Adin Ballou: Unitarian Utopian Socialist

There’s an old left-wing quip that runs “if you aren’t an anarchist in your twenties, you have no heart, and if you aren’t a socialist in your thirties you have no brain.” A more well-known variant puts the terms “liberal” and conservative” in the opposed positions corresponding to immaturity and maturity. Unitarian minister and social reformer Adin Ballou (1803-1890) gives the lie to this jibe in that he remained essentially an anarchist and socialist for his entire adult life and seems to have retained both his zeal and critical intelligence, though his interest in spiritualism may give cause to some to question his intelligence. Nevertheless, the theology and social vision of Adin Ballou offers an historical example with genuine relevance to today’s political and religious scene. His robust inclusive evangelicalism, visionary socialist principles, and dedication to social reforms point to an alternative possibility within US society beyond our current impasse between the Religious Right and the Secular Left.

In the U.S. left, anarchists are often divided from socialists over the matter of the State. In the aftermath of the 20th century with its defining conflict between “Communism” and “Western (Capitalist) Democracy,” the idea of socialism became bound up with a centrally-planned State-run economy. Yet, in the 19th century, the anarchist and socialist divide was actually quite porous. Most socialists and anarchists of that era agreed on a basic opposition to capitalism (or at least vast wealth inequalities) and the need to remove the state which supported such economic conditions. Socialists who took a Marxist or Social Democratic stance would argue that the State in some form would still need to exist in the initial stage of creating a socialist economy in order to prevent the capitalist class from reasserting their economic power. Anarchists argued that overturning the state would end the need for centralized political power.

Adin Ballou’s socialism fits most comfortably in the anarchist camp, though he never really called for the revolutionary overthrow of either capitalism or the state. Ballou’s vision follows an older pattern of religious socialist thought focused on the formation of alternative societies that would enact directly a socialist economy on a sub-local scale, with a prospective view that a trans-local confederation of these communities could be formed and in time expand the practice of socialism around the world. The later debates between anarchists, Marxists, and social democrats served to consign the efforts of Ballou and others of his camp to the category of failed utopian ventures that had to be replaced by a more realistic political strategy. Ballou and his fellow “utopian socialists” – the standard Marxist label for thinkers such as Ballou, Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and others – believed that ending the scourges associated with capitalism required creating concrete alternatives in the here and now. As Friedrich Engels put the matter,

The earlier socialism certainly criticized the existing capitalist mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain this mode of production, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of it. It could only simply reject it as evil. The more violently it denounced the exploitation of the working class, which is inseparable from capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consists and how it arises. But for this it was necessary, on the one hand, to present the capitalist mode of production in its historical interconnection and its necessity for a specific historical period, and therefore also the necessity of its doom; and, on the other, to lay bare its essential character, which was still hidden.

Engels’ “earlier socialism” above refers to the sort that Ballou, among others, advocated. Marxists, however, argued for an immanent dialectical process of material forces that would in time weaken capitalism (decadence) and leave it vulnerable to an overthrow by the masses who comprised its working-classes. Instead of projecting an idealistic model of a socialist society as Ballou and others did, the Marxists aimed to join themselves to the struggles of the whole of the working-class for shorter workdays, better working conditions, education, greater physical provisions, and the unification of various advanced elements of the working-classes into a revolutionary party. This Marxist view came to be the dominant socialist view as the German Social Democratic Party was formed in 1875 with a semi-Marxist program. Marx undertook a trenchant critique of this party, but the SPD went on to become the first national party to advocate Socialism in the world and it exists to this day, though its current variant of “socialism” is quite distant from Marx. Over the next half-century Socialism became a political force in Europe and the USA. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution arrested the attention of the world towards the challenge of socialism and the seeds of the later Cold War were established. In a sense, history took the meaning of socialism out of the hands of thinkers like Ballou and anti-capitalist politics became identified with a militant atheism and armed revolutions. This turn of events still reverberates in contemporary US politics with the most vigorous defenses of free market capitalism often carried out by Evangelical Christians (with a little help from Russian atheist Ayn Rand!) and most socialist organizations still quite hostile to religion.

Marxist opposition to Christian Socialism is of course notorious but is epitomized in two quotations, one from his early essay, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy

of Right.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

And the other from the Communist Manifesto.

Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.

In Ballou’s visionary socialism we see the elements of a path not taken in the history of socialism. For Ballou and his fellow religious utopian socialists, their task was bound up with a Christian mission to create a better world that embodied divine socioeconomic principles. In contrast to the political parties of the secular socialist movements, Ballou and his like-minded communitarians held that the spread of socialism should follow an organic path led by those who actively committed themselves to the task of living the principles of “Practical Christian Socialism.” This organic process of spreading an alternative economy would be carried forward by evangelism of a different sort.

In his major work, Practical Christian Socialism, Ballou initially defines socialism briefly:

Socialism is a Theory of Society. It may be stated in the following consecutive propositions ; viz : 1. Mankind are by nature social beings. 2. No individual alone possesses all the capabilities of human nature for happiness. 3. One individual supplies the deficiency of another. 4. Individuals can realize their highest good only when rightly associated. 5. In true association all the essential interests of individuals and families will be harmonized. 6. Such a harmonic order of Society is possible here on earth, and ought to be instituted. This is Socialism.

Although Ballou did not develop a political strategy for imposing socialism either with or against the powers of the State, he was nevertheless confident of its success, “Socialism must ultimately be accepted by mankind; its day is coming….”  This coming day of Socialism would result in the creation of a “rudimental Heaven” on earth. Ballou’s confidence is striking in view of the fact that at the time of the publication of Practical_Christian_Socialism, he had been involved with the founding and leadership of the socialist Hopedale Community since 1842. It is also ironic as Hopedale bankrupted in 1856, two years after the book’s publication. Marx and Engels published their Communist_Manifesto in 1848, which situates Ballou’s work directly within the era of the growing secular European movement for socialism. Ballou does not reference Marx in his writings on socialism, perhaps indicative of the 19th Century limits of international communications.

Ballou was not dissuaded in his socialism by the Hopedale Community failure and in his posthumously published autobiographical “Funeral Sermon,” he reiterated his Christian convictions regarding property.

In respect to worldly property, power, and distinction, I long ago learned of Christ and became fully convinced that they ought to be entirely subordinate to the law of pure fraternal goodwill, perfect love toward God and fellow moral agents ; that property should neither be acquired, used, nor expended contrary to the Golden Rule, nor to the degradation, neglect, or unhappiness of any human being ; that no one should consume for personal or family gratification, more than would be his equitable share in well-ordered human society, whilst his surplus beyond this should be devoted in some rational way to the relief, elevation, and welfare of his needy fellow-creatures ; that riches and poverty are both great evils which ought to be done away with by the voluntary concurrence of all right minds, and that until this shall be accomplished property will be grossly abused, to the misery of the human race.

Ballou stands within a line of Christian socialists that has been held to extend back to the dawn of the movement depicted in the canonical Acts of the Apostles in which readers are told,

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Between the Acts of the Apostles and the Hopedale Community, history is dotted with small-scale attempts at Christian communal living including monastic orders, the Munster rebellion (1534-5), Hutterite societies which have existed since 1534 to the present, Gerrard Winstanley’s True Levellers AKA the “Diggers” (1649-1650), and Ballou’s French contemporary Etienne Cabet (1788-1856) who is credited with coining the term “communisme” and who attempted to organize communal societies in the US and France. Hopedale Community and Adin Ballou are notable for three reasons, Ballou’s robust evangelical unitarian theology, the longevity of Hopedale in comparison to similar communes, and the social reform advocacy that marked Ballou’s career. In addition to advocating for a communal economy, Ballou opposed war and slavery with his typical evangelical fervor and dedication. All of these characteristics hold a contemporary relevance in the current US religious and political scene. As the US is riven by conflicts between a mostly Christian right-wing movement and a pluralistic left that is more secular than religious, a religious socialist theology and vision points toward an alternative path for the future of American religion and politics

Adin Ballou began life in 1803 as the child of two “Six-Principle Baptists” – an Arminian schism from Calvinistic Baptists – who later converted to the Christian Connexion movement (which later merged into the Campbell/Stone Restorationist “Church of Christ/Christian Church” movement) when Adin was 10 years old. At the age of 19 Ballou converted to Universalism and married his first wife, Abigail Sayles, who died seven years later. His second marriage to Lucy Hunt in 1829 continued until his death in 1890.

In the Autobiography, Ballou gives a detailed account of his 1822 conversion from “Destructionism” – the view that God eternally destroyed all souls that died unrepentant – to “Restorationism” – the view that unrepentant souls underwent a period of restorative punishment after death before finally being received into an eternal heavenly reward. He had devoted hours of study and debate to the subject, which was quite vigorously discussed among his neighbors. As he was nearing the moment of confirmation of the Restoration doctrine, he felt an internal accusation that he was being deceived by Satan. In fear, he fled into a remote place and prostrated himself in prayer begging the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth in full conviction to him or forever remove the idea of Restoration from his mind. He describes the moment of clarity,

In a moment the heavens seemed to open above my head; an inexpressibly sweet influence flowed in upon my soul; the whole subject became luminous, every doubt vanished, a vision of the final triumph of good over evil shone forth in majestic splendor, and my heart was filled with transports of joy. I was supremely blest and if I could have commanded an archangel’s trumpet, the whole world would have heard the sublime gospel then and there revealed to me. My faith was conclusively sealed, and I have never since felt one serious doubt of the final universal holiness and happiness of all the immortal children of God.

However, his career as a Universalist minister was to be short-lived. Ballou’s restorationist eschatology led him into conflict not only with orthodox Christians, but with his own theological kin. As a man of strong convictions, he defended his settled viewpoint to the end rather than simply cave in to majority views. Ballou was convinced that the temporary punishment of evil persons in the afterlife was required by the justice of God. This view did not sit well with a rising majority of Universalist ministers, who Ballou labeled “ultra-universalists.” Their position was that no punishment was due in the afterlife. In the ensuing controversy, Ballou’s strong conviction led to his dismissal from the pulpit he held at Milford Parish in 1831. In the aftermath, he helped found conferences of Restorationist ministers, founded a periodical called the Independent Messenger, and over time developed a friendly relationship to the Unitarian churches. In 1861, the Hopedale Parish was founded as part of the Hopedale Community and it was formally affiliated with the Unitarian conference and thus Ballou himself became officially a Unitarian minister.

Ballou’s pivotal Practical_Christian_Socialism undertakes a lengthy elaboration of Ballou’s theology and eschatology in its opening chapters, within which he intended his socialism to be situated. This theology is both strongly biblical and significantly unorthodox. While he held to a version of the incarnation and divine nature of Christ, he did not develop this doctrine along the lines of the Chalcedonian definition which is the gold standard for orthodox Christology. In language reminiscent of Miguel Servetus, Ballou’s proposed Christology holds that

Both the divine and human natures were manifested in him [Jesus Christ]. He was truly and properly a man — a model man — the best possible specimen of a rightly generated, rightly organized, rightly balanced, rightly developed man. Hence he was appropriately and most significantly called ” the Son of man.” This pure and true man was the exterior Christ. But the Spirit of the Infinite Father flowed into him, pervaded him, anointed him, spoke through him, and wrought wonders by him. God effected all this by what may be called his Christ-hood. I mean that mysterious manifestability of his divine nature whereby at pleasure he personalizes, adapts and ex presses himself to his finite children, according to their various capacities and wants, in all earths, heavens and universes, without really limitizing his absolute Infinity.

Ballou goes on to claim that God can manifest his Christ-hood in any number of intelligent beings, though Ballou does hold to Jesus Christ as the highest instance in earthly history. As Ballou takes pains to elaborate, he does not believe this earth is the only inhabited world and therefore God will reasonably have recourse to manifest his “Deific Person” on each world. Lesser incarnations of Christ-hood were also to have taken place in history and will so in the future.

Practical Christian Socialism is written in the form of “conversations” between himself and an unnamed inquirer. This inquirer is depicted as an educated Christian who is seeking to learn about Ballou’s views. After clarifying questions regarding Ballou’s views of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Infinitarium (Ballou’s term for the universe or multiverse) this inquirer sums up his judgment of the theological views of Ballou thus, “I do not know exactly what to make of your theological doctrine. You are neither a Trinitarian, nor a Unitarian, of any class known to me. But if you are a Practical Christian, I suppose that is enough.”

Ballou’s Christology also takes a distinctive approach to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that departs from classical orthodoxy. Ballou again,

The work of atonement culminated in the death of Jesus on the cross; and therefore the sufferings and bloodshed of that great event have often been made to stand for the entire process. But it was not literally the whole; it was rather the finale and consummation of the work. We must never separate the self-sacrifice of the cross from the chain of its inductives, nor the efficacy of literal blood, shed for the remission of sins, from that spiritual life of which it was only the external representative. All that Jesus Christ said, did and suffered, as the Medium of Divine Manifestation, through his entire life in the flesh, is comprehended in and constitutes the atonement.

To round out Ballou’s basic Christology, his view of the resurrection deserves some consideration. Ballou dissented from the orthodox viewpoint in that he took the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven” [1 Cor. 15:50] as a proof-text that the resurrection was the transformation of a deceased human being into a spiritual embodied existence. Again following the Apostle, “it [the body] is sown a physical body and raised a spiritual body.” [1 Cor. 15:44.] Ballou holds that the appearances of Jesus with a tangible body after the crucifixion were special mediations of the power of Christ, not the permanent condition of the resurrected Christ.

The relevance of Ballou’s theology in the current US context is that his clear devotion to biblical theology and a critique of wealth inequality offers a clear contrast to dominant Christian theologies which emphasize a vast gulf between the secular and the sacred and between believers and unbelievers as it defends a harsh model of free market capitalism. Ballou’s theology centers itself on the compassion of Jesus Christ and the love of a caring God as the inspirational source of a different way of creating and using wealth. In our time, the Christian Socialist who most exemplifies such a theology would be Dr. Cornel West, an African-American professor of theology currently at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. It is also quite fitting that Dr. West was invited to give the annual Ware Lecture at the 2015 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. One could only hope that this might inspire many in the UUA to give religious socialism a deeper consideration.

The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has also opened up the conversation in the secular arena regarding wealth and public policy. Whether he wins the Democratic Party nomination or not, a significant sector of the US electorate, especially young adults, have embraced socialism as preferable to capitalism in historic numbers. The opportunity for a religious socialism to make inroads in our society is unprecedented. Even among young adults, Christianity still holds an influential place, even as young adults are trending away from orthodox beliefs,with 80% believing in God and 68% believing in heaven. This new post-orthodox era in U.S. religion seems to be a fertile opportunity for an unorthodox religious tradition such as Unitarian Universalism to reach out with its distinctive post-Christian religious community. Adin Ballou’s gospel of Christian Socialism and progressive religion seems well suited to a revival in this climate.

However, raising this hope in the present still faces two challenging obstacles; the breakdown in religious affiliation in the US and the political and economic hurdles arrayed against socialism. The breakdown in religious orthodoxy in the present may seem to be the beginning of the long-delayed “death of religion” proclaimed in the European Enlightenment, Religion has weathered that challenge for over a century since Nietzsche declared “God is dead,” While the rise of the “none of the above” demographic suggests that perhaps the time is finally ripe for the long awaited funeral of faith, even the most robust projections do not result in the complete disappearance of all religion in the USA. By 2050, the religiously unaffiliated group in the US is projected to be just over 25%, a growth rate of less one quarter of a percentage point every year.

It was noted above that most socialists prior to the middle of the 19th century were religious and most were Christian. Christianity still holds a powerful influence over most of the the US population and the attempts to forge Christians into a political force have been quite successful for US conservatism. Beginning the mid 1970s, an orchestrated campaign has been carried out for the hearts and minds of evangelical and Catholic voters to install politicians in office who would undermine every social reform gain of the 20th century including the New Deal, feminism, Civil Rights, the Great Society, and environmental protections. If the legions of voters who rallied behind Bernie Sanders would deploy their political strength behind building a long-term campaign for socialism in the US the long-debated “American Exception” might finally be proven a postponement of the Marxist projections.

The opposition between Adin Ballou’s utopian Christian Socialism and a more secular version may in the end be artificial. The climate crisis, ballooning wealth inequalities, and a general trend in capitalism towards declining rates of profit all suggest that the theory of capitalist decadence has perhaps never been more apropos than today. The opposition between religious and secular socialism stands in the same cul-de-sac as the fabled “separation of church and state” of liberal ideology. The projections of world religious growth do not show a global trend towards irreligion, but rather its continued robust ability to unite large communities around shared purposes and goals. Marx and Engels dismissal of Christian Socialism in the Communist Manifesto has swayed far too many to hold that religion needed to get out of the way ot transforming society. Rather, as Ballou held, the power of Jesus and the economic principles found in the gospels and the bible are the cure for the ills of humanity. This is not to dismiss the real concerns about religious fundamentalism and extremism, but to suggest that the antidote to bad religion is not to abolish to religion, but to spread instead a better more revolutionary religion.


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