Rediscovering Our Inner Universalist
Continued 5 of 5
And Universalism appeal as an alternative to rigid Calvinism was no longer unique. Most mainline Protestant denominations had abandoned Calvinism in fact if not in theory by the new century. They, too, were talking about a loving God filled with compassion and eager to forgive. Hell fire and damnation faded from Sunday morning services. If these churches could not promise universal salvation, they could offer something mighty close, a universally available salvation which could be had pretty much for the asking and a tip of the hat to Jesus.
The experience of Universalism in McHenry County was typical. By the mid-Twenties all of the old churches were gone, their members scattered through other congregations. In Woodstock many of the remaining members of the Universalists came to the liberal First Congregational Church, where they were welcomed with more or less open arms. But some yearned to re-establish the old faith. One family left a $5000 bequest to who ever could form a new Universalist church in the County. The promise of that money would play a crucial roll in changing this congregation forever.
Church attendance for all denominations plummeted during the Roaring Twenties. Then the Great Depression delivered a devastating economic blow. A dwindling number of members triedto continue to support a minister and church on drastically reduced incomes. Churches all over the country went into crisis. Many closed their doors forever. In Woodstock the same pain was felt by the Congregationalists, by the Presbyterians from whom the local Congregationalists had split in 1865 and the Baptists. In desperation the three self-governing congregations began discussions aimed at a merger and the creation of “Federated Community Church” without
strong denominational ties. The Congregationalist and the Presbyterians voted to proceed with the merger. The Baptists vetoed the plan killing it. All three struggled to stay afloat. It was then that former Universalist recalled the bequest for a new congregation. What if the First Congregational Church would also affiliate with the Illinois Universalist Convention? What if, in a show of good faith, they would call a Universalist minister to their pulpit? Then would they be eligible to receive the $5000 bequest and save the church?
On such mundane and decidedly unspiritual consideration was a new foundation laid. The church received its fellowship into the Universalist Convention on May 1, 1938. The name was changed to the Congregational Universalist Church and within a year Rev. Merton Aldridge, a Universalist was called to the pulpit. Aldridge was an outstanding pastor. Despite the fact that litigation to claim the coveted $5000 dragged on until the early 1960’s, Aldridge was able to pull the congregation together and by the thinnest of margins, save it. For the next ten years he ministered to the congregation. Without emphasizing denominational affiliations, he none the less modeled the open heartedness of Universalism. Soon some of the long time Congregationalists in the pews were embracing Universalism. New members came on the basis of Aldridge’ reputation. After he died in 1949, it was natural to continue to call Universalist ministers.
In the years after the Second World War the decline of Universalism had become precipitous. Churches were disappearing at an alarming rate. Whole state and local conventions were failing as membership plummeted. Much of what survived the aftermath of the First World War could not survive the Second.
The Universalists cast around for new approaches to turn the tide. A group of young graduates from Tufts divinity school in 1946 began meeting to find ways of reviving their denomination. Known as the Humiliati, this group would meet for years and explore possibilities. They distinguished themselves by adopting clerical collars, then rare in Liberal churches. Despite this outward sign of traditionalism, the Humiliati broke new ground. They sought out a new spiritualism to re-enforce Skinner’s Social Principles. A whole new generation of leadership would emerge from this small group.
In Boston, headquarters of the Universalist Church, there was no active congregation by the late 1940’s. The Massachusetts Convention under the leadership of State Superintendent Clinton Lee Scott, decided to experiment with the planning of a new congregation in the city. They called Kenneth
Patton, a humanist minister with a reputation for creativity do be the minister of the new Charles Street Meeting House. He would emphasize the new Universalism by introducing elements from many religions and cultures into the worship. He also integrated music, visual, and performance art into services in a new and bold way. He wrote whole new liturgies, breaking the constricting mold of the traditional Protestant service. Patton’s words and poetry are still the most prolific in the UUA hymnal. Kenneth Patton changed liberal worship forever. The Charles Street Meeting House may have eventually failed, but what Patton created lives on.
Meanwhile the Unitarians, rooted largely in urban areas and around college campuses were experiencing growth, a renaissance attributable to the vigorous Humanism which was then its dominant theology. Cooperation between the two faiths had been growing for decades. The youth groups had already merged and the religious education and publishing functions of both denominations had been consolidated. A joint commission studied further cooperation and recommended consolidation in 1957. In 1960 the two denominations voted to merge and the following year Unitarian Universalist Association was born. Many Universalists feared that the larger Unitarians would swamp the older partner and wipe out its unique identity. In many ways their fears were justified. Despite an agreement between Universalist General Superintendent Philip Giles and Unitarian President Dana Greeley that neither would seek the presidency of the new association, Greeley ran for and was elected to the post. He proceeded to create a structural clone of the old American Unitarian Association. The Universalist state conventions were wiped out. Some, like Ohio, had considerable resources, which were absorbed by the UUA. The two denominations together now had too many seminaries. A commission recommended closing the Universalist schools at Tufts and St. Lawrence while leaving the Unitarian institutions of Meadville-Lombard and Star King in California untouched.
New churches took the Unitarian Universalist name but many established ones, particularly the historically Unitarian ones, kept their old identification. In many cities Universalist churches were absorbed into Unitarian Congregations. The general tone of the denomination resembled more closely the militant Humanism dominant among the Unitarians than the more spiritual version favored by Universalists. Both the public and members in the pews often spoke simply of Unitarianism, dropping the Universalist appellation entirely.
In Woodstock by the early 1970’s ministers were trained in the Unitarian tradition, not products of Universalist seminaries. When the congregation decided to overhaul their by-law in the 1980’s, leaders figured that no one knew what Universalism meant anymore, but that people did recognize the term Unitarian. The name of the congregation was changed again, this time to the Congregational Unitarian Church in hopes of making it clear that this was a liberal church.
The winds of change began to blow again, as they have so often in the history of both of our great faith traditions. The rise of feminism and the spread of women clergy in the denomination encouraged a more spiritual view. Ecological awareness played its part, as did awareness of eastern meditative practices. It was not that Humanism was being rejected out of hand, but that it was being softened and deepened by new understandings. In the search for spirituality, many are re-examining our Universalist roots.
No less a figure than Forrest Church, minister of the prestigious All Soul’s Church in New York and perhaps our most prolific writer and most influential figure, has called for a New Universalism. He has been echoed by others. A new wave of historic scholarship is re-examining our Universalist heritage. Social activists look to the inclusiveness of Universalism as an antidote for a perceived class and caste arrogance that persists among us. Universalism not only answers Bill Sinkford’s call for greater reverence, but recent General Convention resolutions advocating economic justice. There is something lovable about the Universalists, warmth where the intellectual pretensions of the Unitarians can leave us cold. In the end we need both traditions. Each compliments the weaknesses of the other. Together they can build something new under the sun.
But today, let’s go with in ourselves and retrieve the Universalist buried within.