Restorationist Controversy

Universalists in late 18th century New England were not in theological accord regarding the afterlife. Some, like Caleb Rich, believed that the soul would experience immediate salvation upon death. These held the consequences of sin to be limited to life on earth. The majority of Universalists, like Charles Chauncy and Elhanan Winchester, believed the soul would be disciplined or educated in a period following death. After a finite, though perhaps very long period, the soul would be ready for eternal holiness and happiness.

John Murray’s Rellyan position differed from either of these. Though Murray believed everyone in the world already saved, he held that most would continue miserable, even after death, until they were reconciled to God. He referred to reconciliation after death as “Restoration,” a term Winchester also used in his widely read Dialogues on the Universal Restoration. Later Universalists, who described the post-death transformation rather differently, called themselves, with some historical resonance, Restorationists.

Often, in theological disputes among close allies, the differences troubling the parties have to do with numerous related matters, though the issues are not all articulated in their more focused debates. Certainly that was true of the Restorationist controversy. Though the main argument was over—what would later be termed—”future punishment,” those who preached immediate salvation tended to be determinists or necessitarians. Those who believed in free will reasoned that a soul could not be fully restored until it wanted to be saved and, as souls can be very stubborn, a change of heart could require a lot of time, perhaps a hundred thousand years.

At issue, too, was the justice of God’s government. Believers in a period of discipline in the afterlife did not believe that all the consequences of human wrong-doing are meted out to sinners on earth, and so must be punished in the hereafter. Those who came to be called the “Death and Glory” Universalists argued that since the dead can no longer sin, it would make no sense for a rational God to punish them in the afterlife. The Restorationist controversy also involved confused issues of authority and church governance in a rapidly growing movement whose organizational structures had often developed informally and without consistency, and hopes for future Universalist growth.

The earliest Universalists had experienced little internal theological dissension, for several reasons. All other religious groups treated the doctrine of universal salvation as an especially grievous heresy. In comparison with the external opposition they met and had to answer with persuasive argument, differences among themselves hardly mattered. Moreover, Universalists had a strong aversion to creedalism, or doctrinal tests. In 1803 the Universalist General Convention only reluctantly adopted the broadly worded Winchester Profession, to fulfill State requirements having to do with their churches’ legal status. To be a Universalist it was enough to believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God who could and would save all of humankind. Other theological assertions were of minimal importance. Also, Universalists were a tiny group. The ministers were usually well acquainted, often friends. The cordiality of personal ties mattered far more to them than their differences.

But as the number of Universalist ministers increased, along with the needs of their churches which were often distant from each other, early 19th century Universalists found themselves with several variously developed and overlapping ecclesiastic organizations, sometimes at cross purpose. Thus the Restorationist controversy was at once a theological dispute, a cluster of wrenching adjustments in personal relationships, and an institutional crisis of the fledgling Universalist denomination.

In the 1810s Hosea Ballou and Edward Turner were the two leading Universalist ministers, and also close friends. Ballou had long doubted future punishment. Turner had devoted some effort to convincing him of its truth, and was relieved when Ballou confessed himself defeated by the Bible passage, “For Christ . . . being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison” [1 Peter 3:18-20]. Later, each became the center of a new circle of friends and disciples. Turner allied himself with the Paul Dean and Jacob Wood. Dean, who had succeeded John Murray at First Church in Boston, felt his position weakened when, in 1817, the new Second Church called the more charismatic and radical Ballou. Wood was an erratic young minister who wished to make future punishment an officially identified feature of Universalist doctrine. Ballou recruited as his allies two able and powerful young lieutenants, his great-nephew, Hosea Ballou 2d, and Thomas Whittemore.

In 1817 Jacob Wood persuaded Turner and Ballou to debate future punishment in a series of letters to the journal, the Gospel Visitant. The published arguments followed familiar lines until Ballou reversed his position on 1 Peter 3:18-20: he no longer thought that the “spirits in prison” were souls being punished in the afterlife, but interpreted them as living Gentiles to whom the crucified Christ was preached. Turner thought this new interpretation strained and unfair. From that time, Ballou held the doctrine of future punishment to be false and never hesitated vigorously to combat it. The subsequent debate in the press exacerbated already existing tensions.

In 1819 Ballou founded the Universalist Magazine, which he also edited. The magazine quickly became not only the Universalists’ most influential journal but, in effect, the voice of the denomination. For a few years Ballou kept the Restorationist controversy out of its pages. But in 1821-22 a new editor allowed the debate to flourish and printed letters by Ballou, Turner, Dean, Wood and others. As a result, feelings intensified. Ballou again became the editor in mid-1822, with Whittemore and Ballou 2d as assistants. He again excluded the controversy. His new editorial policy suppressed a communication from Wood calling for oral debate. Restorationists inferred that Ballou’s policy was to deny them a forum.

The Restorationists had other grievances against Ballou and his party. For several years, despite his self-described tolerance and neutrality, Ballou had often made derogatory remarks, in the pulpit and in print, concerning those who believed in future punishment. Some of his disciples followed his example. (Hosea Ballou 2d was an exception. An avid partisan supporter of his great-uncle, he believed in future punishment.) Restorationists felt unfairly demeaned, and they were especially concerned about the effect of Ballou’s quasi-official denigration of their doctrine on young ministers and laypeople.

In this last regard the Restorationist controversy was a contest between two evangelical/apologetic strategies. Ballou asked Universalists to emphasize their uniqueness and differences between Universalist and all other churches. Ballou constantly attacked the “orthodox” (among whom he included Unitarians), often with biting humor and sarcasm. Restorationists urged a more conciliatory and ecumenical approach. They hoped to attract to Universalist membership people who might as easily become Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists or Presbyterians. According to the Restorationist appeal, only the doctrine of universal salvation made Universalists distinctive. And their version of that doctrine preserved the necessary inducement of “future punishment” to morality. In their version punishment, though it might be very long, was not eternal. In the end God’s love would prevail universally.

In late 1822 six Restorationists stayed away from the meeting of the New England General Convention and held a convention of their own. They proposed to publish a protest against their treatment at the hands of their more radical brethren. The document would also expose “no future punishment” Universalism as morally vacant and unchristian. Unfortunately, Jacob Wood was chosen to prepare the text. He authored two articles, subsequently referred to as the “Appeal and Declaration,” printed in the December, 1822 issue of the Christian Repository, a Vermont Universalist paper. Wood wrote that the two kinds of Universalist doctrine “are incapable of being reconciled together” and that “we consider the [no future punishment] doctrine to be subversive of a just sense of our accountability to God, and the proper distinction between virtue and vice.”

The Appeal and Declaration was immediately notorious. Ballou and others declared themselves abused by Restorationists who would deny them fellowship in the Universalist ministry. Universalists belonging to neither the Ballou nor the Restorationist factions were shocked by the rift between their ministers. In 1823 both the Southern Association (a local organization including churches in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) and the New England General Convention investigated ensuing charges and counter-charges. Because Wood’s articles were egregiously undiplomatic, and because Hosea Ballou 2nd penned a devastating response to the articles, published as an editorial in the Universalist Magazine, Ballou appeared the tolerant and injured party. The younger Ballou’s editorial accused Turner and Dean of orchestrating the controversy because they envied and resented the elder Ballou’s eminence. Although most Universalists of the time believed in some form of future punishment, most were convinced of the Restorationists’ offense.

The editorial, in its dismissal of real theological issues, in its portrayal of the Ballou faction as devoid of personal motives, and in its refusal to entertain Restorationist complaints, was less than fair. Yet it was written by one known to support the Restorationists theologically. Moreover, the editorial documented accusations of envy with quotations from the private conversation of Jacob Wood. Thus the Restorationists were put on the defensive.

At the 1823 General Convention complaints were issued against Dean and Ballou. Both were cleared of the charges. Dean, unsatisfied with that result, resigned his fellowship. The Southern Association took up the task of disciplining the other five sponsors of the “Appeal and Declaration.” They were compelled to sign a disclaimer, not retracting but reinterpreting their manifestos and professing fellowship with all Universalist brethren. By the middle of 1824 all six had formally settled their differences. Dean was also welcomed back into fellowship.

The returning prodigals were treated graciously. Yet it was soon clear the reconciliation was no more than a pause in the struggle for the soul of Universalism. Ballou, Whittemore and others—the faction soon to be labeled the “ultra Universalists”—quickly resumed their rough and sarcastic ways of dealing with theological rivals. Turner, who had been turned out of his Charlestown, Massachusetts pulpit for his part in the controversy, felt he could no longer stay in the same denomination with Ballou. In 1828 he joined the Unitarians.

In the late 1820s the battle was taken up by one of the younger Restorationists, Charles Hudson, who debated Walter Balfour, a Bible scholar whose arguments against future punishment had made him a champion of the ultras. In 1827 Hudson addressed A Series of Letters to Ballou who refused to read it. In 1828 Balfour answered him in Three Essays. Ballou approved Balfour’s efforts to counter Restorationist arguments. Balfour’s theology was, however, different from Ballou’s. He believed dead souls would be extinct until raised to life on the day of the general resurrection. Restorationists charged Balfour with materialism and tarred Ballou with the same brush.

A minister Ballou had encouraged and befriended, Abner Kneeland, caused Ballou some embarrassment. While serving a church in New York City, 1825-27, Kneeland fell under the influence of the utopian reformers, Robert Owen and Fanny Wright. He adopted their controversial social ideas and also their skepticism regarding the Christian tradition. Restorationists charged Kneeland with “infidelity,” and feared he might lead Ballou—and the Universalists with him—away from all ties to Christianity. A Restorationist sympathizer, Providence minister David Pickering, thus far a neutral observer in the controversy, was roused by a perceived drift toward Deism. “I am determined to gird on the sword and repair to the field,” he wrote Turner, “for the express purpose of hunting the enemy out of the ranks, or fall in the contest.”

Abner Kneeland was eventually forced to resign his Universalist fellowship. But Pickering and other Restorationists worried that disciplinary rules, used to suppress Restorationist dissent, were not applied to unbelievers, whose sensibilities were, instead, accommodated. Moreover, the Convention and the associations were very slow to discipline a minister, Richard Carrique, whom Pickering thought guilty of gross misconduct.

Dean came to believe that Universalists needed constitutional reform if they were adequately to respond to several realities, among them, demographic growth, the movement’s geographical expansion, and the failure of the old disciplinary processes to address the real abuses of the Restorationist controversy. In 1827 Dean proposed a new constitution for the New England Universalist General Convention. His motion met with initial approval, but was defeated in a committee comprised of himself, Whittemore and Ballou. In 1828 the Convention adopted new disciplinary rules, but only friends of Ballou were chosen for the disciplinary committee. Hudson reported to Turner that he “should not be surprised if Dean or Pickering or possibly myself should be called upon forthwith.”

In 1827-29 Pickering, aided by Dean, organized a new group, the Providence Association, largely composed of Restorationists. Then, in 1829 Pickering resigned his membership in “the General Convention and all of the Associations under its jurisdiction.” Responding to Pickering’s challenge to their authority, in 1830 the Southern Association passed a ban on the Providence Association. Members would either resign from it or forfeit Universalist fellowship. The General Convention reluctantly backed the Southern Association. Restorationists felt themselves forced to prepare for schism.

Adin Ballou served the Universalist church in Milford, Massachusetts. Having become disenchanted with his distant cousin Hosea, and having long chafed under pressure not to preach a Restorationist gospel, he delivered a sermon on future punishment before an appreciative audience in Medway, Massachusetts. Thomas Whittemore read his text and published a severely negative review in the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine. The review caused Adin Ballou trouble in his ultra-leaning congregation. He soon joined the Providence Association and became a leading voice in Restorationist councils. His newspaper, the Independent Messenger, founded in 1831, became the Restorationists’ voice in print. In it he carried on a running four-year battle with Whittemore’s Trumpet.

In 1831 at a meeting of the Providence Association a new denomination was created, the Massachusetts Association of Universal Restorationists (MAUR). Their manifesto declared the new group to be the true heirs of Murray, Winchester and Chauncy (a claim Whittemore immediately disputed) and that “Modern sentiments of No-future accountability, connected with Materialism, are unfriendly to pure religion, and subversive of the best interest of Society.”

The new denomination lasted about ten years. In this period many Restorationist clergy served Unitarian churches, and there was even a rapprochement between some MAUR ministers, especially those closely linked with Adin Ballou, and a Unitarian party led by Bernard Whitman, minister in Waltham, Massachusetts. (It withered after Whitman died in 1834.) In the late 1830s Adin Ballou and his disciples became increasingly involved in such public issues as temperance, abolition and peace. A rift developed between them and Dean, who wanted Restorationists to stay focused on theological issues. The tiny MAUR continued to grow until the very end, but the split was fatal. From 1839-41 Adin Ballou and others began to form themselves into the Hopedale community. Attendance at MAUR meetings dwindled. Restoration ministers seeking settlement relied upon their Unitarian connections.

Universalists within the New England General Convention concluded that the departing Restorationists had been right about one thing: they needed to reform their constitution. Because the Providence Association had challenged the authority of the General Convention, in 1830 the Convention sent committees to the new Maine and New York State Conventions to make lines of authority clear. The State conventions declared themselves independent, fraternal bodies. A process ensued whereby, in 1833, the New England General Convention became the United States General Convention. Ironically, to gain assent to reorganization on a larger scale, the General Convention ceded all effective power to the State conventions. For several decades the General Convention was a purely advisory body.

Samuel Loveland, despite his Restorationist theology and sympathies, had remained in fellowship with the Convention. In 1834 he offered to write a Universalist New Testament commentary. He was taken to task for his “notorious” heterodoxy in two Universalist periodicals. Dolphus Skinner, another of the many believers in future punishment within the Universalist clergy, replied in the Evangelical Magazine. He wrote that, although he had once blamed his schismatic Restorationist brethren for lack of a “proper spirit of forbearance and charity,” if these articles were a sample of what they had to endure a decade before, he no longer could “blame them for such secession.” If such behavior continued, he warned, not just a few, but hundreds of Universalist ministers would secede. For the first time, ultra Universalists, never in the majority, could not afford to antagonize moderate believers in future punishment who had stood with them to preserve Universalist unity. Skinner’s threat apparently put an end to ultra belligerence.

In early 1835 Adin Ballou published an editorial, “Omega,” in the Independent Messenger. He declared the Restorationist controversy finished, as far as he was concerned. Differences between MAUR and the General Convention remained, but he was willing to move on to more important matters. In the era to come, controversies (and schisms) were far more often occasioned by issues of social reform than by theological differences.

By this time Ultra Universalism was on the wane, though respect for Hosea Ballou tended to mute criticism of it while he was alive. In the later 19th century nearly all American Universalists believed in future punishment. A Universalist history for young people, written in the early 20th century, claimed the Restorationist controversy was “the only debate that [Hosea] Ballou ever went into that we wish he had kept out of.”

The Edward Turner Papers are part of the Universalist Special Collection at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts Much information on the Restorationist controversy from the hitherto neglected Restorationist point of view is available in Turner’s correspondence. Minutes of the New England Universalist General Convention are in the Special Collection as well. Various contemporary denominational journals are also a primary source on the controversy. Among these are the Gospel Visitant, the Universalist Magazine, the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, the Christian Repository, the Evangelical Repertory, the Christian Telescope, the Christian Intelligencer, and the Independent Messenger.

Among theological works on future punishment, in addition to those mentioned above, are: Jacob Wood, Brief Essay on the Doctrine of Future Retribution (1817); Paul Dean, A Course of Lectures in Defence of the Final Restoration (1832); Hosea Ballou, An Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution (1834); and Adin Ballou, The Touchstone (1837). The Restorationist controversy is featured in Adin Ballou’s Autobiography (1896), and in his “Epistle General to Restorationists” written for the Independent Messenger (January 1, 1831). He also published an analysis, “The Restorationist Secession,” in The Universalist (February 11, 1871). Thomas Whittemore dealt with the controversy in the closing pages of his Modern History of Universalism (1830).

The major extended treatments of the Restorationist controversy are a celebrated chapter in Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, vol. 2 (1886); a section in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 1 (1979); a Harvard Divinity School thesis, Alan F. Sawyer, “The Restorationist Controversy among Universalists Re-examined” (1955); and two articles by Peter Hughes, “The Origin and First Stage of the Restorationist Controversy,” Journal of Unitarian and Universalist History (2000) and “The Second Stage of the Restorationist Controversy: Disciplinary Crisis and Schism, 1824-1831,” Journal of Unitarian and Universalist History (2002).

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted February 19, 2002