The Universalists’ belief that God would not condemn any of his children to endless suffering was viewed as heresy by their more orthodox Christian neighbors in the nineteenth century. Many people thought that Universalists, fearing no divine punishment after death, would feel free to indulge in all sorts of licentiousness. These people apparently only understood the “stick” – i.e., hell – approach to good behavior; Universalists were motivated by the “carrot” – union with a loving God.
I recently came across a letter in the Athens Gleaner about the generosity of Joseph Kinney and the Universalists of Sheshequin. The Gleaner, a weekly newspaper which ran for a few years in the early 1870s, had published an article about the life of Joseph Kinney (1755-1841). Kinney, who was originally a Baptist, was converted to Universalism in 1793 by the Rev. Noah Murray.
The Gleaner’s article about Kinney prompted a reader, Larman H. Elliott of Mansfield, to share his own experience with Kinney. Elliott, who had lived in Sheshequin in the 1820s and 1830s, wrote:
“Some of the older inhabitants of Sheshequin may remember that, for many years after the organization of the township [in 1820], there was no poor tax assessed or collected; yet the probability is that there was no township in the State in which the poor were better cared for.
“The custom was, if a family was found to be needy, for some one to go about among the neighbors, and they would soon obtain enough provisions and other necessaries to make them comfortable.
“At one time a poor man by the name of Weed had the misfortune to lose his only cow, and I was requested to go around the neighborhood and see if I could obtain money enough to buy him another. Accordingly I went, and among others, called on Esq. Kinney, and found the old gentleman and his wife comfortably seated in their room.
“After some pleasant conversation with them, I told them my business… The old gentleman arose to go to his desk where he kept his money, when his old lady remarked that they had nothing to give away. He stopped, and turning to her with a smiling countenance said: ‘I am not going to give away anything, my dear; it’s a debt that we owe Brother Weed. You always want me to pay my honest debts, don’t you?’ He then proceeded and handed me a dollar.”
Mr. Elliott then related the following story, which he had heard from “an old widow lady” who lived in the hills east of Sheshequin:
“[The widow] called at Mr. Kinney’s to tarry all night, and… after supper the old gentleman inquired of her as to how she got along [in] those hard times (flour, grain, and other provisions being very scarce and dear at that time). She told him that she sometimes found it rather difficult to procure the necessaries of life; however, she got along some way or other. He then asked her if she ever used any corn meal in her family. She told him that she did when she could get it. There was no more said on the subject.
“The next morning, after breakfast, when she wished to start home, Mr. Kinney saddled her horse and stood ready to help her on. To her surprise she discovered a bag with something in it on her horse. She said to Mr. Kinney: ‘What does this mean – this bag on my horse?’ He replied: ‘It is that bushel of corn that I owed you. I thought you might better take it with you now, as you are going by the mill you can stop and get it ground on your way home, without much trouble. I wish when you have the opportunity, that you would send the bag back.’
“Such was the character of Joseph Kinney, Esq. He never considered that he was giving away anything. He appeared to firmly believe that in all such cases he was only paying his just debts. But Mr. Kinney was not the only liberal, benevolent man in the place, for I got money enough that day for Mr. Weed to buy him another cow, besides several bushels of grain from those that would rather give that than money.”
Elliott noted that “most of those that [he] called upon were universalists.” He concluded with a quote from the Scottish poet Robert Burns:
“But then nae thanks to them for a’ that,
Nae Godly symptom ye can ca’ that;
It’s naething but a milder feature
Of our poor sinful, corrupt nature.
It’s nae through terror of damnation,
But just a carnal inclination.”
The Universalists’ generosity was not driven by “terror of damnation,” but rather by a “carnal inclination” to kindness and love.