“SOFT SEATS & NO HELL”: UNIVERSALISM THEN AND NOW
A TITLE IN SEARCH OF A SERMON
Richard S. Gilbert – First Universalist Church - Rochester – 10/18/09
Years ago I came upon a phrase that tickled my theological funny bone: "Soft Seats and No Hell." It
was clearly a title in search of a sermon. The phrase comes from the Rev. Lewis H. Robinson, minister
of the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church in Albion, New York, from 1921-1941. He used that
phrase to encourage people to come to church. Not only did he tout the seating comfort of that
beautiful cobblestone church, but he had also put his finger on the distinctive doctrine of Universalism,
universal salvation, the final harmony of all souls with God. God is love.
Universalism rejected the doctrine of pre-destination – the 16
century reformer John Calvin’s belief
that some at birth were destined for heaven, some for hell. It replaced a vengeful God of judgment
with a merciful God of love. Or as my late colleague Leonard Mason put it:
“Come return to your place in the pews,
And hear our heretical views:
You were not born in sin,
So life up your chin –
You have only your dogmas to lose.”
It was a disillusioned Methodist preacher, John Murray, who brought this heresy to these shores in
1770. And heretical it was, as Universalists and Calvinists engaged in theological warfare. There were
two John Murrays in Boston at the turn of the 19th Century, "Damnation Murray," and "Salvation
Murray," to distinguish Calvinist from Universalist. The unpopularity of the latter, our John Murray, is
evident in these words from his autobiography describing a Sunday morning sermon in Boston: "At
length, a large rugged stone, weight about a pound and a half, was forcibly thrown in at the window
behind my back; it missed me. Had it sped, as it was aimed, it must have killed me. Lifting it up, and
waving it in the view of the people, I observed, 'This argument is solid, and weighty, but it is neither
rational, nor convincing. Not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth,
or arrest my testimony."' These Universalists took their faith seriously.
Take Noah Murray, a minister in Pennsylvania, whose Universalist church grew so rapidly that two of
the local mainline preachers decided they had better do something about it. They kidnapped Murray
and took him to the basement of one of their churches, where they kept him for three days and nights,
arguing theology. At the end of that time, Noah Murray was set free, having converted both of them.
Or take Hosea Ballou, the pre-eminent 19th century preacher of universal salvation, who was riding
the circuit in the New Hampshire hills with a Baptist minister one day, arguing theology as they
traveled. At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, "Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and
feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away,
and I’d still go to heaven." Hosea Ballou looked over at him and said, "If you were a Universalist, the
idea would never occur to you." Ballou knew the importance of being good – for nothing – goodness
was its own reward; evil carried its own punishment.
Ballou defended his faith in a pivotal 1803 book, A Treatise on the Atonement, in which he argued that
we are assured salvation, not by the death of Jesus on the cross which atoned for all humanity’s sins,
but by the life of Jesus with his belief in love to God and love to neighbor. Ballou linked the Universal
Fatherhood of God with the Universal Brotherhood of man, in the language of the day. His was the
first book published in America which denied the trinity. Ballou was the first Unitarian Universalist.
His theology had powerful ethical implications: He said: "There is one inevitable criterion of
judgment touching religious faith in doctrinal matters: Can you reduce it to practice? If not, have none
The great Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker was so impressed by these Universalists that he once
said in a letter to colleague Samuel J. May of Lexington, June 14, 1847: “The Universalists are more
human than we; they declare the Fatherhood of God and do not stick at the consequences. Everlasting
happiness to all men. I think they are the most human sect in the land.”
However, the Universalist heresy escaped neither the notice nor the wrath of the orthodox clergy. One
delighted his hearers by referring to the Universalist church as "the Fire Insurance Company" because
"all its members were assured a place in hell." A letter to the editor at The Universalist Magazine,
April 8, 1820, read: "My good Friend: Continue as you have done widely to disseminate your princely
magazine, and be assured that you will shortly have one of the most exalted thrones among us. Yours
with all the love of a fiend, Nick Lucifer." Another detractor called Universalism "a flesh-pleasing,
conscience-soothing doctrine will not only justify neglect of God and man, but gives fallen nature an
unlimited license to serve the devil with greediness in any and every possible way that his degenerate
fallen soul requires or desires."
Nevertheless, for its practitioners Universalism was a difficult gospel: to practice what one preaches -
to take the love of God for humanity and themselves practice it by loving the human family. The
appealing image of "soft seats and no hell" was turned on its head. Universalists found their seats hard
with the call of conscience and their hells in the evils of this world. They tried to create a heaven on
If we think of the theological - our relation to what is ultimate - as the vertical dimension of religion,
and the ethical - our relation to our neighbors on earth - as the horizontal dimension of religion, then
the vertical puts pressure on the horizontal. Our basic beliefs cry out for action. Universalism,
originating in the vertical dimension of faith, now faced the daunting prospect of transforming it into
the horizontal – converting faith into love, theology into ethics, religion into behavior.
Universalists figure prominently in the history of social reform in America. Salvation John Murray,
one of George Washington’s chaplains during the Revolutionary War, had taken in a slave, Gloster
Dalton, as a charter member of the first Universalist Church in America, Gloucester, Massachusetts,
and championed the separation of church and state. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of
Independence, was father of American psychiatry, founder of the first anti-slavery society in America
and promoted a Department of Peace. Adin Ballou’s book Christian Non-Resistance influenced Leo
Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. There was Clara Barton, founder of the American
Red Cross, who founded the first chapter of the American Red Cross in Dansville, New York, and the
second chapter in Rochester with a member of the First Unitarian Church, Susan B. Anthony.
Maria Cook was the first woman licensed as a Universalist preacher in 1815. Olympia Brown was the
first woman ordained by a denomination, the St. Lawrence Universalist Association in 1863; she was a
graduate of my alma mater, St. Lawrence University Theological School. An ardent suffragette Brown
worked with Susan B. Anthony, and in 1915, in her 80’s, picketed the White House urging President
Wilson to grant women the right to vote.
In the 19
century, Universalists had persisted and prospered. One can understand the appeal of being
told one is a child of God destined for salvation after being harangued as "sinner in the hands of an
angry God." So popular did Universalism become that by the middle of the 19
century its 500,000
adherents made it the 6th largest denomination in the nation, no less than 3% of the total population.
Our current Unitarian Universalist percentage of the population is closer to one-tenth of one percent.
The rapid growth of Universalism in Western New York in the 1830s has been attributed in part to the
very fact that "people became satiated with protracted meetings and revivals. . . . One result of the
general spirit of revivalism in Ohio, according to Universalist interpretation, was making many
converts from the faith of endless woe.” The popularity of an optimistic faith in which all would be
saved had an understandable appeal. But by the time of consolidation with the larger American
Unitarian Association in 1961, it had become one of the smallest denominations. Why? What
There are at least two reasons, one theological, one organizational. By the last quarter of the 19th
century, the scientific revolution, Biblical criticism and a nascent secularism simply made hell less
fearful and heaven more remote. People who had before found universal salvation appealing for their
souls, no longer worried about their ultimate destiny, Universalism was regarded as just one more
Organizationally, Universalists were an independent lot. They did not trust central church authority
and so lacked organizational discipline to spread the gospel once its theological appeal wavered. So
stubborn and anti-establishment were the Universalists that “. . . one little congregation in southern
New York State refused to meet on Sunday mornings because that would have ‘smacked of
Ethical universalism was not destined to be as popular a movement as theological universalism. In
theological universalism God acted to save humankind; we were encouraged, but not really required to
act in kind. Ethical Universalism was not a set of theological doctrines but a demanding way of life.
The onus was on us.
And so I suggest universal salvation is no mere historic anachronism, no merely interesting theological
footnote. Universal salvation, the core of Universalism, reconsidered and reinterpreted, is still a
distinctive doctrine for Unitarian Universalists today. I further submit that it is a most radical doctrine,
and this perhaps suggests one reason why our liberal religious movement has not grown as did its
predecessor Universalist denomination a century and a half ago. The Universalist impulse - to save
humanity - is alive and well, but it has changed its beat.
Ethical universalism, however appealing in the abstract, is far less so when it means equal treatment of
one's immediate neighbors of every race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class and nationality. It
is simply hard to love one's neighbor, near and far. Or, as one wag said, “I love humanity; it’s my next
door neighbor I can’t stand!”
In theological Universalism it was the love of God for humanity which was decisive for heavenly
salvation. In ethical Universalism, it is we who are required to be the agents of an earthly salvation.
Universalism is a powerful word in our fragmented society with its culture wars, its ethnic and
economic separation, its partisan bickering. In a world of increasing divisions, the Universalist
impulse to include everyone in the human family is imperative.
This Universalist impulse stands in prophetic judgment over divisions of class and speaks the religious
word to those powers and principalities, public and private, which increase the gap between the haves
and have-nots in our land and abroad.
It stands in judgment over those policies and policy makers who increase divisions of race in our land.
It rebukes homophobia wherever it surfaces.
Its breadth of moral concern compels us to consider nature, not as a commodity to simply be used, but
as a revered community in which we live and move and have our being. It enables us to take a God's
eye view of the world, in which all nations and peoples are worthy of respect as children of God -
children of Humanity. The planet is our parish.
In the words of poet Edwin Markham, as he left what is now New York City's Fourth Universalist
Church after worshiping there:
"They drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in."
In Universalism we simply accept the fact we are accepted. We need to move from theological to
ethical universalism, from the general to the particular. It is like the story of the preacher who was
candidating for a pulpit in a small country town. After the first sermon, "Thou Shalt Not Steal," he
received rave reviews and many wished to extend the call on the basis of only one sermon. However,
after the second sermon he was run out of town, tarred and feathered. He had preached on the theme:
"Thou Shalt Not Steal Chickens." Between the two is a world of difference.
“Soft seats and no Hell” was a clever slogan early in the last century, but now we need to get up out of
our seats and work to build the Beloved Community - a heaven on earth. Universalism is an idea
whose time has come. As one sympathetic observer said: “(You) Universalists . . . have squatted on
the biggest word in the English language. Now the world is beginning to want that word, and you
Universalists must either improve the property or move off the premises.”
1. Adapted from Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, and from research by the Rev. Margaret K.
Gooding and the Rev. A. Phillip Hewett, UU World, 7/8/93, p. 20.
2. UU World July/August 1993, p. 21.