Universalism for the Damned: Introducing the Theology of George Lippard

“George Lippard (1822-1854) was one of the most popular novelists in the antebellum United States, author of the bestselling The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall and more than a dozen other books written in a span of barely a decade. He was a pioneering labor organizer whose Brotherhood of the Union provided the organizational template for the Knights of Labor, the most influential union of the nineteenth century. He has been described as “the most phenomenal author-activist of nineteenth century America.” He was also a Universalist theologian whose distinctive vision of sin and salvation merits our serious consideration today.

There are several reasons why Lippard has not been remembered as a Universalist theologian. He did not write systematic theology, but encoded his religious vision in sprawling, sensational novels. He was a layperson with eclectic ties to Methodism, Spiritualism, and Rosicrucianism as well as Universalism. Yet despite Lippard’s limited institutional affiliation with Universalism, he embraced the idea of universal salvation as an essential starting point for his literary and political vision.

Lippard deserves our attention because he articulated a distinctive answer to one of the thorniest dilemmas in liberal theology: how to affirm the inherent dignity of humanity and the absolute goodness of the divine without ignoring radical evil and systemic injustice. Typically, nineteenth century liberal novelists told stories of virtuous individuals who overcome evil simply by honoring their own sympathetic impulses. Lippard’s novels, by contrast, are populated with malevolent wizards, secret brotherhoods of murderers, capitalists who are rapacious both literally and metaphorically, and heroes who are beset with compulsive, addictive temptations. Many of his characters have grotesque physical deformities; others have been cursed to repeat their ancestors’ crimes in every new generation. Yet Lippard consistently affirmed that all of his characters were open to “some pure spirit,” and taunted his orthodox readers for imagining otherwise.

Lippard was fascinated with Pennsylvania’s German pietist heritage, and his universalism echoed the rather extreme restorationism of George de Benneville and Georg Paul Siegvolck. Like these authors, he coupled an apocalyptic vision of the present world with a profound hope that God’s love will finally burn away all evil. Unlike them (but like one of the first English speaking universalists, Gerard Winstanly), he preached a social apocalypticism, concerned primarily with the intertwined evils of capitalism and male supremacy. As a result, his work offers an intriguing bridge between early universalism and contemporary understandings of structural sin.

Most importantly, Lippard addressed his universalism to the damned—that is, to those who experience themselves as damned. He wrote for those who had had already succumbed to temptation; those who were beset with addictive, self-destructive desires; those who had been mistreated not by an evil stepmother but by a father whom they are growing to resemble; those who were not only poor but deeply ashamed of their poverty. To all these people, Lippard offered both divine love and a chance to join the cosmic struggle to right the world’s injustices.”