This year is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of the person who was arguably the most famous Universalist ever: the great showman and promoter, P. T. Barnum, who was born on July 5, 1810. His name still lives on in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus; and his reputation lives on in a remark he supposedly made, that there’s a sucker born every minute (actually, there is no record that he ever said that).
It is less often remembered that Barnum was a great supporter of many reform causes. Most notably, he supported the temperance movement, and felt that his shows and entertainments helped provide recreational options that could keep people from drinking.
Barnum was also a tireless supporter of Universalism, and a supporter of Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained in the United States by a denominational body. He helped endow Tufts, originally a Universalist college, and for many decades Tufts displayed a stuffed elephant from Barnum’s circus. He even spent time with Quillen Hamilton Shinn, the great Universalist missionary of the latter half of the nineteenth century, and supposedly admired Shinn’s showmanship.
Not long before he died, Barnum wrote a moving statement of his religious identity, titled “Why I am a Universalist.” Some years ago, I adapted a portion of it so it could be used as a responsive reading in contemporary Unitarian Universalist congregations:
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.
I continue to be moved by the idea that eternal life is a quality, it is right living that can happen in the here and now. Though I am not a theist in the sense Barnum was, this basic concept remains a central part of my own Universalist faith today: this present life is the great pressing concern.
So happy birthday, Phineas Taylor Barnum!