Universalism Today: Reflections of a Traveling Universalist

Rev. Kalen FristadBy Rev. Kalen Fristad

I believe that the message of salvation for everyone doesn’t get as much attention in the Church as it should. I believe it is a message that needs to be proclaimed, not only to the Church but to the world.

To that end, I wrote a book entitled, Destined For Salvation: God’s Promise to Save Everyone and a Study Book with the same title. Then after 27 years of serving United Methodist Churches in Iowa, in July 2003 I embarked upon what I call Destined for Salvation Ministries. In that ministry, I traveled the country full-time for three years with my wife, Darlene, living in our travel trailer. I accepted invitations to speak to churches and other groups, countering the teaching that God sends many people to hell forever and instead, proclaimed the liberating message of universalism.

During those three years, I spoke to about 12,500 people at worship services in 117 churches in 20 states and the District of Columbia. In addition to that, I spoke to 86 other groups, attended by about 2,450 people. That’s a total of about 15,000 people!! Also, we distributed nearly 1,950 copies of my main book and over 700 Study Books.

As of July, I began serving churches in Dows and Alexander, Iowa, where I openly preach and teach universal salvation. Except for a couple of people, the church members have responded very favorably. That’s consistent with the response I have received from other United Methodists in Iowa on the District and Conference level. So I no longer do this ministry full-time, but I am available to speak on occasion. I hope to resume my independent ministry full-time again some day.

I want to report from my three years of experience with this ministry that exciting things are happening today regarding universalism. In fact, I think it’s perhaps the greatest time ever when it comes to the teaching of universalism.

There have been many changes in our country regarding the issue of universal salvation during the last three years. Before I began this ministry, I was aware of only one book that had been written on the subject in recent years. It was the book entitled, God Does Not Foreclose by David Lowes Watson. Since then, including my book, there have been at least a dozen books written that promote the teaching that God will eventually save everyone. I’m also aware of others that are being written. In addition to that, hundreds of web sites that promote universalism have been developed during the same time. What a change that has been in only three years.

Another major change that I’ve witnessed is that countless Christians, along with people of other faiths, from conservatives to liberals, have been coming to embrace the teaching of universal salvation. After just a few months into our three year ministry, Darlene and I met with Rev. Carlton Pearson in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He said he believed that within seven years from that time the teaching of salvation for all would be the predominant belief among Christians. I thought at the time that he was being unrealistically optimistic. However, after witnessing the growing number of people who enthusiastically embrace universalism, I’m beginning to think that perhaps he was right on target with that bold prediction.

The most conservative Christians in our country usually get a lot of attention these days, but you rarely hear about the fact that a growing number of them are joining others across the theological spectrum in embracing universalism. It is a powerful spiritual movement based on the teaching that God is unconditionally loving, all powerful and all wise. That teaching is much more appealing, and more biblical, than the belief that God sends many people to hell forever to punish them because they were naughty (something that no loving parent would do).

As Darlene and I have traveled around the country, I’ve gotten a great variety of responses from pastors and churches. I have found that Unitarian Universalist churches are the most free about inviting me to speak. In contacting pastors of other denominations, I encounter people across the theological spectrum. I have found that they can be a great asset, but they can also be a substantial obstacle to the spread of universalism.

I have found many pastors who are closet universalists. When I talk with them privately, they readily admit that they agree with me. But they don’t yet have enough courage to preach it.

I have found many pastors who are closet universalists. When I talk with them privately, they readily admit that they agree with me. But they don’t yet have enough courage to preach it. And they don’t want to invite me to preach it because their church members might ask them what they think about universalism. Then they would be caught in a dilemma. If they were truthful, they would have to admit they are universalists and that could very well alienate some of their members. The other option would be to lie about it and deny they believe in universal salvation. Many closet universalists don’t want to be put into a position where they would have to either admit they are universalists or lie to their congregations, so they don’t invite me to speak. But the good news is that even though the closet universalists don’t have the courage to speak of it, they are universalists. That effects how they preach and teach otherwise. Also, some of them will surely eventually gain the courage to openly proclaim universalism as well.

A common malady that I have found among pastors is what I call “Cushy church syndrome”. They are often among the closet universalists. They are the ones with the most to lose if their church members become unhappy with them. They are usually senior pastors of large churches. Their salary is usually at least $60,000 per year. They are often within a few years of retirement. Pastors in that situation who have contracted “cushy church syndrome” want above all to avoid controversy. They tell the church members only what they want to hear, what will make them feel good and make them happy. Then the members will continue to be happily involved in the church and give large amounts of money to the church, which will result in the pastor receiving a nice raise each year. Of course, it is the desire of the pastor to continue with that wonderful situation until retirement. Then he or she can retire with not only a very good pension but with the prestige of having successfully served a large church for many years.

Not surprisingly, the pastor with “cushy church syndrome”, who secretly believes in universalism but wants to avoid all controversy, chooses to not invite me to preach or teach.

But there are many ministers, from fairly conservative to quite liberal, who do choose to invite me. I’ve spoken at United Methodist, Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, American Baptist, Lutheran and a couple of independent churches. In every congregation, I have found people who already believed in universalism. But there are others for whom it has been a new idea. They often respond by saying something like, “I had never thought of it that way before, but I like it”.

I spoke at a church in Duarte, California where the pastor was quite conservative, even bordering on being a fundamentalist in some ways. I was actually a little surprised that he had invited me to speak. But I was confident I had made it clear what I believed and I figured he apparently was sympathetic with the teaching of universalism or he wouldn’t have invited me.

So there I was, first of all, leading an adult Sunday School class. Before we got very far through the hour, it became very clear that the pastor and his wife and a very outspoken man in the class very strongly disagreed with me. Well, we made it through the class all right. But I was quite concerned that I was then scheduled to preach at the upcoming worship service. I wondered what kind of reception I might get there, considering the pastor’s views.

I was pleased that the pastor was very gracious in introducing me before my sermon, saying something like, “Pastor Fristad will be presenting some views that could be different from what you have heard before, but I encourage you to listen respectfully.” So I preached my sermon and was very happy that at the end of my sermon, a resounding “Amen!” came from somewhere in the sanctuary and the congregation broke into applause. Now that’s receptivity! And in a quite conservative congregation with a very conservative pastor.

I preached at a liberal church in Riverside, California. The pastor is one who tends to believe everyone in her congregation believes in universalism, though she never talks about it. She expressed doubt that my ministry would be of much interest to her congregation but, surprisingly, she did invite me to preach anyway.

After my sermon, I sat down beside her and was shocked that she immediately began to criticize me. I had said that I believed God would eventually rescue everybody from the experience of hell, whether in this life or beyond. She made it very clear that they didn’t talk about hell in that church and that she was sure that the people had not liked my sermon.

I walked with her to the back of the church, to greet the people as they left the sanctuary. I was quite uneasy, wondering what they would say about my sermon. I’m happy to report that, in direct contrast to the pastor’s assessment, the people were just gushing with enthusiasm and appreciation over my sermon. I wondered what the pastor thought as the church members enthusiastically expressed how meaningful my sermon was for them.

People are amazingly receptive to the teaching of universalism today. … I find that church members of mainline denominations are often ahead of their pastor on this issue.

So people are amazingly receptive to the teaching of universalism today. Sadly, pastors often don’t understand that and, as a result, are sometimes the biggest obstacle to the spread of universalism.

I find that church members of mainline denominations are often ahead of their pastor on this issue. The members commonly speak freely about universalism while pastors may be hesitant to even bring up the subject. That’s because they are afraid it could generate controversy. They are fearful that people won’t like them, that they could get fired as pastor, or at least not get a raise the next year.

But there are quite a good number of pastors who have the courage to invite me to speak, even when they know they might experience resistance in their congregations. In all these cases, many people have responded with great enthusiasm.

After preaching at a Presbyterian Church in New Jersey, I got a call from a man who said a friend of his told him he had heard me preach on universalism. He said he wanted to get together with me to talk about what I had said. As we talked longer, it became evident to me that he was pretty much a fundamentalist.

I became suspicious. I thought, “Is this a trap? Does he want to get together with me in order to attack me, to try to straighten me out, to tell me how wrong he thinks I am to believe in universalism?” “He wouldn’t do that!” I thought… “Or would he?” I was glad to find out that he agreed with me. He invited me to meet with some of his friends, who are also fundamentalists. So I did, and I discovered that some of them already strongly believed in universal salvation. Others had some questions and doubts, but were respectful and at least somewhat receptive to the belief. I thought, “Halleluiah! Even a few fundamentalists are beginning to believe in universalism. That’s wonderful!”

So, after three years of traveling the country, I’m happy to report to you that things are alive and well and growing regarding the teaching of universalism. It is truly an exciting time!

This article appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of The Universalist Herald.  The Rev. Kalen Fristad has been a United Methodist minister in Iowa for over 40 years.  He is the author of the 2003 book, Destined For Salvation: God’s Promise to Save Everyone.  Rev. Fristad traveled the country full time with his wife, Darlene, from 2003 to 2006, speaking at churches and other groups, proclaiming the hopeful message of salvation for all people.  Following then, he served churches half time, while spending half time speaking on the road.  He retired from the parish ministry in 2013, but continues to travel the country speaking on universalism.  Over the years he has spoken at more than 300 churches of various denominations across our country, as well as Canada and England.