The Challenge of Communal Piety

Ann Lee Bressler

in The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880

Published in print May 2001 | ISBN: 9780195129861
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780199834013 | DOI:

Series: Religion in America

The Challenge of Communal Piety

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In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Universalist movement gained both momentum and attention. Although still a small minority, Universalists stirred up widespread controversy with their improved version of Calvinism. They faced massive opposition, even persecution, with almost all who denounced them united in a single fundamental criticism: their teaching ignored the basic lesson that all people were responsible before God for their actions, that goodness would be rewarded, and evil punished. Universalists responded by trying to show that “the larger hope” of their faith transcended such “carnal”concerns and was conducive to social concord, and for at least a generation after the turn of the century, the Universalist vision represented a genuine challenge to the religious and moral norms that accommodated the needs of a burgeoning capitalist society. However, the movement as a whole did not continue to sustain and develop the sort of spirituality that was reflected in Hosea Ballou’s teaching; the communal piety of early Universalism proved an unsatisfactory foundation, and the movement ultimately moved toward the moralism against which its early adherents had struggled. Ironically, the form of non-moralistic spirituality that gained lasting recognition in American religious history was not the popular preaching of Universalism but the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which while sharing certain themes with early Universalism, ultimately reflected a profoundly different orientation that was more closely in line with the broader tendencies of nineteenth-century American culture.

Keywords: American Universalism; Calvinism; communal piety; Hosea Ballou; moralism; persecution; Ralph Waldo Emerson; responsibility; spirituality; Universalism

Chapter.  11676 words. 

Subjects: Christianity

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