Quabbin Giants of Progressive Religion

So today I wanted to delve into a little local history. Local Universalist history, to be exact. You may know or you may not know but this area, from New Salem to Richmond, NH is rich with Universalist and progressive Christian history.

I highlight “rich.” The reason is that it is the last name of the person I begin my talk with. Caleb Rich.

Did you know that the first Universalist church in America was founded in 1778 just down the road in Warwick, Mass? That’s right, while for some reason the Universalist church in Gloucester has for a long time officially gotten the label “first Universalist church in America,” it was Rev. Caleb Rich’s church that according to the history books is the first.

Caleb Rich was born some 50 miles Southeast from here in Sutton, Mass, below Worcester, in 1750. Both of his parents were Congregationalists in Caleb’s early years, but his father converted to the Baptist tradition. Caleb would eventually follow the Baptist way as well, albeit not for long.

Caleb was a sensitive and inquisitive boy. With his father a new-school, Calvinist Baptist and his mother an old-school Calvinist Congregationalist, Caleb naturally wondered who was right. When Rich was a very young man, a question related to this notion of who was right, his father or mother, changed his life. A friend asked him, well, how do you know if either of them is right?

To answer these questions, Rich began a lifelong look into scripture.

When Caleb was 21, he headed north to Warwick to take a position as a farmer. On the journey, he experienced a kind of on the road to Damascus conversion. When he got to Warwick, he began attending the Baptist church (this was back when they had one).

Other religious experiences visited Caleb. They came out of some internal torment Rich was sensing. He had doubts about hell and how it seemed to him the fear of hell was a selfish motive for doing good and loving neighbor. If he, to avoid hell, lived the right way and loved others, wasn’t he doing it, even if to a small degree, simply to save his hide? What kind of impetus is fear of being sent to hell? It is a selfish motive, focused on saving self, not an altruistic one focused solely on helping others.

In 1773, one mystical experience provided him an answer. He experienced an overwhelming sense of God’s grace which overcame any kind of fear of hell’s torments or wrathful judgment. The motive to be like Christ and to live-out the heart of Christ was the one he wanted to apply in his life. This led him to progress toward the Universalist  faith which says God’s love wins completely so that none will endure eternal torment in hell.   

Unitarian Church, Warwick, MA (joined by Universalists)
One step in that process led him to be denied membership in the Baptist church. He expressed his belief that instead of non-Christian souls suffering endlessly in hell their souls simply ceased to exist. The Baptists were aghast at this heresy and dismissed him and his brother who believed the same.

Eventually, after another mystical experience, Rich came to internalize the faith of Universal salvation, a faith he would hold until the day he died. And he founded a church preaching this very idea in the year 1778 in Warwick, Massachusetts, the first church centered on the doctrine of Universal Salvation. In the next 10 years or so, he’d plant churches in Jaffrey and Richmond, NH as well. In 1781, in Warwick, Rich would be ordained by the brand new Universalist Church, the same year this church was built in then South Warwick.

In 1772, just a year after or so after Caleb Rich arrived in Warwick, and less than 10 miles due east, a baby boy named Abner Jones was born in Royalston. Abner Jones, along with fellow New Englander, Connecticut born Elias Smith, would found what was deemed simply as the Christian Church or the Christian Connexion.  The Christian Church would also be an important cornerstone in the development of progressive religion in America.

Like with Caleb Rich, the church developed out of a rejection of Calvinism and its influence in the Baptist tradition.

Abner Jones and Elias Smith rejected the idea central to Calvinism that said salvation was not intended for all but only a limited few. They believed Jesus died for all and salvation was intended for all. It is human’s free will that choses either to accept it or reject it.  Jones and Smith preached these ideas of Jesus dying for all and salvation intended for all with human’s having free will making the difference. They preached these ideas very hard and they are central the Christian Connexion. They were also very progressive ideas for their time, a time when Calvinism reigned supreme. As I mentioned, Calvinism said just the opposite – Jesus died for the Elect and free will when it came to salvation did not exist or matter.

The Christian Church also called for a decentralized, back to basics, non-creedal church.  The Christian Church grew in New England and in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Both the Unitarian and Universalist churches would expound and expand on these progressive ideas. In fact, Elias Smith on and off expressed acceptance of the Universalist faith which said not only did Jesus die for all and salvation was intended for all, in the end all would be won over by God’s grace and all would be saved. Smith’s Universalist tendencies brought him a great deal of criticism and exclusion by the Christian connexion he helped found.

In 1931, the Christian Church still then centered in New England merged with the Congregational Church to form the Congregational Christian Church, which the Congregational side of this church once was a part of. In 1959, the Congregational Christian Church merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to create the United Church of Christ.

363 days before Abner Jones was born and only some 8 miles across the border north, in Richmond, New Hampshire, a baby boy named Hosea Ballou was born. As a young man, he would be mentored by none other than Caleb Rich who had established a church in his hometown of Richmond. Hosea Ballou would go onto become one of the most important progressive religious preachers and a pivotal figure in the growth of the Universalist Church.

Ballou held to the idea of Ultra-Universalism. Ballou believed that not only would no human being ever face an eternal place in the afterlife called hell, but that hell did not exist in the afterlife at all. Hell exists in this life. As UU historian Ernest Cassara writes, “Ballou adopted the radical position that human beings are rewarded for good behavior, or punished for their misdeeds, in this life. At death they are transformed by the power of God's love as they enter eternity.”

I for one have trouble with this idea of “Ultra-Universalism.” I do, however, ponder that in the dying process, people who’ve lived harmful and hurtful lives often endure difficulty in their deaths. I also think right after death, after the spirit is leaving the body, God’s work continues to work on the Spirit. And for the Spirit transitioning away from the body, the time during this transition is not human time but God-time. Those who’ve lived harmful and hurtful lives in that God-time as the Spirit as it leaves the body might have to endure a period of psychological darkness as a consequence for their harmful and hurtful lives. Maybe this is part of the process Ballou describes as “at death being transformed by the power of God’s love.”    

Anyway, Hosea Ballou’s first church after converting to Universalism was a church that stood 17 miles South. The church no longer stands. In fact, the town sits below the Quabbin. Hosea Ballou served the Universalist church in Dana, Massachusetts from 1794 to 1803.

In 1799, New Salem native Nathaniel Stacy was living in Bridgewater, Vermont. That year, the Universalist General Convention was in Woodstock, just 7 miles east. Stacy, a newly convert to Universalism, attended that 1799 Convention in Woodstock. There he met Hosea Ballou. Stacy and Ballou, being at one time town neighbors, became fast friends. Stacy just a year later, in 1800, returned to New Salem. In 1801, Stacy moved to Dana, taking a job as a store clerk in town. As Unitarian-Universalist historian and Orange native Mark Harris puts it, “This location gave him the opportunity of regular interaction with Ballou, who lived in Dana. The next year he apprenticed himself to a clockmaker. One day Ballou came into the shop and asked him, ‘Brother Stacy, what are you tinkering here for?’ He had not been able to settle on a career, Ballou told Stacy, because preaching was his true business. Until he began to serve as a minister he would not be happy. Ballou offered to become his teacher and, in October, 1802, took Stacy into his home and study.”

Stacy would go on to be the greatest evangelist in the early days of the Universalist Church. Starting in 1805, he began circuit preaching all the way into Central New York. In fact, the town where I was serving as a Hospice Chaplain before coming here, Whitestown, New York outside of Utica, was one of five preaching stations Nathaniel Stacy preached. He eventually established a Universalist church in Whitestown in 1807.

In 1800, in Stacy’s first year back in this area, and 7 years before planting a church in Whitestown, he attended the Universalist General Convention. Hosea Ballou was there. Caleb Rich was there. Actually, Stacy, Ballou, and Rich, and numerous other Universalists weren’t there, they were here. The 1800 Universalist General Convention was held right here, presided by Hosea Ballou, the same church his grand-nephew Levi Ballou would some 43 years later would begin serving as minister and would do so for over 20 years.

Lastly, in 1803, in Winchester, NH, some 14 miles from here, the Universalist General Convention that year took place. It was at this convention that the famous Winchester Profession was written and approved. It is a landmark expression of the Universalist faith. It still resonates deeply. So I close by reading that profession of faith now some 213 years old.

Article I. 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.

Article II. 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.

Article III. 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.

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