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The central figure in the Universalist movement in the 19th century, Ballou was born the eleventh child of Maturin and Lydia Ballou on April 30, 1771. The family had moved to the backwoods of New Hampshire in the spring of 1768. His father was a Baptist preacher and farmer, and his mother died before he was two. Hosea had very limited schooling, and learned the skills of farming in a difficult environment. After he joined his father’s church, he began to have questions of faith. This was partly brought on by the preaching in nearby Warwick, Massachusetts of the Universalist Caleb Rich. Hosea wanted to defend his faith, but found that his study of the Bible affirmed universalism. His father eventually accepted the new faith, but it took time. Once his father found him reading in the kitchen, and asked, “What is that book?” Hosea said it was a Universalist book. His father declared that he could not allow a Universalist book in his house. Hosea knew his father was watching as he hid the book in the woodpile. Later Maturin went to the woodpile, and found that the dreaded book was the Bible.
Hosea was able to save some money for one term of school at Chesterfield Academy, and he showed such promise that he was given a teaching license. In 1791 Hosea and his brother David went to the Universalist convention in Oxford, Massachusetts. He listened to many sermons at the meeting, and there he felt called to preach the Universalist gospel. Thereafter he began an itinerant ministry while also teaching school. This culminated in his ordination at the Convention in Oxford in 1794 by Elhanan Winchester. Ballou’s first settled ministry was Dana, Massachusetts which was the center for his circuit riding. Ballou became well known as he preached from Vermont to Rhode Island. He also filled John Murray’s pulpit in Boston for several Sundays.
Ballou’s first published work was a correspondence with Joel Foster from New Salem, Massachusetts, where they discussed the issue of future punishment. Ballou also married Ruth Washburn from Williamsburg, Massachusetts in 1796, and they eventually had eleven children, but two died in infancy. In 1803 the Ballous moved to Barnard, Vermont, where he again spent time on a circuit of congregations. Ballou’s theology began to coalesce at this time. He encountered the deism of Ethan Allen, and came to his unitarian view of Jesus, which was published in his great work, A Treatise on Atonement. In this book, he affirmed the use of reason in interpreting scriptures, denied original sin and Christ’s blood sacrifice. He wrote that Jesus dying on the cross was not a means of bridging the gap between God and a sinning humanity; he believed in no such separation. He said that God is always and has always been in full relationship humanity, it is only that sometime people lose sight of that fact. Ballou also believed in immediate salvation for all upon death with no period of cleansing for the soul. This became known as Ultra-Universalism.
Ballou often used human fatherly love as a means of describing how God’s divine love would preclude any notion of eternal punishment. In one, he describes a man who was distressed by his young adult son’s behavior, and worried he was destined for hell. The son was staying out in the salon every night and coming home drunk. There was concern he might be ruining the reputation of some young ladies. Ballou proposed this plan to the father: that they wait for the son alongside the road one night, and when he passes by, catch him and throw him into an enormous fire. Of course, the man responded that he could never do such a thing for he loved his son. Ballou believed it must be the same for God.
After his ministry in Vermont, Ballou moved on to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1809 for six years, followed by two years in Salem, Massachusetts. In the meantime, some of the Universalists in Boston became dissatisfied with the Calvinistic version of Universalism that was preached at First Universalist. They formed the Second Universalist Society in 1817, two years after John Murray’s death, and asked Ballou to come minister among them. He accepted a position that catapulted him into being the acknowledged leader of the movement. He remained in Boston for the rest of his career, and helped give the denomination a solid foundation. Two years later he started and edited the Universalist Magazine, which later evolved into the Christian Leader, the prime denominational periodical.
In 1821 Ballou helped publish a hymnal. A little more than ten years later he found his views on immediate salvation coming under attack from those who insisted that there was a period of reprobation for sin. Ballou remained committed to the position that people suffer for their sins in earthly life. He rejected the idea of individual moral rewards for behavior, and advocated a corporate view of salvation The renegade Restorationists left the denomination in 1831, and remained out for ten years. Universalism expanded rapidly in Ballou’s later years, and he frequently went on preaching tours, including a visit to New York six months before his death. He died on June 7, 1852, the acknowledged leader and “Father Ballou” of the movement.
Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection
Hosea Ballou: The Challenge to Orthodoxy by Ernest Cassara
The Biography of Hosea Ballou II
A Brief History of the Universalist Church for Young People by L.B. Fisher