The Universalists: radical sectarianism (1760-1850)

Christodoulou, Joan Patricia (1988). The Universalists: radical sectarianism (1760-1850). MPhil thesis The Open University.



This thesis is a study of the Universalist sects that developed in Britain after 1760. Societies were established in the city of London and Edinburgh in the 1760s and 1770s; in Glasgow, Liverpool, Coleraine, Kent and Sussex, Dorset, Wiltshire and East Anglia in the early decades of the nineteenth century. All took as their central tenet the certainty of salvation for all men: all looked to human emancipation here on earth, and progress based on reason. Theirs was a creed that inevitably inclined believers to take the action necessary to bring society into conformity with their rational egalitarian principles. Most of these Universalists were remarkable for their high level of radical political commitment. Several became leaders of the labour movement, and their millenarian vision of a just and equal society formed the basis of moral-force Chartism.

The thesis seeks to discover the theological and intellectual origins of the Universalist faith, in the Methodist revival, pietism, the millenarian tradition and Enlightenment rationality. The founding of the sects is related to the social, political and economic context, and to the aspirations of the tradesmen who formed the main part of Universalist congregations. Each society's composition, organisation and stated goals are analysed against its role in society, and the impact of contemporary ideas and events. Particular attention is given to the relationship between Universalist theology and radical politics.

The central theme of the thesis is to assess to what extent Universalists were inspired to political activity by their religious faith. Did they simply translate secular socialism into the familiar Biblical terminology, as has been argued. Or was their whole ordering of experience shaped by a conviction that they were the instruments of God's purpose to realise his kingdom here on earth.

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