Founding Fathers

Tufts and the Universalist Tradition

By David Reich, A70

A stained glass window in Goddard Chapel depicts St. Paul, one of Christ's apostles, whose conversion to Christianity and subsequent preaching inspired the early Universalist Hosea Ballou.

Writing in the 1970s, Tufts history professor Russell E. Miller asserted that the University's founding and its nurturing for many years by the Universalist religious denomination had long been "forgotten or were never known."

I suspect Professor Miller--a Universalist himself and author of a two-volume history of the denomination, as well as Light on the Hill, a history of Tufts-was overstating his case for dramatic effect. When I entered Tufts as a freshman in 1966, not only did publications like the college catalogue mention the Universalists, but the denomination still had an official, if dwindling, presence on campus in the form of Crane Theological School (which closed its doors in 1968, after a 99-year run). Still, I think Miller had a point. Even if the Universalist name was known to some on campus, it's my guess that many Tufts undergraduates knew as much about Universalism as I did--which is to say, nearly nothing.

In my view, insofar as I had one, the Universalists were a high-minded bunch, connected with old money, Beacon Hill men's clubs and New England transcendentalism. Of course, I had them mixed up with their more patrician cousins the Unitarians, with whom they had teamed up in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious denomination, known today for its ultra liberal theology and social activism. While the 19th-century Unitarian church boasted members such as John and John Quincy Adams, famous Universalists were usually people of more modest station, like Clara Barton and Horace Greeley.

In the long run, I learned to distinguish the two groups. I spent most of the 1990s as editor of the World (now the UU World), the group's national magazine. By the time I was through, I knew more than I had ever dreamed I would about the Universalists, which in turn gave me some insight into why they founded Tufts and how their influence shaped the institution.

The theological term universalism denotes the belief that God, being infinitely good and loving, would not condemn humanity to infinite torture in the afterlife. It means, in other words, universal salvation-or "no hell," as the Universalists pithily expressed it in their best-remembered 19th-century slogan.

Hosea Ballou

The Universalist idea has been around since the birth of Christianity, or so argued Tufts founding president and Universalist minister Hosea Ballou 2d in his scholarly treatise The Ancient History of Universalism. Indeed, Ballou maintained tained that until the third century, all Christians were Universalists. The belief in eternal damnation for the wicked gained currency not long after that, for by the fifth century, according to Ballou, Universalist theology was sufficiently unpopular, at least with the church authorities, to be declared a heresy.

As a heresy it endured, however, until the Reformation, when it reasserted itself with a vengeance, becoming part of the theology of many of the Protestant sects and sub-sects that proliferated all over Europe in the 1500s. But Universalism as a distinct religion didn't come along until late in the 18th century, and not in Europe but New England. It was started by John Murray, an obscure Englishman who had come to America-and to Universalism, for that matter-through a string of coincidences.

John Murray was born in 1741. As a boy, he was beaten for minor infractions and threatened with an afterlife in hell by his father, a devout Calvinist. Somehow, Murray came out of childhood as an outgoing, cheerful young pillar of the church. As such, he was commissioned to visit a young woman who had "fallen into error," having become, in Murray's words, an "unwavering believer of universal redemption." Murray tried to reason with the woman, but by his own admission she tied him in knots with the logic of her arguments. Far from driving a wedge between Murray and his beliefs, the episode convinced him to steer clear of Universalists.

Yet the idea of universal salvation worked on him over the succeeding months, especially after he borrowed a book by Universalist preacher James Relly. After reading the book, Murray and his wife checked Relly's arguments against the Bible, prayed about the results, and found themselves more and more in doubt about the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and eternal damnation. Finally, they went to hear Relly preach. Years later, Murray recalled having noticed that the congregation "did not appear very religious; that is, they were not melancholy." This must have made a hugely favorable impression on the optimistic Murray. As for Relly's sermon, Murray is said to have remarked to his wife that it was "the first consistent sermon I have ever heard." Before long, he was a confirmed believer in Universalism and a close friend of Relly.

The next few years would test Murray's optimism and his faith, at times beyond their limits. First, he was voted out of his church because of his new theology. Then, in quick succession, came the deaths of his infant son, his wife, one of his brothers and three of his sisters. Unsurprisingly, he became depressed, and his own health, as well as his finances, suffered. Meanwhile, his friend Relly was urging him to go out into the world to preach. Murray replied that he preferred "to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all, as though I had never been." He finally landed in debtors' prison. Rescued by a loan from his brother-in-law, he decided to leave the world he knew and disappear into America. It was the next best thing to suicide.

Murray embarked for New York City in July 1770. Near the end of the voyage his ship was grounded on a sandbar off southern New Jersey. Murray waded ashore, where he stumbled upon one Thomas Potter, a prosperous but illiterate farmer who himself had arrived at a belief in the doctrine of universal salvation 20 years before under the influence of a group of American Universalist Baptists. Potter had built a chapel on his land for the itinerant preachers who sometimes passed through. Described by Russell Miller as "a deeply religious man with mystical tendencies," he must have thought Murray a godsend, quite literally, and he insisted that Murray preach at the chapel.
Murray himself saw the hand of God in his fortuitous meeting with Potter. Despite his wish "to pass through life unheard," Murray accepted Potter's invitation.

He must have been a compelling preacher, even at the start. Word of his sermons spread up and down the East Coast, and soon he was filling preaching engagements from Philadelphia to New York City and eventually New England. There, the optimistic gospel of no hell must have seemed good news to churchgoers accustomed to the dour Calvinist theology of the Puritan church. In Boston, he drew large crowds but also the unwelcome attentions of orthodox clergy and believers, who called his doctrines "pernicious" and "damnable." Murray was himself "unprincipled" and "dangerous"; they threw stones through the windows of the meetinghouses and tried to have him banished from the colony as a vagrant.

Murray's years as an itinerant preacher ended in 1779 when his followers in Gloucester, Massachusetts-16 refugees from the hellfire preaching of the town's established church-formed a congregation around him and built a meetinghouse, American Universalism's first church building. In addition to its role in the new denomination, this small group would have a profound effect on church-state relations in America. No sooner had the new congregation formed than the town's theocratic authorities demanded that members continue to pay their church tax to their former congregation. The Universalists refused, and in 1782 some members' possessions were seized and sold at auction, and one member was briefly thrown in jail. The Universalists sued under the Massachusetts Bill of Rights, arguing that the church, though not favored by the town authorities, was a distinct and legitimate congregation that didn't fall under First Parish's jurisdiction. In 1786 the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled for the Universalists. It was the first victory in their long campaign for church-state separation.

From the small group that gathered around John Murray in Gloucester, Universalism grew by the late 1840s into the young nation's fifth- or sixth-largest denomination, depending on whose statistics you believe, with a membership perhaps of 600,000 or 700,000, about 3 percent of the U.S. population. Unlike the Unitarian movement-which grew mainly by taking over government-supported Puritan churches whose members had broken with Calvinism-Universalism grew by word of mouth and public preaching. Universalist clergy, who knew by heart all the Bible verses that denied the reality of eternal damnation, also took part in spectacular debates with their Calvinist opposition that sometimes lasted for days and brought more converts to Universalism.

Though to my knowledge no transcripts of these debates survive, stories told today by Unitarian Universalist clergy give the flavor of what might have been said. In one story, the itinerant preacher Hosea Ballou-namesake and great-uncle of the Tufts president and Universalism's first important theologian-is spending the night at a farmhouse. The farmer worries aloud to Ballou that his son, a drinker and ladies' man, will burn in hell for his transgressions. Ballou suggests they go outside and build a big log fire, and when the young man comes home from his carousing, ambush him and throw him into it. Shocked, the farmer refuses: "He's my son, and I love him!" To which Ballou retorts, "If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn't throw him in a fire, how can you believe that God, the perfect father, would do such a thing!"

Given the denomination's pattern of growth, its embattled position vis-à-vis New England's established churches, and the fact that Universalist congregations required no profession of belief from their members, it should come as no surprise that the group attracted a large contingent of anti-authoritarians. In fact, historian Stephen A. Marini calls the early 19th-century Universalists "a sect imbued with individualism of anarchistic proportions." Thus, according to the covenant of the country's first rural Universalist church, in Richmond, New Hampshire, members were "free to accept the church's outward ordinances or not." Similarly, members of the Egremont, Massachusetts, church, in refusing to sign on to a proposal for denominational governance, explained that they doubted "whether a particular compact can be entered into to satisfy [all members] of the congregation." One small congregation in New York even refused to meet on Sunday mornings because it would have "smacked of institutionalism."

The Universalists' issues with authority led to outcomes both good and bad. On the positive side, Universalists were perhaps the nation's strongest defenders of religious freedom. In the early 1830s, for instance-half a century after the Gloucester Universalist congregation refused to pay taxes to support a church whose doctrine they rejected-the Universalist minister, journalist and Massachusetts legislator Thomas Whittemore led a successful fight to amend the state constitution, ending the system of government establishment and support of churches and thus doing away with one of the last and most repugnant vestiges of the Puritan theocracy. In doing so, Whittemore, a founding trustee of Tufts, had to contend with Unitarians in the legislature and in the general population, who, having taken over many Puritan churches, now benefited from state support.

Massachusetts Universalists also fought such practices as government-declared religious fast days and an annual sermon delivered to state legislators by a rotating cast of ministers. More importantly, Universalists in New England, New York and elsewhere stridently opposed the teaching of religion in state-supported schools, which at the time were run by religious bodies, mostly orthodox. While supporting Unitarian Horace Mann's push for state-run sectarian educational institutions, the Universalists in the meanwhile set up their own academies (preparatory schools), which accepted students with no regard to faith and steered clear of all religious teaching-"creed drilling" in the Universalist phrase. A somewhat extreme case was the Universalist-founded Clinton Liberal Institute in New York, whose small faculty included one layperson each from the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches, as well as a Lutheran minister. One of the school's bylaws prohibited the establishment of a professorship of theology, and another declared that "no minister, of any denomination, shall have liberty to perform the services of public worship within the Institute, on any occasion whatever."

The Universalists' anti-authoritarian and radically democratic bent also had some negative consequences. Churches attracted few members from among the country's wealthy and powerful classes, who could have contributed much-needed funds to the denomination's work. (Whittemore once wrote, "It is well known that Universalists are poor and they are not ashamed to acknowledge it.") In addition, the denomination suffered from weak institutions. One glaring instance was in the area of education. While the Unitarians, by the middle 1800s, controlled Harvard University, the Universalists lacked even a seminary at which to train their ministers.

A first attempt to set up such an institution--on Walnut Hill in Medford, Masschusetts, the eventual site of Tufts--succumbed, at least in part, to Universalist anti-institutionalism. (There was also the matter of insufficient funds, another chronic problem for the impecunious denomination.) The project was quietly sabotaged in the early 1840s by Hosea Ballou the elder, who had picked up the skills of a minister on the fly and felt others would be best off doing the same. There was also some feeling in the denomination that, with all their strong talk against sectarian education, it would ill suit the Universalists to set up a theological school. Then there was the fear that, as Russell Miller puts it, formal theological education would promote "an artificial aristocracy not in keeping with the simplicity and democracy of Universalism."

Yet the idea of Universalist post-secondary education didn't die with the failed attempt. Tufts College's three main founders-Ballou's great-nephew Hosea Ballou 2d, Thomas Whittemore, and Universalist minister and educator Thomas Jefferson Sawyer, who later became the first dean of Crane-all felt an acute need for colleges and seminaries to train their future laypeople and ministers. Whittemore, though he lacked a college degree, wrote that the time had passed when a person could prepare for the ministry solely "by immediate communication from heaven." Sawyer had bachelor's and master's degrees from Middlebury College, but he prepared for the clergy, like the non-degreed Ballou, in what was then the standard Universalist manner-by apprenticing himself to a minister. In Sawyer's case, the apprenticeship lasted two months, and the minister in question was barely out of his teens.

Another spur to start a college came from the less-than-glowing public image suffered by Universalists, which probably resulted in equal parts from class prejudice and simple observation. As the Calvinist-leaning Boston Recorder noted, the poor Universalists had "no colleges or schools of theology, or any literary institutions other than second rate academies"; further, they had to fill their pulpits "largely from the bench or shop" and with ministers who had "little culture in manners or mind."

Of course, the Universalists could have sent their lay students to one of the excellent colleges that already existed in New England and their ministerial candidates to the liberal Harvard Divinity School. But as Miller observes, "Not a single New England college between 1830 and 1850 escaped Universalist censure … for their alleged sectarianism." From the Universalist point of view, institutions like Dartmouth, Brown and Williams were nothing more than theological schools masquerading as universities. As for Harvard Divinity School, with its heavy Unitarian influence, it was perhaps a bit too liberal theologically for the liberal-enough Universalists. They looked upon the place as overly rationalistic and not sufficiently biblical for their future ministers.

Tufts was part of the solution. Though for a few years it lacked a theological school, it was the first of five colleges founded by Universalist denominational bodies. (Only two-Tufts and St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York-still exist.) Space prevents me from going into the details of the University's founding, but I will take time here to point out a few instances of the heavy Universalist influence on the College.

Tufts' oldest building, Ballou Hall (shown in 1875), named for Hosea Ballou II, first president of Tufts and a Universalist minister.

As most Tufts alumni know, Charles Tufts, a well-to-do Universalist layman from Somerville, Massachusetts, donated the hill that became the College campus and gave the school its name. Also, the College's first four presidents-Hosea Ballou 2d, Alonzo Ames Miner, Elmer Hewitt Capen and Frederick William Hamilton, all of whom have campus buildings or parts of buildings named for them-were Universalist ministers. Of these, Ballou is probably the most important. A Vermont schoolteacher who heard the call to ministry, he apprenticed with his distinguished great-uncle. Though a quiet, undramatic man, Hosea 2d was a gifted scholar who, despite his lack of formal education, had picked up Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French and German, and served as a trustee of Harvard University, which awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1844. A tireless organizer, he pushed single-mindedly in the denomination for the creation of a college and then served faithfully until his death, in 1861, not only as president, but as preacher at Sunday chapel services, professor of philosophy and history, librarian (he built the College library from scratch through donations, including 6,000 volumes from his personal collection), public relations officer, and semi-beleaguered fund-raiser. And all for an annual salary of $800 (later raised to $1,000), not a lot even in the 1850s. (T. J. Sawyer twice turned down the presidency in the University's early days, saying he couldn't afford to work for so little.)

Which brings up another Universalist part of the Tufts heritage. In its early years, the College nearly went under for lack of funds and had to be rescued by a last-minute donation and a timely infusion of state money. For years the school also had to operate a farm as a way of feeding students and adding to its meager income. Tufts' early students, by the way, were mostly Universalists and mostly as poor as the College itself. President Hamilton, who served from 1905 through 1912, remarked that even in his day there were "many poor, very few rich."

As the 19th century unrolled, the Universalists' theology increasingly spurred them to social activism, a trend that couldn't help but have echoes at Tufts. The University's second president, A. A. Miner, for example, was known beyond campus as a leader in the American Peace Society, which favored arbitration as a means of settling international disputes. Of more immediate concern on campus were Miner's frequent abolitionist declamations. During the Civil War, the size of the student body plummeted because of enlistment in the Union army, presumably an index of campus antislavery sentiments.

While not as extremely secular as say the Clinton Liberal Institute, Tufts also did its part to uphold the Universalist ideal of nonsectarian education. President Ballou's address on the occasion of the College's official opening contained not a single reference to Universalists or Universalism. While the College required students to attend religious services, non-Universalist students had the option of attending services at whatever off-campus house of worship they chose. When Tufts Theological School (later Crane) opened it doors in 1859, pains were taken to give it a separate faculty and administration and generally keep it at arm's length from the College, so as not to taint the latter institution with sectarianism. Finally, the College charter forbade religious tests for admission to the faculty or student body-this at a time when other New England colleges had quotas for religious minorities.

One area where Tufts lagged behind the Universalists generally was equality of the sexes. The Universalists were the first American denomination to ordain female ministers, and Universalist women helped fill the ranks of the 19th-century feminist movement. (Universalist minister, the Reverend Phoebe Hanaford, preached the funeral sermons for feminist icons Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both of whom she had worked with in the cause of women's suffrage.) In this spirit, all Universalist educational ventures-both preparatory schools and colleges-were coeducational from the start. That is, except for Tufts. For years the College administration felt that the presence of female students would disrupt the good order of the place. When Tufts finally went coed, in the 1890s, it was thanks to the pressure exerted by Universalist women such as Mrs. E. M. Bruce of Melrose, Massachusetts, who for several years sponsored resolutions in the General Convention-the denomination's central governing body-directing the College to do the right thing.

After the 1890s and the coming of coeducation, the direct Universalist influence over Tufts weakened until it disappeared altogether. For one thing, as Tufts grew in reputation, it attracted more and more students and faculty-and eventually administrators-from outside the Universalist fold. At the same time, the Universalists suffered a dramatic decline in numbers. (Commonly cited reasons include the continuing weakness of Universalist institutions-by the turn of the century many Protestant churches had dropped their emphasis on hell, depriving the Universalists of some of their distinctiveness and the movement among some clergy to turn Universalism from a Christian group into a "world religion" that borrowed features from many faiths.)

Yet when Miller points out that by 1970 few at Tufts knew anything about the religious group that had founded the institution, he isn't exactly lamenting the fact. Indeed, he also points out that if Tufts had by and large forgotten the Universalists, it was only because the school had "truly become the nonsectarian institution that its founding fathers had planned it to be." How's that for Universalist optimism?






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