Editor’s Introduction: The following piece is about a home-town boy of ours, one from Richmond, New Hampshire, where this journal is published. While for us it has “local flavor,” we think it worthy of publishing for two reasons. First of all, it is a case study in how false sects come about: sinful men, more or less influenced by the spirit of their day, consider the revelations of God as something they have to “figure out,” instead of receiving them with docility from God’s chosen teaching authority, the Church, the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Secondly, this story teaches a lesson about heresiarchs, i.e., founders of heretical sects: they need not appear to be fire-breathing, deranged lunatics. Hosea Ballou looks like a “nice guy.” He was clever, homespun, endearingly rough around the edges, and seems to have had a genuine love for his family. All the same, the religion he spun out was evil — pure and simple; and it kept him and his followers from God, their final end.
His story should make us question ourselves: are we nice in a natural sense, or are we pleasing to God in the supernatural sense?
More than any other section of the United States, New England is made up of many small villages and towns. Across the various states that make up this region of our country, thousands of Americans live in hundreds — perhaps thousands — of picturesque places. One of the smallest towns in the state of New Hampshire is Richmond, located in the extreme southwest corner of the state, a short drive from Massachusetts to the south and Vermont to the west. Our readers know Richmond as the home of St. Benedict Center — “Pope’s Corner” to many of the non-Catholic locals. Long before this haven of Traditional Catholicism found its home in the town, Richmond’s claim to fame was as the birthplace of one Hosea Ballou, credited with being the American founder of Universalism.
In the days of Colonial America, the area that is now New Hampshire was literally the wild frontier. Richmond traces its beginnings from a 1752 grant of the British monarchy given to one Sylvester Rogers (or Rocherson) who came from Rhode Island and cleared an acre of ground. The two nearest settlements, Winchester to the west and Fitzwilliam to the east, were already established. Life was not easy in this part of the colonies: the winters were long and hard; the summers could be hot and sultry. The soil was poor and rocky and not good for farming, and wild animals were a constant threat. This was an area that would attract only the hardiest of souls in the beginning.
This article is not the life of a saint. It is a brief look at a man who produced a false religion. His particular false religion was one of the many varieties of aberrant Christianity known as Protestantism. In order to tell his story without heaping cumbersome derision on “Old Ballou,” we will tell his story simply, as we received it from the available biographies. If, at times, natural virtues or admirable traits are pointed out in our subject, or if he is ever cast in a sympathetic light for certain difficulties he underwent, it all testifies to two realities: that all men have some fingerprint of their Creator on them which occasionally shows up in admirable traits, even in the very worst; and that the common lot of the good and the bad — suffering — should elicit feelings of sympathy in this vale of tears. That will change on the Day of Judgment, when God’s perfect sentence is passed, and the elect will see the perfect wisdom of the Thrice Holy God in damning the reprobate.
Because the article explores some inner dynamics of Protestantism, at times certain words have to be employed in an analogous sense. For instance, “orthodox” Protestants ( who were by no means orthodox! ) were Calvinists. Also, the terms “conservative,” and “liberal” are used to distinguish various trends and sects, whereas we know that all Protestants are liberal, believing in their own liberty to put a personal “spin” on the Bible.
Quakers and Baptists
It must be said at the outset that there were almost no Catholics in the New England colonies. In fact, at the time of the Revolutionary War, there were only about 30,000 Catholics in all of the thirteen colonies. Being Catholic was illegal in all but three of them, and the greatest number of Catholics lived in Maryland. Even “tolerant” Rhode Island outlawed the practice of Catholicism, though Jews were welcome there.
Unlike those in the New England colonies, the first settlers in New Hampshire were not Puritans (who wanted to “purify” the Church of England of its “Romish” excesses). Primarily, they were Quakers and Baptists. As more settlers moved into Richmond, they needed a preacher to minister to their spiritual wants. In 1768, a Baptist preacher, Maturin Ballou, came to Richmond from Rhode Island with his large family to begin frontier life in the wilds of New Hampshire. In fact, Lydia Ballou – the preacher’s wife — had two brothers and two sisters already living in the area. If life was hard for the ordinary settler, it was doubly difficult for preachers in New Hampshire, as their support was strictly by voluntary contributions of their congregations, not mandated by law as in other New England colonies. Maturin farmed and eked out an existence for his wife and their still-growing family. They were so poor that their children were unable to have formal schooling. Often, their many children did not even have adequate clothing for the brutal winters.
On April 30, 1771, just a few months after Maturin was “ordained” minister of his church, the last of the Ballous’ eleven children was born. He was given the Old Testament name of Hosea (Osee, in the Douay Bible). The subject of our story was taught to read and to make his letters with a bit of charcoal on birchbark by his father, his mother having died when he was not quite two years old. Although Maturin remarried not long after his wife’s death — to another Lydia — the young child’s stepmother does not seem to have had much influence on him, for it is of his father that he wrote so lovingly in his adult life.
In the absence of any formal education until he was twenty, Hosea’s intellectual formation was done in the home. Not surprisingly for what Southerners call a P.K. (“preacher’s kid”), the lad’s principal reading material in his younger years was Scripture — interpreted, of course, according to Maturin’s preaching.
Now the New England Baptists of the eighteenth century were an offshoot of Calvinism and still close enough to Reformation Calvinism to believe in predestination as Calvin taught it. As with the Congregationalists, it was the individual congregation that had ultimate autonomy. Baptists, however, taught that the believer had to be of an age to understand and accept Christian beliefs and the Bible before being accepted into the church; hence infant Baptism was thrown out, and an individual had to make a conscious decision to become Christian before immersion Baptism made him a member of a church.
An Inquiring Mind
Maturin, as a frontier father would do — particularly one who was a preacher — was sure to indoctrinate his children in the beliefs of his sect. As good Calvinists, they were taught that all men had inherited the sin of their first parents, and, as a result, were totally depraved. Because of this, the greater part of mankind was damned and only a few would attain salvation. These few were the elect who would know of their election through some great ecstatic experience from the Holy Spirit during their lifetime. The Calvinists of the day believed that not more than one in one thousand would be saved. Further, Our Lord’s passion and death were not for all mankind, but only for the benefit of the elect, and these would be unable to resist the graces the Almighty poured down upon them for their eventual salvation (the “irresistibility of grace”). This latter belief, of course, negates the fundamental Christian doctrine of man’s free will.
Unlike his older brothers and sisters, Hosea did not accept every tenet of his father’s beliefs without question. His mind was sharp and questioning and his nature was independent and domineering. Early on he began to have doubts about some of the teachings of his Calvinist Baptist sect. He questioned the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional reprobation of the vast majority of mankind. It seemed to him to contradict his belief in a good God. (Of course Calvinism contradicts belief in a good God! If “Old Ballou” had good will, the Catholic truth in the matter — neither Calvinist nor Universalist — would have been given him.) Nevertheless, in January of 1789, during the emotion of a revival featuring two fiery Baptist preachers, Hosea was immersed in freezing water, becoming a professing member of his father’s church.
In the six months following his “conversion,” Hosea lost himself in studying the Bible. He had read the writings of some visiting Universalist preachers from nearby areas, notably Caleb Rich from Massachusetts. He had occasion to meet and argue with Rich who came to Richmond preaching the “new” doctrine of universal salvation. Local “orthodox” believers treated Rich as a raving heretic and made it known that he was unwelcome to contaminate the young minds of Cheshire County. As Hosea took the Baptist position in these discussions, Rich’s arguments began to make more and more sense to him. If man is a finite creature, how could God inflict upon him the infinite punishment? His constant study of the Bible became a search for passages that would justify belief in universal salvation.
Not a New Belief
Although the orthodox Calvinists of New England disdained Universalism as a new heresy, the belief actually had taken root in the early days of Christianity and re-emerged occasionally throughout history. Prior to the actual founding of the Universalist Church in the eighteenth century, the theological term given to this erroneous belief is apocatastasis , meaning “restoration to the original condition.” Universalists like to credit the early Christian writer and teacher, Origen (185-254), with developing the theory that all created beings (including the fallen angels) would be saved in the end. While Origen did hold some views that were condemned — the pre-existence of the soul and the subservience of Christ to the Father in power and dignity — it was later thinkers, the Origenists, taking some of his ideas to extreme conclusions, who were responsible for this “development.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria, and even St. Jerome, during his “Origenist” period, seemed to hold this belief. Interestingly, and as an aside, St. Jerome for a time taught that only the baptized would be purged of sin after a period of purification by fire; the devils and those who have not come to the Faith would suffer for eternity. This more resembles the Church’s traditional teaching on Purgatory and Hell than it does universal salvation. In the fourth century, St. Augustine pointed out that belief in universal salvation is an error contrary to the doctrine of the necessity of grace. In any case, when the Council of Constantinople in 543 issued an anathema against the belief, it surfaced no more within the Catholic Church.
Forward almost one thousand years to the time of the Protestant Revolt. With the popularization of the practice of private interpretation of Scripture, it was only natural that this belief, along with every variety of heresy, reemerged. Universalist ideas, while having their resurgence in England, really found fertile ground in America. Calvinism was a harsh and undemocratic religion. It did not seem “fair” for the greater part of mankind to suffer damnation. It certainly did not mesh with the principles of the Enlightenment and the triumph of Reason which were emerging in Europe at the time. As the British colonies in America achieved their independence and set up their new nation on the principle that “all men are created equal,” they no longer could accept or believe in the harshness of Calvinist predestination. The colonies, and later the fledgling nation, were ripe for a new, more democratic belief — a less dogmatic view of the Deity. Indeed, the intelligentsia of the late 1700s (our “Founding Fathers”) were, almost to the man, Deists. That is, their concept of God was very close to the Freemasonic concept of the Great Architect of the Universe, the Clockmaker God, who set everyone and everything in motion and then stepped back and took no interest in the workings of his creation.
Come to America
Two English preachers, both of whom came from Calvinist families, were responsible for bringing the Universalist belief to America. The first, George de Benneville (1703-1793), grew up in a privileged and wealthy atmosphere in London, caring little about religion or his own salvation. On a trip to Africa, he observed the natives, whom the common opinion of the day held to be savages, acting more “Christian” (read “kind and gentle with each other”) than the English so-called Christians. He began to have regrets about his former life of luxury and resolved to change. By some variety of logic (namely, bad), his ideas eventually progressed to the belief that all men would be saved. When he traveled to France to preach the new doctrine, he was arrested for heresy and very nearly beheaded. (Remember that France was still Catholic at this time.) Escaping by the skin of his teeth, thanks to powerful and influential friends in England, he preached in Germany and Holland before traveling to America, where he knew he could sow the seeds of Universalism without fear for his life.
Like de Benneville, John Murray (1741-1815) was raised in a British Calvinist family. After his marriage, Murray and his wife became interested in the Universalist ideas which were making the rounds in some circles in London. When his wife and their young son died, leaving him emotionally devastated, he resolved to travel to America and begin life anew. He had preached a few times at Universalist gatherings in England, and, when he reached America, found a small church near the New Jersey shore in need of a preacher. He began preaching there the new doctrine of Universalism. Later, Murray settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he influenced the aforementioned Caleb Rich. Although the local established Calvinists tried to drive him out, more and more people began to attend his talks, and the news of universal salvation began to take hold. It was so much more democratic than Calvinism, and easier to practice. It fit in perfectly with the new democratic principles of the age.
So now we find Hosea, newly baptized into the Baptist religion, doubting more and more the doctrines his father taught him. He sincerely believed in the goodness of a God who loved all his creatures impartially and unconditionally; therefore, he could not reconcile in his mind the same loving God unconditionally consigning the greater part of his creatures to eternal damnation. The year that marked his acceptance as a member of Maturin’s congregation saw him beginning to preach universal salvation six months later. Three months after that, in the Fall of 1789, he was formally and publicly excommunicated from the Baptist church.
How did this young man proceed from the belief of his childhood to the radical position of universal salvation? In his study of the Scriptures, Ballou picked passages, primarily from St. Paul, that would justify his position. Three of his favorites — and he employed these his entire life — are Romans 5:18: “Therefore as from the offense of the one man (Adam) the result was unto condemnation to all men, so from the justice of the one (Jesus) the result is unto justification of life to all men”; I Corinthians 15:42-44: “So also with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in corruption rises in incorruption; what is sown in dishonor rises in glory; what is sown in weakness rises in power; what is sown a natural body rises a spiritual body”; and 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made to live.” In fact, on one occasion, during a discussion with a Methodist, the gentleman, trying to show him the error of his ways, declared, “I suppose you think St. Paul was the greatest Universalist?” Ballou replied, “By no means, Jesus Christ was the greatest Universalist!”
Naturally, Hosea’s father strongly disapproved of his son’s apostasy. He forbade the young man to bring any Universalist literature into their home. Once, Maturin observed his son immersed in a book while sitting on the ground leaning against the woodpile. When the father inquired after the son’s reading material, he replied respectfully, “It is a Universalist book.” Later, seeing the book abandoned on the woodpile and checking the title, he found it was the Bible! Although there was theological disagreement within the Ballou family, the many brothers and sisters remained as close as they had always been. Two of Hosea’s brothers became convinced of Universalism while the others remained Baptists.
As we already know, the young Hosea had no formal schooling. Newly converted to Universalism and eager to spread the word, he knew he would have to improve his writing and speaking skills if he wanted to be accepted as a preacher. Consequently, as a young man of almost twenty, he enrolled in the Richmond Quaker School to learn the rudiments of formal English grammar. With the money that he had saved working away from home for several summers, he then attended Chesterfield Academy in nearby Vermont receiving a certificate enabling him to supplement his meager preacher’s wage by teaching school. He would, however, always remain “rough around the edges” in his manner of speaking and writing.
Hosea’s first attempts at preaching were disastrous. He became distraught in the pulpit and lost his train of thought. For a while, he was discouraged knowing that no congregation would want a bumbling preacher. His father and brothers encouraged him to persevere, though, and soon he was taking the message of universal salvation throughout rural New England as an itinerant preacher. His pay was usually not enough to cover his travel expenses. As a consequence, his teaching certificate from Chesterfield was put to good use, allowing him to function as school master in the towns and villages through which he traversed.
Ethan Allen’s Influence
While the young Hosea’s theological beliefs “progressed” from Calvinism to Universalism, the new doctrine evolved over a period of time before it was thoroughly firmed up in his thinking. It is foreign to Catholic thinking to speak of “new doctrine.” There can be no such thing in the Catholic belief system. However, when private interpretation of Scripture became accepted after the Protestant Revolt, those rebelling against authoritative teaching on the Scriptures by Holy Mother Church then were able to attach any meaning they wished to Biblical passages. At first, Ballou retained belief in the Blessed Trinity, but, as his preaching duties led him to meet and speak to more and more freethinkers and radicals, even that was open to doubt.
One of the greatest influences on the young itinerant preacher was the Revolutionary War hero, Ethan Allen of Vermont — of Green Mountain Boys fame. During Ballou’s circuit riding ministry, he met Allen and read his book, Reason, the Only Oracle of Man , published in 1784 (obviously long after his services as a guerrilla warrior against the British were needed). Allen was a Protestant who became a Deist. His book was the product of the Enlightenment rationalistic “religion” gaining popularity in his day. Deists rejected the Christian conception of the universe whose God “interfered” with the workings of nature and was unpredictable in His actions. Their “god” was the prime mover who was disinterested in his creation once it became activated. Ethan Allen totally rejected the Bible, replacing its authority with the authority of man’s reasoning power. His book is a vicious attack on divine revelation, dismissing the Trinity, the divinity of Our Lord, the existence of the Holy Ghost, original sin, Jesus’atonement for man’s sins, the reality of the devil, miracles, and hundreds of other fundamental Christian tenets, simply because they were, according to him, “contrary to man’s reason.”
Another Revolutionary, influential on both Ballou and other freethinkers of the time, was Tom Paine, among whose many writings were also attacks on Christianity.
While Ballou was heavily influenced by deistic “reason,” he always retained an official Protestant reverence for the Scriptures and continued to consider himself a Christian. His thinking, of course, was far from Christian. As he could find no evidence for the Trinity in the Bible (!), and because such a concept was “contrary to reason,” his theology tended more and more toward Unitarianism. Now, Ballou did not put himself into the same category as the Unitarians of the day, about whom we will learn more shortly. Rather, he became convinced that Jesus was the first created being of God, whom God used to reconcile man to Himself. He believed that Our Lord, an exalted creature of the Creator, suffered death on the Cross to atone for the finite sins of finite men. Jesus bought the salvation of the entire human race by His self-sacrificing act. Ballou’s loving God did not give man free will, and even evil (or, what may only seem evil to men) eventually has good results. As examples, he gave the treatment of the Old Testament Joseph by his brothers, the folly of the prodigal son, and the suffering and death of Christ — all seemingly evil happenings which God caused to happen and which He meant for eventual good results. The fallacy is obvious: because God can work good out of evil, God then caused that evil, according to Ballou. This is a classical non-sequitur (it does not follow). The truth is that God allows evil and works good out of it.
A Revolutionary Document
In 1805, Ballou wrote and published his definitive work, A Treatise on Atonement , a 216-page document which outlined his thinking on God, salvation, and the Scriptures. The influence of this publication cannot be underestimated. It stated the universalist belief in specific terms and united Universalism with the Unitarian teachings then gaining ground among some liberal thinkers in the New England area. In it, he put great stress on the use of (his own concept of) reason in interpreting the Scriptures. The core of the book was his reformulation of the doctrine of atonement. As finite creatures, human beings are incapable of offending an infinite God, he claimed. Therefore, he rejected the notion that the death of Jesus was designed to appease an offended God. He replaced it with the idea of God as a Being of eternal love who seeks the happiness of His children. (It is typical of Protestantism to oppose two things that aren’t opposed to each other, as if God cannot be both just and loving . Other examples of things that aren’t opposed being opposed: Scripture vs. Tradition, Sacraments vs. God’s grace, Jesus as Mediator vs. the intercession of saints. This tendency explains such extremes as Universalism and Calvinism.) Ballou naively asserted that once people realized his concept of a loving God, they would take pleasure in living a moral life and in doing good works. Also included in the book was his Unitarian denial of the Blessed Trinity as contrary to human reason and Scripture. (From the beginning of organized Universalism in Winchester, NH, in 1803, Ballou’s Unitarian belief was a great influence on the budding sect.)
Rejecting the biblical story of the fallen angels being the origin of sin as contrary to reason, Ballou presents quite a fanciful theory of his own. He distinguishes between the creation of man in Christ and the formation of man in Adam. In other words, Jesus was the creation of the heavenly essence or soul of man, and Adam was the creation of carnal man. He explained that the creation story of Genesis had to be interpreted figuratively to understand it correctly. It was only when the carnal aspect of man was created in the formation of Adam from the earth’s dust that man became a sinful creature. To those who criticized him for making God the author of sin, he countered that sin stemmed from man’s evil intent , not from evil results , since God knows and controls all things, and good results from the sinful intent of humans. (Since, in our subject’s theology, man has no free will, this makes God the author of sin.)
Besides these mind-boggling heretical teachings, he also taught that there was no devil and no hell (as a place of permanent suffering). In the New Testament episode where Our Lord was tempted by Satan, he explained that the temptations were from Jesus’ own carnal nature (!). Thus, sin is the work of the carnal mind, and this biblical episode illustrates that man can handle temptation the same way that Jesus did. He summarily rejected the Calvinist belief of the elect and the damned, positing the illogic of a benign and loving God arbitrarily sending the greater portion of his own creation to a place of eternal torment.
Many of Ballou’s critics pointed out that an eminently fair God would not give sinners the same reward as those who lived a virtuous life. How did he solve this dilemma? It was Ballou’s belief that the sinner would suffer in his earthly life, by means of disease or sorrow of some kind, and that at his death only his heavenly nature would survive, and the corruptions of earthly life would be dissolved. This belief came to be known as Ultra-Universalism, and in the 1820’s it was the cause of a rupture in the small, but growing, body of believers. Those who held that there had to be some kind of purging of one’s earthly sins after death and before entering heavenly bliss became known as Restorationists. This controversy raged for as long as Ballou remained an active and influential preacher, but by the early twentieth century, most Universalists accepted that, while we “do get our punishment as we go along,” it may also go a long way with us into the hereafter before we enter the heavenly reward. It was Ballou’s exalted view of man that allowed him to believe as he did. One wonders how he would think if he lived in today’s evil and promiscuous society!
Ballou went on to publish several other works explaining his theology of Universalism and his method of interpreting the Scriptures in a figurative way so as to rob Our Lord of His Divinity and save all men. It was his Treatise , though, that had the greatest influence on the thinking of Universalists for generations.
Marriage and Call to Pulpit
When Hosea Ballou was twenty-four years old and beginning to make something of a reputation for himself as an up-and-coming preacher of the new doctrine, his friends began to speak to him about the importance of finding a wife. Accordingly, his old friend and mentor, Caleb Rich, introduced him to the daughter of a Universalist couple in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Her name was Ruth Washburn, and she was seventeen years old. At the time, Ballou was riding a circuit that took him as far north as parts of Vermont and as far east as Cape Ann, Massachusetts, earning only a few dollars each time he preached. Nevertheless, they were a good match; he six feet tall and two hundred pounds, and she tall, slim and pretty. More importantly, their personalities and religious beliefs meshed. Despite his poverty, they courted for a year and were married on September 15, 1795. After a few months with her family, they began their own home in the nearby town of Dana. The following October a child was born, Fanny, the first of many children in a marriage that lasted fifty-five years.
Ballou made crucial contacts during a ten-week engagement in Boston. In fact, he made such a big impression on his listeners, that many invited him to begin a second Universalist society (church) there. In deference to the older John Murray, at whose church he had preached, he refused the offer. The exposure to the more cultured atmosphere of the big city, however, encouraged him to polish his homespun delivery a bit in order to have greater appeal to the more sophisticated city folks.
Three more children were born to the Ballous during their stay in Dana. With four young children to feed, and the pay of an itinerant preacher not more than five dollars a week, the family moved to the Woodstock (Vermont) area where there were four “sister societies” of Universalists. Strangely, they took such interesting names as “The Independent Catholic Society of Woodstock,” “The Liberal Catholic Society of Woodstock,” and “The Catholic Benevolent Society of Hartland.” They were, of course, as far as they could get from being Catholic! Meetings (services) were usually held in private homes or public halls. Believers of the orthodox persuasion (Calvinists) in some places tried to drive the Universalists out of the public buildings for preaching heresy.
There is evidence that Ballou was an active Freemason, a fitting sideline for one of his beliefs. In June, 1806, he preached to the brethren at a Masonic festival at Chester, Vermont, speaking on brotherly love. In 1811, he was elected Junior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire, one of the highest offices in the state.
Two more daughters were born to the Ballous while they lived in Vermont, the sixth child, Elmina, surviving only one month. It was not long after they buried their baby that Ballou received his first permanent pulpit.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, Portsmouth was the largest city in New Hampshire. The small group of Universalist believers there had difficulty paying their preacher’s stipend of five hundred dollars a year. Upon his departure for greener financial pastures, they invited Ballou to preach to the congregation. They were so pleased with him, that they offered him the position permanently with a yearly salary of eight hundred dollars and moving expenses. Ballou demanded one quarter of his salary in advance. When he received it, he moved his wife and five children to Portsmouth in the fall of 1809. No stranger to controversy throughout his career, Ballou sparred with the local Congregational, Baptist, and Methodist ministers who accused him of heresy. He was always very confrontational in his approach to “unbelievers” and relished taking on the orthodox Protestant ministers in debate.
Several times in his written disputes with other ministers, Ballou made reference to the Roman Catholic Church. Like so many anti-Catholics, he taught that the fatal moment for the early Church was when Constantine recognized the Faith: ” . . . an undulating tide of pagan superstitions found its way into the vitals of the church; and, laying hold of the civil sword, has set up and maintained, for ages, the kingdom of antichrist.” And, “Atonement signifies reconciliation. The opinion that God received atonement, or was reconciled to man by Jesus Christ, is nothing but the old doctrine of the mother of harlots, which enabled her clergy to sell indulgences” (emphasis added).
Two more daughters had been born to the Ballous during their stay in Portsmouth. When a controversy broke out in his congregation over his support of the War of 1812, several of his congregation threatened to withdraw their support of the church. Portsmouth was a port city, and many of its merchants depended on trade with the British. With this business now eliminated because of the hostilities, the city was definitely feeling the loss of business, and many of the congregation were angry with their preacher. When an eighth child was expected, Ballou accepted a call from the Universalist Society of Salem, Massachusetts, a more prosperous city, but one which also suffered as a result of the war.
Arriving in Salem practically destitute, the Ballous had to depend on the charity of their congregation to furnish them with proper fabric to sew clothing appropriate to the higher culture of the town and to his position as leader of his congregation. Despite their promises, the Salem Society of Universalists reneged on their promise of a higher salary. In reality, they fell more and more into arrears, and the Ballous as a consequence became more and more destitute. Ballou opened a private school to supplement his meager pay, but with eight children to feed and clothe, it became clear to him that a move would be necessary.
Call to Boston
When Ballou’s old friend, John Murray, died and left his pulpit empty in Boston, many of the faithful were displeased with the preacher who replaced him. A group of the disaffected, who admired Ballou, broke away and began a Second Universalist Society in Boston. The city was growing, and so was the sect, and they felt that such a bustling town as Boston could support two Universalist societies. They built a new building on School Street and extended an invitation to Ballou to fill their pulpit at a salary of thirteen hundred dollars, plus an occasional donation of fuel. He was installed preacher at the School Street Church on Christmas Day, 1817, the church in Salem still owing him $660, which he probably never collected.
Ballou’s ministry in Boston covered a span of thirty-five years. They were busy years, filled with writing, editing, pastoral work, family life, and preaching. He continued to travel in the New England area, serving as guest preacher at various Universalist Societies. He and his nephew, Hosea Ballou II, began The Universalist Magazine , which was instrumental in bringing more believers in other parts of the young country into the sect. He wrote a hymnal, largely unsuccessful (after all, to whom do you sing?). But his first love always remained preaching.
Because of his country upbringing and his early lack of education, Ballou’s style of preaching and writing remained unpolished and uncultured throughout his life. One young man, who was a student at the Boston Latin School, recorded a sermon from 1825. His impression of a portion of that sermon reads as follows: “Brethering, I perceed to dev-il-ope and illusterate the follerin p’ints.” Uncultured as his language was, he nevertheless had a powerful effect on his listeners. His preaching was said to have drawn “thousands on thousands” of converts to Universalism. Many of these were clergymen from other denominations, who, no doubt, brought their congregations with them into the fold.
Although the financial situation of the Ballou family was finally more comfortable, now that his salary was substantial and actually paid, Hosea and Ruth continued to live as frugally as they had always lived. Growing up in a rural area, he had always been a great believer in physical exertion, and it was not uncommon to see the aging preacher cutting his own firewood. He engaged in moderation in food, took no strong drink, and even the small pleasure of taking snuff was put aside when he concluded that it was clogging his nasal passages. Their home life was busy and happy. The old preacher’s idea of a social evening was engaging in theological discussion and disputation. He had an occasional game of checkers with a friend or devoted an evening of play to his children, but, by and large, he was completely taken up with the cause of spreading Universalism.
The seeds of anti-Trinitarian liberalism had been sprouting in America from late Colonial days, but it was not until a liberal was elected to the chair of Divinity at Harvard in 1805 that Unitarians were acknowledged as a distinctive group within the Congregational and Calvinist churches. As we know, Ballou had been Unitarian in belief as early as 1795, and through his influence most Universalists came to reject the doctrine of the Trinity. The casual reader might think that the two groups, having much in common, would be friendly to each other and even merge. Such was not the case in Boston of the early nineteenth century. Universalists were roundly snubbed by Unitarians. First, the Unitarians considered themselves an offshoot of the orthodox church. Secondly, since they were of the elite classes of the city, they were contemptuous of the unlearned Universalist clergy. Unitarian ministers were generally Harvard educated. Ballou and the most prominent Unitarian minister of the day, William Ellery Channing, had several heated exchanges over their differing theologies, but Channing would never publicly debate Ballou or exchange pulpits with him, a common practice among the differing sects. Both of these preachers would probably disapprove of the merging of the two groups in the twentieth century, although by that time, the accepted beliefs would have been totally unrecognizable to them. Suffice it to say that, in those days, the Unitarians still accepted the belief in some form of punishment after death, whereas Ballou and the Ultra-Universalists continued to cling to their belief that man’s sins are punished in this earthly life.
The Last Years
Controversy and confrontation had been a way of life for Ballou from his earliest years. He thrived on argument, spoken and written, with other clergymen. As he aged, he became the respected elder of his sect, many referring to him as “Father Ballou.” Among the “unbelievers” of Boston, however, he was known as “Old Ballou.” Illustrative of the polemics following him is a humorous exchange that occurred when he boarded an omnibus to cross town. An old woman, obviously picking a quarrel, confronted him, . Ballou, do you not constantly preach to your congregation, ‘O ye generation of vipers! How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’” He replied in his most polite manner, “No madam; that class do not attend my church!”
By 1839, all of the Ballou children were married; two of his sons and two sons-in-law preached Universalism; there were many grandchildren to warm his heart and hearth; and financial security was at last a reality. One son, Maturin, named for Hosea’s father, was the founder of the Boston Globe newspaper.
In 1841, several of his parishioners began to agitate for a new preacher. The Old Lion (called so by his admirers) was now seventy, still vigorous and popular with the older generation, but not so much with the younger members of his congregation. The disagreement finally caused a schism within the church, with some of the wealthier members threatening to begin a new society. Ballou offered to retain the unsalaried position of senior pastor, with a younger preacher coming to the pulpit as his assistant. It seems that the younger generation of Universalist preachers was more interested in emphasizing social reform from the pulpit than in scriptural and doctrinal sermons. They emphasized the evils of slavery, intemperance, and war. Ballou disapproved of this trend. He continued to preach on Scripture and doctrine and the errors of the other sects, including “the Romans.” He also continued to serve as guest preacher for congregations in the New England area.
In the 1840’s a new “heresy” gained a foothold among young Universalists. It was based on German rationalism and transcendentalism, eviscerating miracles from the Bible and basing Biblical interpretation on science. Ballou thundered against this new trend, calling for a written creed to keep the group Christian (in his sense of the word). He had always been opposed to written dogmas and schools of divinity, but now that he was aging, he wanted to insure that his interpretation was recorded as the correct one. In 1850, he delivered his farewell address to his congregation, not with any intention of retiring, simply wishing to go out in good form.
In his declining years, Hosea Ballou often returned to his native Richmond, New Hampshire, to visit the burial place of his parents, to reminisce with old friends, and to preach in the Universalist churches of Winchester, Richmond, Fitzwilliam, and other area towns. His last visit there was in 1851, just eight months before his death. He and a friend visited Ballou’s Dell. There, at the urging of his friend, he recited the poem he wrote of his birthplace. While it is of no great literary merit, it does reflect the love he retained for the hills of New Hampshire:
“There are no hills in Hampshire New,
Nor valleys half so fair,
As those outspread before our view,
In merry Richmond, where
I first my mortal race began,
And spent my youthful days;
Where first I saw the golden sun,
And felt his “livening rays . . .”
On April 30 of 1852, Ballou celebrated his eighty-first birthday receiving honors and congratulations from both his family and congregation. A month later, he preached in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Returning home to Boston the next day to prepare for another preaching engagement in Plymouth, he spent a night of sleep disturbed by coughing. Ruth had been ill for several weeks, and, as he was leaving her bedside after kissing her goodbye, he felt faint and collapsed on the parlor sofa. His daughter came to his aid, but over the next few days fever and delirium set in, and he continued to fail. The end came for him on June 7, 1852, with most of his family at his bedside. He was to be followed in death nine months later by his beloved Ruth. They are buried together in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Modern Day Universalists
Not long after Ballou’s demise, most Universalists rejected his belief in immediate reward after death. However, such a difference is minor compared to the changes in the sect today. The Universalists merged with the Unitarian Church to become the Unitarian/Universalist Association, or UUA. This merger took place in 1961. Modern-day UUA’s are primarily secular humanists with no particular religious creed, although if they choose to call themselves Christian, Buddhist, Neopagan, Wiccan, Druid, Theist, or even atheist, they are welcome as part of the group, as long as they “respect each other’s dignity.” They emphasize social and civil activism, attempting to achieve equal treatment and tolerance for all beliefs and “lifestyles,” and they are proud of their “diversity.” Truly an inclusive group for the modern world! “Father Ballou” would definitely disapprove!
In our own times, a Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, has espoused the position that we may have a human (as opposed to a theological ) hope that all of humanity will be saved. (His thoughts can be found in the book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? , published in the 1980’s by Ignatius Press.)While Father von Balthasar vehemently denied that he was proposing a theological belief in apocatastasis , through a feeling of mercy on his part and pain at the thought of loved ones being damned eternally, he proposed that it is permissible for Catholics to hold out hope that all men will eventually reach Heaven. The cardinal — for he was nominated to that position by the present Supreme Pontiff — undermined the obvious reading of Scripture, which clearly advances not only the existence of Hell, but its inhabitation by the souls of the damned.
It testifies to the reigning apostasy in the Church that the foul doctrine of ancient Egyptian heretics and liberal New England Protestants gets crowned with a red hat!
There is an ironic twist in the story of Hosea Ballou relative to St. Benedict Center. The father of Universalism was born in Richmond, New Hampshire, and ended in a grave in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who run the Center, were founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and ended up in Richmond, New Hampshire. Thus it can be said, in more than one way, that the Slaves and Hosea moved in opposite directions.
May the One God in Three Persons, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, deliver this nation from all manner of unbelief and enlighten it with Catholic truth so as to save us