Ballou, Hosea

Hosea Ballou

Hosea Ballou (April 30, 1771-June 7, 1852) was the most influential of the preachers in the second generation of the Universalist movement. His book, A Treatise on Atonement, radically altered the thinking of his colleagues in the ministry and their congregations.

He was born on April 30, 1771, the eleventh child of Maturin and Lydia Ballou. The Ballous had migrated from Rhode Island to Richmond, in southwestern New Hampshire, where Maturin farmed and preached to a Calvinistic Baptist congregation. Lydia died when Hosea was two years old. Hosea’s education was meager, his father teaching him the rudiments. He then studied for a short time at a local school formed by the Friends, and later for a few months at the Chesterfield Academy.

In his teens, Ballou, a Calvinistic Baptist like his father, was confronted by the challenge of the message of universal salvation, preached in the area by Caleb Rich and others. He found utterly convincing St. Paul’s statement, “Therefore as by the offense of one [Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one [Christ] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (Romans, 5:18).

Ballou began preaching in 1791, as an itinerant in western Massachusetts and Vermont, which he combined with teaching school to eke out a meager living. Arguably, Ballou had the most dramatic ordination among Universalists. At the convention held at Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1794, he was in the pulpit with the noted preacher Elhanan Winchester and Joab Young. At the conclusion of his sermon, without warning, Winchester held the Bible against Ballou’s chest, crying out, “Brother Ballou, I press to your heart the written Jehovah!” Winchester then ordered Young to charge him. Ballou was to receive a more formal ordination, when he began his ministry among the “Sister Societies” in Barnard, Woodstock, Hartland, Bethel, and Bridgewater, Vermont, in 1803.

Just as Caleb Rich had introduced Ballou to Universalism, so he introduced the young preacher to Ruth Washburn of Williamsburg, Massachusetts. They were married in 1795 and became the parents of thirteen children, nine of whom survived infancy. Among them were the Universalist ministers, Hosea Faxon Ballou and Massena Berthier Ballou, and the noted author and editor, Maturin Murray Ballou.

During Ballou’s ministry as an itinerant, he was heavily influenced by the radical thinking of Ethan Allen, the Vermont Green Mountain Boy and American Revolutionary hero, who published Reason the Only Oracle of Man, 1784, a rollicking attack on orthodox Christianity. Although not accepting Allen’s Deism, Ballou was pleased by his belief in universal salvation, and was persuaded by his argument that the Scriptures must be read in the light of reason. Applying this principle, Ballou, like Allen, rejected the doctrine of the trinity, and, as early as 1795, preached Universalism on a unitarian basis.

In A Treatise on Atonement, 1805, Ballou put great stress on the use of reason in interpreting the Scriptures. The core of the book, as the title implies, was Ballou’s reformulation of the doctrine of atonement. As finite creatures, he argued, human beings are incapable of offending an infinite God. Therefore, he rejected the orthodox argument that the death of Jesus Christ was designed to appease an angry God, and replaced it with the idea that God is a being of eternal love who seeks the happiness of his human children. It is not God who must be reconciled to human beings, but human beings who must be reconciled to God. Ballou was convinced that once people realized this, they would take pleasure in living a moral life and doing good works.

To those Calvinists who had modified the orthodox view of atonement as a ransom, replacing it with the notion that Christ died to uphold God’s law, or for his glory, Ballou responded that God’s reputation needed no such enhancement. The Treatise was written in the pungent, down-to-earth, homespun style of the hill country from which Ballou came, with many flashes of humor. In rejecting the trinity as unscriptural and against reason, for instance, he likened it to belief in “infinity, multiplied by three.”

Although Ballou was a member of the committee which drew up the Universalist statement of faith adopted at Winchester, New Hampshire, in 1803, the Winchester Profession was the work of the chairman of the committee, Walter Ferriss. It is notable that it reflects the unitarianism which Ballou was propagating in the young denomination.

Ballou took up his first settled ministry, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1809. His support of President James Madison’s embargo in the War of 1812 alienated the shipowners in his congregation. Despite that fact, when the church learned he was contemplating a move to Salem, Massachusetts, it sought to persuade the church there to withdraw its call. Ballou, however, moved on to the Universalist church in Salem in 1815.

Having earlier resisted the lure of Boston, not wishing to offend John Murray at the First Universalist Society, with the latter’s death in 1815, he accepted a call to the newly-formed Second Universalist Society, being installed in its new building on School Street on Christmas day, 1817. In Boston, one of the leading cultural centers of the United States, the rough edges of Ballou’s presentations—that is, his back country accent in speaking and the informality of his early writings—gave way to the polish of an urban setting.

Aside from A Treatise on Atonement, what established Ballou’s strong influence on the young denomination was his publication of a weekly newspaper, the Universalist Magazine, established in 1819. His grandnephew, Hosea Ballou 2d, and Thomas Whittemore joined him on the editorial staff in 1822. Its columns contained vigorous defenses against the calumnies of the orthodox Congregationalists, Unitarians, Methodists, and other opponents, and provided the denomination a vehicle for ministers and laity alike to express their ideas, to report news of developments, as the movement spread, and, of course, was valuable in the recruitment of new members.

Ballou’s newspaper continued until 1828, when it was absorbed into the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, edited by Thomas Whittemore. His editorial work was not at an end, however, for, in 1830, he and Hosea Ballou 2d created a scholarly journal for the denomination. The Universalist Expositor was short-lived, it ceasing publication after the second volume.

Ballou’s debate with his friend Edward Turner on the question of future punishment, published in the Gospel Visitant in 1817, caused controversy that continued in the denomination for many years. The Gospel Visitant, a journal created by Ballou and his ministerial colleagues in 1811 in order to discuss theological issues, had been for several years defunct, but was revived in order to air the debate. Turner defended the common understanding among Universalists that there was a limited period of punishment in the afterlife, after which souls would be ushered into heaven. Appealing to the stories of the patriarchs of the Old Testament as proof, Ballou adopted the radical position that human beings are rewarded for good behavior, or punished for their misdeeds, in this life. At death they are transformed by the power of God’s love as they enter eternity. Ballou’s interpretation, labeled “Ultra Universalism,” or “Death and Glory” by his opponents, was largely responsible for the Restorationist controversy. This was the occasion for the publication of the second most important of his several books, An Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution, 1834.

During the course of his several ministries, Ballou engaged in controversy, both oral and in print, with many foes. Aside from the Restorationist Controversy, the most notable of his debates during his years in Boston was with the leading Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing. Channing first came to his attention with his sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” delivered at the ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore in 1819. Ballou published long extracts from the sermon in the Universalist Magazine. Given the position he had taken in A Treatise on Atonement, he was particularly pleased with the great stress Channing placed on the use of reason in interpreting the Bible. His criticism was reserved for Channing’s use of the term “incorrigible sinners.” To the Universalist Ballou, with his firm belief in a deity of eternal love, no child of God could be considered “incorrigible.”

Having inherited the parishes and churches of the Standing Order, the Unitarians, like the orthodox Congregationalists, benefitted from the religious tax imposed in most of the New England states. When, in late 1820 and early 1821, Massachusetts held a convention to revise its constitution, the attempt to separate church and state was opposed successfully by the eloquent Daniel Webster, among others. Channing, as did a number of other Unitarian ministers, defended the union of church and state, arguing that religion is not merely a personal matter between God and human beings. Government, therefore, ought “to pay homage to God, and express its obligation.” As one would expect, Ballou, as did other dissenters, called for church-state separation. In response to Channing’s argument, he wrote: “If one set of religious sentiments ought to be supported by law, because they are of a social and salutary nature in society, there surely is the same reason for preventing by law the propagation of principles which are subversive of them.” Ballou said that Channing was surely aware that it is not possible to make men religious by law. Tax money continued to support Congregational and Unitarian churches until 1834.

Ballou’s exposition of “Ultra Universalism” led Channing to attack him in a sermon in 1832, saying that he had never seen a “more irrational doctrine.” Ever the controversialist, Ballou refuted Channing’s arguments with vigor.

Given that Channing criticized Ballou on the subject of Ultra Universalism, it is not surprising that Ballou would carry the argument to Channing on the subject of salvation, specifically the Unitarian concept of “Salvation by Character.” The Unitarians’  version of Arminianism led them to urge individuals to work on self-culture, striving for the moral life. Ballou’s response was to stress the sinfulness of human beings and the love of a God who had determined to save all human beings, regardless of their success or failure in attempts to live the moral life. His argument is summed up in the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, in 1849, in an article, the title of which was a direct challenge to the Unitarians: “Salvation Irrespective of Character.” Ballou returned to the theme in an address before the Universalist General Convention, held in Boston in 1851. In homely language, he summed up his belief in a God who, as a Father, loves all his children: “Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”

Although they lived in close proximity on Beacon Hill in Boston for many years, it should be noted that Ballou and Channing, as far as is known, never had a personal relationship.

Because of Ballou’s conviction that the eternal God of love, without question, would save all human beings, he necessarily rejected Arminianism, and adopted a “necessitarian”—in today’s parlance a “deterministic”—position. If God was, as claimed, omniscient and omnipotent, he obviously could not be foiled in his plan to save all human beings. This obviously was a further challenge to the Unitarians and to the Arminians among the Universalists, who preferred to believe that they had something to say about their own salvation.

In the pages of the Universalist Magazine in 1819, Ballou published long extracts from Joseph Priestley’s A General View of the Arguments for the Unity of God. From Reason, from the Scriptures, and from History, which persuaded him to reject the Arian interpretation of the nature of Christ. Henceforth, Ballou believed that Jesus had been fully human, but had been chosen by the deity to preach his love for humanity. Christ’s ability to perform miracles demonstrated his divine commission. This, and other changes in his thought, were included in his final reworking of A Treatise on Atonement, published as part of his collected works in 1832.

Toward the end of his thirty-five year ministry in Boston, as issues of reform came to the fore in the United States, Ballou wrote against capital punishment, and supported the vigorous anti-slavery preaching of his associate minister, Edwin H. Chapin, and the activities of the Universalist General Reform Association. However, he continued to hold to his belief that only when humanity became convinced of God’s eternal love for his children, and his determination to save all souls, would evil be overcome and life on earth be transformed.


Ballou died in Boston on June 7, 1852.


Papers and letters of Hosea Ballou are available in the Universalist Special Collections at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some of these letters are in collections associated with the Universalist Society of Salem and with Edward Turner. Also at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library are the periodicals which Ballou edited or to which he contributed, including the Gospel Visitant, the Universalist Magazine, the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, and the Universalist Expositor.

Ballou published many sermons, a number of which were gathered into collections. Notable among these are his A Series of Lecture Sermons (1819). His most important work, A Treatise on Atonement, went through a number editions after its initial publication in 1805, each reflecting changes in his thinking. His mature views are to be read in the edition which formed part of his collected writings published in 1832. This edition was reprinted in 1986, with an introduction by Ernest Cassara. Ballou’s Notes on the Parables of the New Testament (1804, revised 1812) and An Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution (1834) were also influential in their time. A Voice to Universalists (1849), Ballou’s last major work, is a collection including a valedictory address, miscellaneous essays, a few sermons, and some poetry. Ballou contributed a large portion of the lyrics—193—for Hymns Composed by Different Authors (1808) and co-edited, with Edward Turner, The Universalist’s Hymn-Book (1821).

There are four full-length biographies of Hosea Ballou. Maturin Murray Ballou published his Biography of Rev. Hosea Ballou, by his Youngest Son (1852), three months after his father’s death. He provides personal details, his father’s reminiscences and anecdotes that would be known only by a member of the family. Thomas Whittemore, Ballou’s most devoted protégé, provides the most detailed biography in his Life of Rev. Hosea Ballou; and Biographical Sketches of His Seniors and Contemporaries in the Universalist Ministry (4 vols., 1854-55). Whittemore may have saved numerous newspaper clippings about Ballou, as well as the records of every ordination, installation and other program in which Ballou took part. He lists them all and the names of the other participants as well. Oscar Safford’s Hosea Ballou: A Marvellous Life Story (Boston, 1889) is denominational eulogy, perpetuating the myth that Ballou was wholly original in his thinking and the Bible his only inspiration. Because Ultra Universalism had receded in the denomination by the time he wrote, Safford minimized Ballou’s commitment to it, thus seriously distorting his thought. Safford also parallels Ballou’s experiences to those of Abraham Lincoln. Thus the book is a witness to the growth of the mythical stature of the Great Emancipator. Ernest Cassara’s Hosea Ballou: The Challenge to Orthodoxy (1961, reprinted 1982, 3rd edition 2003) demonstrates the influence of such writers as Charles Chauncy, Ethan Allen, Ferdinand Olivier Petitpierre, and Joseph Priestley. Cassara also provides a chronology of Ballou’s career and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Among recent articles on Ballou is Mark Harris, “Hosea Ballou’s Treatise at 200,” Unitarian Universalist Christian (2005).

Article by Ernest Cassara
Posted September 14, 2000