The Common Good: What’s In It For Me?

Reverend Furrer doing what he can to unpack the kernel of Universalism.

“The Common Good: What’s In It for Me?”

I want to talk about early Universalism, which came to North America in the mid-1700s. To get a little perspective, let us begin by considering what else was going on at that time. In France, Louis XV was holding court in the opulent Versailles Palace; the expanding bourgeoisie were rising in economic and social importance, though they had no voice in politics. Teenager James Watt, was still a couple of decades from inventing the steam engine, Japan was shrouded in mystery, as was central Africa. Indeed, great portions of the globe remained unmapped. In New Mexico, a fragile stability—following decades of discord—prevailed. The Pueblo Revolt [1680-92] expelled the Spanish for a time, but it was clear that the Spanish were here to stay. Meanwhile, Spanish metals, horses, and firearms were quickly spreading north, rapidly transforming the economies of the whole continent. When Europeans arrived in this area they found complex hunting and fishing societies with large villages filled with many houses, diversity of culture, and intricate systems of trade and social rank.

Religious toleration, such as we know it today, was virtually unknown anywhere in the world, with the notable exception was Pennsylvania. The promise of religious freedom drew many German pietists to the colony practicing what, to their contemporaries, were seen as offbeat, mystical sects: Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, and Universalists.

Dr. George de Benneville, after a harrowing life and several near-death experiences, came to the Delaware Valley in the early 1740s. For fifty years, he practiced medicine and—very gently—preached. Small meetings. No revivals. All are saved. God is love.

He paved the way for others, many of whose names are forgotten; some, however, like Thomas Potter, are remembered. Potter attended de Benneville’s services as a young man, then moved to the Jersey Shore, cleared land, and began farming. He built a chapel on the premonition that, eventually, the right preacher would come and start a church.

In England, meanwhile, a young man named John Murray, after listening to, reading, and trying to resist the arguments of the Universalist James Relly, threw in the towel and became a Universalist himself. He became convinced, he wrote, by Relly’s appeal to scripture. Thereafter, Murray believed that the death of Christ had in fact atoned for all human sin and made universal salvation not only possible but a foregone fact. After a series of personal tragedies, including his arrest for debt and the deaths of both his wife and son, Murray vowed to quit preaching heresy and sailed for America. His ship floundered off Good Luck Bay, New Jersey. The crew sent a delegation ashore, including Murray, to gather provisions. There they ran into Thomas Potter who before long recognized Murray as the preacher he had been waiting for. A deal was struck. Potter would feed the crew and passengers free of charge, provided Murray agreed to preach the following Sunday, “if the wind doesn’t change.” Within a few years John Murray had founded the first Universalist church in America. He was also Chaplain to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

George de Benneville also paved the way for Elhanan Winchester, for early anti-slavery activists, and for Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and friend to Jefferson and Franklin. De Benneville, Winchester, Rush, and Murray: these people were very much theists and Christians, but they were not Calvinists. Briefly, they believed that the God revealed in the forgiving, enemy-loving Jesus was totally incompatible with the idea of eternal torment. In short: they did not believe in hell.

They believed in and practiced their faith within an overarching Christian paradigm, but with their own slant—that ultimately everyone would be saved, not just the “elect,” not only those “who accepted Jesus,” but everybody, infidels and profligates among them; slaves and foreigners, homosexuals and the disabled, Christians and Comanches, everyone is included. Treat your brother—or sibling—as yourself, proclaimed Dr. Rush, because at the deepest level, they are yourself.

On a warm autumn night, many years ago, I was visiting a friend living in Bucks County, home of George de Benneville and not far from Benjamin Rush’s hometown, Philadelphia. There was a full moon. We lay down on the grass and looked up at it through the trees. I remember because I saw something completely unexpected: instead of a moon against the night sky, I perceived the scene in an entirely different way: as a hole in the sky, through the firmament into a realm of wonder and mystery beyond.

So too, said George de Benneville, Benjamin Rush and the other early Universalists, so too is our everyday life. Sitting here across from one another, we are accustomed to think of what we see as looking “out” across the void to “others.” Not so, said they; we are actually looking “in” to our soul. These others, our brothers and sisters and siblings with whom we share the breath of life, they are but aspects of ourselves on whom we project—sometimes negative, sometimes positive—attributes. But they and we are one; one in love and one in heart. When a person fully sees this, she or he will never wish to exploit others again, but only serve them, and the common spirit we share….

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Now: the common good—What’s in it for me? As I said earlier, today I want to focus on our Universalist connection.  East Shore Church was founded as a Unitarian fellowship in 1950—eleven years before the Unitarians and Universalists merged. And unlike most congregations within our association, ESUC never chose to integrate “Universalist” into its name. So it’s not too surprising that there is less awareness with regard to that half of our UU tradition. Let me begin by pointing out the biggest difference, historically, between the Unitarians and the Universalists was one of style.

          Unitarians:  Establishment churches; popular on the frontier

                             Well-educated clergy

          Universalists:        Came out of the Baptist tradition

                             Less “book learnin’”

                             Clergy often “called by the spirit”

                             Preached extemporaneously

What was their message?

Universal Salvation

Romans 5:18                   Ephesians 1:3-10

God is too loving to damn people to everlasting torment

In its early years, Universalism was still Trinitarian, and essentially conservative, but with an ultimate optimism (“In the larger hope”)

Hosea Ballou  —  early to mid 1800s

A Treatise on Atonement

Atonement = at-onement

Jesus’ sacrifice has nothing to do with ransoming a sinful humanity

At-onement is here, now. What Jesus’ sacrifice did do was clear the deck:

                             We do not have to earn salvation

                             It has been granted. It’s free. Just wake up.

Ballou was a country preacher, with little formal education. He was born and raised on the New Hampshire frontier and from a Baptist background. He encouraged being “good for nothing,” i.e., not for future reward, but for the way it opens one up, frees them to be present in the present moment.    1 Cor 13      St. Paul’s Hymn of Love. God is love.

There’s a story about Hosea Ballou and an orthodox Calvinist preacher meeting up on horseback while riding to a shared destination. Before long, as preachers are wont to do, they began talking about theology. “If what you say is true,” the Calvinist exclaimed, “and there’s no hell, what is to prevent me from knocking you off your horse, taking your purse, and running off?” To which Ballou replied, “But if you were a Universalist, it would never occur to you to do such a thing.”

Such theology led to imaginative, this-world oriented and forward-looking congregations, and inspired many social activists like Clara Barton, Olympia Brown, and Thomas Starr King. (TSK’s description: “The Universalists think God is just too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe they’re too good to be damned.”) Moreover, the Universalism was successful, growing rapidly until, by the 1880s, it was the sixth largest denomination in America. Mainline Christianity took note and began dropping the fire and brimstone, becoming “easier to take” in the process. While simultaneously, Universalism became tougher: ethical and demanding, as exemplified by the likes of Clarence Skinner.

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Clarence Russell Skinner (1881-1949)

          Founded the Community Church of Boston

          Pacifist during WWI

          Dean of Tufts [Crane] Theological School

Skinner preached about “beloved community,” a term he borrowed from Josiah Royce: sort of a social mysticism, such as later feminist and liberation theologians would make popular in our day and age. Under Skinner and his early 20th century allies, Universalists also became more universalistic; i.e., Trans-Christian, or more than only Christian. They adopted the “off center” Cross as their major symbol—explicitly recognizing their historic connection to Christianity, while implicitly affirming that other faith traditions reflect religious truth, too.

The idea that all roads lead to equally valid insights has always been a part of liberal theology. From the earliest days of the Reformation proto-Unitarian Universalists like Jacob Palaeologus [1520-85, De tribus gentibus (1572)] and Michael Servetus [1509?-53, On the Errors of the Trinity (1531)] pleaded for inter-faith dialogue with both Judaism and Islam. For this, both were burned at the stake for ‘heresy,’ Palaeologus by the Catholics of the Inquisition in Rome, Servetus by John Calvin (the original Calvinist) in Geneva. The idea that Christianity is not somehow a superior revelation has always been the most radical idea in our tradition. We believe that, bottom line, all the world’s faith traditions say basically the same thing: learn how to love. That’s what we’re here for.

The old time Universalists were not much on fancy theology, book learnin’, and so on. However, they were very loving communities. By the 20th century, they had embraced modernism. They founded many colleges and universities, including Cal Tech, Saint Lawrence University, the University of Akron, Tufts, and others. Theologically (from Ballou onward) they were Unitarian, but as a practical matter, they elevated the heart above the head. Essentially, the Universalists came to realize that our truest identity is in community; that the heart of hearts is a better guide than the ego; and that egoism, as a rule, only leads to heartbreak.

Concerning the Common Good and what’s in it for me, they said: everything. Learn to live in community; learn to live in healthy relationship with others; learn how to love. For therein lies your redemption, your joy, and your happiness.               So may it Be.               Amen.