The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880 by Ann Lee Bressler (Religion in America: Oxford University Press) Ann Lee Bressler offers the first cultural history of American Universalism and its central teaching-the idea that an all-good and all-powerful God saves all souls. Although Universalists have commonly been lumped together with Unitarians as "liberal religionists," in its origins their movement was, in fact, quite different from that of the better-known religious liberals.
Unlike Unitarians such as the renowned William Ellery Channing, who stressed the obligation of the individual under divine moral sanctions, most early American Universalist looked to the omnipotent will of God to redeem all of creation. While Charming was socially and intellectually descended from the opponents of Jonathan Edwards, Hosea Ballou, the foremost theologian of the Universalist movement, appropriated Edwards's legacy by emphasizing the power of God's love in the face of human sinfulness and apparent intransigence. Espousing what they saw as a fervent but reasonable piety, many early Universalists saw their movement as a form of improved Calvinism.
The story of Universalism from the midnineteenth century on, however, was largely one of unsuccessful efforts to maintain this early synthesis of Calvinist and Enlightenment ideals. Eventually, Bressler argues, Universalists were swept up in the tide of American religious individualism and moralism; in the late nineteenth century they increasingly extolled moral responsibility and the cultivation of the self. By the time of the first Universalist centennial celebration in 1870, the ideals of the early movement were all but moribund. Bressler's study illuminates such issues as the relationship between faith and reason in a young, fast-growing, and deeply uncertain country, and the fate of the Calvinist heritage in American religious history.
The belief that an all-good and all-powerful God saves all souls may be virtually as old as Christianity; in the view of some biblical scholars, Saint Paul himself preached a definite if often muted doctrine of universal salvation. But, despite the efforts of a small handful of interpreters to gain acceptance for the idea in later centuries, it never gained a secure place in Christian teaching. Its fate in the history of American Christianity was ultimately similar, yet the doctrine found unusually rich soil in which to grow in the early American republic. Indeed, here it experienced its most significant flowering and its moment of greatest potential.
That flowering, as well as the subsequent withering, can be reconstructed most clearly through a study of the Universalist denomination. To be sure, Universalist churches did not hold a monopoly on the idea of universal salvation in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. But the denomination did become a home for the majority of those who consciously and openly adhered to the doctrine, so that to explore meaningfully the history of the Universalist church in America is to study a religious movement rather than merely to study the development of a sect or institution.
Students of this movement have often been lured into unwarranted assumptions by the tendency among American Protestants to view all of the main "liberal" religious groups through the same lens. Indeed, already in the early nineteenth century Universalists were commonly lumped together with Unitarians as "liberal religionists" who refused to be constrained by the beliefs of the major evangelical bodies. The eventual union of the two denominations in 1961 and their similar opposition to creeds and to many traditional Christian doctrines have led historians to conclude that fairly superficial differences kept them apart. According to this common view, Unitarianism was an elite, Enlightenment reaction to the harshness of Calvinist doctrine; Universalism was its rustic, less intellectual counterpart. The movements were thus separate but parallel challenges to New England Puritanism.
This assessment has some validity. Particularly in the nineteenth century, social barriers certainly stood in the way of contact and cooperation between Unitarians and Universalists. But the linking of the two groups has clouded examination of the very different origins and development of each. Universalism has probably suffered more; it has too often been regarded as simply Unitarianism's poor relation, finally acknowledged and taken in with the creation of Unitarian-Universalism.
The tendency to portray Universalists as the unlettered (and therefore less significant) kin of Unitarians is partly responsible for the long-standing scholarly inattention to Universalist history. Older surveys of American religious history regularly treated the denomination as little more than a footnote to other liberal religious movements and rarely suggested that it had any independent religious significance. Even the most recent and broadly conceived surveys have had little to say about the role of the Universalists. Yet the study of Universalism opens a wide window on the American religious scene from the 1770s to the 1880s.
Under the forceful leadership of Hosea Ballou, Universalism became a major antagonist of the Second Great Awakening and the evangelical culture it spawned. In boldly affirming the doctrine of universal salvation, Universalists exposed and challenged the Protestant drift away from traditional Calvinist orthodoxy. Universalists sharply criticized the moralistic character of the dominant religious beliefs in the first decades of the nineteenth century and the theological contradictions underlying revivalism." But, as I will show, by the second quarter of the century Universalists themselves began to argue that their view sustained the popular notion of the moral government of God. Meanwhile, the sense of a superintending God gradually dimmed in Protestant culture, and social reform efforts intensified. Like other Victorians, Universalists increasingly extolled moral seriousness and the cultivation of the self."
A come-outer movement that preached a heretical and feared idea at the end of the eighteenth century, by the time of its official centennial celebration in 1870, Universalism was becoming a comfortably established and generally accepted form of liberal Protestantism. In no other religious movement do we witness so dramatically the shift from an eschatological and communally oriented faith to an open-ended, progressive sensibility centering on individual personality.To examine the course of nineteenth-century Universalism is to encounter problems such as the relationship between reason and faith in a young, fast-growing but deeply uncertain society. The controversy over universal salvation, moreover, reveals much about the emerging emphasis on the individual and the freedom of the self in American society. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the study of nineteenth-century Universalism brings into focus the dramatic diminution of overt eschatological concerns in American culture.
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