism and a nascent secularism simply made hell less fearful and heaven more remote. People who had before found universal salvation appealing for their souls, now did not worry about their ultimate destiny any more. Universalism became just one more Protestant denomination.

Ethical universalism was not destined to be as popular a movement as theological universalism. In theological universalism God acted to save humankind; we were encouraged, but not really required to act in kind. As Ambrose Beirce puts it in his Devil's Dictionary: "The Universalist is one who foregoes the advantage of hell for persons of another faith."

The agnostic Robert Ingersoll once wrote in praise of Universalism: "I want to thank the Universalist Church . . . . They at least believe in a God who is a gentleman . . . they believe, at least, in a heavenly father who will leave the latch string out until the last child gets home."

And so I suggest universal salvation is no mere historic anachronism, no merely interesting theological footnote. Universal salvation, the core of Universalism, reinterpreted, is still a distinctive doctrine for Unitarian Universalists in this time. I further submit that it is a most radical doctrine, and this perhaps suggests one reason why our liberal religious movement has not grown as did its predecessor Universalist denomination a century and a half ago. The Universalist impulse - to save humanity - to include all people in the human family - is alive and well, but it has changed its beat.

Ethical universalism, summarized by what I call, "A God's eye view of the world", however appealing in the abstract, is far less so when it means equal treatment of one's immediate neighbors of every race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, class and nationality. It is simply hard to love one's neighbor, near and far. Or, as one wag said, "I love humanity; it's my next door neighbor I can't stand!"

In theological Universalism it was the love of God for humanity which was decisive for heavenly salvation. In ethical Universalism, it is we who are required to be the agents of an earthly salvation. God may for some become the symbol and motivation for action.

Universalism is a powerful word in our fragmented society with its culture wars, its ethnic and racial separation, its partisan bickering. In a world of increasing divisions, the Universalist impulse to include everyone in the human family is imperative.

This universalist impulse stands in prophetic judgment over divisions of class and speaks the religious word to those powers and principalities, public and private, which increase the gap between the haves and have-nots in our land and abroad.

It stands in judgment over those policies and policy makers who increase divisions of race in our land. It rebukes homophobia wherever it surfaces.

Its breadth of moral concern compels us to consider nature, not as a commodity to simply be used, but as a revered community in which we live and move and have our being.

It enables us to take a God's eye view of the world, in which all nations and peoples are worthy of respect as children of God - children of Humanity. The planet is our parish.

As a born Universalist I have inherited that tradition. I can recall collecting dimes for the Clara Barton and Eliot P. Joslin camps for diabetic children. I can remember sending money to the Jordan Neighborhood House in Suffolk, Virginia, an historic attempt at black empowerment. In the summer of 1965 Joyce and I worked at Jordan and came to know Annie B. Willis, daughter of its founder. In the summers of 1957 and 1958 I worked in a refugee camp in West Germany for the Universalist Service Committee, later serving as a board member of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

If you sometimes wonder at my social and ethical pronouncements that are often at odds with the conventional wisdom, then remember my Universalist past. If you wonder why I am working to save Genesee Hospital - especially for inner city people, then credit Universalism. If you wonder at my radical understanding of economic justice and my "preferential option for the poor," then know it is because I am a born and bred Universalist. Ideas have consequences. Theological universalism tells me we are one human family of earth - all more human than otherwise. Ethical universalism mandates that I do something to include everyone in that human family.

By now you are probably saying, he is getting into politics and what's a nice retiring born Universalist (Unitarian) doing there? The point is that as we move from a theological universalism to an ethical universalism, we move from the general to the particular.

It is like the story of the preacher who was candidating for a pulpit in a small country town. After the first sermon, "Thou Shalt Not Steal," he received rave reviews and many wished to extend the call on the basis of only one sermon. However, after the second sermon the preacher was run out of town, tarred and feathered. He had preached on the theme: "Thou Shalt Not Steal Chickens." Between the two is a world of difference.

An ultimate concern must express itself ethically, socially. We walk with a Bible in one hand and a daily newspaper in the other.

"Soft seats and no Hell," is a homely but apt summary of theological universalism. Its appeal swelled the ranks of Universalist churches. The theological impulse was strong. When theological universalism lost that appeal, the movement was left with a rigorous ethical universalism which is controversial to interpret, difficult to practice. The hard seats of ethical responsibility greet us now, and it can be hellish to practice universalism.

Universalism is an idea whose time has come. Walter Henry McPherson said that you Universalists are sitting on the biggest word in the language. It is time to improve the premises or get off.

Richard Gilbert
May 6, 2001