The usual retelling of Universalism’s decline relies on people no longer fearing endless damnation in hell, or as the neo-Universalists abbreviate it: ECT, “eternal conscious torment”. So, Universalism’s downfall is explained as a loss of market share, and not, say for want of money, organization or talent. Assuming the conventional wisdom is the case sociologically, it is far from the case theologically. It doesn’t take long watching the news or Twitter to see that people are cruel and vicious. Mob rule is more convincing than reason. Who speaks in defence of mercy? If there was a button that could consign others to eternal conscious torment, I’d bet it would already be well-worn. If few people believe in hell on the old terms, many more would be willing to replace it with something of their own creation. Those people need a revived Universalism, or their victims do.
Nineteenth-century Universalists published a number of all-in-one guides. Each had some assortment of theological essays, thumbnail histories, Universalist interpretations of difficult passages, polity document and worship resources. A typical example is Thomas Whittemore’s 1840 Plain Guide to Universalism with the lofty goal in its subtitle “designed to lead inquirers to the belief of that doctrine, and believers to the practice of it.”
Whittemore starts his book by defining what a Universalist is.
Universalists are those who believe in the eventual holiness and happiness of all the human race, as revealed to the world in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A few pages later, he alludes to the Restorationist/Ultra-Universalist distinction, but won’t bite
An attempt has been recently made to distinguish Universalists only by a disbelief in future punishment. Such an attempt is unjustifiable. They agree in the great doctrine of the final holiness and happiness of all men; and they leave every man to form his own opinion in regard to the times and seasons when this great event shall transpire.
I think that’s right. Universalism is not fire insurance. It’s not about hell, nor church participation or even diversity of belief. The core hope is that we would be one with another and with God, and together the better for it. It is about what we can look forward to, and how that shapes us now.
Universalism is not about hell. Universalism is about our common, happy future and the power we draw from that hope. We can comfort and strengthen those who been given lies and threats, rather than blessings and assurance. That’s reason enough to contine our work.
Please tell your friends and associates about the Universalist Christian Initiative. They can sign up for these updates at universalistchristian.org/join/.
(The Rev.) Scott Wells