Thomas Talbott

The Inescapable Love of God

The Evangelical Censors

Hannah Whithall Smith (1832-1911), author of the classic Christian devotional, The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, is highly revered in some Christian circles. But when one conservative Christian press republished another of her books, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: a Spiritual Autobiography, the publisher simply eliminated, without a single word of explanation or warning, three chapters from the book.

So critical in the mind of the author was one of these chapters that she had given it the same title, "The Unselfishness of God," that she had also given to the book as a whole, but so offensive did the publishers evidently find it that they removed it (and two other chapters) altogether.

So for what purpose did they in effect censor a dead author and undermine her own intentions? Did the offending chapters include salacious material, or a pagan viewpoint, or a philosophy of cynicism and despair, or a terrifying and destructive vision of God? Of course not. The chapters in question revealed instead the ground of this dear woman's faith: her absolute confidence in the power, the wisdom, and the inexorable love of God, her confidence that no one can defeat that love forever.

The chapters expressed, in other words, the glorious hope that almighty God has both the will and the power to bring reconciliation to all of those whom he has loved into existence in the first place.

Fortunately, you can still find complete editions of The Unselfishness of God in university libraries, and you can find some of the excised material by clicking here. But the above account of publishing irresponsibility nonetheless illustrates the obsessive fear of heresy so prevalent within the evangelical Christian community, and here I speak from first hand experience, that is, as one who was raised in this community and has encountered such fear again and again.

In response to my own manuscript, for example, an editor at one evangelical publishing house wrote that, although I am "asking important questions," it would be "politically beyond the bounds" for his press to "publish an explicit defense of universalism." And in a similar vein, a reviewer for The Writer's Edge, which reviews manuscripts for several dozen religious presses, wrote: "we are declining to list it [your manuscript] in our newsletter, but certainly not because of any deficiency in your writing ability! Your style is a delight to read--clear and straightforward." The reviewer went on to explain that "we have a problem about listing this manuscript among recommended material. All of the publishers who receive our newsletter could be characterized as conservative evangelicals, at least so far as the universalist position is concerned." As a result, the reviewer concluded, "we are duty bound not to list material we know is theologically unacceptable to the publishers we serve."

Now I should perhaps clarify one point. Though it is utterly irresponsible to republish the work of a dead author in a way that distorts her thought and undermines her own intentions, no publisher has any obligation to publish anything that, for whatever foolish reason, the editors judge to be unacceptable.

But the editorial decisions of the publishing houses serving the evangelical community nonetheless reveal a good deal about the nature of that community. Especially revealing, perhaps, are the dead authors whose works are chosen for republication.

Take a look at the publication list of almost any evangelical press and you will find a host of theological works by those whose God is little more than an arbitrary tyrant--one who restricts his mercy to a chosen few and predestines the vast majority of humankind to an eternity of suffering in hell.

Such blasphemy is deemed quite acceptable for publication, but the objectionable parts of Hannah Whitall Smith's The Unselfishness of God must be removed, lest a reader acquire too lofty a conception of divine love.

The irony is that the 18th and 19th Centuries produced some wonderful examples of how to read the Bible from a universalist perspective: Elhanan Winchester's The Universal Restoration (1787) and his profoundly moving sermon, "The Outcasts Comforted" (1782), Andrew Jukes' Restitution of all Things (1867), Thomas B. Thayer's Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment (1855), J. W. Hanson's Universalism the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years (1899), and George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons, to name a few.

But with the exception of MacDonald's sermons, much of this material has slipped into near oblivion over time. The conservative religious presses refuse to publish material that they regard as too heretical and too iconoclastic, and the more liberal presses refuse to publish material that they regard as too anachronistic.

Thanks to the internet, however, some of the older titles are currently being revived, and you can download several of them from Gary Amirault's Tentmaker web site by clicking here.

I repeat: No publisher is under any obligation to publish anything that, for whatever reason, he or she finds unacceptable. But if one is looking for an explanation of why so many within the evangelical community, even among the more elite scholars, are so woefully ignorant of how universalists interpret the New Testament and put theological ideas together, one need only consider how few of them have ever encountered a vigorous and sustained defense of the doctrine of universal reconciliation.

Thomas Talbott - Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Willamette University
Mailing Address: 4645 Stauber Lane, Salem, Oregon 97317 - Phone: (503) 588-7083
E-mail address: ttalbott@willamette.edu