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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Baptist Universalism

What is universalism?[i] By “universalism,” I mean a teaching that in some way Christ’s death guarantees salvation for every member of the human race – past, present, and future.[ii] Or, at the least, that every member of the human race will ultimately be saved, however it is accomplished.[iii] Dictionary.com defines “Universalism” as “the doctrine that emphasizes the universal fatherhood of God and the final salvation of all souls.” Universalism is the belief that, in the end, all men will be saved.

A friend suggested something of which I had never given thought, writing, “I acknowledge the Calvinist heritage of the doctrine [of universalism].” This is interesting. Universalism shares with Calvinism some sort of idea of “unconditional election” and “irresistible grace.” Universal salvation is not based on human choice but God’s choice. The “grace” may not be “irresistible” until after an individual’s death, but ultimately it is irresistible because all individuals – atheists, agnostics, other religions, unbelievers – will be saved whether they want to be or not![iv]

Two prominent Baptists in U. S. history, Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797) and Hosea Ballou (1771-1852), adopted the theory of Universalism. Winchester was originally a Calvinist, and moved from Particular Redemption to General Redemption to Universalism. Winchester remained what Nathan Finn called a “Revivalistic Universalist.” Ballou on the other hand seems to have developed his universalism from his Calvinism and moved to a more rationalistic version of universalism. Probably most Baptists who embrace universalism move on elsewhere, and do not remain Baptist in persuasion. However, I am aware of a few kinds of Baptist Universalists.
1. Primitive Baptist Universalism. Held by several Appalachian Primitive Baptist Associations who embraced universalism. Howard Dorgan wrote about them in In the Hands of a Happy God: The “No-Hellers” of Central Appalachia.
2. Interspersed Baptist Universalism. Held by individual Baptists or individual churches who are dispersed within Baptist churches and/or Baptist denominations that do not hold universalism.
3. Functional Baptist Universalism. Held by individual Baptists in practice – that is, those whose theology may say otherwise but their lifestyles and life’s actions are lived as if in the end everyone will be saved.[v]
Primitive Baptist Universalism
The following articles of faith from the Washington District [Universalist] Primitive Baptist Association demonstrate their theology and their conservatism: (1) their conservatism in that their Abstract of Principles were only slightly changed from its original wording to show how they interpreted matters in a universalist way, and (2) their theology in that they did actually make a slight change from their previous abstract.
Article 10. We believe there now is a general judgment and the punishment of the wicked is everlasting and the happiness of the righteous is eternal. [i.e., the believe the judgment and punishment are in the temporal world.]
Article 11. We believe there will be a resurrection of the dead bodies of all people when Christ shall change these vile bodies of ours like unto His most glorious body.
The churches believe the atonement is for all humankind, that the “elect” are the true church (basically, the Primitive Baptist Universalist churches),[vi] that people experience their judgment & hell here on earth, that there is no hell in the afterlife, and that all people without exception go to heaven.

The split of Primitive Baptists over this issue occurred in 1924. According to various sources, there are either four or six “No-Heller” associations in Central Appalachia Washington District Association, Three Forks of Powell’s River Regular Primitive Baptist Association, two Elkhorn Primitive Baptist Associations,[vii] Stony Creek and Union. They likely no more than 2000 members, perhaps much less.[viii]

Interspersed Baptist Universalism
In our inclusivist age and society, it is likely that there is a high number of individuals in Baptist churches who hold a universalist theology. Developing any idea of numbers or percentages is well-nigh impossible. I have identified two churches in the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts who hold dual-affiliation with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA): The Federated Church of Sturbridge and Fiskdale, Sturbridge, MA and First Parish of Bolton, Bolton MA.[ix] Their affiliation with the UUA indicates they are no longer Baptist in much if any meaningful way, but they maintain a semblance of Baptist heritage by continuing to affiliate with the ABC of Massachusetts.[x]

Functional Baptist Universalism
For retired Baptist pastor William Thornton, in means those who “live as if somehow, someway, everyone will make their way to heaven. No one ever admits to this as a concrete belief…” I found the “Functional Baptist Universalists” described this way: “Christians who live, act, or function as though every person is bound for heaven. Their daily routines do not emphasize spiritual or eternal priorities. Though they regularly converse with friends and acquaintances on various subjects, they never discuss religion, God, or salvation.” For Christians who believe that God has already done all he can do and the salvation of lost souls depends upon them to not be evangelistic is a virtual denial of their theology. It is a practical acceptance of functional universalism.

Some links that might interest readers



[i] I have tried to follow Finn in using the terms “universalism” and “universalist” when referring to the theological position, and “Universalism” and “Universalist” when referring to groups that embraced the universal salvation and individuals who were the members of such groups. See “The Making of a Baptist Universalist: the Curious Case of Elhanan Winchester,” footnote 3.
[ii] This is in reference to soteriology. Some people who hold General Atonement refer to it as Universal Atonement. In reference to ecclesiology, “Universalism” often is used pejoratively regarding the universal church versus local church only.
[iii] Some Universalists move this completely out of the realm of Christian theology.
[iv] This is assuming an initially Christian version of universalism, of course.
[v] This is usually confined to those who hold the theoretical possibility that all men could be saved (general atonement), but make to attempt to reach them with the gospel or call them to repentance and belief. On the other hand, “Functional Baptist Universalism” could not apply to those who believe that God regenerates the sinner and repentance & faith are mere fruits of God’s act.
[vi] Johannes Steenbuch distinguished the Primitive Baptist Universalists idea of “saved believers” as those who “enjoy the comfort of knowing their salvation here and now, while unbelievers are still unaware that they are already saved in principle.”
[vii] Due to a split in the early 1980s.
[viii] In 2011 Bill Leonard estimated around 1,000. “Baptist scholar says remember Appalachia before it disappears,” Norman Jameson, The Christian Century, March 31, 2011.
[ix] Both these churches also affiliate with the United Church of Christ.
[x] For example, for the church in Sturbridge “All questions regarding the Sacrament of Baptism shall be left to the conscience of the individual member” – which includes being exempt from any type of baptism if that is one’s conviction.

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