Why I Am a Universalist

The Hon. Phineas T. Barnum

In 1890, the famous circus entertainer P. T. Barnum offered readers his reasons why Universalism must be true. Universalist Publishing House sold a hundred thousand copies in the first three years. Later, it was translated into Japanese, and it circulated for free as late as the middle of the twentieth century. As a historical document,  Why I Am a Universalist  offers a representative insight of why Universalism appealed to seekers in the nineteenth century. The reader today will also find inspiring nuggets. The work has a personal quality and its testimony continues the theme: God is good, and good for all. Scott Wells.

I was educated in the strictest so-called “Orthodox faith.” when I was from ten to fourteen years of age, I attended prayer meetings where I could almost feel the burning waves and smell the sulphurous fumes. I remember the shrieks and groans of suffering children and parents and even aged grandparents. I would return to my home and with the utmost sincerity ask God to take me out of the world if He would only save me from hell. I professed to love God, said I hoped I loved Him as I heard my elders do. Necessarily before this seething sulphurous sea of flame my love must have been similar to the love a woman would feel to a tyrant who with a loaded pistol pointed at her heart bade her love him or die. I grew to know that true love can not be forced. We can not love the unlovely. “We love Him because He first loved us.”

In speaking of my Universalist faith I shall not stop to defend those basal beliefs on which it rests in common with all other Christian doctrines. I shall assume, without giving my reasons, the being of God, the authority of Jesus, the truth of the trend of Scripture, and the immortality of all souls. I shall speak chiefly on only those points which differentiate mine from other Christian sects.

I will say a word in regard to the use I make of the Bible, for that use which will have force with some will be wasted space to others. I have only contempt for a fusillade of texts, or a culling out one here and one there regardless of contexts, or an exegesis which makes one text which is a statement of some old fighting Hebrew’s conception of God as “angry endlessly” outweigh fifty texts stating his better conception that “His mercy endureth forever.” So far as I have read I find no doctrine supported by the general trend of the whole Scriptures which is not also supported by reason and experience, and therefore to be believed. The New Testament system of religion is not true because Jesus said so; but Jesus said so because it is true. Its confirmation is not chiefly in inspiration and miracle but in the deepest experience of the best souls in all ages. The Word of God to men did not cease when the New Testament canon closed. Still is the best thought of the best men in all lands the ever-speaking Word of God.

As Robinson of Leyden said, “The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of his Holy Word.” Said Lowell in his “Cathedral,” “I fear not Thy withdrawal; more I fear seeing, to know Thee not, hoodwinked with dreams of signs and wonders, while, unnoticed, Thou walking Thy garden still commun’st with men.” I shall appeal with confidence to God’s Word in the trend of Scripture, in Jesus and in the nature of man.

Not a few are prejudiced against the Universalists because they have seen only a distortion or caricature of their belief. An honest glance at our written creed or our current literature will show any one that we know “that holiness and happiness are inseparably connected.” To the Universalists, heaven in its essential nature is not a locality, but a moral and spiritual status, and salvation is not securing one place and avoiding another, but salvation is finding eternal life. Immortal life is merely endless existence after bodily death. All souls, saints and sinners, do go together into immortal life just as they were together in, this life. Eternal life has primarily no reference to time or place, but to a quality. Jesus said, “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent.” Immortal life is existence regardless of quality. Eternal life is right life, here, there, everywhere. Men may be locally together in this or in immortal life, and still be spiritually and morally separate. The murderer at death enters immortal life; “but ye know that no murderer hath eternal life *abiding in him” *(1 John 3 :15). Why did John say “abiding in him,” if eternal life is a place men go to? So long as man harbors the spirit of murder or any other evil spirit he has not eternal life abiding in him, and locality has nothing to do with the matter. I believe that finally every created soul will be drawn, not forced, to choose to seek, and when he chooses to seek will be helped to find eternal life. I have no knowledge of place or time. I have the great hope. I will condense into a narrow space a few reasons for this hope.

  1. I base this belief “for my belief and hope are one” on the attributes of God as admitted by all Christians. Infinite Wisdom knows the end from the beginning, and will not in the beginning create what will defeat the end. Infinite Power is able to control all things toward a desired end. Infinite Love, as expressed in the words “Our Father,” will do the best for its children. What shall we say of the attribute of justice? No attribute has been so belittled as this. We once heard that since man’s sin was infinite, justice demanded infinite punishment; now it is changed to the statement, if men sin endlessly, justice demands they be punished endlessly. Both these statements are an abortion, a caricature of justice. No finite man can commit an infinite sin. If any man sin endlessly, justice can not be satisfied, but only endlessly thwarted. Justice demands obedience to just law. It is never satisfied with less. As God is a just God, so nothing is ever settled until it is settled right.
  2. I base my hope on the office and character of Jesus Christ. I see in his life no clumsy mechanical device of vicarious atonement. He did not shed blood to appease an angry Deity. The Deity does not want blood, He wants obedience. The life and teachings and death of Jesus are the supreme appeal to all mankind. The character and purpose of Jesus are most comprehensively stated in the parables of “The Lost Sheep,” “The Lost Piece of Silver,” “The Prodigal Son.” The final declaration of his purpose he told when he declared, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” The completion of this purpose man’s rebellion may delay, but can not disappoint or annul.
  3. I base my hope on the trend of Scripture. It is well known that a comparatively small portion of Scripture bears on this immortal life and the great end of our course. *Conduct * is three-fourths of life. This present life is the great pressing concern. A very large portion of the Old Testament dwells on righteousness and its earthly temporal rewards, or sin with its temporal punishments. The New Testament is a great appeal to men to build character, seek eternal life, and “now is the accepted time.” A solemn reserve is thrown over the future life; the great emphasis is on the present time. This is precisely as it should be. Not a few threats of judgment and promises of joy have been stupidly and persistently thrust over there which belong here.
  4. I base my hope on the Word of God speaking in the best heart and conscience of the race “the Word heard in the best poems and songs, the best prayers and hopes of humanity. The ages have been darkest when this hope was lowest. It can not be successfully controverted that out of the six theological schools of the Early Church four taught the doctrines of Universalism, only one annihilation of the wicked, and one their endless punishment. To-day no preacher in his fiercest sermons approximates to such utterances as those of Jonathan Edwards. If he did he would not be tolerated a year. The Christian pulpit is silent on the doctrine of endless punishment, or else denies it.

I wish to contrast two utterances, and leave the reader to judge which is the noblest. One is this utterance of a leading Orthodox preacher:

“Nearly all the heterodox people I know of believe all are coming out at the same destiny without regard to faith and character: Nero and Wesley, Guiteau and Garfield. I turn away from such a debauched heaven. Against that cauldron of beastliness I place the two destinies of the Bible forever and forever apart.”

This is the surviving remnant of the idea once so vividly preached that the saints in heaven need the sight of hell to complete their joys. The other utterance I contrast to the above is Hawthorne’s in “Glimpses of English Poverty.” He says of the wretched London poor:

“How difficult to believe that anything so precious as a germ of immortal growth can have been plunged into this cesspool of vice! Oh, what a mystery! Slowly, slowly, as after groping at the bottom of a deep, noisome pool, my hope struggles upward to the surface, bearing the half-drowned body of a child and bearing it aloft for its own life, and my own life, and all our lives. Unless these slime-clogged nostrils can be made capable of inhaling celestial air, I know not how the purest and most intellectual of us can reasonably expect ever to taste a breath of it. The whole question of eternity is staked there. If a single one of those helpless little ones be lost, the world is lost.”

Which of these two sentiments is most like the Jesus of the people?

No Christian prays for endless sin and punishment. If God permits it, it must be good and right. Why not pray for it? All Christians pray for the salvation of sinners, and yet Orthodox Christians profess to belief it will never be. The first essential of prayer is that it be in faith. The Universalist Church is the only one that believes in success.

Against my hope is quoted the Bible word “hell.” The Universalist is characterized as one who does not believe in hell. We believe the Bible doctrine of hell. Sin in a soul is fitly symbolized by the words Gehenna, Hades, Sheol, and Tartarus. Not one of these words primarily means a place of torment after death. The word “hell” in its old English sense of “to cover” was a passable translation of these original words, but in its present Orthodox sense is not a translation of one of them, but an unwarranted substitution.

What are we to say when these substantives are described by the adjectives “everlasting,” “forever and forever,” etc? What is the Bible use of these adjectives? They are applied to God and immortal life; here we know they mean endless from the nature of the subject. They are applied to the rainbow, Levitical rites, Jewish possession of Canaan, hills and stars; here we know from the nature of the subject they do not mean endless. These adjectives are therefore indefinite, and take their force from the nature of the subject to which they are applied. That eminent Bible scholar, Professor Taylor Lewis, said: “The preacher in contending with the Universalist would commit the error, and it may be suffer a failure in his argument, should he lay the whole stress of it on the etymological or historical significance of the words  aion and  aionios, and attempt to prove that of themselves they necessarily carry the meaning of endless duration.” (Lange’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, p. 48.)

This is an honest concession from a great Orthodox scholar of what my Church has always contended for. On Sunday, Nov. 11, 1877, in Westminster Abbey, the great preacher, Canon Farrar, said very impressively: “I ask you where would be the popular teachings about hell if we calmly and deliberately erased from our English Bibles the three words “damnation’, “hell,’ and “everlasting?’ Yet I say unhesitatingly, I say, claiming the fullest right to speak with the authority of knowledge, I say with the calmest and most unflinching sense of responsibility, I say, standing here in the sight of God and my Saviour, and, it may be, of the angels and the spirits of the dead, that not one of these words ought to stand any longer in the English Bible.”

Thus I sketch in merest outline my reasons for saying that none of the objections made are sufficient to undermine the bases on which I rest my hope that all will finally seek and find eternal life.