“All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 6: James Relly

jamesrellyLast time, we talked about how universalism and Calvinism, seemingly opposites in their views of God, judgment and salvation, are actually two sides of the same coin, each believing in the sovereignty of a God saving whom he wants. Although Peter Sterry and Jeremiah White postulated their universalism in opposition to Calvinism, we now turn to James Relly, one of the most influential universalists ever to live, primarily because he converted John Murray, who is sometimes called the Father of Universalism. I guess that makes Relly the Grandfather of Universalism? Regardless, Relly came to universalism through Calvinism.

In his essay “Union with Christ: The Calvinist Universalism of James Relly (1722-1778),” Wayne K. Clymer says Relly’s “bizarre theology represents one of the most extreme modifications of Calvinism in either the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.”

Relly was a disciple of the famed British evangelist George Whitefield, and began working with him about 1741 in Wales as a preacher doing missionary work there. As a good Calvinist, Relly believed fully in the “inherent and ineradicable sinfulness of man.” In a particularly telling passage, Clymer describes what modifying Calvinism to become a universalist must have cost Relly:

His debt to Whitefield is great. To make the break must have caused him much concern, for universalism was a common foe of both the Calvinists and the Arminians – and religious hatred knows no mercy. That he took the step reveals his honesty and conviction. (121)

How much did people hate universalists in the 18th century? Murray, who was of course a friend and follower of Relly, recalled later in his life the first time he heard one of Relly’s preachers. Referring to Relly himself, he would have been “highly favored to have been an instrument of the hand of God, for the taking the life of a man whom I had never seen; and in destroying him I should have nothing doubted, that I had rendered an essential service both to the Creator and the created” (122). Yikes!

Murray eventually converted in part because of a highly entertaining effort to convert a young woman, one of Relly’s disciples. The woman responded to his entreaties to believe on Jesus and so avoid damnation by asking (in Murray’s words): “What is the unbeliever damned for not believing?” After which followed an incredible conversation in which the woman asked whether Jesus was the savior of unbelievers. When he replied no, the woman trapped him: How could an unbeliever believe Jesus was her savior when he does not save unbelievers?

If Jesus be not the Savior of the unbeliever, until he believes, the unbeliever is called upon to believe a lie. It appears to me, sir, that Jesus is the complete Savior of unbelievers; and the unbelievers are called upon to believe the truth; and that by believing they are saved, in their own apprehension, [are] saved from all those dreadful fears, which are consequent upon a state of conscious damnation. (124)

When Murray objected that Jesus has never been – nor ever will be – the savior of an unbeliever, the woman asked whether Murray had ever been an unbeliever. Of course he had. Then Jesus was not your savior, she replied, and since he never will be the savior of an unbeliever, Jesus cannot have been Murray’s savior either! Murray quickly found an excuse to leave the house.

In contrast to Sterry and White – who objected to Calvinism’s focus on God’s justice and instead argued for the primacy of love – Relly had no problem with a preeminent focus on justice; the problem became that eternal conscious torment in hell was not justice. His “conversion” to universalism came when he encountered a universalist who put the notion of justice in proper perspective:

I appealed to the Sovereignty of God, it was granted that God was Sovereign, and that from his Sovereign pleasure he created us, redeemed us, &c. having nothing to move him to do it but his own will: yet he wills nothing but that what is just and equitable, because he is just when he judgeth, and justifieth. I would then have argued, that as God is infinitely above us; his tho’ts and ways  above ours, we are not to conceive of him, his Justice and Equity, according to our low and scanty notions thereof. It was answered, if I granted that mankind has any true notion of Justice and Equity, though but in the smallest degree, then what is contrary to this must be much more to God, whose Justice and Truth is infinite, pure and eternal. (128)

As I have argued elsewhere on the blog, if our notions of justice are to have any meaning, we cannot simply ascribe plainly unjust actions to God on the basis of his sovereignty. Ultimately, Relly came to the same conclusion. According to him, when sovereignty excludes justice, “the consequences attending are dangerous” (130).

But such a focus on God’s justice led to problems. To him, justice required that humanity be punished for its sins. Christ’s atoning death simply didn’t fit the bill: He cannot suffer unjustly, not can humans escape their due punishment. Such a result simply isn’t just. So Relly found his answer in Colossians’ discussion of Christ as the head of the body, the church. “If in some way we are members of Christ’s body, our sin would fal upon him, and if he should be punished, we too should be punished,” Clymer summarizes (131). As Relly wrote:

Why may not our salvation in Christ, from union with him in his obedience and death, be judged as reasonable as our condemnation in Adam, from union with him in his sin and misery? (132)

Thus Relly’s universalism fit comfortably with his Calvinism: Yes, humans were predestined. No, they had no say in whether God elected them for salvation. The only difference was that instead of some humans being elected, all of them were based on their union with Christ on the cross. And if our sins were punished on the cross, refusing to believe this fact did not make it less true.

Once Christ had died, salvation was complete – “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” If Christ died for our sins, the matter is ended, and there is nothing that humans can do about it. “If my sins are not forgiven now, upon what condition will they be forgiven in the future, if at all? Must Jesus die again?” (133)

Relly really chafed against the idea of “believing in” salvation in order for it to take place. “Because it is a truth, it is therefore to be believed, and as it is not made a truth by believing, but is in itself a truth, a perfect and permanent [truth], whether believed or not.” (133-34)

In the end, for Relly, belief did result in salvation – but not salvation from eternal punishment, which was assured by Christ’s death, whether we believe it or not. Relly argued belief in Christ’s atoning work saves us from the fear of judgment and punishment that we otherwise would experience after death while we waited for the final judgment. We see here a step away from the full-on flaming purgatory of Origen, Gregory, Sterry and White. Relly described it as “a state of suspense, oppressed with guilt and fear.” Punishment for sins already having occurred on the cross, even purgatory was unnecessary, according to Relly.

Relly’s beliefs upheld some of Calvinism’s most disturbing tenets – and certainly would raise objections for those who believe traditional interpretations of atonement have led to violence and oppression against women and minorities. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to see that even looking through the lenses of God’s sovereignty and justice, one can see the possibility of universal salvation.


3 thoughts on ““All Shall Be Well,” Chapter 6: James Relly”

  1. I want to research these people you speak of. I think the most influential person for me was George Macdonald. It’s funny. I had a thought similar to the woman who argued with Relly that how can we say that “Jesus is your savior” to a person and not already believe his is their savior?

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