“Death and glory” all the way!

In the middle and late 19th century, Universalists spent quite a bit of time arguing about the afterlife. Sure, they agreed that every human being was going to be saved; they were Universalists after all. But some Universalists (an increasing number as the 19th century went on) believed that there would be some form of punishment in the afterlife; while other Universalists believed that you would go straight from death to glory in heaven. The first group were called the Restorationists; the second group were called the Ultra-Universalists, or the “Death and Glory” faction. The Unitarian Universalist Historical Society has a good (albeit long) article on the Restorationist controversy.

You are probably not interested in the Restorationist controversy, but some few of us are. I used to get into gentle arguments with Lindsay Bates, who is a Restorationist. She would say, “There are some people whom I believe need to be punished.” I would say that if there is any afterlife at all, either I want us all to go straight there upon death (yes, even the child rapists and axe murderers), or I didn’t want to be a part of such a theological scheme; or to put it another way, either God is perfectly good beyond human comprehension, or I didn’t want any part of God.

Not only was Lindsay a much better debater than I, I always felt my argument was pretty weak. Today, I was leafing through Hosea Ballou’s An Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution, on the Principles of Morals, Analogy, and the Scriptures (Boston: Universalist Trumpet, 1834), and I came across an argument against Restorationism that was new to me, and convincing in an odd, 19th-century sort of way. Ballou writes:

“But I must hasten to notice your queries. 1st. In relation to what you term ‘death and glory.’

“This subject has never been much agitated among brethren of our order, until quite lately. Dr. Priestley’s views of an unconscious state after death, were not known to me when I wrote my treatise on atonement, nor had that subject then ever been considered by me. This accounts for my silence on it. Of late, I have endeavored to know what divine revelation has communicated on this subject; but, owing to my want of discernment, I have not been able to reconcile all the passages, which seem to relate to the case, to a fair support of either side of the question. My efforts, I acknowledge, have not been made with that intenseness of application, respecting this matter, as they would have been, had I been persuaded that the question was of any great consequence. Being fully satisfied that the Scriptures teach us to believe no moral state, between the death of the body, and the resurrection state, in which that which was sown in dishonor will be raised in glory, and that which was sown in corruption, shall be raised in incorruption, it seemed to me immaterial whether we enter, immediately, after the dissolution of the body, on the resurrection state, or sleep in unconscious quietude any given time before that glorious event shall take place. In either case, it is what you call ‘death and glory’; for it makes no difference as to the length of time during an unconscious state. In such a state there can be effected no moral preparations.”

You go, Hosea! Take that, all you Restorationists!

Now I just wish someone would write a hymn that uses the phrase “Death and glory!”

8 thoughts on ““Death and glory” all the way!

  1. Modern Girl

    It’s hard for me to even wrap my head around afterlife debates. Even though I think there’s probably not an afterlife, my hesistation towards this topic doesn’t come from that. Rather, it comes from just the agnostic point that we can never know, so why are we arguing?

    If there was a God, and it wanted everyone to go straight to Heaven after death, and yet Joe Smith didn’t want to see child rapists in Heaven, what could Joe Smith do about it anyway? How could he ever change things in his favour? He can’t. All he can do is convince himself that God wouldn’t do that, convince himself that he’s right, and convince others that he’s right. This self denial would bring him peace, but it would against the truth.

    So, if can’t know the truth, and we can’t do anything about that particular truth, I just can’t relate to people who get so wrapped up in those debates.

  2. Jean

    How about “when you’re dead you’re dead.” I mean, isn’t it kind of self-absorbed of us as human beings to assume that we will live on somehow? Our consciousness of self is remarkable; remarkableness doesn’t mean, however, that the remarkable thing will continue on after vessel that carries it around conks out.

    When you’re dead, you’re just dead.

    And, perhaps if you’re lucky, good compost.

  3. Dan

    Modern Girl @ 1 — But, alas, the reality is that many many people in the United States do believe in an afterlife. We are probably not going to talk them out of their belief in an afterlife, but maybe we can at least convince them that if there is an afterlife, everyone gets to go to heaven.

    Jean @ 2 — I’m willing to go beyond the literal and admit of some mythic dimension to the death of someone to close to one. I like this poem by the Senegalese poet Birago Diop:

    Those who are dead are never gone:
    they are in the thickening shadow.

    The dead are not under the earth:
    they are in the tree that rustles,
    they are in the wood that groans;

    Those who are dead are never gone:
    they are in the breast of the woman,
    they are in the child that is wailing
    and in the firebrand that flames.

    The dead are not under the earth:
    they are in the forest,
    they are in the house.

    Those who are dead are never gone.


    Diop expresses an emotional reality that is not so very different from this doggerel-ish poem by Lee Hays:

    If I should die before I wake
    All of my bone and sinew take;
    Put them into the compost pile,
    To decompose a little while.

    Worms, water, sun will have their way,
    Reducing me to common clay;
    All that I am will feed the trees
    And little fishies in the seas.

    When radishes and corn you munch,
    You may be having me for lunch,
    And then excrete me with a grin,
    And chortle, “There he goes again.”

    ‘Twill be my happiest destiny,
    To die and live eternally.


    OK, so maybe Diop is the better poet. Even so…..

  4. Jeremiah Bartlett

    These are the sorts of questions we are not likely to ever have again in the UU community, but it’s interesting to think back to how vital and cutting-edge this type of debate was.

    Also, Ballou is referencing Joseph Priestly, correct? So the dialogue between Unitarians and Universalists has always been of significance.

    I would love to be in a real cauldron of theological foment, but alas, I just don’t see us having these sorts of serious debates. We prefer to get lost in how often we reference “God” in a service.

  5. Jean

    I once had a fascinating discussion with a Baptist student about the notion of afterlife. She was amazed that I didn’t have any conception of an afterlife. “You mean,” she said, “That this is all you’ve got?” Yes, I said. This life is what I have. However long it is, this time on earth is what I’ve been given. “Wow,” she said. “That’s a LOT of pressure!”

    I think about that often.

  6. Dan

    Jean @ 5 — I think your Baptist student has even more pressure on her — I mean, screw up, and you’re stuck in hell for all eternity? Now that’s what I call pressure….

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