Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797)
(Biography taken from the introduction to to his book, "Universal Restoration." Author unknown)
Rev. Elhanan Winchester was born at Brookline, Mass. in 1751. He early evinced a contemplative mind, and, being of an awkward appearance, shunned the society peculiar to youth, and devoted his leisure moments to the acquirement of useful knowledge. At the age of five he was considered a good reader and his taste for reading, together with the rapidity with which he prosecuted his studies, was soon observed by his associates and friends. Books of all kinds which fell in his way were read with avidity; but the Bible was his chief favourite. With its page he was so familiar, that he was looked upon as a prodigy, for his knowledge of the Scriptures, and strength of memory.
When in his nineteenth year, he underwent what is called by the new lights and orthodox, "conviction and conversion," and soon after commenced preaching, without being received into the church after the usual form. On hearing of a revival in Canterbury, Con., he immediately visited that place, and was baptized by Elder Ebenezer Lyon, and admitted into the Free Will Baptist Church, of which Elder Lyon was pastor. In 1771 he removed to Rehoboth, Mass., and spent the year in its vicinity. His youth, memory, eloquence, and zeal, together with his singular dress and appearance, drew multitudes to his meetings. A revival followed, and a church was soon gathered, over which he was ordained by Elder Lyon. In the course of a short season, he renounced his Arminian sentiments, embraced the system of divinity advocated by Dr. Gill, and became one of the most thorough Calvinists in the country.
In 1772, at the request of his friends, he removed to Grafton, where he preached through the summer. In 1773 he removed to Hull, nine miles east of Boston. In the Autumn of I774, he started on a journey to the Southern States. On arriving in Charleston, S.C., he soon received an invitation to settle with the Baptist Church at Welsh Neck, on the Great Pee Dee River, sixty miles from Georgetown, which be accepted, and returned to Grafton, Mass., for his family. In October of the next year, he returned with his family as far as Fairfax county, Va., where he was obliged to leave Mrs. Winchester on account of her ill health. He, however, proceeded on to the place of destination, where be spent the winter. In the Spring he returned for his lady, whom he had left in the charge of a friend, and learned on his arrival, that she was in her grave.
Instead of returning to the South, as he had designed, he came to Boston, and supplied for Dr. Stillman, at the first Baptist church, during the summer. Soon after this he was married to Miss Sarah Peck, of Rehoboth, Mass., and immediately returned to Welsh Neck. A revival followed; Mrs. Winchester was among the number converted, and soon after sickened and died. Mr. Winchester was also brought to the side of the grave by sickness, but recovered. In 1778 he was married to Sally Luke, his third wife, for whom be cherished a great affection.
His attention was called to the subject or Universalism in this year, by reading Paul Seigvolk's works, entitled "The Everlasting Gospel," but was not fully converted. The arguments which he there saw, would occasionally arrest his attention, and disposed him to propose them to others, which, to his surprise, they could not answer. On mentioning the subject to another clergyman, he was informed that the doctrine had been controverted in Virginia, but that the daring individual who had preached it was suddenly "cut off from the earth."
During this year he was made to drink deeply of the cup of sorrow, of which he had twice before partook. His third wife died. He was now more zealously engaged than ever, in preaching, and laboured among the slaves with great success, and very soon outgrew his Calvinistic principles, and preached a free salvation. In 1779 he visited New England, preaching on his way in many of the towns through which he passed, half inclined to Universalism, though considering himself its enemy. On the 7th of October, of this year, he arrived in Philadelphia, and commenced preaching to the Baptist church in that city, by their particular request. So great was the excitement produced by his labours, that the house could not contain the people;--therefore the largest house in the city was procured, and was immediately filled to overflowing--the clergy of all denominations comprising a part of his congregations. Though all appeared satisfied with his labours, his own mind was not at rest. The subject of Universal Salvation continued to agitate his thoughts and he found no quietude, until, by a candid and prayerful examination of the Bible, he became fully satisfied, that "God will have all men to be saved," and that "he doeth according to his will, in heaven and earth."
His change of opinion was soon noised abroad, and produced a great disaffection in many of his former friends. One minister, in particular, met him in the street and parted with him in these words: "If you embrace this sentiment, I shall no longer own you for a brother." And he was true to his word.
In I781, "on the first Sunday of April, Mr. Winchester was to preach at Germantown, about eight miles from Philadelphia, among the German Baptists, who hold the doctrine or Universal Restoration. As he was leaving the city on Saturday, he found that a number of eminent ministers had just arrived from the country, on the private request of some of his opposers, to hold a public dispute with him. Giving them the liberty of his pulpit for the next day, he departed for the place of his appointment. During his absence, a report was industriously circulated, that he had fled to avoid an interview; and on Monday, when he returned, the delay occasioned by a Funeral that he was called to attend, encouraged his opposers, till they began to deceive themselves with that falsehood they had imposed on others. The multitude was assembled in the meeting-house, impatiently waiting for the dispute; his opposers were reproaching his friends with his flight, and clamourously vaunting over them, when Winchester entered with a serene countenance, and took his seat. A sudden change came over the assembly; his friends were relieved from their anxiety, and they who had boasted so much in his absence, feared to encounter him when present. His astonishing memory which had already treasured up much of the Scriptures, was well known, and his talents as a public speaker undoubted. The vote of the assembly was then read, by which the Rev. Mr. Boggs had been selected to dispute with Mr. Winchester. Mr. Boggs then arose, and thus addressed the people:
"I am not prepared to dispute with Mr. Winchester. I have heard that he says it would take six weeks to canvass all the arguments fairly on both sides; and I suppose that he has been studying on the subject for a week or more, and I have not studied at all." Discovering that there was to be no debate, Mr. Winchester then begged the privilege of explaining and defending his own sentiments for two hours, and finally for only one hour; but, as might have been anticipated, they who dared not meet him on equal ground, dared not allow him to exhibit his strength; his request was wholly refused. They felt, however, the necessity of providing some business worthy of the great preparations that had been made; and accordingly, when one of the ministers rose and said that their business was not to debate with Mr. Winchester, but to ask him whether he believed that bad men and angels would finally be restored; the rest immediately agreed, and insisted that the question should be put to him. "Do you believe in Universal Restoration?" Mr. Winchester's friends objected to his answering the question, unless he had leave to vindicate his sentiments; but he rose, and observing that he feared no use which could be made of his words, told them plainly, that he did believe the doctrine of Universal Restoration, and was willing to defend it. After some conversation, the ministers advised the Church to obtain another pastor; and the matter was so managed, that though Mr. Winchester's adherents were at first a majority of the society, the scale was soon turned against them, and they excluded him from the meeting house.
On the 22nd of April, he delivered a sermon in the hall of the Pennsylvania University, in which he, for the first time, publicly advocated his new sentiments. After preaching four years in this place, a hall was obtained, where he afterwards preached, located on the spot now covered by the Lombard Street Church; and subsequently the house now improved by the First Universalist Society, was erected.
At Philadelphia, he resided in the house owned by his fourth wife, to whom he was married in 1781, and whom he buried in less than two years afterwards, "making him, at the age of thirty-two, four times a widower." In 1784 he visited South Carolina, and was married to his fifth wife, "a desperate fury, whom he loved with a doting fondness." In 1781 he visited England, very much to the surprise, and against the will of his New England friends, and there remained, preaching in various places for the space of six years and a half. While there he wrote and published his "Dialogues on the Universal Restoration," his "Lectures on the Prophecies," and "Five Letters in Reply to Rev. Daniel Taylor's Sermon on Endless Misery."
In July, 1794, he again arrived in America. During this and the succeeding year, he traveled in almost all parts of the country, labouring under a broken constitution, and an increasing asthma, which foretold a fatal termination.
In October, 1796, he made his first appearance in Hartford, Con., at the grave of a young man. The people were assembled around the grave, when they were surprised at the voice of a stranger, who, unasked, had taken the freedom to address them on the occasion. His language and manner were very affecting, and excited a general wish to hear him again. Accordingly, he gave one or two lectures during the week, and preached the next Sunday in the theatre. A respectable congregation was soon gathered, among which were some gentlemen of influence.
Thus he continued preaching, till about the 1st of April, 1797, when he delivered a sermon, under a strong impression that it was his last, from St. Paul's farewell address to the elders of the Ephesian Church. He never entered his desk again. His death was fast approaching, and he contemplated it with serenity and joy. On the morning of his decease, he requested two or three young ladies, who were sitting by him, to join in singing a hymn, observing at the same time, that he might expire before it should be finished. He began with them, but his voice soon faltered, and the torpor of death fell upon him. They were disconcerted and paused; but he reviving, encouraged them to proceed, and joined in the first line of each stanza, till he breathed no more. This was on the 18th of April, 1797, in the 47th year of his age.
His funeral was attended on the 21st, by a numerous concourse of afflicted friends and sympathizing spectators. The Rev. Dr. Strong preached the sermon from Heb. ix. 27, in which, though an opposer of his sentiments, he gave Mr. Winchester an excellent character, and bore a frank testimony to his final constancy in the doctrine which he had preached.
Winchester the Abolitionist:
In 1774 Winchester traveled to South Carolina. There he accepted a call to serve the Baptist church in the town of Welsh Neck, on the Pec Dec River. During a 1779 revival, "a summer of great success," he added 140 white members to the church and converted 100 black slaves. Prior to Winchester's arrival no local preacher had ministered to slaves. He later wrote, "The prejudices which the slaves had against Christianity, on account of the severities practiced upon them by professing Christians, both ministers and people, might be one principal reason why they could not be brought to attend to religious instruction. But they had no prejudice against me on this score, as I never had any thing to do with slavery, but on the contrary condemned it; and this being generally known, operated so upon the minds of those poor creatures, that they shewed a disposition to attend my ministry, more than they had ever shewed to any other."
Despite resistance from whites, a church was organized for the blacks. Winchester ministered to both. After he left South Carolina his successor merged the two congregations and criticized Winchester for accepting members, especially blacks, "very ignorant of the nature of true religion." Both races attended the same church until 1867. Winchester's anti-slavery views, first preached in the South, were much later published in The Reigning Abominations, Especially the Slave Trade , 1788.
Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independance said to Rev. Winchester: "...your works, however much neglected or opposed now, will be precious to those generations which are to follow us: and, like the bones of Elisha, will perform miracles after your death...."
Click here to read Elhanan Winchester's sermon, "The Outcasts Comforted"
More information on Elhanan Winchester can be found at www.godstruthfortoday.org