Ballou v Channing

May 25, 2009

From “The Universalist movement in America, 1770-1880” by Ann Lee Bressler pp 4-7, arguing that “Channing’s disdain for those of humble backgound cannot completely explain his lack of collegiality, indeed of civility, toward a neighbouring minster [Ballou] whose doctrinal criticism … often mirrored his own”:

John White Chadwick … maintained in his 1903 biography of Channing that the [Ballou’s] Treatise [on Atonement] “anticipated the full-grown expression of Channing’s thonght on all its principal lines.” Chadwick’s subtly condescending assertion, issued long after the Unitarians and Universalists had grown cozy, reflects a view about the relationship between the early histories of the two movements that remains prevalent nearly a century later. Unfortunately, it is based on a fundamental misreading of the Treatise. While many of the major ideas and arguments in the two works are strikingly similar, the central thrust of the Baltimore sermon differs greatly from that of Ballou’s Treatise.

One commentator has observed that, in Channing’s thought, we can see a “vast reversal in the orientation of the New England mind since the time of [Jonathan] Edwards,” even “the triumph of Edwards’s opponents.” Channing valued the gospel for its “aids,” “motives,” and “excitements” to a “generous and divine virtue” and insisted that virtue could not be “infused into us without our own moral activity.” It was in the human ability to oppose nature and history, not in human openness to God, that Channing saw the beauty of man. As Ballou’s biographer, Ernest Cassara, has pointed out, Channing’s Arminianism was directly opposed to Ballou’s belief. The keynote of Ballou’s message was the power of God’s love in the face of human sinfulness and apparent intransigence. Man “experimentally becomes a child of God,” and “by the spirit of the word, the soul is brought into sweet communion with God.” In this key respect, Ballou remained closer to Edwards than to Edwards’s opponents.

Indeed, the disagreement between Channing and Ballon continued in important respects a conflict that bad originated between Jonathan Edwards and the liberal clergy of Boston. Figures like Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauney had developed what Henry May has called “a post-Calvinist adaptation of the Moderate English Enlightenment” They held at more than arm’s length the sort of intense concern with human sinfulness and the fate of souls that flared during the Great Awakening.

Channing was clearly an exponent of the outlook they had nurtured. Ultimately, he sought to furnish the rational structure for a religion of moral self-culture. For Channing, after all, virtue was rooted in human moral nature, with its likeness to God. Andrew Delbanco has written that Channing’s conception of virtue “as a property of individual insularity” made him uncomfortable with the “communitarian metaphysics of Edwards, who always conceived of virtue in terms of relation.”

We can see the basic incompatibility between Channing and Ballou when we recognize that Ballou’s vision was essentially communitarian as well. Indeed, Ballou’s understanding of the power of the doctrine of universal salvation is reminiscent of Edwards’s expression of true virtue:

In pure love to others i.e., love not arising from self-love, there is a union of the heart with others; a kind of enlargement of the mind, whereby it so extends itself as to take others into a man’s self: and therefore it implies a disposition to feel, to desire, and to act as though others were one with ourselves.

Ballou held that the heartfelt belief in universal salvation induced people to rise above the “natural moral sense,” to act out of a higher and less purely selfish virtue. Faith in universal salvation severely discouraged the elevation of individual virtue as it celebrated the organic purpose and will of God.

In the end, Ballou and Channing thus directed reason to very different purposes; Ballou put it in the service of fervent evangelical piety, while Channing used it to illuminate an urbane moralism. Channing’s refusal to recognize Ballou, then, was probably far more than the snubbing of one who held a lower social station; it was also an expression of distaste for the broad implications of Ballou’s teachings. Ballou had, in an important way, appropriated the legacy of Edwards, while Channing was socially and intellectually descended from his opponents. Imbuing the organic, egalitarian piety of Edwards with a heavy dose of Enlightenment rationality, Ballou challenged an Arminian individualism that implicitly reinforced a sense of social hierarchy. Intellectually as well as socially, this preacher from the hill country made William Ellery Channing uneasy.

It is obvious which of those visions won. I wonder what was lost, though, in the victory?


Simple and Intelligible Redux

September 24, 2007

A while ago, I (mis)used an academic paper online at the Unitarian Christian Colloqium by Andrew Brown from the beautiful Cambridge Unitarian called ‘God, Jesus, Christ & Holy Spirit’ as a starting point for some comments of mine on the need for a simple and intelligible presentation of liberal faith. Andrew was nice enough to leave an excellent comment, which is worth highlighting:

[…] I think it is right to point out that liberal Christianity should be simple – at least in its everyday practice (whether in prayer or in social action). However, this does not mean we need to be simple minded when we reflect upon our faith. I think it is vital to explore how sound, intellectually and philosophically, liberal Christianity is. Liberal Christians got caught out after the First World War simply because many of them simply hadn’t done enough hard thinking and it left the door open for people like Karl Barth to set the theological agenda for the rest of the century (and beyond). Let’s not get caught out again. I don’t claim for one minute my own theology is good and sound enough to do the job but I am keen to encourage us all to think as deeply as we can. In between times as a regular kind of pastor I try to practice Christianity in its most simple and intelligble terms just by following the example of Jesus.

The older types of liberal protestantism, such as the Universalists’, with their belief in the perfectability of human society (one 1935 creed endorsing “the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God”) were plainly inadequate in the face of the first half of the 20C – failing Rabbi Greenberg’s post-Shoah test that we should make no theological statement that could not be made in the presence of burning children.

We certainly should not forget that lesson.

So hard thinking is certainly needed. And clear words, too.

I haven’t checked these people out yet (beyond a quick scan of their website) so I’m not in any way endorsing them, but I thought I would highlight a post made by Eric Stetson:

I am in the process of organizing an ecumenical organization called the Universalist Churches Association. This will be a community of faith (churches, ministries, and individuals) representing and proclaiming a coherent theological Christian Universalism. We are essentially trying to resurrect the Universalist Church of America in a new form.

This organization is brand new — it was founded in January 2007. Several Christian Universalist ministers, evangelists, authors and scholars from a diversity of traditions have already gotten involved. Rev. Kalen Fristad, a Methodist minister, traveling evangelist, and author of the book “Destined For Salvation,” is chairman of our board of directors.

This is going to be a very serious, significant organization uniting Universalist Christians — or at least we hope and expect that this will prove to be the case, God willing.

Visit our website:

If you like what we are doing, please spread the word!

Eric Stetson
Executive Director,
The Universalist Churches Association

They have an online Statement of Belief, which seems to be freshly written (and somewhat longer than Winchester).  

I would be interested in the comments of anyone who has come across this group and knows who they are, what theological approach lies beneath their beliefs and so on.

One of the interesting things about blogs is when people find your blogs from search engines, you can see what they were searching for when they found you.

Someone came across this site using the improbable search term “Universalist Church in Scotland” (I’ve had a lot of searches lately for variations of “Carlton Pearson Homosexual” too. Don’t know what’s going on there)

Universalist Church in Scotland? Sounds like a denominational name (the ‘in’ rather than ‘of’ is interesting – compare the Uniting Church in Australia vs. United Church of Canada)

So, are we looking for an outpost of UUism, a mistaken search, or something strange?

I did my own search.

And I eventually found record of a Universalist Church in the town of Scotland, Windham County, Connecticut:

During the decade from 1840 to 1850 a flash of Universalist sentiment appears to have run through the churches in this part of Connecticut. A church of that order was organized in this neighborhood, and in 1843 a meeting house was built. This flourished fairly well for a few years under the ministrations of Reverend H. Slade, but its active life was short, and it has long since become a thing of the past.

So there you are.

Well, not quite.

There is also this woman, a reference to Glasgow Universalists and a Scottish Universalist Convention and these universalists turned unitarians turned humanists turned undefinablemishmasians (where have I seen that before?). But I can’t find more info about it online. The UUA site is broad but shallow – get this stuff online, people! If it is not online it may as well not exist.

OK, this is a little provocative, maybe.

The protestant Christian denomination later known as the Universalist Church of America was founded, according to Wikipedia, in the 1790s as the Universalist General Convention, a coming together of universalist congregations.

(btw, someone with knowledge in this area really should rewrite that Wikipedia article – it’s pretty useless)

As far as I can see, the early Universalists were undeniably Christian, with unitarian ideas floating around but not the focus. They appear to have grown especially in areas where the competing local religious bodies were not afraid to preach that some would be damned to hell. I have no real idea how big they got at their maximum, there are too many competing numbers out there on the web, many of which seem suspiciously large.

I have found this post which lists a number of creeds that were written over the decades (some of these are Unitarian). These people liked creeds – but seem to have deliberately written them to be short and inclusive. Compare and contrast with the Westminster Confession, for example.

There are a number of changes in these creeds – it looks to me as if the influences of Unitarianism were gradually seeping into the UCA. (Aside: the early Unitarian creeds are laughable today; from 1865: “The continuity of human development in all worlds, or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever”? That sort of naive modernism was beaten up fairly badly in the 20C).

By 1935 the Universalists seem to me to be clearly in trouble – they believe “In the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God.” This is the Unitarian ‘salvation by our own efforts and good character’ not the earlier universalist ‘salvation by the grace of God’. If we have to save ourselves, it becomes less and less credible to say that we will all succeed in that task. This 1935 creed is also the last with the word “Jesus” in it – and the last with the word ‘love’.

So what went wrong?

Hello UConvo

July 15, 2006

Several people have been reading my blog from the Yahoo Group UConvo · Universalist Convocation, which describes itself as:

This is the mailing list of the Universalist Convocation –
while sanctioned,this is not an offical list for messages from the Universalist Convocation, but a “chat” list for folks with Universalist Convocation concerns and topics.

Hello and welcome! Who are you? What do you do?

Scott Wells at Boy in the Bands says, in part “But this goes to the point that, though exiting the fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association, I’ll still be a Universalist. Or a universalist. Not sure which, yet.”

I was going to reply at his site, but this comment sort of grew.

Having grown up in a liberal Christian tradition which assumed universal salvation without ever formally describing it in terms of a realised theology, I have found the existence of a denomination of Universalists (even if defunct) fascinating and I would hate for that tradition to be lost.

I am increasingly seeing a difference between “I hope God won’t send anyone to hell” and “I believe God will save all”, and to hold to the second in the face of the hostility and laughter of both most Christians and most secular agnostics there needs to be a clear witness and support available.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that the Universalist tradition shouldn’t be allowed to be forgotten because it is the only example I know of universalist theology being proclaimed by a group and not just individual theologians or individual believers in the silence of their own hearts.

Speaking from a place with little to no effective UU presence (I am the only person I know who knows what the UU is and that there is a UU church in my city, and only because I came across American UU bloggers) it seems clear to me that the Universalist tradition is not being upheld by the UU.

The UU does not speak, as far as I can tell, with a common voice on any matter; but even the UU Christian Fellowship do not proclaim the central Universalist message; that although we are imperfect yet we have been saved.

I know of universalist ministers in the Anglican church, in the (Australian) Uniting Church, in pentecostal churches and in the UU. This is good; but their witness is limited by history and organisational structure. Better a Universalist minister than another universalist one.