No Hell, No Way (text & audio)

READING

From “A Treatise on Atonement” by Hosea Ballou

“There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away with sin, but love; and we have reason to be eternally thankful, that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of humankind . . . . O love, thou great physician of souls, what work hast thou undertaken!”

SERMON

My colleague the Rev. Jake Morrill, minister of the UU church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, recalls that the other day he was stopped at a traffic light when he noticed that the car he was facing going the other direction had a front license plate with a cartoon of a Confederate soldier holding a rebel flag.

Beside the cartoon he read the words “Forget Hell!” At that, Jake says, his Universalist heart swelled, and he thought to himself, “That’s right. Even you, Johnny Reb, who fought to sustain the fathomless misery of countless enslaved people, even you see that you can’t escape the all-conquering power of love. Forget hell is right!”

It was then, he says, that he saw the comma. Forget, Hell!

You don’t hear an awful lot about hell these days, but that’s not to say that it’s been forgotten about. Gallup polls show that about three-quarters of Americans believe there is a heaven, and slightly less, about 70%, think there is a hell. What’s interesting, though not especially surprising, is that most people figure that when they die they’re going to the first place, and not the second: 64% feel they’re going to heaven, while ½ of 1% think there’s any chance they’re going to hell.

I must say that it’s an interesting commentary that one is willing to posit ever-lasting torment for some other guy, but, heavens, not for me!

We’ll get back to that, but first I want to tell you a little bit about some folks in North Carolina who sowed the seeds for a Universalist faith that forgot hell and whose lives stitched together a community and even helped make possible an unexpected gift to this congregation.

American Universalism arose in New England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was founded fundamentally on a simple premise: a loving God would not consign those he created to eternal torment. Sure, he may get mad at them now and then, but it would be not through punishment, but through the force of his loving nature that he would draw us back to the good. If God truly is love, they argued, there cannot be any such thing as hell.

In the face of the prevailing faith, a grim Calvinism that preached that each person was born depraved and likely destined for the fires, this Universalism found a ready audience and spread quickly, if haphazardly: Most of the early preachers who set out on the road had little education, but great enthusiasm, and congregations gathered fitfully. By the 1830s enough churches had been formed in North Carolina to start a state convention, and around that time Universalism seems to have moved into these mountains.

It’s hard to be precise about these things because there were strains of Universalist belief among many of the early immigrants who were making their homes here. One especially strong influence was a tradition of German Baptists who had popularly become known as Dunkers.

What we know is that the first Universalist presence in these mountains seems to have begun next door to us in Haywood County, begun by a man by the name of Jonathan Plott. Plott had come here to serve as the first teacher at Bethel Community School. He was of German heritage and may have grown up a Dunker, but he claims to have been converted to Universalism by one of those saddle-bag preachers.

Plott was a community leader of sorts and drew people to him. One of those people was a young man by the name of James Anderson Inman, who at 17 moved in with Plott as a hired man of sorts. While there, Inman met and fell in love with Plott’s adopted daughter, Mary, and the two were married.

James and Mary also were drawn to the Universalism that Plott had adopted. It wasn’t an easy choice in a community where fire-and-brimstone preaching was the norm. For preachers who saw the threat of hell as the only check against sinful living, Universalism was a path to perdition.

There’s a story that Hosea Ballou, who we heard from earlier, was out riding one day with a Baptist preacher, and the two were arguing theology. At one point the Baptist minister said, “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist, and feared not the fires of Hell, I’d hit you over the head and steal your horse and saddle.”

Ballou then looked over at him and replied, “My brother, if you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”

And so Inman believed, too. He was reading deeply in the Bible and found the Universalist message affirmed wherever he looked. The heart of the gospel as far as he was concerned was that love overcomes all. It’s said that the Bible he carried throughout his live opened to one of those passages, these words from Isaiah: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

A group of people in the area began meeting regularly as a kind of Sunday school, and by 1859 they had recognized Inman as a Universalist preacher at the age of 33. The gathering Civil War, though, disrupted all that, and Inman and his four younger brothers enlisted in the Confederate Army.

By what was probably a happy accident, given the terrible carnage of war that killed three of his brothers, Inman was captured and spent most of the final years of the Civil War in an Illinois prison camp.

Now, here’s where the story of this tiny Universalist church in the mountains intersects with our modern day. If you read the book or saw the film “Cold Mountain,” you may recall the figure of Monroe, the father of the female lead character, Ada. The author, Charles Frazier, describes him as preacher who scandalized the mountain folks by preaching that in the end they could forward to being “immersed in an ocean of love,” and who was shunned for his “failure to believe in a God with severe limitations on His patience and mercy.” Frazier has since acknowledged that the figure of Monroe was modeled on James Inman, who was his great-great grandfather.

Shortly after Inman returned from the war, in 1868, the Universalist Church of Haywood County was organized. The church had no home, though. Inman’s services were held in the homes of members, under a hospitable tree, or occasionally public gathering spots, and his wife, Mary, served as midwife and healer. It took another 30 years for its members to raise the funds and find the land for a church, which was completed in 1901. Inman, though, only lived to serve the church for another decade, before he died in 1913.

The church foundered for a while before the Universalist Women’s Missionary Association adopted it as a project. In 1921 they recruited Hannah Powell, the first woman minister most of those people had seen, to serve the church.

Some leaders of the church, not to mention its neighbors, were skeptical of seeing a woman in the pulpit, even though Powell was 55 years old with a divinity degree and had already served several churches in Maine. But she had grown up in a logging family and knew what those communities were like. As it happened, by the time she arrived, many of the loggers in western North Carolina had already cleared the best stands and were moving out, leaving the people behind impoverished. Powell moved quickly to raise funds from the Missionary Society for construction of a home, built in 1924, next door to what was now know as Inman Chapel. Dubbed “Friendly House,” it served as a kind of community center, with day school for kids and night school for adults, health clinic, emergency shelter, and library created by a gift of 1,000 books donated by the city library of Newark, New Jersey.

All this made for a vibrant community, but it couldn’t have survived without Hannah Powell’s fund-raising appeals. When Powell finally retired in 1943, the contributions began to falter, and, though a couple of other preachers were called there, none worked out, and the community dwindled in the 1950s, around the same time this congregation got going.

In 1957, Friendly House was sold and Inman Chapel was closed by the state Universalist convention. The chapel would have been sold too, but for the fact that Inman himself had deeded it to family trustees. Since then, the family has maintained the building, and a few years ago completed a major renovation. The chapel now holds photos and exhibits from its early days. In a couple of weeks, Elly Wells, a UUCA member with family ties to Inman Chapel, and I will lead a tour of the chapel that was offered as an item in our annual auction.

Several years ago, Phyllis Inman Barnett, a great granddaughter of James Inman who moved back to the Pigeon Valley with her husband in retirement, collected much of the history around these early Universalists in a book called “At the Foot of Cold Mountain.” I used it as a source for this sermon, and you can find it in our library.

She reports that while many of James and Mary Inman’s descendents still live in the area near Inman Chapel, interest in Universalism has pretty much died out. It’s also true that in the final years that Inman Chapel was a Universalist meeting house, folks in the larger movement lost interest in it. By 1961, when the Universalist and Unitarian churches joined, there was little interest in tiny, moldering backwoods churches.

So, all these years later it’s worth asking what we today might claim from the story of Inman Chapel. We should begin by acknowledging that culturally and theologically there is a big distance between us. It’s hard for any of us to fathom that early pioneer life, not to speak of the rough times of the lumber camps. And, though the faith of the Inmans differed radically from that of their neighbors, they all agreed on one central point: religion was strictly centered on the Bible.

We Unitarian Universalists today honor the Bible as one source of religious wisdom among many, but not the one and only guide to a religious life, nor is the notion of a personal God necessarily a part of our own sense of faith. Still, it seems to me that at the heart of that old Universalist faith is the possibility of common ground and perhaps a source of inspiration for us.

And that carries us back to Jake’s license plate. What does it mean to “forget hell”? Well, I think it suggests more than just that we disagree with the proposition that there exists some place of eternal fire that awaits all who commit unredeemed evil. I think it implies a stance that says “forget heaven,” too.

Forget this image of the cosmic court that weighs us one way or the other and the bifurcated path to judgment that it offers up to us, that we ourselves slip into so easily and that makes us such high and mighty judges on behalf of some vision of the Good.

Here, I know, I’m crossing a boundary that I expect our forebears at Inman Chapel could not abide, but it seems to me unavoidable. Hell is merely the fury of our unrequited fear and shame given form, and heaven but the vision of our yearning aspirations.

We are, all of us, lacking any definitive knowledge of what follows our deaths, but those ancient tropes, in truth, do us no good. Trusting in the great by and by or depending on the devil to do our dirty work merely keeps us from the work of living fully while we can.

And this applies to any of us however we may understand our ends when we self-righteously presume to impose judgment, when we dismiss the humanity of another, or demand another’s suffering as recompense for our pain.

Hosea Ballou was right when he said that the greatest hell that any of us need fear is that of our own making, the torment we create by our heedless actions. And the path to redemption, whatever our offense, is always the same. It is centered in love: love that, in Ballou’s quote from the Song of Solomon, will not be quenched, will not be drowned, that has the power to remove the moral maladies of humankind: Love that is stronger than death.

Yes, death stills our beating hearts, but it will not stop what love has started, what love ignites, what love gives energy to. It is the story of life and of all that is good in our lives, the source of hope for each of us: that our lives will not have been in vain because of what we gave out of love.

This is what I take from our Universalist forebears in Haywood County, people who, in Charles Frazier’s words, imagined their hopeful end as being “immersed in an ocean of love.” What we know about our forebears at Inman Chapel settled at the foot of Cold Mountain is that they did their best to help make that happen, as loving, faithful people who served their community and each other.

And here’s how this story touches us. You’ll recall what I said about Hannah Powell, that she was a dynamo who developed strong connections across the community. Apparently, among her acquaintances was Reuben Robertson, owner of Champion Paper and Fibre Co., a major land-owner in the area.

I’m not clear on exactly how it happened – though I can’t help believe that the memory of Hannah’s good works played a role – but in the late 1960s when this congregation was looking for a location after it had outgrown its home in a large West Asheville home, it was Reuben’s son, Logan Robertson, and his wife – who were members of the congregation – who showed the way by offering to give the congregation this property where we are now located.

At the time it consisted of a vacant lot, on the corner, and three homes. Architect Bill Moore, who is still a member of this congregation, designed the building where we sit, and in 1974 it was dedicated. It had been nearly 20 years since Inman Chapel had closed as a Universalist meeting house, but it’s hard not to believe that in some way the good will that those people worked helped make possible our own rebirth.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s true, as the Sufi story I mentioned a couple of weeks ago says, that what water is to fish, love is to humans – that by which we live and breathe. So then, ought we not to give our time, our energy to finding ways to bring it to our awareness and into our actions, that we might find wholeness and peace?

In that case, forget about giving any energy to that terrible gyre of fear, shame and doubt that arises at times in our fragile, fallible selves; forget about the tantalizing tug of prejudice and easy judgment; the tooth-grinding demand for vengeance.

No hell! No way! Let love have its way!

Photo credit: http://news.ncdcr.gov/