Caleb Rich (August 12, 1750-October 18, 1821), one of the earliest New England Universalist preachers, was the first to proclaim that there would be no punishment in the afterlife. His preaching led to the conversion of Thomas Barns, later a pioneer preacher to Universalists in Maine, and also Hosea Ballou whose advocacy of Rich’s eschatology brought on the Restorationist controversy. Rich’s first biographer, William S. Balch, described him as “among the first and foremost founders of Universalism in America.”
Caleb was the eighth of 13 children born to Elisha and Mary (Davis) Rich of Sutton, Massachusetts. The children were baptized—in Rich’s words, “sprinkled by the priest”—and at first brought up in the Congregationalist church. When Caleb was in his teens, his father became a Baptist. The Rich children attended both churches, “resolved if possible to find out which was in the right way.”
As a young man Caleb had many religious discussions with his friends and brothers concerning which of the two religions would lead them to salvation. One day a friend asked, “How do we know that either of them are right?” “[N]ever in all my life,” Rich later said, “had I heard anything from the lips of man that had such a deep and lasting impression on my mind.” He began to “search the scriptures” for answers, a practice he continued throughout his life.
At age 21 Caleb left the family farm. Following in the footsteps of his older brother Nathaniel, he traveled north to Warwick, Massachusetts. On the road he had a Baptist-style conversion experience, and in Warwick joined a Baptist group.
Around 1773 Rich had two visions. In a conversation his brother Nathaniel had expressed confidence in the overwhelming power of God’s grace. Afterwards, Caleb learned from a vision not to fear “the torments of hell or future judgment,” which cannot help people to be truly religious. He also felt an overwhelming sense of love towards all humanity, which he took to be an experience Christ’s universal love. From his next vision he learned that to reach the destination of his spiritual journey, he must take the path of understanding given to him. A spiritual guide instructed him to “follow no man any further . . . tho’ they follow Christ, if you continue so doing you will soon get out of this way, and again be lost in the wilderness.”
Reading the story of Adam and Eve by the light of these visions, Rich developed a theology according to which some people would be saved; the rest would merely “cease to exist after the death of the body.” To his surprise, the majority of his Baptist acquaintances rejected his religious discoveries. At a meeting supervised by visiting clergy, the Baptists in Warwick denied him both membership (baptism) and a certificate of exemption from parish taxes. To obtain certificates, he and two other outcasts—Nathaniel Rich and Joseph Goodell—organized themselves into a tiny new religious society.
In the spring of 1775, following the Battle of Lexington, Rich was among those called up to join the Revolutionary army outside Boston. Upon his arrival his officers compelled him to enlist for 8 months but gave him a 3-week furlough to visit family in Sutton and Oxford, Massachusetts before beginning active duty. While staying in Oxford in the home of a Davis cousin, he exchanged places with his cousin’s hired man. Rich worked on the farm in Oxford for the remainder of his term of military service.
He found his cousins already questioning orthodox doctrine and sympathetic to his views. Together they held Sunday meetings which drew people from miles around. Rich also made an evangelical tour into nearby northeast Connecticut. When he left the Oxford area, opposition to the Standing Order there was stronger than ever.
Back at home, his Warwick society was yet intact. Among those he converted to disbelief in endless punishment during the following years were the Doolittle family, whose daughter Electa he married in 1778. Later that year he had another set of visions. From the first Rich learned of the dual nature of human beings. The earthly, sinful part would be destroyed at death; in every case the spiritual part would survive and immediately join God in heaven. In a second vision Jesus held out corn to him and told him to “feed my sheep and lambs.” Thus Rich became fully Universalist and received a call to preach.
Rich preached Universalism to his society in Warwick and also began to evangelize nearby Richmond, New Hampshire. Thomas Barns, a resident of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, came to scoff at Rich’s preaching and instead converted to Universalism. With his help Rich recruited a group of Universalists in Jaffrey. Universalists from Jaffrey, Richmond and Warwick organized themselves into a “general society” and called Rich to be their minister. Adams Streeter, minister in Milford, Massachusetts and the only other settled Universalist preacher in the region, presided over Rich’s ordination. Hundreds attended the service, which took on the atmosphere of a revival.
Rich first met Universalist ministers Elhanan Winchester and John Murray at the 1785 convention in Oxford. On this occasion Murray helped the churches in central Massachusetts, including Rich’s general society, to organize in accordance with the law—for tax purposes—as “Independent Christian Societies.” Not himself well-educated and modest about his own preaching ability, Rich was impressed by Murray’s eloquence. Murray was not equally taken with Rich. He later characterized Rich’s ideas about the nature of Jesus as “impious,” “blasphemous” and “God-dishonouring.” Rich wrote that “Christ Jesus is in every man before he believes.” Murray denied that, saying there is “but one way that Christ can be in any man, and that is by faith.” He considered Rich’s preaching careless in that Rich did not render “the precise, literal language of the sacred writings.” When Rich visited Murray in Boston, he was subjected to a long lecture on theology. There is no evidence that Rich was influenced by Murray’s arguments, and in the end Rich’s theology proved more influential than Murray’s.
Rich’s influence was exerted largely through Hosea Ballou, who grew up in Richmond and so was exposed to the preaching of Rich for a decade before he converted to Universalism in 1789. Rich was his mentor and even introduced him to his future wife.
In the later part of his life Rich continued to work on the westward moving frontier. His brothers Thomas and Nathaniel moved to Vermont in the 1780s. Caleb followed them in 1803. Based in New Haven, Vermont, he preached as an itinerant in western Vermont and eastern New York State until shortly before his death. On his deathbed he dictated to his daughter his only writing, “A Narrative of Elder Caleb Rich.”
In comparison with the attention paid to John Murray, Rich has been relatively neglected in the histories of Universalism. Yet Rich has had his champions. Elmo Robinson, in American Universalism, 1970, ranks Rich with Murray, Winchester, de Benneville, Ballou, and Ferriss among the “early voices” of Universalism. William S. Balch, an early president of the Universalist Historical Society, stressed the priority of “hill country” Universalism and claimed Rich as its inspiration. Stephen Marini, in Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England, 1982, described Rich as the founder and early leader of mainstream New England Universalists, whom he calls “Richites.”
Balch errs in claiming Rich as a Universalist too soon. According to Balch, Rich was a Universalist before Murray’s 1774 arrival in Gloucester, and he brought Universalism to Oxford in 1775. But Rich’s memoir makes it clear that he was not a Universalist until 1778. Although the later dating of his conversion does not lessen his independence from Murray, it does place him among rather than far ahead of inland peers like Adams Streeter and William Farwell who also converted in the years of the Revolutionary War.
Rich was honored in 1816 as Moderator of the New England Universalist General Convention, but never sought a leader’s role. He was not a celebrated preacher; nor did he ever serve a large church. He spoke most persuasively to small groups in rural areas. His was, nevertheless, a pervasive influence. He played a crucial role in spreading first proto-Universalist ideas, then Universalism in several of the early centers of Universalist origin on the frontiers of New England.
Rich’s short autobiography, “A Narrative of Elder Caleb Rich,” edited by his grandson Charles R. Marsh, is spread over several numbers of the Candid Examiner (April 30-June 18, 1827). William S. Balch wrote two biographical articles on Rich, “Random Sketches of Universalism in New England, Section III. Caleb Rich,” Universalist Union (May 25 and June 15, 1839) and “Caleb Rich,” Universalist Quarterly (January 1872). Balch also wrote “Rev. Thomas Barnes” in the Universalist Union (June 13, 1840). There are short articles by Lemuel Willis on Rich and Barns in the Universalist (February 27, 1875 and December 12, 1874). A late date for Barns’s conversion, challenging to Rich’s chronology, is in Levisa Buck, Memoir of the Rev. Thomas Barnes (1856). Murray’s letter to Rich is from John Murray, Letters and Sketches of Sermons, vol. 2 (1812). Information on Rich’s relation to the Davis family is in George L. Davis, Samuel Davis of Oxford, Mass. and Joseph Davis of Dudley, Mass. and Their Descendants (1884). Further information and other perspectives are available in Elmo Robinson and Stephen Marini, mentioned above, and in Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, vol. 1 (1884); Ernest Cassara, Hosea Ballou (1961); Edith Fox MacDonald, Rebellion in the Mountains: the Story of Universalism and Unitarianism in Vermont (1976); Russell Miller, The Larger Hope (1979); David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985); and Peter Hughes, “The Origins of New England Universalism: Religion without a Founder,” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (1997) and “Some Problems in the Chronology of Early American Universalism,” Unitarian Universalist Christian (2005).
Article by Peter Hughes
Posted April 24, 2002