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A Treatise on Atonement, by Hosea Ballou

Hosea Ballou's 1805 work on Universalist theology, edited by Rev. Dan Harper.
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A Letter to the Reader


I know it is frequently the case, when a person takes a new work in hand, he first casts his eye over the title page, and if he find no word on it that indicates perverse sentiments; and the name or denomination of the author he agreeable, he may think of having patience to read it; but, being something in a hurry, passes slightly over the preface, supposing it to be of little consequence. But what sensations may have struck your mind, on reading the title of this book, and finding it to be the intention of the author to prove the doctrine of universal holiness and happiness through the mediation and power of atoning grace, I cannot say; however, I would invite you to read, with candor and attention, not only this letter, hut the whole of the work, and make up your judgment afterwards.

Many circumstances might be mentioned which in their association have induced me to write and publish the following treatise; but I can say with propriety that the central object was that in which I always find the most happiness, viz. to do what I find most necessary, in order to render myself most useful to mankind.

I have from my early youth been much in the habit of inquiring into the things of religion, and religious sentiments; and have, for a number of years seen, or thought I saw, great inconsistencies in what has for a long time passed for orthodoxy in divinity.

The ideas that sin is infinite, and that it deserves an infinite punishment; that the law transgressed is infinite, and inflicts an infinite penalty; and that the great Jehovah took on himself a natural body of flesh and blood, and actually suffered death on a cross to satisfy his infinite justice and thereby save his creatures from endless misery, are ideas which appear to me to be unfounded in the nature of reason, and unsupported by divine revelation. Such notions have, in my opinion, served to darken the human understanding and obscure the Gospel of eternal life; and have rendered, what I esteem as divine revelation, a subject of discredit to thousands who, I believe, would never have condemned the scriptures had it not been for those gross absurdities being contended for, and the scriptures forced to bend to such significations. Christian authors and preachers have labored much to dissuade those whom they have caused to disbelieve the Christian religion, from their infidelity. But in this case, the salt has lost its savor, become good for nothing, and is trodden under foot of men who are too sensible to believe the unreasonable dogmas imposed on the world, either through error, or design, and sanctioned by tradition: and too inattentive to search the scriptures faithfully and impartially, whereby they might have learned that those errors were neither in them, nor supported by them. One particular object, therefore, in this work is, if possible, to free the scripture doctrine of atonement from those encumbrances which have done it so much injury; and open a door at least for the subject to be investigated on reasonable grounds, and by fair argument.

If we admit that our Creator made us reasonable beings, we ought, of course, to believe that all the truth which is necessary for our belief is not only reasonable, but reducible to our understandings.

In order to come at the subject of atonement, so as have light continually shining along the path which I intend to occupy, I found it necessary to show my reasons for not admitting the doctrine on ground on which it is usually argued: to do which, I found I must, of necessity, show that the common notion of the infinity of sin is unfounded in truth; and of course, every consequence deducible from such an error, equally unfounded and unsupported. It may seem not a little strange to some of my readers, that I dispute the infinity of law against which sin is committed; as all unholiness must be either in union or disunion with the eternal law of holiness and divine purity. But if the reader will take a little pains to observe particularly, it will appear plain that no being can stand amenable to a law above his capacity. And as the creature is finite in his earthly character, in which character only he is or can be a sinner, it is not reasonable to say that he stands amenable to an infinite law. But as the reader will find in this work, so much of the divine law of perfection as the creature obtains a knowledge of (which, in comparison to the whole, is no more than a shadow to a substance) is the law which he violates by his sin. And though we may speak of the sin in ignorance, it can amount to no more than the production of a virtuous intention thwarted by ingnorance, or the same principle by which the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea, gratify their various inclinations and appetites. And I do not think my reader will wish to have me prove that such sin is not infinite.

In my argument on the cause, or origin of sin, I thought it necessary to hint a little on the general idea of the subject, endeavoring to show the want of propriety in what is commonly contended for; and I have sought for the rise of unholy temptations in the constitutions of earthly and finite beings. I have endeavored, also to trace the causes and consequences of sin (as sin) so as to determine the finite nature of all which belongs to sin as cause and consequence. In any sense in which it can be said that God is the author of any thing whatever, in that sense of speaking it cannot be sin. And in any sense in which any action or event can be said to be endless in its consequences, God must be considered the author of it.

In all the statements which I have made of the doctrinal ideas of others, I have been careful to state no more than what I have read in authors, or heard contended for in preaching, or conversation; and if I have, in any instance, done those ideas any injustice, it was not intended. The reason why I have not quoted any author, or spoken of any denomination, is, I have not felt it to be my duty nor inclination to write against any name or denomination in the world; but my object has been, what I pray it ever may be, to contend against error wherever I find it; and to receive truth, and support it, let it come from what quarter it may.

For the sake of ease, however, in writing, I reasoned with my opponent, opposer, or objector, meaning no one in particular, but any one who uses the arguments and states the objections which I have endeavored to answer. It is very probable that some may think me too ironical, and in many in stances too severe, on what I call error. But I find it very difficult to expose error so as to be understood by all, without carrying, in many instances, my arguments in such a form as may not be agreeable to those who believe in what I wish to correct. I confess I should have been glad to have written on all my inquiries so as not to have displeased any, but to have pleased all, could I have done it and accomplished my main design; but this I was persuaded would be difficult. I have, therefore, paid particular attention to nothing but my main object; depending on the goodness of my reader to pardon what may be disagreeable, in manner or form, as inadvertencies.

What I have written on the subject of the Trinity, is mainly to show the reader in what light I view the Mediator, that my general ideas of atonement may be the easier understood. And though I think my objections and arguments, against the common idea of three distinct persons in the Godhead, who are equal in power and glory, to be unanswerable; yet it was not my intention to attend to a full refutation of those ideas, as I think that has frequently been done, and well done.

The opposers of universalism have generally written and contended against the doctrine under an entire mistaken notion of it. They have endeavored to show the absurdity of believing that men could be received into the kingdom of glory and righteousness in their sins; which no Universalist ever believed. In this work, I have endeavored to make as fair a statement of what I call Universalism as I was able; and it stands on such ground, that the propriety of it can no more be disputed than the propriety of universal holiness and reconciliation to God. Perhaps the reader will say, he has read a number of authors on the doctrine of universalism and finds considerable difference in their systems. That I acknowledge is true; but all agree in the main point, viz. that universal holiness and happiness is the great object of the gospel plan. And as for the different ways in which individuals may believe this work will be done, it proves nothing against the main point; but proves, what I wish could be proved concerning all other Christian denominations, that they have set up no standard of their own to cause all to bow to, or be rejected as heretics. We feel our own imperfections; we wish for every one to seek with all his might after wisdom; and let it be found where it may, or by whom it may, we humbly wish to have it brought to light, that all may enjoy it; but do not feel authorized to condemn an honest inquirer after truth, for what he believes different from a majority of us.

A few sentences which the reader will find towards the close of this work, which have reference to a punishment after death, may cause him to desire more of my ideas on the subject.

The doctrine of punishment after death, has, by many able writers, been contended for; some of whom have argued such punishment to be endless, and others limited. But it appears to me that they have taken wrong ground who have endeavored to support the latter, as well as those who have labored to prove the former. They have both put great dependence on certain figurative and parabolical expressions, or passages of scripture, which they explain, so as to cause them to allude to such an event. It appears to me that they have not sufficiently attended to the nature of sin so as to learn its punishment to be produced from a law of necessity and not a law of penalty. Had they seen this, they would also have seen that a perpetuity of punishment must be connected with an equal continuance of sin, on the same principle that an effect is dependent on its cause. Who in the world would contend that a man who had sinned one year could expiate his guilt by sinning five more, with greater turpitude of heart? State the punishment, say a thousand years, for a sinner who dies in unbelief. What is it for? Say for his incorrigibleness in this world. Well, does he commit sin during these thousand years? Surely, or he could not be miserable. Then I ask, if it take a thousand years punishment in another world, to reward the sinner for, say fifty years of sin in this, how long must he be punished afterwards for the sin he commits during the thousand years? The punishment, or sufferings, which we endure in consequence of sin is not a dispensation of any penal law, but of the law of necessity, in which law as long as a cause continues, it produces its effects. Therefore, to prove a man will suffer condemnation for sin at thirty, forty, or fifty years of age, it would be necessary to prove that he would be a sinner at that time, or those times. So, in order to prove that a man will be miserable after this mortal life is ended, it must first be proved that he will sin in the next state of existence.

It has been argued by many that the doctrine of future punishment, or misery is a necessary doctrine to dissuade men from committing sin, which surely surprises me. To tell a person who is in love of sin that if he does not immediately refrain, he will have to continue in sin for a long time, would be true, besure; but would be void of force to dissuade him from what he is in love with. I believe that as long as men sin, they will be miserable, be that time longer or shorter; and that as soon as they cease from sin, they begin to experience divine enjoyment.

The scripture speaks of the times of the restitution of all things, but does not inform us their number, or their duration. It also speaks of the fulness of times, but gives us no date, or duration of them.

I have not stated so many objections against the doctrine which I have labored to prove, as many of my readers may wish I had, nor so many as I should have been glad to, was it not for swelling the work to more of an expensive size. But I have stated and endeavored to answer the most frequent objections, and those on which my opposers put the most dependence; and I should have taken great satisfaction in communicating many more arguments, both from reason and scripture, in favor of universal holiness and happiness than I have, was it not for the reason assigned in the other case. However, if those objections which I have taken notice of, are answered to the reader's satisfaction, other scriptures generally used as argument against the salvation of all men will not be hard to be understood as not unfavorable to the doctrine. And as for the proofs which I have deduced from scripture and reason, I believe them entirely conclusive: but if not, more of the same kind would not be.

The reason I have not particularly explained those parables of the New Testament which I have had occasion to notice in this work is, my Notes,* of which mention is made on the title page of this book, are before the public, and contain my ideas on most of the parables spoken by Christ.

A question may be asked by many, which has labored much in my mind, respecting the propriety of publishing books on Divinity, when we profess to believe in the book called the Bible, that it contains all which we mean to communicate as truth in matters of religion; on which question I am determined for myself that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would have been better understood had the Bible been the only book ever read on the subject. And though I doubt not but many authors have done great justice to those subjects on which they have written, and the light of the scriptures have, by such means, been caused to shine; yet, by others, it has been greatly obscured. And had one half the attention been paid to the Bible which has been paid to those authors who have written upon it, it would, in my opinion, have been incomparably better for Christendom. But on account of errors imbibed, in consequence of erroneous annotations, it may be argued that it is now necessary to write and publish correct sentiments by the same parity of reasoning as we argue the necessity of those means to restore health, which are not necessary to continue it.

To the short exhortation with which the believer in Universalism will meet in this work, he is humbly invited to pay strict attention; as no faith, however true it may be, can be of any real service to the believer unless it be accompanied with the spirit and life of that truth in which it is grounded. The greater the beauty of a person, the more lamentable his death. The more divinity there is in any faith, the greater is the pity it should not be alive. "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." (James ii. 26.)

My brethren in the ministry will not think it assuming that I have spoken of the necessity of our paying strict attention to the stewardship into which God by his grace hath put us; as it was not written so much to instruct, as to show the brethren my faith; that they may see the ground on which I land; know the manner in which I contend for the faith once delivered to the saints; and feel for me the same fellowship which I feel for them. You may regret that my ideas were not more correct, in many instances, and think the great subject on which I have written might have obtained better justice from some more experienced writer; in which you have the same ideas with myself.

But in this you may be satisfied, that I have written as I now think and believe, without leaning to the right, or to the left, to please or displease. I have been often solicited to write and publish my general ideas 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 which 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 liable to feel such an attachment to sentiments which they have openly avowed to the world that their prejudice frequently obstructs their further acquisitions in the knowledge of the truth; and even in cases of conviction, their own self-importance will keep them from acknowledging their mistakes. And having some knowledge of my own infirmities, I felt the necessity of precaution, which I have no reason to believe is, or has been, injurious.

It has often been said by the enemies of the doctrine for which I have contended, that it would do to live by, but not to die by; meaning that it would not give the mind satisfaction when sensible it was about to leave a mortal for an immortal state. As to the truth of the assertion, I cannot positively say; that moment has not yet been experience by me; and as those who make the remark have never believed the doctrine, I cannot see how they should know any better than I do. Thus much I can say, I believe I have seen and often heard of persons rejoicing in the doctrine in the last hours of their lives; but I do not build my faith on such grounds. The sorrows or the joys of persons in their last moments, prove nothing to me of the truth of their general belief. A Jew, who despises the name of Christ from the force of his education may be filled with comfortable hopes in his last moments, from the force of the same education. I have no doubt but a person may believe, or pretend to believe, in the doctrine of universal salvation when he knows of no solid reason for his belief, but has rather rested the matter on the judgment of those in whom he has placed more confidence than he has in reality on the Saviour of the world; and I think it very possible that such Universalists may have strange and unexpected fears when the near approach of death, or any other circumstance, should cause them to think more seriously on so weighty a subject.

What my feelings might be, concerning the doctrine which I believe, was I called to contemplate it on a death-bed, I am as unable to say as I am what I may think of it a year hence should I live and be in health. But I am satisfied, beyond a doubt, that if I live a year longer, and then find cause to give up my present belief, that I shall not feel a consciousness of having professed what I did not sincerely believe; and was I called to leave the world and my writings in it, and at the last hour of my life should find I had erred, yet I am satisfied that I should possess the approbation of a good conscience in all I have written.

Therefore, though sensible of my imperfections, yet enjoying great consolation in believing the doctrine for which I have argued in the following work, and in the enjoyment of a good conscience, I submit the following pages to a generous and candid public, praying for the blessing of the God whom I serve on the feeble endeavors of the most unworthy whom he hath called as a servant of all men.

-- Hosea Ballou

* Ballou's Notes on the Parables of the New Testament, pub. 1804.

The Author's Preface to the Fifth (1832) Edition

As this edition of the Treatise on Atonement, in several respects, varies from former editions, the author feels that he owes it to the public to offer some reason for such variations.

It has pleased God to continue his life until this work has passed through four editions, with all the imperfections which it contained when first published nearly thirty years ago. For a number of years, he has seen reasons to doubt the correctness of some of the opinions which he entertained at the time he wrote the work; and also the propriety of the use he then made of certain passages of scripture. In his preface to the first edition, he says; "I have had, for sometime, an intention to write a treatise on this subject, but thought of deferring it until more experience might enable me to perform it better, and leisure give me opportunity to be more particular. But the consideration of the uncertainty of life was one great stimulus to my undertaking it at this time, added to a possibility of living to be informed with what success it meets in the world, and of having an opportunity to correct whatever I might, in my future studies, find incorrect, were not the smallest causes of my undertaking it."

Now as he has lived to know that the denomination of Christians, to which he belongs, has given to this humble work a much more favorable reception than he had any reason to anticipate, and bestowed on it an attention which far exceeds his most flattering hopes; and as he has, as he thinks, improved in his understanding, in certain particulars; so as to feel satisfied that the work needed correction, he felt bound, in duty to himself and the public, to make such corrections as his present views required.

But be it known, and duly considered, that in no particular has the author's views undergone any change unfavorable to the main doctrine, to the support of which the treatise was devoted.

The main points, in relation to which his views now differ from those he entertained when he first wrote the following work, relate to the pre-existence of Christ; of man's existence before his corporeal organization; and the application of some passages of scripture solely to the purifying operations of divine truth in man's understanding which passages he now believes embraced, in their true sense, all the temporal judgments with which a most perverse and wicked generation was visited.

Although he then as fully believed in the dependence of Christ on his God and Father as he now does, he entertained the opinion that he had a sentinent existence before he was manifested in flesh; and he then thought that certain passages of scripture evidently supported that opinion. These passages, though they seem to favor such a sentiment, do not appear altogether sufficient fully to warrant the belief of it. Could the opinion now be fully supported that Christ existed in a sentinent state before he was manifested in the flesh, it would not be difficult to yield to a belief that Adam also had an existence before he was formed of the dust of the ground. However these things are in fact, they now appear to the author as points of mere speculation, much too obscure to be laid down as matters of faith.

It is of importance here to remark that the moral relation which the treatise originally represented man to hold to the Creator, from which relation momentous deductions were drawn, is still believed; and all those deductions are retained.

To the foregoing it may be proper to add that the doctrine of a future disciplinary state, and the application of certain passages of scripture to that state of suffering which were left in suspense, undecided, in the treatise originally, were so left on account of the author's mind being then undecided in relation to these subjects. He was, however, as well convinced then as now that the doctrine of a future retribution could be supported on no other hypothesis than that of the continuance of sin in a future state; but he was not then so fully satisfied that all which the scriptures say about sin, and the punishment of it, relates solely to this mortal state as he now is.

The author entertains no doubt that many will regret that as an opportunity has offered, the treatise should not be more improved as to its style. As an apology for this defect, he offers two suggestions: First. He could not consent so entirely to alter the work as to endanger the loss of what has probably given its arguments and easy access to the understanding of common readers. And second. A consciousness that any effort or labor in his power to make or bestow, would, after all, leave many offences to the delicate nice reader.

The author is not willing to neglect this opportunity to tender his grateful acknowledgements to his numerous friends who have so indulgently regarded his different publications, and so extensively patronised his labors. That a growth in the knowledge of divine truth, and treasures laid up where neither moth nor rust can corrupt, may be their recompense, is the sincere prayer of their devoted servant

-- Hosea Ballou.

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Continue to chapter 1, Of Sin, Its Nature.

Paragraphing and some punctuation altered for clarity. See the Preface to the 2011 Web Edition.