Popular religious liberalism in America 1770-1880 : an interpretation of the Universalist movement

Bressler, Ann Lee, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

This work seeks to shed light on popular religious liberalism in late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century America through a study of the Universalist denomination and the movement that it represented. Too often regarded historically as simply the poor country cousin of Unitarianism, early American Universalism was in fact a unique popular attempt to retain the theocentric piety of Edwardsean Calvinism while accommodating the anthropocentric shift of Enlightenment thought. Early Universalists saw themselves as preachers of an "improved" Calvinism, a rational belief in God's power and goodness that was opposed to the growing moralism of the age. They viewed their teaching as a practical means of maintaining the objective, communal aspect of faith in a society that seemed threatened with spiritual and social atomism. The culmination of this early Universalist conception of rational and communal piety came in the 1805 work of Hosea Ballou, A Treatise on Atonement.

The study focuses particularly upon the fate of this conception as the basis for a genuinely popular form of religious liberalism in America. What happened to the early Universalist faith as the nineteenth century progressed? Why was this popular movement, seemingly so well suited to the ideals of the young and expanding American nation, unable to sink roots that were stronger or more lasting? Why had the denomination and the movement it represented become essentially moribund by the last decades of the century? An analysis of the relationship between Universalism and a variety of intellectual and cultural currents, including revivalism, social reform movements, the "spiritual sciences," and broader religious trends shows that the strongly Calvinist and pietist heritage of early Universalism was basically at odds with the rising ethos of individualism and the celebration of free will in American society. Ultimately, moreover, a single eschatological idea could not remain the basis of a distinctive religious movement in a culture that was rejecting traditional eschatology altogether. In such an atmosphere the Enlightenment roots of the movement, including a generally progressionist outlook, could retain appeal; but what was left of Universalism by the end of the century no longer departed in any meaningful way from the currents of generic liberal religion.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Universalists -- United States -- History -- 19th century, Religious thought -- United States -- History -- 19th century, Liberalism (Religion) -- United States -- History -- 19th century, United States -- Church history -- 19th century

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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