Community Unitarian Universalist Church
August 24, 2003
Daytona Beach, Florida
Hosea Ballou - Finding His Own Way
A first person sermon by Lloyd H. Dunham
My name is Hosea Ballou - of Boston. I am pastor, or at least I was pastor of the Second Universalist Church on School Street. This was a long way from my beginnings. I was born in 1771 and brought up in Richmond, New Hampshire, not far from the majestic Mount Monadnock. My preacher dad moved the family to Richmond from Rhode Island four years before I was born. Many of our cousins had already moved there. There were eight children when the family moved. I became number eleven. My mother, Lydia, died when I was two years old, so dad had his hands full from there on.
Dad's name was Maturin Ballou. He had been a preacher for fifteen years in various Baptist Churches in Rhode Island. He was a rather strict Calvinist. He loved us but felt it his responsibility to teach us that God willed endless punishment for most people. My dad decided to start a new life near relatives in Richmond. He became a farmer during the long weekdays and a preacher on Sundays. His Calvinism was as harsh as the farm life was hard.
When I was seventeen I was convinced that I needed to be baptized to protect my soul from the devil. There was no baptistry in our church so all baptisms were done in a nearby river. It was a really cold January Sunday in 1789 when a group of us young people were to be immersed. They had to cut a hole in the ice and keep stirring the water to prevent it from freezing! The Rev. Isaac Kinney, our local Baptist minister, stood in the icy waters and immersed each of us completely under water as he spoke the baptismal words. Now that is an experience you never forget! I'm still shivering at the thought.
We had no schools in Richmond. We had no books at home except for the Bible and an old dictionary. In spite of that I learned to read and write and even how to do some simple arithmetic. We all joined our dad in long hours of hard work to clear the land and grow crops to feed our family through the long winter.
There had been a bitter quarrel in our Calvinist Baptist Church where my father was pastor. Many withdrew and established their own church. Years later, when the reason for the split was forgotten, my dad and the pastor at the other church brought the two churches back together. In doing so, both resigned and the combined church called the Rev. Mr. Kinney who baptized me on that cold January day.
Even though I was baptized I had a lot of questions. I knew what the answers would be if I asked my father, and those answers didn't satisfy me any longer. I turned even more to the Bible, and there I found some different teachings, teachings which seemed to contradict what my father had taught. Then I heard about a minister over in Warwick. His name was Rev. Caleb Rich. He preached about something he called Universalism. A family of our relatives joined that Universalist Church. I was told that Universalist teachings were wrong. I studied hard to find arguments to refute Universalism, but more and more I had admit that their teaching made sense.
Soon after that one of my brothers and I spent the summer working on a farm in New York. All the time I was there my mind was busy working at questions about my faith often recalling the Universalists teachings. Could it be that my father had missed some important parts of the Bible? If I would be happy to have everyone saved, could God be any less kindly toward all people? I struggled with these questions with no guide except for my Bible.
When I returned home in the fall I was quite settled in the belief that God would have mercy on all people. I still had lots of questions to work on but this was my basic position. How exciting it was to return home and find that my older brother David had joined the Universalists! Dad was not happy with the faith that David and I espoused. He saw me reading one day and demanded to know what book I was reading. I said, "A Universalist Book". He ordered that book out of his house. Dad watched as I took the book out back of the barn and put it under a wood pile. He returned later and found that my "Universalist" book was the Bible!
That winter I lived with David's family, saved my money and then spent a whole term at Chesterfield Academy. At age nineteen I got the only brief formal education of my entire life. David took me to the New England Convention of Universalists where I heard many great sermons including one by John Murray. While we were there I felt a call to become a Universalist preacher. While teaching school all week I accepted every opportunity to preach on weekends and to respond to questions about my faith - which I tried to do clearly and honestly. People seemed to like it. In 1794, when I was twenty-three, I was ordained a Universalist minister by the New England Convention.
Remember Caleb Rich, the Universalist minister at Warwick? Well, he was concerned about my non-existent love life. He was a little pushy about it but I was forever glad that he introduced me to the love of my life, the lovely Ruth Washburn. After we married we moved to Dana, Massachusetts where I served a circuit of six churches. I was paid a total of five dollars a week. That helped us buy a horse and buggy.
I wish you could visit our first home and church. Unfortunately it is at the bottom of a new reservoir for the city of Boston. All that remains is one of my churches that was moved to Greenfield, Massachusetts, and our bell which still rings in the Second Congregational Church In Greenfield.
We were in Dana for six years. Somehow even in this rural location strong Universalist preaching was controversial. I was as forthright as I could be. There were some strong Calvinists around who objected to my preaching but it brought many invitations to preach all over the northeast. John Murray, the father of Universalism in America, invited me take his place in Boston for ten weeks while he was away. About that time I was leaning toward a Unitarian view of Jesus which Murray did not accept. Nevertheless he trusted me to preach for him. My time in Boston went well, with an ever increasing positive response. Mrs. Murray was upset with me and at the end of my last sermon had someone announce, "Take notice that the doctrine preached here this afternoon is not the doctrine usually preached in this house." That evening church officials came to my house to apologize for the discourteous comment.
After our brief time in Boston, we moved to Barnard, Vermont where I relished the free-thinking style of Vermonters. I understand they still are free thinkers up there. While I was there I wrote my book "A Treatise on Atonement". I attempted to bring together the points of liberal Christian theology opposing Calvinist doctrine. I rejected the terrible notion that Jesus died to pacify an angry God.
After six years in Vermont, we moved to the Universalist Church at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Again we stayed for a very good six years after which we moved to Salem, Massachusetts for a brief two years. During these eight years the more progressive Universalists in Boston were restless with John Murray so they separated and built a new church.
At this time there was no strong voice for liberal religion in Boston. Even William Ellery Channing, who had been pastor at the Federal Street Church for fifteen years, had not yet publicly declared his Unitarian belief. It was on New Years Day 1818 when I was forty-six years old that I accepted the call to Boston. The new church seated about a thousand people but we usually had to hold three services each Sunday to accommodate everyone. I made every effort to be a caring pastor but my primary preaching focus was educational as I worked to correct ancient theological errors. The Bible was always my authority. I believed it contained revelations from God. I always stood in awe of Jesus who I believed had some supernatural powers.
I became the first editor of The Universalist Magazine in which the internal Universalist controversy was freely aired, presenting my views of faith and those of my colleagues, as well as the views of those who disagreed with us. As this dialogue continued I refused to yield from the position that there was no punishment after death.
I was really an old man by existing standards when I moved to Boston at age forty-six. Since life expectancy was much shorter then, I am amazed and grateful that I had the privilege of writing and preaching for thirty-five more years. I lived to be eighty-one. I am humbled that people called me "Father Ballou". My place as a strong spokesman for Universalism could not replace John Murray as the one who brought Universalism to these shores.
I had to think for myself, without the advantage of formal schooling. I hate to think where my life would have led me if I had not questioned the faith that my beloved father preached. It is not easy to study and find your own spiritual way. I guess that is why your churches are small today. Too many people like to be told what to believe. Don't go that way! Study! Think! Question! Share your faith journey, and listen as others do the same! You will all be better for it. If anyone asks you why, just tell them that Hosea Ballou pointed you this way!
These Live Tomorrow: Twenty Unitarian Universalists Lives, by Clinton Lee Scott, Skinner House Books, Boston 1987.