The God of judgement has been a prevalent theme throughout the course of American history because of the influence of John Calvin. He lived from 1509-1564, and was an important figure in the Protestant Reformation in Europe; he was heavily influenced himself by the earlier work of St. Augustine. Calvin’s teachings became known as Calvinism. He is important to our American story because the Pilgrims and the Puritans who came to America were Calvinists.
Calvin preached the total depravity of human beings. Because of original sin, he said, all human beings were born evil, and had no capacity to goodness or to connection to God. However, according to Calvin, God chose to unleash his anger on Jesus, who willingly died so that some people could be granted salvation. The people who were saved were called the “elect,” or the chosen. These people were predestined to holiness, and all other people were doomed to bear the anger of God for their sins, and to suffer in hell. It did not matter whether you tried to be good—that wasn’t enough to get you into heaven.
This was the preaching of the earliest New England pastors, and it was revitalized in a religious movement known as the Great Awakening in the early 1700’s. The Great Awakening was marked by an appeal to emotion, rather than intellect, and the goal was to provoke emotional conversion experiences. If you had one of these conversion experiences, it was considered a sign that you might be among the elect. Again, these were “fire and brimstone” sermons—lifting up the torments of sin and hell, and the likelihood of damnation if one didn’t find salvation.
But some preachers found a different inspiration. They asked, “If God is our father, then how can a father condemn his children?” People knew how much they loved their own children. If as human beings they only wanted the best for their children, wouldn’t a heavenly father be even more loving than we could be. Wouldn’t a father want to save all of his children from the torments of hell?
A man named John Murray had asked these questions in England, and been branded a heretic. He came to America in 1770 to try to get away from all that. There is a wonderful story about him being shipwrecked off the coast of New Jersey, right where a farmer named Thomas Potter had built a chapel, waiting for someone who would preach about universal salvation. And so John Murray did.
This was the beginning of the religious movement in American called Universalism: a deep devotion to the idea that God is love, and that God’s love reached everyone, and there was no such thing as hell. This was quite a radical notion in 18th century America. The most influential of the early Universalist preachers was the Rev. Hosea Ballou. He and others went around the countryside, spreading their message among the working people and farmers, and many Universalist churches were started. When the preacher Rev. Thomas Barnes came to Maine in 1799, that was the start of Universalism in Portland, and the beginnings of my own congregation.
People used to argue with Hosea Ballou—they would say, “if there is no threat of hell, why would anyone be good, or obey the law.” Ballou used to respond, “what kind of goodness is it, if you are only doing it to avoid hell? I don’t need the threat of hell to practice goodness.”