18th CENTURY UNIVERSALISM
To complete this collection of essays on Ultimate Reconciliation, I should like to present an historical sketch, based on the lives of these two men, James Relly and John Murray, the former being one of the first preachers of Universalism in England, and the latter (one of Relly’s converts) the founder of Universalism in America.James Relly (c.1722 – 1778) was born in Jeffreyston, Pembrokeshire, South Wales, and educated at the Pembroke Grammar School. He was an ungovernable youth of great bodily strength, and was apprenticed to a cow-farrier. It is reported that he joined with some other young fellows and planned to make game of George Whitefield, the preacher, but it backfired on him. Whitefield’s preaching laid hold of him, as did the Lord Himself. The year must have been 1741, when conducting his first preaching tour of Wales.
Subsequently Relly joined Whitefield and became one of his preachers, as also did his brother John. In the year 1747 he concluded a preaching tour of Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, and parts of Gloucestershire, and reported his successes to Whitefield. But shortly afterwards he broke with Whitefield on doctrinal grounds, his views on the certainty of salvation being regarded as antinomian, i.e., as with Johann Agricola, who maintained that the moral law was not needed to bring a sinner to repentance. (Both Wesley, the Arminian, and Whitefield, the Calvinist, were strong on teaching the ten commandments.)
From then on Relly travelled as a preacher on his own account. In 1756 we find him at Carrickfergus, (County Antrim, Northern Ireland) delivering, in opposition to John Wesley, a pointless harangue about hirelings and false prophets. On 2ndApril 1761 Wesley wrote of him and others as “wretches” who “call themselves Methodists” but in fact were antinomians.
It was about this time that Relly definitely adopted the Universalist stance, which he viewed as the logical consequence of the universal efficacy of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He settled in London, and preached atCoachmaker’s Hall, Addle Street, quite near to St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1764 he moved a short distance to a former Presbyterian meeting house in Bartholomew Close, which had just been vacated by Wesley, remaining there until 1769, when he secured a meeting house in Crosby Square, near the Bank of England, and continued to preach there until his death on 25th April, 1778.
Whilst at Crosby Square, in 1770, John Murray came under the sound of his preaching, and although he was at first violently opposed to Relly’s Universalism, was finally persuaded. We must now have a brief look at Murray’s background.
John Murray was born at Alton, Hampshire in 1741 of pious parents who brought him up with great strictness. In his eleventh year the family removed to Ireland, where they settled at Cork. Soon after, he lost his father, and began to preach under the tutelage of John Wesley, who was acquainted with his father’s family, and saw in young John all signs of a budding genius, and did much to encourage him. However, as he grew older his inclinations veered towards Calvinism and George Whitefield, and eventually joined him, after returning to England, and was an occasional speaker at Whitefield’s Tabernacle,Tottenham Court Road, London.
It was during this time that he heard about James Relly and his heretical teaching. Murray regarded him as a destroyer of souls, and when any member of the Tabernacle congregation became enamoured with Relly’s teaching, his heart was filled with chagrin and indignation. His hatred was increased by an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim a young lady, who had embraced Universalism, and who, in the course of their conversation, quite disconcerted and perplexed him with her questions.
The following, dealing with the problem of this young lady, to whom Whitefield sent Murray, is taken from “Murray’s Life,” chapter 4, and is one of the most brilliant religious anecdotes on record.
“I had heard much of Mr. Relly” writes Murray. “He was a conscientious and zealous preacher in the City of London. He had, through many revolving years, continued faithful to the ministry committed to him, and he was the theme of every religious sect. He appeared, as he was represented to me, highly erroneous, and my indignation against him, as has already been seen, was very strong. I had frequently been solicited to hear him, merely that I might be an ear witness of what was termed his blasphemies, but, I arrogantly said, I would not be a murderer of time.
Thus I passed on for a number of years, hearing all manner of evil said of Mr. Relly, and believing all I heard, while every day augmented the inveterate hatred which I bore the man and his adherents. When a worshipping brother or sister, belonging to the communion, which I considered as honoured by the approbation of the Deity was, by this deceiver, drawn from the paths of rectitude, the anguish of my spirit was indescribable; and I was ready to say, the secular arm ought to interpose to prevent the perdition of souls.
I recollect one instance in particular, which pierced me to the soul. A young lady of irreproachable life, remarkable for piety, and highly respected by the Tabernacle congregation and church, of which I was a devout member, had been ensnared. To my great astonishment she had been induced to hear, and having heard, she had embraced the pernicious errors of this detestable babbler. She was become a believer, a firm and unwavering believer of universal redemption! Horrible! Most horrible!
So high an opinion was entertained of my talents, having myself been a teacher among the Methodists, and such was my standing in Mr. Whitefield’s church, that I was deemed adequate to reclaiming this wanderer, and I was strongly urged to the pursuit. The poor deluded young woman was abundantly worthy of our most arduous efforts. He that converteth the sinner from the error of his way, shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.
Thus I thought, thus I said, and swelled with a high idea of my own importance, I went, accompanied by two or three of my Christian brethren, to see, converse with, and if need were, to admonish this simple, weak, but as we heretofore believed, meritorious female. Fully persuaded that I could easily convince her of her errors, I entertained no doubt respecting the result of my undertaking.
The young lady received us with much kindness and condescension, while as I glanced my eye upon her fine countenance, beaming with intelligence, mingling pity and contempt grew in my bosom. After the first ceremonies, we sat for some time silent. At length I drew up a heavy sigh, and uttered a pathetic sentiment, relative to the deplorable condition of those who live and die in unbelief, and I concluded a violent declamation, by pronouncing with great earnestness, he that believeth not shall be damned.
“And pray sir,” said the young lady, with great sweetness, “Pray sir, what is the unbeliever damned for not believing?”
“What is he damned for not believing! Why, he is damned for not believing.”
“But my dear sir, what was that, which he did not believe, for which he was damned?”
“Why, for not believing in Jesus Christ, to be sure.”
“Do you mean to say that unbelievers are damned for not believing there was such a person as Jesus Christ?”
“No, I do not. A man may believe there was such a person, and yet be damned.”
“What then, sir, must he believe, in order to avoid damnation?”
“Why, he must believe that Jesus Christ is a complete Saviour.”
“Well, suppose he were to believe, that Jesus Christ was the complete Saviour of others, would this belief save him?”
“No, he must believe that Jesus Christ is his complete Saviour; every individual must believe for himself that Jesus Christ is his complete Saviour.”
“Why, sir, is Jesus Christ the Saviour of any unbelievers?”
“”Why, then, should any unbeliever believe, that Jesus Christ is his Saviour, if he is not his Saviour?”
“I say , he is not the Saviour of any one , until he believes.”
“”Then, if Jesus be not the Saviour of the unbeliever, until he believes, the unbeliever is called upon to believe a lie. It appears to me, sir, that Jesus is the complete Saviour of unbelievers, and that unbelievers are called upon to believe the truth, and that, by believing they are saved in their own apprehension, saved from all those dreadful fears which are consequent upon a state of conscious condemnation.”
“No, madam, you are dreadfully, I trust not fatally, misled. Jesus never was, nor never will be, the Saviour of any unbeliever.”
“”Do you think Jesus is your Saviour, sir?”
“”I hope He is.”
“”Were you always a believer, sir?”
“”Then you were once an unbeliever, that is, you once believed that Jesus Christ was not your Saviour. Now, as you say, he never was, nor never will be, the Saviour of any unbeliever, as you were once an unbeliever, He can never be your Saviour.”
“He never was my Saviour until I believed.”
“Did He never die for you, till you believed, sir?”
Here I was extremely embarrassed, and most devoutly wished myself out of her habitation. I sighed bitterly, expressed deep commiseration for those souls who had nothing but head-knowledge, drew out my watch, discovered it was late, and recollecting an engagement, observed it as time to take leave.”
“From this period,” writes Murray, “I carefully avoided every Universalist, and most cordially did I hate them. My ear was open to the public calumnniator, to the secret whisperer, and I yielded credence to every scandalous report, however improbable. My informers were good people, I had no doubt of their veracity; and I believed it would be difficult to paint Relly, and his connections, in colours too black.”
In those days a certain Mr Mason had written a refutation of Relly’s message, and presented it to John Murray for inspection. Murray was not at all pleased with the manuscript, and returned it. Shortly afterwards he happened upon a copy of the “Union”, a journal produced by Relly, and decided to read it for himself, if perhaps he might make a better job of refutation. But this was his undoing, because the arguments set forth were such that he could not bring himself to refute, and before long the Spirit of the Lord was performing a new work in his soul. He avidly read and re-read the Scriptures, and spent much time in prayer. Such were the conflicting emotions in his heart.
At last he determined to hear James Relly for himself, and found himself quite astonished at the simplicity of his house, the respectability of the congregation, the devotion of the speaker, and above all with the sermon. It was the first consistent sermon he had ever heard. This was the first of many such visits, and he became more and more astonished at the breadth and wonder of this new teaching. In a short time he was fully persuaded, and as a result, almost immediately found himself excommunicated from Whitefield’s Tabernacle, many former friends forsaking him. The most injurious reports were spread concerning his character; his former confidence was betrayed, and coldness and insolence succeeded to professed friendship and love. On top of this, he lost an infant son, and then shortly afterwards his wife, for whom he had the most ardent love. These trials, put together, were almost too great to bear, and were it not for the absolute assurance he now possessed that the love of God was sufficient for the whole human race, he would surely have plummeted into the deepest of depressions.
However, it so happened that he met a man from America during this time of oppression and sadness. Listening to his tale of conditions across the Atlantic, he became progressively drawn to start a new life, away from his detractors, and far from the tragic domestic losses he had incurred. And so he sailed in July 1770, and in a few weeks landed on the American continent, and began an itinerant preaching ministry. His first settled pastorate was in the newly organised Independent Church of Christ at Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he ministered from 1779 to 1793. And so the message of Christ’s total victory at Calvary spread, and was greatly blessed by God, the number of believers steadily growing, even in spite of the groundswell of denunciations from established churches. Thomas Whittemore, the then Pastor of the First Universalist Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote in 1830, “There are traces of Universalism as it existed in the United States previously to, and at the time of Mr. Murray’s arrival. But this doctrine can be said to have been then scarcely known, and as his labours were the principle cause of exciting public attention to the subject, and of establishing societies of that faith in different parts of the country, particularly in our populous cities and towns, he is justly considered as the FATHER OF UNIVERSALISM IN AMERICA.” (His capitals)
It was within this movement (but not through it) that another man rose to notoriety in the Universalist churches, as we shall now learn. It was the year following Murray’s arrival in America, that on 30th April 1771, Hosea Ballou was born in Richmond, New Hampshire, who was to become the influential leader of American Universalism for more than 50 years. He was converted to this belief in 1789, from the former Calvinist persuasion of his Baptist father. He was ordained in 1794 as a minister of the Universalist Church, but as early as 1800, as a result of his own independent study of the Scriptures, he concluded that he could not any longer entertain the doctrines of the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, human depravity, vicarious atonement, or eternal punishment. According to Thomas Whittemore, the whole denomination went along with Ballou’s views “with a very few exceptions.”
Whittemore wrote to Ballou in 1829 to ascertain the means by which he had come into the knowledge of the Full Gospel, and why he had given up his views on the trinity and the atonement. Ballou’s reply, dated November 25th was lengthy, and cannot be reproduced in full here. But the following extract will be sufficient to testify as to his position.
“I never read anything on the doctrine of Universal Salvation before I believed it, the Bible excepted, nor did I know . . . that there was anything published in its vindication in the world. Nor had I ever heard a sermon on the subject, except when in boyhood I heard Bro. Rich, but concerning the sermon I realised nothing.”
[re the Trinity, etc.] “I had preached but a short time before my mind was entirely freed from all the perplexities of the doctrine of the trinity, and the common notion of atonement. But in making these advances, as I am disposed to call them, I had the assistance of no author or writer. As fast as those old doctrines were , by any means, rendered the subjects of enquiry in my mind, they became exploded. But it would be difficult for me now to recall the particular incidents which suggested queries in my mind respecting them. It may be proper here for me to mention one circumstance, which no doubt, had no small tendency to bring me on to the ground where I have , for many years, felt established. It was my reading of some DEISTICAL WRITINGS.” (My emphasis)
[As an aside here, and for the benefit of those who know little of Deism, let me explain. Deists proclaim themselves to be rational thinkers, as were Voltaire and Rousseau in the period of the “Enlightenment”. For them, faith was dethroned, and rationality exalted to irrational heights. Many Deists were opposed to Scripture, and special revelation. Some became pantheists or even atheists. Others disputed the resurrection, and Jesus’ miracles, and veered towards a natural religion. Reasonableness had to replace intolerance and authoritarianism, which abounded in Christian church systems. In throwing out the dirty bath water, they had thrown out the baby as well.]
“By this means I was led to see that it was utterly impossible to maintain Christianity as it had been generally believed by the church. This led me of course to examine the Scriptures, that I might determine the question, whether they did not really teach that Jesus Christ died to reconcile an unchangeable God to His own creatures? You cannot suppose that I was long in finding that so far from teaching such absurdities, the Scriptures teach that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.” The question respecting the Trinity was, by the same means, as speedily settled. But I cannot say for certainty what year I became a Unitarian, but it was long before I wrote my Treatise on Atonement.”
Until this time, all Universalists in America were of orthodox theology. Such was the ardent belief of John Murray and those who fellowshipped with him, as was the conviction of James Relly here in England. A letter written by a certain Rev. James Edmunds in those days has the following words. “The British Restorationists hold the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ as a first principle of union, at least so far as regards those among whom I have laboured.” Whittemore added that by all such letters (as that just quoted), “the British Universalist Churches hold the Deity of Christ and the Trinity as a test of fellowship.”
But under the growing influence of Ballou, the Universalist Church of America became Unitarian in its outlook, and eventually, in 1961, joined with the Unitarian Church in to become the Unitarian Universalist Church of America. It is important to understand this chapter of history. Even today, the British Universalists are largely Trinitarian, whilst those in America are largely Unitarian.
Whereas I know that the Lord has all things under His control, and that in days to come, whether in this life or the next, matters of doctrine will all be resolved in the presence of our Lord and Master, it is becoming of us as believers to formulate, by prayer and Bible study, what we most surely believe, rather than allow a state of flux to operate, such as the New Age movement, and sadly, many Christians, advocate. Because of this I wish to state that my wife and I, together with all those who fellowship with us, are firm in our belief that Jesus Christ is indeed God the Son, and that the doctrine of the Trinity, so called, as well as being an “orthodox” doctrine of the Christian Church throughout the centuries, is also a plainly declared and acceptable teaching from the Bible, in both Testaments.
Furthermore, I cannot ignore the fact that from amongst those American Universalists who mainly espouse Unitarianism, there has arisen a number of other most damaging assertions of new belief, which undermine basic concepts of Scripture that have been our heritage for as long as the Church has existed. Examples of this include the disbelief in the freedom of the human will; the blasphemy that God created Satan to be a murderer and a liar, to further His own interests; that God is the Creator of evil, without which He cannot display grace to fallen creatures; that God uses evil to further His purposes; that God provided the conditions for man’s fall, rather than it being a decision of Adam and Eve; that Lucifer is just another name for Adam; that man is in no way responsible for his sinful state, and therefore conviction of sin is unnecessary and degrading; that everyone will end up where they started, (by the so-called Law of Circularity, which was the subject of the last chapter); that Adam fell BEFORE eating the fruit, because he wanted a wife, rather than retaining Eve within himself. This list is by no means complete, but exemplifies what happens when people fail to honour the Saviour as Emmanuel, God with us, and try to prove that He was just another created being, like the angels, but of a higher order.
I do not enjoy writing this. It is always sad to disclose the faults of others respecting a belief-pattern. But we believe that it had to be done, because we find a growing antagonism amongst Christians towards the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation based on the presence of these way-out tenets, whereby those of us who hold to a more orthodox belief-pattern are lumped together with them, thereby destroying the possibility of our preaching God’s Total Victory with any degree of conviction. We would therefore urge a return to the more orthodox positions of men like James Relly and John Murray, who, together with stalwarts of faith in that era such as Wesley and Whitefield, maintained a belief-pattern of tried and tested substance. Relly and Murray had IN ADDITION, the teaching of the Early Church in respect of Ultimate Reconciliation.
Although we have had to disagree with Unitarian Universalists in this sketch, we should like to thank the Concordant Publishing Concern, and the “Savior of All Fellowship” in California for re-publishing various works on Universalism, such as Andrew Jukes’ and Thomas Allin’s books, and Hosea Ballou II, “The Ancient History of Universalism, from the time of the Apostles to the Reformation”,  Thomas Whittemore’s “The Modern History of Universalism from the Era of the Reformation to the Present Time”, James Relly’s “Union”,  and Elhanan Winchester’s “The Universal Restoration.”