The Meaning of Universalism

I remember when I became a Quaker. I was a teenager, and a Quaker couple, Mary Lee and Lee Comer, moved in next door to our house. They led the youth group at the local Quaker meeting in Danville, Indiana. Every Sunday evening, the Quaker youth in the meeting would gather at their home, and one Sunday in the spring of 1977, I was sitting on our front porch watching as carload after carload of attractive Quaker teenage women descended upon the Comers’ home. I heard the Spirit say to me, "Philip, go and be a Friend." So I crossed the lawn, and became a Quaker. It was roughly 100 feet from our front porch to the Comers’ front door, which in retrospect were the most important 100 feet of my life. Almost every blessing I’ve enjoyed since then has come because of my association with Friends.

I’ve been asked tonight to speak about Universalism, a concept I learned not from the Church, but from my parents. We lived in a starter neighborhood, and there were lots of houses and lots of kids. When I was about to turn eight, I asked my parents if I could have a birthday party and they said, "Yes, you can, but if you have a birthday party and invite kids, you have to invite every child in the neighborhood. You can’t leave anyone out." This was their rule. I said, "Well, I don’t want Juanita to come." Juanita lived up the street from us, and she belonged to this weird church and was unattractive and everyone tormented her. This was in the days before video games, when you just tormented people for a pastime, and she was our target. I feared if I invited her my status in the fourth grade would plummet, and I didn’t want that, so I complained to my parents. I said, "I don’t want her to come." My mom said, "If Juanita isn’t invited, no one is invited." My mother was a fundamentalist in matters of inclusion, but I was not at the time. So I was very upset, but my parents held fast. No Juanita, no party. My parents were dogmatic about few things, but never the freedom to exclude. Fifteen years later when I began studying theology, I had one doctrine from which I would never deviate: when God has a party, everyone is invited.

I wish I had learned this from the Church, but this idea of universalism was simply not present in the churches of my childhood—the Roman Catholic church and the conservative Quaker meeting. It would have been seen as heretical, an assault upon the Gospel and upon the Christian tradition. So even as my parents were doing all they could to encourage this spiritual largess, the churches were doing all they could to discourage it. But I had noticed, and you probably have too—if you’ve lived long enough—that God is no respecter of doctrine. We spend a lot of time formulating principles about how God works in the world and then, just to irritate us, God goes and does something diametrically opposed to what we thought God should have done. This is the way it seems to work with me. So the Church tried teaching me exclusion, but it really never caught on. I never felt quite comfortable with it, even though I would sit in the confirmation classes and Sunday School, and I would learn all of these things about who was in and who was out, but it never quite stuck with me.

Then, in my mid-20s, I had a wonderful experience the psychologist Abraham Maslow calls a "peak experience." This is a transcendent, often ecstatic moment where you feel deeply and joyfully connected to God and to other people. It’s usually accompanied by a mystical insight or revelation; you’re given a glimpse of some great truth. The most famous peak experience in early Quakerism was when George Fox had his vision of a great people to be gathered. Ironically, it happened on a peak, Pendle Hill. "From the top of this hill," he said of his vision, "the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered." He continued, "I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God." That’s the talk of a budding Universalist right there: A great people to be gathered, an infinite ocean of light, infinite love of God. What is that if not the language of a Universalist? Even his deathbed statement reflected the universal scope of Fox’s peak experience. "All is well," he said, "all is well. The seed of God reigns over all and over death itself." What is that if not a Universalist vision of a love that triumphs?

I had my peak experience while seated in, of all places, a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle. Moses had a burning bush; I had a VW. I was 24 years old, had just gotten married, and attended a private college (because you had to do that if you wanted to study theology). My wife and I were broke. We were out of money, and our car didn’t work; it didn’t have a reverse gear, so I always had to park on a hill so it could roll backwards if I had to reverse. The VW was limping along, we had no money to repair it, our rent was due, and Ronald Reagan had just been reelected. The situation was dire. And there I was, sitting in that Volkswagen, that cursed demonic car, utterly discouraged. I was depressed. And suddenly I felt enveloped—that’s the only word for it, enveloped—by an extravagant, reassuring presence and filled with a deep sense of peace and joy.

It was absolutely wonderful; and as that happened to me, I knew immediately that everything would be well, not just for me but for all people. More than that, I felt profoundly loved by this presence, and I knew in that very moment that this love was not confined to me but was extended to every person, to every creature, to all the world. This love was so penetrating and so tangible that I was simultaneously filled with a love for all the world and everyone in it. I felt deeply connected to every person as if I were seeing and relating to them as God saw and related to everyone.

Later, while reflecting on that experience, I came to believe that in that moment I had been permitted to see the world through God’s eyes and to love the world through God’s heart. I don’t say that to boast. I just think that’s the nature of peak experiences—that we get to see the world and understand people as God does.

I’ve had only that one peak experience, but it was enough. It was such a spiritual feast, such a banquet, that to have prayed for another experience like it would have seemed like spiritual gluttony. It was so transformative that afterwards I even stopped telling jokes about Ronald Reagan.

As a result of that experience, of having been given the opportunity to see the world as God did, to sense the love God had for the world, I reasoned that I could no longer subscribe to any theology that was any less inclusive, any less generous, or any less bountiful. So I became a Universalist. I didn’t know what that meant then; I wasn’t ever aware of the word. I only knew that I felt universally connected and universally cherished, and wanted nothing more than to love universally.

One more brief word about peak experiences— they’re important to Quakers. They are the precise reason we Friends believe in ongoing revelation— because early Friends had these transcendent moments and were utterly and thoroughly convinced that they were as authoritative as the Bible itself; that they had come directly from God, and were as authoritative as any book, or any preacher, or any pope.

Right after that I was invited to pastor a Quaker meeting. It was my first Sunday. I show up to meeting, and it comes time to preach. I’ve never preached before, so I thought, "What will I talk about?" I decided to talk about my peak experience, so I spoke about God’s love for all people and God’s commitment to the eternal well-being of all people.

After meeting for worship, the organist, a Southern Baptist—I had seen her head pop up over the top of the organ while I was speaking and I could tell she was alarmed, but I didn’t realize just how alarmed she was—came up to me and asked, "Do you believe in hell?" I remembered my peak experience and I said, "The idea of hell is utterly foreign to me. I just don’t believe it." She was a very nice lady, but she could not transcend her Southern Baptist roots, just as we all have difficulty transcending our roots. That isn’t just a southern Baptist thing, that’s a human thing. So that week she phoned the elders of the meeting to tell them she was leaving if I didn’t start believing in hell.

Since it had taken them six months to find her and only a week to find me, they rightly divined their priorities and urged me to believe in hell. I went to meeting the next week, and they met me there on the front steps and took me down to the basement and said, "Would you agree to believe in hell so we can keep you and keep our organist?" I said, "No. That lacks integrity. I don’t think I should do that." So I declined to believe in hell, and I was fired.

The very next week, I was invited to interview at another fundamentalist Quaker meeting. I really wasn’t eager to become their pastor because they had a reputation of being a rigid, hide-bound meeting, but I said, "Okay I’ll go talk." Part of the process, of course, is that you have to bring a sermon, so I felt led that Sunday to preach about God’s love for homosexuals, figuring I had nothing to lose. So, I get done preaching, meeting concludes, and they go down to the basement to discuss whether or not to hire me. I was not invited to join the conversation, so I sat over a heating duct in the meeting room upstairs and listened to their deliberations. The waters were flowing against me, until an elderly man pointed out that because of my youth and inexperience, they wouldn’t have to pay me much. Well, the Lord spoke, the tide turned, and I was hired. I was at that meeting four years, and by the time I left I believed in hell.

I’ve often wondered why my first congregations resisted Universalism— this idea of universal grace— to the extent they did. Initially, I attributed it to biblical fundamentalism, but I’ve come to believe that it’s a more complex matter than that. It was easy for me to believe in a gracious God because I had had gracious parents. It was easy for me to believe in a generous God because I had always been generously treated. Conversely, I found it difficult to believe in unrelenting evil because the evil I’ve known has been so transitory. I find it difficult to believe in an impatient God who gives up on some people because I have been treated with patience and great forbearance. But the people in my first meetings had not been so blessed. Their daily lives were marked by paucity, not plenty. Many of their family lives were marked by discord and disagreement, not harmony. I was a Universalist, not because I was smarter than they, nor because I was more spiritual than they. I was a Universalist because I had been given a glimpse of God’s love, and because of my fortunate life, I found it easy to believe in a generous and benevolent God. Had my life been filled with brokenness, need, and pain, I would have found the idea of grace unbelievable. If you know anybody who’s a real scoundrel, just begin praying that he or she has a peak experience. It’s about the only thing I’ve noticed that can really dramatically change people. And it needs to happen with a lot of religious people. Religion has not always been a friend to divine benevolence. The great mistake those of us who sit at God’s left hand make is our insistence that all religions have equal value, that one is as good as the other, that it doesn’t matter what we believe. This simply isn’t true. When an entire segment of Christianity is looking forward to a cataclysmic battle in the Middle East that will usher in the second coming of Jesus, actually praying to God for a worldwide battle that will annihilate billions of people so a relative few can be transported to heaven, something is drastically wrong with that.

We see this same twisted logic elsewhere. In almost every religion lurks that segment of people who utterly believe that in order to love God, we must hate others and work for their demise. There is no hope for humanity in that. That is a cracked and barren land, void of life. It seems empirically true that if a religion lasts long enough, it will inevitably produce a number of people who believe God is only for them, and everyone else is expendable.

Now at the risk of simplifying a very complex matter, it seems to me that our world has two options for a viable future. One way we’re going to make it is through a gracious humanism committed to reason, education, justice, and peace. We can leave God out of it. We’ll just commit ourselves to educating one another, to being reasonable, to seeking justice, and to living in peace. But for those of us who value a transcendent dimension of life, there is another option: a spirituality that transcends all religious boundaries. It is clear that as long as there are distinct religions, each one insisting it alone has the truth, or at least a better truth, there will never be peace. There is a self-centeredness to much religion that bleeds over into our culture. We’re seeing that now with the Tea Party movement in our country. All of that great but misguided passion. I don’t like the looks of it, the inference that we have no responsibility for one another, the brushing aside of the social compact, reverting back to the law of the jungle. As Thucydides said, "The strong do as they can, while the weak suffer what they must." I wouldn’t want to live in a world of their creation. We’ve been down that road, and it doesn’t work.

We need another road, a road with which we are all familiar. The Bible tells us about it. It happened on the day of Pentecost. The book of Acts says that the devout people from every nation under heaven were gathered. Now that’s biblical code language for every religion under heaven. They were all gathered in one place, and the separating effects of Babel were still upon them, each one speaking, but no one understanding. What did the Spirit do in that moment? It filled those people to such a degree that whenever anyone spoke, no matter the language, everyone else understood. Everyone else got it. All were amazed and asked, "What does this mean?" We know what it means. It means that we were meant to understand one another. Not just those in our family, in our tribe, in our nation, or in our faith, but everyone. God meant for there to be no barriers to caring for everyone, for us to speak to everyone, for us to listen to everyone, and for us to be with everyone.

Think of that: the first activity of the Spirit in the Church was to make everyone a Universalist.

Of course religion isn’t the only actor in this drama. I was having lunch recently with a philosophy professor who attends our meeting. And he told me about John Rawls, a Harvard philosopher, who wrote about moral and political philosophy. Rawls believed that you could determine the morality or immorality of a given situation by asking yourself when you saw someone in that situation, "Would I want to be born into that?"

So if you were alive in the 1950s you would ask yourself, "Would I want to be born a black person in the United States?" Or if you were alive today and were thinking about the morality of same-gender marriage, you would ask yourself, "Would I want to be born a homosexual in the United States, wanting to marry the person I love? Would I want that?" I have a nephew with Asperger’s syndrome. Though he’s a bright child and a great kid, he has trouble with social discourse. He just can’t look at you. He really struggles. So you might ask yourself, "Would I want to be born with Asperger’s syndrome and try to get an education and earn a living today?" No, I sure wouldn’t. That’s too great a hurdle.

You ask yourself that question, and if you say, our culture is neither kind, nor fair, nor helpful to people in that situation and I would not want to be born into their circumstances, then it is immoral to allow someone to exist in that situation.

I want to tell you a story about a man named Lyman. I used to be his pastor. He was a retired tennis coach and teacher, and he loved young people. He was having a very hard time with retirement because, you know, our society doesn’t always handle retirement well. He was always helping kids and being active, and then he retired and society said, you’re too old; we don’t need you anymore. Isn’t that foolish?

But Lyman was the kind of guy who wouldn’t go down without a fight. So he began volunteering everyday, helping to serve the noon meal at a homeless shelter in the inner city of Indianapolis near our meetinghouse. He had been volunteering there for a couple of weeks when a young guy named Mike staggered in one day for lunch. The other workers at the shelter saw Mike and walked across the room to him and ordered him to leave. They explained that Mike was a drunk, and that they didn’t want him there. Mike showed up almost every day at noon to eat, and every day the other volunteers would boot him out. Lyman just felt increasingly bad about that, and so one day, after they had thrown Mike out, Lyman followed him outside. He noticed that Mike didn’t smell like alcohol, and he didn’t exhibit any of the other signs of alcoholism. Lyman’s stepfather was an alcoholic, so he knew alcoholism when he saw it. But Mike staggered and he fell into things. It didn’t make any sense. He didn’t smell very good, so Lyman took him to his house and let him use their shower. And then he took him to his barber, to get his hair cut. And it turned out that underneath all that hair and all that dirt, Mike was a handsome young man.

Lyman and his wife, Harriet, invited Mike into their home, fed him good meals, let him sleep in a warm bed, and bought him new clothes. They then took Mike to their doctor, who diagnosed him with Huntington’s Disease, an incurable, neurodegenerative genetic disorder that affects muscle coordination and some cognitive functions. People with Huntington’s Disease stagger when they walk, and the disease destroys brain cells, which leads to dementia. So if you didn’t know someone had Huntington’s, you might, at first glance, think he was drunk.

Lyman lined up an apartment for Mike and arranged for a visiting nurse to visit him regularly. He signed Mike up for Social Security and disability assistance, and every day after he worked at the shelter, Lyman would visit Mike, bring him groceries, and help him clean his apartment. And then, to keep Mike active, he would walk with him around the block, the young man leaning into the older man.

Eventually, when the disease got too bad, Lyman arranged for Mike to be moved to a nursing home. When Mike passed away several years later, Lyman was there. We had Mike’s memorial service at our meetinghouse. Mike didn’t have any family, so it was just us Quakers on a Sunday morning at the meetinghouse. And a Friend there stood and thanked Lyman for investing himself so deeply in Mike’s life. There was more silence, and then Lyman said, "Well, if that had been me, I would have wanted somebody to help."

Now Lyman’s not much of a reader. He’s probably never heard of John Rawls. But he does know about loving your neighbor. That’s all Universalism is, when you get right down to it: the infinite extension of loving your neighbor. Christianity has not always taught that well. For too long, religion has kept us apart, has divided our world, not united it. Too often, Christianity has sown war instead of peace, cast darkness instead of light, and taught fear instead of consolation. It is time religion brought us together. Can we live in the power of that Pentecost spirit that empowers us to hear one another, love one another, listen to one another, and accept one another?

I was at home working a couple of weeks ago when the phone rang. It was a man from our meeting named Larry. When I first became his pastor he asked me not to call on him for a public prayer. I said that’s not my custom anyway, I feel it’s invasive; I wouldn’t do it. But I was curious and asked him why he didn’t want to pray in public. He answered, "I have sincere doubts about God and don’t want to be a hypocrite." I said, "I admire your integrity." Gosh, I wish we had a whole meeting full of agnostics, he’s such a great guy.

He told me a story that he had just read. It was about a church that decided someone needed to go preach to the Eskimos, go save them, because they were lost. So they sent a missionary to the Eskimos, and he preached. When the missionary was done preaching, an Eskimo elder said to him, "Before you leave, let me ask you something. If we had never heard of Jesus and sin, would we have gone to Hell when we died?" The missionary replied, "Well no, of course not, not if you hadn’t heard." And the Eskimo said, "Then why did you tell us?"

Now listen, Friends: if all religion can do is tell people how bad they are, the world would be better off without us. But if we can live in the Spirit that enlightens and loves all people, then there is hope for a new humanity. There is hope for what John the prophet, in Revelation, Chapter 21, called the New Jerusalem, where God will dwell with us, and we shall all be God’s people; where God will wipe away every tear, bind every wound, cherish every soul, and empower you and me to do the same.
This article is an edited version of the Elizabeth Watson lecture, sponsored by the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, at the Friends General Conference Gathering held in Bowling Green, Ohio, on July 6, 2010. ©2010 Quaker Universalist Fellowship; reprinted with permission. The full prepared text will be published as a pamphlet by QUF; it, and many other pamphlets, articles, and book reviews on similar topics, are available at To acquire an MP3 or CD of Phil’s talk prepared by FGC, go to

Philip H. Gulley

Phil H. Gulley, pastor of Fairfield Friends Meeting in Camby, Ind., is the author of 17 books, including If Grace Is True, If God Is Love, and If the Church Were Christian.