Of sand bars and circuit riders

Voices from our Universalist past.


As members of a religion without a formal creed, Unitarian Universalists often define themselves by telling stories, and a rich source of narrative lore comes from the Universalist side of the UU legacy. Universalist stories, some from print sources and others passed down as part of family traditions, illustrate the qualities that helped the Universalists persevere, often in the face of hostility, and pass on the good news of universal salvation—qualities that included expansiveness, courage, good humor, liberality, resourcefulness, debating and oratorical skill, and willingness to take on orthodoxies of every stripe.

The early Universalists, both laity and clergy, had a distinctive character that set them off from other liberal religionists. Unlike the typically urban and urbane Unitarian clergy, many of the early Universalist preachers were rough-hewn circuit riders with little formal education who worked the frontiers, where they challenged the theology that Calvinist hellfire-and-brimstone preachers were spreading across the continent at tent meetings and revivals. In fact, the 19th-century Universalists took such pride in their ministers’ humble backgrounds that it was an article of faith among them that the best way to ruin a good minister was to send him or her to theological school.

With their quick wits, their talent for improvisation, and their radically democratic bent, the circuit riders and their followers were quintessentially American, and their lives were the stuff of which good stories are made. On the 200th anniversary of the first Universalist General Convention [in 1793], UU World would like to share a few of the best and most "telling" if these stories.

Great debaters

Hosea Ballou, a major theologian of early 19th-century Universalism, was ordained as a young man at the first New England General Convention—the event whose anniversary we celebrate this year [1993]. The manner of his ordination shows how little Universalists cared for standardized forms and rituals. The Rev. Elhanan Winchester was delivering a sermon to the convention delegates. At the end he called Ballou up to the podium, never having warned the younger man he was a candidate for ordination. Winchester, holding his Bible up and pressing it firmly to Ballou's chest, said, "Brother Ballou, I press your heart to the written Jehovah!" Then he declared Ballou ordained. According to one account, the spontaneous gesture had a "sudden and powerful" effect on the crowd.

—adapted from Richard Eddy, Universalism in America

With this event in his background, it isn't surprising that Ballou became an expert at thinking on his feet. As one of the denomination’s many itinerant clergy, he was riding the circuit in the New Hampshire hills with a Baptist preacher one afternoon. They argued theology as they traveled. At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, "Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I'd still go to heaven." Hosea Ballou looked over at him and said, "If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you."

—told by the Rev. Elizabeth Strong

Ballou was riding the circuit again when he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. "All right," said Ballou with a serious face. "We'll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we'll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we'll grab him and throw him into it." The farmer was shocked: "That's my son and I love him!” Ballou said, "If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!"

—told by the Rev. Linda Stowell

Later, when Ballou had an established congregation, an elderly woman inquired of him whether he had the habit of asking his parishioners, "O, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" Ballou’s reply was typical for its laconic wit. "No madam," he said. "That class do not attend my church."

—told by the Rev. David Johnson

The quick and witty comeback was already part of the Universalist preacher's stock-in-trade by the time of Ballou’s surprise ordination, judging from an anecdote about John Murray, the founder of American Universalism. During one of Murray’s sermons, a stone flew through the window of the church where he was preaching—presumably thrown by an opponent of Universalist doctrine. Murray picked it up and said, "This argument may be substantial and weighty, but it is not convincing."

—told by the Rev. David Johnson

By the mid-19th century, debates of a more formal nature took place between Universalist preachers and their orthodox counterparts. The Universalist preachers were skilled debaters who read their Bible carefully and knew by heart the passages that denied the reality of eternal damnation. Thomas Whittemore, the great Universalist leader of that time, took on a man named Balfour in a debate that lasted five full days. J.R. Lavelle, a Universalist minister in Canada, took part in a debate that lasted only two days, but it began at six a.m. and lasted until sundown. People came partly for the entertainment but partly because the theology was so important to them. The debates had no judges. People went, they listened, and then they went home and made up their minds. Of course, Lavelle hoped people would make up their minds to become Universalists, and many of them did.

But even in the days of prearranged debates, impromptu, and sometimes heated, debates still took place between Universalists and their theological rivals. One of the most unusual involved Noah Murray, a minister in mid-Pennsylvania, who had begun a Universalist church that was the fastest-growing congregation in the area. It finally grew so large that two of the local mainline preachers decided they had better do something about it. They kidnapped Noah Murray and took him to the basement of one of their churches, where they kept him for three days and nights, arguing theology. At the end of that time, Noah Murray was set free, having converted both of them.

—adapted from Richard Eddy, Universalism in America and from research by the Rev. Margaret K. Gooding and the Rev. A. Phillip Hewett

Universalists as seen by others

As Noah Murray’s story shows, the Universalist ministers’ success at challenging their Calvinist opposite numbers didn’t always make for warm relations with orthodox preachers or laity. By 1860, the message of Universalism—the everlasting love of God—was so intolerable to Calvinists that a Presbyterian minister in Canton, New York, delivered a day-long diatribe against the establishment of the Universalist St. Lawrence University on the slope overlooking the village. At one point in the sermon he called St. Lawrence "that dungheap on the hill."

Of course, not everyone felt this way about Universalists or their message. Universalist writer Gertrude Sneller, in her book A Vanished World, remembers the sound of church bells in the place where she grew up. She writes: "All these bells had individual tones, easily identified. The loungers on the hotel steps, who never went to church, not only recognized the notes of each but were able to identify what they said. According to their insights, the Methodist bell shouted, 'Repent! Repent!' The Presbyterian bell urged, 'Church time! Church time!' Only the Universalist bell held out a cheerful promise: 'No hell! No hell!' And it was said that the loungers felt safe staying where they were."

—told by the Rev. Elizabeth Strong

But this kind of benign neglect was rare. Not only in the United States but in Canada also, Universalists met with discrimination. When Universalists of any age walked down the street in Halifax, home of the country's oldest surviving Universalist congregation, people would comment, "There goes a child of the devil." The congregation first met in someone's house, but there was so much opposition from the townspeople that they had to abandon the meeting.

—told by the Rev. Margaret K. Gooding

Anarchists at heart

In addition to the ill-will of some of their neighbors, Universalists faced another kind of obstacle to community- and congregation-building. Though, by the late 19th century, Universalism had become a "church," with all the bureaucratic machinery the term implies, earlier in the century the denomination had lived up to one historian’s characterization of it as "a sect with individualism of anarchistic proportions." In the Richmond, New Hampshire, church, the country’s first rural Universalist congregation, members were "free to accept the [church's] outward ordinances or not," according to the church covenant. The Egremont, Massachusetts, church, in declining to subscribe to the denomination’s Philadelphia Articles and Plan, wrote that they doubted "whether a particular compact can be entered into to satisfy [all the] members of the congregation." And one little congregation in southern New York State refused to meet on Sunday mornings because that would have "smacked of institutionalism." It's not surprising, then, that some Universalist congregations didn't survive for long, once the itinerant preachers left. The preacher would come through filled with the message of a loving God, and the people would build a little church, but once the preacher moved on, they had no institutional structure to keep them going.

—adapted from Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England and from a story told by the Rev. Elizabeth Strong based on material from Eddy’s Universalism in America.

Two ironic tales of Universalists

By later in the 19th century Universalists had overcome much of the prejudice against them, and some had attained a measure of worldly success. The Quaker Oats company, for example, should have been called the Universalist Oats, for it was started by Ferdinand Schumacher, an Akron, Ohio, Universalist who got rich selling oatmeal to the Union army during the Civil War. Schumacher, an ardent temperance worker, favored not only temperance but outright abstinence. When the Second Universalist Church of Akron was built, across from the Quaker factory, Schumacher gave a large sum to build, as part of the church, a Temperance Hall, which was used for things like parties—nonalcoholic parties.

Temperance, of course, is not in particular favor these days. The Quaker Oats factory has now been transformed into a shopping center and a hotel—the Akron Hilton, which occupies the factory's grain elevators—and once the hotel was in operation, management saw the need to put in a bar. In a misguided show of respect for the past, they named this new establishment "Schumacher's."

—told by the Rev. Gordon B. McKeeman

The American Universalists' only miracle story is also the story of the denomination’s founding. It starts in 1770 in England. John Murray was depressed, almost a broken man. Through his readings he's arrived at a Universalist theology and embarked on a career as a minister, but few people joined his flock. On top of that, his wife had died and he had to serve a short term in debtors' jail when he couldn't pay her doctor bills. On his release from the jail, he resolved to start life afresh in the New World—and never to preach again. But fate or—as Murray would later see it—Divine Providence intervened. The ship on which he set sail ran aground on a sand bar off the New Jersey coast. Not wanting to lose a crew member if the ship broke loose again, the captain chose Murray to go ashore.

There, Murray stumbled on one Thomas Potter, a well-to-do but illiterate farmer who himself had arrived at a Universalist theological position 20 or more years earlier. Potter had built a chapel, and for those 20-odd years, he had been waiting for a preacher to arrive and preach Universalism there. Seeing Murray as the man he had long been waiting for, he prevailed upon the new arrival to preach the following Sunday, it then being Friday.

Reluctantly, Murray agreed, providing the ship did not break loose before Sunday—and then he paced and paced the floor. He must have kept looking out the window, seeing the ship still there and saying, "I don't want to preach. I promised I would never preach again." Saturday afternoon, the ship was still there. He decided to prepare a few remarks. He still hoped the ship would break loose, of course, but on Sunday morning, it was still aground.

And so he did preach, and the experience changed his life. From then on he preached Universalism, and a few years later, he founded the first Universalist church in North America, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. And from his first reluctant sermon, Universalism grew, until at its height in the late 19th century it was the sixth largest denomination in the country.

—told by the Rev. Elizabeth Strong, who adapted it from the Rev. Christopher Raible’s keynote address to the 1982 New York State Convention of Universalists.

A short bibliography of works on Universalism

Russell E. Miller. The Larger Hope. Two volumes. Boston: UUA, 1979. The definitive history of the Universalist Movement.

Charles A. Howe. The Larger Faith. Boston: Skinner House, 1993. A shorter history of the movement, based on Russell Miller’s book and other sources.

[Ann Lee Bressler. The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. A new interpretation of early Universalism's radical critique of individualism. Added 2.20.06.]

Stephen A. Marini. Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982. Early Universalists, Shakers, and others examined from the standpoint of social class and politics and against the backdrop of the American Revolution.

Carl Sandburg. Ever the Winds of Chance. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1983. Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Sandburg’s account of his days at Universalist-founded Lombard College.

Charles A. Howe, editor. "Not Hell, But Hope": The John Murray Distinguished Lectures, 1987-1991. Lanoka Harbor, NJ: Murray Grove Association, 1991. Transcripts of lectures on important Universalists.

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