Universalism is the theological doctrine that all souls will ultimately be saved and that there are no torments of hell. Universalism has been asserted at various times in different contexts throughout the history of the Christian church, as for example by Origen in the 3d century.
As an organized religious movement, however, universalism dates from the late 1700s in America, where its early leaders were Hosea Ballou, John Murray, and Elhanan Winchester. As a form of religious liberalism, it has had close contacts with Unitarianism throughout its history. The Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association merged in 1961 to form a single denomination - the Unitarian Universalist Association - which currently has about 173,000 members.
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Universalism is a belief which affirms that in the fullness of time all souls will be released from the penalties of sin and restored to God. Historically known as apokatastasis, final salvation denies the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment and is based on a faculty reading of Acts 3:21; Rom. 5:18 - 19; Eph. 1:9 - 10; 1 Cor. 15:22; and other passages. Belief in universal salvation is at least as old as Christianity itself and may be associated with early Gnostic teachers. The first clearly universalist writings, however, date from the Greek church fathers, most notably Clement of Alexandria, his student Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. Of these, the teachings of Origen, who believed that even the devil might eventually be saved, were the most influential. Numerous supporters of final salvation were to be found in the postapostolic church, although it was strongly opposed by Augustine of Hippo. Origen's theology was at length declared heretical at the fifth ecumenical council in 553.
In Western Europe universalism almost completely disappeared during the Middle Ages, save for the Irish scholar John Scotus Erigena and some of the lesser - known mystics. Following Augustine, the Protestant Reformers Luther and Calvin also rejected final salvation. Some spiritualist and Anabaptist writers of the Radical Reformation, however, revived the doctrine. In the sixteenth century it was embraced by the south German scholar Hans Denck and spread through his convent Hans Hut. The impact of Denck's universalism for the wider Anabaptist movement has probably been overemphasized. Mennonites and Hutterites, for example, have largely rejected a belief in the restoration of all things.
In America universalism developed out of roots from both radical German pietism and the English evangelical revival. The pietist influence was strongly shaped by the mystic Jakob Boehme. Several noted radical pietists such as Johann Wilhelm Peterson (1649 - 1727) and Ernst Christoph Hochmann (1670 - 1721) were Boehmist in their development of final restoration, which became one of the most distinguishing characteristics of radical pietist theology. This type of universalism was brought to the colonies by the physician George DeBenneville (1703 - 1793) and, to a lesser extent, by the German Baptist Brethren. DeBenneville, who had close contacts with Hochmann, is widely regarded as the father of American universalism. As a separatist he preached frequently, but neither belonged to nor founded any church. As with most radical pietists, universalism was an implicit but not central focus of his faith.
Universalism which was explicit and the center of doctrine emerged out of Calvinism in England. Several sects which embraced final salvation developed out of seventeenth century Puritanism, among them the Philadelphians, founded by Jane Lead. It was not, however, until a century later, when James Relly broke with the Wesley - Whitefield revival, that an organized universalist movement appeared. His Union (1759) rejected Calvinism and argued that all souls are in union with Christ. Christ's sacrificial punishment and death therefore brought salvation to all, not merely an elect few. One of Relly's converts was John Murray, another Methodist preacher, who was excommunicated for his universalist views. While Murray believed that all souls were corrupted with original sin, his view of universalism was based on Christ as the head of the human family. Just as all men had participated in Adam's sin, so through Christ's sacrifice all would receive salvation.
Murray arrived in New England in 1770 and organized the first Universalist congregation at Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1779. A General Convention was formed a few years later. Organized Universalism thus became primarily an American phenomenon.
Meanwhile similar ideas were emerging elsewhere. Certain liberal Congregationalist clergy such as Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy helped to prepare the foundation for the spread of universalism. The latter's Salvation of All Men (1784) completely rejected a "limited" atonement view. The former Baptist Elhanan Winchester founded a Universalist congregation in Philadelphia in 1781 and developed a compelling restorationist position in his Dialogues on the Universal Restoration (1788). Winchester, an Arminian, argued that future punishment is measured for each sin and results ultimately in the eternal happiness of all souls.
Although DeBenneville, Murray, and Winchester approached universalism from different theological positions, all were restorationists in that they denied eternal punishment in hell. Otherwise eighteenth century universalism was a diverse and noncoherent movement. A loosely agreed - upon statement of faith, the Winchester Profession (adopted at Winchester, New Hampshire), was drawn up in 1803. Doctrinal statements were also formulated in 1899 and 1935.
Hosea Ballou, another former Baptist, proved to be the dominant theological spokesman for the movement in the early nineteenth century. His Treatise on the Atonement (1805) posited a "moral" view of Christ's sacrifice rather than the "legal" or substitutionary position of Relly and Murray. Christ suffered on behalf of mankind but not in their place. Christ's death demonstrated God's unchangeable loving concern for the restoration of the soul from sin. Ballou also taught what opponents called a "death and glory" view that death brings the unregenerate soul to repentance. Because of his stress on reason and his rejection of miracles, the Trinity, and the deity of Christ, Ballou moved the Universalists closer to Unitarianism. His "no hell" theology struck most orthodox Christians, however, as one that would lead to immorality.
Nineteenth century universalism took on the familiar characteristics of an American denomination. It grew steadily in several midwestern and New England states, and in frontier and rural areas it assumed a more evangelical posture than has commonly been recognized. Several periodicals were started and state or regional associations formed. Tufts College (1852) and a theological school (1869) at Medford, Massachusetts, became the leading educational institutions. Controversy over the future punishment question led to the formation of a minority restorationist faction in 1831. This was dissolved in 1841, however, as most universalists placed less and less emphasis on the earlier doctrine of apokatastasis.
Twentieth century universalism, now clearly a liberal faith, was largely shaped by the theologian Clarence Skinner. A wider conception of universalism was articulated which rejected the deity of Jesus and which sought to explore the "universal" bases of all religions. Accordingly, closer ties were sought with the major world non - Christian and native American religions. Universalists continue to stress such beliefs as the dignity and brotherhood of mankind, tolerance of diversity, and the reasonableness of moral actions. Because of the close kinship which many universalists felt toward Unitarians, there had always been a close cooperation between the two groups. This cooperation led to a formal merger and the organization of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961, having a combined membership of 70,500 in nearly four hundred congregations.
Clearly, however, many who have professed a belief in final salvation have remained outside the Unitarian Universalist tradition. In the twentieth century universalism (apokatastasis) has been associated with the neo - orthodox theology as shaped by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Although he did not teach final salvation directly, certain passages of his massive Church Dogmatics stress the irresistible universal triumph of God's grace. Barth was led in this direction by the doctrine of double predestination. In Christ, the representative of all men, adoption and reprobation merge. There are not two groups, one saved and the other damned. Mortal man may still be a sinner, but the election of Christ demands a final judgment of salvation. Other neo - orthodox writers have suggested that divine punishment is a purifying or disguised form of God's love, which results ultimately in restoration.
Some from a more conservative Protestant tradition have also defended a universalist view. One position is that a "Hades Gospel" gives a second chance for those who did not have an opportunity to confess Christ in the world. Another approach has been articulated by Neal Punt in Unconditional Good News (1980). Punt reverses the traditional Calvinist view that all are lost except those whom the Bible indicates are among the elect. His "biblical universalism" counters that all are saved in Christ except those whom the Bible directly declares are lost. Clearly universalism, in a variety of forms, continues to have appeal for contemporary faith, in both liberal and conservative circles.
D B Eller
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
J H Allen and R Eddy, History of the Unitarians and the Universalists in the United States; H Ballou, Ancient History of Universalism; A D Bell, The Life and Times of Dr. George DeBenneville, 1703 - 1793; R Eddy, Universalism in America, a History; T Engelder, "The Hades Gospel" and "The Argument in Support of the Hades Gospel," C T M 16; R E Miller, The Larger Hope; W O Pachull, Mysticism and Early South German - Austrian Anabaptist Movement, 1525 - 1531; C R Skinner and A S Cole, Hell's Ramparts Fell: The Life of John Murray; C R Skinner, A Religion for Greatness and The Social Implications of Universalism; T Whittmore, The Modern History of Universalism; G H Williams, American Universalism.
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