Stat check

Here’s a paragraph in a stream of interesting thoughts (more on that later) by Doug Rogers and quoted by Paul Wilczynski:

An institution that is unable to re-formulate itself to become more attractive to potential members is not likely to endure. Religions tend to fade slowly, but they do disappear. Quakers were once a powerful part of the culture, now they are nearly gone. Methodists and Presbyterians are dying out. In the late 1800’s Unitarians and Universalists were about 10% of the US population, now we are 0.1% and holding.

There are at least two errors here:

  • As United States confessional families (groups of closely related denominations; Unitarian Universalism is a blended family of one, unless you count the American Unitairan Conference) the Methodists and Presbyterians are large and growing. Looking at the largest mainline denominations (United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) is myopic, if for no other reason than it ignores smaller groups (many larger than the UUA) with ethnic-minority majorities.
  • Collectively, Unitarianism and Universalism were never near 10% of the population. The “Universalists were the sixth largest” pseudofact is a product of period propaganda, enshrined for reasons I can only speculate about.
    Universalism, institutionally, peaked in the 1870s or 1880s when the numbers were in the 80,000s. I don’t have my best numbers at hand, so suffice it now to drop the poor-mouthing untruths.

    After all, we have enough problems, right?

6 Replies to “Stat check”

  1. – I must add that the picture for Quakers is not quite accurate. Quakers have never been plentifull in sheer numbers, but once did dominate PA, RI, and NJ only by sheer concentration of their membership in those states. Since that time the numbers have not grown greatly, nor have they declined greatly. But the membership of the Religious Society of Friends has become…

    (1) More geographically wide-spread due to migration and dispersal
    (2) Broken the Society of Friends into about 5 denominational groups: FGC, FUM, EFI, Conservatives, and Independents. FGC is growing in regions outside its East Coast stronghold. FUM is declining due to internal schisms and conflicts over homosexuality and universal salvation. EFI is stagnant in the US, and only growing in its international mission fields. The Conservative Quakers (sometimes called Plain Quakers) are imploding under the wieght of their own quietism and isolation. The Independent Quakers (especially of the Beanite strain) are growing in California and the Rocky Mountain states.
    (3) Quakerism has grown globally such that the largest Quaker bodies are no longer in North America and Europe. The largest Quaker communities are now in nations like Kenya and Bolivia.

    The Quakers do have their challenges as they decline in the East Coast region, and grow in the West and South. But they are far from nearing extinction.

  2. I agree generally that Doug Rogers has distorted some facts to make his argument. But…

    The “sixth largest denomination” status for Universalism for a very brief time has been mentioned by 20th-Century scholars such as Whitney Cross in his “Burned-Over District” and Sydney Ahlstrom in his “Religious History of the American People”. Cross thought that Universalism grew in a reaction to the revivals beginning in 1800. For example, Rev. Finney’s 1837 revival was too evangelical to have included Universalism, but Universalism increased membership during this period of general interest in religion.

    I looked at the 1855 N.Y. State Census to draw a map of Universalist congregations ( in NY. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont also had many congregations. By contrast, the Unitarians were very weak in N.Y. in 1855.

  3. Beware of maps that show the locations of Universalist churches in Ohio in the 1800’s. The Rev. Wells Behee and I have done some looking, and a fair number of those dots are not congregations as we would understand them today. Quite a few, based on archival evidence, were (1) preaching stations with no stable membership, and/or (2) family chapels built by single families and not inclusive in membership to those outside those families. In fact, such a family chapel existed in Monroe Township, Ohio into the 1980’s. It was used by an extended family of traditionalist Universalists with the surname Kimmel for funerals, weddings, and seasonal services (Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mid-Summer). It was destroyed by a tornado in 1981. –Derek

  4. With respect to classic historians like Cross and Ahlstrom, I don’t think they got it right. Universalists usually denounced revivals as exciting religious sentiments that rose to fanaticism. Ministers-as-missionaries were few, and as Derek pointed it, many putative congregations were preaching stations. Certainly, my research of antebellum Southern Universalism paints a picture of tiny preaching stations very thinly served by clergy. Printed sermons, circular letters, newspaper articles, and liturgies were promoted as content sources by ministers and convention resolutions to make up the slack.

    Indeed, Universalists were keen newspaper subscribers for reasons which should seem obvious for anyone reading a blog like this one. Newspapers subscription figures might have given artificially high numbers. So, too, the way numbers were counted among the Universalists, with categories given for much of the nineteenth century for church members, parish members, and constituents, or, professed believers, financial supporters, and the widest net possible respectively. Perhaps for a moment, the constituency might have numbered the multiple hundreds of thousands, but would have these people considered themselves Universalists? I doubt it.

    Since the current concept of membership in Unitarian Universalist congregations closely parallels parish membership — and indeed, many parishes never “developed” churches, suggesting parishes were the usual idea of church for the Universalists of the period — that’s the standards I use.

    And to reiterate, we were never that big.

  5. for wht its worth; the Baptists Almanac and Annual Register for 1850 – states that Universalists had 60,000 members. putting us ahead of the Baptist Free Will, Congregational Unitarian (30,000), Presbyeterian Assoicated., Presbyeterian Cumberland, , 9000 less that the Dutch Reformed 7000 less than the Episcopalians, well above the United Brethren, Evengelical, Morvaians, Swedenborgians, Mormans, and above the Mennonites (but just barely).
    However this is well below the combined might of the Methodist, Baptists, Congregationalists,
    Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and well well below the “no church affliation” which Newman and Halvorson estimate as almost 74% of the US population

    the ATLAS OF AMERICAN RELIGION (2000) Newman and Halvorson confirm that it’s been downhill for Unitarian-Universalists from 1850 on.
    My studies suggest that the 1830s was the peak for Universalists.

    But the Baptists say the Universalists were #13 in 1850 (of 30). and would the Baptists lie about that?

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