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.