Tag Archives: Hosea Ballou

Hymn by Hosea Ballou

Hosea Ballou is one of the theological giants of my religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism. Back in 1805, Ballou wrote A Treatise on Atonement, still the major exposition of North American Universalism (you can read it online here). Unfortunately, Ballou was not what you’d call a great writer. When trying to describe his writing style, the adjective “clunky” comes immediately to mind.

Because he was a mediocre writer, hardly anyone reads his Treatise any more, and hardly anyone bothers to sing any of the hundreds of hymns he wrote. This is unfortunate, because buried in Ballou’s clunky prose is a vision of a universe run by Love, where someday the power of Love is going to make everything turn out well.

I recently discovered that one of Ballou’s hymns is still in print — not in the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal, but in The Sacred Harp, a songbook widely used by shape-note singers. It’s number 411 in The Sacred Harp, and it goes like this:

1. Come, let us raise our voices high,
And from a sacred song,
To him who rules the earth and sky,
And does our days prolong.
Who through the night gave us to rest,
This morning cheered our eyes;
And with the thousands of the blest,
In health made us to rise.

2. Early to God we’ll send our prayer,
Make hast to pray and praise,
That he may make our good his care,
And guide us all our days.
And when the night of death comes on,
And we shall end our days,
May his rich grace the theme prolong,
Of his eternal praise.

Hosea Ballou, 1808 (C.M.D.)

No, I’m not proposing that we include this hymn in the next edition of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. In The Sacred Harp book, Ballou’s hymn is set to a fuguing tune, fairly complex music that is far beyond the singing ability of the average American congregation (though it might be fun for a church choir), and the hymn itself is not quite good enough for me to want to go to the trouble of finding another, easier, tune for it. But it’s nice to know that people still do sing this old Universalist hymn, even though most of those who sing it probably have no idea who Hosea Ballou was, or what Universalism might be.

Still relevant

I’ve been reading a two hundred year old book this afternoon, and I keep finding passages that sound as fresh and reasonable and relevant today as they must have sounded back in 1805. Here’s one such passage, which still sounds relevant after all these years:

The origin of sin has, among Christians in general, been very easily accounted for; but in a way, I must confess, that never gave me any satisfaction, since I came to think for myself on subjects of this nature. A short chimerical story of the bard, Milton, has given perfect satisfaction to millions, respecting the introduction of moral evil into the moral system which we occupy….

This passage comes from one of the founding documents of Universalism, Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement. And, sadly, two hundred years after Ballou wrote this passage, the bad theology of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” remains deeply ingrained in our culture. If you’re a religious liberal in 2005, you inevitably wind up having conversations with people who are quite convinced that Milton’s account of evil is, in fact, the only and correct account — even though you know perfectly well that while Milton’s book is great literature, it is not good theology. So, religious liberals, it is worth your while to review Ballou’s scathing and hilarious review of Milton’s book at the beginning of the second chapter of the Treatise on Atonement,which concludes with Ballou saying:

So, after all our journeying to heaven after a sinning angel, and after pursuing him to hell, and from hell to earth, we have not yet answered the question, viz., What is the origin of sin? We have only shown, that the way in which this question has been generally solved, is without foundation.

I’ll be talking more on this subject in my sermon this Sunday, so come on down and find out more.

Should be a bestseller, but won’t be

This week, I’ve been reading Proverbs of Ashes by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker. Brock and Parker take on the subject of violence, and suggest that the Christian tradition provides a fertile breeding ground for acts of violence; they argue for example that if God was willing to kill off God’s son Jesus, what does that say to a child who’s being abused by her/his parents? –it says, do what Jesus did, accept the suffering, and all will be well.

But do not imagine that this is a Christian-bashing book. Both Parker and Brock have stayed within the Christian tradition. Rather, they are trying to retell the Christian story so that it becomes less destructive. In that respect, they remind me a little of the great Universalist Hosea Ballou. 200 years ago this year, Ballou wrote A Treatise on Atonement, in which he pointed out that a God of love would not kill his son in order to atone for something. It strikes me that what Brock and Parker are really doing is updating Universalism, finding anew that God is love.

And if you have no interest in discussions of God or Christianity, the book is still worth reading. The personal stories in the book are absolutely riveting — this is one book of theology that truly is a page-turner. And even if you’re not Christian, the stories give you a sense of how violence has become endemic in our culture. Highly recommended.