Biography of Rev. Hosea Ballou
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"But now we are called to mourn the departure of one who, when our cause had scarcely a name to live, – when it was the subject of the sneer of the bigot, as well as of the profane curse of the irreligious, and even its warmest friends scarcely dared to hope for its resurrection to honor and respect, – bent the energy of a giant mind to a life-long defence and promulgation of the truth, – by his unanswerable arguments turned the sneer of bigotry into a smile of hope, and the curses of the profane into blessings, – of one who has done more in this age for the liberalizing of religious sentiment than all his contemporaries combined. Strong in the faith he preached, and steadfastly believing it must at last triumph, from early youth to mature old age he has kept on his armor and fought the good fight of faith, and death even found him at his post as a faithful sentinel, and in the midnight hour he could answer, 'All is well!'"
At the age of twenty-five, and while resident in the town of Dana, he became acquainted with the family of Stephen Washburn, in the town of Williamsburg, Mass., and, after an intimate acquaintance of about a year, he married their youngest daughter, Ruth Washburn, who was some eight years younger than himself. His wife, like her husband, had been brought up to habits of industry and economy; she proved a kind, constant, and devoted help-mate through his entire life, sharing with him every joy and every burthen, and, by the influence of a naturally strong and well balanced mind, a cheerful and gentle disposition, exercising a most goodly influence upon his life and labors. She became the careful and prudent mother of a large family, nine of whom lived to rear families themselves during the life of their parents. Through their whole lives there was a remarkable oneness of feeling, and a depth of affection evinced by each for the other, that years served only to increase, and old age to cement the more closely. But of this matter we may yet speak more fully.
Mr. Ballou resided in the town of Dana for about seven years, devoting every spare hour to careful study of the Scriptures, systematizing his time by a careful division of the hours of the day, and permitting himself but a very brief portion of time for sleep.
When we say that he devoted his time so assiduously to study, we do not mean that he occupied himself in the perusal of books alone. He thought much, communed with himself alone, and even at that period accustomed himself to a degree of inward or mental communion with himself, that would seem to exclude the world about him, for the time being, from his sense of seeing or hearing. This was more observable in later years, when he often sat long in his study thus, sometimes with his eyes closed, sometimes with their pupils directed to the floor or the ceiling of the room, his lips moving, and at last, having seemingly weighed well some important matter, he would rouse again as if from a trance, and look about him with apparent satisfaction at the result he seemed to have accomplished.Sometimes these moments were followed by the use of the pen for records in his note-book of texts and sermon heads, sometimes by a reference to the Scriptures, and sometimes by a walk in the open air; then his lips would be seen to move, and he would be quite oblivious to all outward circumstances. He studied thus, carefully and deeply. At times he would walk in the fields or the woods while thus occupied; and the family never disturbed him by any remarks, or by calling his attention, while he was thus mentally absorbed. In another part of this biography, reference will be found concerning this peculiarity, as exhibited at a later period of his life, and observed by one who was an inmate of his family, and a student of divinity with him. The family were accustomed to his mood in these matters, but it usually affected a stranger, or one not familiar with him, in quite an impressive and solemn manner; it seemed so much as though he was communing with unseen spirits, and a power that was invisible to those about him or to himself, save through the powers of his mental vision.
It would seem that the little bodily rest which he allowed himself at this period must have induced physical debility; and yet it did not appear to do so. In travelling, a large portion of his short journeyings were made in the evening; sometimes at midnight even, and often before the break of day, in order to fulfil necessary appointments without encroaching upon his arrangements at home. When stopping for his horse to take rest and food, himself much fatigued, he would take his watch from his pocket, and, laying it upon a table near some place where he could find a recumbent position, he would carefully mark the time, and say distinctly to himself, "I will sleep now for just one hour, when I must awake and go on." Singular as this may seem, he has told us that he never failed to awake at the expiration of the hour, and, much refreshed, he would mount his horse and press on to fill some professional engagement, perhaps twenty or thirty miles from the stopping-place. At other times, while his horse was eating, he would deliver a sermon, and, having completed it, would, without stopping for any physical refreshment for himself, start off once more on his mission.
"In searching the Scriptures," he says, "to enable myself to preach as the divine oracles taught, I became satisfied that those who were then called Universalists had founded their doctrine on wrong principles, as well as other denominations. The doctrine of man's native depravity, of original sin, of the deserts of eternal misery, of the vicarious sufferings of Christ, by which he endured, in man's stead, the divine penalty of God's law, whereby man could escape the punishment due to his sins, was believed by those who called themselves Universalists, as well as by Calvinists: also, the doctrine of the Trinity, holding that Christ is equal to God, or, in other words, is God, being the second person in the holy Trinity. All these notions, as it appeared to me, were essential errors, constituting a mass of confusion. I soon renounced all these views, and preached only God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. All my brethren in the ministry, and all our friends, stood on the old platform, and I found that I had to contend with Universalists as well as with partialists. But I went to my work in earnest, laboring, with all my skill and with all my limited talents, to convince my brethren in the ministry, and all who heard me preach, that the doctrines of the Trinity, of depravity, of eternal penalty, etc., were neither the doctrines of the Scriptures nor of reason. The opposition to my sentiments fast gave way among Universalists, though even among them I met with as bitter opposition, in some instances, as from other denominations. The first time I preached in Bro. Murray's church, in Boston, was during his absence in Philadelphia, and I then came out fully with my Unitarian views, which produced great disturbance. Some were violent in their opposition, while others, and not a few, fell in with my manner of explaining the Scriptures. I was then twenty-eight years of age."
Mr. Ballou says that his declaring his views on this occasion was the cause of "great disturbance." This disturbance was so earnest that some few of the audience, more bitter than the rest, rose in their seats and declared that the sentiments which had been uttered were not in accordance with Mr. Murray's views, etc. Whereupon Mr. Ballou simply informed them that he had been invited, without solicitation on his own part, to preach in that desk; that he came there to preach no one's convictions but his own; that he never had consulted, and never should consult, the taste of his audience as to the doctrine he preached to them; but that he should proclaim the truth, as, by the help of Heaven, he had been enabled to learn it from the Bible, and the truth only!
On the subsequent day Mr. Ballou was formally waited upon by a committee from the Society, who thanked him for the discourse, and a majority coincided also in his peculiar views.
The conclusions as to doctrine at which he arrived were based upon severe study and profound reflection; and when we consider the age at which he had elaborated and enunciated a creed of such vast importance, a creed so entirely in advance of his contemporaries, we cannot fail to be most forcibly impressed with the extraordinary originality and remarkable precocity of his intellect. Such early vigor and maturity would have been astonishing in one who had enjoyed all the advantages of early training, all the aids afforded by the best theological institutions and instructors; but in one who had passed through so many hardships, overcome so many difficulties, and was so emphatically self-taught and self-made, they can only be regarded as evidences of the highest genius, and the immediate favorable interposition of Divine Providence.
His unshaken faith and inflexibility of conviction are evinced by the fact that he stood firm, not only against the opposing sects, but against the disciples of the improved doctrine which he first preached. It requires not a little energy to confront declared foes; but to contend with friends, to risk the loss of their favor and support, is a trial which few have the boldness to sustain. But the subject of this biography knew not what temporizing meant; his whole life, his whole intellect, all his energies, were devoted to the discovery of truth, and the enunciation of the truth he discovered. Had he stood entirely alone, without one single friend, without one single proselyte, he would have spoken as he did, boldly, earnestly, candidly, the apostle and defender of his faith. The inspiration of his mission was from on high; neither applause nor opposition changed his views, or in the least affected his serene and constant equanimity.
The patient and unruffled manner in which he always held a controversy has been often remarked of him; himself the mark for all manner of personalities and low reflections, he never descended to such a mode of warfare, being fully content in the justice and power of his cause, and considering that as more than equal to low cunning, or, indeed, any trickery of those who opposed him so bitterly. Flattery would have been equally powerless in effect upon him, for he looked not to man for approval, but to his own conscience and his God. Love of applause is a most natural trait in our dispositions. The hero of a hundred battles feels his heart glow afresh at the grateful meed of praise; the politician reads the glowing accounts of his own eloquence with secret gratification; and who is there so humble that is not susceptible of flattery, who so high in worldly honors that they do not acknowledge the potency of applause? And yet we shall be sustained in the remark by all who knew the subject of these memoirs intimately, when we say, that neither ridicule nor flattery moved him in the least, the single purpose of his life being his Master's business; and he ever acknowledged himself, that he really endeavored to be (and beyond which he aspired not) the servant of all men. Few persons, with his power over the masses, and holding the position that was universally accorded to him, but that would have often brought themselves as individuals, with their personal interests and desires, before the public; self-aggrandizement will almost always discover itself more or less in prominent public men. But he knew no such incentive; he had one grand object in view, one which he never lost sight of, and which was more than paramount to everything else combined; – it was to inculcate the religion of God's impartial goodness and eternal grace.
In the thirtieth year of his age, he was induced to accept of the invitation of the towns of Woodstock, Hartland, Bethel, and Barnard, Vt., making the latter place his home. While resident here he devoted himself to ardent and constant study, and in the year 1804 produced his "Notes on the Parables," one of the most popular and useful books, even to the present day, in the Universalist library. It has passed through numerous large editions, and a new one, at this present writing, is about to be put to press. It is a book containing nearly the same amount of matter as the present memoir in the reader's hand. This book was written and published at a time when Mr. Ballou's health was really suffering from the effects of his unremitting labors, both mental and physical.
"My health," he says, "in those years which I passed in Vermont, was generally very good. I had some time, previous to removing from Dana, been gaining health and growing more corpulent, so that my uniform weight for several years was about two hundred pounds." But at the time when he wrote the "Notes," for a considerable period he had been over-tasked, and so much so as to materially affect his health. The roads about the country were of a very poor character, and being unable to use a vehicle on many of the routes over which he passed, he was frequently obliged to accomplish his journeys on horseback, which was a severe draft upon his strength. In his first preface to the edition of Notes on the Parables, the author thus refers to the subject of the book: —
"In my travels through the country in discharge of duties enjoined by the ministry of the Saviour of sinners, I have met with more opposition to the gospel preached to Abraham from false notions of the parables of the New Testament, than from any other source. Often, after travelling many miles and preaching several sermons in a day, I have found it necessary to explain various parables to some inquiring hearer, when my strength seemed almost exhausted. At such times I have thought a volume, such as the reader has in hand, might save me much labor, and I have often said to myself, If God will give me a few weeks' leisure, I will, with his assistance, employ them in writing 'Notes on the Parables.' This favor has at length been granted, though it was by depriving me of that degree of health that was necessary to the performance of the journeys which I had already appointed, yet preserving so much as to render me composed in my study."
This is undoubtedly one of the most valuable books in the Universalist library; particularly valuable from the fact of its treating, in the clearest and most forcible manner, upon those peculiar doctrinal points which, more than all others, have been the theme of contention among professed Christians. At the time when Mr. Ballou published this work, his mind was not fully made up as to the subject of punishment after death; but the matter had already resolved itself to this in his mind; that if any suffer in the future state it would be because they would be sinful there. It was not long subsequent, however, that he came to the full knowledge and conviction that the doctrine of future punishment was nowhere taught in the Bible, and this creed he thenceforth ever most assiduously preached on all occasions.
In his preface to the fifth edition the author says: – "On account of so many of the parables being used by believers in endless punishment to support and enforce that sentiment, the author of the Notes was induced to study them with special reference to the question whether they might not, with more propriety, be applied in a different manner. Of this fact he became fully satisfied; even as much so as he is now. But, though he entertained no scruples on that point, he was not so happy as to be fully satisfied, in every case, as to the true intent of the parable. In this situation he cautiously endeavored not to apply any parable to a subject which was not found to be embraced in the system of truth which the Scriptures clearly and evidently support. Little harm is done by applying a parable to a subject to which it was not intended by the author to apply, provided the subject to which it is misapplied be a truth clearly supported by either Scripture or man's experience; but to misconstrue any passage of the divine testimony so as to give support to what is not true, is unquestionably no small damage; and if the error be of magnitude, whereby our Heavenly Father is represented in an unlovely character, or our confidence in his goodness diminished, such misconstruction is not only a reprehensible violence on the Scriptures, but a dishonor to their divine Author. I am persuaded that a just knowledge of the parables is almost indispensably necessary to a knowledge of the doctrine preached by Christ, as much of his public communication was in this way. It is in the parables of Christ that we learn the nature of the two dispensations or covenants; the situation of man by reason of sin; the character of the Saviour as the seeker and savior of that which was lost; the power of the gospel as a sovereign remedy for the moral maladies of man, and its divine efficacy in reconciling and assimilating the sinner to God. It is by the parables that we learn the unprofitableness of legal righteousness in point of justification to eternal life; the absolute necessity of becoming new creatures, in order to enter the kingdom of God; the true character of the Saviour as the Lord our Righteousness, and his divine power to make all things new."
The "Notes on the Parables" have unquestionably led thousands of minds to valuable improvement in the knowledge of the Scriptures, and converted many a longing soul to the precious and joyful belief of universal salvation. At the time when these Notes were written, the light which has now become so general and evident to nearly every candid seeker after truth, – the true light of the gospel of Christ, – seemed to be but just dawning; the warm and genial sun of the true faith but faintly tinged the east; but ere long it rose steadily and majestically, until it radiated its noon-day warmth, in meridian splendor and beauty. We should remember that the author of the "Notes" enjoyed the use of no other book than the Bible in forming and promulgating his own opinions, which have since become the general belief of the Universalist order. The book is especially lucid and original in its style, and bears in its pages constant evidence of deep and careful research.
In an excellent book lately issued by the publisher of this biography, entitled a Memoir of Rev. S. R. Smith, written by Rev. Thomas J. Sawyer, D. D., of Clinton, N. Y., we find the following incident related, referring to this period of Mr. Ballou's life. It is from the pen of the subject of the memoir, Rev. Stephen R. Smith, concerning whose Christian excellence too much cannot be said.
"By what means the intelligence that Hosea Ballou would preach on the following Sunday, in a place fifteen miles distant, could have been conveyed to a very young man, who did not then know a single Universalist in the world, is not remembered. He went, however, and heard a discourse in the morning, from Zech. 6:13; and, for the first time in his life, felt that he had listened to a sermon that neither involved an absurdity nor a contradiction. The congregation was not large, and occupied a school-house in the present city of Utica, then a meagre and muddy village. A larger congregation was anticipated in the afternoon, and arrangements were made for the service in the open air, under some trees, on the bank of the Mohawk river. There, in due time, a large auditory assembled, and listened to one of Mr. Ballou's best discourses, from Deut. 33: part of the 16th with the 17th verse. It was a glorious day, early in June. The silence of Sunday was around us; the bright blue heavens above us, partly veiled by the branches of a few scattering oaks; the clear, quiet river at our side; the ruddy and healthy preacher, in all the vigor of manhood, before us, and pleading the cause of God and humanity with a group of most attentive hearers. Such a scene is not to be forgotten; and, altogether, it was one, in every respect, calculated to make the most lasting impression. And such certainly were its effects upon the mind of the writer. For, while it left him without any pretension to the knowledge or belief of Universalism, as a system of religious truth, it certainly satisfied him that it was consistent with itself, and with all that we see and know of the Deity and his moral government. It is scarcely to be doubted that similar impressions were made on many persons in that congregation."
While resident in Barnard, he wrote also his "Treatise on Atonement." This book, though written so many years since, is still as popular as when first issued from the press, and has passed, like the "Notes," through several large editions. It is contained in a volume of between two and three hundred pages, and is justly esteemed as one of the soundest productions that has ever emanated from the author's pen, and we may, perhaps, add without apparent arrogance, one of the most thoroughly philosophical and argumentative works of the age. In the Modern History of Universalism, the author, in speaking of the change of opinion generally from the ideas preached by John Murray, Winchester, and other early ministers, says that the belief in the Trinity, atonement, and kindred notions, was discarded through the influence of this book.
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