Winchester, Elhanan

Elhanan Winchester
Elhanan Winchester

Elhanan Winchester (September 30, 1751-April 18, 1797), an outstanding revivalist, was the most wide-ranging and successful 18th century American Universalist evangelist. He founded the first Universalist church in Philadelphia and drew many to Universalism on his preaching tours throughout New England. During an extended stay in England he gathered a large congregation in London and published one of the most influential Universalist books of his or any era, Dialogues on the Universal Restoration.

The first of six children born to Sarah Belcher and Elhanan Winchester of Brookline, Massachusetts (then called Muddy River Village), Elhanan grew up in the parish congregational church. His father, a deacon, was a shoemaker and later also a farmer. His mother died when Elhanan was nine. His father remarried and had nine more children.

Elhanan attended the common schools, but managed to learn on his own far more than the schools offered. He had a facility for languages and eventually mastered Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French. He had an extraordinary memory. One day before church his father asked him to pay attention to the Bible text used in the sermon and afterwards repeat it. During the service the deacon noticed his son’s wandering eyes, and reproached him after the service for his inattention. The younger Elhanan amazed his father by reciting the scriptural text, listing each of the preacher’s points, quoting passages of the sermon, and reporting the count of those in attendance as well as the number of posts, rafters and panes of glass in the building.

In 1769 Winchester made his public profession of faith. Under the influence of a “New Light” revival, he joined the separated Calvinist church in Brookline and soon began to preach. Also in 1769 he married Alice Rogers (at first secretly, it has been said, and without legal ceremony). Alice, the first of his five wives, died in 1776. In 1776 he married Sarah Peck (d.1777), in 1778 Sarah Luke (d.1779), in 1781 Mary Morgan (d.1783), and in 1784 or 1785 Maria Knowles. All but one of the children of these marriages were stillborn; the other did not live to age two.

Winchester’s early ministry was popular, but often divisive. In 1770 he moved to Canterbury, Connecticut. There he was baptized by immersion and accepted into the open communion Baptist church. (The church accepted members baptized either in infancy or adulthood.) In 1771 he led a revival in Rehoboth, Massachusetts which led to the formation of a Baptist church and his ordination as its pastor. The celebrated Baptist evangelist Isaac Backus called Winchester “a man of good sense,” but in some respects “inexperienced and rash.” In 1772 Winchester suddenly declared the new church as having closed communion (accepting only members baptized as adults). The congregation expelled him for breach of their covenant. A council cleared him of heterodoxy, but the church would not take him back as minister. In Bellingham, Massachusetts he was turned away as an evangelist when, on the basis of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, he refused to call sinners to repent. During 1773-74 he preached in the area of Boston, Massachusetts.

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 Pee Dee 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.

Winchester had read in 1778 The Everlasting Gospel, a 1753 English translation of a book written in 1700 by a German universalist, Paul Siegvolk (pseudonym of George Klein-Nicolai). Not at first persuaded by Siegvolk’s arguments, Winchester admitted their force. Yet even so, his own evangelical success challenged his inherited Calvinism. As more and more people converted under his preaching, especially during the summer of 1779, he began to wonder whether the number of elect was limited. He first conceded “the number of the finally saved would equal if not exceed the number of the lost.” Then he began to preach the possibility of a general salvation and invited all “to fly for mercy to the arms of Christ.”

Winchester left South Carolina in late 1779 and traveled slowly north, preaching as he went and also discussing Siegvolk’s ideas with local ministers. By the time he reached Brookline he was able, in the guise of a devil’s advocate, to defend the doctrine of universal restoration with “ease and readiness.” He spent the better part of a year in New England spearheading a Baptist revival. On his way back south, he attended the 1780 Baptist Association annual meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At that meeting he accepted a call from the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia and never returned to Welsh Neck.

Winchester’s pastorate among orthodox Baptists in Philadelphia was not of long duration. Soon after settling there, he read Sir George Stonehouse’s The Restitution of All Things, 1761, and began to discuss this author’s ideas with his friends. He visited with the French immigrant Universalist Georges de Benneville and believers in universal salvation of German origin in Germantown. He was careful not to preach universal restoration, but word of his altered beliefs was soon abroad. Forced to revisit his decision to keep quiet about his views, he later recalled, “I became so well persuaded of the truth of the Universal Restoration that I was determined never to deny it, let it cost me ever so much, though all my numerous friends should forsake me, as I expected they would.”

Early in 1781 a militant minority in Winchester’s church signed a protest against “the doctrine of Universal Restoration of bad men and angels” and moved to dismiss him. With the support of other local Baptist churches, the minority took possession of the building and other church property. Those supporting Winchester organized themselves as the Society of Universal Baptists and, for their first four years, worshipped in the Hall of the University of Pennsylvania.

Winchester no longer refrained from preaching universal restoration. In his first published sermon, The Seed of the Woman Bruising the Serpent’s Head, 1781, he laid out the main points his Universalist faith: 1) “God is love.” 2) “God’s design in making intelligent beings was to make them happy.” 3) “God’s ultimate design cannot be eternally frustrated.” 4) “Christ died for all; and died not in vain.” 5) “Christ came to destroy the evil Principle, or Sin, out of the Universe, which he will finally effect; and then misery shall be no more.” He declared that until these principles were disproved, his Universalist faith would stand.

Early in 1782 Winchester delivered to his congregation the sermon, The Outcasts Comforted, printed in London by Richard Clarke, an Episcopalian minister of universalist conviction. Among Winchester’s admirers in Philadelphia were two distinguished physicians, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and John Redman, first president of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. Redman called Winchester “our Theological Newton.” Rush wrote that Winchester was in his preaching “irresistable in his reasonings upon all subjects.”

Winchester’s half-brother Moses (1764-1793) became a Universalist preacher around 1784. Pastor of the Seventh Day Baptist Church in Shiloh, New Jersey, he also preached in Philadelphia, later accompanied his brother in New England and, early in the 1790s, attended Universalist conventions in Philadelphia.

In 1784 John Murray, minister to the Universalists in Gloucester, Massachusetts, visited Winchester in Philadelphia. Murray wrote of Winchester, “his conduct and expressions evince one of the best hearts I have known.” Although Murray urged financial support for the Philadelphia Universalists, he and Winchester never became friendly and infrequently worked together as Murray had serious reservations about Winchester’s theology. In Murray’s theology eternal happiness depended upon an eventual reconciliation with God. According to Winchester everyone would be disciplined, often quite harshly, for their sins in the afterlife. Later, as he came aware of the spread of Winchester’s influence, Murray privately called Winchesterians “Pharisaical Universalists” and wrote, “I know no description of people farther from christianity, true christianity, than such Universalians.”

Winchester visited New England in the year 1785-86. In the fall he served as moderator of the Universalist convention in Oxford, Massachusetts, which laid the groundwork for the later Universalist denomination. In the winter he preached in Providence, Rhode Island.

Early in 1786 the Philadelphia Universal Baptists acquired their own hall. After the first Philadelphia Convention in 1790, they were reorganized, with Murray’s assistance, as the First Independent Church of Christ, commonly called Universalists. Rush helped draft the articles of belief. But by this time Winchester was in England.

In 1787 Winchester had left his congregation and traveled to London, carrying letters of introduction from Rush. He made his way from church to church and attracted ever-increasing crowds. He supplied the pulpit for the “Glass-House Yard” General Baptist Meeting at Worship Street, 1790-92, and gave evening lectures at another meetinghouse in Glass-House Yard. By the end of 1792 he succeeded in forming a Universal Baptist congregation at Parliament Court, Artillery Lane, Bishopgate (later South Place Unitarian Chapel, Finsbury, and now the South Place Ethical Society).

In England Winchester became acquainted with Richard Price, Thomas Belsham, Joseph Priestley and other well-known heterodox figures. Having spent a year entirely in London, he began to preach more widely, in 18 meeting houses in Kent, and also in Cambridge, Birmingham and Lincolnshire. He made a brief trip to France.

Winchester wrote and published in London his most important work, The Universal Restoration, Exhibited in Four Dialogues between a Minister and His Friend, 1788. Commonly called Dialogues on the Universal Restoration, the book had an even greater evangelistic impact in both Britain and America than did his quite effective preaching. He offered alternative understandings of Hebrew words often translated as “everlasting.” He presented the doctrine of restoration as more reasonable and more godly than the doctrine of endless punishment, and also as more apt to be move a willing heart to repentance. He argued that, logically, no finite human creature is capable of sin meriting infinite punishment. He noted that traditional threats of infinite punishment do not restrain the commission of sinful acts. Nor does it did accord with God’s of love or justice to create so many, only to condemn them—”the great number of heathen people that die without ever hearing the gospel, infants, idiots, persons born deaf etc.”

The Dialogues was an influential book well into the 19th century. Among those converted to Universalism through its reading were Abner Kneeland and Adin Ballou in America, and in England the Particular Baptist William Vidler of Battle, Kent, later Winchester’s associate and then successor at the Parliament Court chapel.

Other of Winchester’s London publications were his Lectures on the Prophecies That Remain to Be Fulfilled, 1790, based on 42 lectures he hadgiven in Southwark and at Glass-House Yard; A True and Most Remarkable Account of Some Passages in the Life of Mr. George de Benneville, 1791, a translation of de Benneville’s memoirs; The Process and Empire of Christ, 1793, a lengthy book in verse; and The Three Woe Trumpets, 1793, sermons of apocalyptic judgment much admired by Priestley. When Rush read the Lectures on the Prophecies, he wrote to Winchester that “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.”

In 1794, after nearly seven years in England, Winchester returned to the United States. He told no one of his impending departure, but hastily fled London, and his wife Maria whose temper, he wrote, had made his life “a servitude for nine years and a half.” Having arrived in Boston, he made a notably successful preaching tour through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and parts of New Hampshire. He wrote, “I am surprised at the alteration since I was here last. I have preached in a great many meeting-houses of different denominations, and to great numbers of people, as often as eight or nine times a week, and with greater acceptance than ever I did.”

In the midst of his tour Winchester presided over the second New England General Universalist Convention, meeting in Oxford, Massachusetts. At this session he initiated an impromptu ordination for Hosea Ballou.

In 1795 Maria Winchester made the voyage from England to re-join her husband. Reconciled, they returned to Philadelphia. Winchester ministered for half a year or so, in 1795-96, to his former congregation, sharing the church with the Unitarian (and believer in universal salvation) Priestley who had in the meantime emigrated to the United States.

Winchester’s health had been in decline since a severe illness of 1777. In 1796 he suffered a lung hemorrhage, for which Rush treated him. Somewhat recovered, he traveled to New York City and then Hartford, Connecticut, preaching in both places. He gave a farewell sermon in Hartford in April, 1797, and died there two weeks later.

Many of Winchester’s works fell into obscurity in the 19th century. Yet the Dialogues of Winchester (along with works of Murray and the liberal Congregationalist divine Charles Chauncy) remained a classic of Universalist faith for later generations. When in 1831 Restorationists separated from the main body of Universalists, both groups claimed to be Winchester’s true heirs. Restorationists believed, as did he, in a period of discipline in afterlife. Followers of Hosea Ballou, who did not believe future punishment, contended that Restorationists as well as others had departed from Winchester in embracing a unitarian Christology.

Although the equal of Murray as a preacher, Winchester was a wanderer and an inconsistent institutionalist. He died in middle age and thus failed to join Murray, Caleb Rich and others as one of the presiding elders of the new Universalist denomination. The span of his travels and the persuasiveness of his Dialogues nevertheless make him a Universalist founder in both Britain and America.


Many of Winchester’s sermons and orations are available in microfilm on Early American Imprints. The various libraries at Harvard University together have a considerable collection of Winchester publications. Among the principle works not mentioned above are The Face of Moses Unveiled by the Gospel (1787); The Restitution of All Things . . . Defended, Being an Attempt to Answer the Rev. Dan Taylor’s Assertions (1790); Ten Letters Addressed to Mr. Paine (1795); A Plain Political Catechism (1796); and The Universalist’s Hymnbook (1794). Winchester also edited the Philadelphian magazine while in London. The most complete bibliography of Winchester’s works is in E. C. Starr, ed., A Baptist Bibliography (1976).

There is a valuable autobiographical preface to the 1792 and subsequent editions of Dialogues on the Universal Restoration. Edwin M. Stone’s Biography of Rev. Elhanan Winchester (1836), collects many otherwise unavailable primary sources and has excerpts from Winchester’s main writings, but is flawed by being partly shaped into a partisan Restorationist tract. Winchester’s years in England are highlighted in William Vidler, A Sketch of the Life of Elhanan Winchester (1797). Isaac Backus, History of New England with Particular Attention to the Denomination Called Baptists (1795, 2nd ed. 1871), vol. 2, provides a more negative evaluation. Joseph R. Sweeny’s University of Pennsylvania dissertation, “Elhanan Winchester and the Universal Baptists” (1969) brings together many sources not in Stone, notably the records of the Baptist churches served by Winchester. The career of Winchester is told in some detail in Universalist histories from Thomas Whittemore, The Modern History of Universalism (1830) to Russell Miller, The Larger Hope (1979) and David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985). There are entries on Winchester by Scott Flipse in American National Biography (1999) and by Andrew Hill in the New Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted December 24, 2002