Last month we looked at how Unitarian thought (belief in one God vs. the Trinity) developed and this month we’ll see (briefly) how Universalism grew. Remember, these are just snapshots of a long and complicated history.
Universalism is the belief that, in contrast to predestination theory and eternal punishment theory, trusts we all are “saved.” Claims are made that the first Universalist thought occurred around year 200 AD when Alexander Origin studied Christian scriptures and decided god would not condemn anyone to hell. This line of thought did not die although it did not exactly flourish either.
Much later, John Murray, a Universalist minister ended up in debtor’s prison in England. (Not a very profitable profession if you preached Universalism then.) While he was in prison, his wife and child died and, feeling depressed, he decided to give up his career and go to America. The ship he was on got stranded on a sand bar near the Eastern America shore and he left to get supplies until the ship could be moved. He came to house of Thomas Potter, also a minister, who asked him, “Are you the Universalist Minister I have been waiting for?” John ultimately agreed to preach on the following Sunday and this was the way Universalism as such came to the U.S., or so goes the story.
He was not the only one in the U.S. proposing this theory. At the same time a group in Pennsylvania called the Pietists believed everyone returns to God upon death and so also rejected the theory of eternal damnation. Additionally, the backwoods Baptists and Methodists believed in a regeneration of sorts including baptism, rebirth and even (some) reincarnation. Many of these religions did not broadcast this belief for fear people would no longer try to be good if they knew they were saved anyway.
There is much more to read if you want more information about UU history. Next month we will briefly look at how these two lines of thought came together to form our present day Unitarian Universalism.