The Origin of the CUA

Reflections on the 15th Anniversary of Its Founding

By Eric Stetson

The Christian Universalist Association is the largest ecumenical organization of Christians today who believe in universal salvation. The story of its founding 15 years ago may be more complex and interesting than most of its members know. As the person who began the process of organizing the CUA and served as its first executive director, I would like to share the background of how it happened and the significance of its history from my perspective.

In 1998, when I was exploring different religions in college, I decided to join the Baha’i Faith. Baha’i is a universalist offshoot of Islam that teaches that many paths lead to the same God. Baha’is believe in a temporary hell for the wicked, but that everyone will eventually be saved – an idea that made a lot of sense to me.

In 2002, I left the Baha’i Faith and became a Christian. I began attending the Assemblies of God, a Charismatic Evangelical denomination. I had come to believe in Jesus Christ as the uniquely perfect manifestation of God in human form, and therefore the savior of the world, in a way that no other prophet or religious figure could legitimately claim to be. However, I was bothered by the Christian teaching that some people would be condemned to an eternal hell if they sinned too much or had the wrong religious beliefs. This seemed terribly unjust and incompatible with a God of love and grace. I wanted to take my Christian faith seriously, but the issue of hell increasingly prevented me from feeling peace and confidence in the “good news.”

In 2003, I had a powerful dream which inspired me to look deeper into the issue. For the next two years, I studied the question of salvation and divine judgment. Through intensive Bible study and numerous articles and books I read online, I became convinced that hell is not eternal, and that in the end, all souls will be saved. Some of the most important resources that aided me in my search for truth were Tentmaker Ministries, founded by Gary Amirault; The Savior of the World by J. Preston Eby; The Restitution of All Things by George R. Hawtin; and Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years by J. W. Hanson.

Many of the Christian Universalists whose writings I discovered were also teaching an idea called “sonship,” that we are all the spiritual children of God, destined to grow into maturity in the image of God’s firstborn Son, Jesus Christ. They interpreted “hell” as a process of reformative discipline by God, our Father, to perfect the character of His sons (and daughters) and prepare us to inherit the Kingdom. I learned that these ideas, which were prevalent in the early church, had reemerged in a movement in Pentecostalism in the mid 1900s called the Latter Rain. Some evangelists who came out of that movement taught both universal reconciliation and sonship – George Hawtin, for example, wrote a series of articles on God’s Great Family of Sons. In fact, I found a whole network of online ministries that seemingly had been inspired by the Latter Rain and promoted these ideas. Two ministers in particular from this tradition who had a significant influence on my thinking were Charles Slagle and John Gavazzoni.

In 2005, armed with this renewed understanding of the gospel, I started my own ministry called Hope Through Christ, at Christian-Universalism.com. I began writing and publishing articles online and compiling a directory of the best resources from various other ministries and websites. I also began a project to find all Christian churches and meeting groups in the United States and around the world that teach universal salvation, and to list them on my website.

By the spring of 2006, I had succeeded in locating more than 75 congregations – many of them house churches, but also some larger groups – that were willing to be listed in my churches directory. The vast majority of these congregations were from independent Evangelical and Pentecostal/Charismatic flavors of Christianity, and a smaller number were from liberal Protestant traditions or Unitarian Universalism. I made significant efforts to reach out to liberal Christian ministers across America, but to my surprise, I discovered that progressive denominational churches seemed the least interested to be publicly identified as espousing a Christian belief in universal salvation. A few of them, however, were very interested, such as the Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C.

I launched a bimonthly printed newsletter called the Christian Universalist Connection and began sending it to several hundred congregations, ministers, and others who had expressed interest. In the first issue, I profiled Rev. Kalen Fristad, a Methodist minister, author, and traveling evangelist who was one of the most noteworthy voices promoting Christian Universalism.

Another minister I connected with through my newsletter was Rick Spencer, a former Baptist pastor from Texas who had begun organizing annual “Conferences on Inclusion,” bringing together mostly Evangelical and Charismatic Christians who were leaving behind the doctrine of eternal hell and embracing an inclusive, universalist view of salvation. In 2006, Rick invited me to speak at his event where hundreds of people gathered at a mountain retreat center in Leslie, Arkansas. This conference, as well as a follow-up event in Kansas City in 2007, brought together many of the most prominent ministers and evangelists in the emerging Christian Universalist movement at the time – including six of the thirteen people who would serve on the founding board of directors of the CUA.

In 2006, I had begun talking with Kalen Fristad about forming an ecumenical association of churches, ministries, and individuals who believe in Christian Universalism. It would be a more formal outgrowth of the directory I had begun creating on my ministry website, under the leadership of a diverse group of ministers instead of just one person. Kalen supported the idea, and I asked him to help me as co-founder. He agreed to serve as chairman of the board, and I would serve as executive director. The organization was officially founded in May 2007 at a meeting at Universalist National Memorial Church. Rev. Lillie Henley, the pastor of UNMC, hosted the meeting and was a founding board member, along with the aforementioned Rick Spencer and Charles Slagle. The thirteen board members also included members of other denominational traditions such as Quaker and Eastern Orthodox.

As the CUA has grown during the past 15 years, it has increasingly attracted open-minded members of mainline Protestant denominations. For example, when I stepped down from the position of executive director at the end of 2010, Rev. Rich Koster, a Presbyterian, replaced me in that role. The current board of directors includes several liberal Protestant ministers, such as from the United Church of Christ and the Lutheran tradition.

My own religious views were significantly influenced by the Latter-Rain Pentecostal movement and Unitarian Universalism – and perhaps surprisingly to some CUA members today, both of those very different and unusual streams of thought had the most influence on the formation of the CUA and its early teachings and outreach. The founding board included four UUs and four Pentecostal or Charismatic Evangelical Christians. Most people at the time who were actively interested in Christian Universalism did not fit into any “mainstream” type of church, and some didn’t approve of the modern institutional church at all. It was an interesting mix of ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative ideas.

Today, the CUA may be somewhat more mainstream in its theology and vision for the future of Christianity than it was at the time of its founding. By reaching into the mainstream, it is helping Christian Universalism gain a more widespread intellectual foothold among average Christians, which is a good thing.

Having said that, I hope that the CUA will never forget its roots among radically unconventional Christians whose mystical or pluralistic beliefs were on the fringes of organized Christianity. As I have always taught, Christian Universalism is more than just the rejection of eternal hell; it is a rich tradition that can be envisioned as a thorough reinterpretation of the gospel and of God’s plan for human beings. By understanding its history, the Christian Universalist Association can more fully appreciate the value of this vision and its implications. I am proud of my work in founding the CUA, and I look forward to seeing it continue to grow and gain influence in the future.

12 Comments

  1. Naturally we are Sons of God. It is there in John chapter 1, it is implicit in Jesus’ “Our Father” and it is also philosophically necessary, for there is ultimately only God, so That is Who we are.

  2. Eric, I love the history lesson of the CUA. We all come from different streams but believe in the restoration of all things. Even popular preachers like Brian Zahnd and author (Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, MO) are embracing the apokatastasis (restoration of all things).

    I believe in the next reformation many Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, Charismatic, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox will embrace Universal Salvation as part of their teachings in eschatology.

  3. Rev Jimbeau Walsh

    I am surprised that you have not quoted from any of the writings of RJ Lee’s or Reverend George Vale Owen or James Padgett or even Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson because all of their writings contain received messages from spirit that say there is no eternal damnation and everyone can be transformed in the love of God. Jesus writing through James Padgett specifically describes the path of divine love that he says was his true gospel and it is very much in line with the original Unitarian church beliefs. He also tells Paget that there is no Trinity and that he is not God nor is he to be worshiped as God but a true son of the father and the messiah. His description of the Holy Spirit is perhaps the best I’ve ever come across. He says the Holy Spirit is the active energy of God‘s soul just as your spirit is the active energy of your soul. The difference being that God’s great soul is holy and when we go to God in prayer to receive His love His Holy Spirit brings that love into our souls not as a part of some triune God head but rather as a manifestation of His great soul.

    • Denise Isaac

      Hello! I just wanted to make a quick comment that I stumbled across the Padgett messages (and other suggested messages in relation to the path of divine love) about a year ago now. I have never really been religious but always turned to God in my worst moments. After discovering these writings and testing out suggestions on how to pray for God’s love, I am now starting to understand what’s being called “The peace that knows no understanding”. This is truly amazing to me!!

      This message is actually the first thing I’ve done in regards to reaching out to likeminded people. After I saw Reverend Jimbeau’s comment, I felt I had to say something as when I was reading about the history of this church I thought, “I wonder if Eric has heard about the Padgett messages?” And then I saw this message 🙂

      I wish much love and peace to all who are searching xx

      – Denise 🙂

  4. Martin Carlson

    “Just happened” to coincide. Received this mailing on the same day I received an answer back from you (through Lance) about citing your material. Love your story. Glad that you found the True and Unique Savior AND that your heartfelt instincts about right vs wrong are entirely compatible with accurate Scripture reading! An encouraging read; thanks for sharing!

  5. John

    I have held these views for about 30 years but still attend a church like most that do not…. So I keep my views mainly to myself …. Having said that we live in Torrevieja in Southern Spain and would love to connect up with any like-minded people in this area …. – John

  6. Thanks for sharing the your story and story behind the CUA. It is always interesting to see how many different paths we followed to arrive at Christian Universalism. Mine is through Evangelical Mainline Presbyterianism, Process Theology and Celtic Christianity (and in particular the Celtic Latins)..Until the CUA came along I most often identified as a Celtic Christian. With Celtic Christianity being Universalist in belief that seemed sufficient. Now I might add “And Christian Universalist.”

    The CUA has opened my eyes other versions of the same belief, challenging my own version. That’s a good thing. The CUA has oddly, in a strange sort of way, also contributed to my becoming much more liberal and more connective to the Christian Universalists within the UUA. At heart though, I remain a practitioner of Celtic Christianity.

    A long way of saying thanks to all involved in the founding of the CUA.

  7. Margaret

    Wow, Celtic Christians, i will look into that! after recently coming to Christ/baptized in the Pentecostal church i learned about George MacDonald. I live near Seattle. I would love to hear any comments about that author and any in-person CUU services here. Love to all

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