Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Bad Men and Angels from Hell": The Discourse of Universalism in Early National Philadelphia

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Bad Men and Angels from Hell": The Discourse of Universalism in Early National Philadelphia

Article excerpt

On a Sunday evening in the spring of 1781, minister William Van Horn requested leave from his Baptist congregation in Southampton, Pennsylvania, to attend a special meeting at the Philadelphia church. He had been invited to the city to help resolve a conflict over Universalism. Van Horn was to visit those "who were in an unhappy circumstance on account of Mr. Winchester's propagating the doctrine of universal restoration of bad men and angels of hell and had carried away a great part of the Church in error." Elhanan Winchester had recently advocated Universalism as head of one of the most prestigious Baptist congregations in the Delaware Valley. Neighboring clerics were called in to settle the dispute over salvation for the few versus salvation for all; Van Horn, along with five other local Baptist clergymen, would form a council of ministers to mediate this ideological clash. What ensued carved a deep fissure in the Philadelphia meeting, one that came about within a regional context. While Baptists in the Delaware Valley were contending over the new theology, many New Englanders had already joined the Universalist ranks. The argument in Philadelphia started as a local event and became part of a national discussion about the nature of deliverance. The religious doctrine of Universalism, and the controversy it spawned in Pennsylvania, occurred in a locality familiar with religious interaction but intensified through the burgeoning print and denominational networks of the late eighteenth century. Instigated by an active laity, its dissemination relied upon connections among denominational leaders. Though the Philadelphia debate over Universalism transpired at the micro level, it was linked to an ongoing religious dialogue among Protestants in the Atlantic world.1

The influence of Universalism in the Delaware Valley, and the discourse generated in this conflict, demonstrates the confluence of Enlightenment philosophy and evangelical Protestantism in the early national period. Enlightened ideology promoted the use of reason to understand and structure human society, and evangelical religion valued emotion as a sign of true spirituality; the expressive responses of repentant sinners under conviction lent credence to their eventual conversion. Emotionality acquired great significance during the eighteenth century. As Nicole Eustace has shown, "a rising tempest of emotion was sweeping through the Age of Reason." American patriots used the language of emotion to justify their political break from England, and some argued the universality of human emotion. The cult of sensibility infused the Revolutionary generation with an ideal of "refined feeling" whereby its elite members could transform themselves and reform society. Appeals to authentic emotion and reasoned thinking emboldened individuals to interrogate tradition, whether spiritual, social, or political. Yet Universalism posed a grave peril to the established dogma of Philadelphia Baptists; advocating salvation for all eradicated the need for divine punishment. This enlightened theology threatened a mainstay of Calvinist doctrine. Just as the emotionality of evangelical revivalism had been critiqued in the pre-war era, the rationality of Universalist doctrine would be attacked in the early national period. The inclusivity of Universalism had distinct relevance to some forms of republicanism in eighteenth-century American society, but its democratic message endangered traditional Protestant belief.2

General histories of American Universalism trace the origins of this new religion to New England, particularly to the inland communities surrounding Oxford and Gloucester, Massachusetts. Ann Lee Bressler argues that Universalism rose to prominence in New England because it filled a cultural gap created by the breakdown of Puritan communitarianism following the American Revolution. The religious dissent that developed in Massachusetts was part of a regional response to Congregational dominance. …

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