Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Restorationist Controvercy (February 7, 2016)

Reading 1: from "Of Future Retribution"
This reading references a murder that was quite famous at the time: When, in 1832, a pregnant mill worker was found hanged, the investigation implicated a prominent Methodist minister. Fearing adverse publicity, both the industrialists of Fall River and the New England Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church engaged in energetic campaigns to obtain a favorable verdict. [i]

As the subject we are now laboring is of the utmost consequence to the religious and moral interest of community, we feel justified in endeavoring to illustrate it to the understanding of the most feeble minds. For this purpose we will make use of a melancholy circumstance, which has greatly agitated the people of New England, and carried grief and deep sorrow into many thousands of hearts. We mean the murder which people generally believe was committed at Fall River. Perhaps few men, in their preaching of future punishment, have been more zealous than the man who the people believe committed that deed; ... Look now at the facts of the case. Of what benefit was the doctrine of future punishment to the man, who had so long preached it, and who committed the murder? Again; of what use was the fear of punishment, in this world, to him who flattered himself that he could commit the murder, and yet screen himself from the penalty of the law? It was not in the power of the fear of future punishment, nor of punishment from the laws of the land, to prevent the crime. But had that man been half as fearful of committing that crime as he was of being found out, and punished according to the law, the poor girl, whose sad fate we deplore, would not have lost her life by his hands.  … if he was guilty, neither the fear of future punishment, nor the fear of temporal punishment, was of any avail; while it is perfectly clear, that had the crime itself been the object of fear, he would not have committed it.

By the light in which we now stand, we see that the only fear which can be sure to prevent crime, is the fear of committing it ; and therefore, that sin itself ought to be considered as the greatest evil, and the evil most to be dreaded.

[It will ] be asked why I should fear sin? Answer; because it will make me miserable if I commit it. There is no priest that I can apply to, who can prevent my suffering, if I am a sinner. If I fear a prison or a gallows, or a punishment in the future world, I may flatter myself that some way may be provided, by which I may escape them; but if I fear sin itself, I know, if I am a sinner, I must endure that evil. [ p. 33]

Reading 2: Hudson LETTER IX. 289
You say, that virtue is rewarded in this world; we believe in ail the reward which is enjoyed in this world, and also in an additional reward hereafter. And will in-creasing the reward make people less virtuous? No; the reward will be greater, the motive more powerful, and consequently will be more likely to stimulate to virtue. Our system not only exhibits a greater incentive to virtue, than yours, but it lays a greater restraint upon vice. Your doctrine tells the villain who is plotting the assassination of his fellow creatures, that if he falls in his attempt, superlative glory will be his immediate portion; ours tells him, that if he loses his life in such a horrid attempt, he will experience a state of correction and chastisement. Armed with your system, might not the robber go forth with composure, and say to himself, I am sinning, it is true, but if I succeed I shall obtain a fortune; and if I lose my life in the attempt, I shall go in an instant to the enjoyment of heaven? In either case I shall be a gainer, he might very naturally say, therefore I will embark immediately in this bold adventure*[ii]

It’s easy to understand why Ballou would have used the case of Methodist Minister Ephraim Kingsbury Avery to illustrate his point about sin and punishment. Here was a Fire and Brimstone preacher accused but acquitted of the murder of a young woman who may have been pregnant with his child. Tempers were hot all over New England when he was released. Trying to make a point about whether or not the fear of future punishment in the fires of hell was an effective deterrent against crime, Ballou writes “… if he was guilty, neither the fear of future punishment, nor the fear of temporal punishment, was of any avail”

Way back in the early days of Universalism, Universalists had come together around the idea that an all loving and all powerful God would not create souls doomed to hell right from the start. Surely all people had a chance to be saved from the eternal torment that preachers of the day loved to fill their Sunday mornings. Ballou held that “to argue for endless punishment would be to argue for a permanent, eternal division in the fabric of the cosmos, a dualism so monstrous that it would rout any claims of the omnipotence of God.” [Robinson p. 65] Historian Thomas Whittemore, one of the earliest historians of Universalism[iii], described Universalists as those who believed in the eventual holiness and happiness of all the human race” [Robinson p. 71]

One of the most charismatic figures in early American Universalism, Hossa Ballou challenged not only the orthodoxy of the Calvinists, but the orthodoxy of the first generation of Universalists like John Murray asking: “Is God the unreconciled or dissatisfied party, or is man?” [Robinson p. 64] For Ballou, God’s love for us never wavered, but it was we who are dissatisfied, we who need to atone and be reconciled, to renew our love for God.

But among the Universalists the question arose, “what about people who do something genuinely harmful, something one might call evil?” Back when UUCAS was called The Universalist Society of Sheshequin, and we had not yet built our historic meeting house, this question caused a great debate almost tore Universalism apart.

On the one side were the Restorationists who believe that the soul would be disciplined or educated in a period following death, and eventually the soul would be ready for eternal holiness and happiness. For these Universalists, Hell did exist for the unrepentant and “It’s very purpose was to cause repentance” [Robinson p. 66] “Those who believed in free will reasoned that a soul could not be fully restored until it wanted to be saved and, as souls can be very stubborn, a change of heart could require a lot of time, perhaps a hundred thousand years.”[iv]

On the other side were the Ultra-Universalists or Death and Glory Universalists. Whereas early Universalists, and the more orthodox Universalists of Ballou’s time believed in a literal hell, Ballou believe “Hell is not merely a place of punishment but a state of rebellion against God and against the unity of humans and God. Heaven is the accomplishment of that unity.” [Robinson p. 65] So when Ballou claims that that the soul would experience immediate salvation upon death, he is not imagining the soul entering the orthodox heaven of pearly gates and streets paved with gold, but the reunification of the soul with God. Hosea Ballou believed that sin was its own punishment, so there was no need for punishment after death. “Since the dead can no longer sin, it would make no sense for a rational God to punish them in the afterlife”.[v]

The controversy started amiably enough. Ballou and his friend and fellow Universalist minister Edward Turner debated the issue in their correspondence. At first Ballou’s position was not that different from his friend’s but by 1817, when the debate was published in the Universalist magazine Gospel Visitant Ballou was a confirmed “Ultra-Universalist” – that is to say he believed there was no “future punishment” at all. He argued: “The only fear which can be sure to prevent crime, is the fear of committing it; and therefore…sin itself ought to be considered as the greatest evil, and the evil most to be dreaded.” [Robinson p. 68]. To Ballou, the punishment for sin was sin itself. “why I should fear sin? Answer; Because it will make me miserable if I commit it.”

The debate grew more heated. Letters of increasing sharpness on both sides of the issue appeared in the Universalist Magazine until late 1820s . Ballou’s great-nephew Hosea Ballou 2nd and Thomas Whittemore took the side of Ultra-Universalism. And on the responding side, Charles Hudson, a minster from Westminster MASS, wrote those this morning’s second reading, the full title of which is “A series of letters addressed to Rev. Hosea Ballou, of Boston : being a vindication of the doctrine of a future retribution against the principal arguments used by him, Mr. Balfour, and others” first published in 1827. Also on the side of the Restorations were Paul Dean (who succeeded John Murray at First Church) and Jacob Wood “an erratic young minister” took Turner’s side. Wood wanted to make future punishment an official part of the doctrine of Universalism and was willing to push the denomination to Schism over it.

And so Universalism split in two. A group of restorationists lead by Adin Ballou and Paul Dean split off from the main body of Universalism and in 1831-1841 this faction formed the Massachusetts Association of Universal Restorationists.

The rest of the Universalists stayed with the denomination even though most were restorationists. In 1834 Ballou wrote “An Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution” from which we had our readings this morning, by 1841 the break-off group had folded- even within the group there were too many different opinions, and energy soon faded to base identity on this one theological point, the cause of abolition had a much stronger pull.

In Universalism at large, the Restorationist position was dominant in 19th cen. coming out of this controversy. Ballou’s thinking on the subject of the nature of sin, however, continued to be very important. It is a precursor anticipates the Natural Theology of Channing and Emerson who said in 1841 “You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong”. The argument faded with time, and it’s most enduring legacy is that it gave so much opportunity for writing. Early Universalism was mostly an oral tradition, spread and developed form the pulpit, and so this debate provided one of the main wellsprings of theological writing by early Universalists.

Today there is very little talk among UUs about hell, or about salvation. But that Universalist impulse is still there in our first UU principles, “The inherent worth and dignity of all people” It takes the old Universalist idea that God loves each and every one of us, and reframes it as a humanist idea -- without exception every person has worth. Whether we are atheists or theists, we believe the world is not divided into 2 camps- worthy and unworthy, but that we are all one.

I was teaching a class on our UU principles many years ago and we began to discuss the question “which of our principles do you like the best, and which gives you the most trouble” this first principle was the top answer to both questions.

Affirming and promoting inherent worth and dignity of all people is an idea big enough to spend a lifetime working towards. It answers the fundamentalist question “are you saved” with the refrain “no one is left behind” but also gives us a starting place to work for justice and live lives of compassion. It suggests an alternative to the popular idea some of us deserve a live of comfort and others deserve their suffering, affirming that every single one of us has worth, and so we work for the dignity of all.

The spiritual work, the internal work, comes when we look deeply at what it means for all of us to have inherent worth. Think of someone you love to hate- it could be anyone form the neighbor who always parks you in, to the political figure that makes your blood boil every time you see them on TV. When you hear that UUs don’t believe in hell, this is the person for whom you would make an exception. Consider, even, the murderer of that young woman in Fall River almost 200 years ago. I’m not asking you to condone the act, but to ask yourself the difficult theological question “did that murderer start out his life somehow marked, somehow a different kind of being than you and I?” and then we have to ask ourselves “Is he still like you and me, or is he now less than human because he committed that act? Does he still have free will to choose good over evil in any given moment?” And if we believe he is still human, and still has free will to choose good, to choose life, then his life has worth. Indeed this is one of the most challenging parts of our Universalist faith.

Just as challenging for many of us, however, is to realize that if all people have inherent worth, then I myself must have inherent worth. Worth, not just because of what I achieve at my job, or the friends I make, but inherent worth, un-earned worth; just by virtue of being part of the web of life I have worth. Like the mother in our children’s story today, God loves us even when we are slimy and smelly, stinky and scary. And as Hossea Ballou wrote 200 years ago, our task is not to convince God to love us, because God’s love for us never ceases. We reconcile and atone by a renewing our own love.

Early Universalism reminds us the God’s love is unconditional- we are all one and will all be reunited in the end. And the Restorationist controversy shows us that there is room for theological diversity in our tradition- room for those wo believed that once we die we return immediately to our source, and room for those who believe that some folks have gotten so far away from goodness and from God that their journey home may be a long one. Of course today there is room for humanism and atheism as well as all of us try to live our lives I a way that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, even those who fill us with rage. We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity even of our own self, when we feel the least worthy. The Spirit of Life holds us in love, and calls us always to atonement, reconciliation, and a renewal of love.


[vi] An excellent introduction to Metta Meditation

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