Biography of Rev. Hosea Ballou
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Concerning the period of his early settlement in Boston, Rev. Sylvanus Cobb says: – "When Mr. Ballou entered upon his labors here, benignantly warring upon the hurtful errors which enslaved and paralyzed the common mind, and elucidating those prominent gospel truths which are the bread of life to the soul, there was an extensive movement of mind in the city, and in the region round about, far and near. When the Twenty-six Lectures, published by Henry Bowen, were in the process of delivery, the church was usually filled an hour before the set time of beginning, and multitudes would be going away who could not find entrance. He had done much before this, by his ministry in other places, and the publication of his Notes on the Parables, Treatise on Atonement, and controversy with Robinson, to advance the cause of truth; but he was now providentially placed at a commanding stand-point, a central position, the commercial emporium of New England, whence his influence went out through all the land. Business men, from different parts, who had occasion to be in Boston over the Sabbath, would go in at School-street church, become convinced by the able expounder's arguments, go home, taking with them some of his publications, and commence a work in their respective neighborhoods, which, in many cases, resulted in the formation of societies."
As a sample of the spirit he was forced to encounter, and the animosity felt against Universalists generally, and their teachings, by the clergy of other persuasions, we relate the following anecdote. Being in the town of Mattapoisett, Mass., during one of his short journeys into the neighboring country to fulfil professional engagements, Mr. Ballou found that he must stop there for the night. It was soon known in the village that he was to remain for this period, and he was at once waited upon by a committee chosen for the purpose, and informed that the town's people were exceedingly anxious to hear him preach, and that permission had been obtained for him to hold forth in the Orthodox meeting-house, if agreeable to himself. Mr. Ballou cheerfully consented to their wishes, and the people were notified accordingly. It is proper to state, that several among those who invited Mr. Ballou to preach here, were themselves large share-holders in the meeting-house, and in two instances members of the church. Notwithstanding all this, when Mr. Ballou came to the meeting-house, not anticipating the least opposition to his purpose, he was met at the door by the Orthodox clergyman then officiating here, and who positively forbade his entrance. In vain did Mr. Ballou attempt calmly to reason with him; still the excited pastor insisted most vociferously that he should not enter, although fully informed of all the circumstances. Nor would he yield until at length he was absolutely dragged away forcibly by his own friends.
Erasmus, the reformer of the fifteenth century, "who stemmed the wild torrent of a barbarous age," was not more strongly opposed by the bigoted Catholics of his day, who charged him with having "laid the egg that Luther hatched," than was Hosea Ballou by the partialists of his times.Particularly was this the case during the early and middle period of his public labors. The reformation begun by Luther has been well termed "an insurrection of the human mind against the absolute power of spiritual order." Its earliest fruit was the vigorous but narrow belief of Puritanism; then followed the more liberal creeds of the subsequent period; but it seemed to be left for Mr. Ballou to strike out and illustrate the doctrine of perfect freedom through Christ, of entire impartiality and free grace, which the doctrine of universal salvation inculcates.
Relative to the bigotry and unreasonable spirit often evinced towards the subject of this biography, and the cause he advocated, we are reminded in this connection of another anecdote, which is authentic, and which the subject of these memoirs related to his family.
Not long after Mr. Ballou's settlement in Boston, he received a pressing invitation to visit the island of Nantucket. The inconvenience of communication between the island and the main land was considerable, but he consented, and passed some ten days there, preaching every successive day and evening to large and interested audiences, creating a very earnest movement in the matter of religion. On his return, arriving at New Bedford, he took the stage coach for Boston, and in it found but one other person. Scarcely had the journey commenced, when his fellow-passenger opened the conversation by saying, —
"You are just from the island, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir," was the reply.
"Well, they say old Ballou is over there, preaching his heresy. Did you see him?"
"Yes, I saw him," was the calm reply.
"Well, he's a rough old fellow. I don't like him."
"Why not?" asked Mr. Ballou.
"Because he preaches that all men will be saved and go to heaven in their sins, and no man in his senses can believe that."
"But, sir, did you ever hear him preach?"
"No; I hope not," said the man.
"Then you may be misinformed as to what he does preach," said Mr. Ballou, mildly. "Now I think he would say, if he were here, that he did not believe nor preach as you have represented."
"But what does he believe, then?" said the stranger, somewhat earnestly.
"I think he would say that sinners are to be saved from their sins, not in their sins. Christ came to save the world from sin, not in sin; and furthermore we are told in the Scriptures that 'he that is dead is free from sin,' and he that is freed from sin must surely be holy, and consequently happy."
"Sir, if I may be so bold," said the stranger, after looking for a moment somewhat critically, "where do you live when at home?"
"I live in Boston, sir."
"Whose church do you attend?"
"Mr. Ballou's church, sir."
"What is your name?"
"My name is Ballou," he replied, pleasantly.
The man was of course confounded. He stammered forth some excuse; but though he listened to Mr. Ballou's kindly-meant remarks with the utmost attention, yet he was evidently very ill at ease, and, watching his opportunity, left the stage at the next stopping-place.
By careful study, aided by his natural quickness of conception and vigorous powers of mind, he had, without other assistance than that of books, acquired a practical knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew languages, which greatly assisted him in his profession, by enabling him to translate the most important passages from the original Scriptures, and thus to throw light upon many points that had heretofore been in some degree shrouded in mystery, by the one-sided and partial translation given in our own version of the Bible. At the present day it is well known that our common translation of the Scriptures is deficient in several instances, and this too at the most important and most critical passages. This being the case, Mr. Ballou found the power of translating for himself to be of the utmost importance as an aid to repel false argument, as well as being a matter of much personal satisfaction and enjoyment.
"At different times, and for several years," says Mr. Ballou, in reference to this subject, "I have attempted to solve peculiar passages of Scripture, which were so difficult to understand as to lead me to question the correctness of their reading from the original. In order to do this, I have studied Greek, and have had some aid from Greek scholars and Greek lexicons, and have consulted various commentators; possessed myself of the Septuagint, or Greek Testament, and other Greek works. With all these helps and efforts, I have been enabled to satisfy myself relative to any particular passage. I have found but little benefit from these means in regard to the Old Testament; in respect to the New, I have often been assisted, and found that my little knowledge of Greek has been more useful. For similar ends and purposes I obtained a Hebrew Bible, lexicon, grammar, etc.; but, though I have bestowed not a little labor on the Hebrew, my other avocations and cares have prevented any great degree of proficiency, though I have experienced much aid and assistance in elucidating many points. I might say about as much of my Latin Bible, lexicon, grammar, and reader. I have made some considerable use of all these books, and have given many of my leisure hours to the Hebrew, Greek and Latin languages, but I profess to know so little of them that it is hardly worth naming; though I must acknowledge I have found them of considerable use when some arrogant disputant should think to silence me by an appeal to the original. But it is a fact that I have never met with many college-learned ministers who appeared to have retained much of their Greek, if indeed they ever had much. I think it would require no little study and observation to determine the question, which amounts to the most, the benefit which the public gain by the extra learning of their clergy, or the imposition they suffer by estimating that learning above its value."
This last reference should not be misconstrued by the reader, as conveying the idea that the subject of this biography was opposed in any way to education, or educational movements. Those who knew him best will bear ready testimony to the contrary. Indeed, his own struggles in obtaining knowledge had given him a just estimate of the true value of such conveniences as should facilitate the dissemination of intelligence far and wide. "When I look about me," he says, "and contrast the great improvements in the means for gaining knowledge, – when I behold the youth of to-day and remember the youth of my own boyhood, – I am struck with the contrast that facts present relative to education. I am also rendered thankful to a Divine Providence, which has been pleased to advance the improvement in mental culture and the facilities for learning, in an equal degree with the surprising advancements which have been accomplished in the arts and sciences. Few are so poor or lowly now that they may not enjoy the advantages of schools and able teachers, and I may add that few there are who do not avail themselves of the rich opportunity which is offered them for storing their minds with knowledge, and thus preparing themselves for useful members of society. Half a century since, the case was very different; schools were little thought of among the poor, and children in the country could seldom be spared from home to attend those that were occasionally opened. Yet I am satisfied that the advantages which were offered at that time were even more assiduously improved than they are at this period. This, however, was but natural, under the circumstances." No man put a higher estimate upon knowledge than he did, but it was useful, practical knowledge that he valued. He had no respect for mere titles and college honors. He had seen the eclat of a college diploma go further with many simple people than a sound argument or the possession of sterling wisdom would have done, and it is not surprising that the observation of such weakness should have led him to speak out, as we have seen him do in this connection. He may have felt the remark, too, which his opponents sometimes sneeringly made of him, that he never enjoyed a classical or collegiate education.
We have a few words to say relative to this reflection. Now, we solemnly believe, and are prepared to argue, that a collegiate education would have materially detracted from his usefulness. A scholastic or classic course of study seems to unfit men in a great degree for active life. The practical too often becomes merged in the ideal, and the mind grows effeminate. A theoretical knowledge of human nature is imbibed, and we are led to contemplate our fellow-men through a false medium; for essayists write of men as they should be, but rarely as they are. Mr. Ballou was acknowledged by all who knew him, to possess a remarkable degree of knowledge concerning human nature, but it was gathered from men, not books, from experience, – Time's free school, – not from theory. No other kind of knowledge would have fitted him for the peculiar path he was born to pursue. A pioneer should be what he was; a follower, the roads once cleared, and the track made smooth, might, perhaps, without danger, be less practical and more imaginative. Education, to be truly useful, should be unequalled in its ability to instruct us in the things about us, and to strengthen us for the duties that lie in our path of life. The true being, end, and aim of all study should be, "to improve men in the best reason of living," while any learning that aims above the practical interests of life is comparatively unimportant. Even in the ministry,
"That learning which makes us acquainted with ourselves," says Mr. Ballou, "with the powers and faculties of the human mind, with divine truth, which is plainly revealed, with its power on the mind and heart, with the concatenations of cause and effect, and to understand our every-day duty, which grows out of our wants and the wants of those about us, is learning of a better quality than that which only enables us to call things by different names, without giving us a knowledge of their natural qualities either for good or evil."
The main characteristic of Mr. Ballou's habit of mind was that of looking at all things in a practical point of view. The importance and real value he attached to things were deduced from his estimate of their use. He regarded life as made up of constantly recurring duties, and his appreciation of principles, of religion or philosophy, was carefully regulated by this standard, as to the application they bore to every-day matters.
The great end of all acquirements should be the ability to discharge more effectually our duties as men and citizens. "He who is not a better neighbor, brother, friend, and citizen," says an eminent writer, "because of his superior knowledge, may very well doubt whether his knowledge is really superior to the ignorance of the unlettered many around him." Or, to state this great truth more in brief, a man knows no more to any purpose than he practises.