Historically, Universalist Christians have followed the lead of “low” Protestantism with regard to the saints. They are not honored, much less revered or their date observed; if there’s an exception, it’s for the apostles or, more commonly, as included in the whole corpus of humanity at All Souls Day. All Souls, without All Saints before. To be fair, the medieval excesses of the tales of the saints stand out, and many of the wild, pious fantasies have been trimmed out of the Christian undergrowth. Fine as entertainment or useful for disreputable missionary work, but their usefulness as long past. If Origen or Hildegard of Bingen gets noticed, you can be sure there’ll be a history lesson. If John Murray or Martin Luther King gets too much attention, that’s certainly not because he is a saint. Of course, we invite saints into our lives, if by the back door. Don’t they deserve better?
A better approach, I think, is to see among the living and the dead those persons who, in living through their faith, create a reliable guide for those who are underdeveloped or lost in the faith. The saints are the reliable company of the faithful, a help in need, and this demands respect greater than a gold-leaf-decorated imagination of cherubs and halos.
A few weeks ago, while reading up on denominational meetings, I discovered the Marginal Mennonite Society (MMS), an online presence of Christians who are pushing out the boundaries of what’s acceptable among Anabaptists. I think it’s fair to say that your everyday Mennonite wouldn’t quite know to make of them, indeed their manifesto boasts that “because no self-respecting Mennonite organization would have us.” It’s less a society in the customary sense than a point of alignment, though meetings of “marginal Mennonites” have sense cropped up in cities in Europe and North America. But it’s clear from those who object that they’re doing something right. On Facebook, as I was preparing this newsletter found, the MMS Heroes Graveyards Guide, a MMS-related page that recounts inspirational figures of the anniversary of their death with their picture (and a picture of their gravesite where available) with a thumbnail biography and, though hashtags, the rationale for their inclusion. Who is that featured on the group’s page? A portrait and photograph of the grave of that influential Universalist minister Hosea Ballou. (He’s still there at press time.) His legacy to the MMS Heroes editor?
On this date in 1852 (June 7th), Hosea Ballou died. (Born April 30, 1771.) #Universalist minister. Theologian. Antitrinitarian. Opponent of the death penalty. Longtime pastor of Second Universalist Church of Boston. Author of “A Treatise on Atonement” (1805). As finite creatures, he said, humans are incapable of offending an infinite God. He rejected the notion of an angry God who needs to be appeased. Actively promoted belief in a God who wants his children to be happy, who in the end will save everyone, regardless of their success or failure in leading moral lives. Known as an “Ultra Universalist.” Buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Something for Universalist Christians to be proud of, but there’s more to it.
We can rely on the saints mean and participate with them, particulary those who have died and gone before us. To start, read the works of the saints. Human beings don’t change very munch over the centuries, and the experience of the saints fill-in and elaborate upon those parts of scripture that are silent about theology, morals and practical living. If we struggle, we see how they struggled and coped. Ballou reasoned out why he believed what he preached, often using affecting tales that I think are still compelling.
Next, turn to acts of lovingkindness. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote: “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”; that is, witnesses to the faith. This is a faith that we may share in word and practice. And among these practices is care for one another. Food, yes, if needed, and clothing and shelter. A word of direction, or comfort, or both as needed. And to defend those who cannot help themselves in whatever situation they may be in. The example of the saints fills in lived experience missing (or at least unclear) in Scripture.
Also, the saints call us remain connected, for we are not alone in our faith. We do not abandon the love we have for our dead. Universalists have long objected to the idea that the power of death is stronger than the power of God. This is what’s implied when too many Christians speak of “making a decision before it’s too late.” I can imagine God shrugging and saying, “too late now and there’s nothing I can do about it.” It would be laughable if so many people didn’t act like it was the truth. We pray with the living saints and (I believe) those who have gone before us, and by their word and example I look for guidance and relief in difficult times. And if so connected in spite of death, that much more among the living.
(The Rev.) Scott Wells