The afterlife may be a most forgiving place

Paul Moroney — rightly, in my view — congratulates the editors of the Wednesday Journal in beginning a theological discussion in its pages [Afterthoughts on the afterlife, Viewpoints, Aug. 21]. I was struck, however, by one remark this writer made in his viewpoint, which I thought deserved further comment.

Moroney states that he is troubled by “this new concept of Universal Salvation.” Everything is relative, and perhaps the writer takes a very long view of the course of human events, but it is worth noting that this concept has been around, at least in this country, since the mid-18th century, when the Universalist denomination was founded.

Moroney is not alone among those who have been sorely troubled by the idea of universal salvation, however. Hosea Ballou, one of Universalism’s most renowned preachers, was pilloried and bitterly attacked in the 19th century for daring to ask the question, over and over in his sermons, “Does God not love all His children? Even those who have gone astray? Is He not more magnanimous and merciful than thee, who surely love all thy children, no matter their sins and shortcomings?”

Early Oak Park Universalists did not escape the wrath of their more orthodox neighbors. Edwin Gale, one of the founders of Unity Church in 1871 (the Unitarian-Universalist congregation which today owns and worships in Unity Temple) cited a long out-of-print autobiography of Presbyterian minister Joseph Meeker, who said, “I would sooner shake hands with the devil than with a Universalist.”

Gale goes on to say that it was the custom, during his childhood, for Sunday school children to march in procession on the 4th of July, but Meeker and other ministers did not deem Unitarian and Universalist children fit to join them.

“Being thus ostracized,” Gale says, “our people gathered a lot of wagons, filled the bottoms with hay, packed them with joyous children, and stretched over all a banner bearing this legend: HAVE WE NOT ALL ONE FATHER? It happened that Captain J.G. Sanger, a handsome officer with a handsome horse, was near with the Chicago Cavalry, and he escorted us through town, to the great glee of the happy youngsters, who forgave Joe Meeker.”

Rev. Alan Taylor, the current minister of the Unity Temple congregation, is fond of saying that the central question for Unitarian-Universalists is not, “What shall we believe?” but “How shall we live?” Indeed, the range of beliefs about what may happen after we die among UUs stretches from nothingness to a merging with a universal consciousness. It is safe to say, though, that all would agree with their Universalist forbearers that there will be no stern accounting of one’s rectitude on this earth.