The Other Half: The Universalist Tradition

An address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, September 20, 2009

The Universalists and the Melbourne Unitarian Church.

The Melbourne Unitarian Church is a direct descendant of the British Unitarians and the various Free Christian churches. As such we are largely unfamiliar with the latter part of our North American allies, the Unitarian-Universalists. They seem, to an extent, somewhat of an alien 'other'. I cannot help but think that when universalism is raised there is a slight cringe at the possibility of yet another item of American culture being introduced to the Australian vernacular. At the same time there the Brisbane and Canberra Unitarian fellowships now wear the Universalist appellation and of course, our regional association has recently changed its name to the Australia New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association. Others may quietly expressed some concern at an evangelical and charismatic tradition within American universalism, as we Unitarians have often shied from vigorous proselytism; one discovers Unitarianism by accident. In one sense that does mean that nobody joins us until they are ready; but it also has the disadvantage that many may share our beliefs and yet never know of our existence. Perhaps we could take at least a partial lesson from the Universalists in terms of public promotion.

Most of this address will be about describing the American Universalists; who they were, what they stood for, the actions of their most important leaders. It is hoped that this will serve to provide a greater sense of familiarity with this related and important tradition that ought to be embraced within these walls. In addition to this there will be some discussion of similar theological doctrines in other religions, appropriate of course given an increasingly multicultural and globalised world, and to conclude a preliminary sketch on how a modern and secular form of Universalism can be promoted.

Universalism and The American Universalists

The main theological principle of Universalism is universal salvation. They reject the idea that an all-loving God would send a person to eternal damnation. Apart from backing in Scripture, they lay claim to a Christian lineage which includes the early Christian theologian Origen, a person of interest to Unitarians as well for his concepts of allegorical rather than literal interpretation of Biblical miracles and a hierarchical approach to the trinity. Gregory of Nyssa also, following Origen, argued for universal salvation and was the first to mark the concept of infinity in a theological sense. Gregory argued that individuals can aspire through constant spiritual progress towards salvation. With variations, universalism was the most commonly held view in early Christianity: In the first centuries, there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality, and one (Rome) taught the endless punishment of the lost.

American Universalism developed from the influence of continental European and especially German Protestant movements, such as the Anabaptists, the Quakers, the Moravians, Methodists and others. Like the Unitarians, Universalist congregations were highly independent but nevertheless would hold national conventions for the General Society of Universalists, starting in 1778. They also managed to found three divinity schools; the Theological School of St. Lawrence University, the Crane School of Theology and the still operating Ryder Divinity School. Tufts University was established by the Universalist Church in 1852. The university is home to the nation's oldest graduate school of international relations, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The University today, thanks to some rather impressive acquisitions in the 1970s and some significant endowments in the past decade, has three campuses in Boston and one in southern France.

Perhaps even more so than the Unitarians, the Universalists were highly involved in liberal social movements. Benjamin Rush, a senior figure in the early days of Universalism and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, was very involved in the most early campaigns in the United States to abolish slavery forming the "Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage," the first antislavery society in America. In later times there would be some come conflict between Unitarians and Universalists, with some Unitarians supporting the Fugitive Slave Act established by American Unitarian President Millard Filmore, which was strongly opposed by most Universalists.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, it must also be mentioned, also advocated the abolition of the death penalty, better education for women, free public schools, and was one of the earliest to engage in formal research and treatment mental illness, and was insistent that they had the right to dignity. He was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. A physician by profession, he became professor of medical theory and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania and also founded the Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. During his career, he educated over 3000 medical students, and several of these established Rush Medical College in Chicago in his honor after his death. He published the first American textbook on chemistry, was active in the Sons of Liberty and assisted Thomas Paine when he wrote his famous pamphlet, Common Sense.

From the outset, the Universalists were supporters of the free practise of religion and the separation of Church and State. One particularly celebrated case occurred in Massachusetts in the 1770s, where by state law citizens were taxed to support the local Congregational Church. Some three-score individuals left the church and formed their own, universalist, Independent Church of Christ - and then refused to pay their taxes! Following seizure by the government, the Church sued and eventually one their case.

On a related subject the Universalist theologian Abner Kneeland held a variety of very public radical views which would eventually cause him to become the last man jailed in the United States for blasphemy in 1838, albeit this was after he rejected even the Universalist interpretation of the Christian God in favour of engaging in naturalistic and pantheistic speculation. Socially, Kneeland argued for equal treatment for all people, even when Scripture seemed to indicate otherwise. He supported divorce rights for women, birth control, for married woman keeping their own names and property, and refused to condemn interracial marriage.

As a whole, the Universalists were early supporters for the rights of women. On June 25, 1863, Olympia Brown became the first woman in the United States to receive ordination in a national denomination. By 1920, there were 88 Universalist women ministers, making them the the largest group of their kind in the United States. The aforementioned Tufts University proclaimed in the late nineteenth century that men and women would be subject to the same entrance conditions.

Another woman of great repute from the Universalist tradition in America include Clara Barton, a leading teacher and nurse, and organiser of the Red Cross. Her claim to fame rose during the American Civil War where she managed to convince the U.S. Army bureaucracy that she be allowed to bring her own medical supplies to the battlefield, serving during the Siege of Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. Later she was appointed as the "lady in charge" of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James and as the war ended, President Lincoln placed her in charge of the search for the missing men of the Union Army. After the war she began public lectures on her experiences, and met Unitarian and women's right advocate Susan B. Anthony leader her to begin a long association with the suffrage movement. She also became acquainted with Frederick Douglass and became an activist for "black" civil rights. While supposedly on restful leave in Europe, she became involved with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its humanitarian work during the Franco-Prussian War and on her return she begin to advocate for recognition for the International Committee of the Red Cross by the United States government. Barton eventually became President of the American branch in 1881. There are over twenty places named after her.

Mention must also be made of the involvement and sympathy of many Universalists in Spiritualism. Although with contemporary wisdom we may recreate an image of duplicitous mediums taking advantage of distressed individuals for financial gain, in the early decades of the practise it was strongly tied to religious rather the commercial endeavours, was for somewhat different outcomes. Until the late nineteenth century the primarily religious belief was that spirits of the dead could be contacted through gifted or trained mediums through séances, most often by women. Indeed, the popularity of Spiritualism was one of the few opportunities for women to speak to public audiences at the time. The movement was also very strongly associated with reformist politics at the time. Spiritualists were almost entirely practical advocates for the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage and many progressive supported it. Although we may readily laugh at such attitude, and would rightly consider it risible if seriously argued today, it is far better to consider it its historical context, as a precursor to a psychotherapy for the bereaved, rather like how the related discipline of mesmerism became hypnosis.

In 1866 there was a slight name change to the Universalist General Convention, and in 1942 to the Universalist Church of America in 1942. In 1961, it merged with the American Unitarian Association to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. At the time, and oft repeated is the quip of Thomas Starr King, who pastor of the San Francisco Unitarian Church at the beginning of the civil war: "The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!"

Universalism in Other Religions and Future, Secular, Development

There is universalist traditions in other religions, although they are sometimes a little difficult to discern. There is strong universalist elements in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. Very recently a Universalist Zoroastrian group, Ohrmazd Mandal has been started by Michele Moramarco, an Italian scholar and fine artist with long-standing connections with British Unitarianism and American Universalism. The dharmic religions of Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism all certainly argue in favour of spiritual universalism, usually through a form by transcending desire, controlling one's passions, and overcoming materialist attachments.

Deriving from this approach one can see a a particular emphasis, what is called soteriology, the study of religious doctrines of salvation. In orthodox Christianity this can be via adherence to scripture, through profession of faith, through the grace of God and so forth. Another tradition, common to both universalist and unitarian history (and, it must be mentioned, sometimes both with the the Bahá'í faith and Daoism) is one which can concur with contemporary mores; salvation through deeds. This is a genuine path for individual and collective salvation in a modern and secular sense and one which can draw upon the various religious sources of the past.

In this sense, salvation means confronting the very real and very practical problems of our day; it means ending the evils of mass hunger, ill-health and other forms of impoverishment, it means ending the violence of war and conflicts between and within nations, it means ending the callous disregard for the natural world and the living creatures within it, it means ending the inequalities within the laws of our lands, it means ending the incapacity of all of us to transcend our deeply ingrained individual prejudices to develop instead deeply considered convictions, it means ending everything that prevents the application of the universal moral principles which recognise the rights of autonomy and freedom of individuals and the commonwealth of Providence is antithetical to the achievement of universal salvation.

The theological Universalists of yesteryear, argued with an absolute morality and did indeed give a particular emphasis to those parts of Christian Scripture which argued that God is all-loving as opposed to those which suggested a violent patriarch of vengeance. The theological Unitarians of yesteryear argued from the same, giving an emphasis of the humanity within Jesus rather than the suggestion that he was a God capable of supernatural magic. It is not unfair to say that the merger between the Unitarians and Universalists was in many ways the inevitable meeting of a rationalist tradition and a humanist tradition. That it did so in modern and secular times poses a new and appropriate challenge where the insights and wisdom of the past can provide motivation for the future. Humanism and rationalism, together, means harnessing the world's resources and knowledge for the practical and immediate task of improving the lot of all people - those are the deeds that are required for universal salvation. If we take this path, the building of a heaven on earth if you will, then we can, and should, call ourselves Universalists as well as Unitarians.