WHAT IS UNIVERSALISM ?

David S.Lawyer, mailto:dave@lafn.org

July 16, 1995, Minor Revisions 2001-4

1. What "Universalism" Means

2. Universalist Church Theology

3. Hell

4. Universalism Today

5. Bibliography

6. Appendix


1. What "Universalism" Means

The sermon for this Sunday will be "West Coast Universalism", but before I start the sermon we need to know what the word "Universalism" means. This word can have many meanings but in the religious sense it has mainly one meaning outside of the Unitarian Universalist religion: universal salvation. This means that every person eventually goes to heaven. Note carefully the qualifying word "eventually". This may imply that sinners are punished for a finite period of time after death before going to heaven.

Within the Unitarian Universalist religion "Universalism" has a different meaning. It often is taken to mean the religion of the Universalist Church prior to the merger with the Unitarians in 1961.

The non-religious use of this word is common today in academic circles. It is commonly used to mean universal in scope. For example, it is sometimes said that the American labor movement was representative of universalism because it included various races and classes. From now on we'll use this word only in it's religious sense.

2. Universalist Church Theology

The Universalist Church supported a belief in universalism in their "Winchester Profession of Faith" which they kept on their books from about 1800 until their merger with the Unitarians in 1961. However during their last 25 years of their existence (from 1935 to 1961) a new statement of belief held sway which made no mention of universal salvation. Still, the Winchester Profession remained as an alternate optional belief system with the subtle implication that it was passe. Belief in it was strong among the older members, most of whom are not alive today.

Thus, most former Universalists who are still alive today don't believe in universalism as defined above. But even prior to the 1935 change, many Universalists didn't believe in that universalism. For example, in 1919 the "Universalist Leader", the major weekly magazine of the denomination, printed the "Essential Principles of the Universalist Faith" on the cover of each issue. After stating the beliefs in Jesus Christ, the Bible, "the certainty of just retribution for sin", and a belief that everyone goes to heaven it states: "Neither this nor any other precise form of words is required as a condition of fellowship." In other words you don't really need to believe in our dogma to join us. Even in the 19th century some Universalists felt that belief in the Winchester Profession was optional.

One might argue that universalism means whatever the Universalist Church believed in. Prior to 1935 this officially was universal salvation. In 1935 the "Bond of Fellowship and Statements of Faith" was adopted (see note1 for the full text of this document). The result was that the Universalist Church became officially almost like a church without dogma, where one could believe in almost anything reasonable.

The 1935 "Bond ..." had two parts. The first part is the new statement of beliefs while the long second part is a statement of the old beliefs. A first reading of it makes one think that the original beliefs still hold sway until one gets to the end of the second part. It's then made clear that belief in the second part is merely optional. Thus the meat of the 1935 "Bond ..." is just the first paragraph which contains the new beliefs.

This first paragraph (at first reading) seems like a clear statement of beliefs but closer examination shows it to be quite ambiguous. It states a "common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it" and avows "faith in God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love, in ..., in the authority of truth known or to be known...". At first glance one might interpret the "faith in God" part as meaning that faith is like love. A more careful reading shows that this statement may be equating God to Love. Thus what it really seems to mean is faith in Love and not necessarily in a supernatural God.. However this is not what Jesus meant by faith in God. No mention is made of the Bible. What if there is a conflict between "truth" and the revelations of Jesus? An unsuccessful attempt was made to revise the wording so as to make it consistent by placing less emphasis on Jesus.

The 1935 Bond ... asks us to "establish the kingdom of God". This likely means reforming the world and creating an earth that is more like a hypothetical heaven. It says nothing about salvation or heaven. Thus, in spite of its ambiguity (and some hyperbole in calling the outmoded Winchester Profession "genius") the 1935 change was a epochal change towards truth and liberalism.

If universalism is to mean what the 1935 statement said, its meaning will be both broad and partly ambiguous. The dictionary definition remains that of universal salvation and this is the meaning of the word as used in various books on religion. As far as I know, the UU's have made no attempt to redefine universalism.

3. Hell

A common misconception is that universalism (original definition) doesn't believe in hell. Universalism rejects only the concept of everlasting hell, believing that if hell (or Purgatory) does exit, ones soul only stays there for only a finite duration before going to heaven. In the 19th century there was a great deal of controversy and discussion about this. The schism even resulted in forming a rebel organization. Eventually, the concept of certain punishment for sin became the majority viewpoint. Such punishment might need to take place after death if it didn't occur in life.

In my opinion, it's both unjust and immoral to permit wrongdoing (which has not been punished on earth) to be rewarding by going to heaven without any punishment. Of course, one could propose that wrongdoers would go to neither heaven nor hell while only good people would go to heaven but that's not universalism.

4. Universalism Today

Today few UU's believe in universalism as originally defined (see note2 ). One might expect that the older members who formerly belonged to the Universalist Church would mostly believe in such universalism, but this is not the case. The reason for this is that the theology of the Universalist Church changed over time. Originally they strongly supported the dogma of universalism. But by the time of the merger in 1961, they had evolved into a religion without dogma, much like the Unitarians.

Ironically, universalist views are very much alive today among Christians with perhaps 15% of the US population believing in it (see note3 ). Since only about one person in a thousand is a UU, and it's likely that a higher percentage of non-UU's believe in universalism, then for every UU universalist there are over a thousand non-UU universalists. In the past half-century, some books have been published supporting the concept of universal salvation. See bibliog_

In the past several years a couple of books have been published opposing universalism, both by evangelical Christians. See bibliog_ . Most UU's also disagree with universalism, but for different reasons. The evangelical Christians say universalism is wrong because eternal hell really does exist. Most UU's disagree with universalism because they are not convinced that heaven actually exists. Why were these anti-universalism books written? They were written to try to impede the contemporary spread of universalist views.

One wonders if the time is not ripe to launch a new universalist church which would preach universal salvation. If it only drew 1% of the people who believe in universalism in the US, it would be just as large as the present UU church in America. People in such a church who eventually lost their belief in heaven might be encouraged to then join a UU church (possibly after a name change).

5. Bibliography

Recent books supporting universal salvation(Universalism per dictionary definition):

Death and Eternal Life, by John Hick. San Francisco: Harper & Row 1976. On p. 259 he writes" "We must thus affirm the ultimate salvation of all mankind..."

The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott. Universal Publishers; 1st edition (October 1, 1999) paperback.

If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person by Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland. San Francisco: Harper Publishing Company 1986.

God does not foreclose : the universal promise of salvation. by David Lowes Watson. Nashville : Abingdon Press, c1990.

Love Wins; a book about heaven and hell and the fate of every person who has ever lived, by Rob Bell. HarperCollins 2011. A best seller but doesn't directly advocate universalism.

Recent articles and books opposing universal salvation

The Growing Trend toward "Universalism" by Wayne Jackson. Christian Courier: Penpoints. Monday, January 5, 2004

Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, edited by Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Baker Book House, 1992.

6. Appendix

6.1 The Bond of Fellowship and Statements of Faith

(Adopted at Washington DC, 1935)

1. The bond of fellowship in the convention [church] shall be a common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to cooperate in establishing the kingdom for which he lived and died. To that end we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every human personality, in the authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God. Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test, provided that the faith thus indicated be professed.

2a. The Winchester Profession of Faith: We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

2b. Creed and Conditions of Fellowship: The Profession of Faith adopted by this body at its session at Winchester, N.H., A.D. 1803, is as follows: [Here insert 2a. above] The conditions of fellowship in this Convention shall be as follows: I. The acceptance of the essential principles of the Universalist faith, to wit: The Universal fatherhood of God; the spiritual authority and leadership of His Son Jesus Christ; the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God; the certainty of just retribution for sin; the final harmony of all souls with God. The Winchester Profession is commended as containing these principles, but neither this nor any other precise form of words, is required as a condition of fellowship, provided always that the principles above stated be professed. II. The acknowledgement of the authority of the General Convention and assent to its laws.

2c. These historic declarations of faith [2a. & 2b.] with liberty of interpretation are dear and acceptable to many Universalists. They are commended not as tests but as testimonies in the free quest for truth that accords with the genius of the Universalist Church.

3. The conditions of fellowship in the Convention [church] shall be acceptance of the essential principles of the Universalist faith and acknowledgement of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Universalist General Convention.

[End of the "Bond of Fellowship ..." Note that 2c. makes 2a. and 2b. optional alternative statements of belief.]

6.2 Do UU's Believe in Universalism ?

The survey of UU's conducted in the 1966 (see Religion Among the Unitarian Universalists by Robert B. Tapp, Seminar Press, NY, 1973, p. 55) indicated that about 10% of UU's believed in life after death. Many of these would be expected to be universalists. This percentage today might tend to be higher due to increased emphasis on "spirituality", but the deaths of many former Universalist (in the mid 1960's most of the former Universalists were still with us) tends to decrease the percentage. The overall result is likely to be that today well under 10% of UU's are universalist in belief. In most UU churches perhaps only about one percent (almost no one) will be universalist since those with true universalist beliefs will tend to be concentrated in those few UU churches that are Christian oriented. It is unfortunate that recent surveys made in UU churches fail to inquire about such beliefs.

6.3 Estimate of the Number of Universalists Today

The religious survey printed in a book called "What Americans Believe" indicates that 8% of people who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ agreed with the option: "When you die, you will go to Heaven because God loves all people and will not let them perish." These people are universalists (but most have no idea what the word means). One of the other options was "When you die you will go to Heaven because you have confessed your sins and accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior". Most respondents chose this option.

However, the above question was only asked of a sample of 36% of the population. This is because 40% of the people contacted (by random dialing of phone numbers in the US) refused to participate in this religious survey (which was conducted by an evangelical Christian organization). Another 40% of the people who participated in the survey had not made a commitment to Jesus and were not even asked the above question. Thus of 60% who participated in the survey, only 60% were asked the question about universalism meaning that only 36% (60% of 60%) of the US population was sampled. The remaining 64% were excluded from the survey due to their beliefs or their refusal to participate.

One must speculate how these 64% which were excluded would have responded. Relatively few of them would have chosen the option that they will go to heaven because they accept Jesus. Thus the other options (including the universalist option and an option implying there is no heaven) might obtain more positive responses. The ones who refused may be more inclined to hold liberal or agnostic views than those who participated resulting in a biased sample. Since universalism is a somewhat liberal view, the 8% universalist results might be even higher if those who had refused to participate had actually participated.

Thus one may guess that about 10% of the US population believes in the type of universalism where everyone goes to heaven (with no thought of any temporary punishment in hell). However if the option of temporary hell is included, this percentage would be higher, perhaps 15%. Thus one may roughly estimate that 15% of Americans hold universalist views today.

Another method of estimating the number of universalists is by taking the percentage of people believing in heaven and subtracting from this the percentage believing in hell. One must be careful because if heaven and hell are more precisely defined in the survey question, fewer people say they believe in them. One reason for this is claimed to be that some people that say they believe in hell actually mean that they believe that life on earth may be hell for some people. They don't believe in a hell after one dies yet the survey would count them as believing in hell.

"Emerging Trends" is a magazine of religious statistics published by Princeton Religion Research Center. In vol. 17 #7 (Sept. 1995) on p. 5 it claims that 90% of Americans say the believe in heaven while 73% believe in hell. The difference (17%) are people who believe in heaven but not in hell. They are universalists. This assumes that almost all the people who believe in hell also believe in heaven. The difference of 17% (17% universalists) varies from one part of the US to another. In the West it is 26%, in the South 12%. If heaven and hell are more precisely defined, then from "Religion in America" 1984, only 71% believe in heaven. A 1996 edition of "Religion in America" has just been published.