John Emerson Roberts left the Baptist church in 1884 because he no longer believed in hell.  He still believed in God, and he was quickly accepted into the Unitarian fellowship.  Just three years after his rejection by his Baptist congregation, Roberts was back in Kansas City as a Unitarian preacher.  He was even more popular as a Unitarian than as a Baptist, which is interesting because the Unitarians, although much more conservative than in our time, were at the liberal fringe of Christianity.

Roberts still believed in God and could speak eloquently of that belief:

         We cannot get rid of God.  When the last analysis has been made, when we have dissected to the uttermost, when we have said the last wise word about matter, force and motion, then in matter, making it what it is; in force, its final energy, in motion, its unexplained residuum, is that subtle, awful omniscience―there is God.  To eyes that see, no fact should be plainer than this―that nature is everywhere a manifestation of the Infinite; that all things that are, all things everywhere; show forth behind all appearances real, in all mutations, immutable, in all and over all, that the supreme fact of the universe is God.

What sort of God is this?  It is not a personal God, who would be active in the affairs of individuals.  The “final energy” of force is certainly an abstract concept.  Roberts’s congregation loved this kind of language.  So did the news reporters; The Journal reporter wrote:  “This sermon was one of the most eloquent Dr. Roberts has delivered during his pastorate, and at the close he was warmly congratulated by many of the large congregation which listened with closest attention throughout.”

In 1895, Roberts gave a series of five sermons under the title, “The Inevitable Surrender of Orthodoxy”:

The title had been used by Roberts’s colleague, Minot Savage, in 1889 for an article in the North American Review.  For both Roberts and Savage “orthodoxy” meant Calvinism, the stern form of Protestantism which emphasized the fall of man and the freedom of God to choose who would be saved, the rest condemned to a hell made vivid in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” back in 1743.  Though most churches had loosened up a good deal (many Baptists, for instance, focused on the individual’s choice to accept salvation) these doctrines continued to be expressed and defended.  It was the incongruity of a God of love and an eternity of hellfire which brought many to liberal religion and drove others away from religion altogether.

While Roberts had tried gently to persuade his Baptist congregation of the seriousness of this incongruity in 1884, in 1895 he was speaking to people whose ideas had developed as his own had.  He could really tear into the issue.  Using inequalities of wealth as a parallel, he describes the doctrine of hell as one which “creates a monopoly of happiness, and joy and favor of God for endless ages in the interest of a few and dooms the uncounted millions to a place compared with which a poor-house were a paradise and a penitentiary a palace of delight.”   Is this a reasonable doctrine? He almost explodes in response:

            No!  No! By all the sanctions of reason, no! By all the unsyllabled persuasion of the moral consciousness, no! By all the sanctity of man who bears, though marred, the image of God.  By the pathos of human struggle and the pleading of human hope.  By the eternal justice of the Infinite God, no! no!

This exclamation is in a sermon called “Two Plans.”  Clearly, Roberts doesn’t think the threat of hell has any part in a good God’s plan.  He doesn’t line out a contrary plan, but he is sure of this:  “This world and all the worlds belong to God.”

Another sermon in this five part series gives us information on how Roberts is thinking about Jesus.  I’ll discuss that next.

For more on John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher and how to obtain a copy, see the Books page.

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