Biography of Rev. Hosea Ballou
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"By the following anecdote it may be seen into what inconsistencies men are liable to be drawn by an intense desire to maintain favorite sentiments. I had an appointment to preach a lecture in the town of Canton, Mass., where Universalism was quite new, and where there were but few who believed it. At the time appointed I was there, and among the many who were present as hearers, was a Methodist minister, whom before I had never seen. After our introduction, he very civilly asked me if I was willing, after I got through my discourse, that he should have the liberty of offering some remarks in relation to it. I replied that I should have no objections to his having that liberty, reserving to myself the right to reply to his remarks. To this he agreed. As I knew my hearers had assembled with an expectation of hearing the doctrine of Universalism held forth, I took for my text a passage which seemed to me a strong one in favor of the doctrine: First Tim. 2: 4, – 'Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.' In my discourse, I relied on the will of God as the foundation of my belief in the final salvation of all men. My sermon was lengthy, and I endeavored to strengthen my arguments, as well as I could, by many scriptures and various illustrations, but still relied on the will of God as the foundation on which stood the superstructure I raised. When I had got through, I signified to the congregation that our worthy brother, the Methodist minister, desired to make some remarks on my discourse, and that I hoped they would candidly listen to what he had to say.
"He then rose and remarked on various points of my arguments, allowing their justness and propriety. 'But,' said he, 'as the conclusions which have been drawn in favor of the salvation of all men rest entirely on the will of God, if we can prove that God's will is not done, in many instances which may be named, it follows necessarily that the doctrine contended for may not be true.' This he then labored to make out. Now, feeling confident that he had shaken my foundation in the minds of our hearers, he proceeded to quote passages upon which he relied to prove the endless misery of the wicked. When he had got through and sat down, I arose and told the people that I knew no better way to answer to what our brother had urged, than to allow that he had refuted the doctrine of the salvation of all men by proving the failure of God's will in many instances; and this being granted, it also must be granted that God's will in regard to the endless misery of sinners might fail of being accomplished also! This reply came so suddenly on the minds of the congregation that it brought them on their feet, and the aspect which they presented was so peculiar as to abash our brother, and induce him to say something more, which the people did not stop to hear. He then turned to me, and said that he did not mean what I had stated to the audience. I told him in reply that what I had to do with, was what he had said."
This is but an example of the various incidents, controversies, and adventures that he was constantly encountering on his frequent missions into the country; vicissitudes that taught him much of human nature, and rendered him ever prompt and ready in reply, familiarized him with various temperaments, dispositions, and phases of character, and thus enabling him to speak and act more understandingly when again assailed in a like manner, as well as to put his experience to other available use.
In the latter part of the year 1821 and the beginning of '22, Mr.Ballou passed a considerable period in the cities of New York and Philadelphia, which places he was induced to visit by the united invitation of the several societies in these two cities. While in the latter place, he delivered eleven sermons, which the societies procured a stenographer to transcribe in short-hand, as delivered extemporaneously from the pulpit. These sermons were published soon after in Philadelphia, making a book of two hundred pages, a second edition being published in Boston about ten years after. Mr. Ballou's manner of delivery was so distinct, his enunciation so clear, his language so impressive, that a practical short-hand writer could easily transcribe every word he uttered in a discourse. There was never any hurry, no impetuosity, no excitement that betrayed the speaker into undue haste, but, though all was tempered with warmth and zeal, still it was such admirably controlled earnestness as never to confuse the mind that followed his spontaneous utterance. We well remember when the book herein referred to was handed to him for the first time. "I am surprised," said he, "for this seems almost miraculous; here are my own words and thoughts literally as I uttered them, in living and indelible lines upon these pages, while my pen has never transcribed one letter of the matter. I might have improved this by reviewing it for the press, but, after all, it is as God sent it!" Reading on, he would pause now and then to say, "I should not have remembered that I said that, if it was not so literally recalled to me." These sermons being upon important doctrinal points and subjects, as indeed were nearly all his sermons, are of peculiar value. The book is also a very excellent sample of Mr. Ballou's extempore style of preaching, as these sermons were printed from the reporter's notes, unrevised by the author, who, indeed, did not see them until they were sent to him in Boston in book form. At the time these sermons were delivered, the churches were always crowded to their utmost capacity. The Sabbath was not only thus occupied, but also many days and evenings of each week, the simple announcement of a meeting being quite sufficient to ensure a large and attentive audience for the occasion. In the mean time, in private circles, Mr. Ballou was forming extensive personal acquaintance with the hospitable citizens, among whom he counted some of the warmest friends in the cherished host, who continued such with him to the closing hours of his earthly career.
"The largest audience I remember to have addressed," he says, "was in Washington Garden Saloon, Philadelphia, which my friends had procured for me, finding the meeting-houses far too small to accommodate the crowds that thronged to our meetings. This hall, which will accommodate some six thousand people, was crowded to excess. On no former occasion did I ever feel more pressed with the weight of duty which lay upon me, nor a more sensible need of divine assistance. The attention of the audience, and the multitude of friendly hands which were extended to receive my adieu, seemed to speak a language which signified the approbation of my divine Master, which, to me, is far better than life."
One of the most marked peculiarities of Mr. Ballou's character was not only his almost inexpressible degree of simplicity, but his perfect self-possession, and unmoved and placid calmness, under any and all circumstances. When he arose to address an audience of thousands, as was the case above referred to, they awed him not; he would have spoken the same in a private dwelling of New Hampshire, before a few hastily assembled friends, or, with the same prophetic unction, in a barn; – the village school-house or the city church were all alike to him. When he arose to address an audience, whether of thousands or of scores, it was always with a heart so full of his theme, so lowly and humble before his Maker, that not a thought betrayed itself in action of a character to indicate that he considered himself in the slightest degree, or that there was such a being as self in existence. And then, when he spoke, it was not with the adornments of rhetorical elegance, nor with a striving after effect; not one useless or unnecessary word fell from his lips; it was simplicity and impressiveness personified. Such preaching was natural; there was not an artificial element in it. No wonder that it produced such results; no wonder that he should witness the visible fruits of his labors ripening about him.
It was no spirit of fanaticism that created such a furore in the public to hear him, it was not fear for their own good hope of salvation that brought people together in such masses; it was not excitement, that grand agent of revival meetings generally. No; it was a far worthier influence than these; it was a desire to hear the good tidings that the preacher dispensed, as he alone could do. It was to partake of the bread of life that they came, and they were filled. He was emphatically the messenger of "peace and good will to men;" and the multitudes who came to hear the words of promise from his lips, received them as the shepherds did to whom the angels bore the glad tidings as they "watched their flocks by night."
After the departure of Christ, and the death of his immediate disciples, a darkness had crept upon the hearts and souls of mankind; faith in the boundless love of the Creator had been weakened, as belief in his vengeance strengthened, and nearly all Christian creeds were gloomy, disheartening, and repulsive. To dispel these erroneous views, – to withdraw the clouds that hid the brightness of the bow of promise, – to reveal all the priceless tenderness and love of the divine nature, – to radiate the light of hope upon a darkened world, was a task as glorious as ever fell to the lot of man. What more thrilling discoveries ever dawned upon the human intellect than those which revealed themselves to, and rewarded the prayerful search of, him of whom we write? We can easily understand how the greatness of this mission strengthened and sustained him in his arduous duties, in his daily gospel labors, in his long journeyings, in his voluminous exertions with the pen and in the pulpit. Verily the hour and the man had arrived. It mattered little that he did not spare himself, that he gave himself up wholly to his vocation; it was not destined, not designed, that he should succumb in the good fight; vigor and energy were given him to support him through all his trials, up to the very verge of a long and eventful life, when the chief end of his existence had been accomplished.
Not long subsequent to his return from this journey to New York and Philadelphia, he published a series of "Lecture Sermons," in one volume of four hundred pages. This book, like every one that ever emanated from his pen, had a very extensive sale, passing through several large editions, and still finds a ready market. These "Lecture Sermons" give, like the "Treatise on Atonement," an evidence of the fact that the author was always working in new veins of thought. He was not one contented to follow in the beaten track of others; his motto from the outset was progress; and each new work that emanated from his pen and comprehensive mind, gave fresh token of research and discovery. Not long after the issuing of the "Lecture Sermons," he published another book, entitled "Select Sermons upon Important Passages," making a book of three hundred and fifty pages. Like the previous work, this book is peculiarly characteristic of its author, and treating, as it does, upon deeply interesting and doctrinal points, it has found a wide circulation. These books are distinguished alike for patient research, wise reflections, deep penetration, and the soundness of their moral influence. The last work has passed through seven editions.
Mr. Ballou was frequently heard to remark, that if we would reason in reference to the divine economy as we do concerning other matters, we should soon discard many of the false notions which do so much towards enshrouding our spirits in darkness, and thus preventing our progress towards the goal of gospel truth. In illustration of this, we subjoin the following anecdote, in his own words, as furnished for the Universalist Magazine at the time of its occurrence. It happened to him while on a journey from Boston to Watertown, New York, in the year 1824. While absent from his paper, Mr. Ballou was in the habit of supplying his editorial columns through the mail, partly made up of correspondence from the points he visited, and relating to such matters and themes as were calculated to interest a mind of his peculiar character. The following anecdote is taken from one of these letters.
"The day following, a widow belonging to Pittsfield, Mass., entered the stage in that town to go to Denmark, New York, to visit her young son, whom she had not seen for six years, and who is now about fifteen. This lady I found to be quite orthodox in her views, and disposed to question me concerning mine. At the inn in Albany where the stage stops, we had some serious conversation on the subject of the ignorance and unbelief of man. Her queries concerning this subject were directed in the usual way, and were designed to prove that in consequence of unbelief in the Saviour, the sinner is expected to be cut off forever without mercy. Having noticed in this lady an anxious desire to find her son, and perceiving that her affections were tender towards her fatherless child, I thought proper to try to open her eyes by means of appealing to her natural affection.
"'Madam, do you think your son will know you?' I asked. She, with manifest emotion, replied, 'It is so long since he saw me, that I do not think he will!' 'And should you find that he has forgotten you, so as not to recognize your person and countenance, do you think he would be in danger on that account of losing your favor?' Tears started into her eyes, and the weight of the question was sensibly manifest. She replied in the softest accents in the negative. 'Well, madam,' I continued, 'should you find that your son has forgotten your countenance, and should you inform him of the fact of which you find him ignorant, and yet he should not believe you, should you then feel unkindly towards your son?' She fully appreciated the question, and answered in the negative. I then called her attention to the remarkable passage in the forty-seventh chapter of Isaiah, in which the divine kindness is commended to exceed the compassion of a mother to her tender offspring. She signified her satisfaction, and gave me to understand that the argument had reached its object."
This anecdote, striking and beautiful in its bearings, is also particularly interesting as being so perfect an illustration of Mr. Ballou's style of argument. He always brought the subject home to the feelings and affections of his hearers, illustrating his theme by the simplest facts. His examples by way of explaining his subject were ever so aptly chosen, as to seem to have occurred almost solely for his use; these illustrations were ever drawn from every-day life, and from the most familiar subjects about us. The family circle afforded an infinite variety of bearings and illustrations, exceedingly well fitted to delineate his belief; and those who have been accustomed to hear him preach, will remember how frequently he referred to the homes of his hearers for illustrations. In this respect his discourses were a close imitation of his Master's, who spoke as never man spoke.
There lies open before us at this moment the autobiography of Rev. Abel C. Thomas, where he speaks of Mr. Ballou on the occasion of his (Mr. Thomas's) first visit to Boston, and his meeting with the subject of this biography. "No one will deem me invidious in mentioning Hosea Ballou. There he stood in the simplicity and maturity of a child-man. Was it marvellous that his heart-speech should tingle within me as the voice of a father? He stood up the taller in his manhood for having bowed to brotherly fellowship with a boy. There was no distinguishing grace in the act; it was his way alway, and he was only the taller on that account. He was preaching then (O! how luminously and forcibly he was preaching!) at the age of threescore."
It was ever thus that strangers were impressed on meeting with him. They had heard, of course, much of Hosea Ballou, they had read his books, or his essays through the newspaper press; by name and reputation they had long known him. Some had imagined him proud, austere, and distant. They approached a man, for the first time, who had reached to his extended span of life, to his experience and world-wide celebrity, with some degree of awe; but his warm pressure of the hand, the tender and soft expression of his eye, the soothing and melodious voice, (that gentle, soothing, yet impressive voice, how strongly our senses recall it now!) the kind word, – these instantly dispelled any feeling of distance that might have arisen in the breast of the new comer; and he found impressed on every word he uttered, on every lineament of his features, on every sentiment of his heart, a spirit of divine simplicity.
Arrogating nothing to himself, unassuming to the utmost degree, he counted his own services as nothing, and only aspired to be known as his Master's follower, and the servant of all men.