Biography of Rev. Hosea Ballou
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"The labors of Hosea Ballou, of this city," says the author, "may be regarded as one of the principal means of the change. In the 'Treatise on Atonement,' he has treated the subject at length, maintaining the subordination of the Son to the Father, the eternal and impartial love of God to all creatures, and holding forth the death of Christ not as the cause, but as the effect of this eternal principle of the divine nature. The very wide circulation of this work evinces the high estimation in which it has been held by the American Universalists."
We subjoin also the following notice of the "Treatise," because we think it a most truthful critique relative to the book, which we desire to have the readers of this biography to understand. In this review, which appeared not long since in the Evangelical Magazine, the editor says: —
"The decided manner in which the doctrine of vicarious atonement is rejected, the prominence given to the belief that Jesus was a dependent being, dependent like ourselves on a common Father and God, and that he was sent to preach the truth and illustrate its requirements, and by his exclusive influence to reconcile man to his Maker, were subjects so new, so startling, that for a time the work appears not to have been very well received. But the important object was attained. The public attention, and especially that of Universalists, was drawn to the consideration of these fundamental and momentous doctrines. The author's views were very generally adopted by the order, and the book obtained unbounded popularity. It deserves this distinction, for it doubtless wrought the great revolution that transformed Universalism from the Unitarian hypothesis, with all its concomitants, into the simple and intelligible system formed in the doctrine of the indivisible oneness of God. It is, perhaps, impossible to estimate the influence which this work has had upon the so-called Unitarian controversy in New England. But this much is quite certain, the 'Treatise' was one of the earliest publications that openly and distinctly rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and manfully met the prevailing prejudices respecting that subject. But aside from these matters, there is not another book in the country, on the same subject, that has been read by half the number of persons, or wrought conviction of the truth of the doctrine of the Divine unity in one half so many minds, as this 'Treatise on Atonement.'"
These notices, as we have just intimated, are introduced here to give the reader, who may not be otherwise acquainted with the "Treatise," a correct and clear idea of the work. Though among the earliest of Mr. Ballou's publications, this book is far from being deficient in any point, either as to sound logical reasoning, or in force and earnestness of style. Simple, yet profound, it is within the capacity of the humblest to comprehend and fully understand, while it cannot fail to challenge the admiration of the scholar and philosopher.It is written in the plain, straightforward manner which so distinguished his after productions, and which never failed to carry conviction with it. "The 'Treatise' has been pronounced by one of the strongest minds of the age," says the publisher of the sixth edition, "to be one of the soundest arguments in the English language." Were the author's reputation to rest solely upon this work, we should feel satisfied at the manner in which his memory must be handed down to posterity.
In his preface to the first edition of the book, he says: – "Many circumstances might be mentioned, which, in their associations, have induced me to write and publish the following treatise; but I can say with propriety, that the principal object was that in which I always find the greatest happiness, namely, to do what I find most necessary in order to render myself useful to mankind."
At the time of the publication of this "Treatise," Mr. Ballou had by no means arrived at such a degree of understanding and belief upon the subject of the Scriptures as was the case in after years, and, with wise fore-thought, he thus speaks his mind in the preface to the first edition: —
"I have often been solicited to write and publish my general views on the gospel, but have commonly observed to my friends that it might be attended with disagreeable consequences, as it is impossible to determine whether the ideas we entertain at the present time are agreeable to those which we shall be under the necessity of adopting after we have had more experience; and knowing, to my satisfaction, that authors are very apt to feel such an attachment to sentiments which have been openly avowed to the world, that their prejudice frequently obstructs their further acquisition in the knowledge of the truth, and even in cases of conviction their own self-importance will keep them from acknowledging their mistake."
Though he was thus cautious (and what judgment, prudence, and cool reasoning are evinced in this paragraph), the only change that experience did bring about, in the author's mind, was, that he became even more fully convinced, as the experience of years ripened the harvest of his wisdom, of the truths of his former belief, and made still further progress (a word that he loved and lived up to), in addition to certain points that are but lightly touched upon in the work.
The following letter, relating to this and other works, was elicited by the presentation to Mr. Ballou of a set, in a new and uniform edition with some of his subsequent publications; the constant call for these books, even after several large editions had been exhausted, and a long period of years had elapsed since their first being issued, requiring this fresh publication of them. Mr. Ballou having parted with the copyright at the time of publication, they were of course in the hands of the trade. This letter is introduced here as illustrative of the humble estimate he put upon his own important labors and discoveries, and is also in style very like him. It bears date 1844, and was written, consequently, when he was seventy-three years of age. It was addressed to the editor of the Trumpet, and appeared in the editorial columns of that paper.
Mr. Ballou has long been allowed the credit, which is also most justly due to him, of having been the first Unitarian writer in this country; for, as he says above, he had never seen any book in defence of the doctrine of the Divine unity when he wrote in favor of those principles in the works referred to. Another evidence of the fact is, that Mr. Ballou's sentiments at that time were considered most strange and novel by all.
"In this Treatise," says Rev. Thomas Whittemore, "Mr. Ballou took the ground that God was never unreconciled to man; that man was the party who needed reconciliation, for God is love from eternity to eternity, and that God's love to sinners was the cause of Christ's being sent by the Father to redeem them. He held that Christ was not God himself, but the Son of God; a distinct being from the Father, – a created being; – a doctrine which he had believed and preached for ten years, having commenced to preach it as early as 1795. He must therefore be regarded as the earliest defender of Unitarianism the country has produced."
Mr. Ballou says, relative to the doctrine of the Trinity: – "I had preached but a short time before my mind was entirely freed from all the perplexities of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the common notion of atonement. But in making these advances, as I am disposed to call them, I had the assistance of no author or writer. As fast as these old doctrines were, by any means, rendered the subject of inquiry in my mind, they became exploded. But it would be difficult for me now to recall the particular incidents which suggested queries in my mind respecting them."
The reader will at once be prepared to admit that Mr. Ballou must have expended much time and labor in the research and study of the Scriptures, necessary to enable him to write and publish these works, in a cause, and upon a theme, wherein he was a pioneer. He steered his barque into new waters, and was obliged himself to stand ever with the "lead" in his hand, to ascertain the true soundings, and keep thus in the narrow channel of truth. Concerning this matter, he has said, in an article furnished for a work entitled "Modern History of Universalism: " —
"I never read anything on the doctrine of universal salvation before I believed it, the Bible excepted; nor did I know, that I can now recollect, that there was anything published in its vindication in the world. Nor had I ever heard a sermon on the subject, except in boyhood I once heard Brother Rich, but concerning that sermon I realized nothing."
In speaking of his advance towards the knowledge of the truth, after his conversion, he says, in a published article: —
"It may be proper for me to state one circumstance which had no small tendency to bring me over to the ground on which I have for so many years felt established. It was by reading some deistical writings. By this means I was led to see that it was utterly impossible to maintain Christianity as it had been generally believed in the church. This led me of course to examine the Scriptures, that I might determine the question, whether they did really teach that Jesus Christ died to reconcile an unchangeable God to his own children. You cannot suppose I was long in finding that, so far from teaching such absurdities, the Scriptures teach that 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.' The question concerning the Trinity was by the same means as speedily settled."
It is an interesting and curious fact that he should have been aided, as it were, by the darkness of error to find the light of truth. The obvious inconsistency in his former belief, made evident by the deist, did not win him to the faith of the latter, but rather led him to investigate for himself, and to find a religion more congenial with the native promptings of his own heart and the evidences of the Bible. His was an exploring mind; he was not content to receive this faith, or that position, because others believed it, or because it had remained so long the unchallenged and unquestioned creed of the church. He must look into the matter and understand for himself, and make all parts of a doctrine to harmonize with each other, before he could reconcile it with his own reason and convictions.
This was a trait of character not alone observable in him as it related to the subject of religion; he applied the same rule to the affairs of every-day life, to political economy and business arrangements. He was always open to conviction, to reason and evidence, but could never embrace blindly any proposition whatever. Because the political party which the nearest assimilated to his views of the proper mode of government adopted this or that policy, he did not by any means consider it his duty to coincide with them, against his sober conviction, and he never did so; on the contrary, as often criticising the measures of one political party as another, and frequently finding much excellence, and principles worthy of commendation in the national policy of both. For this reason he could not be a politician, had he experienced an inclination that way. He was too honest.