Universalism for Such a Time as This

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from “Treatise on Atonement,” written in 1805 by the Universalist minister and theologian Hosea Ballou. Ballou visited New Bedford in the late 1820’s, and his preaching led to the establishment of First Universalist Church, which merged with this congregation in 1930. In arguing for the truth of the doctrine of universal salvation, Ballou wrote:

“I would argue again, from a reasonable idea, admitted by all, namely, that mankind, in their moral existence, originated in God. Why, then, do we deny his final assimilation with the fountain from whence he sprang? The streams and rivulets which water the hill-country run in every direction, as the make of land occasions. They are stained with various mines and soils through which they pass; but at last they find their entrance into the ocean, where their different courses are at an end, and they are tempered like the fountain which receives them. Though man, at present, forms an aspect similar to the waters in their various courses, yet, in the end of his race, I hope he will enjoy an union with his God, and with his fellows.”

[Treatise on Atonement, 3rd edition, 3.iii.]


The second reading this morning comes from the book “Foundations of Faith,” by the Universalist minister and theologian Albert Zeigler, published in 1959.

“The power of traditional Universalism was that, in its teaching of universal salvation, it spoke to every man of his infinite value. As the ancient Hebrew saw himself to be of divine importance, rescued and chosen by God; as the orthodox Christian found his eternal significance in the sacrifice of the Son of God for his welfare; so the Universalist saw his and all men’s divine stature and destiny in the unfailing love of God. If [the phrase] ‘universal salvation’ does not today carry that message to us, we must find another way to sing the great gospel that every person and what he does and how he does it is of ultimate concern, of infinite significance.”


We call ourselves “Unitarian Universalists,” a cumbersome name that came about in 1961 when the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America. These days, many of us leave off the second half of our name — instead of saying “Unitarian Universalist,” we just shorten our name to “Unitarian.” We call ourselves “Unitarian” not just because it’s a shorter name, but also because some of the old Universalist ideas seem thoroughly outdated.

Take, for example, the idea of universal salvation — the idea for which Universalism was originally named. Back in the 18th C., most people living in British North America, later the United States of America, believed that if you were good you’d get to go to heaven when you died, but if you were bad, you’d spend all eternity in the torments of hell after you died. But in the middle part of the 18th C., a few radical preachers in North America began to question the doctrine of eternal punishment for sin. These radical preachers, people like George DeBenneville in Philadelphia and Caleb Rich in Massachusetts began to teach that God is loving, and therefore God would not condemn anyone to eternal torment; they said that everyone gets to go to heaven. In short, they preached the idea of universal salvation, that everyone gets saved.

When the Universalist preacher John Murray arrived in the New World in 1770, this radical new idea began to spread more widely British North America. John Murray preached about universal salvation through the mid-Atlantic states and New England, greatly raising the profile of the emerging movement.

Murray and other early Universalist preachers faced ridicule and scorn for daring to preach that everyone would be saved. The more orthodox Christians believed you had to threaten people with hell and damnation to get them to behave well; they said that Universalists would destroy society be teaching that hell doesn’t exist — for if the people didn’t believe in hell, then they would indulge themselves in evil and sinful behavior. To which the Universalists drily replied that there was plenty of evil and sinful behavior in spite of the threat of hell, and they pointed out that in general Universalists behaved better, or at least no worse, than the rest of society. The early Universalists were great debaters; they had to be; for wherever they tried to start a new Universalist church, the orthodox Christians would challenge them to a debate.

On one memorable occasion, John Murray was telling a crowd about Universalism when his opponents began throwing stones in the windows. In his autobiography, Murray later recalled, “At length a large rugged stone, weighing 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.”

The Universalist movement in America reached its peak in the middle of the 19th C. At one time, it had perhaps the fifth largest membership of any denomination in the United States. But then a funny thing happened. The other Protestant churches began to leave behind the idea of hell. The other Protestant ministers stopped preaching hellfire and damnation, at least, in the larger, more powerful denominations. After 80 or 90 years of debating, the Universalists basically won the debate, and it killed them.

Because of this, because there wasn’t much to distinguish Universalism from other mainstream Protestant denominations, Universalism began a long, slow decline. The denomination declined greatly in power and influence, and in the 1930’s began cooperating more and more with the Unitarians, until finally in 1961 the Unitarian and the Universalist denominations merged.

By the time of that 1961 merger that created the Unitarian Universalist Association, Universalism seemed almost irrelevant. In 1961, the big theological debates were about the death of God, not about hell and damnation. By 1961, probably half of all Universalists were humanists and didn’t believe in God anyway, let alone believe in damnation or salvation. To many Universalists, Universalism seemed little more than a pleasant tradition, a traditional holdover from times long past, charming but more than a little antiquated. Maybe they felt that the belief in hell was disappearing.

But here we are 46 years later, and belief in hell has not disappeared. In a Gallup Poll conducted in May, 2007, 69% of the American population reported that they believe in hell. The current president of the United States and many of our other elected representatives believe in hell, and believe in damnation. If these people believe in hell, that says to me that they believe in a God who is vengeful enough to condemn some human souls to eternal misery and torment. These are people who believe in the power of vengeance, who may believe that vengeance is as acceptable as diplomacy, and who may believe that vengeance is stronger than love and compassion. I sometimes wonder if such beliefs have an influence on foreign policy decisions — I suspect they do have an influence, although it seems to be an indirect influence, an unconscious influence.

And while I cannot prove it, I suspect the widespread belief in hell affects domestic policy decisions as well. Someone who believes in hell believes that some people are disposable. Hell, by definition, is a place where God disposes of some non-trivial number of souls, implying that at least some souls are disposable. If your religion tells you that some people are disposable, I would tend to think that such a belief could influence your decisions regarding domestic policy.

But because I don’t believe in hell myself, I have to admit that I don’t know how such a belief would affect a person’s actions. The real point is that hell has made a come-back in popular culture in the United States. Therefore, I believe it is time for us to dust off our old Universalist beliefs, look them over, and see what parts of Universalism could be useful to us in such a time as this.

Let us begin be stating Universalist beliefs in positive terms. Instead of saying that Universalists don’t believe in hell and eternal damnation, let us state what it is that Universalists believe in. And we may wish to use different language to state our beliefs positively. In 1959, Albert Ziegler said that if the phrase “universal salvation” no longer has much meaning for us, we need to find another way of saying the same thing. With that in mind, let me offer three positive statements of Universalist belief, and then apply them to a current issue in our community.

Albert Ziegler gave one positive statement of Universalist beliefs when he said, “The power of traditional Universalism was that, in its teaching of universal salvation, it spoke to every man of his infinite value.” Today, we would remove the gender-specific language, saying that Universalism speaks to every person, to all people, of their infinite value. A second statement of Universalist beliefs may be found among the so-called seven principles of Unitarian Universalism, the principle that states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. We could put these two statements together, saying: Each and every person is of infinite value, and so we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. There are no disposable human beings.

And here’s a third way of restating and updating traditional Universalist beliefs: all human beings share in the same final destiny. We heard one statement of that in the first reading this morning. Originally, the phrase “final destiny” was meant to refer to heaven, or final union with God. Today, when we are worrying about the effects of global climate change, when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set its Doomsday Clock a little closer to midnight, when we are engaged in a war that seems to be out of control — today, the term “final destiny” may take on a somewhat different meaning. If our species is going to survive, we had better figure out how to treat each other, and treat the earth, better. As the saying goes, we had better all hang together, or we will all hang separately.

Now let’s apply these issues to a current issue in our community, an issue that has particular relevance to our church. Our church bylaws specifically state that we will not discriminate against persons because of their gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability. And each week when I read the welcoming words before our worship service, I say, “Here at First Unitarian, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology.” On one level, this is simply another way of saying that we value the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. But on a deeper level, this is a pretty radical statement.

Our community, the greater New Bedford region, is a community that, on the surface, is relatively peaceful and tolerant. But like much of New England, there are deep divisions between the people who live in our community. We are divided by age — our youth are divided from older people, sometimes in very public and acrimonious arguments; our elders are often divided from younger people. We are divided by race — while we don’t have much outright racial violence, you can still find lots of racial division and racial discrimination in our community. We are divided by national origin — with the current uncertainty around immigration, and the recent raid at the Michael Bianco plant, our community is divided by national origin. We are deeply divided by class — with physical divisions between wealthy and not-so-wealthy neighborhoods, and psychic divisions because lower income people feel politically voiceless.

I could go on, but you get the point: we have some significant divisions in our community. I hasten to assure you that our community is fairly peaceful, certainly more peaceful than some other cities in Massachusetts. And I hasten to assure you that we a relatively tolerant community; compared to much of the United States, we are quite tolerant indeed. So compared to the rest of the world, you could truthfully say that we’re doing quite well.

And within our church, I think we manage to do better than even the surrounding community. Compared to the surrounding community, First Unitarian is a relatively tolerant place. No, we’re not perfect — far from it — but compared to the rest of the world, you could truthfully say that we’re a fairly tolerant and welcoming place.

But as a Universalist, I want to go further than that. If our community is relatively tolerant compared to the rest of the world, why not take it to the next level? If our church is relatively tolerant compared to our community, why not take it to the next level? We may be good, but surely we can be better. As a Universalist, I am an incurable optimist. I know every person has inherent worth and dignity, and I want to try to live my life as if that’s really true. And I want to hold this up as an ideal for the whole community.

I may be an optimist, but I also want to know how we could make this idea into reality. Speaking realistically, I know we’re not going to completely erase racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, ableism, or other forms of discrimination in the greater New Bedford area. Nor are we going to completely erase all discrimination within our own church.

Yet I do believe it is possible for us to get better at acting as if each and every person has inherent worth and dignity. I don’t have any final answers, but I believe it would be helpful to talk more openly about the divisions that do exist in the surrounding community. Not that we should indulge ourselves in guilt and shame, for in my experience guilt and shame are not particularly effective ways to change people’s behavior. But we do need to be able to talk openly about continuing racism in our community — discrimination such as racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination based on economic status, and so on. Thus a key skill for us to practice will be to listen deeply and carefully to one another — for it is impossible someone to talk openly unless the rest of us listen deeply and openly.

I believe that we have to spend more time talking about and examining our religious and theological reasons for ending discrimination. We have some compelling religious reasons to do away with discrimination, not just from our Universalist side, but also from our Unitarian side. I believe, too, that we have to be able to clearly state, in religious terms, why we believe each person has inherent worth and dignity. Once we can talk about our faith, once we can clearly articulate what we value and who we are, it is but a few short steps to living out our values in day-to-day life.

I believe that in this church we have to act always as if all people are valuable. Perhaps this is one of the first steps we can take towards living out our religious beliefs:– to practice living out our religious beliefs here in a relatively safe church community. Racism and sexism and homophobia and classism have been around for centuries, and we’d be naive to think we can put an end to them tomorrow. But as a first step, perhaps we can put an end to them for a couple of hours each Sunday, while we’re here at church.

And so we wind up facing the age-old question: How do we live out our deeply-held beliefs? How do we live out our most cherished values? As you would expect, I don’t have any firm and final pronouncements to offer — no person can tell person exactly how to live out his or her values. But I raise this as an important issue, a key issue for us. And I do believe that the religious insights of Universalism have much to offer us. We know that all persons are of equal value, we know that there are no disposable human beings, we know that all human beings share in the same final destination. Once we are clear about those religious values, all we have to do is figure out how to act upon them.