Universalism was an interesting phenomenon in early America. New England is often described as the home of the movement but the new thinking sprouted in other places too. Historian Ann Bressler argues that the movement climbed in popularity in the Northeast because it filled a gap created by the end of Puritanism’s community after the revolutionary war. In part a response to Congregational establishment, it still flourished after anti-prejudicial rules became law in Massachusetts in 1780. Baptists were angry with taxation and its role in religion. But as Janet Lindman observes, at least part of the national debate over the nature and applicability of salvation began in Pennsylvania and it was motivated by more than just taxes. There,Elhanan Winchester1 was advocating Unversalism and at the same time acting as head of an important Baptist congregation in the Delaware Valley.
Part of the popularity of Universalism stemmed from American politics and Enlightenment philosophers. It was natural that many found Calvinism to be distasteful in the fever of self-government. Shouldn’t an enlightened religion accompany an enlightened government rather than gloomy old Calvin?
Perhaps Universalism is best defined by its critics (grin): even bad men (yes and especially bad women) and the devils of hell will eventually be restored to Divine Bliss. Or something like that (I’m talking 18th century version here – later Universalism was different in important ways). Lindman observes that the upheavals of revolution were founded in some respects on the principles that Americans began to find old hat and old worldy in Calvinism. Challenging the idea that salvation was for a select few who had no say in that grace seemed to run counter to all that was holy about the new United States. In Winchester’s case, it was his personal experience that led him to declare Calvin’s predestined grace false: missionary success.
In Mormonism we have sometimes flirted with a kind of predestination (we sometimes confuse this with the term “foreordination”). With the idea that everything happens for a reason. With the notion that our lives are tailor-made for our personal preexistent needs. On the other hand we tout the notion of free agency (ok, moral agency). The paths we choose are not preselected for us. We come to earth as agents, not pawns.
The early American Calvinists fought back, calling Universalists emissaries of the antichrist, carrying the papal insignia in heart if not on breast. (Purgatory, you know.) Preachers came into play on both sides of course. Calvinists proclaiming Universalism as plague! The sick must be quarantined! Then, preach the gospel to them so they can breathe the fresh air of Truth (hmmm). Universalists channeled their doctrine through the prediction: The Restoration of All Things….
So where are we? Or more particularly (pun indended), where are you? Is kingdom (celestial, terrestrial, telestial) progression going to happen? I mean is the lowest sinner going to see the light and make the jump to light speed (sorry, can’t resist the flights of fancy)? Maybe even the devils and sons of perdition? Eternity is a long time. Put in more familiar Mormon terms, is the opportunity for choice ever really revoked forever? (Not exactly universal grace, grace by choice I suppose.) I ask you. Are you Mormon Universalist, or (shudder) Mormon Calvinist? Or somewhere else?2
1. Yes, see Winchester’s pamphlet-sermon here: “The Outcasts Comforted; A Sermon Delivered at the University of Philadelphia, January 4, 1782, to the Members of the Baptist Church, Who Have Been Rejected by Their Brethren, for Holding the Doctrine of the Final Restoration of All Things, Published at the Earnest Desire of the Hearers.” (Philadelphia, 1782). Preaching is fun.
2. Lindman’s article in Journal of the Early Republic 31/2. Bressler in her book, The Universalist Movement in America, (New York, 2001).