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The first regular preacher in America of the distinctive doctrines of Universalism was Rev. John Murray, a disciple of James Relly, who had gathered a congregation of Universalists in London. The names of a number of ministers of different denominations are included in the list of those who held or published Universalist views before Murray arrived from England in 1770. Among these was Dr. George de Benneville, of Pennsylvania. Mr. Murray preached at various places, settling at Gloucester, Mass., in 1774, and at Boston in 1793. By him and a few others a number of Universalist churches were established. At the close of the eighteenth century there were about a score of Universalist ministers.
The Rev. Hosea Ballou, whose name is honored as the father of Universalism in its present form, became prominent in the movement at the beginning of the present century. His views differed radically from those of Mr. Murray. In a “Treatise on Atonement," published in 1795, he denied the doctrine of the vicarious sacrifice, and insisted that punishment for the sins of mortality is confined to this life. If there were any punishment in the future life it would be, he contended, for sins committed in that life. Some years later he expressed the belief that there is no sin beyond the grave and consequently no punishment. Mr. Murray had held that Christ himself bore the punishment due the sins of mankind, and therefore there would be no further punishment. Of the early Universalists, Murray had been a Methodist, Winchester and Ballou Baptists.
There being quite a number of Universalists who held, contrary to the views of Mr. Ballou, to a limited future punishment, a division occurred in 1830, and an association was organized in the interests of the doctrine of restoration. This association existed for about eleven years and then became extinct; some of its preachers returning to the Universalist denomination, others becoming Unitarians. The Restorationists held that there would be a future retribution, but that God would, in his own time, "restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness."
The symbol of the Universalist faith is the Winchester “Profession of Belief,” which was adopted in 1803 by the New England Convention, held in Winchester, N. H. It is as follows:
“ARTICLE 1. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind.
"ARTICLE 2. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
“ARTICLE 3. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men."
This profession of belief has remained unaltered since it was formulated. It is regarded as a sufficient general declaration of the fundamental doctrine of Universalists for the purpose of fellowship. A more particular knowledge of their general belief may be gathered from the utterances of leading Universalist writers.
Universalists believe that God is not only almighty, allwise, and omniscient, but that he is perfectly holy. As a holy God he is hostile to sin. He forbade it at the first, has never consented to it, and can never be reconciled to it.
His power, wisdom, goodness, and holiness are all pledges that there “shall be an end of it in the moral universe," and that "universal righteousness” shall be established. Sin is to be ended through the conversion and salvation of all sinners, who are to come ultimately into holiness and perfection. This is to be done by Jesus Christ, whose function it is to bring man into harmony with God. In Christ God has set forth in a single human life his great scheme of reconciliation. There was perfect harmony between this life and God; and Christ, the derived from the underived, most intimately shared the nature of God and represents him to man in complete fullness. There is no shadow of variance between Christ and God. Christ's work in the world is to bring men to light and strengthen the will in resolution against sin. He helps to overcome and destroy sin in the individual soul. Salvation is not from the demands of justice, nor from punishment, endless or otherwise. The demands of justice must be met, the consequences of sin cannot be avoided. It is the bondage of present sin from which salvation is necessary. Salvation is not exemption from the consequences of sin, but redemption from the disposition to sin; also from imperfection. Beginning with repentance and receiving God's forgiveness for past sins, the soul must put off the old man with all his sins and put on the new man created in God's likeness. Punishment is a necessary penalty for violated law. Divine punishment is “not the manifestation of hatred but the sign and instrument of love.” The punishment of sin is its inevitable consequences—"the wounds, the damage, the shame which sin impresses " upon the individual consciousness. It is wholly within the soul.
The purpose of punishment is to deter from sin and to recover from sin. It is therefore beneficent, whence it follows that it cannot be endless, for endless punishment would be vindictive and not beneficent. The soul is immortal. It survives death and enters upon the disembodied state in the same condition in which it quits the embodied. If it has been "dwarfed” in the present life "by neglect," or "weakened” by abuse, or "corrupted” by sin, then dwarfed, weakened, corrupt, it must enter the next life. Disciplinary processes will be continued in that life, and the soul that goes into it unrepentant must suffer the “thraldom or retribution” until the "will consents to the divine order." Even the penitent will be subject to “such discipline and chastening experiences as contribute to moral progress.”
These are not to be taken as authoritative expressions of denominational belief. The Winchester Profession is the only acknowledged symbol. They simply represent the current teaching of the Universalist ministry. Probably some Universalists would differ from them in some respects.
The Universalist system of government is a modified Presbyterianism. The parish manages its own financial and general interests, and calls or dismisses a pastor; but it" acknowledges allegiance both to the State and general conventions, and is bound to observe the laws they enact." No State conventions can be formed “ without a constituency of at least four parishes.” Such conventions exercise authority in their own territory under rules and limitations prescribed by the general convention. They are composed of all Universalist ministers in fellowship, and of lay delegates from the parishes. They meet every year.
The general convention, which is held in October biennially, consists of clerical and lay delegates from each State convention, in the proportion of one of the former to two of the latter. Every convention is entitled to send at least one clerical and two lay delegates. If it has fifty parishes and clergymen it can send twice as many delegates, with an additional three for every additional twenty-five parishes and clergymen. The general convention " exercises ecclesiastical authority throughout the United States and Canada. It is the court of final appeal in cases of dispute between State conventions, and in all cases of discipline not provided for and settled by subordinate bodies," and has original jurisdiction in States and Territories where subordinate conventions have not been organized. The general convention is an incorporated body and controls various denominational funds. Ministers are ordained by councils, consisting of ten ordained ministers and lay delegates from ten parishes, called by the parish desiring the ordination, with the consent of the convention (State) committee on fellowship, ordination, and discipline. There are also licentiates, both of the clerical and lay order.
Among the usages of the church is the observance of the second Sunday in June as “Children's Sunday." The churches are decorated with flowers and children are baptized. Christmas and Easter are generally observed, and a Sunday in October is set apart for services in memory of