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A Treatise on Atonement, by Hosea Ballou

An online version of A Treatise on Atonement, the classic theological statement of universal salvation, or Universalism, by Rev. Hosea Ballou.

Table of Contents

Preface to the 2011 Web Edition
A Letter to the Reader
The Author's Preface to the Fifth (1832) Edition

Part I: Of Sin
1. Its Nature
2. Its Origin
3. Its Consequences

Part II: Atonement for Sin
4. Erroneous Theories of Atonement
5. The Necessity of Atonement, and Where Satisfaction Must Be Made
6. The Personage and Character of the Mediator
7. Atonement in Its Nature

Part III: Consequences of Atonement to Mankind
8. Salvation Must Be Universal
9. The Most Frequent Objections Answered
10. Reasons for Believing in Universal Reconciliation

Preface to the 2011 Web Edition

A Treatise on Atonement was first published in 1805, but much of it sounds fresh today, more than two centuries later. Hosea Ballou's writing is filled with good solid common sense. He uses down-to-earth stories, and everyday language. When you read this book, you feel as though you're having a long conversation with a friendly companion; he may not be as polished as those university professors who write about religion, but you can relax with him and really take the time to think through serious religious questions.

More than anything else, Hosea Ballou wants to convince you of the truth of universal salvation: that God is love, and that God's love will lead to universal holiness and happiness for all persons. He doesn't want to push you to believe anything unbelievable, but he is sure that if you are willing to listen to reason, you too will be convinced of the truth of universal salvation. And Ballou wants you to be convinced of the truth of universal salvation, because he knows that this truth will "happify" you. That's his word for it: you will be "happified." Ballou knows that belief in hell and eternal damnation tends to make people unhappy -- unhappy for no reason, for he knows that belief in hell and damnation is false belief. And so he wants to happify you, by introducing you to the wonderful notion that God is love, and that God's love means you will go to heaven.

I decided to publish a new edition of A Treatise on Atonement because I wanted to make Ballou's book accessible to today's readers. There are other editions that you can get: many editions are available online, and you can still buy paperback copies of the book. But all those other editions are unnecessarily difficult to read. For example, Ballou wrote many long paragraphs that extended for more than a page, and it is easy to get lost when reading them. It's easy to break up those long paragraphs into shorter paragraphs so that they become much easier to read, and that's one of the things I have done to make this edition easier to approach.

At times, Ballou's writing may seem stilted or difficult to make out. He himself acknowledges in his preface to the 1832 edition that he is not the best writer. But by all accounts, he was a good preacher, and Ballou wrote as he preached; his book represents the rhythms of the spoken word, which do not always translate well to the printed page.
Fortunately, like any good preacher, he knows that sometimes people's minds will wander, and every so often he provides re-entry points, places where he makes it easy for you to rejoin the flow of his argument. To help you find those re-entry points, I have inserted spaces where one section of his argument ends and another begins. If you find yourself losing the thread of the argument, simply jump forward to the next section, and start reading there. You don't have to read this book straight through to get benefit from it. Each chapter can be taken on its own, or you can dip into the book at random, stopping when something attracts you.

Ballou represents the voice of the common person. He did not have a college education; he did not live in the big city where he had access to high culture; he did not write polished academic theology. But this is his greatest strength; he is never deadly dull, the way many academic theologians are. He is filled with good common sense; he knows how to talk, and how to tell stories. He is by turns funny, serious, outraged, and filled with joy and happiness. He is just what he aims to be: a good companion for your religious journey.

A note on the text

I have silently changed punctuation and paragraphing to make the text more easily read. I have also inserted breaks in the text where I feel one section of a chapter ends and another begins. In a very few instances, I have made brief editorial changes in order to make the text more readable (e.g., changing the old-fashioned word "graffed" to "grafted"). The few footnotes are all mine.

This edition draws primarily from the text of the 1832 edition, which represents Ballou's final rewriting of the book. As A. A. Miner did in the 1882 edition, I have generally removed Ballou's use of the authorial "we" of the 1832 edition, and gone back to the more personal "I" of earlier editions. I have retained Miner's chapter divisions -- divisions that were really inherent in Ballou's text -- but I have taken the titles for the chapters more directly from Ballou's descriptions of the divisions of his book.

I have indented most quotations from the Bible to make it easier to follow Ballou's arguments from scripture. These sorts of arguments from scripture are no longer as popular as they were in Ballou's day, and today's reader may wish to skip over them. If you do wish to skip over these scriptural arguments, the indented text will make it easier for you to do so.

I have supplied Bible citations where Ballou did not. Ballou often misquoted the Bible slightly -- no doubt he wrote down many of these passages from memory, and sometimes he would get a word or two wrong -- but I have generally not corrected his misquotations.

The text of A Treatise on Atonement is in the public domain.


I began creating this online edition in 2005, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the first publication of the Treatise in 1805. I was interrupted in 2006 by the demands of my ministry, but began work again in 2009. Thanks to Steven Rowe of South Carolina, Rev. Scott Wells of Washington, D.C., and Russell Allen of Australia, all of whom helped with the Web version. Scott also provided additional encouragement and background information.

-- Rev. Dan Harper
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, Calif., 2011