Friday, October 30, 2020

James Relly's Universalism

James Relly was a significant influence on the development of universalism in the 1700s. As was
expected at the time, he developed his theology based on what he found in the Bible, and engaged in some novel interpretation to develop his soteriology. Although I would have found it quite unconvincing as a Christian, this was not the experience of people like John Murray, who went on to take a vision of universal salvation to the New World.

Relly accepted most of the Christian system, including the doctrines of original sin, and vicarious atonement by Christ on the cross. The twist he gave those doctrines, however, centered upon what he believed was the mystical union of all people in Adam, and in Christ, the second Adam. Relly insisted that all of humanity, all succeeding generations of the human race, were contained within Adam when he sinned against God. All humanity participated in that sin, and therefore all of humanity stands in need of redemption. It was this sin which Christ died to redeem. Just as all human beings were in Adam when he sinned, so all human beings were present in Christ when he paid the price of that sin. His death was sufficient payment for all sin, and therefore, human redemption has already been accomplished and human beings need only acknowledge and rejoice in that fact. It is not so much that all will be saved, but that in the mystical union of Christ with his church and with humanity, all have been saved. (Bumbaugh, 2000)

The Rellyan doctrine of universal salvation depended in part on a particular passage from the New Testament.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:20-22 NRSV)

This chapter in 1st Corinthians focuses on the future bodily resurrection of the dead. Rather than death-then-heaven, the spiritual resurrection that seems most popular today, the early tradition that became considered orthodox taught that after a period of time there would be a general resurrection of the dead, and then there would be a final judgement. This is a line of thought that developed through the Second Temple Period, after the return from the Babylonian exile and through the time Jesus lived. 

The Persians also believed in a resurrection of the dead, and there are scholars who argue that in this too Persia exercised its influence over Israel. For even if we admit that the belief in resurrection has biblical roots, it did not develop into a Jewish dogma until the Second Temple period, so that even if it was not lifted wholesale from the Persians it nonetheless developed under their influence. After all, Persian messengers and sages traveled throughout the ancient Near East and beyond it — especially during the Hellenistic period — spreading Persian teachings where they went. It is quite possible, then, that this was the only religious tradition to exercise a meaningful influence over Jewish doctrine. (Flusser, 2009)

The early church adopted this belief in bodily resurrection, referencing the purported resurrection of Jesus as 'firstfruits' of this promise of God. James Relly had no quarrel with that understanding, and acknowledged that as the context of the verses quoted above, but found more meaning there as well.

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor xv. 22) (Besides proving the general resurrection) the Apostle explains in those words, the matter whereof I am treating. As all died, and were lost in Adam when he was caught in toils of sin, and Death, it is evident they were then in him, then united to him, so that his sin, was their sin; his Death, their Death. As in Adam, so in Christ, united in him, in all he did, and suffered: saved in him, crucified with him, ascended and seated with him, in heavenly places, &c. (McKanan, 2017)

Relly identified the symmetry in 1st Corinthians 15 and applied it to what he considered its logical conclusion. If all have sinned in Adam, the father of the human species, and 'all' will be made alive in Jesus, then 'all' people will receive the benefits of what Jesus accomplished. This makes a couple of big assumptions.

First, it accepts without question that the doctrine of original sin is correct. With this doctrine, everyone is said to be born bearing the sin of Adam, having inherited it, and therefore all need to be regenerated. This is a key doctrine for supporting infant baptism, and underlies a significant part of the soteriology of Western Christianity. However, it is not universally believed. For example, the Stone-Campbell, LDS Restoration, and Christadelphian traditions all reject original sin on scriptural grounds. In their view, people are only responsible for their own sins, having been born tabula rasa in this regard. 

Second, it supposes that the verses in question apply to more than physical resurrection. The symmetry works just as well in context if it is affirmed that 'all' suffer physical death (being excluded from the tree of life in the Garden of Eden) because Adam and Eve sinned and were driven out, and that 'all' will be restored to physical life through the virtue of Jesus, without affirming that this implies ultimate salvation. In fact, numerous passages in the New Testament indicate that some will be resurrected to eternal life, and others to eternal death. The work of Christ only ensures in this limited sense that all will be at some point resurrected to face judgment. 

Demonstrating his Calvinist influence, James Relly placed the ability to decide to be saved, or to contribute anything to one's salvation in any way, outside the capabilities of human beings. Instead, salvation requires the initiative of God. This is precisely the inverted Calvinism I wrote about not too long ago.

If it is not faith, or believing, that makes this Union, then it is an act of eternal Love; the purpose, and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.  (McKanan, 2017)

A very common objection to universalism has long been that it leaves people with no motivation to live a godly life. Relly was aware of that concern.

The old trite objection, of its tending into Licentiousness, leads the way, saying, if Union with Christ is the ground of our acceptance with God, and our security in his favour; then the doctrine of rewards and punishments is overthrown; and man hath nothing left to stimulate him to virtue.  (McKanan, 2017) 

His rather tepid dismissal of this argument involved debt vs grace, and fear vs faith. It is something that I think could have been better answered from another Pauline epistle.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10 NRSV)

Evangelical Christians believe, in longstanding Protestant tradition, that salvation is all of grace, through faith, and does not depend on a person's good behavior. However, they put forward that being regenerated reshapes a person in such a way as that they have a change of heart, having their motivation and ability to do good in their faith and the inward presence of God's spirit. 

To atheists, this idea that a person has to believe in heaven and hell in order to be a good person is equally absurd. Many years ago a Christian man told me that if the Gospel weren't true, he'd be out 'chasing skirts.' If by that he meant pursuing enthusiastically consensual sexual relationships, I'd now say 'more power to you.' For a non-theist, like myself, the thought that the only thing restraining some people from adultery, theft, or worse is a belief in a divine system of reward and punishment is pretty disturbing. When my faith ended I found that while my values gradually shifted in a more progressive direction, my sense of ethics wall little changed. Infidelity and deceit, for instance, are as abhorrent to me now as they ever were as a theist. 

While James Relly's convictions don't feel particularly relevant to me personally, I do appreciate his contribution, even if unintended, to the secularization of society. The slow adoption of a more universalist stance in American religion (with the exception of the evangelicals) allowed for a distancing of personal beliefs from the public sphere. If all are already saved, then the only work to really be done is the improvement of society. In the 19th and 20th centuries the Universalists in the United States acted on that impulse, drawing them nearer to the Unitarians, who by a different route were pursuing the application of reason to social ills. As mainstream Protestantism came on board with this concern and minimized hell, I believe room was made for a more pluralistic society to develop. As we can see in our times, those who preach hell the most tend also to be the most xenophobic, and that brings no tangible benefit to our society, and only harm. 


Bumbaugh, D. E. (2000). Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History. Chicago, IL: Meadville Lombard Press.

Flusser, D. (2009). Judaism of the Second Temple Period. The Hebrew University Magnes Press + Eerdmans publishing, and Jerusalem Perspective.

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.