Rediscovering Our Inner Universalist
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Universalists were also early and voracious opponents of capital punishment and proponents of prison reform. They spoke out against Jacksonian Indian removal policies and a wide range of other issues. Yet another Ballou, a distant cousin named Adin, became the nation’s leading advocate for peace and pacifism. His writings against war were widely influential around the world. It was Adin Ballou’s words as much as Thoreau’s theory of Civil Disobedience that influenced the work of the Christian pacifist Count Leo Tolstoy which in turn informed the thinking of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Adin also took up the cause of utopian socialism and founded one of the longest lasting experimental communities at Hopedale. After the community dissolved he stayed on as minister to a local Unitarian congregation.
Because Universalism naturally implied equality among all people, it appealed strongly to members of the emerging Women’s movement. Not only were women like Mary Livermore acknowledged lay leaders, the denomination pioneered in the ordination of women. In 1863 Olympia Brown became the first woman in America to receive both full ordination and regular employment as a parish minister. She served churches in Weymouth, Massachusetts; Bridgeport, Connecticut where P. T. Barnum was the leading parishonier; and the Racine, Wisconsin congregation that now bears her name. She was also a key leader of the movement for women’s suffrage and the only one of her generation to live to cast a ballot. Another Universalist woman, Clara Barton revolutionized battle field nursing care and went on to found the American Red Cross.
In the years following the Civil War, Universalism seemed secure. True, it was no longer experiencing the explosive growth of earlier years, but it achieved a level of both structural stability and respectability long denied it. Governed principally by state and regional conventions it finally found a national organizational base in the Universalist General
Convention, re-organized and institutionally strengthened in John Murray’s home town of Gloucester in 1870. It was a weak structure, but a structure none the less. The General Convention would eventually become the Universalist Church of America in 1947.
Meanwhile the Unitarians, led by Dr. Henry Bellows were reorganizing themselves with congregations formally united for the first time in the National Conference. Bellows and some Universalist leaders, each yearning for a stronger, more “universal” church even began vague discussions about merging the two liberal traditions. In the face of old rivalries nothing was apt to come of it at the time. Universalists also pioneered new forms of organization. The Women’s Association of Universalists became the first continental organization of religious women. Soon other denominations were following suit. In 1889 the first national religious youth group, the Young People’s Christian Union was formed.
Rapid industrialization and advances in science were providing twin challenges to Universalists and to many churches. Many young men were being lured from the agricultural villages at the heart of Universalism into the dismal, smoke choked cities in search of work. Cut off from family and cultural ties many fell away from the church.
Others were challenged by the new discoveries of science, Darwinism in particular. Universalists, however were better prepared than most to face this new world. Their belief in rationalism and rejection of Biblical literalism freed them from the constraints of many churches. They could embrace the new discoveries as new revelations of God’s plan and method.
Because they did not rely on Bible fairy tails for proof of faith, they were better able to roll with the punches. The Universalists became the first American denomination to officially embrace Darwinism. This belays the frequent image of Universalists as simple and unsophisticated Christians.
The 1893 the World Parliament of Religion held in Chicago in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition was a wake up call for many Universalists. Delegates came from all over the world. For the first time Americans could hear directly from the great religions of Asia—Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Zorastorism—as well
a practitioners of local native cults and the wide variety of Christian, Jewish and Islamic practitioners. For some Universalists it was a stunning development. They recognized a certain universality in the teachings of all religions and observed how each functioned in the context of a traditional culture. Perhaps, they began to surmise, Jesus Christ is not an essential agent, just one of many messengers of God’s greater truth. And if indeed all humanity was reconciled to God upon death, then the form of worship practiced on earth was not a critical matter.
Out of this insight a new Universalism began to be born, a Universalism beyond mere sectarian Christianity which strove to be to truly Universal and inclusive. The very meaning of the term began to change to reflect this new insight. In 1895, just two years after the Parliament, the
General Convention adopted a statement that “We believe in the universal Fatherhood of God, and in the universal Brotherhood of Man. We believe that God, who hath spoken through all of His Holy Prophets since the world began, hath spoken to us by His son Jesus Christ, our Example and Savior. We believe that Salvation consists in spiritual oneness with God, who, through Christ, will finally gather into one the whole family mankind.”
The following year appalled traditionalist voted to rescind the statement, but it was too late to put the genie back into the bottle. Unitarians led by Jenkin Lloyd Jones of the Western Conference of Unitarians and principle organizer of the World Parlaiment, were going through much the same process at the same time. By the early Twentieth Century a young minister named Clarence Skinner would take the process even further. Imbued by a new sense of the common bonds of humanity and the tradition of the Social Gospel movement Skinner was among those pressing for a new social vision for his denomination. The country was at the time riven by a virtual class war between an entrenched industrial oligarchy and militant unionists, a war in which quarter was seldom given and was marked by the bullet, bayonet, and bullpen detentions. In response Skinner published his seminal book, THE SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF UNIVERSALISM in 1915. Like John Jayne Holmes among contemporary Unitarians he called for bold solidarity with the oppressed. These ideas were adopted by the General Convention of 1917 as “Declaration of Social Principles.” A reading of these principles reveals a clear influence over what is now in the UUA’s Seven Principles.
The horrors of the First World War did much to shatter the simple faith of millions of Americans, including many Universalists. What kind of a loving and merciful God would, after all, allow such waste and carnage? That tough question impelled many clergy and religious thinkers to embrace emerging Humanism, which rejected all systems which relied on supernatural power and authority. These thinkers believed that the salvation of humanity lay only in the hands of mankind and that it must act in its own behalf. This was a new kind of liberal religion advocated by some Universalists and Unitarians alike—a religion not only with out Jesus, but without God.
Yet this was not a satisfactory answer for many, who yearned for faith and surer, simpler times. Poor and working class men and women who had once responded enthusiastically to Universalist Gospel began to turn instead to the sureness promised by a new brand of Christianity—Fundamentalism. At the same time industrialization and the automobile were wiping out the agricultural villages where universalism had thrived. Where hamlets of a couple of hundred people clustered no more than a mornings brisk walk from surrounding farms in the 19th century and country market towns and county seats like Woodstock were spread out half a day’s ride by horseback across the Midwest, new roads and automobiles made them nearly obsolete. One historian studying Ohio, once rich with Universalist congregations, noted that scores of them disappeared and the villages they once served vanished from the map.