UNIVERSALISTS.-- Organized Universalism in this country is traced back to John Murray more than to any single individual beside. Murray, from being a Calvinistic Methodist, became a disciple of the London Universalist, James Relly. His arrival in America occurred in 1770. After a season of comparative reserve, during which he was known as a spirited Calvinistic preacher, he began an energetic propagandism of the doctrine of the final recovery of all moral beings.
Murray's teaching was not altogether a novelty in the colonies. Though there was no ecclesiastical body here that made it their shibboleth, restorationism had already a sporadic existence. The German Baptists in Pennsylvania were not averse to the doctrine, finding no doubt a recommendation for it in the fact that various of their kin among the Anabaptists on the Continent had been its advocates. Several Episcopalian ministers, in the middle and the latter part of the eighteenth century, as Richard Clarke in South Carolina, Robert Yancey in Virginia, and John Tyler in Connecticut, were more or less pronounced restorationists. A few of the Congregationalist ministers in New England were at the same time inclined to the restorationist creed. This was notably the case with Charles Chauncy, whose views first obtained definite expression before the public in works issued in 1782 and 1784, but had been held by him for a score of years or more.
2 Jonathan Mayhew has sometimes been coupled with Chauncy as a believer in restorationism. But the passage which is cited as evidence, whatever ground it may afford for a suspicion, affords none for a positive verdict. Among the points of certainty are these: Mayhew denied that the punishment which is to be visited upon the sinner in the future will be simply corrective, or designed for the good of its subject. He applied the terms "eternal" and "everlasting" to this punishment, without taking pains to qualify their force. He did not hesitate to speak of "finally hardened" and "irreclaimable" transgressors, and acknowledged that the Scriptures seem to speak of some as given over to "incurable blindness." (Sermons on Striving to Enter in at the Strait Gate; Sermons on God's Goodness; Answer to Mr. Cleaveland, quoted in Alden Bradford's Life of Mayhew.)
Murray's conversion to a new faith did not eliminate the old Calvinistic leaven. In his doctrine of universal recovery he simply extended the conception of sovereign grace. All men, he conceived, are regarded by God as united to the atoning Saviour, so that His righteousness is made to cover their sins, and all are accounted heirs of eternal life. A large proportion of the first converts to Universalism were likewise of Calvinistic antecedents, and retained some traces of their former way of thinking. The Calvinistic bias, however, was only a transient phase. Probably the influence of Elhanan Winchester, who was hardly second to Murray as an active propagandist, had something to do with forwarding a change of sentiment. Winchester, it is true, had embraced high Calvinism before the writings of Siegvolck and Stonehouse had converted him to Universalism (1778-1781). But later he seems to have inclined to a creed essentially Arminian as respects divine sovereignty and grace.
1 Richard Eddy says: "Mr. Winchester's religious views differed but little from Arminian orthodoxy, except in regard to the design and duration of punishment." (Universalism in America, i. 247.)Winchester came from the Baptists, as did also a considerable part of the ministers and membership of the Universalist body in its early years.
While Murray called himself a Trinitarian, it is understood that his views on the Godhead were of a Sabellian cast. Elhanan Winchester, on the other hand, so far as we have been able to discover, was not interested to improve on the ordinary Trinitarian theory. For a time the Universalists appear to have regarded themselves as a Trinitarian body. But the leaven of Unitarianism began early to work in some of their societies.
There was also a drift in the views entertained respecting the future state. Murray regarded those dying in their impenitence as subject in the other world to divine chastisements or painful consequences of sin, though he seems to have thought of these as having place only in the interval between death and the general judgment.
1 Some Hints relative to the Forming of a Christian Church, quoted in Richard Eddy's Universalism in America, i. 370-372.Winchester held a more emphatic theory, teaching that sharp punishments, covering, perchance, thousands of years, and reaching beyond the judgment, will be visited upon the more obdurate sinners. That death is the end of pain for all men was not the belief of the great majority of the first Universalists. Their Convention, held at Philadelphia in 1791, set forth the denominational position as follows: "We believe that all that die without the knowledge of their salvation in Christ Jesus must be called unbelievers, and in the Scripture sense do die in their sins; that such will not be purged from their sins -or unbelief by death, but necessarily must appear in the next state under all that darkness, fear, and torment, and conscious guilt which is the natural consequence of the unbelief of the truth. What may be the degree or duration of this state of unbelief and misery we know not." Eddy, i. 349, 350. But in the same year that this statement was recorded, Murray wrote as though some Universalists were in favor of the notion that death will place all men upon a level, and release all alike from every form of suffering. He combated the frivolous imagination very earnestly. It was destined, nevertheless, to make large headway, for a season, in the Universalist body.
The Unitarian drift among the Universalists was part of a wider movement. But of that movement, or the rise and progress of Unitarianism in New England, we can speak more appropriately in a subsequent chapter.