Tag Archives: Universalism

“Why I’m a Universalist”

This Sunday, I’ll be preaching on P. T. Barnum, the great showman and circus empressario. Barnum was a Universalist, and later in his life he wrote a pamphlet titled “Why I Am a Universalist.” The pamphlet sold 30,000 copies in its first year, and over 100,000 copies within a few years of publication.

I wanted to use some of Barnum’s words in a responsive reading in this week’s worship service. But some of Barnum’s sentiments sound a little dated to this 21st C. Universalist — and he’s a Restorationsist whereas I’m a Ultra-Universalist (or “Death-and-Glory” Universalist). So I picked out some his best phrases (avoiding gender-specific language), assembled them and edited them slightly, and cast them into a responsive reading. And to whet your apetite for the worship service this Sunday, here the’s completed reading.


Why I Am a Universalist

I base my hopes for humanity on the Word of God speaking in the best heart and conscience of the race,

the Word heard in the best poems and songs, the best prayers and hopes of humanity.

It is rather absurd to suppose a heaven filled with saints and sinners shut up all together within four jeweled walls and playing on harps, whether they like it or not.

I have faint hopes that after another hundred years or so, it will begin to dawn on the minds of those to whom this idea is such a weight, that nobody with any sense holds this idea or ever did hold it.

To the Universalist, heaven in its essential nature is not a locality, but a moral and spiritual status, and salvation is not securing one place and avoiding another, but salvation is finding eternal life.

Eternal life has primarily no reference to time or place, but to a quality. Eternal life is right life, here, there, everywhere.

Conduct is three-fourths of life.

This present life is the great pressing concern.

— Phineas Taylor Barnum, recast by DH

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.

Sunday morning worship

Fort Worth

At Sunday morning worship this morning, we got a good old-fashioned Universalist sermon. But the rest of the worship service was anything but old-fashioned. The music was not 19th C. Western European classical music, it was jazz, gospel, and world music. The children’s story incorporated dance and drama to tell an ancient Sufi tale. And worshipping in the Fort Worth arena with about three thousand other Unitarian Universalists did not feel like traditional church — it did not even feel like the old-time Universalist camp meetings. No, the worship was contemporary.

But the sermon, given by Rob Hardies, minister at All Souls UU Church in Washington, DC, gave a message that the 19th C. Universalists would have recognized. The line from Hardies’s sermon that stuck with me went something like this: “The spiritual life isn’t about dabbling here and there, it’s about giving your whole life over to love.” Hardies gave new life to that old Universalist theme that love is the most powerful force in the universe, by pointing out that love will transform us as we use love to transform the world into a more humane and just place.

Hardies also had a good line about the name of his church. His church is called All Souls, which he contends is the best name for Unitarian Universalist churches because we aim to invite all persons in. But, said Hardies, “Can you imagine a church named ‘Some Souls’?” Everyone laughed, and then he added, “But isn’t that the defacto name of dominant religion in America today?” Murmurs of recognition greeted this statement.

Hardies went on to add, “The good news that Unitarian Universalism must deliver to the world… the good news that has literally saved my life, is that a god who picks and chooses is not god at all, it is an idol.” Then he said we must “preach the old Universalist gospel that all souls are invited to the welcome table.”

Well, this Universalist agrees with Hardies wholeheartedly. The professional musicans and well-rehearsed worship service for 3,000 people is fine and good, but what really matters is getting that message out to the world.


Uncomfortable conversations

OK, I admit it, I’m feeling smug. See, as a Universalist I always feel a little smug when someone else finally figures out that the most powerful force in the universe is love.

I’ve just finished reading Gulley and Mulholland’s book from 2003 titled If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person. Gully and Mulholland are two evangelical pastors from Indiana who finally spoke out publicly in this book as proponents of universal salvation — as universalists. While they have been savagely attacked for their views, their book is selling well, has even made it into paperback.

Needless to say, their universalism differs substantially from mine. Their God is entirely male, their book is the Bible, their vocabulary is that of conservative North American Christianity. As for me, it’s impossible to assign gender to transcendence, my books include Hebrew and Christian scriptures as well as the Analects, the Bhagavad Gita, and the I Ching, and my vocabulary is definitely Unitarian Universalist.

Yet while I found much in their book I do not agree with, I am glad to have found the book. As a Unitarian Universalist, I really am committed to opening up dialogue across faith boundaries. As a Unitarian Universalist living in this part of Illinois, I often have to try to explain my faith to evangelical and fundamentalist Christians — and these tend to be uncomfortable conversations for someone like me who doesn’t quote the Bible chapter and verse. I’m always looking for a place to meet such folks halfway — a place where we can at least start a conversation. Gulley and Mulholland’s book might just provide such a place.

The power of Universalism

No doubt you’re already aware that this is a big year — the 200th anniversary of the first edition of Hosea Ballou’s monumental Treatise on Atonement, still the most influential of all books of Universalist theology. But you may not realize that Universalism still has the power to stir up quite a ruckus. Turns out two evangelical Quaker pastors from western Indiana, Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, published a book titled If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person back in 2003.

Just as happened with Hosea Ballou, Gulley and Mulholland’s thoughts on God’s love provoked lots of hate. Chuck Fager tells about the ruckus Gulley and Mulholland have raised in a review of their book in the online journal “Quaker Theology.”

I know you’ll want to read the whole article, but to whet your appetite, here are the opening paragraphs:

“Almost two hundred years ago, Hosea Ballou foretold what would befall two Quaker pastors in Indiana, Philip Gulley and his good friend James Mulholland, in 2002: ‘To profess universal salvation,’ Ballou wrote, ‘will subject some to excommunication from regular churches; others to the pain of being neglected by their neighbors; others to be violently opposed by their companions . . . and a man’s enemies will be those of his own house.’…

“Ballou wrote this about his own time, and the controversy generated by the ideas contained in his magnum opus, A Treatise on Atonement. In it Ballou, an early New England Universalist, made a case that Unitarian-Universalists [sic] today claim as one of their founding classics.

“That was in 1805. But Ballou’s words were indeed prophetic: Since Gulley and Mulholland put forth their work, all hell has broken loose in the Hoosier state….”

I’ve just ordered If Grace Is True, and their new book, If God Is Love, just out last year. Needless to say, I bought both books from the Seminary Coop Bookstore — thus supporting co-ops and independent booksellers!