Tag Archives: Hosea Ballou

Lecture 3: A systematic account of humanism

Third lecture in a class on humanism.

I have said that one problem with religious humanism is that there hasn’t been any systematic account of what it means to be a religious humanist. I should state that more precisely: I want to see a systematic account of religious humanism in a style that is popular enough to capture the attention of a wide audience, while scholarly enough to satisfy scholars. 19th century Unitarianism had William Ellery Channing, a good writer who managed to capture a wide audience; Unitarians can also claim Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose prose and poetry continue to shape Unitarian Universalism today. Now maybe it’s a little bit much to ask for another Emerson, but at least humanism could wish for the equivalent of Hosea Ballou, the early 19th century Universalism whose Treatise on Atonement commanded a wide popular audience in its day.

To take a more recent example, the rapid growth of Neopaganism in the last twenty years has been propelled by popular writers like Margot Adler and Starhawk. Now maybe you haven’t heard of Margot Adler and Starhawk, but hundreds of thousands of people have heard of them, and have read their books, and have become Neopagans as a result. Let me put this another way: I see teenagers reading Starhawk, and I see teenagers reading Emerson, but I don’t see teenagers reading anyone who espouses religious humanism.

But it won’t be enough to have a writer who’s popular. Starhawk has convinced a lot of people to become Neopagans because she has offered a comprehensive and systematic account of what it means to be a Neopagan. She has written about how Neopagans can raise their children, how Neopagans can try to make the world a better place, she has outlined a Neopagan ethics, she has shown how Neopagans can create viable and nurturing religious communities. In a sense, Starhawk is even better than Emerson, who may have given us a lot of inspiration for our individual spiritual lives but who didn’t write much about how to create viable and nurturing religious communities. Starhawk is also enough of a thinker that she can be taken seriously by scholars and intellectuals. The general point here is that we need a writer who is popular, and who can be taken seriously intellectually, and who shows people how to live life as a religious humanist. Continue reading

Universalism for a new era

UU World magazine just put a good article by Paul Rasor on their Web site. Titled “Can Unitarian Universalism Change?” the article is an excerpt from the Berry Street lecture Paul gave last June.

Using demographic and other solid evidence, Paul makes the case that in an increasingly multiracial society, Unitarian Universalist congregations are predominantly white. In other words, we are increasingly out of step with the surrounding culture. In other words, we are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Paul goes on to say that our Universalist heritage offers a solid theological foundation on which we could build a truly multiracial, egalitarian religion:

Early Universalism was a communal faith. ‘Communal’ here means more than a group of individuals who share a common belief and come together for mutual support and worship, the way we might understand it today. Instead, in this form of communal theology, the individual was removed from the religious equation. Universalists insisted that our personal salvation was no more important than anyone else’s salvation. As Ann Lee Bressler, author of The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1880, puts it, Universalism ‘encouraged the believer to think of his own interests as inseparably linked with the eternal welfare of the whole body of humanity.’

This theological core led to a radical egalitarianism. The American emphasis, shared by most Protestant denominations, including Unitarians, had always been on equality of opportunity, at least in principle, while in practice tolerating vast inequalities of outcome. But Universalism’s egalitarian theological doctrine became the basis for a truly egalitarian social doctrine — ‘an egalitarianism not of opportunity, but of desert,’ or outcome. In other words, Universalism was not simply pluralistic; it was radically inclusive.

However, a radical Universalist inclusivity is going to ruffle lots of feathers of current Unitarian Universalists who place an extremely high value on personal and individual freedom. In my reading of the Treatise on Atonement, Hosea Ballou’s foundational theological statement of Universalism, Ballou places great restrictions on free will: you don’t get to choose whether or not you wish to be saved, you will be saved no matter what. Unitarians placed much more emphasis on free will:– Continue reading

“If my God hates those who hate him, I ought to do as my God does, and I will hate them too.”

I was driving to work this morning, listening to the local liberal talk radio program on KQED. One of the guests this morning was a conservative Christian of some kind, who was involved with some “Christian social group” on the campus of UC Hastings. The host, Michael Krasny, mentioned that this Christian social group did not allow gay and lesbian members.

The Christian fellow, whose name I did not catch, hastened to correct him. He said something like this: We do allow gays and lesbians; this is not about orientation, it is about behaviors. We do not allow our members to have sex outside of marriage, and we do not allow them to have homosexual sex; but if a gay or lesbian was willing to abide by our traditional Christian views of sex and marriage, then they are welcome to join our group. We want everyone to experience what it is to live in Christ, etc. etc.

I listened to this fellow’s tone of voice as he was talking, rather than the standard conservative-Christian content of what he was saying. His tone of voice was defensive, as was only natural, given that he was on a liberal talk radio program. But I also heard smugness, and complacency, and sanctimoniousness, and rigidity. I realized I have heard that exact same tone of voice hundreds of times, and when I hear that tone of voice it always makes me want to insist that I am not a Christian, that I do not believe in that God, and that while I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, my Jesus has nothing whatever to do with their Christ.

And then I remembered something written by Hosea Ballou in 1805 that applies to people like this Christian fellow on the radio. Ballou writes:

“Idolatry is the sin of worshipping that which is not, in reality, the true God…. An Almighty [God], omnipresent, infinitely wise and good, may be talked of; but his wisdom, power and goodness must be denied; and he must be a great many millions of miles off, fixed to a certain place, yet everywhere present; infinitely wise, and powerful, yet suffers an everlasting violation of his will;… loves some of his creatures, and hates others; is pleased and displeased with the conduct of his creatures; is perfectly unchangeable, yet loves at one time, and, at another, hates the same object. Such an idol will answer for thousands. Now what are the consequences? Answer, one nation supposes itself the only favorite of God; other people are haters of him, and hated by him. If my God hates those who hate him, I ought to do as my God does, and I will hate them too…. Reader, turn over the pages of history, calculate the rivers of blood which have been shed on account of religious disputes, and ask yourself the question, Is this religion worthy of a Supreme Being?”

[excerpted from A Treatise on Atonement, chapter 3.]

And, dear religious liberals, before you get too smug….

So we religious liberals have let the conservative Christians set up their idol here in America, their false God, a God who hates the majority of humanity, teaches his followers to hate, teaches his followers to start wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who condemns billions of people to eternal torture. And in response to this false idol, this false God, what do we religious liberals do? In our turn, too often we hate all gods, refuse to let anyone mention the word “God,” hate the conservative Christians, and when we talk about religion we use a tone of voice that is defensive, smug, complacent, sanctimonious, and rigid, all at the same time.

Hosea Ballou offers us another path: We can engage critically with the Bible and the Christian tradition that is so much a part of Western culture. We can use reason, humor, and good common sense to come to our own understanding of the Bible, one of the central books of our Western tradition. We can follow truth, instead of letting others impose their false idols on us.

“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!”

On Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley

This evening, I was browsing in a used bookstore. The man standing at the cash register was talking with two women. He had a ponytail and a beatific smile. I noticed one of the women wore a bright orange t-shirt. They were having a long conversation, and I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying.

But then I happened to be browsing through the used sheet music, idly hoping to find Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” when I heard the woman with the orange t-shirt say, “Do you have any Bibles?”

“Right over here,” said the man, and walked over to show her the Bibles, which happened to be right behind me.

“Have you ever read the Bible?” she said.

“Oh, yes,” said the man. “Several times, in fact. But I don’t believe in it. I guess I’m more of a Hindu.”

“How come you don’t believe in the Bible?” said the woman innocently.

The man proceeded to rehash some of the old arguments of the Higher Criticism, getting one or two of them wrong. I made it a point to wander away to different part of the store. I felt tempted to involve myself in the discussion and make corrections, but I also felt that perhaps they were flirting a little bit and I didn’t want to interrupt them.

The man had to go back to the cash register to take care of a customer. When the customer had gone, the woman in the orange t-shirt went over and continued the discussion: “How come you don’t believe in the Bible? Don’t you worry about what will happen after you die? Because life is short, but what happens afterwards lasts much longer.”

“Well,” said the man, still smiling, “I can’t be a Christian because I can’t believe in a God that would damn people to hell. Either everyone goes to heaven after they die, or I can’t believe in God.”

He continued at great length, and I restrained myself from bursting into their conversation and saying, Ah ha, you are stating the case for classic Universalism as set forth by Hosea Ballou…. — as I say, I restrained myself, because by now I could sense that the woman was not as innocent as she appeared at first. She was determined to save this poor man’s soul, to bring him to Christ, or whatever phraseology might be used by her particular sect or denomination. I couldn’t see her face, but I could see from her body language how intent she was. I could also see from her body language that she was still flirting with him.

At last I couldn’t wait any longer; I wanted to buy a few books and move on. “Excuse me,” I said, walking up to the cash register. “I hate to interrupt your conversation, but…”

The man, still smiling beatifically, cheerfully took my money. The woman stood there, intent, silent. Her t-shirt was very orange.

I picked up my books, saying, “And now I’ll let you get back to your theological discussion.” By the time I had turned away, they were at it again.

I walked back out onto Telegraph Avenue, dodged the drunks, the addicts, and the homeless, wove my way through the well-dressed college students, the hippies, and a few middle-aged suburbanites, until I got to the next used bookstore.

Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

Continue reading

An eco-universalist prayer

Yesterday’s post has the story of how the great Universalist Hosea Ballou did a preaching tour of the New Bedford region in May, 1820 — including an anecdote of how Rev. Le Baron of Mattapoisett unsuccessfully tried to keep Ballou from preaching. Never one to miss out on provoking a good controversy, Ballou wrote a letter to Le Baron the next day, which apparently had some kind of wider distribution. This letter is probably the first Universalist tract ever written in the New Bedford area.

Ballou’s letter contains one almost poetic passage, which could almost be a proto-eco-universalist prayer. I added snippets from elsewhere in the letter to make conclusion for it, and here it is:


     Does not the sun shine universally,
     and the moon likewise?

     Do not the clouds give rain to all,
     and the fruits of the earth grow
     for the benefit of all?

     Is not the vital air for the life of all;
     and are not all equally entitled to the waters?

     All people, every person,
     and the whole world are universal.
     This testimony, I believe, is Universalism.


For those of you who love to watch early 19th C. Universalists picking fights, I’ve included the full text of the letter below. Continue reading

Hosea Ballou in New Bedford

I’ve been tracing out the history of Universalist preaching in New Bedford, and finally tracked down the date when Hosea Ballou, the greatest of the early Universalist preachers, visited here — it’s in the second volume of Thomas Whittemore’s sprawling 1854/5 biography of Ballou. Ballou did a tour of the region, preaching at New Bedford, Fairhaven, Mattapoisett (then part of Rochester), Acushnet and Long Plains (then parts of Fairhaven).

Whittemore includes an anecdote of one of Ballou’s encounters with more orthodox clergy. It is such a classic story that I have included it in its entirety, along with the entire story of Ballou’s preaching tour in this area. (I’ve added a few numbered footnotes; Whittemore’s own footnote is marked with an asterisk.)


[p. 101] “In May, 1820, he [Ballou] made a journey to New Bedford, at the call of a few friends there, and preached the word of the Lord, as he understood it, at a private house, [1] there being, as he said, ‘no meeting-house in the town whose owners were willing to have the doctrine of God’s universal, impartial, unchangeable goodness preached within its consecrated walls.’ Thence he crossed the river to Fairhaven, where he addressed an assembly in the academy, and also at the head of the river, so called, in the meeting-house formerly occupied by the memorable Dr. West. [2] In the precinct called Mattapoiset, in the town of Rochester, he was invited to preach, by a physician, who was a large owner in the meeting-house. The house was opened by proper authority; but when Mr. B. came to the door, he was confronted by the settled pastor, Rev. Lemuel Le Baron, who forbid his going into the house. Mr. Ballou was very sorry to wound the feelings of the gentleman; but the house had been opened by proper authority, and there was no good reason why the people who had assembled should be disappointed. The principal reason assigned by Mr. Le Baron for his opposition was, that Mr. Ballou was a Universalist, and that Universalism was subversive of Christianity. Mr. B. invited the clergyman to go in with him, and hear what he had to deliver, and then he [p. 102] could the better judge whether the doctrine preached was the truth or not. But Mr. Le Baron refused to do this, and insisted that he had a right to control the pulpit, and to say who should preach in it. Mr. B. told him that the gentlemen who had given their consent for him to preach in the house were of respectable standing, and proprietors of the house; and, if they had violated his privileges, they must be accountable. He further added, that, however Mr. Le Baron might think it his duty to forbid his preaching, he himself could not see how a man who did not own the house could prevent those from the free use of it who did own it, when they desired to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. [3] Mr. B. accordingly passed in, and ‘a goodly number (said he) attended to the word.’ * He preached again in the same place in the evening. Before leaving the place, he addressed Mr. Le Baron a long letter, in which he called on him to show wherein Universalism was subversive of Christianity. Mr. B. quoted many passages from the Scriptures, and then wished his antagonist to show either that these passages did not prove Universalism, or else show how they were subversive of Christianity. This being done, Mr. B. proceeded to a meetinghouse at Long Plains, at the upper part of Fairhaven, where he preached, after which he returned home.”


* “On Mr. Le Baron being told that Mr. Ballou was going to preach in the house, he said to one of his friends, ‘Had I not better go into the house, and be sacrificed at the foot of the pulpit-stairs?’ On the remark being repeated to Mr. Ballou, he asked, ‘Who did the poor man think was going to harm him?'”

[1] According to the 1869 History of Churches in New Bedford, this “private house” was Dudley Davenport’s carpenter’s shop.

[2] Dr. Samuel West was the liberal minister of the congregation which in 1795 moved to the growing Bedford Precinct, later New Bedford; that congregation became First Congregational Society of New Bedford (Unitarian), now First Unitarian Church in New Bedford.

[3] The argument between Ballou and Le Baron turns on a touchy point. In 1820, most Massachusetts churches were composed of two somewhat separate organizations, the church and the society. The division of responsibilities was something like this: the church, controlled by the minister and the deacons, was the arbiter of who would be admitted as a full church member, such admission possibly including doctrinal tests; — the society, controlled by the proprietors (that is, those who provided the funding to build and maintain the meetinghouse), owned the building and most of the furnishings. Thus both Ballou and Le Baron had compelling arguemnts — Ballou arguing that the proprietors had the right to decide who got access to the building; Le Baron arguing that Ballou would injure the doctrinal purity of the church.

Reference: Life of Rev. Hosea Ballou: With Accounts of His Writings, and Biographical Sketches of His Seniors and Contemporaries in the Universalist Ministry by Thomas Whittemore, Boston: James M. Usher, 1854, vol II., pp. 101-102.

Itinerants to Freethinkers: Universalist preaching in New Bedford

Part one: 1825 to 1875

During the 1820s and 1830s, at least a few itinerant Universalist preachers visited New Bedford. By tradition, Rev. Hosea Ballou, the greatest of the early Universalist theologians and preachers, came to speak in New Bedford c. 1825. In 1831, one William Morse preached a sermon on Universalism in New Bedford titled “On Revival of Religion. A Sermon delivered in New Bedford, April 17, 1831,” which was printed by Benjamin T. Congdon. In 1836, one Abraham Norwood preached Universalism in New Bedford and Fairhaven, with mixed success.

The first settled Universalist preacher was Rev. John Murray Spear, who preached abolitionism along with his Universalism. While he was minister, from 1836 to 1841, the Universalists built a church building on School Street (since demolished, the site is now the parking lot for Pilgrim UCC Church); they also were one of the few Massachusetts churches of any denomination to unequivocally declare their support for abolition. Nathan Johnson, a prominent African American citizen of New Bedford and conductor on the Underground Railroad, became a member of the Universalist Church. Frederick Douglass is known to have visited the church, but only to argue against the doctrine of universal salvation; Spear met Douglass during this visit, and the two men wound up sharing the lecture platform for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society many times in later years.

In 1841, Spear was hounded out of New Bedford for helping a fugitive slave evade her master. Spears’ biographer John Beuscher writes: “A slave, Lucy Faggins, traveled with the family that owned her to visit New Bedford, which was home to a sizable community of free Negroes. Spear was instrumental in arranging the legal process through which Faggins was able to opt for freedom. For depriving the southern family of their household ‘servant’ Spear was vilified in public as a ‘nigger stealer,’ threatened with legal action, and forced to resign his New Bedford pulpit.”

Following Spear’s sudden departure, Rev. Levi L. Sadler (1806?-1857) served as a supply minister during 1841. Sadler had previously preached in the recently-settled states of Ohio (1833, 1837) and Michigan (1835). Continue reading