Rediscovering Our Inner Universalist
Continued 3 of 5
Within a decade Trinitarianism and Biblical literalism had virtually disappeared from Universalist teachings. In many ways Ballou’s Universalism anticipated by 15 years the liberal views that his great rival in Boston, the Unitarian William Ellery Channing would expound in his great “Unitarian Christianity” sermon. Yet despite their obvious kinship as liberal, dissenting movements, they often remained at odds, deeply suspicious of one another. This was not so much a matter of doctrine as a matter of style and most importantly class. The Boston Unitarians represented the respectable upper and middle classes and were served by Harvard educated scholars given to dispassionate discourse. The Universalists found their strength among farmers, laborers, mechanics, and the lesser tradesmen and shopkeepers of the cities and towns. Their preachers might study with one another for a short while, or they may simply feel the call and go out until the strength of their efforts would be recognized by ordination by their peers. And although they relied on rationalism, they expressed it in homey metaphors, not classical allusions. They unabashedly appealed to the heart as well as to the head.
Ballou’s influence was enormous. Not only did he preach, but he influenced Universalist opinions as editor and publisher of the Universalist Magazine and as a frequent contributor to dozens of other national, regional and local publications. He could be contentious. Welcoming Channing’s famous “Unitarian Christianity” sermon for its embrace of reason in Biblical interpretation, he disputed Channing’s characterization of humans as “incorrigible sinners.” The two great leaders often battled back and forth in print, although never in person, over issues such as tax support for established congregations and the supposed depravity of
Ballou also took on all comers among orthodox critics. Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians and Congregationalist united to denounce universal salvation. They argued that without fear of punishment people would have no restraint on their passions and would commit all manner of crimes and abominations. That the perfectly pious lives of thousands of humble Universalists belied the charges had no effect. Some states even banned Universalists from elective office or sitting on juries under the supposition that they had no restraint to prevent corruption. Ballou fought back with ever more vigorous declarations of God’s limitless love. His view of immediate reconciliation with God upon death became known as Ultra Universalism and derided as a faith of “Death and Glory.”
By the 1830’s a group of younger ministers, including close associates and disciples like Thomas Whitmore were gently disputing the old man. They advanced a theory of limited punishment before final restoration to the Lord. As the dispute continued it became mixed with personal issues and ambitions. The denomination began to take sides. Most supported Ballou out of loyalty. His nephew Hosea Ballou 2nd defended him. But in his heart the younger man sided with those who became known as the Restorationists. A handful of the dissidents tried to leave the denomination and start a new movement, but returned to the fold in a very few years. Ballou may have won the immediate struggle, but he lost the longer war. Most ministers quietly accepted the Restorationist view and it was general in the denomination within twenty years.
Theological disputes aside, Universalism was a growing and vital faith. You could almost watch it advance behind the ever expanding frontier line. It had strong appeal for both of the great ethnic stocks of American pioneers. It flourished with the New England diaspora as they pushed gradually west through New York State and into the Upper Midwest after the opening of the Erie Canal. Sons of Yankee stone farmers broke ground along the Upper Hudson. Their sons and daughters pushed west into Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Universalist ministers and lay preachers like Jonathan Chapman seemed to be there almost as soon as they raised their barns—or in Chapman’s case maybe even before--as he spread apple seedlings along with gospel in Ohio becoming the legendary Johnny Appleseed.
By the same token, working south from Pennsylvania into the back country of Virginia and the Carolinas it appealed to the sturdy Scotch-Irish stock whose rough and tumble independence put themselves ever on the edge of civilization seeking “elbow room.” Close knit families would produce preachers who over generations would serve tiny country cross road chapels.
On the strength of these forces Universalism naturally arrived in McHenry County, where both strands of pioneer stock met and mingled. Itinerant ministers were visiting the county soon after the area was opened for settlement after the Black Hawk War. Competing largely with the Methodists and Baptists who also employed saddle bag missionaries, Universalists would hold meetings in various halls and establishments when ever they could. Daniel Parker Livermore, a Universalist minister and editor and his wife Mary included Woodstock in trips out from Chicago in the 1850’s. They held periodic meetings in halls over saloons despite being ardent abstainers. Mary Rice Livermore would go on to a long career as a writer, speaker, heroic Civil War nurse, and women’s rights crusader. Her story is featured in a framed picture hanging in the church.
Members of the extended Pingry (sometimes spelled Pingree) family who’s various brothers and cousins had been preaching in towns west from Ohio, settled around Crystal Lake and its twin village Nunda and were holding regular house worship during the same decade.
There were soon enough Universalists to begin establishing permanent congregations in the county. The Rev James R. Mack organized a church in McHenry in 1853 which erected a building the following year. The Church persisted until 1929. The building still stands and is currently occupied by a Pentecostal congregation. The simple frame structure is the oldest church building in the county still in use.
The good people of Woodstock formed their church two years later. It served the city for more than sixty years before disbanding in 1912. I have found passing references to shorter lived Universalist congregations in Union and Marengo. There were undoubtedly other attempts at forming churches that failed in a year or two for lack of regular ministerial leadership.
Meanwhile, despite its small town roots, Universalism was also establishing itself in many cities. A more regular and establish clergy began to be developed and the denomination began to developed colleges and seminaries to feed its need. Among the schools Tufts University, St. Lawrence University, Lombard College, and ancestors of Akron University and Cal Tech stood out. In Illinois Galesburg College opened as a Universalist institution providing an education for, among others, Carl Sandburg.
Since the days of Rush and Winchester in Pennsylvania, Universalists had always been interested in social and political issues of the day. They felt a duty to improve society. The Philadelphia Convention under the influence of Rush had resolved to oppose slavery as early as 1790, the first religious body in America to do so. Although that condemnation of slavery was not universal among them, even in the South many Universalists--mostly hard scrabble back country farmers resentful of the Tidewater aristocracy and fearful of slave competition for employment--opposed the peculiar institution. The story told in the book and movie COLD MOUNTIAN is based on the true tale of just such a Universalist family. The tiny country church erected by the hero’s brother, Inman Chapel, is still standing. At a time when some Unitarians were vocal abolitionists, many affluent merchants and manufactures in the pews with economic ties to king cotton and slavery tacitly supported the institution. Opposition to slavery was far more wide spread among Universalists.