V. The World Well Loved (Continued)

C. Universal Salvation

How far Christianity is from being a living reality may best be seen in me. For even with my clear knowledge of it I am still not a Christian. Yet I still cannot help feeling that despite the abyss of nonsense in which we are stuck, we shall all of us be saved.1

We are here to deal with a belief that is only peripheral both in S.K. and the Brethren, although the fact that it even appears makes it worthy of mention. A doctrine of universal restoration has at least some connection with a radical love ethic, which is why we bring in the matter at this point. Also, although universalism hardly can be taken as a necessary or even characteristic hallmark of sectarianism, such universalism as has appeared in Protestant history does tend to be associated with the sects.

Morgan Edwards, the ecclesiastical observer who was on the scene, explicitly identified the eighteenth century Brethren with a doctrine of "general redemption and, withal, general salvation"; (see above) and there is sufficient evidence to make that identification unimpeachable.3 However, the question as to how widely, how centrally, and how emphatically the doctrine was supported is still an open one. Particularly Michael Frantz4 but also John Naas5 and Jacob Stoll,6 can be quoted in apparent contradiction.7

Indeed, there seems to be only one Brethren document that witnesses to the belief, although this one is very instructive. It comes in the course of the imaginary father-son dialogue of Mack Senior's Rights and Ordinances. The father has just presented a articularly vivid picture of the punishments of hell, at which point the son asks, "Do tell me, are these torments and tortures to last for eternity, without end?" And the father replies:

According to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, "the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever" (Rev. 14:11). However, that it should last for eternity is not supported by Holy Scripture. It is not necessary to talk much about it or speculate about it.... Even if at some time the torment should end after long eternities, [the damned] will never attain that which the believers have achieved in the time of grace through Jesus Christ if they obey Him. Many who have heard about universal restoration commit the great folly not to deny themselves completely but rather hope for the restoration. This hope will most certainly come to naught when they enter the torment, and can see no end to it....

Therefore, it is much better to practice this simple truth that one should try to become worthy in the time of grace to escape the wrath of God and the torments of hell, rather than deliberate how or when it would be possible to escape from it again.... That is a much better and more blessed gospel which teaches how to escape the wrath of God than the gospel which teaches that eternal punishment has an end. Even though this is true, it should not be preached as a gospel to the godless. Unfortunately, in this day, everything is completely distorted by the great power of imagination of those people who teach and write books about restoration.8

Obviously it was not by accident that the eighteenth century Brethren were as much as "secret universalists"; to have allowed the doctrine to become central and conspicuous would have falsified it. The Brethren believed in universal restoration but were not "universalists" in the customary sense of the term.

And S.K.'s universalism, too, was precisely of this order. One journal entry has been quoted as the epigraph; another reads:

But I do not pretend to be better than others. What the old bishop said about me--that I talked as if everybody else was on the road to hell--is simply not true. No, if anyone wants to be able to say that I talk about going to hell, then I talk like this--'If the rest are all going to hell, then I am going along.' This is the way I speak if anyone is able to say in any sense that I talk about going to hell. But I do not believe it. On the contrary, I believe that we will all be saved--and I, too--something which arouses my deepest wonder.9

And there is a third that points in at least something of the same direction.10 Only this much and nothing more; but the interesting aspect of the case is that these journal entries come out of precisely the same period in which we discovered the dark cloud of morbidity and misanthropy. How this strange conjunction is to be explained we will not venture to guess.

With both S.K. and the Brethren it seems likely that their universalism was a corollary of their sense of the immediacy of God's infinite love and of the equality of all men within that love. Thus whether or not their coincidence on this unemphasized detail is particularly significant in and of itself, it does tie in with the general pattern of sectarianism that we are developing.

Copyright (c) 1968