To understand this scene, you’ve got to go back to the late 1990s and the vertiginous fall from grace of Bishop Carlton Pearson. Charming, engaging, self-deprecating, never holier than thou, and very funny, Pearson—an African American Pentecostal—had founded one of Tulsa’s most prominent megachurches. He had risen rapidly through the national power structure of evangelical Christendom, in league with the Rev. Oral Roberts, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Rev. Pat Robertson. In his early forties, he was at the pinnacle of his career.
Then Pearson got a divine revelation, as he tells it. Watching a news report one night in the spring of 1996, he was getting worked up about the genocide in Rwanda. His assumption was that the victims were bound for hell, persecuted yet unsaved. Feeling angry at God, and guilty that he himself wasn’t doing anything about it, he recalls, he fell into a sort of reproachful prayer: “God, I don’t know how you can sit on your throne there in heaven and let those poor people drop to the ground hungry, heartbroken, and lost, and just randomly suck them into hell.”
He heard God answer, “We’re not sucking those dear people into hell. Can’t you see they’re already there—in the hell you have created for them and continue to create for yourselves and others all over the planet? We redeemed and reconciled all of humanity at Calvary.”
Everything Pearson thought he knew was true started unraveling, as he began to realize: The whole world is already saved, whether they know it or not—not just professed Christians in good standing, but Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, gay people. There is no hell after you die. And he didn’t have the good sense to keep it to himself.
For the past decade, Pearson has led his followers on one rough ride. Branded a heretic in a formal tribunal by the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004, he has lost almost everything: thousands of members; his close-knit staff; his building; use of his church’s name; rights to sermons, books, audio, and video; and lots of money. Worse than all that, he says, the venom he has felt from conservative Christians has been “much deeper, much more adamant, and more ferocious” than any racism he ever encountered.
This past year he and his remaining “wilderness wanderers,” as he calls them, have arrived at a place that feels like home: All Souls Unitarian Church. But the ride isn’t over yet.
[I edited a paragraph from American Creation that amounted to a statement of my personal theology; see my blogs for the missing paragraph.]
That dilemma as regards both the Trinity AND eternal damnation was present during the American Founding. And some Christian-unitarian-universalists (like Adams and Jefferson) indeed recognized they were just going to go with what their reason determined on these two issues, even if it conflicted with the Bible. If it did, they reasoned, the Bible's text must be corrupted and hence errant. So throw it out. Snip snip with your razor.
Yet others were insistent that the text of the Bible itself, properly understood vindicated both unitarianism and/or universalism. These include men like the trinitarian-universalists Benjamin Rush, John Murray, and Elhanan Winchester and unitarian-universalists like Charles Chauncy and perhaps other patriotic preachers like Jonathan Mayhew and Samuel Cooper.