I recently published an article in the journal Baptist History and Heritage titled “The Making of a Baptist Universalist: The Curious Case of Elhanan Winchester.” Winchester (1751–1797) was a rising star among the eighteenth-century Regular Baptists on the Eastern Seaboard. He was a noteworthy revival preacher and successful pastor in South Carolina before becoming pastor of the influential First Baptist Church of Philadelphia in 1780. Though Winchester was not yet thirty years old, the church wooed him for a couple of years before persuading the young preacher to accept a pastoral call to Philadelphia.
Winchester’s honeymoon in Philadelphia was short-lived. By spring of 1781, Winchester had been ousted as the church’s pastor on account of his belief in universal restoration. He had been wrestling with these views for several years, though he only began speaking about his beliefs in late 1780. After provoking a nasty split in FBC Philadelphia, Winchester founded a Society of Universalist Baptists in Philadelphia. He became close friends with Benjamin Rush, the famous physician and American founding father. Winchester later migrated to England, where he convinced William Vidler and Joseph Priestly to embrace universal restoration. They in turn emerged as the key Universalists and Unitarians in that country. Winchester later returned to America to help found the American Universalist movement before his death in 1797.
Unlike the more rationalistic Universalists of the following century, Winchester was what I call a “revivalistic Universalist.” He was convinced that hell was real, albeit temporary. But even a temporary hell was a terrible reality. Winchester urged all people to turn from their sins and trust Jesus Christ as their Lord. Better to be reconciled with God in this life and enter immediately into heaven in the next life than be converted at some point postmortem after centuries of suffering in hell. In every other aspect of his theology, Winchester was by all accounts a mainstream evangelical. He preached as hot a gospel as George Whitefield, even if hell had an expiration date in Winchester’s theology.
For Winchester, hell functioned much like purgatory–it is a place where unforgiven sins are burned away. The key difference lies with the status of the one who is suffering. For Roman Catholics, those in purgatory are believers who are being fitted for heaven. For Winchester, those in hell are unbelievers, though eventually all of them will see the beauty of Christ, turn from their sins, and be saved. Love wins.
Winchester argued for Universalism from his view of the atonement. A former ardent admirer of the High Calvinist John Gill, Winchester took the doctrine of penal substitution very seriously. But as he continued to see large numbers of people converted under his ministry, Winchester grew increasingly uncomfortable with a limited or particular atonement. Eventually, he gravitated toward an unlimited or general atonement. But he did not stop there. Winchester became convinced that Christ’s dying for all people meant that all people must be saved. His peculiar understanding of general atonement was criticized by Calvinists, for obvious reasons, but it was also rejected by Arminians such as John Wesley, who believed Winchester’s atonement theology was more logical than it was biblical.
Unfortunately, other Universalists moved further from their evangelical roots than Winchester. Affected more by the Enlightenment than biblical exegesis, Universalists in both North America and England increasingly rejected original sin, the blood atonement, and the necessity of conversion. Most also became Unitarians, rejecting the full deity of Jesus Christ. Far from being revivalistic, most Universalists were critical of any view of Christianity that emphasized conversion, preferring to see Christianity more as an ethical movement. Though often cited as one of the key founders of modern Universalism, Winchester was an anomaly because of his more-or-less evangelical, pro-revival outlook.
If you want to read more about Winchester’s theological pilgrimage and the story of his controversy with the Baptists in Philadelphia, see “The Making of a Baptist Universalist: The Curious Case of Elhanan Winchester,” which is found on pages 6–18 in the fall 2012 edition of Baptist History and Heritage.