For the last two decades or so, I’ve seen Universalism viewed normatively through a Unitarian lens, though this process is actually more than a hundred years old. Can’t we ever overcome:
- the folklore that Universalism is a second-rate, under-class and rural form of Unitarianism, with no distinct qualities (or none that need to be respected.)
- that we are free to make it whatever “we” want, without a careful and balanced examination of what’s come before.
- that the polity of the Unitarian Universalist Association needn’t have both Unitarian and Universalist elements, and have only those that fit conveniently into Unitarian congregationalism. (That means the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and ministerial voting at General Assembly are not aberrations.)
- the tendency to only respect the edgiest and most marginal forms of Universalism — Abner Kneeland’s atheism and Ken Patton’s one-world-faith among them — while rejecting what the rank and file valued for so long, warts included. (Say, a propensity to debate ad nauseum.)
So to keep this brief — when my rants run long, I never publish — I’d alter the syllabus of the Universalist course this way:
- start with 17th and 18th century European antecedents, like the “Philadelphian” Jane Lead, the German Boehemists and Anabaptists. Examine George de Benneville and Elhanan Winchester. (Going back to biblical times or the church fathers for historical justification is Universalist polemic. Proving the “heretical origins” of Universalism is a late intrusion.)
- have a unit on the development of Universalist polity and structure, say in an arch from 1790 to 1900, at least. Rehabilitate Elbridge Gerry Brooks. Review the role of publishing, especially newspapers, in organizing Universalists.
- recast the sections on foreign mission and pre-WWII-war non-Christian approaches as a missological study. Or to ask 19th century Universalist minister S. J. McMorris’s question, that if Universalism is true, “what is the use of preaching it?” Include anti-Universalist literature and discuss the role of morality in Universalist mission. Don’t fall into a trap of making Quillen Shinn the sine qua non of mission; consider women’s and youth movements here fully. Review the Universalist educational mission.
- Use pacifism and spiritualism as test cases of diversity within Universalism.
- don’t get too caught up on recent developments like Carlton Pearson’s experience and Phil Gulley and Jim Mullholland’s If Grace Is True. These tend to recapitulate the history and sound like young people extolling the joy of sex. As if they had discovered something new. There’s plenty of other territory to cover.
- use Ann Lee Bressler’s now-expensive Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880. Or the first half, at least. It’s an indispensable review of what made Universalism different and a tonic to later Unitarian irenism, that cloaked a very different origin in convincing theological terms. Helps break the fever of self-referential and internal folklore masquerading as history. And no quotations, like the Murray-attributed “not hell, but hope” unless you can cite them.