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What the Universalists Talked about When They Talked about Love: A Valentine’s Day Special Feature

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Love is the doctrine of this church.  So says the covenant of 1933 written by the Universalist minister L. Griswold Williams.  Rev. Williams rode a circuit ministry around Pennsylvania and Ohio before settling into the ministry of the All Souls Universalist Church in Marion, Ohio.   During the first World War he earned the suspicion of the FBI and the District Attorney of Marion for speaking out against the mistreatment of person of German descent.  Later, as a conscientious objector, he was put to work manufacturing windows and doors to be used in temporary housing for refugees.  With each door and window he made he would say a prayer:

Teach me the truer trade of making doors and windows for men’s souls:

Windows for letting in Love’s widening dawn,

Doors swinging outward freely on Truth’s pleasant ways.

Love, of course, was central to Universalism from early on.  Hosea Ballou (1771-1852) refined the Universalist theological understanding of love.  Famously, Ballou turned Calvinist accounts of the atonement upside down.  God did not withdraw his care for humanity because of his anger at human sin.  God’s love and care was steady and unwavering, and Jesus did not need to die to repair the divine-human relationship.  Individuals themselves could do that by reaching for the love that was omnipresent.  Sin endangers the human ability to easily perceive and participate in God’s love, but the promise is that divine love will always and finally prevail.   Here is Ballou from the Treatise on the Atonement of 1805:  “There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away with sin, but love; and we have reason to be eternally thankful that love is stronger than death.” Love was the conflation of power and goodness that comprised God’s agency in the world. 

Of course, while love feels universal, various historical eras have understood love very differently.  Opponents to marriage equality often spoke as if marriage were a stable and unchanging entity across time.  But today’s central understanding of marriage—that it has something to do with love—is actually fairly new on the Western historical scene.   While sexuality and marriage have been linked for a very long while, the idea that marriage would include any of the expressions we would call romantic is something that emerges only in early modernity.  The first expressions of romance date to the courtly love traditions of the medieval era, and then it was understood that you shared your poetry, flowers, songs, and proclamations of enduring devotion with persons who were precisely not your spouse.

Similarly, the understanding of what love is also changes historical in religious context.  Consider the Puritans of New England.  For them, the love of God was absolutely their highest ideal.  So much so that they were often conflicted when they experienced powerful romantic love, so concerned they were that their love of God should be far beyond and far greater than their love for anyone or anything else.  The Puritan love of God was not exactly relational in a modern sense—they did not have a very personal understanding of God, who remained at least in part remote and unknowable.  It is hard for the contemporary mind to grasp how love could happen outside of relationship, and how love of friends and family might interfere rather than enhance one’s love of God.   It would take several generations after the original Puritans to arrive at the notion that perhaps love of each other enhances the capacity to love God, and vice versa.  Johnathan Edwards (1703-1758) did much to articulate this newly relational theology, writing for example: “In pure love to others, i.e., love not arising from self-love, there is a union of the heart with others, an kind of enlargement of the mind, whereby it 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.”

One of the distinctions of Universalist love was always how very relational it was, and often how specifically parental.  Of course the growth in Universalism occurred in a time when the roles of parenting themselves were radically changing.  The early nineteenth century saw a rising middle class.  Middle class women had more leisure time than their mothers, and middle class children were not typically not understood as they were in other times and classes–as cheap and easily available labor.  The changes meant that children were less thought of as small adults, and more as tender beings that require special nurture and care.  The sense of the home changed, too, increasingly being understood as a place of refuge specifically devoted to familial bonding rather than the primary site of toil.  The result was warmer and far more sentimental relationships between parents and children than had been known before.

As God was becoming a less remote an absolute power and more a kindly relational entity, parents themselves were undergoing the same transition. As God the Father was becoming gentler, it inspired gentler models of human fatherhood; and as people were becoming more familiar with kind, involved human fathers, the more possible it was to imagine God in the same light.  And much Universalist theology was based on how one might discern God’s love through observing human parental love, and vice versa. Hosea Ballou was full of folksy tales on the theme of how human fatherly love can help us understand 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. 

The ultimate Universalist dream was always that eventually, the entire world would come to see itself as a single-family sharing salvation together.  Family was model for equality among all persons.   Here is the great Universalist circuit rider, George Rogers (1804-1846), on what happened when Universalists gathered:  “All were one party, all distinctions of caste were lost sight of, and all individualities were merged in the mass, and as one family all rejoiced in a common and glorious hope.” Nothing puzzled the Universalists more than when they issued the invitation to others to join the family only to have the offer declined.   

The primacy of the family explains much about the geography of where Universalism spread most readily.  The historian Robert Roth, in his excellent work on Universalists in the Connecticut River Valley, argues very persuasively that Universalism’s popularity in that area had everything to do with the area’s predisposition towards family.  The majority of people in the area were associated with fairly prosperous small to medium sized family farms.  Children would remain in the family, working on their parents’ farm, until such time as they started their own families, and acquired their own farms, often with their parents’ help.  People were held tight in the embrace of family for much of their lives.  Roth contrasts this with the persons who were attracted to Unitarianism—who tended to come from geographies, families and classes that put high value on achieving an early independence from family.

The Universalist focus on family was not only familiar to people, then, it seems to have served as a positive alternative to the growth of modern individualism, which represented values troubling to many.  In this way Universalism, as forward looking as it was, was also quite nostalgic for an imaginary simpler past.  They longed for less diversity of belief, for they desired for everyone to be united in organic community under the watchful benevolence of the same God. 

The power of Universalism’s family metaphor was not only important to people whose model of family was that of biological families of origin.  It also worked spectacularly amongst the working class in Philadelphia, who saw in it an affirmation of their sense of the brotherhood of men working the same jobs.  They were happy to see in their labor unions a reflection of the larger Universalist union of all souls.  Here is one of their more beloved hymns:  “How sweet is the union of souls/ in harmony friendship and love/Lord help us, this union to keep/In union God grant we may meet.” 

Another quality of Universalist love, family style, was its insistence on radically unlinking any connection between love and worthiness, especially moral worthiness.  Ballou is often cited telling the story about the parent who with the child who has fallen into a mud pit.  His famous question was whether you clean the child and then love it because it is clean, or if you washed it precisely because you love it.  What is clear in all of these stories that God’s love makes moral worthiness irrelevant?  This was quite a contrast to the Unitarian obsession with character, and even with the much later Universalist affirmation of the worth of all—the early Universalists would have been shocked to hear worth even as a small part of the equation. 

In essence, the conversion to Universalism was a conversion to love itself.  Salvation depended not so much on believing or feeling something specific about God or Jesus as much as it depended on being able to perceive and appreciate love.  As the very popular Lucy Barn wrote in the Female Christian in 1809, “When Universalist accept that all men are brethren to be loved, they know that have passed from death into life.”