Hosea Ballou’s “Treatise” at 200

UUHS Lecture at General Assembly

Fort Worth, Texas

by Mark W. Harris, Minister
First Parish of Watertown, Masschusetts
June 2005

Mak Harris
Mak Harris

I hail from the hill country of north central Massachusetts and southwestern New Hampshire. I walked forest paths, grew up in a farm house built in 1770 situated on 65 acres of overgrown, rocky, pastures, and in the center of the village attended a two room school house. I came out of this wilderness to become a hill country heretic. Two hundred years ago this past year, another young man who came out of that same wilderness published the most important book in Universalist history. Another hill country heretic. When I asked the congregation I serve if they had ever heard of A Treatise on Atonement, not one hand was raised. It is perhaps not surprising that most liberals these days would have no knowledge of a 19th century theological work, but I feel that specific memory lapse also represents a loss of the central vision of Universalism; a vision founded upon Calvinist principles which asked each and every person to focus not on salvation for the self, but demanded a response to God’s will as manifested in the whole creation.

In 1805 this relatively obscure backwoods preacher named Hosea Ballou produced A Treatise on Atonement, the greatest theological work in Universalist history. It catapulted him to fame and leadership in the denomination, so that eventually a pulpit was created for him in Boston. John Coleman Adams wrote in 1903 that in the Treatise, “Hosea Ballou gave to the world the first American book which embodied the outlines of the Broad Church theology, a religious

classic, presenting an original, a simple, a natural account of the meaning of the gospel . . . ” (Adams, 279 from the Great and Thursday lectures). When Unitarian Universalists have remembered this work and its author, it has been in the context of Ballou’s use of reason, the influence of the Enlightenment, and perhaps most important, his unitarian view of Jesus. But we have missed or given short shrift to a more vital, more timely, and perhaps more enduring legacy of this work: its modified Calvinism. A Treatise on Atonement is a reflection of a relatively uneducated, gospel preacher who felt his faith more than learned it, and should be read with an understanding of the Calvinist influence on Ballou’s faith development. Lingering Calvinism is a crucial, but ignored, part of our historical legacy as 21st century UUs, which is borne out in several ways. It teaches us that humans live in total dependence upon the creator or what we might call the creation, and must respond to that creation with a degree of reverence and humility: It offers a vision of wholeness. Second, lingering Calvinism shows we are all tied together in a community of the whole, and that individual salvation has led us down the path of selfishness, personal success and greed: It offers an alternative communal social vision. Third, everyone is acceptable in God’s sight, and is a recipient of God’s grace, regardless of who you are or where you are from. Our Calvinist heritage offers a personal vision of equality and acceptance.

Did I say Calvin? To most Unitarian Universalists today Calvin represents all that we abhor. We remember Calvin pursuing Michael Servetus, the first Unitarian we claim, and then lashing him to the stake and immolating him and his books on the fiery faggots in Geneva. We think of Puritan intolerance that resulted in Quaker Mary Dyer being hanged on the scaffold of Boston Common. We recall Jonathan Edwards reinventing Calvin by imaging God as the bloodthirsty, power mongering fiend who holds us like lowly spiders dangling over the fires of hell. Wasn’t it Calvin who gave us total depravity, bondage of the will, and limited atonement? And didn’t religious liberals rebel against these beliefs with affirmations of human goodness, free will and universal salvation? While that rebellion may be an accurate long view of the evolution of our faith, the central impetus behind early Universalism, in sharp contrast to Unitarianism, was based on a Calvinistic understanding of the sovereignty of God.

There is a well-known adage that is often used to illustrate the basic distinction between Unitarianism and Universalism. I have seen it attributed to both Thomas Starr King and Thomas Gold Appleton, Longfellow’s brother-in-law. In an inclusive language paraphrase it says, Unitarians believe humans are too good to be damned by God, and Universalists believe that God is too good to damn humans. Either way we end up saved, but the process — indeed the reason for salvation, could not be more different. The Unitarian emphasis is self-referential. It asks what I can do about my own salvation. It is about my striving for success on the road to moral perfectionism. The Universalist perspective, which Hosea Ballou elucidated in his Treatise, emphasizes our common relationship to the whole of creation; to a loving God who redeems all. In this vision, we are not distinguishable from one another; nor are we judged as saved or unsaved. Rather than asking about human will, Ballou’s vision is centered on discerning God’s will for all of creation. How are we bound up together? The goal of life for Calvin was how to conform to God’s will, and not his own. This was Hosea Ballou’s goal, too.

When Universalism was developing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the greatest force behind its expansion was Hosea Ballou, a young circuit-riding preacher from rural Richmond, New Hampshire. Ballou’s mother died before he was two years old, and it is interesting how the God he formulated in his theology was the most loving paternal figure ever articulated, embracing a salvation that included everyone. He later said that it was “his unhappy lot never to know the kind regard and pure affection of a mother, that holiest tie of humanity.” He wrote, “I do not remember her; but from all I can learn of my mother, I am satisfied that she was of a most tender and kind disposition. But the treasure was gone before I could realize its value.” (Maturin Ballou, 22).

Theologically we don’t really know the effect of his mother’s death, but we do know that Ballou was reared in a strict Calvinist background. His father, a native of Rhode Island had moved the family to the backwoods of New Hampshire, and Ballou was raised the son of a “pious and devout preacher,” who could be described as a New Light and a Separate Baptist, who won hearts not by reasoned discourses, but by personal experiences of ecstatic religion. Ballou wrote that we were all taught that we were born “wholly depraved, and under the curse of a law which doomed every son and daughter of Adam to eternal woe.” (Maturin, p. 23) Ballou learned that only a small select number, a 1,000 people, would undergo conversion to the elect. What helped is that Ballou said beginning as a boy, he was “remarkably inquisitive . . . about doctrines.” He would ask his preacher father such questions as, Suppose I had the power to create a creature who might “suffer everlasting misery, — would my act of creating this creature be an act of goodness?” (Maturin, 36)

In January 1789, at the age of 19, Ballou was baptized and joined his father’s church, seemingly out of familial duty. Yet he was concerned that his terror for God did not seem sufficient. He wrote, “I was much troubled in my mind because I thought I did not stand in such fear of the divine wrath as I ought to do.” (Maturin, 39). This trouble led to reading and reflection on the doctrine of eternal misery, and resulted in the conclusion later that same year that God’s redemption was meant for all. This was about the time that Ballou admitted to his father one day that he was reading a Universalist book. His father then observed the boy hiding it in the woodpile, and he went to retrieve it that he might destroy it, only to discover that this Universalist book was the Bible (Maturin, 42).

Hosea was subsequently excommunicated from his father’s church, but found with no personal fault, except for his belief in Universalism. Ballou said, “I found . . . that my Calvinistic tenets could be made either to result in universal salvation, or to compel me to acknowledge the partiality of the divine favor . . . ” He concluded that “God had implanted an evidence in favor of the salvation of all men, the force of which I found no means to resist.” (Maturin, 42). Soon thereafter, Ballou said he began “believing and preaching universal salvation, on the Calvinistic principles of atonement and imputed righteousness.” (Maturin, 46). Early in his career, Ballou’s version of Universalism closely followed John Murray’s, as he believed in the Trinity, original sin, and the need for God to be pacified with the atonement. The redeemed elect simply included everybody. Many of the Calvinist tenets were still present in the details of Ballou’s system, even after he embraced the use of reason in the interpretation of scriptures and a more human Jesus whose atonement was not to appease an angry God, but to reconcile humans to divine love.

The preacher with the most profound impact on Ballou was Caleb Rich. Rich has always failed to receive his due in most discussions of the origins of Universalism. The names John Murray, Elhanan Winchester and even George deBenneville always loom larger, and yet Rich’s rebellion from orthodoxy began when he founded a “new religious society” in Warwick, Massachusetts in 1773, and subsequently became a professed Universalist in 1778 a year before Murray founded the supposed first Universalist church in history ( These dates are somewhat obscure. See “Autobiography of Caleb Rich,” pub. 1827). Furthermore it was Rich’s disciple, Ballou, who gave Universalism a coherent religious system for the first time, with the publication of A Treatise on Atonement, and Ballou’s disciples who organized and spread Universalism institutionally.

Rich, as Stephen Marini, shows in his book The Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England, found Universalism by way of ecstatic experiences. In the 1770’s he began to hear voices telling him that his motive for seeking salvation came from purely selfish principles. He saw that self-love and self-righteousness and dependence upon ourselves led to hypocritical conversions. (Marini, 73) All other Christian faiths were seen as selfish because they were preoccupied with individual salvation. This vision confirmed a Calvinistic determinism turned upside down. It still included predestination, but now all were saved. His mission was to help all the Baptists see the light, and eventually he was visited by Jesus himself in order to achieve this goal. Rich often attended the Baptist meetings, trying to engage them in debate. Ballou, listening to Rich, continued to be troubled about his faith. After months of reflection, Bible reading, and the conversion of his brother David, Ballou embraced Universalism in 1789. In 1791 he made his first halting attempt at preaching, and then in 1794 he was ordained spontaneously by Elhanan Winchester in Oxford, Massachusetts. Scripture always remained Ballou’s primary guide in discovering truth. He wrote, “I never read anything on the doctrine of universal salvation before I believed it, the Bible excepted.” (Maturin, 87)

Ballou’s thought could be characterized as an unusual mix of pietism and rationalism. In fact, if we used Joseph Haroutunian’s classic dichotomy of Piety vs. Moralism, Ballou’s Universalism would be classified as piety or a more immediate, emotional response of faith, and Unitarianism as moralism, a faith based on pure ethics. The pietism came from Ballou’s rural, relatively uneducated, folksy, evangelical and experiential faith, characteristic of his hill country Baptist heritage. Because of its emphasis on evangelical piety, the sovereignty of God, and its universal salvation grounded in determinism as opposed to something an individual can achieve, Universalism cannot be stereotyped as a lower class form of Unitarianism.

Historically, Ballou’s unitarian rationalism has been emphasized, and his experiential piety obscured. We have often said the Enlightenment influences transformed Ballou’s thinking away from pietism, and certainly Ballou was exposed to reason as a critical thinking tool. But his embrace of reason did not destroy Ballou’s faith, or his trust in experience. Perhaps we have emphasized what suits our rational religious sensibilities rather than fully grappling with Ballou’s unique melding of rationalism and pietism.

Ethan Allen, the Green Mountain Boy from Vermont, is credited with having had the most influence on Hosea Ballou’s thinking. This Allen is not the alleged furniture maker, but rather the Revolutionary War hero who captured Ft. Ticonderoga. We know that Ballou read Allen’s The Oracles of Reason, published in 1785, and it is generally conceded that Ballou’s use of reason in the interpretation of scripture was a result of Allen’s influence. This in all likelihood led to his unitarianism as well.

Allen is usually seen as an Enlightenment era Deist, whose purpose was to discredit the Bible and all revealed religion. He proposed instead a “compendious system of natural religion.” Allen’s model was the God who created and set things in motion; then stepped back and watched. He wrote, “Every enjoyment and support of life is from God, delivered to his creatures in and by the tendency, aptitude, disposition and operation of laws.” (Jellison, 307) The fact that we are capable of reason meant that we could recognize the laws of nature, and that we would suffer if we strayed from natural law. However, any punishment or suffering would also happen on nature’s terms — that is, in this life; on this earth. There was no hell.

It is less clear that there was no heaven. Allen’s religious naturalism did not preclude it — he said that if there was a heaven, it would be open to all “reclaimed from viciousness and restored to virtue and happiness.” (Jellison, 308) His biographer Charles Jellison has pointed out that Allen was not so much an infidel, as he has been depicted, but rather a believer in the beauty and the power and perfection of God’s creation. Allen wanted to provide a clearer vision of what God wanted, which was for neighbors to “gain more exalted ideas of their obligation to Him and one another.” This is hardly a picture of a heretic. Allen believed in a creator who desired human happiness, and had created a world where this was possible. Part of the plan for realizing this possibility of human happiness in God’s creation involved suffering and hopefully learning from the times when they refused to follow what was true and right. It was a system of immediate and logical consequences, as part of a larger purpose. Allen believed that the priesthood had invalidated the laws of nature and reason, and so defying the understandings of Christianity that stemmed from the priesthood would help achieve God’s desire that humanity be blessed with happiness.

And so we can affirm three crucial contributions by Allen to Ballou’s ideas, in addition to the unitarian Jesus and reason that are typically emphasized. In the spirit of the American Revolution and rural egalitarianism, Allen affirmed a theology of equal opportunity for the common people. Second, he was a determinist who followed a God of fixed laws, who desired all humans to follow these laws. Finally, he advocated a radical new understanding of Christianity that was not self-absorbed with individual salvation, but looked instead to a communitarian vision. A Calvinist influenced Ballou could not have said it any better.

In 1796, soon after Ballou began preaching, he was invited to be part of a circuit riding ministry that was centered in Hardwick, (later Dana), Massachusetts. The following year Ballou and Joel Foster, the minister of the Congregational church in nearby New Salem, Massachusetts began a “Literary Correspondence” that was published against Ballou’s wishes in 1799. Here they debated the “question concerning future punishment.” The Calvinist emphasis in Ballou’s thought was apparent from the beginning. He asked if it was possible for “any being not to answer the final purpose intended by God in his creation?” (Ballou and Foster, Correspondence, 6). Foster replied that God’s purpose was to make humans “intelligent and free agents”, with strict “moral liberty.” He said humans “were capable of working out their own happiness or ruin.” This classic Arminian position said that otherwise people were reduced to the “condition of mere machines,” and there would be no distinctions between “virtue and vice.” Even though Foster believed that Christ died for the whole human race, salvation was dependent upon those who obeyed him. The scriptures do not say that Christ intends eternal misery, but it does happen. Foster said he had no aversion to the doctrine of universal salvation, but clearly saw no evidence for it. (Correspondence, 12)

As the correspondence progressed Ballou returned to the question of what final purpose God intended for creation. Believing that God’s power and wisdom are essential to faith, Ballou wondered how a creature could not answer the final purpose God intended. Ballou essentially asked how an all wise, all powerful, all good God could fail to have his intended plan for creation accomplished? Sinful human actions do not determine the final intention of the creator, and this was the question Ballou wanted addressed. Ballou knew humans could make themselves miserable, but do the scriptures teach that it is God’s will that humans must be wretched?

Ballou closed his correspondence with Foster by reaffirming his belief in the complete sovereignty of God. Foster countered by asserting that our human freedom can frustrate God’s purpose. But Ballou insisted that humans must answer the final intention of the creation. If God intended everlasting happiness, then it must be so. Freedom was bounded by God’s purpose. Ballou, still in his 20s, questioned some of his own beliefs and wondered whether there would be a future state of discipline prior to eventual salvation. Yet nothing could deter him from his Calvinist determinism. He wrote, “I find it difficult to oppose the system of strict fatality.” (Correspondence, 56). God , as all-knowing, has to know everything — perhaps not in every particular, but certainly God knows our eternal state. If He created us to be happy; then we would have to be happy. Foster stayed after him, though; — not so much over the doctrine of God Ballou stood for; but because Ballou believed that even if the future state includes some discipline, we would eventually achieve universal salvation. Foster still wanted him to believe in the possibility of endless punishment.

Later Foster attacks Ballou as an uneducated preacher of a strange doctrine, asking “do you not discover yourself to be illiterate in a degree which is hardly pardonable in one who sustains the place of a public instructor?” (Correspondence 27). Here is the standing order minister criticizing the uneducated, lower class Ballou as a buffoon who is not worthy of him. On the title page of the correspondence, Ballou is referred to as an itinerant preacher. Like many early Universalists, Ballou believed that a true understanding of Christianity did not require academic training. He wanted to appeal directly to the people in informal, homespun and emotional ways. It is what the historian E. Brooks Holifield refers to as populist theology that is meant to appeal to all the common people rather than the academics. Of course, such preaching represented a serious threat to the establishment. (Holifield, p.18).

There were continuing differences of style and class that divided Unitarianism and Universalism. Charles Chauncy, an anti-revival leader, and an important proto-Unitarian attacked the Universalist John Murray for his “plebeian egalitarianism.” While it is true that Ballou added the use of reason and a unitarian belief about Jesus to his pietistic background, we have tended to use those facts to blur the vast differences between Unitarians and Universalists. Ballou’s faith was based primarily on an immediate sense of the divine, and not reason. Mark Noll, the author of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, says that many new doctrines surfaced in the revolutionary period, and that most of these, including Universalism, reflected a radical evangelicalism in the tradition of the great revivalist George Whitefield (Noll, p. 153). Ballou was always disappointed in his relationships with Unitarians. In Vol. 4 of his unpublished “Gems of Thought,” he wrote, “The Unitarians contend earnestly for the liberality of exchanging desks with the orthodox, and yet will not themselves exchange, but in few instances, with their brethren the Universalists. . . . while they plead for liberality in persuading the Calvinists to exchange with them, they will not exchange with Universalists, although many of the people who pay them their salary, desire it.” (Gems, IV, 160)

The frustration evident in these words played out in Ballou’s theological world as well. By the time he left Dana, Ballou had rejected depravity, original sin, the atonement, the Trinity, and what he called, “the deserts of eternal misery.” These “essential errors” were ” believed by those who called themselves Universalists, as well as by Calvinists.” Ballou wrote that he was 28 years old when he “came out fully” with his Unitarian views at Murray’s church, and some of the opposition was “violent.” (Maturin, 70-71) Of course, Murray, as a Trinitarian Universalist, was a believer in what Ballou was calling an error.

Ballou actually began to preach the Unitarian position as early as 1795. In a letter to Thomas Whittemore, he wrote: “I had preached but a short time before my mind was entirely freed from all the perplexities of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the common notion of the atonement.” (Whittemore, Modern History of Universalism, p. 437-438) He settled next in Barnard, Vermont from 1803-1809. As in Dana, it was a circuit riding ministry which included several surrounding towns; among them Hartland and Woodstock, where societies remain to this day. During this ministry he wrote both Notes on the Parables of the New Testament (1804) and A Treatise on Atonement (1805). Barnard had been home to dissenters for at least ten years prior to the organization of the Universalist society in 1802 (MacDonald, 101). Friends and acquaintances from Dana had moved there in a chain migration, so Ballou settled among some people he already knew. His own familiarity with the region came in part through his brothers, two of whom had moved to Vermont before him. (MacDonald, 127) Hosea had also been on preaching tours there several times before settling. Still the Universalist sect was new and radical in the eyes of the establishment, and Ballou was re-ordained in Barnard to ensure his legal standing, especially to conduct weddings.

Ballou had married while in Dana; Ruth Washburn, who was introduced to him by Caleb Rich. The move to Barnard proved a difficult time in their life together. Illness plagued them, and two sons were delivered stillborn, while a daughter lived only a week. It was an illness of his own that resulted in Ballou’s Notes on the Parables. Unable to travel or preach, he had the opportunity to write, and he wrote a practical book to help him in his own daily work. After countless hours on horseback, and preaching several sermons, he often found it necessary to explain the parables to “some inquiring hearer” and he wrote the book to provide a quick reference at the end of one of these exhausting days. By now Ballou had left any notion of Calvinist depravity behind. He wrote, “when God made man, he pronounced him very good. Now if man was very good, could he be made good for nothing as easily as is generally represented?” (Ballou, as quoted in Gleason, “Hope Rides in These Hills, The Unitarian Register, January 1961, 12.) He explained the story of separating the wheat and chaff in the Gospel of Matthew by saying that this was all part of the burning away of imperfections in this life. Ballou wrote, “How can you prove he will punish those offspring, whom he loves with an unquenchable love?” (Notes, 19) At the conclusion of the Notes, he said he wanted “to present to the public a more extensive work, which may embrace the system of divine revelation in a greater variety of subjects.” (Notes, 278) This extensive and ultimately defining work appeared the following year.

A Treatise on Atonement achieved Ballou’s desire. Over the years it appeared in many editions, and it is difficult to calculate its influence on the denomination. Usually Ballou is celebrated for the great contribution noted in the title: he developed a new concept of the atonement. Traditional Christian theology stated that God was owed an infinite debt because of human sin, and God’s reconciliation to humanity can come only through Christ’s death on the cross. Ballou illustrated this debt with a homespun story. “My father gives me a farm, and puts me in possession of it; I am pleased and prize it very highly. In consequence of my possession, I paint to myself many pleasing prospects. But to my mortification a person comes and presents me with a mortgage of my farm for five times its value, the mortgage running so as to hold the possessor obliged to clear it. I will leave the reader to say whether my father was kind or unkind.” (Treatise, 74) Ballou approached the story from a new direction; saying that it is not God who needs to be reconciled to humanity; but humanity who need to reconcile themselves to God. Christ came to earth, Ballou says, to help people with this task — not to pay a debt to God. “It was not the removal of God’s dissatisfaction with humanity, but a manifestation of God’s love to us. It was the effect and not the cause of God’s love.” (Treatise, 100). Jesus’ crucifixion is not what made God loving and kind — God already was those things, and we need to learn to see that and to live in a way that demonstrates our belief in an all loving God. A Treatise on Atonement was also the first book printed in America to state a unitarian conception of God. Ballou wrote “Jesus is a created, dependent being, the beginning of creation.” (Treatise, 111). He is not sacrificed to appease God, but created to bring humans to God. Ballou believed atonement and reconciliation were the same thing: a renewal of love.

Our historical interpretation of Ballou’s theology emphasizes the ideas in A Treatise on Atonement as the hallmark of decisive change; as the beginning of a new way of thinking for Ballou — a more Unitarian way. John Morgan’s book, The Devotional Heart, explains there was an inclusive pietism at the heart of the many strains of Universalism, but then says that Universalism began to separate from its pietistic roots under Ballou’s unitarianized influence (Morgan, 40); that he grew focused on this life and the human role in salvation (Morgan, 47). Nothing could be further from the truth. Ballou’s God became unitarian in concept, but God was still the source of redemption; and God’s intentions for humanity were central to his theology. As Ernest Cassara, Ballou’s biographer wrote, “Ballou believed that one was saved regardless of one’s character, otherwise the idea of salvation had no meaning.” Salvation by character (a Unitarian slogan), “implied that the individual, not God , was the agent of salvation.” (Cassara, Introduction to Treatise, xvii) Yet even Cassara fell prey to our habit of projecting modern understandings of the use of reason in theology back in time. A year before he wrote Ballou’s biography, Cassara (JUHS, 1960-61, 71) said that George deBenneville “represents the emotional, mystical type of Universalism which prevailed before the influence of the Enlightenment came to the fore in the preaching of Hosea Ballou in 1795.” This implies that Ballou shifted away from God centered conversions and embraced humanity as the primary agents of salvation, but this is not so. Perhaps we have promoted this as our denominational heritage, but this is not true of Ballou.

So what did Ballou give to us 21st century Unitarian Universalists through his Treatise? It is the lingering Calvinism: Our human response to our dependence upon the creation; the belief that we are one human family; and the conviction that there is nothing we have to do to be redeemed.

Five years ago Anne Lee Bressler wrote The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1870 — a book too little noticed among UUs — with a compelling central thesis. Bressler writes that Ballou’s early Universalist theology is an effort to improve Calvinism, “especially in its heavy emphasis on the sovereignty of God.” (Bressler, 24). Central to Ballou was the belief that the true gospel ministry consists in communicating the knowledge of God. This was a God of infinite goodness who could never will anything contrary to his nature, which is love. Humans can also never be separated from God’s goodness. There is nothing we do to earn these blessings to any greater or lesser degree. He writes that whatever “blessings were intended by these promises, there is not the least intimation that they were promised on any conditionality. . . The fulfillment of them” depends “entirely upon the will and power of God,” (Treatise, 199) so no events occur apart from God’s direction. As he said, “We are nothing only as we exist in God.” (Treatise, 217) One gains an enormous respect for Ballou’s sense of humility before God. When he finished writing the Notes on the Parables, he said he could not close his remarks “without expressing my gratitude to the divine being, for continuing me in life and health.” (Notes, 278). Ballou’s humble and reverent faith that we live in total dependence upon God or the creation reflects his belief in the unity of the Divine Nature, and how humans must come to embrace that nature of love with our lives.

In the Treatise many of Ballou’s points are illustrated by homespun observations about life. Perhaps drawing from his life as the youngest of eleven, he tells the story of the father of ten children. “Suppose the father has provisions enough for the whole, and his object in the bestowing of it upon them is to cause the greatest possible happiness among his children. Which way would good sense and parental affection choose, either to feed five to the full, and starve the rest to death, that their dying groans might give the others a better appetite and their food a good relish, or to let them all be hungry enough to relish their food well, and all alike partake of it?” (Treatise, 142). This story reveals a second aspect of his message that is relevant to our living faith today. There is no individual salvation; we are bound up in the community of the whole. “The main object in all that we do is happiness,” Ballou posits, and “knowing that his own happiness is connected with the happiness of his fellow-men, which induces him to do justly and to deal mercifully with all men, he is no more selfish than he ought to be.” (Treatise, 33, 34) Anne Bressler argues that Ballou “rejected the hierarchal social vision of the Arminians.” (The proto-Unitarians) This new vision did not make distinctions between people. “One’s lot was cast with the rest of the human race.” (Bressler, 28, 32)

But that human race was not cast out on its own. The entire human family is drawn up into God’s love, in one moral community. This is a God that has created a world that is one organic whole, and other people are essential to our salvation. Ballou wrote, “a man acting for his own happiness, if he seek it in a narrow circle of partiality and covetousness, his selfishness is irreligious and wicked.” (Treatise, 34-35) It is not possible, in Ballou’s theology, to win through any sort of competition; only through cooperation that brings all into the circle of creation. His was a classless vision, without pedigrees or genealogies; and where the goal was union with others, not personal fulfillment. “I neither expect nor desire perfect happiness while I see my fellow-man in misery. ” (Treatise, 193) Virtue is always conceived of in terms of relationship, and not in terms of self. Ballou says, “The more humble we are the greater our enjoyments. But when we are completely humbled and perfectly reconciled . . . I believe all strife concerning who shall be great in the kingdom of heaven will be at an end.” (Treatise, 237). Ballou even began to see that this vision for salvation could be extended beyond the limits of Christianity when he wrote, “the divine grace of reconciliation may be communicated to those who have never been privileged with the volume of divine revelation, and who have never heard the name of a Mediator proclaimed, as the only way of life and salvation.” (Ballou, as quoted in Cassara, ed. Universalism in America, A Documentary History, 42)

Central to Ballou’s thought is that the misery of others, no matter who they are, does not secure my personal salvation. In fact, as long as we lack humility before the creation and only grapple selfishly for personal salvation it is harder to understand God’s goodness and plan for us all. Ballou’s God is clearly about loving all, not judging some. Sin is intended to achieve God’s purpose, which is happiness found in reconciliation with God. Ballou does not deny the existence of sin, and in fact, our selfishness results in our punishment for our sins instantly and inevitably. Because sin is punished here, God’s love is not selective in the hereafter, and thus there are no distinctions in heaven. This was especially disturbing to those who believed that people of the finest character were more likely to achieve salvation. A good, moral Unitarian did not want to share space in heaven with a prostitute. The orthodox said that sinfulness is infinite in our nature because of Original Sin, but Ballou believes sin is finite, as it represents the acts of finite beings. He challenged them by saying that God’s will and God’s purpose come before anything human, and sin exists only to help us achieve God’s purpose (Sin as part of God’s design is taken from the French philosopher, Ferdinand Petitpierre, See Cassara, p. 29), which is the happiness we find when we are reconciled to God. Reflecting on the belief that the severity of original sin makes it infinite, Ballou says if this is so, then God and goodness cannot be. Therefore punishment for sin has to be finite; it has to happen here on earth; there can be no eternal damnation. After death, there is no such thing as distinctions among souls: all are in heaven, and all are loved.

Early in his career, Ballou believed that there was a period of punishment after death; but that eventually all were restored to heaven. Over time he became what was called an ultra-Universalist; one who believed that all upon death achieved salvation, and that any punishment for sins occurred strictly during human life. There were a variety of beliefs on this issue both before and after the publication of A Treatise on Atonement. Ballou served on the committee that drafted the Winchester Profession in 1803. Although he played a marginal role in its formation, one thing he affirmed about it, was that it preserved “Gospel liberty” on the question of whether or not there was a period of suffering after death to cleanse souls. Many Universalists opposed codifying anything, and opposed the Profession. While the Profession left open the question of punishment after death, Ballou increasingly favored the truth of the “death and glory” position, fully adopting it by 1817 when the Restoration Controversy was beginning, and he debated the matter with Edward Turner. He said that when he wrote the Treatise, “I had traveled, in my mind, away from penal sufferings, so entirely, that I was satisfied that if any suffered in the future state, it would be because they would be sinful in that state.” (Whittemore, Modern History, p. 437) This seems to indicate that in 1805 he believed people would leave this life free from sin. In the Treatise Ballou emphasizes that the source of redemption is God’s love, not human merit, and the timing of salvation is immediately upon death. Since he believes humans are not in competition with each other, or even with themselves, such as in Unitarian self-culture, he cannot continue to affirm that some are redeemed after death by a period of discipline intended by God. God is the one who acts, and God takes you at death as you are. As in Calvinism, there is nothing you can do. You have no choice. You will be saved.

While this determinism seems to deny our ability to act, and includes the notion of sin as part of God’s plan, its more powerful message is about the nature of the universe and the purpose of life. It tells us that God is a mysterious fountain of love from whence we have sprung. This is a gripping relational power that allows us to turn to the creation and feel trust and comfort; to know that our fears are held by this love, which increases in power as each of us opens to it. There is a completely egalitarian concept of salvation at work in this Universalist gospel. It is not our individual acts that will save us, nor is it the class we belong to which will approve our salvation. All that matters is that we connect with that larger moral force which unites the universe. Harmony with the whole is more important than individual excellence. This theology affirms that all of us are good just as we are, and so there is a kind of divine acceptance or grace in each of our very beings. No matter what we do with our lives, no matter what befalls us, there is still a love that embraces us. None are cast out. Ballou wrote “If God is infinitely good, then all beings whom his power produced are the objects of his goodness” (Treatise, 185). This brings us back full circle to the whole, moral existence of humanity in the body of God. Each of us fits into God’s scheme of salvation, and thus each person is blessed and has a purpose in this life. The Universalists — called Restorationists — who did adhere to the idea of a limited punishment in the afterlife ended up downplaying the universal God who embraces all in a social vision of equality and wholeness, and embracing free will more than God’s love. This had the effect of making the Universalists yet another mainstream Protestant group that increasingly affirmed individual salvation or moralism with its rewards for being good. The desire to ensure that people bear responsibility for themselves; that there be consequences for sinful action that would motivate people to live in accordance to God’s purposes, gave the Restorationsists a bond with the Unitarians, and some drifted back and forth between the two faiths (See R. Miller, The Larger Hope, Vol. 1). Few Universalists were interested in an organized Restorationist movement, and even though the Resorationists triumphed after Ballou’s death, it was Ballou’s vision of universal salvation that ultimately defined Universalist theology in the twentieth century, when a faith for one world was envisioned.

Ballou spent the rest of his life defending his ultra-Universalism, refining his position that sin brought its own punishment in this life. The controversy with the Restorationists lasted for years, and some attacked him on the grounds that promising freedom from punishment in the afterlife encouraged immorality in this life. Ballou remained firm that the quest for individual salvation was selfish, and like the orthodox New Divinity theologians, he said that our own interests must be linked with the whole of humanity. (Holifield, 230)

Today, while we as a denomination are pondering how and whether we can create a more evangelical and heartfelt message to meet the spiritual needs of regular people, we have an opportunity to learn from the real Ballou, rather than our historical interpretation of him. Calvinist piety marked Ballou’s theology. He reached people with his faith and understanding of mysterious powers in the universe, not with ideas or reasoned arguments. Although some Unitarian Universalists might use words like the wholeness of the creation instead of the word “God”, the message and the legacy of A Treatise on Atonement is that a reverence for and a humility before that force of creation ensures our well being more than individual freedom does. Instead of discerning and meeting one’s own needs, our task is to understand what life asks of us.

Every year the Unitarian Universalist Association presents the Melcher Book Award to the published work that makes the greatest contribution to religious liberalism. This year the best-selling and Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson won the award. Theologically, this is an interesting choice for religious liberals to make. In style the novel takes the form of a long letter from an elderly, soon to die, Congregational minister, to his son, who is the product of a late in life marriage to a young bride following years of lonely sojourning in the pastoral fields. The author of this book presents herself as a 21st century Calvinist. In the novel she has the minister, John Ames, say to his son,

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? … I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart. “He has a mind of his own,” Boughton used to say when that son of his was up to something. And he meant it as praise, he really did. (Robinson, 124-25)

In this quotation there is both an understanding of the human inclination to rebelliousness, while acknowledging the joy at the heart of the creation. This provides a window to an important correlation between Robinson’s book, Calvinism and the foundations of Universalism as we reflect on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Hosea Ballou’s A Treatise on Atonement. Does a conscious choice of Robinson’s book unconsciously affirm the Calvinist message of its author? Are we secretly longing for our unclaimed or minimized historical past? In Marilynne Robinson’s book of essays, The Death of Adam (p. 172, 2005 reprint) she says that for Calvin no one is more evil than the one who strives for self. Ballou could have said the same thing. Now consider the Arminian theology evolving to salvation by individual success, and ponder the difference.

Early Universalism as it was born from its Calvinist roots affirmed the interconnectedness of humanity rather than the disconnected individualism of competition and the striving for perfectionism, and it affirmed a religious faith based on personal and direct experience of feeling and passion rather than the more rational, structured order of the establishment. In 1845, Hosea Ballou had a sermon of his reprinted in a Universalist periodical. Reminding us of the Melcher award winning novel Gilead, this paper, entitled “The Balm of Gilead” reprises one of Ballou’s great themes: The creator has a design for us, and it is impartial goodness. Despite our sinful choices, God calls us all home to goodness. God or the creation exults simply in the existence of people, and does not judge or moralize. “The world exists for God’s enjoyment”. Are you doing your part to give joy to the creation? Our current hunger for spiritual growth might be fed by joy, which is to be had right here at home, in our own Calvinist roots.


The Annual Journal of the Universalist Historical Society. (1960-61, vol. II)
(also includes an interesting article comparing Ethan Allen’s Reason the Only Oracle of Man and A Treatise on Atonement by Carol Morris. Please note that I use the alternative title for Allen’s work, The Oracle of Reason)

Adams, John Coleman. “Hosea Ballou and the Larger Hope,” in Pioneers of Religious Liberty. Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1903.

Ballou, Hosea. A Treatise on Atonement. edited with a new introduction by Ernest Cassara, based on 1886 edition. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1986.

___________. Gems of Thought. 4 vols. Unpublished manuscript at Andover Harvard Theological Library

___________. Notes on the Parables of the New Testament. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: The Gazette Office, 1812.

Ballou, Maturin M. Biography of Rev. Hosea Ballou. Boston: Abel Tompkins, 1852.

Bressler, Anne Lee. The Universalist Movement in America: 1770-1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001

Cassara, Ernest. Hosea Ballou, The Challenge to Orthodoxy. Boston: Universalist Historical Society and Beacon Press, 1961.

_____________ed. Universalism in America: A Documentary History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971

Foster, Joel and Ballou, Hosea. A Literary Correspondence, in which, the question concerning future punishment, and the reasons, for and against it, are considered. Northampton, Massachusetts: William Butler, 1799.

Gleason, Rea D. “Hope Rides in the Hills,” A look from the present at Hosea Ballou, The Unitarian Register, January 1961, 10-13.

Holifield, E. Brooks, Theology in America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.

Jellison, Charles A. Ethan Allen, Frontier Rebel. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1969.

MacDonald, Edith Fox. Rebellion in the Mountains: The Story of Universalism and Unitarianism in Vermont. Concord, NH: New Hampshire/Vermont District of the UUA, 1976.

Marini, Stephen A. Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Morgan, John C. The Devotional Heart: Pietism and the Renewal of Unitarian Universalism. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1995.

Noll, Mark A. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Safford, Oscar F. Hosea Ballou: A Marvellous Life-Story. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1889.

Whittemore, Thomas. The Modern History of Universalism. From the Era of the Reformation to the Present Time. Boston: Thomas Whittemore, 1830.