What is "Christian Universalism"?

By Kenneth C. Allen, Sr., Th.D.

What is meant by the term Christian Universalism?

That Christianity is a "Universal Religion," and is for people everywhere and in all times, is a statement that is disputed by very few Christians today. But, the full extent of the truth of its universality is not realized by the majority.

Many people today may understand the term "Universalism", as it relates to religion, as a word that designates the belief that "All religions are equally true, good, and that they all equally will lead to heaven, or to God." This definition of "Universalism" could better be described as "Pluralist Universalism" and could be equated with "secular humanism".

This definition of "Universalism" is NOT to be confused with the original meaning of "Universalism" as it related to Christianity. The original meaning of "Universalism", as it relates to Christianity, could now be better described by using the term "Christian Universalism".

Any true definition of Christian Universalism MUST INCLUDE THE BELIEF that God is all Sovereign, loving, powerful, wise, just, and ultimately rules over everything. It MUST ALSO INCLUDE the belief that salvation is only by faith in God and was finalized by Jesus Christ "who gave Himself a ransom for all" (1 Tim 2:6). The definition of Christian Universalism DOES INCLUDE THE BELIEF that God "will have all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4).

Note When the word "Universalism" is used in this article, and in other articles on this website, it is referring to "Christian Universalism."

The basic principle of "Christian Universalism" was well stated by Thomas Whittmore in his book "Plain Guide to Universalism" written in 1840, where he wrote,

"The glory of God, and of His Son Jesus Christ, as manifested in the final holiness and happiness of all men, is the central sun of Universalism."
He also stated that:
"All persons, who truly believe in the eventual salvation of all mankind by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, are Universalists."

In his "History of Universalism", Richard Eddy, D.D. wrote in 1894 ....

"Universalism, using the word in its present theological meaning, is the doctrine or belief that it is the purpose of God, through the grace revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ, to save every member of the human race from sin. The word suggests nothing with regard to any human founder, any place where it was first promulgated, any particular form of church polity, any rite or ordinance, any opinion of the equality or the subordination of the Son to the Father. Universalism is not dependent on these."

A very concise defintion of "Christian Universalism" was given by Thomas Sawyer as:

" Universalism," in its simple and proper theological sense, is the doctrine of universal salvation; or in other words, of the final holiness and happiness of all humans, to be effected by the grace of God, through the ministry of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Christian Universalism is also known as Universal Reconciliation.

A modified form of the views of Christian Universalism defined above is described as "Universal Redemption", "Universal Salvation from Adamic Death", or "the Universal Opportunity for Salvation".
(See Appendix 2 for more details on this view).

Universalism is a living movement, organized out of the grandest ideas and spiritual facts of the universe; gathering into itself the richest and mightiest moral forces, and working towards the most positive practical ends. It is as old as the Christian records and the principles which it implies were averred by the Christian church in it's earliest days. Although its principles are found in the Old Testament, it is in the New Testament that it is most fully revealed. It cites the Gospels, the Apostolic History and the Epistles, Christ, and his first ministers, as authority for its pretensions. It has been believed and taught by some of the best and most learned men in the Christian Church, and in almost every period of her history.

Today, we find members of almost every Christian communion, Greek, Romish, Lutheran, Church of England, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, Friends, etc., etc., differing widely in many respects, but all agreeing in this one Divine truth, that God loves all men, and will have them to be saved; that Christ gave himself a ransom for all, and that all will ultimately be brought to holiness and happiness.

"Christian Universalism", in its simple and proper sense, has existed in almost all ages of the Church. It was very prevalent and virtually unchallenged among early Christians until the time known as the "dark ages," which started in the fifth century. From A.D. 170 to 430, there were six Christian schools. Of these schools, four taught the salvation of all (Christian Universalism), one taught annihilation, and one taught eternal torment. During the dark ages, "Christian Universalism" still existed, but largely underground until the sixteenth century Protestant reformation.

The Gospel itself clearly proclaims the final salvation of all people. We are assured by the Apostle Peter that, from the earliest ages of the world, this sentiment had always prevailed among the people of God, . He declares that -- "the times of the RESTITUTION of ALL THINGS, God hath spoken by the mouth of ALL his HOLY PROPHETS since the world began!!!" -- (Acts 3:21).

Among the early followers of Christ, in the writings that still exist, we find it being proclaimed. Clemens of Alexandria, President of the Catechetical, or theological School, at Alexandria, Egypt, proclaimed it. After him it was proclaimed by one of his pupils, Origen, the most renowned scholar and theologian between the days of the Apostles and the Reformation.

After the reformation, Universalism again begin to become openly proclaimed in the religious scenes thoughout Europe and England.

Universalism was first brought to the American colonies by Dr. George De Benneville in 1741. But it was by John Murray (a former Methodist and a convert of James Relly who was a preacher of Universalism in England) that the first Universalist church was established on American soil. He came to America in 1770.

It was in 1785 that The General Convention of Universalists of the United States was formed. This was the beginning of the denomination that would become known as the Universalist Church of America. (see Appendix 1 at the end of this article)

At the Convention meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the 25th of May, 1790, the first list of Universalist articles of Faith and plan of church government was established.

Although Universalists did not believe in the authority of man-made creeds, it became necessary, in the year 1803, for them to make a public declaration of their sentiments. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire had decreed, that Congregationalists and Universalists, in law, were one and the same denomination, and that, Universalists were therefore liable to be taxed to the support of Congregational parishes.

To meet this extraordinary state of things, in 1803, at the Winchester, New Hampshire, meeting of the "General Convention of Universalist Churches and Societies," a profession of faith was composed and adopted by the convention to state the general beliefs of Universalists as a denomination separate from the Congregationalists.

Through the years, since its inception in 1803, this profession, known as the "Winchester Profession," has been used by many "Christian Universalist" churches and individuals as a basic statement of faith. The profession is as follows:

We believe, that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind.

We believe there is one God, whose nature is love; revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe, that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected; and that believers ought to maintain order, and practice good works, for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Although not a part of the original profession, later, some groups of Universalists appended a fourth article to this profession which related to the punishment for sin, which is:

We believe that God, as the moral governor of the universe, will bestow righteous and equitable rewards and punishments upon all mankind according to their several characters or deserts; but that all punishment will be remedial, and consequently limited.
[For additional information on "Professions of Faith" see Historic and Universalist Professions of Faith.]

Also, In 1899, the General Convention of Universalists formulated a brief statement of the five essential principles of the Universalist faith and the "Winchester Profession" was commended as containing these principles. Those principles are:

  1. The Universal Fatherhood of God
  2. The spiritual authority and leadership of His Son Jesus Christ
  3. The trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God
  4. The certainty of just retribution for sin
  5. The final harmony of all souls with God

In the late 1800's, Thomas J. Sawyer composed a tract that listed the general doctrines, with Biblical references, of the variety of "Christian Universalism" agreed upon by many which presented "Christian Universalism" as a complete system of faith. Those doctrines are shown below:

  1. We believe the authenticity, genuineness, and inspiration, of the Holy Scriptures; that both the Old and New Testaments contain the revealed will of God and that the Bible is the only and sufficient rule of faith and practice.

1. The Bible

2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21

  1. We believe the existence of the one living and true God, the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all worlds, beings, and things. We believe that God is self-existent, independent and eternal; omniscient and omnipresent; infinite in wisdom, goodness and power; in justice, mercy and truth. With Saint Paul we say, "To us there is but one God, even the Father." We believe God to be the universal Father of mankind; the Father of Spirits, our Father in heaven, who loves the whole human family, without exception, even while they are yet sinners, who is kind to the unthankful and to the evil, and who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. In one word, we believe that God is Love.

2. God

Matt. 6:9; Luke 6:35; Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 8:6; 1 Tim. 2:4; Heb. 12:9; 1 John 4:8

  1. We believe that to manifest his love for the human race, God sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world, to reveal more perfectly the divine character and purposes, and finally, through death and resurrection, to bring life and immortality to light. We believe that Christ is the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of his person. We believe that he is appointed by the Father, heir of all things, and is Lord of all, and the he must reign, till he has subdued all things to himself, when he himself will deliver up the kingdom to the Father that God may be all in all. Thus he will save his people from their sins, and be what inspiration proclaims him to be, the Savior of the world. To this end we believe he gave himself a ransom for all, and tasted death for every man, for God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

3. Jesus Christ

Matt. 1:21; Acts 10:36; 1 Cor. 15:25, 28; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 1:2-3; Heb. 2:9; 1 John 4:14

  1. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God, the spirit of truth, the Comfortor, the guide, who convicts the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment, and whose fruits in the believing soul are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

4. Holy Spirit

John 14:16-17; John 16:7-13; Gal. 5:22-23

  1. We believe in the importance of indespensable necessity of repentance, that is, godly sorrow for sin, and a true reformation of heart and life.

5. Repentence

Acts 3:19; Heb. 11:6

  1. We believe in the new birth, or a change of heart, effected in the soul by a cordial belief of the gospel truth, accompanied by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit.

6. New Birth

John 3:3; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal 5:22-23

  1. We believe in the importance of good works, not to purchase salvation, or gain the love of God -- for salvation is of grace alone, and God loves even his enemies -- but as the natural fruits of the gospel cordially received, the evidences of indwelling grace, and because they are good and profitable to men.

7. Good Works

Titus 3:8; 1 John 4:19; 5:1:-2

  1. We believe in a just and equitable, and at the same time, a parental administration of the divine government; in which God renders to every man according to his works, so that he that does wrong shall receive for the wrong which he has done, and there is no respect of persons. Beyond this state of rewards and punishments, we believe a state of immortal felicity will be conferred upon the whole human family, as a free gift, by the infinite grace of the Father, through Christ Jesus.

8. Judgment

Ps. 62:12; Rom. 5:12-21; Eph. 2:4-9; Col. 3:25

  1. We believe in the universal resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

9. Resurrection

1 Cor. 15:22

  1. We believe in a life and immortality for the human race beyond the grave, where the mortal shall put on immortality, and where man can die no more, but shall be as the angels, and be children of God.

10. Everlasting Life

Luke 20:36; 1 Cor. 15:23

  1. We believe that, in the fulness of time, God will bring together all things in Christ, when, in the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, of things in heaven and in earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father; when, as by one man's disobedience, many are made sinners, so, by the obedience of one, shall the same many be made righteous; in one word, when Christ shall have taken away the sin of the world, accomplished the great mission on which he came, done the will of God, seen the fruits of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied, and GOD BE ALL IN ALL.

11. The Consummation

Isa. 53:11; Rom. 5:19; 1 Cor. 15:28; Eph. 1:9-10; Phil. 2:10-11

Thomas J. Sawyer concluded this tract with the following:

Are You Better Than God?

Ask any humane man if he would not save the entire world of mankind from sin and misery, if he had the power, and he will say yes. We would like to know if man is better -- more merciful than God who made him? This is out of the question -- hence we contend that God will, as the Bible declares, "have mercy upon all." -- (The Universalist Herald - 5/4/1860)

"It cannot be said, perhaps, that (Christian) Universalists are fully agreed, on all points of doctrine, though we believe few or no exceptions could be taken to the above statements. We doubt not there exists as good a degree of harmony, both of faith and feeling, among them as is to be found in any group of equal numbers. They differ in their views of the freedom of the will, some adopting the doctrine of Edwards, and others that of his opposers; and also upon the place and duration of punishment, some believing in limited punishment in the future state, and others not.

"Such, in few words, is (Christian) Universalism. May the reader impartially read, candidly consider, and, like the Bereans of old, search the Scriptures daily, whether these things be so."

E. G. Brooks, D.D. said,

"Universalism is a living movement, organized out of the grandest ideas and spiritual facts of the universe; gathering into itself the richest and mightiest moral forces, and working towards the most positive practical ends; and a man is a Universalist, and is the better off for being a Universalist, only as some sense of what Universalism thus is, and of the force of its motives, and the reality of its work, flows down, a quickening power, into his being." [From 50 Notable Years - Views of the Ministry of Christian Universalism", by John G. Adams. D.D., published in 1882.]

Thomas Thayer wrote, in 1862, in his book "Theology of Universalism":

"If it be asked then, 'How is Christ to save men after death?", the answer is, By the same means, and in the same way, as before death, doubtless; only increased in power and directness, operating without the obstructions incident to the flesh or earthly nature.

The simple truth is, all men are saved in greater or less degree after death. The spiritual change of the resurrection is necessary to the completeness and happiness of every soul. Are any perfect here? Do not even the best of men fail in many things? Have we not all 'come short of the glory of God?' Does not the sainted John declare, that 'if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us?' Does not Paul confess, in burning words, to the war between the flesh and the spirit? Is any one on earth, equal to the angels of God in heaven? The answers to these questions are patent to all, and reveal the truth and necessity of a change after death.

We are not perfect, not as the angels, when we die, not even the greatest saint on earth; but we shall be in the resurrection. How can this be, if there be no change after death? if Christ does not still aid and bless us as a Savior? And will Paul maintain his painful struggle against evil, and John confess to sin, in the resurrection life? If not, then they will be so far changed after death."

Concerning the universal nature of Christianity and Christian Universalism as the fullest expression of it, Dr. John G. Adams wrote in 1872:

The Universal Nature of Christianity

Christianity is like a child, goes wandering over the world. Fearless in its innocence, it is not abashed before princes, nor confounded by the wisdom of synods. Before it the blood-stained warrior sheathes his sword, and plucks the laurel from his brow: the midnight murderer turns from his purpose, and, like the heart-smitten disciple goes out and weeps bitterly. It brings liberty to the captive, pardon to the murderer, freedom to the sinner, hope to the faint hearted, and assurance to the dying. It enters the hut of the poor man, and sits down with him and his children; it makes them contented in the midst of privations, and leaves behind an everlasting blessing. It walks through great cities amid their pomp and splendor, their imaginable pride, and their unutterable misery, a purifying, ennobling, correcting, and redeeming angel. It is the beautiful companion of childhood, and the comfortable associates of age. It ennobles the noble, gives wisdom to the wise, and new grace to the lovely. The patriot, the priest, the poet, and the eloquent man, all derive their sublime power from its influence. -- Mary Howitt -- (The Universalist Herald - 8/12/1859)

Christianity is a universal religion. Herein is its pre-eminence. It is for man everywhere and in all times. No other religion has so clearly asserted this claim for itself, and no other promises to do so much for mankind. True, it had had to make its way against errors and prejudices and corruptions of the world. It has been mixed with human errors, and has been professed, taught, and practiced, in too many instances, by those who have failed to realize clearly the heavenliness of its spirit, and its far reaching, regenerative, and over-coming power. Its earliest promulgators failed to see at first this grand characteristic of its universality. An able Christian historian has written: "Nothing is more remarkable than to see the horizon of the Apostles gradually receding, and, instead of resting on the borders of the Holy Land, comprehending at length the whole world; barrier after barrier falling down before the superior wisdom which was infused into their minds; first, the proselytes of the gate, the foreign conformists to Judaism, and, ere long, the Gentiles themselves admitted within the pale; until Christianity stood forth, demanded the homage, and promised its rewards to the faith of the whole human race; proclaimed itself in language which the world had as yet never heard, the one, true universal religion.

Rev. Dr. Gerhard Uhlhorn, of Germany, in his able work, "The Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism," speaking of the early development of Christianity in the Roman Empire, calls it the first step to its universalism. "Itself passing out from the ancient narrowness into a world-wide breadth of thought and life, the old world became capable of accepting the Universalism of Christianity." The old world and the new have yet many steps forward to take in this pathway of a continually increasing brightness.

The term Universalism, as connected with Christianity, has been especially notable during the present century. But the principles which it implies were averred by the Christian church in it's earliest days. It signifies God's unchanging paternal interest in all his children; an interest insuring his just dealing with them for their obedience or disobedience of his beneficent laws, and their final release from sin, and life in righteousness.

Universalism, is as old as the Christian records. It's principles and doctrines, are found in the Old Testament teachings...... [It] claims the New Testament as the basis of its doctrines. It cites the Gospels, the Apostolic History and the Epistles, Christ, and his first ministers, as authority for its pretensions.

The gospel anciently proclaimed to the Athenians by the Christian apostle was: "God, that made the world . . . hath made of one blood all nations of men, for to dwell on the face of the earth, . . . as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring" (Acts 17:24,28), in which a common humanity, a common interest and destiny, are declared.

It is a common humanity with which Christ is in sympathy; which makes him who would be highest in the Divine estimation the servant of all; which recognizes the Golden Rule, directs the strong to bear the infirmities of the weak, and men everywhere to be helpers one of another, because their interests are not antagonistic, when the laws that govern their nature are clearly understood. They have unity:

"What binds one, binds all,
Love of things true and right."

Men have, too, a common interest under the Divine guardianship. Wherever there is a man, there is a being in whose soul God has implanted aspirations after himself, a propensity to religion, a feeling after him which may be misled by superstition, or overlaid by ignorance, or elevated by knowledge into purest piety, but which is yet there. Wherever he exists the Sovereign Power holds him in discipline, demands an account from him at his tribunal of impartial justice, and will not permit him to go out of his hands. To whatever heights be ascends, God still encompasses him; into whatever depths he may fall, he is still held by the guardian beneficent power.

One destiny, also, is affirmed of this great body of humanity; a blessing instituted in the beginning, including all families, kindreds, nations. No divine favoritism towards one over another do we see. The law and the prophets point towards this universal grace of God to man. Israel and the Gentile world shall alike share it. The apocalyptic vision opens it up to the eye of faith. "And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I, saying, Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever" (rev. 5:13). What is this but the fact, and the ultimate completeness and glory of the unity of the race? One Father, Brotherhood, Saviour, Homage, Destiny.

Other theologies had made distinctions and endless separations in representing mankind; had denied, as they still deny, this fraternal relationship, this positive family connection; had represented God rather as an arbitrary sovereign than loving Father, and the Divine govermnent a wilful monarchy instead of a just and merciful dispensation under which each soul is of equal value, and the good of one is the good of all. Unbelief has said, as in the language of Spinoza : "The right extends as far as the force of the natural right or law, jus et institutum naturae is nothing more than the rules of the nature of each individual." The divisions and contentions, classes and castes, the impositions, frauds, and oppressions which have more or less marked the social relations of mankind, all come of this pernicious error growing out of the unchecked selfishness of the human heart. Christian Universalism forever contradicts this error. It affirms that the great body of humanity is one, and that it is death to sunder it. "If one member suffer, all the members suffer with it ; if one rejoice, all rejoice together; ; for the body is not one member, but many" (1 Cor. 12:14,26). In the affirmation of the Gospel, religious bigotry and exclusiveness find a constant reproof; undue boasting, arrogance, and pride are hushed by this grand conviction that "One is our Father who is in heaven, and all we are brethren." The broadest philanthropy is awakened everywhere in man. The world becomes the one great field of effort for the enlightenment, relief, upraising, and perfecting of humanity. . . . The banner of Universalism is love. Let that banner be lifted up!

More information about Christian Universalism can be found in the articles at
Christian Universalism: Universal Salvation and Related Concepts.]

APPENDIX 1: Note on the "Universalist Church of America."

Christian Universalism was the foundational doctrine of the "Universalist Church of America" as well as some individuals and groups that were/are not members of this particular denomination. The Universalist Church of America existed as a separate denomination for almost 200 years until it merged with the American Unitarian Association in 1961. This union became known as the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

This merger did not signal the decline in the belief of the doctrine of "Christian Universalism," but the opposite. Universalists had been so successful in promulgating the doctrine of "Christian Universalism" (i.e. in its simple and proper Theological sense) that it had become commonplace in many of the larger Protestant churches of America.

Also, the decline of the denomination, as a separate organization and eventual merger with the Unitatians, was brought about by extreme, liberal, pluralist, humanism invading both the Universalist and Unitarian denominations. Their doctrines, in this respect, became so close, that, along with the expense of maintaining separate denominations, a merger was decided upon between the two denominations, which came to fruition in 1961.

Again, this did not mean a decline in the belief of the doctrine of "Christian Universalism," but only the decline of the "Universalist Church of America" as a denomination separate from all others.

Click here to return to the text.

Appendix 2: Universal Redemption

Related to Christian Universalism, as stated above, is a modified form, which is described as "Universal Redemption", "Universal Salvation from Adamic Death", or "the Universal Opportunity for Salvation".

It is based on the Scriptures which speak of the "redemption" of mankind and that the redemption will be universal - that is, that it will apply to every member of the human race. This is basically the interpretation that is adhered to by many "Bible Students" and "Bible Student Groups". The book The Divine Plan of the Ages", written in 1886, which is a major work on this interpretation, has the following to say:

Let us now consider another text which is generally ignored ..... It reads, "We trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe." (`1 Tim. 4:10`) God will save all men, but will not specially ("to the uttermost") save any except those who come unto him through Christ. God's arbitrary salvation of all men is not such as will conflict with their freedom of will, or their liberty of choice, to give them life against their wills: "I have set before you, this day, life and death; choose life, that ye may live." .....

..... the general salvation, which will come to every individual, consists of light from the true light, and an opportunity to choose life; and, as the great majority of the race is in the tomb, it will be necessary to bring them forth from the grave in order to testify to them the good tidings of a Savior; also that the special salvation which believers now enjoy in hope (`Rom. 8:24`), and the reality of which will, in the Millennial age, be revealed, also, to those who "believe in that day," is a full release from the thraldom of sin, and the corruption of death, into the glorious liberty of children of God. .....

It includes the belief that everyone will be redeemed (be saved) from Adamic death (the death that was brought on the race of mankind because of the sin of Father Adam) and brought to a knowledge of the truth and have an opportunity to believe, and receive "eternal life". Included is the concept that those who believe and obey now, in their present lifetime, will not face judgment at the resurrection, but already possess "eternal life", which will become an actuality at the resurrection.