"Bad Men and Angels from Hell": The Discourse of Universalism in Early National Philadelphia
Abstract

Abstract:

In the winter of 1780, a disagreement over Universalism broke out in the Philadelphia Baptist Church. Led by their minister Elhanan Winchester, many church members adopted Universalism, while others resisted giving up their Calvinist belief in particular salvation. Opponents condemned this new tenet as perilous to orthodox Christianity; the salvation of all humans meant that even "bad men and angels from hell" would attain saving grace. The Anti-Universalists used discourse that played on fears of Catholicism, immorality and atheism to confront this threat. Winchester and the proponents of Universalism utilized democratic language to expand Protestant identity by advocating one religion for all. The inclusiveness of Universalism appealed to some of the Revolutionary generation who wished for an efficacious faith that was both rational and spiritual. Universalists endorsed a religion that fit the social and political context of the new nation. Their compassionate theology would benefit Americans by enhancing personal piety, promoting spiritual community, and uniting all Protestants. The argument over Universalism in Philadelphia started as a local event and became part of a national discussion about the nature of deliverance. The controversy spawned in Pennsylvania occurred in a locality familiar with religious interaction but intensified through the burgeoning print and denominational networks of the late eighteenth century. Instigated by an active laity, dissemination of this debate relied upon connections among denominational leaders. Though the rift over Universalism in the Philadelphia Baptist Church transpired at the micro level, it was linked to an ongoing religious dialogue among Protestants in the Atlantic world.